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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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Love

February 12, 2016

 

Love is an incredibly complicated idea. It is ubiquitous...in the universe, in literature, in our lives. Everyone experiences love, all ages and in all forms. We can talk about familial love, the love of brothers and sisters, our love of entertainment, platonic love, love that holds a marriage together, the love of a child, love of self, etc. The list is enormous. So, what do we celebrate, when we think of St. Valentine, Valentine's Day or a day for love? What is this idea of love?

 

One of the more interesting aspects of love is the fact that we make extra allowances for it. We forgive (or at least empathize) more readily when we know that someone committed a crime out of love (not passion, love). On the flip side of this idea, however, is the fact that love gone awry also incurs the most brutal of hatred. For these reasons tales of fiction become profoundly complicated, mixing characters and emotions in any number of ways. Since the best discussions of love exist in literature itself, we offer no real definitions in today's blog. Instead, the following quotes open the door to a discussion of the idea of love itself. Feel free to leave a comment with one of the millions of excellent quotes that we couldn't fit into today's post. Thanks!

Image ID: 351467759 Copyright: Erce. Shutterstock.com

Image ID: 351467759 Copyright: Erce. Shutterstock.com


“I have for the first time found what I can truly love - I have found you. You are my sympathy - my better self–my good angel - I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you - and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.” - Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë


“Elizabeth's spirit's soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her. 'How could you begin?' said she. 'I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?'


'I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”  - Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen


“There were no embraces, because where there is great love there is often little display of it.” - Don Quixote, Miquel de Cervantes Saavedra


“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,/ My love as deep; the more I give to thee,/ The more I have, for both are infinite.” - Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare


“To be wise and love, Exceeds man's might” - Troilus and Cressida, William Shakespeare


“Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.”  - Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, John O'Donohue


“True love is eternal, infinite, and always like itself. It is equal and pure, without violent demonstrations: it is seen with white hairs and is always young in the heart.” - Honore de Balzac


“Stronger than lover's love is lover's hate. Incurable, in each, the wounds they make.” - Medea, Euripides


“Could there be finer symptoms? Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”  - Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen


“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.... One is very crazy when in love.” - Sigmund Freud


“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” - Romans 12:9, King James Bible


“Freely we serve/ Because we freely love, as in our will/ To love or not; in this we stand or fall." - Paradise Lost, John Milton


“The life so short, the craft so long to learn,/ The assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,/ The fearful joy that slips away in turn,/ All this mean I by Love, that my feeling/ Astonishes with its wondrous working/ So fiercely that when I on love do think/ I know not well whether I float or sink.” - Parliament of Fowls, Geoffrey Chaucer


“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” - The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis


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