Saturday, June 13, 2015

Quotes on the power of naming

What goes into naming? Steven Pinker:
"...naming an object involves recognizing it, looking up its entry in the mental dictionary, accessing its pronunciation, articulating it, and perhaps also monitoring the output for errors by listening to it."
This is a major locus of humans' sense of power. Kathleen Dean Moore:

"Children bring their dolls to life by giving them names. Names transform animals into family members. In some religions, nobody can have eternal life – not even tiny babies – until they have been baptized, given a name. In a single word – ilira – the Inuit people bring to tangible life the awe and fear that possess them when they see a polar bear approaching across the ice; in another word – kappia – they name the apprehension that seizes them when they cross thin sea ice. In Genesis, all the parts of the universe are drawn out of fluid chaos by their names. “God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas.” To be is to be named.

Yet no one is allowed to know God’s name. He is called yhwh, a word without vowels, an obvious fake, a name that does not name. It is an issue, clearly, of disproportionate power. The power to name is the power to create, and the power to destroy."

Indeed, until you call out a word like ilira or kappia to name the fear, or bear or ice or lightning to name the thing that inspires it, the waters of the mind may remain untroubled. Erich Maria Remarque:

I turn around. The man of faith and the man of science are sitting in the full brilliance of the ceiling light. For them the world is not a vague, quivering unrest, it is not a muttering from the depths or a lightning flash in the icy spaces of the void – they are men of faith and of science, they have sounding lines and plummets and scales and measures, each of them a different set but that does not matter, they are sure, they have names to put on everything like labels, they sleep well, they have a goal that contents them, and even horror, the black curtain in front of suicide, has a well-recognized place in their existence, it has a name, it has been classified and thereby rendered harmless. Only what is nameless or has burst its name is deadly.

"There's lightning," I say.

The doctor looks up. "Really?"

There is a difference between naming tangible things (ice, bear, lightning) and intangible things (fear). The intangible thing is already an abstraction. To name it is to bring it into awareness, but simultaneously to separate oneself from it further by pointing to it or representing it rather than feeling or knowing it directly. Joseph Chilton Pearce:
"...a name can be given something not immediately present to the senses. Naming is then a 'symbol-for-a-symbol,' a double-substitution."
Jonathan Lear called it a "systematic mistaking":

”What we do not understand, to put Wittgenstein's [language acquisition] insight in psychoanalytic terms, is that we are being persuaded, not by obvious truth, but by the force of our own projective identifications. We are creatures who cannot help but create mythic accounts of how our mind works, of how we hook onto the world, of what reality is really like. We project this imaginative activity onto the world and then mistake it for "the way things really are." In this way, we systematically mistake a bit of ourselves, our imaginative activity, for the world.

This systematic mistaking we tend to call "philosophy." So, for example, we begin with what we might call this core myth of meaning – that individual words are names – a myth only implicit in Augustine, made explicit by Wittgenstein; a fantasy so seemingly innocuous that we are unaware that from it flows a theory of mind, meaning, and world. For if words are names, and if names stand for a meaning, then for me to be speaking meaningfully must be for me to have ideas in my mind, the meanings, with which words are correlated. And thus we form a picture of the mind as a container of ideas which gives my words the meaning they have. It is as though the idea could exist independently of the word – just as the word without the idea would be a meaningless sound – and we form the picture of words naming objects in the world by being animated by ideas in the mind. Here is a picture of language hovering between mind and world. It is as though we were separated from the world, trying to talk about it. And from this picture, to give just one example, skeptical questions – "Are we getting the world right? How do we really know?" – become inevitable. And we take this inevitability to reflect the human condition: that it is our fate to live in separation from how things really are. Wittgenstein brings to conscious awareness that it is not so much our fate to live in separation as our fate to be tempted to create and be seduced by myths of separation. These are illusions we can work through and ultimately live without. In this way, proper philosophical activity is the working-through and undoing of "philosophy." In Freudian terms, remembering comes to replace repeating.”

The double-substitution or the step back might indeed be a systematic mistaking, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It is part of what enables us to have a shared reality, not just a privately experienced reality. Fernando Pessoa:
”Civilization consists in giving an inappropriate name to something and then dreaming what results from that. And in fact the false name and the true dream do create a new reality. The object really does become other, because we have made it so. We manufacture realities. We use the raw materials we always used but the form lent it by art effectively prevents it from remaining the same. A table made out of pinewood is a pinetree but it is also a table. We sit down at the table not at the pinetree. Although love is a sexual instinct, we do not love with that instinct, rather we presuppose the existence of another feeling, and that presupposition is, effectively, another feeling.”
But the limits of human language can constrain our thinking unnecessarily. David Darling:
”In the West, we are very keen and adept at making maps – scientific maps of the reality in which we find ourselves. Boundaries, names, and labels have assumed with us enormous power. So we find ourselves inhabiting a world of bits and pieces, a world of apparently irreconcilable differences. And one of our principal misunderstandings stems from our use of the words "you" and "I". For what we fail to recognize, or have forgotten, is that "you" and "I" are purely constructs of our language, and of our linguistic interactions with others. "You" come about because we happen to be speaking English (or some similar tongue) and are therefore conforming to the rule that a verb must have a subject, and that processes are mysteriously initiated by pronouns. The syntax of Western language demands a clear indication of the subject-object relation. Therefore, every time we speak we reinforce our belief that every situation can be analyzed into a subject-predicate-object form. Our language forces us to be compulsive analyzers, to break down our experience of the world into composite elements. The fact that there might be entirely different modes of thinking usually escapes our attention. And yet such modes do exist.”
People may deliberately refrain from naming beings who they believe will die or who they prefer to block from their awareness. Kenzaburo Oe:

"At present the baby is registered simply as your first-born son, it would be a big help if we could have a name for our records."

