Tag Archives: Concepts

The Cure, Concepts, and Functional Sameness

I turned to look at you
To read my thoughts upon your face
And gazed so deep into your eyes
So beautiful and strange
Until you spoke
And showed me understanding is a dream
“I hate these people staring
Make them go away from me!”
—- the Cure, How Beautiful You Are

I am (slowly) reading this wholly engaging and insightful book on thought by Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander called Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. In it, they argue that analogy is not only a primary component of what we call thinking, but it is essential; it is foundational to thought occurring at all.

I think they’re on to something and hope to write much on that something, but right now I want to focus on their deconstruction of concepts, which I think glosses over a crucial something that I further think is pretty much universally glossed over. It is not the kind of crucial that would destroy their overall thesis (like I said, I think they’re onto something). But it is the kind or crucial that keeps me up at night and frames, or at least adds to, my perspective on things.

We are so used to living our lives conceptually, that we take concepts for granted, not spending much time thinking about how there really is not anything spoken or written or thought that is not coming from our ongoing conceptual construction, which not only encompasses the obvious ones understood as concepts like dogs and cats and chairs, but also ones not so obvious like and and the and a.

Hofstadter and Sander systematically disabuse us of the notion that concepts are somehow out there like planets waiting to be discovered; rather, it is the opposite. They are slippery and somewhat arbitrary beasts coming from inside us, subject to change and very much to our collective whim.

One important way they show this is through comparing languages, focusing on what every translator knows well: there are major differences in how languages divide things conceptually, making one-to-one word translation often impossible. For example:

We know what time it is right now… how much time it will take to drive to the airport, and how many times we’ve done so before. These three ideas strike us as being… about just one concept: the concept known as “time”

In France, however, our conceptually monolithic time is regarded as involving three separate concepts, therefore requiring a distinct word to be used to convey the meaning of each particular situation clearly.

The authors give many other thought-provoking examples, but another one I found most fascinating was from Indonesia. Where we describe siblings in terms of sister and brother, meaning female sibling and male sibling respectively, Indonesians break out siblings in term of comparative age. So instead of brother and sister, they use kakak and adik, which mean “elder sibling” and “younger sibling”.

The overall point is that how things get broken up conceptually is not universal, and can differ significantly from culture to culture; collectively created out of what that society deems important, efficient, or just plain sensible.

However, the authors go on to say, for a large number of concepts there is good agreement across languages. This would be expected, as we are all human and do things like walk and talk and eat and sleep and so on.

But — and the but here is now me interjecting my own tangential thoughts into the matter — agreement is not the same as identical. We may, at times, be able to translate one word directly for another, and it may serve the function we intended, but I’m not convinced the ‘meaning’ content is the same. Indeed, I take this strand of thought further, wanting to contend that concepts break down differently at the individual level not just at the cultural one.

Oh, we have agreement, sure, and linguistic workarounds. And it is true enough that someone’s not going to say dog to me and I’m going to picture, say, a horse. But at the core level, at the necessarily individualized experiential level, I think the agreement is of functional sameness masquerading as an identically shared concept.

For even though we each employ the use of ostensibly mutually understood concepts in our dialogues with one another, we can’t help but fill in those thought containers with our personalized specifics and shade the understanding with our own life experiences. This might be one of the reasons why it is so difficult to find common ground; we can never absolutely know someone else’s ground let alone completely share it.

By our very nature, at the most basic biologically confining level, everyone already IS an island and never will be — never can be — anything else.

And this is why I hate you
And how I understand
That no-one ever knows or loves another