"The Tyranny of Words"





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Uploaded on Aug 27, 2010

This is my first video, reviewing one of my favorite books, "The Tyranny of Words" By Stuart Chase. First published in 1938, the book focuses on the discipline of "semantics", which is simply the study of meaning in language.

Some basic ideas presented in the book are:

-Communication based on "referents": A referent is the object to which a word refers. For example, "dog", "perro", and "chien", all refer to the same object (a specific animal) in English, Spanish, and French respectively. They all have the same referent. True communication can only happen when two people are using the same referents. If they don't, there is the danger of misunderstanding.
-Confusing words with things: A common mistake in communication is mistaking a word for the thing it represents (the referent). This leads to things like "word magic", common in many tribal traditions, where possessing the word gives one power over the thing (i.e. cursing someone's name instead of cursing the person.) Of course we know that curses aren't real anyway, but similar mistakes can cause all sorts of trouble.
-The Dangers of Abstracts: When something doesn't have a physical referent, or has a referent that's difficult to pin down, like "Fascism", "justice", "liberty", "the sublime", etc., there is an ever increasing danger of miscommunication. The higher the order of abstraction, the greater the danger. Chase points out that these high order abstractions are abundant in politics, philosophy, and economics.
-The Operational Approach: Questions must be subject to some kind of operation (usually scientific) that can be used to find their answers. Questions that can't be answered because we don't have the tools to perform the necessary operations are semantically irrelevant. Examples of such questions might be "Are there parts of nature that will remain forever beyond our detection?", "Is there life after death?", "What is truth?", "What is the nature of 'the soul'?". These are questions that deal with high-order abstractions that are beyond our ability to analyze, yet people have been persuaded to go to war over such things. You'll find that many a political speech, economic explanation, or philosophical problem is riddled with concepts that aren't subject to operations.
-A look at the works of some of the pioneers of semantics, where they agree and disagree
-An examination of the meaning US Constitution, and a critique of legal and legislative semantics, and the "magical properties of Law"
-Some suggestions for clearing the line of communication in conversation and how to avoid being swept up by semantic manipulation

Everyone gets their turn with Chase: scientists, mathematicians, logicians, philosophers, economists (three separate times), judges, and politicians. Reading it made me realize where the essence of human communication lies and how so many people don't have the whole picture. It also revealed some of the reasons people get stuck in fixed patterns of thought and how easy it is be manipulated by words even if there's no intent to mislead.

Just some last notes on the book itself: because it is from a slightly different era (Stuart Chase lived from 1888-1985), and the somewhat formal nature of the subject matter, the caliber of language (vocabulary, sentence length/structure) is a bit higher than I first bargained for. It's easy to adjust to after a while. The chapters are long, but most are broken into smaller sections. The writing is engaging, and Chase has a nice sense of humor in his writing style. I hope you'll take the time to read it. Everything you read after that will become illuminated in a very empowering way.

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Music: Haydn - Sonata Hob.XVI No.27 - II. Menuetto
From: http://www.musopen.com/

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