A name! thought Bird. Now, as in his wife's hospital room, the idea was profoundly disturbing. Provide the monster with a name and from that instant it would seem more human, probably it would begin asserting itself in a human way. The difference between death while the monster was nameless and death after Bird had given it a name would mean a difference to Bird in the nature of the creature's very existence.

"Even a temporary name you're not certain about will do," the girl said pleasantly, though her voice betrayed her stubbornness.

"It can't hurt to name him, Bird," Himiko broke in impatiently.

Sometimes people do not want to name things that they perceive as monstrously distorted, perhaps because the naming confers legitimacy and helps establish a new concept. The newly named thing has increased power and could threaten the existing order. Felix Gilman:
It was also not strictly speaking a rose, though of all things of the made world, it most closely resembled a flower, and of all the flowers Liv knew, it most closely resembled a rose. It was more like the sketch of a rose, perpetrated by a person who'd never seen one; or, more precisely, it was like the product of processes that would, in the made world, have resulted inevitably in a rose, but out here were not so narrowly constrained.
* * *
The thing was hideous. It was ridiculous. It was beautiful. All those things at once, and none of them. It was not meant for her, and her opinions of it were beside the point. It would have been both futile and insulting to classify it; it was neither a rose nor a relative of the rose. It was perhaps in part the potentiality of a rose, or an alternative to the rose, or more likely something with no meaning at all....
* * *
"Name nothing," Creedmoor had warned her. "It's poor form out here to name things."
Others will name to assert their own power and to prevent others from naming. Mary Daly:
Women have had the power of naming stolen from us. We have not been free to use our own power to name ourselves, the world, or God. ... To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God. The 'method' of the evolving spiritual consciousness of women is nothing less than this beginning to speak humanly – a reclaiming of the right to name. The liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves.

Or they will name an enemy to gain power over the unknown and the hostile. Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack:
"In all cases, 'naming' the demon seems to reduce and dis-empower it. Modern explanations of the phenomena resulted in new names. The Id and the Shadow, included here with their methods of depossession, are redefined demonic species. The Buddhist Mara represents the demon both as an interior obstacle and potential teacher. A transformative approach to the Tibetan Buddhist Yama (Death) illustrates a radically different approach to the field."
Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody:
"In many ancient cultures, to possess the name of something was to control it, to imprison it even in a ritual guaranteed, magically, to make it one's servant."
"Name a thing and you invoke it. If we call the world nonliving, we will surely kill her. But when we name the world alive, we begin to bring her back to life.
Marge Piercy:
"I remember that I spoke to her about the power of naming. What we cannot name, I said, we cannot talk about. When we give a name to something in our lives, we may empower that something, as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteousness; or we may empower ourselves because now we can think about and talk about what is hurting us, we may come together with others who have felt his same pain, and thus we can begin to try to do something about it."
Yet some things remain nameless because they can never be objects to us – the air we breathe, the water we fill ourselves with, the bodystuff that holds the water in. José Saramago:
”Human vocabulary is still not capable, and probably never will be, of knowing, recognizing, and communicating everything that can be humanly experienced and felt. Some say that the main cause of this very serious difficulty lies in the fact that human beings are basically made of clay, which, as the encyclopedias helpfully explain, is a detrital sedimentary rock made up of tiny mineral fragments measuring one two hundred and fifty-sixths of a millimeter. Until now, despite long linguistic study, no one has managed to come up with a name for this.”


Steven Pinker. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. (1994) New York: HarperPerennial, 1995. p. 316.

Kathleen Dean Moore, Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water. New York: Harvest, 1995. pp. 62-63.

Erich Maria Remarque. The Black Obelisk (1957). USA: Crest, 1958. pp. 79-80.

Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. p. 45.

Jonathan Lear. Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. pp. 12-13.

Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 53.

David Darling, Zen Physics: The Science of Death, The Logic of Reincarnation. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. p 142.

Kenzaburo Oe. A Personal Matter. (1964) Translated from the Japanese by John Nathan. New York: Grove Press, 1969. p. 146.

Felix Gilman. The Half-Made World. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2010.

Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973. p 5-6.

Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack. A Field Guide to Demons, Vampires, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits. (1998) Arcade, 2011.

Denise Lardner Carmody and John Tully Carmody. Mysticism: Holiness East and West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 112.

Starhawk. Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery. New York: Harper Collins, 1987. p 8.

Marge Piercy. He, She, and It. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1991. p. 66.

José Saramago. The Cave. (A Caverna, 2000). Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. USA: Harcourt, 2003. p. 264.

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