The Trouble with Nouns

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Today I propose to venture for starters into child psychology before returning to the firmer swamps of philosophy and politics. (I am sure, this being the Naked Capitalism commentariat, that we have subject matter experts in all these fields, and I invite you to correct me when I stray, which will be often.) So let me begin with a question:

When and how do babies learn nouns?

There is a vast literature, from which I have selected the following to suit my tendentious purposes. It reflects, at least from my reading, the conventional wisdom. From Harvard’s Babies and Language:

Did you know that babies around the world usually have first words that are similar to each other? Many babies start talking with “mama” or “doggy,” but you would be surprised to hear a baby’s first word was “cartwheel” or “the!” Have you ever wondered why so many babies, who grow up to be very different people, start with the same few words?

Research has uncovered 3 features that make a good first word. Most first words have the following three properties:

  1. They are nouns
  2. They have easy sounds to make
  3. Kids hear them often

Let’s break down why each of these features matter.

(One of the gratifying aspects of this work from Harvard is that it’s written in the academic equivalent of baby talk.) Let’s focus on the first item:

The first feature that matters is word class, or the grammatical category that words fall into. Across almost all of the world’s languages, greetings and nouns enter babies’ productive vocabularies first.

Skipping greetings to get to the nouns:

To talk about the world, babies need content words (like nouns, verbs, and adjectives) and function words (like prepositions and pronouns). Judith Goodman and her colleagues showed that babies around the world start saying nouns like “cat” before they start saying verbs like “throw” or function words like “of.”

This is likely because nouns usually refer to physical objects like bottles, blankets, and diapers that are often in babies’ environments. Babies can put toys in their mouths, cuddle with blankets, or throw a bottle off their high chair tray, giving them lots of sensory information about the objects.

Babies have fewer ways to explore the meanings of common verbs, since they can’t do most actions yet. Furthermore, lots of verbs refer to actions that only happen for an instant, like “hop,” or aren’t visible, like “think.” Function words are even harder to learn since “of” and “the” don’t point to anything in the physical world.

Because of their easy-to-explore nature, most babies start talking with concrete nouns. This trend holds across languages, whether babies hear French, Hebrew, or Korean.

(It’s fair to point out that some disagree[1].) It is true that objects are stable — whether at the perceptual or conceptual level — or so at least one hopes, but how does a baby categorize the objects it encounters? Why is this orange an “orange,” just like that orange? From Developmental Psychology, “The Development Of Object Categorization In Young Children: Hierarchical Inclusiveness, Age, Perceptual Attribute, And Group Versus Individual Analyses“:

Multiple levels of category inclusiveness in 4 object domains (animals, vehicles, fruit, and furniture) were examined using a sequential touching procedure and assessed in both individual and group analyses in 80 12-, 18-, 24-, and 30-month-olds…. Categories are especially valuable in infancy and early childhood when many new objects, events, and people are encountered because, without the ability and proclivity to categorize, children would have to learn to respond anew to each novel entity they experience.”

But from the conclusion:

Much categorization is ad hoc, and, of course, objects can be categorized in several different ways: A “…crayon can be categorized on the basis of color, function, or shape, and the particular way that it is categorized at any given moment depends on the task and on the contrasting items” (Oakes et al., 1997, p. 396). An understanding of categorization is also evidenced by the ability to form categories at different levels of abstraction. A logical and informative goal of research on children’s categorization is to focus on process and identify the conditions under which children do and do not categorize one way or another (e.g., Blewitt, 1989, 1994; Greco, Hayne, & Rovee-Collier, 1990; Oakes & Madole, 2000). However, the world of categories also consists of universal, structural taxonomies, and understanding which categorical representations children of different ages acknowledge or possess is equally valuable to understanding mental development in childhood or a process orientation (Neisser, 1987)

Moving on from babies to children[2], to Cognitive Science, “Child categorization“:

We argue for a composite perspective in which categories are steeped in commonsense theories from a young age but also are informed by low-level similarity and associative learning cues.

