01 May 2007

What's in a name?

RoseIf a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, what would Shakespeare have made of roses with no smell at all? If the smell is the thing, then why not just call Turkish Delight "Rose". Does "rosey cheeks" refer to the way someone smells? The relationship of words to things is one of the most fascinating philosophical problems. Most people take up one of two extreme positions on this subject: firstly that names are natural to their object, and secondly that names are entirely conventional, the latter being the most common way of thinking about it at present. Plato explored both sides of the debate in his Cratylus dialogue but typically did not commit to either view. What follows is an attempt at a Buddhist perspective on the problem, heavily informed by the writing of George Lakoff.*

There is a fundamental error which has persisted almost throughout the history of thinking about this problem. The assumption has always been that there is a one to one relationship between a word and the thing it names, and that the 'things' are unitary. So dog is one 'thing' and rose is another 'thing', and the ideal language, a dream of scholars both biblical and secular, would have only one word for each thing. The things are assumed to be unitary for the purposes of naming, even though we know them to be a collection of attributes. All of this multiplicity of reference and meaning seems untidy somehow.

If, the argument goes, there was a natural relationship between words and things, then everyone would use the same word for a thing. Therefore because different languages use different names for things, there is no natural relationship - words are arbitrary. This is the current paradigm for thinking about the relationship between words and things. The hypothesis is made only slightly more sophisticated by an acknowledgement that our choice of words is not entirely free, but constrained by 'socially agreed rules' such as the phonetic pallet of a language. However this holds only if we first make the assumption that the thing being named is unitary and that it is viewed identically by everyone everywhere. Simple observation should be enough to tell us that things are not unitary they are complex, nor are people always agreed on what they perceive. And yet on this assumption rests most of contemporary linguistics!

Within any category of object there is a great deal of variation. A great-dane is a dog, as is a poodle or a corgi. But these creatures are really quite different in some ways as well. George Lakoff tells us that they fit the category dog because of their shared features, but that some will seem more typically like a dog to us, and some less. He refers to these typical category members as protoypes. This is crucial. When I say 'dog' I may have a different beast in mind than when you say 'dog', especially if we come from different cultures. Often we are quite atuned to such subtle differences. We have quite a few words in English: dog, canine, mutt, cur, hound, mongrel, spaniel, tyke, bitch, pup, pooch, 'man's best friend', plus as many as 200 breeds. And we probably know when each word fits. Sometimes I might even, if only ironically, dispute that the animal in question is a member of the category: "call that a dog?". Think about how we use dog in metaphors as refering to a subordinate position, or loyalty, or persistence, or a keen sense of smell. As well there are many ways to see a dog: as a working dog, a hunting dog, a lap dog, a guard dog, a circus dog, a food item, etc. We may change the word we use for the dog depending on whether the dog has shit on our carpet or not! "Dog" is not a simple unitary concept- it is, as we Buddhists say, compounded and has a subjective component. But because we have a tendency to focus unconsciously on prototypes, we come to believe that a dog is a dog is a dog.

If we have different images of the archetypal dog, and if perhaps we interact differently with dogs, and we actually do have a number of words to suit the occasion, then it makes perfect sense that someone from a another culture uses a different word to the one I use. This needn't lead to the conclusion that words are arbitrary, only to the conclusion that the relationship between words and things is complex, because we and things are complex.

What I'm arguing for is a more nuanced view of words, things, and the relationships between them - for a middle way. A Buddhist theory of naming, on the grounds of observation, must refuse to see things as either determined or random, these are extremes. Equally it would not see the complex as simple. It would refute the notion of "dogness" - an essence possessed by all dogs upon which the name hangs. Such an essence cannot be found. I've mainly address the question from the point of view of debunking the 'arbitrary' argument. Sometime I'd like to look at the other side of the equation - the 'naturalness argument.

Would it really have mattered if Juliet was a Montague? Well probably not, but it might have mattered if she had been a dog! Is this stuff important? Well I believe that the way we use words tells us a lot about the working of the mind, and to a Buddhist there is no more important subject!

* My thoughts on this are influenced in particular by:
George Lakoff (1987). Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Uni of Chicago Press
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By.
Uni of Chicago Press
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