How to tell a fact from a phony; how to ask questions
a sane man can answer; how not to talk nonsense,
except for pleasure . . . and much else, in a book on
semantics and the power of words, by the author of
PEOPLE IN QUANDARIES.
A new book of compelling
interest by the author of
People in Quandaries
By Wendell Johnson
This book might well be called How
to Talk to Yourself, because it is fun-
damentally concerned with knowing
what you’re saying and saying what
you mean. It is also a book about how
to be dependable as an observer and
honest as a reporter. It is about how
not to tell a lie. It is about how not to
be a sucker.
Mind in the Making, Overstreet's The
Mature Mind, Julian Huxley's Man in
the Modern World, Hayakawa's Lan-
guage in Thought and Action, and the
author's own People in Quandaries.
which we find ourselves, and the pit-
falls of language. Wendell Johnson
brings out these points in a nontech-
nical way and I hope that thousands
of readers will take them to heart." --
able for people in my game, whose
lives are built around the merchandis-
ing of symbols. It should certainly
meet with wide success. -- IRVING
GITLIN, Director of Public Affairs, Co-
lumbia Broadcasting System
I think, is better. It is clearer and tidier;
it is easier to follow; it is fun to read,
too, in many places. It can now be
said firmly, I believe, that 'People who
do not understand what Wendell
Johnson is talking about have no busi-
ness talking about anything.' The race
will surely perish one way or another,
and pretty soon, unless people learn
that nearly always, when they think
they think, or believe they believe,
they aren't doing any such things." --
[Note: The back of the jacket for Your Most Enchanted Listener contains comments about People in Quandaries, which have been reproduced in conjunction with the excerpt from that book. -N.J.]
TWO Four Hundred Little Tugs Each Day 7
THREE The Talking Tribes 13
FOUR The Early Morning of the Human Day 23
FIVE The Wanted Wise Man 31
SIX The Ordeal of Asking Questions 43
SEVEN Seeing What Stares Us in the Face 49
EIGHT The Believing That Is Seeing 59
NINE Certain Fundamentals of Nonsense 73
TEN Before Words 83
ELEVEN The Twig That Bends Itself 95
TWELVE The Coins of Meaning 105
THIRTEEN Are There Really Gilligs? 131
FOURTEEN Notions Our Language Puts in Our Heads 147
FIFTEEN The What That Goes With What 163
SIXTEEN The Words Whose Wings Are Broken 181
SEVENTEEN Gentle Bravery 199
to the Rome of self-fulfillment,
a city within a city within a city without end.
The wonderful secret which the wise old Frenchman sought with unshrinking hope to share with all men, his brothers, was this: Only those who are wise to the words are the wise to whom words are sufficient.
With the concentration of a midwife he strove to make this plain to those who listened. With tile gentleness of a new mother he abided their illusions of understanding by which they kept themselves from comprehending his profound tough simple meaning.
Yet, there were the children, not yet numbed by learning. As he sat one day on a firm chair beneath a wide tree on his green yard, the wise old Frenchman beckoned to a boy who had come near.
"What would you call this?" he asked the boy.
"A hickory nut," the boy said.
"Ah, but I should rather call it a pon lomando, because it seems to me to be a much prettier name. Don't you think it is a much prettier name?"
"Much prettier," said the boy.
"Good! Then you and I shall call it a pon lomando," said the wise old Frenchman.
"I'd like that. Pretty names are much the best."
"You know what names are for, don't you, boy?"
"Of course I do," said the boy. "I use them for talking."
"Ah! They're good for that."
The boy laughed softly.
"And have you noticed how very difficult it is to make names without talking with them, at any rate to yourself?"
"Of course I have," said the boy.
"Nothing is more fun than that," the boy said. "I can make a name for anything."
"And change it any time you please?"
"Any time I please."
"Do you make new names because you grow tired of the old ones?"
"Sometimes I grow tired of the old ones," the boy said.
"Is it that you grow tired of them when they are no longer useful for making thoughts that are true or delightful? Then you make new names, do you?"
"I make new names then, because I like to make thoughts that are either true or delightful. They're the best," the boy said.
"Do you sometimes make two very different names for the same thing?"
"Of course not. It wouldn't stay the same if I made another very different name for it. Giving a thing a quite new name makes it be a new thing. Everyone knows that!"
"Oh, my boy, few men know that. Do you know what very nearly all men say? They say that a rose by any other name would smell the same.
"That's not true!" said the boy. "That's not true at all!"
"Of count it isn't true," said the wise old Frenchman. "I have made a verse about that, and you can learn it:
A rose with onion for its nameThe boy smiled quietly, and skipped away.
Might never, never smell the same --
And canny is the nose that knows
An onion that is called a rose.
And if we then insist on answers
we can trust we shall grow wise
in finding them.
The hero of this forlorn footnote to human history symbolizes both the basic method of genius and the hazards of its use.
The hazards vary, of course, with one's circumstances -- and prudence -- but the method does not lend itself to compromise. It is, as we have seen, a method that involves four steps -- question, observation, report, conclusion -- and they are to be performed in that order, and over and over again. Without questions that require observations, and throw a
steady beam into the places where they might be undertaken, either no observations will be made or, if they are, nothing will be made of them. And as soon as clear questions have been asked, we have no choice but to set about making the observations they require -- except as we may cherish our ignorance and conspire with ourselves to preserve it.
The alternatives to asking answerable questions, and then making honest attempts to find answers to them, are clear -- and disgraceful. We can ask no questions at all, either out of stupor or as a display of arrogance. We can ask questions that are misleading, or vague, or meaningless -- to be answered, respectively, by mountebanks, the confused, and the very naive. Or, we may ask clear questions and then refuse to acknowledge them, as a gesture of fear, smugness, or irresponsibility.
The one form of human behavior that is consistently honest by conscious design is that behavior which is scientific. If you really believe that honesty is the best policy then you will strive to behave as scientifically as possible. If you try it you may decide against it, but then at least you will know that, by so far, you prefer dishonesty. In that case you are likely to be comforted by the arguments advanced by Mr. Stefansson in favor of "the standardization of error" (in an unforgettable book by that title) on the ground that generally agreed-upon error would be -- that it is, in fact -- more convenient than truth. For one thing, truth tends to change as the restless atoms weave anew and anew the shimmery fabric of fact. Error, on the other hand, agreed upon and firmly fixed in legend and in law, is something one can count upon from day to day, even from century to century.
And there are other considerations. Truth peeks from
If, however, you feel compelled to reject these appeals to the comfort and convenience of deceit, you will be relieved to find a method for the madness of your honesty. We have examined the first requisite of the method: the fashioning of questions that can be answered by means of observations that can be made. It is time now we considered the honest ways of making these observations.
The most important thing to know about an observation is that it has to be made more than once, by more than one person, before it can be entered with confidence in the ledger of fact. Truth is never private.
These, of course, are fighting words. Few other pages of history are so smudged with blood as those on which the masses of men have written -- and are writing -- their determined declaration of independence from those presumptuous few who claim to know by secret revelation what is best for them. This was the basic issue of the French Revolution -- and the American Declaration of Independence. It has ever been the argument, punctuated by gunfire, against the Kings. It is the sword that hangs heavy over the head of every dictator -- military, political, industrial, academic,
52 Your Most Enchanted Listener
religious, legal, familial, or of any other stripe. It is the justification of democracy.
Science and democracy acknowledge no Stone Tablets, no Sons of Heaven, no Fuhrers, no Medicine Men or Shamans. The truth does indeed make men free -- free from the tyranny of Knowers -- for there is no truth except as it has been confirmed by those for whom it is intended. In the economical phrase of Carl Sandburg, The people, yes.
Precisely because an observation is the act of an individual, there is no way of knowing whether it is true -- dependable, that is -- until at least one other individual has made it, too. And this holds regardless of who makes it first. The first beholder may be a potentate wound round with gold braid, fastened together with medals made from silver soaked in milk drawn from the seventh cow sired by the seventh bull, and blessed by the incantations of seven aged men who never face anywhere but east. It makes no difference. Somebody has to agree with him closely enough to make the observation reliable for practical purposes. The more other persons there are who agree with him, and the more closely they agree, the better. And it doesn't matter who they are so long as they are independent and properly equipped, trained, and situated to see what he said he saw. If they see it, too, he can be believed accordingly. If they don't, the chances are he is a fraud, and any person of usable wit will hold in reserve this possibility until further notice.
This is the sort of thing scientific workers refer to when they speak about the reliability of their data. They are talking about the limits within which two or more observers, with comparable opportunities for seeing the same thing, agree in what they see. The greater the agreement among qualified observers, working independently of one another,
In the laboratory this makes for a tremendous amount of work and ingenious invention -- and for more and more dependable findings. Outside the laboratory, in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life, it makes for a habit of mind conducive to rigorous honesty and integrity. In the absence of this habit of mind injustices and tragedies of bias tend to be widespread and inevitable. For reliability, in the fundamental scientific sense, is essential to fair play. It is presumed as a prerequisite of democratic legal procedure. This is an issue, therefore, that has tremendous personal and social consequences outside laboratories as well as inside them. The rules of honesty, as they apply to observational reliability, cannot, with honesty, be set aside sometimes. They pass, as it were, through any and all walls, those of marble and mud alike.
In the names of justice, good sportsmanship, and general honesty, it is simply essential that information reported in the public press, in meetings of committees, or across lunch tables be double-checked. In engineering and industry this is a matter of profits or bankruptcy. In medicine it is a matter of life or death. In public affairs and in private life it is a matter of integrity or corruption. In the laboratory it is taken for granted as a necessary and elementary part of scientific behavior.
If you would be reliable, dependable, honest, you may not report as an established fact whatever has not been observed
54 Your Most Enchanted Listener
by more than one person -- even though you be that one person. And those who verify the observation must be suitably equipped and situated and sufficiently unaffected by suggestion, illusion, or self-interest.
Facts are public, and he who buys a secret gives alms to fraud.
All this is said, of course, with the clear realization that facts arise in experience -- and every experience is personal. It is necessarily, in each instance, the experience of some one individual. An act of observation is no exception to this rule. In the case of an observation made by you of something outside your skin, I can verify it. But if you say you feel a pain in your back I cannot feel it too. How, then, am I to establish reliably that you do feel a pain in your back? You may be lying, or malingering. or you may need a psychiatrist.
The fact is that I may not fully verify your reported feeling by myself. For it must be checked by observations of its circumstances and effects, and my own observations of these circumstances and effects are to be checked by at least a second observer, independent and competent. Assuming that they are checked and found to be reliable, these observations are the evidence by which your report is to be judged. It may not be conclusive evidence, but it is the only evidence we can have, and quite often -- as in medical practice -- it will be dependable enough to be useful. Certainly, if no evidence can be found of any physical reason why there should be a pain in your back, it is to be concluded that probably either you are giving a false report or you are neurotic. And there are observational checks for determining which is more probably the case. If you are neurotic you do have a pain in your back -- because of an idea in your head -- and proper procedures, observational again, will be more or less likely
So it is that even our reports of the observations we make of the goings-on and feelings inside us are to be judged as being more or less reliable, depending on the relevant additional observations that support them or not. To insist, "It's my back and I ought to know," does not in the least degree convince a scientist.
The basic rules of observational reliability are simple, however widely untaught and unlearned they may seem to be. As a matter of fact, we trust them constantly, in certain respects, even though it may not often occur to us that they are the rules we are trusting. We know from common experience, if not from controlled experiment, that as a rule the readings of thermometers, meters, scales, and the like are reasonably reliable, and so we tend to rely generally on our own thermometer readings and observations of speedometers. Whenever we have checked them against the readings made by our companions they have turned out to show considerable agreement and so to be fairly dependable, as a rule. Having established the practical reliability of a particular kind of observation as commonly made, we live with it -- at tolerable risk. So it is that, without bothering to check every report by which we are guided, we manage to survive in large numbers, in spite of depths of innocence that are essentially beyond sounding.
Facts -- reliable observations -- are worth no more to us, however, than our points of view and our philosophies permit us to make of them. There is a kind of fruitless cunning in much of our surviving -- a reliance on facts that are, in truth, dependable for purposes of taking breath, together with an equal faith, all too often, in the lies and nonsense
56 Your Most Enchanted Listener
that forever frustrate our reachings out for love and peace and wisdom.
Yet, the facts of observation are indispensable to our sanity, and they can and do affect our points of view, our basic attitudes and philosophies. Certainly there is no way for us to look upon the truth, and align our living with it, except as we may learn to see what stares us in the face. For, seeing not what we look at, we see what is not there at all. And holding fast to visions, we consume our lives in fitful struggle with devils of our own invention, encouraged and commanded by the angels that we dream.
It is by learning to see what stares us in the face that we may triumph over self- deception, since it is a kind of learning that depends upon our trusting the testimony of our fellows to challenge and complement our own. For there is a trickery about our senses that makes our seeing all suspect, save as we test it for the stray effects of fancy. And only far more testing than we mostly think to do can make it fancy-free.
Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page