Interestingly, nouns, based on these “commonsense theories” and “ad hoc” “categorizations” are stored — to descend to a metaphor from IT — in different parts of the brain from verbs (and we’ll make the heroic assumption that this is true for babies, children, and on up, if “up” is the word I want). From an enormous metastudy in Human Brain Mapping, “Neural representation of word categories is distinct in the temporal lobe: An activation likelihood analysis“:

The purpose of this study is to elucidate the neurocognitive architecture of language by determining if the processing of nouns and verbs yields distinct or overlapping neural activation. Uncovering the neural architecture of nouns and verbs is crucial in resolving the debate of whether grammatical class is a fundamental organizing principle of mental lexicon, and if this entails distinct neural architecture for each grammatical category. The purpose of this study is to elucidate the neurocognitive architecture of language by determining if the processing of nouns and verbs yields distinct or overlapping neural activation.

A single cluster was uniquely associated with nouns in the direct analysis (NvsV) and was located in the left medial fusiform gyrus bordering on the parahippocampal gyrus (BA37).

From Neuroimage, “Neural differences in the mapping of verb and noun concepts onto novel words“:

A dissociation between noun and verb processing has been found in brain damaged patients leading to the proposal that different word classes are supported by different neural representations. This notion is supported by the facts that children acquire nouns faster and adults usually perform better for nouns than verbs in a range of tasks. In the present study, we simulated word learning in a variant of the human simulation paradigm that provided only linguistic context information and required young healthy adults to map noun or verb meanings to novel words. The mapping of a meaning associated with a new-noun and a new-verb recruited different brain regions as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging. While new-nouns showed greater activation in the left fusiform gyrus, larger activation was observed for new-verbs in the left posterior middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus (opercular part)

And a press release, “Nouns and verbs are learned in different parts of the brain“:

Two Spanish psychologists and a German neurologist have recently shown that the brain that activates when a person learns a new noun is different from the part used when a verb is learnt. The scientists observed this using brain images taken using functional magnetic resonance, according to an article they have published this month in the journal Neuroimage.

Learning nouns activates the left fusiform gyrus, while learning verbs switches on other regions (the left inferior frontal gyrus and part of the left posterior medial temporal gyrus)”, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, co-author of the study and an ICREA researcher at the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit of the University of Barcelona, tells SINC.

What else, you ask, does the left fusiform gyrus do? From (sorry) Wikipedia:

Though the functionality of the fusiform gyrus is not fully understood, it has been linked with various neural pathways related to recognition…. The term fusiform gyrus (lit. “spindle-shaped convolution”) refers to the fact that the shape of the gyrus is wider at its centre than at its ends…. The exact functionality of the fusiform gyrus is still disputed, but there is relative consensus on its involvement in the following pathways… Further research by MIT scientists showed that the left and right fusiform gyri played different roles, which subsequently interlinked. The left fusiform gyrus recognizes “face-like” features in objects that may or may not be actual faces, whereas the right fusiform gyrus determines if that recognized face-like feature is, in fact, a face.

From Brain, “What the left and right anterior fusiform gyri tell us about semantic memory“:

Significant correlations (P < 0.05) were found between the left fusiform gyrus and both picture naming and category fluency tests (respectively, R = 0.619 and 0.584).

All this brain genius stuff allows me to pivot away from both nouns (categorization) and neuro-anatomy (embodiment) to philosophy. Here is Wittgenstein on categories and classification systems. From Philosophical Investigations, quoting a great slab (ha ha) of paragraphs 65–67:

65. … Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,— but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”. I will try to explain this.

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look![3]—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ballgames, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.

In other words, at least for features and color of eyes, the sort of thing that’s recognized by the fusiform gyrus (not to be a vulgar materialists, I’m really not).

— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a—direct—relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions—namely the disjunction of all their common properties”—I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread— namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres”.

I submit that the “commonsense theories” and “ad hoc” “categorizations” of child psychologists, and the “category fluency” and the “may or may not be actual faces” of neuro-anatomists, are describing the phenomenon that Wittgenstein named: Family resemblance. Like adaption, categorization is a mishegoss of spandrels.

