The Power of a Name

Fairy tales and other stories occasionally suggest the idea that a name gives some kind of power over the thing named, or at least that one’s problems concerning a thing may be solved by knowing its name, as in the story of Rumpelstiltskin. There is perhaps a similar suggestion in Revelation 2:7, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” The secrecy of the new name may indicate (among other things) that others will have no power over that person.

There is more truth in this idea than one might assume without much thought. For example, anonymous authors do not want to be “doxxed” because knowing the name of the author really does give some power in relation to them which is not had without the knowledge of their name. Likewise, as a blogger, occasionally I want to cite something, but cannot remember the name of the author or article where the statement is made. Even if I remember the content fairly clearly, lacking the memory of the name makes finding the content far more difficult, while on the other name, knowing the name gives me the power of finding the content much more easily.

But let us look a bit more deeply into this. Hilary Lawson, whose position was somewhat discussed here, has a discussion along these lines in Part II of his book, Closure: A Story of Everything. Since he denies that language truly refers to the world at all, as I mentioned in the linked post on his position, it is important to him that language has other effects, and in particular has practical goals. He says in chapter 4:

In order to understand the mechanism of practical linguistic closure consider an example where a proficient speaker of English comes across a new word. Suppose that we are visiting a zoo with a friend. We stand outside a cage and our friend says: ‘An aasvogel.” …

It might appear at first from this example that nothing has been added by the realisation of linguistic closure. The sound ‘aasvogel’ still sounds the same, the image of the bird still looks the same. So what has changed? The sensory closures on either side may not have changed, but a new closure has been realised. A new closure which is in addition to the prior available closures and which enables intervention which was not possible previously. For example, we now have a means of picking out this particular bird in the zoo because the meaning that has been realised will have identified a something in virtue of which this bird is an aasvogel and which thus enables us to distinguish it from others. As a result there will be many consequences for how we might be able to intervene.

The important point here is simply that naming something, even before taking any additional steps, immediately gives one the ability to do various practical things that one could not previously do. In a passage by Helen Keller, previously quoted here, she says:

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me.

We may have similar experiences as adults learning a foreign language while living abroad. At first one has very little ability to interact with the foreign world, but suddenly everything is possible.

Or consider the situation of a hunter gatherer who may not know how to count. It may be obvious to them that a bigger pile of fruit is better than a smaller one, but if two piles look similar, they may have no way to know which is better. But once they decide to give “one fruit and another” a name like “two,” and “two and one” a name like “three,” and so on, suddenly they obtain a great advantage that they previously did not possess. It is now possible to count piles and to discover that one pile has sixty-four while another has sixty-three. And it turns out that by treating the “sixty-four” as bigger than the other pile, although it does not look bigger, they end up better off.

In this sense one could look at the scientific enterprise of looking for mathematical laws of nature as one long process of looking for better names. We can see that some things are faster and some things are slower, but the vague names “fast” and “slow” cannot accomplish much. Once we can name different speeds more precisely, we can put them all in order and accomplish much more, just as the hunter gatherer can accomplish more after learning to count. And this extends to the full power of technology: the men who landed on the moon, did so ultimately due to the power of names.

If you take Lawson’s view, that language does not refer to the world at all, all of this is basically casting magic spells. In fact, he spells this out himself, in so many words, in chapter 3:

All material is in this sense magical. It enables intervention that cannot be understood. Ancient magicians were those who had access to closures that others did not know, in the same way that the Pharaohs had access to closures not available to their subjects. This gave them a supernatural character. It is now that thought that their magic has been explained, as the knowledge of herbs, metals or the weather. No such thing has taken place. More powerful closures have been realised, more powerful magic that can subsume the feeble closures of those magicians. We have simply lost sight of its magical character. Anthropology has many accounts of tribes who on being observed by a Western scientist believe that the observer has access to some very powerful magic. Magic that produces sound and images from boxes, and makes travel swift. We are inclined to smile patronisingly believing that we merely have knowledge — the technology behind radio and television, and motor vehicles — and not magic. The closures behind the technology do indeed provide us with knowledge and understanding and enable us to handle activity, but they do not explain how the closures enable intervention. How the closures are successful remains incomprehensible and in this sense is our magic.

I don’t think we should dismiss this point of view entirely, but I do think it is more mistaken than otherwise, basically because of the original mistake of thinking that language cannot refer to the world. But the point that names are extremely powerful is correct and important, to the point where even the analogy of technology as “magic that works” does make a certain amount of sense.

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