lost & found & lost in language


This is an image I used in facilitating a Board retreat recently. A relatively new non-profit organization has been going through some changes and turmoil in its early stages - not necessarily a bad thing, some might even say an essential thing.

The red (Pacman looking thing) indicates: "What we don't know (A heck of a lot)"

The purple sliver: "What we don't know we don't know."

The black: "What we know that's inaccurate."

The green: "What we know we don't know. (e.g. thermonuclear physics)

& the white: "What we know we know. (e.g. how to put our pants on)". *

It's a good reminder, and yet not an entirely accurate representation - as the red could in fact be an endless morphing shape-shifting amoebic blob - black-hole-like. Or the purple, "what we don't know we don't know" - how can that even have boundaries put on it?

It's an analogy really... or a metaphor - with arbitrary boundaries put on it (e.g. circle-shaped) to get across an idea - the idea that for many things, we really don't know shit about shit. (pardon the crass expression)

Yet we do, but we don't. But we do, do-be-doo-be-dooo...

But, how do we?

Say for example, the title of a recently picked up book at a university library (below):


How do we 'manage' ocean environments? Seriously? More so, how do we 'manage' ocean environments in a changing climate?

Can we 'manage' earthquakes, volcanoes, and shifting continental plates... tsunamis, storms, and tides...

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As I have commented on previous posts on salmonguy.org the etymology (or roots) of the word 'manage' suggest it comes partially from Latin manus meaning "hands", but also means "strength, power over; armed force". There are also Italian roots through the word maneggiare "to handle," especially "to control a horse."

There are also connections with manual which can mean 'manual labor' as in using one's hands - or manual as in "service book used by a priest," or from Old French manuel "handbook" (also "plow-handle" harkening back to manual labor), from Late Latin manuale "case or cover of a book, handbook," and the noun use of Latin manualis meaning "a concise handbook."

This can be confusing, complex stuff.

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As of late I have come across various books discussing metaphor and analogy. Most recently "I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World" by James Geary. Another is "Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell our Greatest Ideas" by John Pollack.

Prior to that was "Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking" by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander (fair warning this is a thick book and fascinating exploration, of which I have yet to get entirely through).

Geary in his book suggests that on average we utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words - or about six metaphors per minute (in spoken language). He uses an illuminating (there's a metaphor) example with weather forecasts, where words such as 'gripped' (e.g. in a heat wave), 'plagued' (e.g. by drought), or phrases like 'hailstones the size of golf balls', etc. There are also endless examples from economics (e.g. 'bull' and 'bear' markets) and other fields. 

He suggests "Metaphorical thinking is the way we make sense of the world, and every individual metaphor is a specific instance of this imagination process at work."

Scientists and inventors compare two things: what they know and what they don't know. The only way to find out about the latter is to investigate the ways it might be like the former. And whenever we explore how one thing is like another, we are in the realm of metaphorical thinking...

However, as he also points out, "the paradox of metaphor is that it tells us so much about a person, place, or thing by telling us what the person, place, or thing is not... A metaphor is both detour and destination, a digression that gets to the point."

Pollack in his book provides a definition of 'analogy', suggesting "in broad terms, an analogy is simply a comparison that asserts a parallel - explicit or implicit - between two distinct things, based on the perception of a shared property or relation." He then suggests, metaphorically, that analogies appear in various disguises - metaphors, similes, political slogans, legal arguments, marketing taglines, mathematical formulas, parables, logos, euphemisms, proverbs, fables, and sports cliches - to name a few.

Hofstadter, in a 2001 essay Analogy as the Core of Cognition, prior to writing his book, poses the (metaphorical) thesis that analogy is "the lifeblood, so to speak, of human thinking."

He feels every concept we have is essentially nothing but a tightly packaged bundle of analogies, and that all we do when we think is move "fluidly from concept to concept — in other words, to leap from one analogy-bundle to another" and "that such concept-to-concept leaps are themselves made via analogical connection, to boot."

