January 11, 2016

Taoist Meaning

Continuing  to discuss Taoism for the Modern Age...

Let's say I give you two sums: 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 and 4+4.  Both sum up to 8, and from a pure arithmetic point of view this means they mean the same thing.

Now let's say that the first expression represents a coach going out and recruiting athletes to make up the eight of the rowing team, and the second expression represents a man with three sons marrying a woman with three daughters (i.e the Brady Bunch).

Either way you end up with eight people. Counting the people, turning them into numbers, and then summing them to a total is an example of reductive meaning. This might be just what you want if you need to fill a block of 8 seats in the theatre, or a table of 8 at a banquet, since any eight people will fill the bill.

But for the purposes of winning at Henley or starting a sitcom, the two groups of 8 are not equivalent. A lot of detail about the full picture gets eliminated when you sum things up into a simplified whole.

Language is also reductive in a similar way to arithmetic.  When I call the first eight people as "a rowing team", I focus on a subset of the attributes of those people, and I lose the fact that one of them is, say, called Fred and is a fanatical supporter of Manchester United.  When I call the second eight people as a "blended family", I may lose the information that Jan is jealous of the attention her older sister Marcia receives.

Any reality is much more complex than any description of it.  The limitations of our minds and of our language require us to reduce what we experience to such descriptions.  For this reason, we need to remind ourselves that we never have the whole picture if we want to remain in touch with reality.

While it may be convenient for a focused purpose to reduce things down to a simpler description, the true meaning of things can only ever be in their full, indescribable complexity.

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