Tag Archives: U

U is for Use

In Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, the idea of use of very important: he says that for most of the ways in which we use the word “meaning”, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations section 43). How are we to understand this claim? His examples, both explicit and embedded in his method, suggest that when we are looking at a speciic word or phrase and asking ourselves “what does this mean?” we need to turn, not to a dictionary or a definition provided by a single person, but to the ways in which fluent speakers of the language actually use the term. This might include ourselves, and Wittgenstein sometimes invites us to think about the ways in which we ourselves would use a term. Because natural language is complex and multilayered, these patterns of use usually turn out to be complex and multilayered, and a single word can have a variety of uses – and, hence, meanings.

(For example, think about the word ‘mouse’. What are the ways in which you use this word? “I saw a mouse in the kitchen.” “Do you remember that red rollerball mouse that came with our first computr?” Sometimes it won’t be instantly clear whether we’re talking about a rodent or a digital input device, but it will almost always become clear if we take into account the whole context of what is being said. This points us back to the importance of context, discussed in a previous post.)

“Meaning is use” is, in a way, very clear, and some scholars are opposed to extending or explaining it too much. However, it doesn’t, unfortunately, fit in with a very common use of the word “meaning”, which often conjures a picture of something like a halo around a word or something above and behind it which gives force to it. To get over this, I often start non-academic discussions by asking people how they think a word gets its meaning (most actually arrive at a Wittgensteinian view without a lot of effort, talking about learning from others and community agreement – this saves a lot of time if we don’t need to debunk ideas about stating definitions first!). Meaning consists in regular and comunally agreed uses. Mistaken uses are possible, but can become part of the meaning if repeated; a mistaken use can eventually become accepted, at which point it is no longer mistaken (“10 items or less”).

I also extend the analysis of use beyond words and phrases to look at structures within language – lists are my big example, but we could also look at the use of nouns and verbs, or metaphors, in much the same way. The question here is always: how does this community use this structure? The community – the context within which the linguistic structure is being used – is always as important to this analysis as the use itself. Meaning is use, which is always within a context.

U is for… Undreamt

George Fox, it always seems to me, was no stranger to big dreams: of the Kingdom of God, of a people to be gathered, and so forth. But parts of my life – ordinary, everyday, mundane parts of my life – were absolutely unimaginable for people of his time. Some of them are still not entirely clear to us now!

For example, I think we’ve begun to get the hang of the internal combustion engine. Some Quakers drive and some don’t, but the arguments for and against are becoming familiar: discussions about expanded possibilities, travel, rural and urban areas, fossil fuels, and carbon footprints. We seem to be okay with the idea that you should always wear your seatbelt – I’ve never heard a Quaker argue that you shouldn’t have to, although of course saying that in a blog post is probably making someone somewhere construct that argument – and when Friends offer their reasons for driving or not driving, providing car parking at the Meeting House or using the space for a garden, we can predict what cases each side will make.

Not so with some other technology. The internet is a case in point. Without it, I wouldn’t have written this – not in this format, not at this time, not in this way, not curled around my laptop on the sofa – and you wouldn’t be reading it. A couple of weeks ago, a local Quaker study group looked at Advices and Queries, and had a go at writing our own. I tried to write some about the internet, and this is what I came up with:

Sharing online can be an important part of our lives as social beings. Does your internet presence reflect you as a whole person? Strive for a right balance between electronic and analogue communications, and remember that working asynchronously can provide extra time for thought and prayer. Do you consume news and other information in ways which support your freedom and positive engagement with the world?

 I don’t really know whether these are useful, but I was trying to capture some aspects of my experience, as a Quaker, going online as a teenager and working through issues about integrity and spirituality in the age of the internet. How do you balance your need for privacy – and personal safety – with a desire to share fully and openly, truthfully?Which sites support integrity and which encourage misrepresentation?I like Facebook’s air of bumping into people casually; a friend of mine finds it an unending source of envy and won’t go near it. I like LinkedIn’s endorsements system, especially when I feel able to offer them to others; but I don’t want to spend much time on there because it’s so focussed on best-foot-forward professionalism. I like Twitter as a way of finding links, and for a little chat here and there, but I can’t make myself use it regularly. On the other hand, I can blog every week without strain and find myself able to be relatively vulnerable here. (Time alone will tell whether that’s really a good idea!)

