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.

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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

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

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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Literary Language

July 13, 2018

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

I am interested in the way(s) in which literary language intersects with language itself. By literary language, I mean language that most often occurs in writing, but not necessarily in everyday speech. A marked difference between the spoken and written word of a culture represents diglossia. In other words, a culture which has a high level of diglossia has evolved language into two distinct functions: written and spoken. The idea of language, then, expands from a system of communication to a variety of expressions specific to a situation, but inappropriate in other situations. Utilizing the wrong language style, then, may lead to misunderstanding. Cicero presents one example of diglossia. He wrote in an elevated, stylized Latin which was not common in everyday rhetoric. Ferdinand de Saussure formalized the idea of language as separate from speech in his structuralist formula. In a nutshell, he claimed that “langue” (which roughly translates to language) represents the totality of imaginative language (including grammar, etc.), whereas “parole” (which roughly translates to speech) is a concrete formulation, such as speech or writing. Langue opens up potential, whereas the latter is an actuality or action. In focusing upon the way a single society uses language, one can develop a better sense of the society itself.

During the Middle Ages, England experienced a number of language changes. Chaucer, for example, had to navigate a tri-literate system of French, Latin and English. Chaucer worked in the court and therefore, dealt in French. His education and writing career demanded the use of Latin. And, of course, he wrote in a vernacular English which had not been done before. His lifestyle at court and working with tariffs enabled Chaucer a rare view of life, one in which he met many people. He reflected the great language changes of his time in his writings. Chaucer incorporated French, Latin and English (both grammatical constructs and words) into his writings. Furthermore, he wrote in dialects at a time when dialects were beginning to disappear. Speech from the north of England altered in different ways than the south. The Canterbury Tales present a diverse set of speakers, which demonstrates his abilities in both observation and skill at characterization. Strictly speaking, he combined both langue (potential speech acts) and parole (actual speech acts) in order to create believable character traits. In order to do this, Chaucer combined and played with rules from common speech styles, including Old English, Latin and French.

Old English accumulated terms from Germanic and Scandinavian languages. As French became the language of nobility, it also filtered into daily life. As universities arose (Oxford and Cambridge among the first around 1200), scholars and scribes began to unify spelling. Simultaneous to spelling and grammar formalization, English began accumulating foreign terms. Chaucer noted these changes in his tales. This marks a transition from Old English to Middle English. Some scholars, however, disliked the palimpsest-like style of Middle English. Alexander Gil, a prominent teacher of the 16th century, reinforced the idea that language should be pure. He published a text on the purity of English, which, ironically, he wrote in Latin. (It is notable that John Milton was one of Gil’s students).

Rarely does everyday speech take note of grammatical rules, however. Languages and dialects flow together altering grammar in unpredictable ways. One of the things I love about Old English is the way that it creates compounds. Often two words were thrown together in a sort of metaphor, which resulted in a single, new term. So, for example, an idea like wīdwegas is actually a combination of two previous terms. It compounds wīde, which means “far” or “far and wide”; and weg, which means “path, road or way.” The combination, wīdwegas, translates to “distant regions.” However, as other languages began filtering in, particularly French, English slowly absorbed a lot of foreign terms into its lexicon. So, while Gil did not appreciate language change, Chaucer did. Chaucer recognized the ways in which words are formed and imagined how the speakers in his tales would actually speak. This trick allowed him to develop excellent and believable characters.

Sometimes, however, a term is considered pretentious and speakers refuse to use it. In the late 15th century, so many terms were being produced that they became known as “inkhorn terms.” In other words, they were something that writers used, but were not necessarily a part of common speech. Inkhorn terms, coined by Thomas Wilson in 1553, often combined Latin or Greek roots with a variety of prefixes and suffixes to form a fancy, and often pretentious sounding new term. (Inkhorn refers to the writer’s inkwell. Therefore, inkhorn words pertained more to the written word than spoken.) There are any number of imaginative and hilarious combinations which have fallen out of use. (Find more links for inkhorn terms at the bottom of this blog). It is interesting, though, that this style of writing has also given us some useful terms such as autograph and meditate.

In short, I still wonder why some terms stay and some terms fade. When do we consider grammar to be proper, or forced, or affected? When is grammar natural or pure? How do we judge speech acts if not by our own rules, and when is it acceptable to break the rules? Does metaphor grant an aura of prestige to any given language (or language act)? Can we mix words from the Urban Dictionary, for example, into scholarly writing and have the desired impact? So while, Saussure claimed that langue was a private act and parole was primarily a social act, I wonder if there is more of an ebb and a flow than we realize.