After this Luis Tiant-like windup, let us turn to a contemporary example of categorization. Here is a handy chart from the Harvard CAPS Harris poll, field dates December 13-14, 2023:

No doubt there will be a good deal of pearl-clutching about the differential between the 18-24s and the 65+s (could it be that a successful identification of “the Jews” with Zionism is a problem, here?). However, I would like to focus on the unexamined categorization of “Jews as a class.” What can it mean? How does the classification take place? What is it based on? Does a baby, a child, or an adult do the classification, and how is it done? Is the categorization one of “family resemblance”? Or is the categorization more a formal taxonomy — a racial hierarchy, say? (Do note that all forms of identity politics face the same categorization issue[4]; see Adolph Reed here.) If all Jews either are or are not oppressors, how is that determination made? (Perhaps the poll is a merely a Keynesian beauty contest, with the answers determined by whatever factions are hegemonic within the age cohorts questioned?).

Perhaps the determination is made by magic (a process in which hegemony is often disguised). From the terrific TV Tropes:

When people go around using magic at random in fiction, certain laws are employed to explain how such magic works.

The Law of Names: Related to both the Law of Knowledge and the Law of Association. The law simply states that by knowing the true and complete name of a phenomenon or entity gives you complete control over it (This law is responsible for things like I Know Your True Name).

As in LeGuin’s wonderful Wizard of Earthsea trilogy. More to the point:

Law of Synecdoche (from the Lord Darcy series) “the part is equivalent to the whole”. An example would be using someone’s hair to cast a spell on them. Often seen as a sub-part of the Law of Contagion.

I’m trying, here, to come up with a response to “Jews as a class” a little bit more supple than #NotAllJews (even though that’s obviously the case). Here is the definition of “Jew” from my Oxford English Dictionary app:

Rich fodder for classification struggles in the Derivatives section! But I think even sense 1 is contested. Are anti-Zionist Jews “real Jews”? I would say, then, with Wittgenstein, that the Harvard Harris categorization — and I think this goes for all identities as defined by identity politics — is not a formal system like, say, the periodic table, but a lot more like Wittgenstein’s “overlapping of many fibres,” since here we have at least two fibres: Those who assert that Zionism is Judaism, and those who do not; and we probably have more fibres than that; it’s a complex world. What is going on, I think, with phrases like “Jews as a class,” is a form of synecdoche, where a subset of a class is taken as a proxy for the entire class.

Wikipedia (again, sorry) defines synecdoche — pronounced, as I was today years old when I learned, suh·nek·duh·kee, rather like Schenectady — as follows:

Synecdoche (/sɪˈnɛkdəki/ sih-NEK-də-kee)[1] is a type of metonymy; it is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole (pars pro toto), or vice versa (totum pro parte). The term is derived from Ancient Greek συνεκδοχή (sunekdokhḗ) ‘simultaneous understanding’

Common English synecdoches include suits for businessmen, wheels for automobile, and boots for soldiers.

The trick here, the magic, if you will — the ladder that the noun pulls up after itself as it disappears into “having classified” from “classifying” — is that in this particular form of synecdoche, the part and the whole are represented (“simultaneous understanding”) by the same noun. The whole is the entire class (“Jews as a class”). The part is the “commonsense theories” and “ad hoc” “categorizations” — family resemblances — that identify the members of the class through which the categorization is performed. Sadly — and as opposed to “suit” for “businessperson” — the same noun is used for both part and whole. And you can bet that all those surveyed by the Harvard Harris poll are have different versions of “common sense.”

The moral of the story: It’s not worth killing people people over nouns. Realpolitik? Possibly. So-called class warfare, where the class and class responsibilities can be very clearly delineated? Again, possibly. But let’s move the discussion to that level. Not nouns!


[1] In Scientific American, we see the argument that “Nouns first” is not universal, but cultural:

Twila Tardif, a linguist at the University of Michigan, remembers the day she and her Mandarin-speaking babysitter watched as Tardif’s 11-month-old daughter crawled over to a pen that had just fallen on the floor and pointed to it. “Pen!” Tardif told her daughter in Mandarin just as her sitter said, “Grab!” also in Mandarin. Then they looked at each other in puzzlement. Tardif realized that caregivers in different cultures might be influencing which words babies learn first.

Augustine (quoted in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, footnote 1) seems to take a “functions first” approach:

When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.

