Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview
Encyclopedia Project (Explanations)

Method: Language-determined distinctions

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


This project is in many ways an exploration of the use of language and the effects of its use on the distinctions that are accepted in international discourse. The names under which the world problems described in Section P have been detected, for example, exploit many of the word variants available in the English language. The same is true of the entries on human development (Section H) and human values (Section V).

In reporting on the state of English as a language (C Ricks and L Michaels (Eds), The State of the Language, 1990), the South African author Njabulo Ndebele is quoted as follows:

"The problems of society will also be the problems of the predominant language of that society. It is the carrier of its perceptions, its attitudes, and its goals, for through it the speakers absorb entrenched attitudes. The guilt of the English then must be recognized and appreciated before its continued use can be advocated."

Presumably this argument also applies to the potential for human development recognizable within a society.

1. Dilemmas

Whilst a reasonable amount of normalization and rationalization is possible, and has been undertaken, four questions remain (focused here on the situation with regard to problems):

(a) What degree of variance in the use of words reflects significant distinctions, rather than the simple use of alternative descriptors which are effectively synonymous?

(b) To the extent that different words do indeed reflect significant distinctions, to what extent does the availability of a set of words that could be used, for example, to construct a problem-type name, contribute to the recognition of problems which might not otherwise have been distinguished? And, conversely, in a culture (or discipline) with a more limited vocabulary, to what extent is the recognition of problems constrained?

(c) If problem-type names tend to conform to a limited set of patterns, to what extent is it appropriate to highlight the possible existence of problems whose names can be generated by combining available words in such patterns?

(d) Are there situations in which the repeated use of a powerful figure of speech to describe a problem situation can be erroneously interpreted as signifying the existence of a distinct problem? And, linked to this, do the frequent pronouncements by heads of government and judicial authorities that certain acts and people are "evil" constitute a recognition of "evil" as a problem?

In this edition several responses to these questions have been explored as indicated below.

2. World problems

In this case, as noted above, some degree of normalization and rationalization has been used. In part this was necessary to clarify the problematique nature of the many problems that have acquired conventional (possibly shorthand) labels with positive connotations (eg "youth", "development"). Thus "peace" would not be accepted as an appropriate problem name (except for those who perceive the state of peace to be a problem in its own right), especially since those who use the term to indicate a problem tend to subscribe to "peace" as a value or goal. Consequently an editorial rule was adopted that unless the name could be interpreted negatively (as in the case of "pacifism", for example), an appropriate negative qualifier had to be added to complete the problem name wherever possible. This was done using a prefix or suffix ("malnutrition" rather than "nutrition", "illiteracy" rather than "literacy", "meaninglessness" rather than "meaning"). Where this was not possible either quantitative qualifiers were added to the name (eg "shortage of...", "inadequate...", "lack of...") or qualitative qualifiers (eg "inappropriate...", "conflicting...", "deterioration of...", "instability of...").

Once the problematique dimension has been rendered explicit, patterns of problem names of types such as the following tend to emerge:

(a) One key word: Crime, unemployment. Hyphenated forms: child- marriage, anti-intellectualism.

(b) Two key words: Exploitation in employment, vested interests, soil pollution, racial discrimination. These illustrate combinations of an identifier (eg "pollution") with a delimiter (eg "soil", as opposed to "water").

(c) Multiple key words: The pattern may be further developed by refining the qualifiers and delimiters: eg Racial discrimination in public services.

(d) Regional and group qualifiers: The previous point illustrates the possibility of identifying more specific problems by the addition of qualifiers:

It is clear from the last example that seemingly credible problem names can easily be "generated" by appropriate combinations of descriptors from descriptor sets (in a manner reminiscent of Ramon Llull's category generator). The availability of such descriptors sets encourages the recognition by the international community of problems which may or may not exist. Just as there are "letterhead organizations", there may be "descriptor-generated" problems (for which project funding may even by sought). Such problems may emerge into the literature as a result of efforts by delegations or the media to appear innovative.

Given the institutional resistance to the recognition of new problems however, systematic explorations of such a procedure suggests an approach to identifying potential problems rather than allowing them only to be registered in a haphazard manner as information is found on them. Perhaps category generators could usefully be developed to draw attention to categories of problem (strategy, value, etc) which may be neglected in conventional decision-making.

In this project the procedure has only been adopted in the case of economic sectors and endangered species as a means of ordering problems at different levels of specificity, particularly in order to avoid isolated excessively-publicised entries (eg endangered panda, or endangered monkey-eating eagle) where more general entries would be more appropriate (eg endangered bears and birds of prey, respectively). The question remains however as to whether the distinctions between problems, generated using different verbal "operators", correspond to valuable nuances with which people identify, or whether such distinctions are purely contrived in order to arouse emotive effects through their novelty.

3. Human values

In this case the kind of information available is so diffuse and unstructured that it is fair to say that there are no lists of values with which the international community identifies, whether partially or completely. There are texts which reflect values, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but these do not identify values as such. There are no guidelines for naming values, and other than obvious values such as "peace", "justice" and "liberty", few appear to have been named.

