Glimpse Fall 2001

ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Glimpse Fall 2001


NORA MILLER, EDITOR

A brief look at things for people interested in general semantics.

"Facts as we see them are little more than quick glimpses of a ceaseless transformation ..." -- Wendell Johnson, 'People in Quandaries'

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Quoted Wisdom

What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.

Leo Tolstoy, novelist and philosopher (1828-1910)

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs -- jolted by every pebble in the road.

Henry Ward Beecher, preacher and writer (1813-1887)

A man is too apt to forget that in this world he cannot have everything. A choice is all that is left him.

Harry Mathews, author and member of OuLiPo (1930-)

Words form the thread on which we string our experience.

Aldous Huxley, writer and critic (1894-1963)

On the Topic of Language Misuse

Our misapprehension of the nature of language has occasioned a greater waste of time, and effort, and genius, than all the other mistakes and delusions with which humanity has been afflicted. It has retarded immeasurably our physical knowledge of every kind, and vitiated what it could not retard.

A. B. Johnson, Treatise on Language, or the Relation Which Words Bear to Things, 1836

Science -- a Human Activity

Can science improve on our ability to perceive the truth? San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll discusses the difficulties of using a human (and therefore flawed) scientific tool to detect lies:

Science is not some monolithic body of knowledge; it's a mishmash of old beliefs, new beliefs, superstitions, guesses, counter-arguments and disputes. It's not useless -- far from it -- but it has to be understood as a cultural artifact, a production of the flawed human mind....

The polygraph, the "many writings" machine, measures small changes in heart rate, respiration, perspiration and other bodily functions. The theory behind the polygraph is that people who lie get nervous when they lie, and the nervousness is reflected in the polygraph results....

The reasons that people get nervous are many and various; only some of them have to do with guilty knowledge of a crime. There are sociopaths who have guilty knowledge, but it does not make them nervous. And there are tricks -- you can bite your tongue at odd times, for instance, to confuse the "control" responses.

Indeed, one of the interesting things about polygraphs is that they are only as good as their operators. An experienced polygraph operator can tease info out of data that others cannot. It seems like science, but it's actually intuition....

A thermometer, for instance, does not require intuitive interpretation to be useful. The thermometer, we may say, is good science -- provided it is placed in the right location and calibrated correctly. The raw data of a polygraph may be as good as the raw data of a good thermometer, but the interpretation is just an art form, like Afro-Cuban dancing.

And yet, because we want to believe -- even though the legal system itself doesn't believe -- we keep using polygraphs. We keep attaching significance to their results, even though that's wrong.

In My Opinion

If the WORD is not the thing, how about the thought? Does a thought constitute an act? Does thinking about doing something have the same effect as doing that thing? I came across this proverb on a quotes page, 0(http://www.geocities.com/Pspanoudi/topic-v1.html)

"The willing contemplation of vice is vice."

I believe this proverb confuses two levels of abstraction in such a way as to result in confusion and needless difficulty in those who would try to act in accordance with it. …

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