[2] Of course, categorization is a life-long activity. From one of my favorite Rex Stout novels, Over My Dead Body:

“My son,” he said in a tone of civilized exasperation, “is a little bit green. It’s unavoidable that youth should arrange people in categories, it’s the only way of handling the mass of material at first to avoid hopeless confusion, but the sorting out should not be too long delayed. My son seems to be pretty slow at it. He overrates some people and underrates others. Perhaps I’ve tried to rush it by opening too many doors for him. A father’s conceit can be a very disastrous thing.”

He tapped ashes from his cigarette. He asked abruptly but not at all pugnaciously, “What is it you want, Mr Wolfe?”

[3] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say about Wittgenstein’s injunction:

[Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment” (PPF)] is the locus classicus of a key Wittgensteinian term – “seeing aspects” (PPF xi), where “two uses of the word ‘see'” are elaborated. The second use, where one “sees” a likeness in two objects, is the one that has given rise to the question of aspect perception and the attendant phenomena of aspect-dawning and change of aspect. “I observe a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect'” (113). Aspect seeing involves noticing something about an object – an aspect of the object – that one hadn’t noticed before and thereby seeing it as something different. Importantly, it also arises as a result of a change of context of our perceptions. This immensely insightful discovery by Wittgenstein, and its successive development, has been the source of a multitude of discussions dealing with questions of objectivity vs. subjectivity, conception vs. perception, and psychology vs. epistemology. It also highlights the move from dogmatic, formalistic universalism to open, humanistic context-laden behavior, aptly reverberating in the to-and-fro of seeing aspects.

[4] I would say “category error” (“green ideas”) here, except that categorization is more contested than I thought, so I have to think about it.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Jeremy

    I find it interesting / outrageous that they’re asking about support for Israel’s right to exist “as a homeland of the Jewish people”. “Homeland” is a less controversial, more ambiguous formulation than “state”; by 1942 the Zionist movement had officially abandoned the Balfour “homeland” formulation and started openly talking about a Jewish state. Either the pollster believes themselves to be living in the 1920s, or they’re being disingenuous because they know they’ll get a worse result asking explicitly about an ethnostate.

  2. Adam Eran

    From Braiding Sweetgrass: The English language is roughly 30% verbs. The Potawatomie language is 70% verbs. You don’t look at a [noun] tree, you’re looking at living processes that manifest as a tree, at least if you’re Potawatomie.

    The Zen Buddhists have riddles (koans) that disclose the limitations of the narrative implied by language. Examples: “What color is the wind?” “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “Not that, not that [what is it?]” … When you “answer” these, you demonstrate your enlightenment–getting past the narrative.

  3. Korual

    An individual jew, the cultural practices of Judaism and the political ideology of Zionism are all separate categories so any conflation of 2 or 3 of these would constitute a category error.

    Did US Congress succeed in enshrining a category error into law? Is that a first?

    1. John M Zelnicker

      Not a law, but a Resolution of Congress, also called the “sense of the Congress”. It has no legal effect, but plenty of propaganda effect.

  4. maria gostrey

    my kid, who loves languages, chose his high school because it was the only high school that offered 4 yrs of latin. he still loves languages & makes them up for his gaming scenarios. he is proud of the fact that he includes verbs, prepositions, conjunctives, adjectives, & other parts of speech, including nouns. even though he is a little dismissive of them. “nouns are for tourists,” he says. his 1st word, BTW, was “woof.”

  5. Carolinian

    Interesting about how we learn language although it lost me a bit at the end. Locally we had Chaser, the world’s smartest border collie, who knew hundreds of words that named his many toys and could fetch them on command. So it seems for dogs nouns are also a thing.

    As for Zionism, maybe it’s a case of cultural appropriation–imperialists using the historic struggle of the Jews as their shield. In other words it’s a manipulation in many directions. To me language should always be about clarity, if possible. The right word always matters.

