ALL THAT IS
994 words by Stanley Lieber
Violet used her stylus to press against the reflective surface of her school leaf. Presently, a margin message from Missus Camilla appeared, signaling the class to begin writing.
Words are insufficient to communicate all that is.
Having 'a problem' with this would imply that I think any other state of affairs is remotely possible. The fact is that I have to accept my best current thinking on the subject, and right now I haven't come up with any reasonable counter to the observation that language is inescapably circular. To me, this means that at best we can only approximate The Truth at any given moment -- and since we can't make these determinations with any significant certainty (e.g., to judge the accuracy of our approximations), 'A' can only equal 'A' on a localized, individual level.
And yet, 'A=A' is the fundamental assertion of logic. I think there is a tendency to try and expand too far upon this basic construction. The subjective assumptions applied by logic tests too often outpace language's ability to accurately map the salient factors at hand. Too much emphasis is placed upon how the logic is articulated, with very little attention paid to the structure of the logic itself -- which, presumably, should transcend the language that was used to describe it.
This presents an interesting -- I'd say insurmountable -- problem, and was essentially the point of my previous two papers. 'A=A.' Fine. But what the hell is an A? And who says so? The answer is that it all depends on who you ask.
I don't think the fact that we have managed to evolve grammars which are effective at managing objects and activities, effective at managing the processes of machines, even, is evidence that those grammars are universally descriptive of our entire shared reality. Success in a single, limited area does not imply universal success on a grand scale, even if many times a simple set of rules can exhibit emergent behaviors that transcend the original description.
Consider the following stories. Observe how these seemingly correct articulations of reality work at cross-purposes to the protagonist's intentions, yet still manage to exhibit a peculiar efficacy all their own:
1.) Occupied Poland. A man held a job at a stroller factory. His child needed a stroller. Being short on money, and being handy with his tools, the man decided to steal all the necessary parts from his workplace and assemble the stroller at home. Wary of arousing suspicion, he limited himself to absconding with only a single component each night. After many such nights, the man took an inventory and noticed that he had managed to acquire almost all of the parts on his list. Finally completing the assembly, the man discovered that instead of a new stroller for his son he had assembled a fully functional, modular sub-machine gun.
Does this mean that a stroller is in fact the very same thing as a sub-machine gun? After all, the man had worked in the factory for many years and was quite experienced at his job (which consisted chiefly of speed-buffing several types of polished parts as they came whizzing past his station on an assembly line). In this case, the value of 'A' was at first disputed; then investigated; and finally, revised. In the end, would it have been sufficient to simply continue referring to the finished product as a stroller? Why or why not?
2.) A radical priest gains increasing infamy with the native residents of a Roman-occupied garrison town in Jerusalem. After he has been put to death by a civilian court -- administered by his own people, no less -- a cult religion springs up around him, and a legend begins to solidify around the memory of his living days. Indeed, the legend glorifies even the most mundane aspects of his life. His story is at first spread verbally, but is eventually written down by various scribes, disparate of geography and generation, who never quite managed to cross paths with the priest or his followers. (Granted, when the priest was supposedly executed, the scribes in question had yet to be born.)
I'm sure you can follow this one to its obvious conclusion. After a certain point, the language used to describe a legend begins to transcend the actual events, to take on a life of its own. The events themselves remain unobserved, wholly obscured from view. At best: irrelevant.
The above are clearly examples which reinforce the notion that all languages are tautologies. For this reason, 'A=A' can only apply universally when the definition of 'A' is immutable, cannot be tampered with as it travels from one side of the equation to the other. (This fact does tend to break the discussion into many different levels, including questions of control over so-called shared languages [e.g., dictionaries, popular idiom], but the problem of complexity comes part and parcel with the problem of precision.) 'A=A' may well be subjectively true, but the equation is necessarily based upon assumptions that may be incorrect. The uncomfortable truth about our knowledge of the world is that it is almost always filtered through a mediating source of questionable benevolence. Think about that. The ultimate impossibility of neutrality. Even if we momentarily eschew the likelihood of intentional misrepresentation, we must accept that once language escapes our minds and begins to interact with the language of others, we lose personal control over its context and meaning. At this point, rationally, we should acknowledge that we can no longer verify that 'A' means what we think it does. Thus, we come to glimpse the limitations of logic itself.
Language initiates us into a special kind of 'cargo cult.' We scramble, frothing at the mouth like so many tropical savages, attempting to reenact a Reality that we're just certain we've experienced, all in the vain hope that we might someday entice that Reality to return to us, laden with crates full of movie reels, Coca-Cola, and fresh cartons of cheap American cigarettes. At that point, we presume, we'd all be farting through silk.