What Is A Weed

September 21, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

According to Merriam-Webster, a weed is either A) a plant that is not valued where it is growing, or B) an obnoxious growth, thing or person. In better understanding how we use the term “weed” and what it signifies, I want to demonstrate how categories perform in speech. (FYI, while I will not be discussing marijuana in this post, which is commonly known as “weed.” Though not addressed here, that discussion would likely add additional highlights to the problematic idea of categories.)

According to definition A, a weed may fall into two categories. In the right location, a weed may be prized (thus making it the opposite of a weed). In other cases it may be obnoxious, or growing over the more desirable plants, such as native plants or landscaped gardens. So definition A means that plants have a value in their specific place. Profundity of growth turns into a metaphor, which in definition B extends to more negative aspects of the term.

Weeds as a category are really interesting for no other reason than the fact that the category stems from something completely subjective. I learned to pull the weeds that my parents did not like. According to their neighbors, however, they may have misapplied the term. Take the dandelion, for example. It was brought to the United States by not one group, but at least three: pilgrims in the east, Spaniards in the west, and French through Canada. Often used in medicines and herbal teas, dandelions proved to be easy to grow and also helpful. However, they spread rapidly due to the seed’s ability to fly far. Though there is no major negative aspect to dandelions, many people today do not like their ability to overtake lawns. I find this idea of a perfectly manicured lawn ironic, too, though. Grass is also, more often than not, an invasive species. Both dandelions and grass grow rapidly and are quick to overrun other plants. In other words, it seems like we do not like weeds in our weeds! So instead, we pull dandelions in favor of grass. The point is, one weed is desired while the other is not. Why do we call grass “grass” instead of weed? Why do we call wild grasses weeds, but not grass? Are we aware of the preconceived notions which formed these categories?

This idea of removing a weed to save a weed is a particularly human construct. The label refers not to the uselessness of an object (either grass or dandelions can have utility, depending upon preference and needs). Rather, dandelions become a weed because they are ugly, aggressive, overabundant and out of control. There is a value system here that enlightens culture.

I live in a desert in which we have many, many natural grasses, but none of them typical lawn grass. Yet still, people often choose to grow a nice green lawn for various reasons, all of which requires a lot of effort. Lush green grass really does not thrive with little water and long, hot days. Instead, a cultural value has been placed upon the environment here. We value the cool, green, nicely trimmed lawn, but not wild grasses which grow tall and seed rapidly. What reasons can we give for this illogical behavior?

Some of Wittgenstein’s words on the power of language come to mind. In his Philosophical Investigations (#491), he writes, “Not: ‘without language we could not communicate with one another’ - but for sure: without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. And also: without the use of speech and writing people could not communicate.” In other words, whether we know it or not, language influences our decisions. Why do we have grass in our yards? Because we don’t want to live among the weeds.

Wittgenstein continues (in #499), “To say ‘This combination of words makes no sense’ excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.” Language, structured by grammar, is a sort of game which enables us to “play” on the same field. I want to emphasize Wittgenstein’s words that language draws boundaries, but doesn’t clearly state why the boundary exists.

This is important in parsing everyday speech where one can rely on a metaphor to make universal meaning. That meaning, however, is not universal, it just seems universal. Returning to our example, we cannot all agree on types and styles of weeds. We do not pull the same things out of our yards, some of us refer to sage and mint as weeds, while others let these grow. Are the words “weed” and “dandelion” synonymous? If I speak of weeds (and not dandelions, for example), am I stating something explicitly? If so, what? This example highlights differences between regions and cultures, but also difference in the term itself. It also highlights the fact that the mere idea of “weed” is useful in the English language. It fits into Wittgenstein’s game because it draws a boundary.

The idea of “weed” is useful in another way also. It clarifies a recent move away from a more classical theory of forms. In classical theory, categories were thought to be independent of individual human preferences. It was assumed that the form of a thing was also its essence. However, when discussing weeds, I am hard-pressed to find a universal form. Instead, this is a category that more closely resembles George Lakoff’s research into protoype theory. In Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, he writes that prototype theory “suggests that human categorization is essentially a matter of both human experience and imagination – of perception, motor activity, and culture on the one hand, and of metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery on the other” (8). Therefore, we can say something benign like “He grows like a weed” to indicate a child has grown quickly. Or, we can “weed a garden,” an action dedicated to the removal of unwanted things, or “weed out” the problems. While I have not thought through every weed-related example, I do see how those provided problematize classical categories. “Weed” itself is a haphazard collection of personal experience and emotion.

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Love Letters

February 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” - Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden

I think that it would be ideal to have somewhere between 96 and 3 words for love. Certainly, one does not seem enough. It is much like the word nature, which contains so much. When discussing literature, we spend so much time just trying to figure out what type of love we are talking about...what type of love the characters demonstrate. Moreover, we use the same word to say that we love something as silly as ice cream, and something as serious as a lost loved one. The following love letters fit the week's theme, which celebrates St. Valentine. They are an exchange between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his future wife Sophia Peabody. They married in 1842 and had three children and a long marriage. Though both were known to be quiet and reclusive, these letters prove of an intense and passionate relationship.

Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to Sophia as his “Dove” and said that she was his sole companion. He continues, “I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” After their first child was born, Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt a different kind of love and he voices this profound responsibility of fatherhood. He writes, “I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”

We wish you health, happiness and love. Contemplate and celebrate the many meanings of love this week!

Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, December 5, 1839

Dearest, – I wish I had the gift of making rhymes, for methinks there is poetry in my head and hear since I have been in love with you. You are a Poem. Of what sort, then? Epic? Mercy on me, no! A sonnet? No; for that is too labored and artificial. You are a sort of sweet, simple, gay pathetic ballad, which Nature is singing, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, and sometimes with intermingled smiles and tears.


Sophia Peabody to Nathaniel Hawthorne, December 31, 1839

Best Beloved, – I send you some allumettes wherewith to kindle the taper. There are very few but my second finger could no longer perform extra duty. These will serve till the wounded one be healed, however. How beautiful it is to provide even the slightest convenience for you, dearest! I cannot tell you how much I love you, in this back-handed style. My love is not in this attitude, - it rather bends forwards to meet you.

What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.

My ideas will not flow in these crooked strokes. God be with you. I am very well, and have walked far in Danvers this cold morning. I am full of the glory of the day. God bless you this night of the old year. It has proved the year of our nativity. Has not the old earth passed away from us? - are not all things new?

Your Sophie

- These letters can be found in: Forever Yours: Letters of Love. St. Martin's Press, 1991.

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

William James and the Stream

February 2, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

"Let us call the resting-places the 'substantive parts,' and the places of flight the 'transitive parts,' of the stream of thought. It then appears that the main end of our thinking is at all times the attainment of some other substantive part than the one from which we have just been dislodged. And we may say that the main use of the transitive parts is to lead us from one substantive conclusion to another." - William James, Principles of Psychology

William James's famous depiction of human thought as a continuous stream is now a mainstream idea. HMU's January Quarterly Discussion focused on this metaphor. We investigated its "resting places" and "places of flight". Why, or how, does one come to recognize any thought? James says that we have many thoughts of which we are both aware and unaware. These thoughts compose our stream of consciousness. Humans encounter a staggering amount of data everyday and parse it into the noisy stream, combined with reminders, memories, song lyrics, and interests (just to name a few other things that we carry).

One thing that strikes me as important is that James does not clearly define any terms in this chapter. Rather, he invokes the power of metaphor to universally describe thought. The accessibility of a stream is clear in ways that a scientific definition may not be. At the same time, though, James also notes the inherent flaws of language. He is quick to claim that language cannot accurately depict all reality. Rather, he says, "language works against our perception of the truth." In other words, perception is subjective. The subject defines experience in language that is also defined by the subject. An object, something external to the subject, can be defined only through the subject's access to it. And repeated experiences lead us to a level of "sameness".

"Sameness" allows humans the ability to recognize forms. An orange, for example, is round, orange and citrusy. Language allows sameness, but also limits us from having absolutely equivalent experiences with that orange. We know that an orange has a recognizable form, but it may carry different connotations for each of us. This additional baggage is personal, and not necessarily transmitted in the thought of orange itself. However, James claims that we can continually expand our understanding of an object. He writes, "Experience is remoulding us every moment, and our mental reaction on every given thing is really a resultant of our experience of the whole world up to that date.... Every brain-state is partly determined by the nature of this entire past succession." (152) In other words, our thoughts exist in a continual stream. As we interact with each thought, the thought develops its own unique parts.

So, while "sameness" allows us to converse with others about an object, personal influence is in part always lost. For example, imagine an orange sitting on the table. Investigate your preconceived notions of orange. Does the color please you? Do you like the flavor and taste? Does it make you think of summer or winter, a particular vacation, dessert or juice? We have almost instantaneous associations that may be what we are thinking when we speak. For example, I grew up with an orange tree. So, after this conversation and after thinking about what defines an object itself, I realized that when I say the word orange, I mentally recall the experience and smell of picking oranges. Therefore, while the communicable thought remains only that the orange is on the table, I am sensing much more than my words contain. Orange is the object of thought, but not the full thought itself. James continues that "[t]he next point to make clear is that, however complex the object may be, the thought of it is one undivided state of consciousness." So, for me, an orange is also experiential in a way that language does not immediately transmit. Imagining that everyone functions in a similar manner, makes it difficult to grasp how humans arrive at any verifiable "sameness".

