Identifying Terms, Identifying With Terms, and Being Identified By Terms
The Art of “Giving Names to Things” and an Essay on the Pros and Cons of Terms and Labels as They Relate to Understanding, Communication, and Identity Politics
We discuss “giving names to concepts” (defining terms), identifying with terms, be identified by terms, and the implications of this.
In other words, we describe the mechanics and implications of “giving names to things” from ideological labels, to functions, to symbolic terms used to describe complex philosophical concepts, in relation to everything from categorizing human understanding, to communication, to Identity politics.
NOTE: A symbol is anything that stands for something else; our language is symbolic in that we use semantic symbols to communicate. When we “give a name” to an unnamed concept, we are anchoring meaning to a symbol. This is true in terms of communication, but the implications span far beyond this. When people identify with symbols as collectives, and they thus create a belief system out of that, and we get Identity politics and Civil religion.
ARISTOTLE, KANT, AND MARX: Aristotle’s Categories, Kant’s related work, and Marx’s work all “give names to things.” Giving Marx’s whole theory the name “Communism” works well in the context of Marx, it allows us to say much with one symbol (or sign), but the results of him doing this are complex. The collective anchoring of ideas and emotions to the term over time, and the resulting Identity politics and Civil religion, have a host of complexities to consider. This essay is meant to lead you from the simple origin of terms to the vast results of the practice.
An Example to Summarize the Argument
For an example of the above, we can, via an examination of humans as political animals, give a name to the naturally occurring ideology of “liberty and equality” and call it “liberalism,” and likewise, detect and give a name to its related form of government and call it “democracy.”
Giving names to these concepts can help us understand and discuss politics, and in this way, the convention is useful for both the individual and the collective.
However, this is a double edged sword (and only because we don’t want to consider an impossible object with a matrix of edges).
Over time, terms becomes labels to affiliate with.
As factions form around those labels, and people pledge their loyalty to the labels, they form a commitment bias along with personal and collective identities. The terms then become imbued with new emotional and complex meanings over time, and thus we can begin to see the negative aspects.
Here we can say that symbols and emotions and concepts are “anchored” to other symbols (like our terms). I can anchor a term with propaganda, a smart documentary, cultural phenomena like viral memes, mass media, or published studies. This is a big problem because something that most people haven’t given “a term” to is a major mechanic at play in our understanding and communication! Yikes or “Oh Dear” as they say.
In communication, if we use terms like “Democrat” and “Liberal” without defining exactly what we mean each time we use the terms, we risk miscommunication and misunderstanding.
The problem is that these labels are complex symbols imbued with deep meaning and often anchored to other symbols and deep emotions in a matrix. See how our memory works. Associating things in a matrix in the same was as a thesaurus associated words is a way for us to anchor words, emotions, and sensory data to sensory data.
Given this, the labels/terms/symbols we use in communication are subject to misinterpretation. They can elicit the strong emotional responses we might talk about in the change, adaptation, resistance conversation; strong emotions aren’t always useful in open-minded, accurate debate and information transference. In fact, people can “shut off” in the presence of emotions.
The grand effect is that the use and association of a term/label/symbol can lead people to project an implicit bias against a term onto its user, potentially disregarding their whole argument and being, reinforcing their bias in the process.
From this arises an essay of complexity.
We can’t say all the pros and cons and complexities in an introduction, but this is the gist of the door that opens the rabbit hole.
Now that you have the gist let’s explore each aspect in detail. We’ll start by discussing the core of the general concept, “giving names to things.”
TIP: To put this in music terms: If someone says “what type of music do you like” and you say “rock,” they will hear in their head what they think rock is and associate that with you. They decided what your music sounded like based on the information you gave. This likely resulted in miscommunication. If, in coding, one doesn’t define a function properly, then recalling it delivers an error. There are lots of metaphors that work here.
TIP: By “labels” we mean “names for things” or “symbols for things” (they are things that stand for something else; in this case, generally names or phrases that have deeper meanings). See An Introduction to the Idea of Language as Symbolism.
TIP: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke expressed all these ideas. While Locke wasn’t busy inventing liberalism and helping to inspire our modern western government, he said everything one can say about language in 1689. So let’s call “beating someone to the punch by 300+ years” “Lockean.” Wait, that term is already defined as pertaining to John Locke, and now we are imbuing it with new meaning. That is a bound to be confusing, and thus an example of the complexity of language.
Giving Names to Things
To discuss something properly, it helps to name it.
That can mean labeling a concept, an abstraction of an existing concept, or theory.
Without naming it, it is hard to discuss.
Sometimes names arise naturally, or semi-naturally, like the modern term “meme.” Someone has to come up with a sensical name that describes the concept and sticks. This is typically provided alongside a definition and an argument for it being “true” or “useful.”
The process is one of taking a symbol and imbuing it with meaning, defining a function, and then using a label to communicate a complex idea.
The term patriotically correct comes to mind as an example, and in this vein, our concept “virtues of political correctness” comes to mind as well. Another example is E = mc^2, or “the mass-energy equivalence” equation. Both the equation and the name of the equation can be thought of as labels, symbols, or terms that represent a complex and deep subject.
Perhaps the best examples of this are found in the works of philosophers including Plato and Aristotle and Immanuel Kant.
Although each of the thinkers mentioned above pulls ideas from their environment in the form of texts, culture, boxes, or other languages, we can make a number of observations.
- Plato gave names to the governments to describe who ruled them and how they were ruled.
- Aristotle described metaphysics as “that which comes after physics.”
- Kant gave names to epistemological concepts like A priori and a posteriori to differentiate between truths independent of experience and dependent and gave names to moral concepts like the Categorical Imperative.
- Hume gave a name to tautology to describe necessary truths that use more than one word to effectively say the same thing.
- Bentham gave a name to the Greeks’ Greatest Happiness Theory. Then Mill popularized the concept as utilitarianism.
- Someone had to define Locke’s non-aggression as the NAP.
- Hobbes first popularized the terms “state of nature” and “the social contract.”
- Marx made up words for his classist and economic concepts, just as someone had to first use the term Wert or Worth.
- Smith called the driver of Free-Markets from his moral theory, “moral sentiment” and used the term “invisible hand.”
- We also have Newtonian physics, and relativity, and mass-energy, photons, the standard model, spacetime, etc.
There are countless examples for the following process here.
- Identify a form or an effect, a concept, theory, duality abstraction of an existing form, a model, etc.
- Define and describe its empirical and logical features.
- Give it a name that works pulling from history if it makes sense. TIP: The first to give a name has “naming rights,” assuming their name sticks.
- The word is then put it to use in science, philosophy, argument, conversation, and debate.
Whether it is emjoi, meme, mass-energy, Timarchy, or the Categorical Imperative, giving names to things is important.
We can see a ball and touch a ball and thus we can expect ball has a name. However, of a moral concept or a more ethereal form of logic or metaphysics, this is not always the case.
There are things that aren’t purely physical, but that exist, affecting us as we speak, that are still unnamed.
Although it isn’t technically necessary, it helps to give something a name before we can talk about it, and no one is going to adopt a name if a precise definition, aren’t given to show its importance and existence along with some arguments and proofs.
This is a strange concept, despite being a slightly obvious, but important none-the-less. Nothing more to say on it.
Oh wait, we should probably name it, er, “naming system,” or “epistemological naming convention?” Perhaps “metalogical naming system” because it sounds important and Kantian. Lets go with that; even though it is a little non-sensical.
Now we have a “formal and informal (as in how the naming convention is created) metalogical (a thing of reason and logic) naming systems that enable us to store and recall them.”
The Problem with Labels: Using Labels Without Defining Them First
When writing code, you define a function and then you “call” the function. You don’t define the function each time you want to use it.
The same is true for language. Instead of explaining mass-energy equivalence, I use the term, and we know what I’m talking about, assuming we both have done our physics homework.
As we saw above, a label can be very useful. We can name things to make a single word or phrase symbolic of deep and even unique ideas, but this also leads us to some problems.
Namely, in some fields, a single term is going to have deep semantic meaning, sometimes even more than one conflicting meaning dependent on differing theories, opinions, understandings, and “anchored emotions.”
If we use the term “Climate Change,” or better yet “Global Warming,” we will see the process in action. If you are a staunch conservative, you are probably busy dismissing me and forming biases; if you are a liberal, maybe you appreciate me a little more. The problem is, many labels are loaded with properties.
Given the complexity of some terms, and the fact that we tend to use the term as is rather than go deep into defining it in each use, in conversation we constantly risk misrepresenting ourselves.
By not properly defining our terms, we leave room for misunderstanding and allow room for others to insert meaning onto our terms.
This can result in a complex process where we associate that person with what that term means to us. We equate our bias against an aspect of the term with the person, projecting our feelings onto them and the content of what they are saying.
They say, “Climate Change is a Hoax.” I hear “Aggression toward my deepest held beliefs.” I’m projecting every frustration about the climate change argument since Gore onto them. I am dismissing any fact or figure they give; anything they will say next is tainted by a few labels and a few loaded symbols.
If I say “I am a liberal” and then make an argument, then the receiver relates that to what they know about liberalism.
If that person is staunchly conservative, or just got riled up about politics, they may then anchor their frustration and understanding of liberalism to me and my argument.
On the other hand, if I say “I am a liberal, and by that I mean X, Y, and Z and thus Q,” then I have used the term and defined the function for this use. Then, my character and argument are imbued more-so with what I have said the term means, not only what that person thinks.
This brings us to the idea of association and identity politics. Speaking of “liberal,” the term is well defined here, but not everyone who associates with the term is going to have that same definition. Instead, many people band together around an idea and have it mean different things to them. Identifying a thing can be good, and identifying with a thing can be good, but you can see how each offers complexities when things get over simplified. You can get crucified for the actions of a group in more ways than one, and you can get your group crucified by imbuing terms with meaning beyond what has been given.
Thus, while the naming of things can be very helpful, one should remember that using a term comes with all the weight that the other person prescribes to it.
TIP: The internet has a big advantage, here I can link. I can say I am a liberal, in the way I describe here. However, this speaks to a question “is it intellectual laziness to link and cite labels rather than to speak clearly and define arguments and terms?” Is it lazier to say “I’m a liberal” than it is to describe that for me that means “a humanist desire to maximize liberty and equality, using authority and law and order and state power as needed, but within the bounds of reason, in the spirit of Mill’s utilitarian theory, sort of like a more centered Teddy Roosevelt, and Mill was this, and Teddy this, and utilitarian theory for me is this, for example…” Yes, in one respect it is “lazy” not to be descriptive. In another respect, it is a matter of an economy of words. If I just say “I’m a liberal,” then it is up to the other person to decide what that means. If I spout off my entire philosophy to every person I meet, that has its own obvious problems.
Why it is Harder to Debate Ethics and Metaphysics than Logic and Physics
The above speaks to why it can seem harder to debate politics and metaphysics than logic and science.
For one, terms used in politics and metaphysics are more semantic and less tangible.
If I say F=ma, then I mean force equals mass times acceleration.
If I say, “the point of life is happiness,” then either I need to define happiness and what “the point of life” means. I need to provide empirical and reason-based evidence to support my argument, or I leave the defining up to my audience. In this case, that option leaves a lot of leeway for miscommunication.
Now if I am communicating with someone who thinks the point of life is “to do what one wills,” I have also to face the fact that we don’t agree on either terms or outcomes.
Now, if I’m in a setting where my view is “faith X” and theirs is “faith Y” and our careers and identity depend on us being right, then we have a whole other level of problems. Neither one of us will want to hear data and facts that prove us wrong. If we do accept some data, we will always be thinking “how does that fit my argument.”
When all this becomes too much and when we have anchored together their terms, identity, and argument we can then simply dismiss it all at once.
Here, had I not used labels, had I not attached an identity to my politics (had we remained independent), then we would not have been so easily dismissed. The problem comes when others take our arguments, and implicitly anchor it to a label to it, and then react with a bias based on that.
If I say, “climate change is a man-made crisis,” then you might assume I’m a “liberal,” “left-wing,” and “progressive.” You would probably associate this view with “supports the EPA,” “voted for Obama,” and “eats Kale,” Sure, you may or may not be wrong, but the problem is that you defined those terms for me. I did not define my own terms; I did choose my identity. When you dismiss my facts and my arguments, it creates a strange paradox.
We can argue the best way to build a bridge, but ultimately the bridge either works or it doesn’t.
It is hard to BS your way to an engineering degree.
When they send a rocket to space, Musk doesn’t play politics with the rocket fuel based on ideology, but when we debate the theoretical and emotional, things get much less clear.
However, in politics and metaphysics, things are more theoretical, and people often revert to arguments over labels and principles instead of facts and data.
When building a bridge, the goal is to build a bridge.
In politics, the ideological goal for a given side may be completely different than the other (one wants to limit government and save money, the other wants to provide more healthcare).
When people hold emotional ideas closely to them, they can tend to get sensitive and “politically correct” about labels, losing a tolerance for other ideas, forming opinions based on their bias instead of facts.
In business people look for data, in semantic and emotional subjects where confirmation bias has long since taken over, people aren’t looking for data; they are looking for confirmation of their viewpoint.
If one can reject data due to labels rather than facing a point head on, it is much easier on the brain…. and the human brain is a very efficient thing.
TIP: The above point shows some ways in which the Policy Paradox (that policy that should be based on reason is not always based on the rational. Politics is a debate of ideologies and principles, but a policy is a thing of facts, figures, and specifics. There isn’t always room for debating facts and figures when they are already anchored to loaded terms, ideologies, and principles. Just because someone is debating crime rates and solving the crime problem doesn’t mean anyone is talking about crime or looking for data that will change their opinion. This is to say, anchoring meaning to a symbol can be useful, but identifying with symbols and using them to convey meaning has some complications. This is especially true in the politics where the politics of things can detract from conversations and implementations of actual policy.
TIP: Symbols aren’t just imbued with meaning, they are imbued with emotional responses. One person’s Trash is another person’s treasure and vice versa. I may be proud to be a liberal, but if need to define exactly what I mean. If I do not, the person who is “triggered by the idea of liberalism” is going to be that much more likely to attach their feelings on the matter to me and toss out any arguments I make or facts I present, attaching those to the argument along the way.