Uit: Language in Thought and Action, door S.I. Hayakawa.

Chapter 10 

Chasing Oneself in Verbal Circles

In other words, the kind of "thinking" we must be extremely wary of is that which never leaves the higher verbal levels of abstraction, the kind that never points down the abstraction ladder to lower levels of abstraction and from there to the extensional world:

  "What do you mean by democracy?"
"Democracy means the preservation of human rights."
"What do you mean by rights?"
"By rights I mean those privileges God grants to all of us-I mean man's inherent   
"Such as?"
"Liberty, for example."
"What do you mean by liberty?"
"Religious and political freedom."
"And what does that mean?"
"Religious and political freedom is what we enjoy under a democracy."

Of course it is possible to talk meaningfully about democracy, as Jefferson and Lincoln have done, as Frederick Jackson Turner does in The Frontier in American History (1950), as Karl R. Popper does in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1950), as T. V. Smith and Eduard Lindeman do in The Democratic Way of Life (1939) - to name only the first examples that come to mind. The trouble with speakers who never leave the higher levels of abstraction is not only that their audiences fail to notice when they are saying something and when they are not; but also that they themselves lose their ability to discriminate. Never coming down to earth, they frequently chase themselves around in verbal circles, unaware that they are making meaningless noises.
    This is by no means to say that we must never make extensionally meaningless noises. When we use directive language, when we talk about the future, when we utter ritual language or engage in social conversation, we often make utterances that have no extensional verifiability. It must not be overlooked that our highest ratiocinative and imaginative powers are derived from the fact that symbols are independent of things symbolized, so that we are free not only to go quickly from low to extremely high levels of abstraction (from "canned peas" to "groceries" to "commodities" to "national wealth") and to manipulate symbols even when the things they stand for cannot be so manipulated ("If all the freight cars in the country were hooked up to each other in one long line. . ."), but we are also free to manufacture symbols at will even if they stand only for abstractions made from other abstractions and not for anything in the extensional world. Mathematicians, for example, often play with symbols that have no extensional content, just to find out what can be done with them; this is called "pure mathematics." And pure mathematics is far from being a useless pastime, because mathematical systems that are elaborated with no extensional applications in mind often prove to be applicable later in useful and unforeseen ways. But when mathematicians deal with extensionally meaningless symbols, they usually know what they are doing. We likewise must know what we are doing.
    Nevertheless, all of us (including mathematicians), when we speak the language of everyday life, often make meaningless noises without knowing that we are doing so. We have already seen what confusions this can lead to. The fundamental purpose of the abstraction ladder, as shown in both this chapter and the next, is to make us aware of the process of abstracting.

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