Friday, March 28, 2008

How to Avoid Ambiguity, Find Meaning in Life, and Love Your Enemies as Yourself (instead of Killing or Prosecuting them)

Their History

Kenneth Starr’s prosecution failed against Bill Clinton. The investigator hadn’t taken into account ambiguity. A few choice words -- like “I did not have ‘sex’ with that woman” and “private lives” and “that depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” – worked better in the legal hearings than any double-entendre has ever worked for married men who have conveniently used them on women to whom they are not especially committed. So Rush Limbaugh could call the President “Slick Willy.” And John Piper could call out the Scriptures on Limbaugh for that (although few men, much less that particular man of the law named Starr or that particular man of the cloth named Piper, will take the radio man named Limbaugh to task for naming feminists “femi-nazis” as if the singular coined word might disambiguate the meaning of “feminist” and of “Nazi”).

Aristotle avoided ambiguity, and taught his students to do the same. His resulting science of Aristotelianism worked to pigeon-hole everything, and by it he found that nature put some subjects down below others and gave to him, the cold objective logical observer, the high position right at the top with no ambiguity at all. Of course, Aristotle’s own teacher Plato had taught men to be ware of the poets and the sophists, the ones using what Plato coined as “rhetoric.” Slick ambiguous stuff. So: “Avoid Ambiguities!

What Aristotle forgot to tell the boys in the Academy was this:
• “How to avoid ambiguity.”
• Learning really depends on some ambiguity. (Kenneth Pike and his friends would come along and call “rhetoric” for learning two different things: “discovery and change.”)
• Absolute avoidance of ambiguity means that you have to kill off all your enemies. (Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s student, tried that; and unfortunately for the Hellene empire some Roman leaders had learned Greek from their mothers and followed Aristotle’s lessons on global conquest and world domination.)

Nathan’s rhetoric succeeded with King David. The prophet used ambiguity. A choice story about the gross domination and abuse of a little lamb and the one who loved it worked better than any congressional hearing. So David ben Jesse heard the story which also, ambiguously, meant discovering meaning for his own life as well and meant changing the enemy in himself by making amends to all of those who he’d violated and by singing a new heart-wrenching song of recovery of joy and spirit (heavy on Steps 1, 2, and 3 of the 12 Steps of AA). And Suzanne McCarthy would write a series of posts on this Psalm of the Scriptures by which some of us began to find life meanings for ourselves, learning by ambiguous spiritual-life and love-of-enemy meanings. There are a few Hebrew or Greek or Latin words in Psalm 50 or 51 too; so as much as Aristotle would push for untranslated unambiguous Greek mainly for men only, we’ll look forward to English as well.

Our Time

As a further exercise in avoiding some ambiguity, in finding more meaning in life, and in learning to love, let’s do one more thing. Let’s listen to another choice story by a later son of David. Then you tell me if this is not, even ambiguously, a good feminist thing.

To listen, let’s just briefly reconsider Aristotle and ambiguity. And light. This is important.

Just as Aristotle taught his students to avoid ambiguity, he also told them to avoid choice stories. And he rather unambiguously pigeon-holed what he meant by choice stories: the ones Aesop told and the ones black story teller from Libya told. Why? Aristotle was smart, and smart enough to know that his logic and his observations of nature didn’t require him to get down from his high horse in the ivory tower of the academy. Choice stories that black people tell might be slick and might, therefore, compromise Aristotelian science and its power. So now we look at what Aristotle’s science observed about light: for Aristotle, light absolutely and unambiguously produced the color spectrum; and the addition of two distinct colors of light, namely original yellow light plus original blue light, will total a third, namely original green light. Absolutely logical, absolutely natural, absolutely unambiguous. Few scientists through the centuries following Aristotle have disagreed with him on light. But then comes Albert Einstein, who doesn’t completely disagree, but says “Hey, wait a minute. Let’s contemplate light more.” And Einstein says that light can be contemplated, ambiguously, as particle and/or as wave and/or as field (i.e., in relation to space and time). Then Kenneth Pike comes back into the room with us and says “Won’t you see how even Albert is above Aristotle’s logic here? And remember all those black people whose languages don’t even have or need many numbers at all? Person is above logic; person is above Aristotle’s abstract mathematical additions too. My monolingual demonstrations demonstrate that all the time.” Then Alan Lightman barges in saying “We scientists use Aristotle’s logic; we’re people too. We artists are more interested in choice stories. Yes, I’m an ambiguous person who writes like a scientist and who also writes like an artist. I wrote about that in my essay ‘The Physicist as Novelist’ which is the anchor leg essay in my book The Future of Spacetime in which I include an essay from my famous buddy Stephen William Hawking.” Then C. S. Lewis shouts out: “I was once an Aristotelian until God made me read Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Diety. Did you know Aristotle and Albert are just contemplating light even though the latter, yes ‘personally’ just like Ken and Alan too, contemplates light ambiguously? So we can contemplate light, and logic and math help some but these don’t always make us avoid ambiguity. But did you all know we can enjoy light too?

This is where Rabbi Joshua ben David (aka Jesus ben Joseph) steps in and tells a choice story in response to some men who are trying to avoid ambiguity, although they are both men of the cloth and are also morality lawyers. The choice story this time is about a woman contemplating numbers and enjoying light and finding meaning and sharing it with her friends.

And, ambiguously, it’s also a story about you, and about me, (if we have ears to hear). Enjoying requires such careful listening for our exercise in avoiding ambiguity. (The contemplators among us will surmise something technical, like, “Light is a metaphor” or something academic, like, “light is a heuristic—see the Greek scientific root--εὕρῃ καὶ εὑροῦσα?”) Once we’ve learned to love our enemies; once we’ve found the security that enables us to love ourselves; once we’ve begun to learn to love our neighbor like that; once we men have learned not to hoodwink women who are not our wives; once we women have learned that Aristotle’s nature isn’t how it is from the beginning; then we’ll know, much more safely, how to avoid ambiguity. Luke welcomes the Reb’s Aramaic into his own Greek (see his chapter 15, verses 8,9,10); and so I’ve welcomed Dr. Luke’s Greek into my own English. You’ll have to welcome the story for yourself. Listen; change your thinking:

ἢ τίς γυνὴ δραχμὰς ἔχουσα δέκα
ἐὰν ἀπολέσῃ δραχμὴν μίαν
οὐχὶ ἅπτει λύχνον
καὶ σαροῖ τὴν οἰκίαν
καὶ ζητεῖ ἐπιμελῶς ἕως οὗ εὕρῃ
καὶ εὑροῦσα
συγκαλεῖ τὰς φίλας καὶ γείτονας λέγουσα
συγχάρητέ μοι
ὅτι εὗρον τὴν δραχμὴν ἣν ἀπώλεσα


λέγω ὑμῖν

γίνεται χαρὰ
ἐνώπιον τῶν ἀγγέλων τοῦ θεοῦ
ἐπὶ ἑνὶ ἁμαρτωλῷ

Or there’s this woman with Greek silver coins, ten of them.
Should she lose a coin, even one of them; then what?
Won’t she enjoy turning on the lights then?
And will she even mind sweeping the house then?
And is it any burden at all for her to have to search until she finds it?
And then she, finding it,
calls together the neighbors and friends saying
party together with me
because I found the coin I lost.

That’s just like this ambiguity,”
is my statement to each one of you:

There’s birthed a party
right in front of the angels making God’s announcements
Whenever any single one who’s broken the moral law
begins changing his or her thinking.


Richard A. Rhodes said...

There's a lot in this post that I find myself agreeing with. But I'm going to take you to task for not teasing apart different kinds of ambiguities that have different communicative uses.

Let's start with Nathan. He wasn't using ambiguity. His story was crystal clear. No, he was using misdirection to help David see his situation objectively.

Jesus only rarely used parables like Nathan's. Mostly he used parables for another purpose, to help us see the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

Neither of these uses of language is ambiguity.

I'm perfectly willing to let you slide on the distinction between ambiguity and vagueness, precisely because the majority of the time when we say ambiguous in common parlance we mean vague. But I'm not going to let you slide on confusing ambiguity with indirectness.

Both kinds of parables, those that give distance and those that cast the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar are kinds of indirectness. In fact, they wouldn't work if the messages were vague -- like oracular pronouncements.

It seems to me that a big piece of what you are talking about is what the generative semantics crowd in the 1970's used to call "natural logic". There was a substantial literature about places where language doesn't quite behave the way the logicians want it to. For example, if in a certain class of promises behaves like the logician's if and only if.

If you mow the lawn, I'll give you $5.
(Not if P then Q, but iff P then Q)

That natural logic is a key part of placing person above Aristotelian logic. (Pike, BTW, simply wasn't interested in playing with generative semantics because he didn't believe in derivational approaches to language, so he never acknowledged natural logic, even though it was being worked on just down the hall from his office.)

My reason for drawing a line in the sand here is that if we get so sloppy in our terminology that we can't distinguish indirectness, (which can have a huge person component) from ambiguity/vagueness (which is often as much about not using language well as about people) then the linguists will have to hang up their morphemes and go home. And I'm not ready to abandon the playing field to the literature types yet.

J. K. Gayle said...

Wow, Rich. You almost used 20 words before you got to "But." Now, you've made me curious what you agree with me on. I do enjoy knowing what I should have said and really meant.

I certainly don't want to put a linguist out of a job (not even some old generative semanticist who may still try now and again to derive something like natural logic). Am I he?

So I’ll offer up some parables:

I didn't want to put an Honors Visiting Professor of Philosophy in a funk when he came here and heard me quoting Pike quoting Nelson Goodman saying "what we need is 'radical relativism within rigid restraints'; the Visiting Prof returned to his campus and promptly sent me an article he'd published against philosophical relativism in which he takes Goodman to task for using "relativism" when technically it's "pluralism" but without the nice alliteration of Goodman's Massachusetts growling /r/.

I also didn't want to put my Religion Professor friend in a funk when he invited me to his lecture series as the linguist on campus (pretty sad state, huh?) to talk about Religion and Language; my turn was the week after Robert Funk's "Jesus" seminar lecture so I started by asking the crowd of religionists here (pluralists mainly) to define "religion." When they wouldn't, a smart alecky divinity grad student offered "the definitive definition" for laughs, and then Islamicist prof relaxed everybody by following up more seriously saying that "to define religion risks excluding some." Having made my point by saying very little, I went ahead by quoting Pike quoting Goodman. And when I got to the "rigid restraints" part, I quoted Chomsky's definition of language as being something restricted to the human species and I quoted D.A. Carson from The Gagging of God who says that “drawing lines” in America has become rude which is a problem, he sees, for fighting pluralism. My argument was we may gag any person with unbounded pluralism but we’ll just as easily strangle them without radical ambiguities. The story ends with my Professor friend telling me he liked what I said “But.” “But, last summer in India I met and elephant named Emily and we had a conversation.” His quick testimony was intended to prove to me that my definition, Chomsky’s definition that I was quoted, was too confined.

Now my parable turns on myself. A modernist didn’t like the relativism and a pluralist didn’t like the restraints. And I don’t always make this stuff up. Sloppy language? Yes, I say let’s have a party! Invite the philosophers and the religionists and the literature types. Let’s also invite the linguists and the the rhetoricians. Scientists and lawyers can come too. I understand that language is very precious. And that Pike’s words are now written. “But.” So are Umberto Eco’s. So let’s welcome the non-Western African and Chinese scholars of his Anthropology of the West (and if anyone at our gathering dares confess they’ve read one of his novels, we will listen for his laugh as he agrees that what they thought he said and meant is now certainly what the work means and says.) BTW, neither Nathan nor Jesus used our English word parable with much definition at all. And will you let me keep on remembering Pike’s love for sloppy personal language? Those tribes without numbers don’t have dictionaries either; but they sure do have emic syntax, phons, and lexis. It might be more restrained or more ambiguous than we first imagined. We just have to listen more carefully, don't we?

Richard A. Rhodes said...

Since your new post moves the conversation on, let me make just a couple more observations.

First, humans always categorize. They must. It's built into perception at the very lowest level. Even amoebas turn analog into digital. Oh, the liquid over there is too salty, this over here is just right. The problem is not that we have categories but that we treat different from as less than.

Second, it's very hard for us to appreciate the values associated with ethnocentrism and imperialism. Do I think these things are wrong? Yes. Do I get to impose 21st century values on Ancient Greeks and Romans? It's not entirely clear. In some ways yes, there is a natural law, but in some ways no, Aristotle didn't set up the system, he just articulated it with editorial comments. You don't kill the journalist for reporting the war you oppose, even if he slants his news because he favors the war.

Oh yeah, if you're going to call Jesus by a Jewish name there is a wide range to choose from that strike the English ear in different ways:

Yeshua bar Yosef
Yeshua ben Yosef
Joshua Josefowitz
Joshua Joseph

(Joshua Josephson and Joshua Josephs both sound like they could be Gentile.)

This gives me an opportunity to chime in on Barnstone. My complaint about him is:

1) his Jewish translation is mostly about names and things, and

2) he's too in-your-face, making it Hasidic sounding (and too Biblish as well).

The Jewish community I grew up in was much more accommodating -- without losing their Jewishness. If I want a translation that emphasizes Jewishness, then call Jesus Joshua Josefowitz.

J. K. Gayle said...

First, agreed: "The problem is not that we have categories but that we treat different from as less than." One solution is acknowledging the subjective, as Pike and Jones Royster do. He uses monolingual demonstrations to to that, dynamically listening to the other at his prompting and constantly sifting through the etics and emics, never afraid of failing, always assuming the other person must be as friendly as he is (but not necessarily as mathematical--Pike never talked with the amoebas in their own language). She uses ethnographies, shining the light of her categories back down on and within herself even, as she uses the overlapping vocabularies of academic and academic's observed subject.

Second, agreed: "there is a natural law, but in some ways no, Aristotle didn't set up the system, he just articulated it with editorial comments. You don't kill the journalist for reporting the war you oppose, even if he slants his news because he favors the war." Out here in the once "wild wild west," the piano player in the saloon got shot inadvertently. If Aristotle was just a reporter or a piano player, then we'd all yell "INJUSTICE!" But he was a warrior and a gunslinging one too. There are others--like Sappho, and Miriam (yes, the sister of Moses, the woman from Magdela, the mother of apostles James and John, the wife of Cleopas, the sister of Lazarus, the mother of John Mark, the woman Paul mentions in his epistle to the Romans 16:6, and the mother of Jesus)--whose methods of knowing and of talking did not include killing.

Oh yeah, since we bring up Jesus, like Miriam, the name can refer to other people to, like Jesus Barabbas who Pilate offers up as the alternative Jesus for crucifixion. Rich, I say complain on about Barnstone here! He would have been right just to stop after complaining that "Jesus" and "Mary" are too Christianized and now enough Hebrew--his new testament makeover is only skin deep, and it forgets that Greek language/ culture actually tells the new Hebrew tale. Among all your good variants, I like your Joshua Josefowitz! :) And it's Joshua because that's the name of the hero who the sixth book of the JPS 1917 Anglified Hebrew bible is named after; and it's the son of Jehozadak in JPS Haggai chapter 1 too. Lot's of ambiguity/ vagueness / N-dimensionality and connectedness in just the one name.