You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird…So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts.
– Richard Feynman
Sounds like Feynman is channeling Heidegger here. Heidegger is pretty damn hard to understand, but I do understand some of his ideas.
In Being and Time, he talks a lot about meanings. He differentiates between surface meanings and deep meanings.
Surface meanings are like those 6,000 words for the bird. As a good general rule, the name or names of a thing (what we call it) tells us little or nothing about that thing. Imagine that we had no language, but we were as smart as we are now. We would see birds flying about and doing their thing all the time. We would observe those birds and we would form a lot of ideas about what that bird is and what it does. We would do this even if we had no word for the bird whatsoever. Follow?
So what we call the bird or object does not mean a whole lot or even tell us much if anything about what the object is. The name of the bird is the surface meaning of the object that is that bird. Surface meanings, as I mentioned, don’t mean a whole lot. They are more a means of classifying objects in our brains so we can think about them more easily and quickly and so we can communicate about them with other humans.
Many objects have more than one name and actually have many different definitions. Some of the definitions that we have of objects not only don’t tell us much important about the object, but in some sense, while they are technically correct, they are often wrong because they sort of give a false meaning to the object and distract us from the meaning that makes them important.
There is a difference between objects and what I call essences. Often we think of things not in terms of the names or (often lousy) definitions of them but instead we think of these objects in terms of what the essence of the object is. The true meaning of an object lies in its essence, not in any surface definition we give to it, which in a lot of cases is no more important than a “tag.”
We have objects that we can “tag” in all sorts of different ways according to whatever definitions the object has. But those definitions are just tags and some are even contradictory as an object can be two contradictory things at once when it has a surface definition or tag of one meaning but has a deep meaning or essence of the opposite meaning.
This is why definitions are inherently problematic. We studied Semantics a bit in my Linguistics studies. One of the main principles of Semantics is that the definitions we give to words are in many cases incomplete. In other words, it is often impossible to give a full definition of a word that describes the meaning of the word perfectly.
Getting back to Feynman here, all of those words for that bird probably do not tell us a whole lot about the bird. They are just “tags” or surface meanings so to speak that we use to categorize that bird in our brains so we can store information about that bird in our brains better. In other words, Feynman says, who cares what the damn bird is called! It’s got 6,000 different names all over the world world! As I noted, objects can have more than one surface meaning or tag. In the case of this bird, it has 6,000 different tags on it, none of which tell us much about the bird!
If we wish to understand the bird, Feynman notes, we forget about whatever it is called (its surface meaning) and instead focus on what it is doing – let’s observe the behavior of the bird. By observing the actions of the bird, we can come to understand it better by uncovering its deep meaning, or essence. This is what the bird really means and what it is really all about.
This seems a bit long-winded, but this is very important to know. Don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what something is named. Particularly in politics, things are often given names that are the exact opposite of what they are. Forget about what surface definitions people give to objects, actions or events because they are often misleading and even flat-out wrong. Instead, pretend that you have no word for the object, action or event and try to understand the deep meaning or essence or what something is or what happened. If you put these Deep Meaning googles on, the world starts to look like a very different place, and you can think about the world in a completely different, and better way.
I will have a bit more on this later on. This should be plenty for now. This was a bit of a mouthful here.