The key insight, which I’ve known for years, is that we have to get away from the idea of there being the pure ultimate fixed proposition that captures the information in any informational state. This goal of capturing the proposition, this attempt at idealization that philosophers have poured their hearts and souls into for a hundred years is just wrong. Don’t even try. I’m now coming around to wonder why it had such a hold on us. It’s quite obvious once you start thinking this way.
We and only we, among all the creatures on the planet, developed language. Language is very special when it comes to being an information handling medium because it permits us to talk about things that aren’t present, to talk about things that don’t exist, to put together all manner of concepts and ideas in ways that are only indirectly anchored in our biological experience in the world. Compare it, for instance, with a vervet monkey alarm call. The vervet sees an eagle and issues the eagle alarm call. We can understand that as an alarm signal, and we can see the relationship of the seen eagle and the behavior on the part of the monkey and on the part of the audience of that monkey’s alarm call. That’s a nice root case.
Suppose we start asking what exactly that monkey call means. Does it mean, "Look out! There’s an eagle. It’s up there!" Or does it mean, "Jump into the trees!" Or does it mean, "Oh, help, help, help!" How would we put that alarm call in English? Don’t try. This is the trick. Don’t imagine that the way to have a theory of meaning and interpretation is to treat it as a theory that has as its goal the reduction of everything to some canonical proposition. That’s a very powerful idea, which is just a big mistake.
It’s powerful because, for instance, it allows you to say things like this: We can have a sentence in French, le chat est noir; and a sentence in English, the cat is black; a sentence in German, die Katze ist Schwarz; and they all mean the same thing. There is one and only one proposition, which is expressed differently in different languages. So, this is a way of giving us a signpost to this object, the proposition.
Propositions are supposed to be idealizations, rather like numbers or vectors or some other abstract formulation. It looks at first very powerful, and for some purposes it’s very useful. But it takes you away from enlightenment because it gives you this false sense that you haven’t understood something really until you’ve figured out how to articulate, how to point to, how to identify the proposition that a particular meaningful event has. No. There are all kinds of meaningful events that defy putting in terms of any particular proposition. That doesn’t make them not meaningful. You have to turn the whole thing upside down.
> Nothing of that tongue survived into my generation but a few insults: Yiddish can describe defects of character with the precision that Inuit describes ice or Japanese rain.
— Rebecca Solnit, Field Guide to Getting Lost
To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept argument and the conceptual metaphor argument is war. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:
We don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent … Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structure by the concept of war.
Now, try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of where: where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. People would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.
Four conceptions of space in Japanese: