17 June 2008

Dreams, talents, soldiers...

So much seems to come down to words and their interpretation. This is a fact which I know, have always known (well - since my mid teens, anyway) and comment upon regularly, yet a lesson which have to relearn at surprisingly short intervals. In several recent conversations, notably with Julie Heyward of Unreal Nature, the word "talent" has figured prominently. Jim Putnam at Thinking Through My Fingers, writes about dreams. Both of these words have turned out to have significantly different meanings on two different sides of the communication process - and the thinking which flows from that fact turns out to persist beyond the tenure of the original subjects.

Talent, to me, describes an attribute - the alternative description "innate aptitude" covers part of it, but requires something like "spark" to make it complete. Julie described this definition as static, and it does seem so (though who knows whether we mean the same thing by the word "static"?). Her own understanding of the word talent is an analogue of energy, waxing and waning, for which the self is a fragile container. I like that - though the scientist in me inevitably starts getting casuistic about it and has to be pushed out of the room. As a metaphor, it calls up Talmudic echoes of the Sefirot, the primal containers for light ... some lucky artists are Keter, Hokhmah and Binah, holding the light/energy, while others are those from Hesed to Yesod and shatter under the brilliance they are asked to contain. (No - I'm not a Qabbalist, it's just a myth/metphor.)

Jim Putnam's "dreams" align (and misalign) partially with both my ideas of "ambitions" and "fantasies". An ambition, to me, is a dream which has hope of fulfilment; a fantasy is a dream which does not. My dreams, in other words, form a superset within which ambitions and fantasies are disjoint subsets. For Jim, though, fantasies coincide with mine while dreams are a subset of my ambitions - and he has subsets for dreams which are pursued until achieved or abandoned.

Nothing right or wrong about either of our perceptions (I promise, for once, to avoid the words "signification domain"!) ... it's just very interesting.

Returning to Julie Heyward, a private discussion of my National Security bacteria analogy uncovered a difference in our understandings of the word "soldier". What, exactly, is a soldier? We would. I presume, all include in our definition the uniformed men and women despatched from the US and EU to Iraq or Afghanistan. There would be less unanimity over their guerrilla opponents in those two theatres, and less still over (for example) the 11th September hijackers or the Lonton tube bombers, or the shadowy "advisors" or "deniable forces" who wage unofficial and unacknowledged warfare on behalf of superpowers in places like Colombia. Talking of Colombia, the drugs barons there have substantial private armies; are their members "soldiers"? What of warriors in, for example, the native American tribes; hunters one day, warriors the next, according to need; is a warrior a soldier? All the time, or only when fighting other tribes? What about a rabbit, fighting back against a weasel which has invaded the warren? Or a wild dog, in conflict with another pack? I have my own ideas on each of these examples, and so does Julie; so does Jim, incidentally; what they are doesn't matter here - what matters is that we all draw our lines differently in the fog of grey areas around the word "soldier".

In most cases, we assume that there is sufficient common ground to use a word with reasonable expectation of mutual understanding; but it ain't necessarily so. Misunderstandings arising from such differences are common enough in daily life, with consequences ranging from comic to fatal; as conversation becomes more philosophical, the differences become increasingly significant.

All of which is part of what make language, conversation and philosophy either such fun or so frustrating, depending on circumstance and point of view.

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