The frustration of complexity and changing definitions

Here, Barfield uncovers a major sticky issue with language, communication, and logic that, I think, gets ignored ALL THE TIME across disciplines.

To anyone attempting to construct a metaphysic in strict accordance with the canons and categories of formal Logic, the fact that the meanings of words change, not only from age to age, but from context to context, is certainly interesting; but it is interesting solely because it is a nuisance.

Indeed. He goes on to give a fine example:

The financial mysteries of ‘inflation’ and ‘deflation’ may likewise be said to ‘interest’ the practicing merchant. But that interest is, for the most part, of a limited sort. Since money is the very basis of all his operations, he has, I think it can be said, an instinctive distaste for the mere possibility that money-units themselves should be found to have only an arbitrary ‘subjective’ value – that they should prove to be simply cross-sections of an endless process taking place in time. If that is true, all is lost. The dykes are opened. Like magic, he sees shrewd practical maxims turned into rarified academic theories, and a comparatively simple and intelligible system of acknowledged FACTS (‘the economic verities’) having to be rigged with all sorts of super-subtle reservations and ceteris paribus’s, before it will bear the faintest relation to contemporary realities.

The merchant cares about money. He cares about buying low and selling high. Supply, demand, and logistics are always on his mind. Now, introduce modern financial concepts like currency exchanges rates, fractional reserve banking, and hedge funds. All of these things server to undermine what “money” really is. They make something that was so tangible (an amount of $$$) and makes it remarkably complex and in some cases, seeminly meaningless. “rigged with all sorts of super-subtle reservations” is how Barfield puts it. This is enough to make one’s head explode.

So what do we do? We actually say “screw it” and stick with our simpler understanding of the subject. The merchant continues to talk supply and demand, buying and selling.

The educator continues to talk curriculum and classroom methods. Factoring in student personalities and temperaments, parental situations, learning disabilities, 2nd languages, etc. would paralyze us from moving forward in our area. The government makes well-intentioned laws that have the net affect of causing teacher’s heads to explode.

You can’t try to comprehend all the details. If you did that, creativity would grind to a halt and despair would set in. Many of the greatest accomplishments in human history have been made by hedgehogs who only stuck to one discipline, even to the exclusion of important related facts.

On the other hand, it can make even the most logical and well-argued proposition to be full of holes without the author even realizing it. Words don’t always mean what you think they do. By refusing to understand the context, you might be saying something other than you really mean. Everything is more complicated than you wish it were. Don’t be so mystified when the next person to look at your airtight theory is not so certain.

You see this in theology all the time. Use some verses from a contemporary bible translation like the ESV. Look up some passages in the Greek. Color it with some analysis of the Hebrew root. Quote Augustine talking about the passage in Latin. Quote Luther saying something about it in German. Throw in some commentary from a contemporary American philosopher that seems to support your conclusions. Cool! You’re done. Wait. Are you sure their all talking about the exactly the same thing you are? Seriously? It’s a grand nuisance and you shouldn’t waste your time trying to figure it all out all the time. But please keep it in mind.

What money is to the conservative economist, words are to the conservative philosopher. For the conception of money as a ‘symbol of barter’ and the conception of words as the ‘names of things’ are, both alike, not so much untrue as ‘out of date’…

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, p.61