Working on the Story

Anyone who is mildly curious has tried, at least at some point, to make sense of the world around and has attempted to look beyond first appearances; a curious mind asks questions – I guess this is what curiosity is mostly about. Questions can concern why things are the way they are, and why people behave the way they behave. Of course, a young and curious person is unable to go far in answering such questions without the help of people around him. And so, in the first steps of the momentous task of answering this type of questions, the young and curious relies on what people in his immediate environment, his parents, his siblings, his teachers, and his friends tell him; he accumulates their tales, and he adds to them some of his own with time. As he grows older, more people contribute additional tales; some of such people are living individuals, while others are passed away; some are immediate contacts, while others are known only indirectly; all, however, participate in one way or another to his general understanding of things. Numerous tales get forgotten with time (or at least one thinks so); others evolve; and all get mixed together somehow.

If the curious person is percipient enough, she notices, rather quickly, that what people tell her or have told her does not always work well with what she, for herself, can observe; of course, much of what they tell her is also quite contradictory in itself. Moreover, she notices that what she tells herself does not work that well with what she observes either. And if the curious person has practiced science, in one field or another, or, in other words, if she has learned to test and verify the validity of statements told by others or created by herself, then it becomes all the more apparent that most of these statements, by her and by others, do not hold well together. Following such difficulties, many curious minds give up and simply enjoy life; some may specialise their search in one particular area and focus less on the rest.

I have few things I may be able to say about this challenge, although I will not claim to have resolved it. I find that the difficulty arises not necessarily in how things of the world are, but, rather, in how they are told and why they are told in certain ways; the challenge is in what is being told. Having considered these difficulties for some time now, it is clearer to me that the crux is with the stories we form and trade. The influence of stories may seem obvious to warrant too much thinking; only, what may not be as obvious is to what extent stories influence our lives.

You may have suspected by now that I am building up to some kind of announcement so, despite my general rule of seldom using this blog for marketing purposes, I will go ahead and say it: I would like to share with you first, followers of this blog, that I am about to publish a new work on the Story. In fact, I have been dedicating energy over the past years to thinking about the Story under many angles and about its impact on all that is around us; this work has now reached a level where I find it appropriate to publicly share some of it. My work on the Story will be published in three parts, and each part will treat this subject in a different manner. I call it a trilogy; only, it is not a fictional trilogy but a mixed one. The first part of this work will be published this summer, and the two other parts will hopefully follow separately over the coming several months.

Below are extracts of the description of The Story in Three Parts:

What if all the world around us unfolds in certain ways while we, human beings, constantly tell ourselves different stories about it? What if what we call human understanding is nothing else than stories we make up about some of the world’s events, stories that are for the most part either flawed or incomplete? And if that is the case, to what extent do we do so and why do we even do it? What if we have always been living more in our stories than in the real world? These are some of the important questions John H.T. Francis addresses in his new trilogy The Story in Three Parts. […] Each part of this Trilogy highlights the central role of the Story to human meaning and understanding in a different way: simply through a story (Part I); in a theoretic-philosophical way (Part II); and in a practical way (Part III).


Words, Languages, and Disagreements

“We do not, in general, use language according to strict rules – we commonly don’t think of rules of usage while talking, and we usually cannot produce any rules if we are asked to quote them.”

“But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.”

Both quotes are from Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I guess one cannot talk about Language and its uses without being reminded of Wittgenstein and without giving credit back to him.

Whenever I am about to start a serious conversation with somebody on a particular subject, such as the existence of God, whether there is such a thing as Fate, which country is more democratic than the other, or whether I am more right-wing or left-wing, I often start the conversation by asking my counterparty what she or he means by God, by Fate, by more democratic, or by right- and left-wing. I do so not because I am a fan of rhetoric or as a way of tricking my counterparty in the discussion; I rather do it to simply avoid useless and protracted discussions that lead nowhere because each is holding a different definition of the same word as a starting point, while not admitting the possibility or existence of another definition that might be used by a different person. People often jump into such discussions, argue for hours, then ‘agree to disagree’ in the best-case scenarios; while in reality, they would be talking most of the time about slightly or largely different things using the same words, and hence their discussion has been futile all along. It is therefore important to know a bit about the genesis and the various uses of Language – this great enabler of our cognition.

Languages, as we commonly attribute them to human beings, evolved organically and in an unorganised manner, as much as human beings themselves. They started by taking rudimentary forms and then evolved with our general cultural, intellectual and technological evolution. No one person or one group sat and defined any natural (or ‘nomological’) language as we know it today. Languages contain definitions of words and verbs and rules of grammar; but there can be many definitions of one word or one verb, which themselves rely on other definitions of words and verbs, not minding the circularity of definitions, and there are almost always exceptions to the rules of grammar. As such, there seems always to be some degree of vagueness in the meaning of words, verbs, and sentences when we probe into them. Unlike logical languages, natural languages are as much living and evolving as our cultures and are an integral aspect of them. Words can point to objects, to phenomena we observe around, to emotions, to concrete ideas, or to very abstract ideas and musings. Words can have their source in observation, in feeling, in thinking, in intuition, or in pragmatic needs. We can employ words for very definite, basic uses and objects. And we can employ words to try to relate to confused and undefined things, not knowing ourselves what we are exactly looking to express by the words, or simply to fill a temporary hole or weakness in our current understanding of the world. Words can be borrowed from other languages and cultures, used according to their original use in the language from which they were taken, or used in a different manner, sometimes quite strange to the origins of the word. And all of this evolves as we evolve with time and in different geographies in a way that a same word can mean very different things in one place and one time in comparison with another. Even in the same place and time, there can be confusion, inexactness, and differences of meaning, not only in common social life but also in academic circles, which are supposedly more rigorous. God, Fate, Democracy, Right-wing, Left-wing, all are examples of such that we have given above.

Many instances of disagreements and misconceptions stem from the fact that we do not think through the words we use as much as we should or that we think that what we associate with a certain word is exactly what others associate with that same word. Worse, we sometimes divide into parties based on a certain position vis-à-vis a word; one would think at first that it is a division vis-à-vis what the word represents, but, in reality, when we ask for more details about the representation of the word, we find quickly so many differences in such a representation that the only matter of substance that is left is a blind division vis-à-vis the word itself. Take Capitalism or Free Will; these are notable examples of words that have divided us into two camps for long periods of time, while actually the meanings of these words evolving all the same. It seems that sometimes we like to oppose each other more so than understand what is that concerning which we are opposed, and words are another tool in this game.