Meaninglessness; Inside and Out

Insecurity, invagination, in and out of doors, outdoors, property, maps; we have already discussed many topics in a short amount of class time. So many topics that it has already become both easy to find something to write about and difficult to keep a post within the extension of the word “comprehensible.”  And in a sense that’s what I want to talk about; the term “extension.”

The word extension has a list of definitions but the one I want to focus on is the one that is used in the discipline of Logic: “The range of a term or concept as measured by the objects which it denotes or contains.” Okay, so what does this have to do with anything?

Well, in an overtly simple way it has to do with everything because any term we use or read has an extension and thus carries with it specific “objects which it denotes or contains.” How about the term “madness?”  Here the word has three major definitions. The first is “the state of having a serious mental illness.” We might be willing to say that King Lear has a mental illness that could be called madness. Whatever the reasons for this mental illness it is important whether or not we can call it madness. Let’s complicate the word; can we say that Edgar is in a state of madness? Most of the characters that encounter him disguised as poor-Tom interpret him to be mad, but what does this do to the definition of the term? If King Lear and Edgar are mad then we have to include in the definition of madness “acting out the symptoms of a serious mental illness.” Or we could say that Edgar’s madness fits under the definition of “extremely foolish behavior.” But if he is acting this way in order to save his own life then can we really call him “foolish?” And if we can, then what does that do to the definition of foolish? A similar issue comes when considering gender roles and familial roles in Shakespeare’s play. What fits the extension of the term “King?” Does a King need to own large amounts of Land in order to be called a King? Does a King need to have a certain number of soldiers? How many soldiers? One-hundred? Fifty? None? Or what about the term “daughter?” What about the term “legitimate?”

I think it’s useful to picture this in a metaphorical way and I would invoke here the “tent” metaphor used by Hubert G. Alexander in his book Language and Thinking: A Philosophical Introduction: “We may think of a term on the analogy of a tent which covers or extends over all the particulars to which the term normally refers… (This) helps us to see why the referents are called ‘the extension’ of the term. It also indicates another important fact about extensions, namely, that they have limits (the sides of the tent); so we must think of the extension not only as including all the term’s referents but also indicating the limits beyond which the term no longer has reference.”

The problem here is similar to the analogy that Dr. McCoy made about the pressure cooker; the pressure can build until it explodes. In a similar sense, the extension of a word can grow and grow until the word has virtually no meaning at all. This kind of over-extended meaninglessness is something that people today often complain about the word “love.” You might tell your mother you “love” her but if you also “love” pizza and the Online Etymology Dictionary then what do you actually mean when you say you “love” your mother? This difficulty, I might add, is also becoming increasingly important in our current political climate. Consider this—our current president has both said that he “loves Mexicans” and that he is “the least racist person that you have ever met.” If what he says is true, then the term “racist” would seem to be in need of some serious adjustment.

Now, this may all seem to be a little tangential or maybe even reductive. Admittedly I don’t feel as though I’ve made clear what it is I want to. As I reread my post I think that maybe the point I’m trying to make is something actually within analogies themselves. The analogy of the pressure cooker and Alexander’s metaphor about the tent seemed to me to be insightful. Going back to the definition of an extension I want to focus on the idea that a term “contains” “objects.” In George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By; they argue that metaphors are pervasive in our daily lives: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”

One of the metaphors discussed by Lakoff and Johnson is deemed the “container metaphor” and I believe this metaphor is incredibly useful to many of the topics we’ve discussed in class—if I’m right then maybe this post contain some meaning…ha ha (oh, dear god help me.) Lakoff and Johnson find the root of the “container” metaphor in physical human experience: “We are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and e experience the rest of the world as outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation.” They go on to say that humans project this kind of “in-out orientation” onto almost every object around them; whether or not the object is bounded. For example, we pretty clearly discuss buildings and rooms within buildings as containers (i.e. going into the kitchen/ going out of Doty) But we also project this orientation onto things that may not have any “natural” boundaries such as land or territory (the example used by Lakoff and Johnson is “There’s a lot of land in Kansas.”

 

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