  6. millicent

    What’s missing in the discussion of word learning is the idea of “direct perception” (see J.J. Gibson, and for infants Eleanor Gibson). According to Rosch, categories begin with perception of “critical features”. Apple comes first as a basic category, the next development is in filling in the detail and making finer discriminations (granny smith vs delicious) and finally superordinates (fruit). E. Gibson’s visual cliff demonstrates the idea of direct perception. She set baby’s (prelanguage) who could crawl on a glass table top supported on the ends. The babies would not cross the visual cliff. Even without the experience of traversing such a surface, they were perceiving a drop-off. Similarly babies will raise their hands differently to grasp a larger, denser ball (say of clay) than a smaller, less dense one, perceiving weight based on visual cues. According to the Gibsons and their followers (like Rosch), this would be the basis for concepts and therefore words. An additional issue is the fact that babies overgeneralize. They’re clearly wired for categorization since they will call a horse a doggy or any man dada.

    1. juno mas

      Are they wired for categorization, or simply to associate our language descriptions back to us? Over time they develop a greater understanding of the nouns (objects) to distinguish between a dog and a pony?

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > babies overgeneralize. They’re clearly wired for categorization since they will call a horse a doggy or any man dada.

      And we’re just big babies in that regard, aren’t we?

    3. PlutoniumKun

      Kinda reminds me of the old joke about the class of 5 years olds asked to identify the animals in pictures. One little boy from a farming family looked puzzled when shown a photo of a cow. “oh come on’, the teacher said ‘Your daddy is a farmer, surely you know what this is?’ The child looked upset. ‘I’m not sure… is it a Charolais-fresian cross?’

      1. Polar Socialist

        Way back when I used to be forced asked to participate in “harmonizing” several different health information datasets collected for different purposes at different times from different people in different countries, I used to confuse my dear colleagues with this old Chinese paradox: when a white horse is not a horse (
        Surefire way to not be bothered much afterwards.

        1. JBird4049

          I enjoy philosophy enough, but really, sometimes philosophy as practiced is just semantical slipperiness masquerading as wisdom or it is true wisdom twisted enough to become the absurd.

      2. t

        My favorite language joke is the old saw about the youngster who never speaks until suddenly, at five, he says, “My oatmeal is cold.” The stunned family is overjoyed and and thrilled that kiddo can finally speak… and then the child explains he never spoke before because “everything was fine until now.”

  7. Steve H.

    The power relations are in the Subject / Object split. кто кого.

    Noun-based categories are insufficient for understanding actions. A corrupt judge is far worse than a corrupt person, the modifier flips the Goodness, which opens up the possible range of behaviors (verbs). A baby is a source of joy and hope, but a terrorist baby could grow into a terrorist and make more terrorists. Bad onto bad is good.

    This is likely to lead to a poetic re-naming, potentially. A terrorist-baby become a maggot, and you can burn it with fire.

    [This is a most excellent essay, deep into the foundations of critical thinking. Thank you, Lambert.]

  8. Lambert Strether Post author

    > a most excellent essay, deep into the foundations of critical thinking

    Doing my best [lambert blushes modestly].

    Sadly, I did not get to pivot once more into a critique of Wittgenstein’s injunction: “Don’t think, but look!”

    In fact, many of the most important aspects of our lives are unseeable/unseen: Social relations, especially.

  9. Schnormal

    Dear Lambert, this isn’t the first time you’ve posted something that I think about all the time.

    I wish I had more time to comment, but I just want to link to this interview with the great George Saunders, where he talks about writing with kindness.

    In the following excerpt I know you’ll immediately recognize how the move from (childlike) aggression to a more mature, empathetic understanding is marked by a shift from nouns to verbs:

    For example, you might start off a story with “Jack was a jerk.” But the story says, “That’s a kind of a boring sentence. Can you give me a detail?” Okay, let me revise: “Jack snapped at the waitress.” That’s a little better. But it’s still a bit foggy, so your subconscious might say, “Jack snapped at the waitress because she reminded him of his dead wife.” And suddenly you’ve come a long way in terms of sympathy, from “Jack was a jerk” to “Jack was out of sorts because he was thinking about his dead wife.”

    Moving from nouns to verbs also introduces the essential element of time, which allows for layers of complexity, and therefore the possibility for change, and even forgiveness.