Hofstadter focuses on our brains and thinking as 'category makers'. Early in our years,

our set of categories is terribly sparse, and each category itself is hardly well-honed. Categories grow sharper and sharper and ever more flexible and subtle as we age, and of course fantastically more numerous. Many of our categories, though by no means all, are named by words or standard phrases shared with other people ... categories that are named by so-called lexical items. The public labels of such categories — the lexical items themselves come in many grades..."

He uses examples such as simple words like chair, clock, cork, etc. plus compound words such as armchair, corkscrew, cannonball, etc. Plus short phrases such as 'out of order', or 'give me a break', or 'rush-hour traffic'. And, longer phrases such as 'damned if you, damned if you don't', 'not in the foreseeable future', and 'handed to him on a silver platter'.

As Hofstadter suggests, these types of lists can go on forever, and yet few people are aware of their vast mental lexicons (e.g. vocabulary or branch of knowledge). As he adroitly suggests:

To be sure, most adults use their vast mental lexicons with great virtuosity, but they have stunningly little explicit awareness of what they are doing.

And this leads me closer to the point of this little ditty on language.

Hofstadter uses the word 'shadow' to make his point, which is: "a concept is a package of analogies." (and even there, 'package' is metaphorical or analogical).

He suggests the word 'shadow' as a good example of "the complexity and subtlety of structure that lurks behind not just some lexical items, but behind every single one." Things 'out there' (objects, situations, whatever) that are labeled by the same lexical item have something, some core, in common he suggests. "Also, whatever it is that those things 'out there' share is shared with the abstract mental structure that lurks behind the label used for them."

Thus, 'shadow' as a noun, which shares subtle differences with the word 'shade'. Cows don't go seeking shadow, they go seek shade. We also refer to a 'rain shadow' as that place on the leeward side of mountains where rain doesn't fall, yet we don't call the area under a tree barren of snow a 'snow shadow'... 

Or, how about the athlete that emerges from the 'shadow' of their parent, a previously successful athlete. Or, someone recovering from the 'shadow' of cancer. Or, an entire geographic area say Europe, for example, recovering from the 'shadow' of WW II.

Similarly, with the word 'point' that I put in bold earlier. There is the 'point' of the spear. The 'point' of the matter or getting to the 'point', or what's your 'point'? Or, I 'point' to the mountaintop - don't 'point' it's rude. Or, that period you just saw being a 'point' on a page. Or, how about the goal in hockey counting as a 'point', or, the points in the standings. Or, standing on the 'point' and looking out over the ocean.

A similar stampede of subtlety and complexity could begin by shifting 'point' to 'pointless'... the player held pointless in the game, the pointless blog post, the blunt pointless spear, etc.

Hofstadter suggests to "drive the point home [there it is again] that every lexical item that we possess is a mental category, and hence... every lexical item, when used in speech (whether received or transmitted), constitutes one side of an analogy being made in real time in the speaker’s/listener’s mind."

I'm not a big fan of the '/' in that previous sentence, which sits between speaker's and listener's. Communication is always, at its least, a two-way system composed of - again at the least -  a speaker-sender and a receiver-listener, which then becomes a complex system of feedback, interference and environment. The analogy being transmitted can often mean one thing to a sender and another to a receiver, yet Hofstadter's point, speaks to common agreement or understanding in common lexical phrases or words.

Hofstadter again, on 'mental categories':

The triggering of prior mental categories by some kind of input — whether sensory or more abstract — is, I insist, an act of analogy-making. Why is this?
Because whenever a set of incoming stimuli activates one or more mental categories, some amount of slippage must occur (no instance of a category ever being precisely identical to a prior instance). Categories are quintessentially fluid entities; they adapt to a set of incoming stimuli and try to align themselves with it. The process of inexact matching between prior categories and new things being perceived (whether those “things” are physical objects or bite-size events or grand sagas) is analogy-making par excellence. How could anyone deny this?
After all, it is the mental mapping onto each other of two entities — one old and sound asleep in the recesses of long-term memory, the other new and gaily dancing on the mind’s center stage — that in fact differ from each other in a myriad of ways.

