View Single Post
Old Jul 7th 2010, 11:38 AM
dilettante's Avatar
dilettante dilettante is offline
Resident Historian
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: Philadelphia
Posts: 3,082
Default Re: Literal isnít Lazy

Originally Posted by Margot View Post
You're still not thinking scientifically, though. That's my whole point. Language has a set of formal rules. Grammar is a set of formal rules. Words--and their structures--are a set of formal rules. Word definitions outside of the set of formal rules are arbitrary. We are the arbitrary factor. Large scale arbitrariness is no different from small-scale arbitrariness. The only difference is that, by defining words literally and not arbitrarily, it isn't arbitrary at all!
I agree, language involves a set of formal rules and, if we had no rules, we would have no language. I, personally, reject the idea of thinking of language "scientifically" because, when it comes to language, we make the rules and we can change them: they're entirely subjective. "Humour" once meant one thing, now it means another; we've changed the rules and that's perfectly OK.

Science, on the other hand, has an objective core to it. If F=MA is a valid rule, then we can't change it. We can't just decide that we'd rather Force=Volume*Distance and expect that to work. With science, there are right answers and our goal is to figure them out. And the answer that's true for one person is true for everyone: F=MA regardless of your culture, age or upbringing. In fact, F=MA regardless of whether anyone thinks it does or not.

My concern with thinking of words or language "scientifically", or rather, of only thinking of language scientifically, is that one risks imagining that words have a similar objective core, that there is a definition to a word that is 'right', regardless of what anyone (or everyone) thinks, and that we should never let it evolve. I'm not saying that language doesn't need formal rules (it does) and that agreed upon definitions aren't important (they are), only that we, as a culture, are the ones who make the rules and decide upon the definitions. And as long as we are all on the same page and it doesn't impede clarity, there's nothing wrong with changing the rules and letting definitions evolve.

As to the relationship between "beauty" and "science," I don't see them as in contestation at all, though "beauty" is not a scientific concept. My point is just that there's beauty and meaning in language outside, as well as within, the "scientific" or literal meaning of words. The literal can be lovely and thought-provoking, but so can the symbolic, metaphorical and emotive. So while we should never lose track of the literal, we also shouldn't be entirely constrained by it or belittle the non-literal: there's beauty and meaning there too.
kyrie eleison

Last edited by dilettante; Jul 7th 2010 at 11:41 AM.
Reply With Quote