    1. Schnormal

      Your points about synecdoche also remind me of Alfred Korzybski’s ideas about language. Fans of his school of General Semantics will recognize the phrase “Jack was a jerk” as problematic (sorry, Wikipedia):

      [Korzybski] thought that certain uses of the verb “to be”, called the “is of identity” and the “is of predication”, were faulty in structure, e.g., a statement such as, “Elizabeth is a fool” (said of a person named “Elizabeth” who has done something that we regard as foolish). In Korzybski’s system, one’s assessment of Elizabeth belongs to a higher order of abstraction than Elizabeth herself. Korzybski’s remedy was to deny identity; in this example, to be aware continually that “Elizabeth” is not what we call her. We find Elizabeth not in the verbal domain, the world of words, but the nonverbal domain (the two, he said, amount to different orders of abstraction). This was expressed by Korzybski’s most famous premise, “the map is not the territory”.

      Thinking through the implications of this, and discovering how arguments are most often rooted in the vague semiotic landscape of nouns, who has the power to define them, and their potential for spreading blind aggression, can help to much more easily spot propaganda in e.g. news broadcasts, where language is routinely weaponized.

      Take for example the noun “terrorism/-ist”, and how the broadcasters’ endless droning of it has come to almost totally drown out more specific information about a conflict’s players, their motives, history, etc.

      In a depraved feedback loop, language fans the flames of war, and war destroys language.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > arguments are most often rooted in the vague semiotic landscape of nouns, who has the power to define them, and their potential for spreading blind aggression, can help to much more easily spot propaganda in e.g. news broadcasts, where language is routinely weaponized.

        I did not get to include a witticism: “It’s classification struggles all the way down” (the map being a classification). I have become suspicious of layers, though. I’m not sure they’re tangled enough. That said, is it possible that we begin with a map, and the map’s putative territory, except that territory is a map of the next layer down, and so on and on and on?

        1. Korual

          I think the structure of the categories is nested, like Russian dolls, and the tangles, or nouns, can run up and down from the most concrete to the most abstract, connecting them all. Categories are relational, not objective, after all.

        2. Schnormal

          Yes, I think so. And your layers problem reminds me of the layers of reality referenced in that unforgettable quote Ron Suskind got way back in 2004:

          The aide [cough, Karl Rove] said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

          To me this quote is about the difference between soft power, done via persuasion (or what you might call symbol manipulation) — i.e., changing the terms of an argument by redefining its nouns — and hard power, done via actions (verbs) like bombing, sanctions, and otherwise creating facts on the ground.

          Anyway it’s been years now I’ve been noticing this noun/verb dichotomy. Sometimes I worry it’s just become a reductionist habit.

          (An aside — the Wikipedia article for “Reality-based community”(!) claims liberals use the phrase to draw a distinction between their supposed fact-based world and Bush’s faith-based alliance. I’m so old, I can remember when such a distinction made sense. Now it just sounds like another example of PMC/Obamanaut fantasy, and a total misunderstanding of what Rove was getting at!)

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Moving from nouns to verbs also introduces the essential element of time, which allows for layers of complexity, and therefore the possibility for change, and even forgiveness

      Comments like this are why I write!

      Again I repeat: “It’s not worth killing people people over nouns.”-

      1. Schnormal

        Now I’m blushing!

        “It’s not worth killing people over nouns.”

        I’ve added both this and “Don’t think, but look!” to my list of quotes.

  10. Stanley Dundee

    Lotta respect for Wittgenstein but I think he’s missing the obvious thing here:

    Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all,

    What ALL games have in common is one or more PLAYERS. Nuff said.

      1. Stanley Dundee

        juno mas:

        Isn’t Solitare or the Rubic Cube a “game” of sorts?

        Of course. And both have a (single) player. My assertion: all games have one or more players. Which puts the heart of the semantics of games in the verb play. The Potawatomie might agree.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > What ALL games have in common is one or more PLAYERS

      I think a sociologist would agree. But are we sure that “The number of players in a game is greater than zero” is all that useful?

      1. Stanley Dundee

        Thanks Lambert!

        But are we sure that “The number of players in a game is greater than zero” is all that useful?