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This, bringing things back around in a wide loop, is where I seriously question the dominant mental category of "management" in its current plague. It's new gaily dancing mental map may have may be gyrating to the wrong song - e.g. the map may take us to the wrong destination, a dangerous lurking shadowy shady place, with little illumination.

Hofstadter: "Each person, as life progresses, develops a set of high-level concepts that they tend to favor, and their perception is continually seeking to cast the world in terms of those concepts. The perceptual process is thus far from neutral or random, but rather it seeks, whenever possible, to employ high-level concepts that one is used to, that one believes in, that one is comfortable with, that are one’s pet themes.

If the current perception of a situation leads one into a state of cognitive dissonance, then one goes back and searches for a new way to perceive it. Thus the avoidance of mental discomfort — the avoidance of cognitive dissonance — constitutes a powerful internal force that helps to channel the central loop in what amounts to a strongly goal-driven manner."

He coins these 'perceptual attractors' - "long-term mental loci that are zoomed into when situations are encountered." In current language use and Western culture are terms like 'backlog', 'burnout', 'micromanaging' and others. These have become common in our lexicon.

My point, similar to Hofstadter and which he phrases better:

we are prepared to see, and we see easily, things for which our language and culture hand us ready-made labels. When those labels are lacking, even though the phenomena may be all around us, we may quite easily fail to see them at all. The perceptual attractors that we each possess (some coming from without, some coming from within, some on the scale of mere words, some on a much grander scale) are the filters through which we scan and sort reality, and thereby they determine what we perceive on high and low levels.

"Management" in its many current forms is a scourge of the lower levels.

Funnily enough, doing a web search for definitions of management reveals the following examples and uses:

1. the process of dealing with or controlling things or people.   e.g. "the management of elk herds."

- the responsibility for and control of a company or similar organization.   e.g. "the management of a great metropolitan newspaper."

2. trickery; deceit.   e.g. "if there has been any management in the business, it has been concealed from me."

Maybe the first definition is where we all got muddled up? - we assumed that herds of elk are like people, or like groups (herds?) of people - e.g. an organization?

Yet, is an organization organized?

Similar does management suggest managing? As 'to manage', at least suggest some definitions, means "to be in charge; administer, to run".

Hmmm, does 'managing' elk herds mean to make them run? Or do we administer them? Or, them us?

At its roots, to manage suggests 'to handle' - with hand at the root of that and implicit in the word itself 'hand+le'.  In French, would that become le hand? (la main)?

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Seems that 'management' has become a deeply embedded mental construct and mental category, with potentially dangerous denotation and connotation.

I wonder if it comes from some of our Western agrarian (e.g. farming) roots? Sometimes we can 'manage' potatoes, however sometimes we cannot - as some of my ancestors would suggest in the great Irish potato famines.

Western-based fisheries science, only existing for some little over a hundred years, is deeply laced with words, terms - e.g. mental constructs and categories - straight out of farming: harvest, sustainable yield, pieces (used to refer to actual fish), etc.

Using these terms seems to have given comfort, at least in the minds of some, that we can 'manage' the ocean environment, or salmon populations, or elk herds, or even 'climate' for that fact.

Yet, there is an interesting second definition of 'manage' - a 'lexical item' as Hofstadter suggests - a lexical-complexitor I'd suggest:

2. succeed in surviving or in attaining one's aims, especially against heavy odds; cope.

Thus, when we suggest that we may be "managing" the ocean environment, or salmon, or elk herds, or dodo birds... are we simply just coping? (or them with us?).

Are we simply surviving in attaining one's aim... which is for humans, survival - isn't it? And maybe even against heavy odds?

Are we maybe just "managing in ocean environments in a changing climate"?

Maybe we have meant that all along... that 'to manage' in the midst of global change (environmental, economic, cultural, or otherwise) is, to use an analogy, like parents 'managing' a household of small kids. At times, it feels like mere coping, survival, a foggy hazy environment of day-by-day.

Or, as the image below portrays, the meaning can encompass many domains (another image used in a recent facilitation to represent 'knowledge', especially the power of 'shared knowledge').

What do you think?



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* this circle diagram is based on The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown.