How To Use A Dictionary

 

Let’s work through an example to understand Socrates’ scathing dismissal of the various proposed definitions for ‘Knowledge’. 

We understand [and create] the new only in reference to the old, only in counterpoint to that which is not-new. Your most imaginative construction of distant galaxy and strange alien is little more than a rearrangement of decidedly familiar idea and image. [‘R2-D2’ not-withstanding, a true alien must remain alien to your known world.]

New learning begins in an extension of what is already learnt. The unfamiliar originates in the conversant and the familiar. The Unknown begins in the Known.

I teach a child the meaning of the word ‘Cat’ by pointing to a picture of a cat. I do not read her the dictionary definition of Cat: ‘A species of carnivorous quadrupeds, of genus Felis.’

I start with what I know in order to know something new. I speak American-English and I wish to learn Tibetan. I go to a teacher who speaks Tibetan and American-English. I don’t go to a teacher who speaks Tibetan and German, nor to a teacher who speaks American-English and Japanese.

1024px-Pioneer_plaque.svg

The Pioneer 10 Spacecraft launched in 1972 was the first object ever built that could achieve escape-velocity to exit the Solar System.

A ‘Pioneer Plaque’ was installed on it that included examples of what the designers felt were representative of the ‘Human’ and of ‘Planet Earth’.

It had Digital-Codes, equations from Chemical interactions and Astrophysical elements. And it had an [almost naked] figure of a Man and a Woman.

A stretched hand in greetings to all out there. But  it is unlikely that the designers actually thought that any of this would be understood by an alien intelligence. 

For this whole notion of ‘Understanding’ and ‘Communication’ as we understand it and communicate it is a very human idea.

We have no reason to believe [perhaps they do] that aliens exist as anything we can understand or communicate with, whether these images and words have any meaning at all in this context.

Perhaps the Aliens are blips of erratic light that laugh a great deal more than we humans do [‘light’ and ‘laugh’ still being very human points of recognition].

But the biggest controversy over this plaque arose because the human figures were drawn near-naked. The blips of light might get aroused and that would not be a good thing [they were redrawn].

Only in America.


A Dictionary defines new and unfamiliar words in terms of old and familiar ones. [Literati say a Dictionary spirals down in terms of ‘simpler’ words. The simplest words in Language are ‘is’ and ‘not’ and men have been struggling to define them clearly for 2 millennia. So watch out.]

In order to use a Dictionary I must enter with a ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’. And this ‘Minimum-Knowledge of English’ must itself be sourced outside the Dictionary.

I must already possess this ‘ Minimum-Knowledge of English’ before using a Dictionary and without it the Dictionary is of no use to me.


I search Webster’s for the meaning of the word ‘Metropolis’.

Metropolis: ‘The main city, often the capital, of a country, state or region’. But what is a City?

City: ‘A large important town’. But what is a Town?

Town: ‘A place enclosed or fenced in; a collection of houses enclosed within walls; a hamlet; a village’. But what is a Village?

Village: ‘A group of houses in the country, smaller than a town or city and larger than a hamlet’.

We have come full circle. This is all a Dictionary is meant to do. We can go no further. A Hamlet is defined in terms of ‘Village’; a Village in terms of ‘Hamlet’.

In order to use the Dictionary, I must enter with knowledge of what is a ‘Hamlet’ or a ‘Village’. If I do not, I will find myself in a permanent loop within the Dictionary with no exit.

If I am alert to that, I close the Dictionary and find a ‘Hamlet’, take a trip and visit  a ‘Village’.

If I am not alert to it, I keep turning the pages and look for new definitions without ever leaving the Dictionary. And enter the boudoir of the Self-Loop.