I wonder what causes us to say anything? What focuses our attention on a single thought? It was suggested that the stream of thought is substantive and also transitive. The substantive section represents objects of interest. These objects exist in time and places for us, as we must associate them with some experience or definition. However, the transitive subset of the stream is composed of things that have yet to enter our consciousness. For whatever reason, these objects avoid our consciousness, and, as a result, they cannot be expressed in any sort of time-part. They literally do not yet exist in any functional or communicable way, though they may exist within the stream.

I am astounded at how difficult a discussion of simple thought is. Representing our personal definition of an orange, even, can be problematic. Extend this into philosophical ideas and intangible notions, and it is a wonder we can communicate at all. This is reinforced by the fact that thought can be traced through hundreds of years of philosophy. James is, in part, responding to those previous thinkers when he rebuts the idea that thought is composed of single, static conclusions. Rather, he reinforces complexity by allowing that each idea is connected to a massive flow of data.

I am ever-so-grateful to those who discussed James's work with me. His stream of consciousness idea has profound implications for communication and is well worth reading. I truly appreciate others' time and efforts in clarifying difficult points.

Our next Quarterly Discussion will focus on two translation. Join us! Email for more information.

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Code Talkers

November 24, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The code word for America was our mother Ne-he-mah.”

“I enjoyed serving my country and my people.” - Chester Nez

Protecting our country is an act of honor and bravery. Every one of those citizens who sign up for the arduous task of defending America is worthy of mention. Just within my own life, I have come to listen more closely to those veterans who are familiar to me. And I have discovered that each person contains a wealth of stories, information, humility, kindness and complexity. Soldiers lives are littered with disruption. Constant movement and change juxtaposes the often monotonous routines of the armed forces. I would love to highlight every single one of them. Since this is not feasible, then I will simply say that we are grateful and honored to be Americans. Thank you for your service.

The month of November celebrates two extremely important pieces of American culture: both Veteran's Day and Native American history and heritage. As I have been studying languages for some time, I felt it might be interesting to revisit the Code Talkers. While most of these men have passed away, their legacy is still palpable. In a very short time, they wrote the beginnings of their own language and used it to then create an unbreakable code. This code helped America win both the first and second World Wars.

According to the National Museum of the American Indian, “More than 12,000 American Indians served in World War I – about 25 percent of the male American Indian population at the time.” The use of a code dates back to World War I in which 14 Choctaw soldiers helped the U.S. against Germany. Then, in 1941, the U.S. government once again struggled to create encrypted codes safe from enemy eyes. Philip Johnston, son of missionaries and fluent in Navajo, proposed the idea of using the native language to the U.S. Marine Corps. The original program enlisted 29 code talkers who created and memorized the code. There was no written record to ensure that the code would be kept private. Therefore, the men created an alphabetical code based upon common Navajo words so that it could be easily memorized. For example, “[T]he Navajo words 'wol-la-chee' (ant), 'be-la-sana' (apple) and 'tse-nill' (axe) all stood for the letter 'a.' One way to say the word 'Navy' in Navajo code would be 'tsah' (needle) wol-la-chee (ant) ah-keh-di- glini (victor) tsah-ah-dzoh (yucca)." The code talkers were deployed to the Pacific and as the program grew, more than 400 code talkers would join their forces.

The Diné word for warrior is naabaahii. The warrior tradition is an important and respected part of Navajo culture. Chester Nez (a Code Talker from World War II) said that “a warrior is someone who cares for and protects the area that they are from, protect the country” and that he was proud to be a part of this tradition. These warriors created a code that changed the face of the war. The code was kept secret for 23 years and then declassified in 1968. After its declassification, the code talkers were asked for interviews and information. The National Museum of the American Indian reminds us how difficult and complex it may be to understand a soldier's life. They write, “Like all soldiers, Code Talkers carry many memories of their war experiences. Some memories are easy to revisit. Others are very difficult. Some veterans do not really like to discuss these memories, while others can more comfortably recall them. They remember how fierce and dangerous some of the fighting was. Some remember when their fellow soldiers were wounded or killed. They remember the noise and the violence of war. Others recall being prisoners of war. Sometimes they have more pleasant memories of different cultures and places that they had never seen before and probably would never see again. They also remember how their American Indian spirituality was important to them during the war.”

As the generation of Code Talkers fade, it is important to dedicate some time in becoming familiar with the multiple ways in which they served. They bridged two worlds, both Navajo and American, in order to create a better society for all of us. There are many ways to support local veterans, from donations to programs. We can all find ways in which to serve those who have best served us.

For more on the code talkers, visit the National Museum of American Indians:

To find the Navajo Code Talkers dictionary, visit: