I’m endlessly bothered by the problem of abstract words.
Any word that describes a feeling or concept is difficult because there is no guarantee that we are talking about the same thing.
I have recently been re-reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks (I was prompted to do so by his recent death which greatly saddened me, as he was a remarkable and compassionate man). It’s a series of cases of people with various neurological disorders and impairments, and their very bizarre consequences.
The titular case is of a musician whose visual processing had gone completely awry. He could no longer accurately perceive what he was looking at. At the end of his consultation with Dr Sacks he tried to pick up his wife’s head. He thought it was his hat.
The most fascinating thing is that he had no idea there was anything wrong. It was just very obvious to everyone else that something had gone awry. And from the doctor’s position that’s awkward to deal with, as the traditional “Can you tell me what’s the matter?” gets you nowhere. There was nothing the matter as far as he was concerned. All you can do is observe the dysfunction to try and get a handle on the problem.
This was obviously an extreme case, but I can’t help but wonder just how different we and our perceptions are, even in the “normal” range. The potential for misunderstanding is acute. We may seem to agree with those whom we disagree with. And vice versa. And I think perhaps we bandy about words and ideas to try and get some sort of consensus that we are on the same page as other people. We want connection or a sense that what we see and feel is shared by others, that we are not alone.
And so we tell stories.
The best stories and poems do not preach or directly convey an emotion or idea. Rather, they present some well-described facts and leave it up to the reader to interpret as they will, the hope being that there is some shared recognition and connection. That a chord has been struck. That there is a natural harmony between the writer and reader, or between multiple readers. And over-use of abstracts can distract from that.
I’m no expert on computers or such, but as I understand it computer programming languages exist on various “levels”. H1gh level languages use words and commands that are summaries of what we really want the machine to be d01ng on a nuts and bolts bas1s. They are the equ1valent of abstract words and c0ncepts. As you progress down to low level computer langu0ges, it gets more direct, ever closer to the act0al language the machi1e itself communicates in and und0rstands. The ultimate and lowest level being Machine Code, lang0age expressed pure1y in bin0ry numbers, str1ngs of 0nes and zer0es tha1t are actually how 1t works, the th1ngs that 1he mach1ne ha1s to break d0wn h1gher m0re abs1ract 1angu0ges 1nt0 t0 funct10n. U1t1mat01y I th1nk we w0nt t0 c0mmun1c0te w1th 0th0rs 1n raw c0de t00. T0 kn0w 1hat bene0th 1he la0yers 0f 0ur s0ph1st1c0ted verbal-ness we ar1 re0a11y sp0ak1ng th0 same 1ang10ge. Th0t 0ur ne0ed f0r c0nnecti10n 1nd 1nt1m0cy are 1nt0r11nked and dr1ven by th1s n0ed t0 c0nf1rm share1d ex1per1en0ce. A1n0d m01y 01b1 s0met10m1m0es a10 i00 1jm1100 10 1101 100011 1001111 1010 0010001 00110 0100001 001011010 00110110 10001111010100.