Natural Hazard

It wouldn't be the road to hell if it wasn't paved in good intentions

The Unspeakable and The Unthinkable: "Intersubjective Support" as the missing link between Language and Thought

Taboo Your Words

It's clearly possible to think thoughts you don't have good language for. It's clearly possible to talk about things you don't have good language for.

From the classic LW post, Taboo Your Words:

When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all. Or any of their short synonyms. And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

The move of tabooing your words is not just about "replace the word with a definition so everyone's on the same page", it's about practicing seeing one thing from many angles, describing it from many angles, dropping out of your higher level chunked together frames for referencing a thing into lower level descriptive language that forces you to get into higher contact with the piece of reality you're trying to describe.

There might be reasons you don't want to taboo your words1. There might be reasons you don't think to try tabooing your words. But it's possible to do.

Discerning Directionality in the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Woah! You've discovered that native speakers of certain languages don't have words that make the same color distinctions as in your language. Not only that, but you've discovered that these people have trouble making nuanced distinctions between the colors that they have glommed together in their own vocabulary. It's almost like they can't perceive differences that they don't have the language for!

Now, I've heard there might be some questionable methodology and interpretation of the relevant studies here, but where going to take the results as a given and notice something. You could conclude that people can't perceive things they don't have words for. You could also conclude that people don't create words for the things they can't perceive. How would you discern the difference? Before language, could people not perceive any colors? Did their perception only slowly upgrade in patches as they got new linguistic DLC from god? Or as language evolved, did vocabulary and categories only spring up for the things that people were already attending to and had reason to make distinctions between? How would you investigate this? In a most dishonorable manner, I'm going to leave that as a rhetorical question.

Reifiying in your mind, ratifying into social reality

From Intuistionistic Type (of guy) Theory:

If a new Type of guy drops in a forest, and no one's there, does he make a sound?

Types are more than patterns. Most patterns we observe never get reified with a phrase or a handle, and most patterns that we individually reify never get ratified by a social network. A Type is a pattern that a group can all recognize and sync up their behaviors on. It creates an object of discourse. It's an entity that people can have Takes on. It's A Thing.

It's all about the common knowledge. When a classification/distinction/concept is A Thing, I sometimes describe it as there being "intersubjective support" for the underlying cognition.

Newspeak "works" by removing intersubjective support

In the book 1984 "Newspeak" is a proposed plan by the reigning Big Bad Regime to phase in a new language that is incredibly stripped down, bare bones, and most importantly is supposed to make thinking non-state-approved thoughts impossible. This scheme operates on the assumption that the unspeakable and the unthinkable are the same thing.

Now, I don't care too much about arguing against the plausibility of newspeak specifically, so lets expand this example to some more general cases: the effects of censorship, and hermeneutic injustice.

You're living in Bad Totalitarian Regime and any and all forms of criticism of Our Dear Leader are banned, and people are scared enough to barely ever criticize, even behind closed doors. Does this environment make it hard to think bad thoughts about Our Dear Leader, and if so, how does it make it harder?

Any fleeting thoughts of you have of disdain for Our Dear Leader are immediately followed up with thoughts about how you're all alone, you'd have no help, it would be suicide, and possibly thoughts of how horribly it would end for you if anyone knew you were thinking about this. Maybe you just push it out of your mind altogether. It's definitely going to be hard to have and/or maintain dissenting thoughts, but this is more due to the fact that you don't have any intersubjective support and this makes it terrifying.

Part of the reason you'd feel alone is because of the censorship. Censorship is a tool to disable people's capacity for generating common knowledge. You can't find out who's on your side.

Onto Hermeneutic injustice. From the wikipedia page (though Fricker's original essay "Powerlessness and Social Interpretation" is better):

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when someone's experiences are not well understood — by themselves or by others — because these experiences do not fit any concepts known to them (or known to others), due to the historic exclusion of some groups of people from activities, such as scholarship and journalism, that shape the language people use to make sense of their experiences.

For example: in the 1970s, the phrase sexual harassment was introduced to describe something that many people, especially women, had long experienced.[5] Imagine the year is 1960, before the term was introduced, and a woman experiences sexual harassment. She may have difficulty putting her experience into words. According to Fricker, the difficulty that she faces is no accident. It is due largely to women's exclusion from full participation in the shaping of the English language. Now suppose it is 1980, after the term was introduced. The woman may now understand what happened to her better. However, she may struggle to explain this experience to someone else, because the concept of sexual harassment is not yet well known. The difficulty she faces is again no accident, according to Fricker. It is due largely to women's exclusion from equal participation in journalism, publishing, academia, law, and the other institutions and industries that help people make sense of their lives.

I basically agree with Fricker's breakdown and claims, but with an important caveat/clarification. If by "language" Fricker is talking about "the shared interpretive equilibrium of the concept 'sexual harassment' that makes it A Thing that is ratified in local social reality", then I 100% agree, the lack of "language" makes it difficult to understand one's own experience. But to the degree that Fricker emphasizes the problem ia not having the rights words/definitions/frame, as a distinct thing from the the underlying intersubjective support for these ways of seeing and thinking, I disagree2.

Intersubjective support, something being A Thing, is often followed/accompanied by new vocab/language, but it is not the words themselves that have the power. Learning new terms to interpret your experience is powerful because language is evidence of underlying intersubjective support. If our example 1960's woman who is experiencing sexual harassment had a dream where the phrase "sexual harassment" just came to her, it would not have the same transformative effect as learning the phrase from a colleague who also told her that there's other women going through the same thing and they have each other's backs. Even if you got your new frame from a book written a few hundred years ago, that fact that another human somewhere on earth at some point in time thought this way can give you strength, even if it wouldn't be as strong as receiving intersubjective support from contemporaries. The power is not in the words, but in not being alone.

Contrast a term like "sexual harassment" with "ghosting". It's nifty that there's a short word to refer to the behavior, but I expect that in most contexts where people have been ghosted throughout history there was already intersubjective support for the idea of "someone suddenly cut off communication with me, I don't know why, and I don't like it." You could talk about it with others and they'd get it. Whereas with "sexual harassment" the term was being introduced in sync with a push to get intersubjective support for "hey, what if we made it not okay to just slap your secretary's ass whenever you felt like it?" (to put it mildly)

Thinking without intersubjective support

Another clarification I'd add is around the nature of the difficulty people have with orienting to their situations pre-intersubjective support.

One way it can be hard is in a cognitive flexibility kind of way. There can often be a genuine intellectual puzzle to conceptualizing something that hasn't been conceptualized before. Any time someone invents a new scientific paradigm they do so by spending an extended amount of time trail blazing lines of thought that had no intersubjective support. They go hunting for patterns, reify them themselves, and then begin the work of convincing others to create the intersubjective support for the new paradigm. This can be tricky, creative, and cognitively taxing work.

Another way this task can be hard is through fearing the punishment you might receive from putting yourself at odds with your current social reality. If the thoughts you are trying to think are in the space of "I think others should act differently" (at least you have a chance of offloading responsibility to local schelling points for how "should" works), or worse "I want others to act differently" (what? now you're singling yourself out by owning the desire?) , or god forbid "I'm willing to put up X level of fight to make others act differently" (not only are you singling yourself out, you're telling people exactly how much of a threat you are???), well... people have been known to get feisty.

This is what I think the difficulty of women pre-intersubjective support for the concept of "sexual harassment" was like. It's not that it's some big intellectual puzzle to notice you don't enjoy being harassed, a puzzle which you need other people to help you solve. It's that you've accurately assessed, implicitly, that you're embedded in a social reality that is actively hostile to your preferences, and the fear and aversion of making yourself a target fucks up your ability to pursue giving real thought to your situation, leaving you disoriented and with just a vague sense that something is wrong. It's not that you need support from others in solving an intellectual puzzle, you need support from others in changing the social reality you live in.

I'm not shitting on the "better language" quest, I just want something to not be forgotten

If it sounds like I'm shitting on the quest to make better shared language, it's probably because I've been focused on making a particular point that's very important to me and haven't spent any time talking about the great stuff I think you get from creating new language. A non-trivial portion of my writing is about making better language to talk about things I care about. I make cryptic diagrams labeled with partially made-up language to think through things with friends. Building better language is the bulk of what I do with the Inexact Sciences crew. There are some good people doing good work to make more communities with more intersubjective support for important aspects of people's experience, and I'm glad people are working on stuff like this.

It also feel essential for me to clearly understand that the biggest bottleneck to me be able to think outside the conceptual landscape handed to me by my social reality, the bottleneck I have the most control over, is how I relate to my fear (both founded and unfounded) of rejection and punishment from others. This is largely because I don't know of any communities that actually have full intersubjective support for the Whole Weird Ass Thing That Is Being A Human, and I really can't afford to be stay confused about what I am and what I care about.

  1. You might not want to taboo your words because you're trying to argue decisions by arguing definitions.
  2. I have a hunch that Fricker might not actually be confused about the mechanism here and that she's framing it the way she is to make her point feel less inflammatory and not set of people's defensiveness. Sort of like how the idea of "implicit bias" has served to convey "you can own up to the way you contribute to racism without feeling bad about it, because you aren't aware of what you're doing", despite the fact that implicit bias research has never shown implicit bias to be unavailable to conscious introspection. From "The Mythical Number Two": “For instance, the first research on implicit bias (i.e., the unintentional activation of racially biased attitudes) occurred in 1995 64, and by 1999 researchers started referring to this phenomenon as unconscious bias 65. Soon enough, people around the world learned that implicit biases are unavailable to introspection. Yet conscious awareness of implicit bias was not assessed until 2014, when it was found that people are aware of their implicit biases after all 66.”