For more on Chaucer, visit these past blogs:


For more on Language, try these blogs:


For more inkhorn terms, visit:


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Joy or Happiness

June 22, 2018

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

“Man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so.” - Blaise Pascal

Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony recently got me thinking about the difference between joy and happiness. Why does Beethoven end the 9th with an “Ode to Joy?” Why not “Ode to Happiness?” So many authors have discussed the importance of the idea of happiness, but not necessarily joy. Assuming that Pascal (and many others) are correct in stating that happiness is man’s ultimate desire, it would be important to better understand the term. Mortimer Adler writes (in the Syntopicon): “Discussion begins rather than ends with the fact that happiness is what all men desire. Once they have asserted that fact, once they have made happiness the most fundamental of all ethical terms, writers like Aristotle or Locke, Aquinas or J.S. Mill, cannot escape the question whether all who seek happiness look for it or find it in the same things.”

The fact that happiness is difficult to define may also explain why joy is also difficult to define. For Beethoven’s piece, is the final joy only attained in the presence of God? Is joy a goal that must be reached in brotherhood, but not alone? Is it fleeting? The rising and falling movement of the music renders emotion, which for me, clearly expresses joy. I wonder, however, do all people react similarly? And, if I misinterpret the music’s emotion, does it make a difference?

I think of joy as a form of extreme bliss, though I am not sure if this is accurate or precise. Merriam-Webster lists joy as “a state of happiness or felicity,” but that does little to help me differentiate between happiness and joy. The same dictionary lists happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Both definitions invoke the idea of a state of being, suggesting impermanence. Happiness includes the idea of contentment, though, which implies a level of permanence. Also, happiness is listed as one of the great ideas in the Syntopicon, while joy is not. In fact, the idea of happiness as a great idea is discussed in terms of permanence or a great achievement, rather than a momentary pleasure. And of course, the authors of the Declaration of Independence named the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable human right. From these usages, we can begin to craft an idea of happiness.

Classical philosophers are split between defining happiness as a temporal good or one that can only be attained in the afterlife. There seems to be agreement on the idea that happiness implies a state of contentment, but beyond that, the basis for happiness ranges from physical health to wealth to wisdom and to a virtuous life. Many of the things that they propose to measure happiness can only be measured at the end of life, which makes me wonder if temporary moments of happiness are incorrectly termed? Perhaps these shorter moments interspersed throughout life sometimes fall under the category of joy, but not quite happiness. Socrates develops an idea of happiness by explaining to Glaucon (in The Republic) that justice is “concerned not with the outward man, but the inward.” He moves then to state that happiness is a natural form inside every human. This essence cannot be separate from us, though it can be mistaken or missed altogether. Others, such as Kant, Milton, and Aquinas, explain that only imperfect happiness exists on earth, and perfect happiness will be attained in the afterlife. Regardless of philosopher, however, they agree on the value of the contemplation of happiness.

In writing the final movement of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven altered a poem by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller titled “An die Freude.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, freude can mean “joy, pleasure, delight, gladness or rejoicing,” but does not mention happiness directly. Instead, the German term expresses an ecstasy not present in Merriam-Webster’s English definition of joy (a state of happiness or felicity). I also like the way that “freudenvollere” (which means “more joyful”) compounds “joy” with the idea of being filled. In Beethoven’s piece, the music literally fills all space (ear, body, etc) with joy. It is a physical movement, which for me, is a most appropriate translation of “An die Freude.” Also important is the fact that Beethoven was near the end of his career when he wrote the piece. Nearly deaf at this time, I believe that a lifetime of experience developed the emotion of that piece.

I wonder if there is a difference in the entire conception between the two terms. Is joy meant to be transitory, ecstatic, fleeting and impossible to chase, whereas happiness is meant to attain a steady sense of fullness, as in a life well-lived? While I am sure we would all like to have some joy, typically we discuss happiness as an end in itself. Why? Possibly because of joy’s transitory nature. Possibly because joy, or an overfilling, seems too much to ask, whereas happiness appears attainable.

Regardless of the intent behind the 9th Symphony "Ode to Joy", I think Beethoven (and Schiller) nailed it. Music expresses emotion in a way that language alone cannot. To better understand what I mean here, listen to the wide variety of musical interpretations in German, English and Spanish (I offer a small sample below, but there are endless versions online). A comparison may highlight some key features of joy.

Ode to Joy Flash mob, Barcelona:

Miguel Rios sings Himno de la alegria:

Ritchie Blackmore, rock ‘n roll:

Flash mob, Nürnberg:

Baroque Symphony:

For more on happiness, consider joining our upcoming Quarterly Discussion on Augustine. Contact with questions or to register.

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