Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Naming

Nature mocks at human categories.
—Harold Bold, taxonomist

But Nature's mockery doesn't stop us from naming. Assigning names seems to be a fundamental human process, at least since the creation of language. We name because we perceive differences, and only when we perceive differences. The naming is itself a symptom of our perception, and differences in names reflect differences in perception.

We've all heard the classic example of the Eskimo's many names for snow. Similarly, it is said that certain African peoples have 90 words for that which we would call "green." Certain teenagers can name make/model/year on anything others would be content to call a car. We name what we know, and what we need to know. Perceiving and naming, therefore, are not abstract events but participatory.

Our concept of reality is less absolute than we like to believe, a little more fluid relative to time and space—and the individual—than we care to admit. It is said that Goethe refused to wear glasses because to do so would modify his unique way of seeing things, his reality. This may work fine if you're in the majority, but what if (as we say) you see things differently. Applying a least-common-denominator approach means that your personal vision may be limited in some areas, perhaps enhanced in others, in the attempt to conform to a cultural mold.

For the last few hundred years, that cultural mold has been dominated by a particulate approach, and we've wandered through the world blithely assigning names to the discrete physical objects (and less tangible internal emotions and processes) as we perceive them. We've gone well beyond the pragmatics of naming to a mind-game we call labeling. Because our ability to perceive minute distinctions is undergoing a technological explosion,* we have to learn to ask when a label or name is useful and when it merely creates confusion. When we create names based on our technical ability to do so rather than on any human perception or need, we are amplifying distinctions that we cannot use.

The more we look for differences, the more we find. We're so intent on our search for differences, we no longer perceive similarities and relationships, and we have few words to describe them when we do.

In the same way that naming makes a thing or an idea real to us, not naming makes things, and especially ideas, somehow unreal. An unreal thing, not part of consensual reality, is easy to miss, and to dismiss. For lack of a name, we've been missing the vision and experience of wholeness, interconnectedness, that we desperately need right now.

Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.

—Lao Tsu

Originally written in 1989, * before DNA testing made even finer distinctions possible.

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