The asymmetry of the indescribable

Like the itchy label in my shirt, there’s something which has been niggling away at the back of my mind, ever since I started being exposed to ‘academic fields’, and boundaries between ‘subjects’ (probably as a young child). I’m sure others have expressed it much better, and, ironically, it probably has a name itself, and a whole discipline devoted to studying it.

It’s this:
The set of things/ideas/concepts/relationships/solutions/sets that have been named/defined is much, much, much smaller than the set of actual things/ideas/concepts/relationships/solutions/sets.

And yet without a name or definition for what you’re researching, you’ll find it difficult to research it, or at least to tell anyone what you’re doing. The set of things we can comprehend researching is thus limited to what we’ve already defined.

How do we ever advance, then? Are we not just forever sub-dividing the same limited field with which we’re already familiar? Or am I missing something? Is this a kind of (obvious) generalisation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Relating it to my current research, as I ought to, the problems of choice architecture, defaults, framing, designed-in perceived affordances and so on are clearly special cases of the idea: the decision options people perceive as available to them can be, and are, used strategically to limit what decisions people make and how they understand things (e.g. Orwell’s Newspeak). But whether it’s done deliberately or not, the problem exists anyway.

6 thoughts on “The asymmetry of the indescribable”

  1. If you’re in search of a term, how about ‘Philological Cladistics’ to describe the exploration of ways in which knowledge/fields-of-study can be compartmentalised (also see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_decimal), and ‘Philological determinism’ to describe how any compartmentalisation inhibits interdisciplinary exploration.

    I ain’t saying these are good terms but they could serve as a start, and it’s possible that as you improve them you’ll stumble across other’s who have been here before – given they may well have arrived at the same names.

    Even language is a problem, as it creates quasi-parallel universes of knowledge.

    Perhaps one day, Google will give you the option to search with auto-translated search terms in pages of all other languages? Or alternatively, to also search with your English terms in auto-translated web pages from all other languages?

  2. I don’t think “unavailable for research” follows from “difficult to research”. You seem to be describing the simple fact that trying new things is difficult: you don’t know what you’re looking for, nobody knows what you’re talking about, and it takes a special kind of a head case to push through anyway. Compartmentalization is both an aide and a crutch, first one and then the other. New things want boxes, old things want out.

  3. Consider Andy Clark’s ideas. (For example “Language, embodiment, and the cognitive niche” Trends in Cognitive Science 10:8.)

    He describes language as a “self-constructed cognitive niche, persisting but never stationary material scaffolding”. While we have created select categories that guide and limit us (combinatorially it could not be otherwise), we continually create new categories as extensions of our niche that demand exploration.

    Clark describes the dynamics of this process: our brains are a “fundamentally fluid system” for which the most pressing problem is stabilization. “Words and linguistic strings are among the most powerful and basic tools that we use to discipline and stabilize dynamic processes of reason and recall.”

    These ideas have become very productive in cognitive science, and are themselves an example of how insights become named, useful categories of thought.

    So there’s really no problem imagining new categories in flights of fancy. The problem is bringing them into currency, as architectures of (mutual) control.

  4. I’m not sure, but I guess Clark’s notions of embodied reason partially build on Lakoff & Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999) who fundamentally make the argument all our abstract reasoning is a metaphorical translation & recombination of basic sensori-motor schemata and basic categories of our embodied experience (things like above/below, in front/behind, left/right, warm/cold, is-contained-in, categories like hammer, chair, bed, dog, etc.).

    To me, there seems to be little limit in the creative power of translation, recombination, blending — think what feats of creativity mere recombinations of DNA or atoms pull off. Think of neologisms, think of poetic metaphors for new phenomena becoming stale everyday expressions. To sense/grasp something for which there is no word, that’s precisely what the words “je ne sais quoi” are for :).

    On a sociological/history and philosophy of science note, Foucault repeatedly made the point that “becoming an object of knowledge”, and epistemic entity, involved a contingent mass of phenomena being carved out as a figure from the ground of the milling mass of experience by virtue of being named. The poststructuralist twist to that is that the name not only gives rise to a new phenomenon, but also reduces and pegs it to the boundaries of the once-solidified concept, and obscures the contingency of its definition. “Sorting Things Out” by Star & Bowker (1999) is a nice current rendering of that argument on the power of categories and classifiction systems. What if your health record form has no entry option for “gay/lesbian/transsexual”? What are the effects of these three being thrown into one category? etc.

    Richard Rorty coined “vocabulary” for what you mean. Progress or “paradigm shifts” happens when someone invents a new vocabulary to describe the same phenomena. And being the good relativist that he is, Rorty holds that new vocabularies do not win over because they are truer, explain more phenomena, etc., but simply because they are more interesting.

    So yes, the terminology and theory sets of our own scientific discipline do shape in powerful ways our thinking and communicating about any object of study. That’s what qualitative methods like Grounded Theory are for: to enter the as-of-yet-untheorized into our conceptual zoo.

  5. “To sense/grasp something for which there is no word, that’s precisely what the words “je ne sais quoi” are for”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t know much French. In English, if you please?

    “What if your health record form has no entry option for “gay/lesbian/transsexual”? What are the effects of these three being thrown into one category? etc.”

    I’m rather more interested in “What are the effects of drawing on an additional checkbox, labeled none of your damn beeswax, and checking it”. :)

  6. If you posit “the set of things we can comprehend researching is thus limited to what we’ve already defined.

    How do we ever advance, then? Are we not just forever sub-dividing the same limited field with which we’re already familiar? ”

    Perhaps you are looking for an Ontology specific to your research field in which you could borrow words from other domains to semi-describe what you can not presently describe. With use it will gain meaning in context.

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