For this reason the opposite approach was used, namely an effort was made to generate a complete set of potential values by identifying a comprehensive set of value-words which could be assumed to reflect the full range of values. Again the question arises as to whether these value words do effectively indicate distinct values. Here the difficulty is extreme because of the fluidity of language and the variety of connotations associated with any particular word. The procedure used was however designed to make this confusion explicit without attempting to resolve the issues which emerge. The procedure has the merit of not discriminating in favour or against any particular values as a result of emphasis on fashionable values.

4. Human development

In this case there is a great deal of information available and, even in the case of subtle modes of awareness, it is quite extensively articulated. The difficulty is that because of the subtlety of such modes and the essential subjectivity of the experience, the information frequently takes the form of metaphorical or symbolic allusions. These may convey only limited meaning to those from other cultures unfamiliar with the symbolic jargon used. This is especially true of western efforts to penetrate the extensive eastern literature on modes of awareness. Such cultures are quite explicit about the inadequacy of words to convey the nature of the essential experiences in personal development, although highly articulated terminologies may be used to distinguish such experiences. Such distinctions may be impossible to convey into a language such as English which lacks equivalent words. How, for example, is it possible to respect the distinction in Tibetan between 72 forms of what in English is simply indicated by the word "love"?

5. Patterns of concepts

In this case there is little information available on patterns of concepts. Concepts tend to be treated in isolation or set in a poorly articulated context. In order to elicit some indication of how a pattern of concepts might appear, two experiments were undertaken using a metaphorical approach. The substrates selected for this approach were in both cases highly articulated patterns.

In one case a set of 64 interconnected conditions central to traditional Chinese attitudes towards change was used (see demo). In the other, 253 interrelated patterns in environmental design were used. The result was necessarily artificial because, in seeking metaphoric parallels, the available language was stretched and distorted beyond normally acceptable usage. It raises questions as to whether the resulting verbal formulae indicate the existence of useful distinctions or whether they are totally contrived. In either case the challenge remains. For, as with values, there would appear to be important distinctions that need to be made in what is at present an extremely fuzzy and fluid non-material domain of significance. The available vocabulary, at least in non-literary English, would appear to be ill-suited to the task.

6. Strategies (Section S)

In spite of the concrete action-oriented nature of strategies, there is relatively little structured information on the strategies advocated within the international community. Two complementary approaches were therefore used. The available information in international organization documentation and reference books was used to produce a series of entries (in Section SS, 1986 edition) effectively presenting a "top-down" perspective. The second approach was based on the extraction of names of strategies from a series of 40 reports of community development dialogues undertaken by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, mainly in rural communities in developing countries (Section SP and SQ). To a large extent this presents a "bottom-up" perspective. The ICA material itself reflects the results of a struggle to use vocabulary creatively to make distinctions, especially using gerunds, which are motivating and empowering. One of the principal merits of this material is that it reflects a wide range of strategies, extending far beyond the limited set that is the concern of political economists.

Of potential interest in relation to further work on strategy terminology is the initiative of Henry G Burger to produce "a transitive cladistic for solving physical and social problems". "The dictionary analyzes a quarter-million world-listings by their processes, branches them binarily to pinpoint the concepts, thus sequentially tracing causes to their effects." (Henry G Burger, The Wordtree: a transitive cladistic for solving physical and social problems. Merriam (Kansas), 1984. It distinguishes the components of every action (transitive) verb in most dictionaries. Highly critical of the linearity of Roget's Thesaurus, Burger claims that by focusing on transitive verbs there is a built in emphasis on how action may be undertaken to solve problems. Solutions to problems are stored in language. He has developed a presentation to highlight this which contains a "quarter-million problems and solutions of behaviour and goals"

The question remains however as to the degree to which the distinctions between similar strategies made with such linguistic devices are really meaningful, however much the subtle differences in emphasis are suggestive of potential significance which merits further investigation.

7. Human values

The words used to capture and label subtle distinctions between human values are remarkable for the degree of overlapping connotations. In Section V an attempt is made to chart this fuzziness. The question remains as to whether the distinctions made are to be considered meaningful. Furthermore, does the confusion of words constitute an ecosystem of necessary richness to ensure the survival of certain values that would otherwise become extinct?

8. Metaphor

The exploration in the Section M of the potential of metaphor in constructing realities is a direct response to the creative potential of language as a means of establishing more fruitful patterns of connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.

9. Comment

The different methods used all offer insights into the limitations and opportunities of language in increasing sensitivity to the range of phenomena that need to be borne in mind in responding to the global problematique. The acid test in reviewing the results can be performed as a thought experiment. For example, in the case of any given value word, can society afford to be insensitive to the value implied by that word, especially to the extent that the word indicates a value variant not adequately indicated by other words? Would the quality of life be diminished by ignoring that particular variant? Similarly, in the case of world problems, can society afford to neglect any one of the specific problems identified by a particular pattern of words on the assumption that, to the extent it is significant, it will be subsumed under some broader problem through which an effective response to it will be undertaken?