Thursday, October 11, 2012

Strategic Naming (in this Case, a Tree)

Sometimes we take names for granted.

I'm walking across campus with a friend. It's almost 9:00 in the morning, the air is cool, and we pass two trees. One of them is beginning to turn a bright orange, but the other is still a deep evergreen and, if it is an evergreen, will probably stay that way until it dies. If I want to, I can gesture to my friend and say, "Look at the differences in color between those trees," and my friend will know what I mean. I just have to say the word tree, and understanding--as well as an act of directing the attention--will take place. In this moment of calling attention to a particular tree, however, I'm not really thinking much about what a tree is or why I'm calling it what I think it is. I'm simply admiring its beauty.

No, this is not the tree.
Courtesy of WikiCommons
But, if I wanted to, I could call it something different. I could have pointed to the deep green tree and called it, not a tree, but a "tall green thing"? Would my friend have understood me? Well, probably. But it would have sounded funny. Unusual. Strange. Perhaps certainly, at least if I was gesturing to the "tall green thing" and my friend noticed my gesture. But my friend would, at least, probably wonder why I had chosen to call the object at which I was pointing a "tall green thing" instead of a tree. Because both of us have a mutual understanding of what the word tree means, my friend may be curious as to why I had given the object such a peculiar name. My act of calling the tree something is an act of naming, and my acts of naming, though most of them are subconscious, are influential because these acts do something, both to those who hear them and those who use them.

Suppose, further, that I had named the object, not merely a "tall green thing" or even a tree, but a bristlecone pine. By calling the object something, whether "tree" or "bristlecone pine," I have named the object. And the words with which I choose to name the object reflect, to some degree, my own understanding of the world. By giving the tree that name of bristlecone pine, I reveal several things. First, I may reveal that I know (or think I know) enough about the tree itself to identify it as a bristlecone pine. I may also reveal that I know (or think I know) enough about bristlecone pines in general to be able to identify a specific instance of the kind. If I am correct in my act of naming, I have revealed that I really do know what I thought I knew. But if I am incorrect, I could be one of two kinds of people: I could be the kind of person that thought I knew that my act of naming was correct but was in fact mistaken, or on the other hand, I could have been the kind of person (and this is the worst kind) that did know that he was mistaken but deliberately called the tree something that it wasn't as part of an attempt to deceive others. Whatever I do, by choosing to call the object a bristlecone pine instead of a tree or a "tall green thing," I have also subtly influenced the way hearers have understood what I have said and who I am as a person who has an ability to speak.

Whatever I choose to call this thing, my choice reflects my own belief, knowledge, and attitude in the moment of naming whatever that thing is. I can point to the tree and say, "Green Thing!" and I'll both assert and reveal something different than if I raise my chin in its general direction and say, "Pinus longaeva."

Most of the time when we speak, however, we're less conscious of the names that we give things. Part of education, I believe, is to make our acts of naming conscious, deliberate, and above all, honest. Not only that, but as soon as we develop the ability to see what happens in a moment of naming, we begin to cultivate the capacity to be a careful and cautious judge of the acts of naming that happen all around us.

(By the way, as far as I know the tree discussed above is not in fact a Bristlecone Pine or Pinus Longaeva. I just chose a random pine tree to write this article. I don't know very much about trees, but then again I'm not really talking about trees here, either.)

Monday, October 1, 2012

Being Actors

[The following is a post that was written on June 23, 2011.]

Most people would agree that the more you practice something, the better you get at it. Aristotle wrote,
For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage. (Nicomachean Ethics II.1)

Ralph Waldo Emerson is attributed to have said, "That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do, not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased" (I can't find the reference to this anywhere in his works; let me know if you know where it is). And even the more recent Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, writes about how experts are those which have done something--practiced at it--for 10,000 hours. We become better at what we do.

But we can also be defined by what we do. Let me explain. Being embodied creatures that have the ability to choose, we necessarily choose some things over other things. Aristotle wrote that "every action and choice, seem to aim at some good" (Nicomachean Ethics 1.1). His statement suggests that we do what we do because we believe that it will, in some way, make us happy.

But we can go a step further. Kenneth Burke reminds us that "a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B" (Permanence and Change 49). And to choose something is to focus one's time on doing a thing for a period of time. And by focusing our time on one thing in a given situation, we become the kind of person that is doing the kind of thing that we have chosen to do in the moment that we choose to do it. We become that kind of person during that specific moment, and we can be defined by the kind of person that would do what we have chosen--because we have chosen what we have chosen. We become the kind of person that, having chosen A, has not chosen B, C, D, E, F, G, etc. for the moment in which we are doing A. In other words, you are what you do, and what you do also defines, to a degree, what you are.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...