Thoughts in cages

In my mind, everything boils down to a name. We name things all the time in our day-to-day lives. We think in terms of categories, lists, things that need to be done. The essence of language is to represent concepts – representations of our thinking.

Communication is about conveying the things that I am conceiving into things that you conceive. I have a thought. I try to capture that thought in words. I then send those words to you and you have a thought. I woman I dated in the early 90’s had an interesting way of describing this.

She imagined that a thought was something that we captured in a cage. The cage was made up of words and we sent that cage through space and the other person opened that cage, and let the thought into their mind. That is an interesting way of thinking. Thoughts are entities that exist by themselves in our minds. We have to put them into cages to transport them through space and let them out into the other persons mind. The cage is made of words. Whenever we use a word, the word is an embodiment of a thought or a concept. But how do I know that you perceive something the same way that I do?

If I say this is “blue”, is the perception of blue the same experience to you as to me? It is impossible to really know. There are experiments and research that indicate that “blueness” is perceived in similar ways by various cultures and that the nature of blueness can be “agreed upon” in some way. (The book “Women, Fire and Dangerous Things” gets into this in excruciating detail.) But what is the core experience of “blue”. It really doesn’t matter. It’s a little existential. What matters is that when we see something that reflects a specific wavelength of electromagnetic radiation that we both say “yep, Blue”. Perception of color is fairly straightforward as an experience. It’s based somewhat on our culture (believe it or not – this is a theme explored in WFaDT), but is pretty objective.

Abstract concepts, ideas, feelings, perceptions are much more difficult to describe in unambiguous terms. They are complex and changing. They require context in shared experience. We communicate to share experience but require a shared experience to communicate. This sounds a bit abstract and philosophical but the applicability is clear. Unless we have deeply shared experience, the words we use to communicate are not going to be understood the way we understand them and the way we intend them to be understood. I, as a sales person, have shared experiences with other sales people, but not so much with engineers (unless I was once an engineer.) Therefore the words I use to convey my perceptions will not have the same context and meaning.

Of course the paradox is that people with similar contexts and backgrounds may be able to communicate more effectively and may have shared experience and context, but research has shown that diversity in thinking makes an organization more resilient to change and more adaptable in the marketplace.

(The same is true in biological systems – and face it, an organization is an organism, so the laws of survival and adaptability are the same as in the natural world.)

I actually started this post after thinking about how people in information architecture are trying to get their minds around taxonomy challenges and are wrestling with “folksonomy” (a term I hate, by the way) and how I now see the term “tagsonomy” bandied about.

This is an attempt to place new concepts into a context of shared experience. People are coining new terms to represent their perspective on another term or concept. Many people do not understand that taxonomies are more than just site navigation. The term that is being tossed around of tagsonomy represents the idea that taxonomies are used to tag content. This has always been my perspective, but it is not the perspective of people who come at this from another frame of reference.

2 Responses

  1. Well, some contemporary philosophers maintain that thoughts ARE the words. E.g., Stuart Hampshire
    “Men may think with a view to knowledge, or the may think with a view to action. They may ask themselves ‘Is this statement true or is it not?’ and also “Shall I do this or shall I not?’ Both kinds of question can be formulated in words, and there would be nothing properly called thought unless such questions could be formulated in words. (Emphasis mine.)

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Rick. (Or for your words, representing your thoughts…) 😉


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