Another factor which influenced this piece was an experience of present service; I’m currently clerking a new committee which does most of its work by email, and I’ve tried to write a set of guidelines for keeping our business in right ordering. Some of it’s little things – in a meeting room, we can accept sitting in silence as agreement, but online, you probably need to email to say ‘I hope so’! I haven’t at the moment – but I wonder if I might in future – been very specific about answering email prayerfully, and how one does that. It’s that which I have in mind when I talk about the power of asynchronous communication.

The last line arose from work with the Five Mindfulness Trainings (from the Zen Buddhist Order of Interbeing tradition). The last one says that “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” I don’t like that! What if I want to watch trashy television? What if, as some undergraduates said to me recently, watching Jeremy Kyle is part of a fulfilled life? What if I need to watch something which is controversial, or even widely agreed to be terrible, in order to make up my own mind about it? How can I even tell which ones contain ‘toxins’? Observation of my own habits suggests that the sources which I find most toxic are not the fictional ones – I can bracket fiction off to some extent – but sources of news and especially opinion. (Apart from my own opinions, obviously they’re fine. Oh wait, something about “openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views”?)

I think adverts for ‘diet tips’ and pages about ‘how to dress for your shape’ don’t do me any good at all – usually, if I read them I then have to choose between spending money or feeling like a bad or ugly person. I don’t find that the news does me much good; the big things filter through to me eventually, and day in and day out of politicians saying ridiculous things just makes me angry about things which are out of my control. Pictures of cats with funny captions on aren’t toxic if you just have one or two – but the sites are designed to keep you there, for hour after hour. And yet those things, an endless supply of things to make you angry or sad or smile, are right there at the click of a mouse (which is why they’re called clickbait). How do you get what you need and want from the internet while maintaining a Simplicity Testimony? Is reading yet another article on Lifehacker really going to help that much?

U is for… Upside-Down

Diggers, to whom this song refers, were a radical group active in 17th century England, coming a little after the Levellers, a little before the Quakers, and not to be confused with the Ranters, who had a more liberal sexual politics. Although the Diggers’ movement did not survive – they were taken to court and turned off the common land which they had claimed – modern groups, include road protesters and tax reformers, have found much to be inspired by in their story.

Personally, I think the vision of a ‘world turned upside-down’ is sorely needed today. It’s surprisingly how little it takes to reverse the expectations of some politicians; for example, if they assume that everyone wants a tax cut, you can subvert that by offering another penny on the pound.

 

U is for… Under and Upper Worlds

In one Pagan scheme, magical work can be divided into three sections: that belonging to the Upper world, that belonging to the Middle world, and that belonging to the Under world. (I think I first encountered a scheme of this kind in Rae Beth’s work.) The Middle world is here, of course: our everyday reality. The Upper world I associate with spiritual aims, with deity and guides, and with my Sacred Grove. It’s a place of the imagination, moving towards God.

The Under world is more chaotic. It’s also a place of imagination, but of desire and wishes, of emotions and longing. If there are Three Realms – Sea, Land, and Sky – the Upper world is the sky, Middle earth is the land, and the Under world is the Sea. The Upper world might be hard to reach, but it’s full of light and beauty, fluffy clouds etc. The Land has its dangers, but they’re fairly well known and easier to see. The Under world, on the other hand, might be blue and inviting, but it might be full of submerged rocks and unseen swimming things.

There are ways through them all. They all have deities, and they interlink – you cannot reject one, or wholly ignore it, even if you might like to do so. Knowledge helps, but it’s not the whole story; the title of this post could be Unknowns.

U is for… UPG

UPG, or Unverified Personal Gnosis, is a driving force for many modern Pagans. Working with incomplete systems, lost to history or accident, we turn directly to our deities for guidance. Of course, such guidance has to come through our religious experience one way or another, and may be distorted by our desires or previous experience (if you think it is genuinely coming from somewhere else at all!), and so in the first instance it is Unverifed.

(Pagans are not, of course, seeking the high levels of verification preferred by many scientists and philosophers; in this context, verified means something more like justified or supported.)

This would be a good point for a personal example, but I can’t think of one that’s really clear; much of my own UPG is small, or meshed with pieces of related lore, and I’d spend longer giving you the background than talking about UPG.

That points, I think, to one of the problems: UPG which gets published, which is not clearly marked as such. Of course, a community can choose, with whatever support it likes or none, to take on someone’s UPG as truth (indeed, many religious movements have started out that way). But we get into trouble when we can’t tell, for example, what is the UPG of a modern author, what is the UPG of an ancient author, and what was accepted by ancient communities as truth.