        Well there are inferences that can be drawn: given a game, there is at least one player. Find the player(s) can be a useful analytic exercise. Or, to stick to your theme of categorization, a reliable way to categorize something as a game is to identify a player. That’s way more concrete than claiming a family resemblence to the universe of agreed games. And finally the semantic move of putting the verb play at the root of the class puts some weight on the primacy of verbs as linguistic building blocks.

  11. Watt4Bob

    My son’s first word was actually a sentence;

    “What is that?”

    Swear to god, talk about a couple of freaked out parents,

    He pointed at the thermostat on the kitchen wall and asked what it was.

  12. Oldtimer

    one could write a much more objective history of humanity if one knew the origin of the words.
    looks like this seems to go against Chomsky’s theory of a a god given language to humans and support those who think language evolved.
    Wittengstein must have a case against Derrida for plagiarism as his instability of meaning and trace seem to be nothing else but what Wittengstein calls “family resemblances”.

  13. ScottB

    Thank you for remembering Luis Tiant. I saw him pitch when he was a Portland Beaver. Sam McDowell was also on that team, he was called up first. What an arm! And the cigars…

  14. KD

    What distinguishes logic from rhetoric is that rhetorical statements are not (literally) true. If you take a rhetorical statement such as “Trump is literally a Nazi,” its false. It’s relying on similarities between Trump/Trumpism and Nazism, and ignoring dissimilarities as well as the historical context.

    Cannibalism is under the radar, but is viewed in horror, at least in parts of the world which are influenced by Abrahamic religions. If you want to start agitating politically against people who get blood transfusions, you start by emphasizing the horrors of cannibalism and how society needs to punish/crush cannibals, and then you rhetorically equate the recipient of a blood transfusion with a cannibal, based on the similarities–what after all, is the difference between drinking blood and having blood transfused into your body? With the right institutional support, in no time, you have people committing acts of terrorism against Emergency Rooms promoting “cannibalism.”

    I use this example because it is relatively abstract and not an active issue. However, it bears the hallmarks of many active political campaigns. Being a Jew, and being a Zionist are literally separate categories. Neither is a necessary or sufficient condition of each other. However, because of the overlap between the two categories, rhetorically the two can be equated. Obviously, the Harvard Harris poll is a nice example of propagandistic attempts to frame an issue in the minds of the respondents. You prime the respondent with a crude framework of Anti-Semitism, and then you ask an abstract question about Israel’s “right to exist” (BTW, which low-information voter is against anything’s “right to exist”). Anti-Semitism in American Society is a deeply taboo subject, much like cannibalism. Zionism, whatever that means, is a deeply contested issue. Rhetorically, by equating Anti-Semitism with Anti-Zionism, it is an attempt to make criticism of Zionism, or more specifically, criticisms of Israel and its current modality of Zionism beyond the pale. The problem is not primarily Israel’s “right to exist,” the problem is Israel’s responsibility to others, and to respect the other’s “right to exist.” I think if the question were framed as whether Israel’s “right to exist” included the right to seize the lands of non-Jews and ethnically cleanse them from territory which Israel claims based on passages from the Bible, you might find less public support.

    The obvious downside is that by linking the taboo behavior with, for example, the commission of war crimes in a fundamentally flawed campaign to “eradicate Hamas” is that the result will weaken the taboo against Anti-Semitism. For example, there are a large number of Jews in the United States who live reasonably secure lives in part because of the taboos against Anti-Semitism. If you look at what the Israeli right-wing is promoting, it is absolutely horrific from a humanitarian perspective, and if you equate opposition to conduct which violates what most people regard as crimes against humanity with Jewishness, or with the “real” or “true” essence of Jewishness, you do enormous damage to Jews who do not live in Israel. On the other hand, from a Zionist perspective, Anti-Semitism is good, because if Jews around the world are threatened, then they will either immigrate to Israel or identify with Israel out of fear. So there is a logic here, even if it is the perverse logic of ultra-ethnonationalism.

    The other thing that should be pointed out is that someone could be sympathetic to German nationalism (say in 1848), but object to certain manifestations historically of German nationalism (say in 1933). By conflating Jewishness with Zionism, and Zionism with the Israeli ultra-right version of Zionism, it not only defames Jews but it also defames Zionists.

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