How Language Informs Narrative and Influences Culture

Illuminating the value of language to critivcal intelligence


“All subject are a form of discourse,” says Neil Postman. It makes sense. Because you need language and conversation to discuss biology, physics, chemistry, history, geography, astronomy, etc. Dialectic is valuable, whether you're arguing to win, or have a loftier goal: that to understand.

Cicero first said that the purpose of education is to 'free the student from the tyranny of the present.' If you look up the root of the word, educāre (to express a principle of directing or guiding) is associated with educĕre, interpreted as ‘revealing’ or ‘exposing’ to the outside (ex being the prefix that says out, hence, we say 'that's my ex.')

From letters, we know Cicero first talked about culture in the context of the metaphors of the time. He introduced the concept of cultura animi (from agriculture) for the development of a philosophical soul. By cultivating the soul, humans can overcome base instincts and become citizens in the full sense of the word.

I'd like to combine the two concepts. The purpose of education (no school necessary) is to explore knowledge and thinking to cultivate the spirit. Postman is no longer with us, but thankfully we have his brilliant mind in the form of books. This enduring format allows you join me in conversation with him this very moment.


How language advances critical intelligence

You don't need to take Newspeak, commercial huckstering, bureaucratese, and other forms of verbal nonsense as is. There are linguistic concepts that can help you sort through them. These concepts used to belong to the Roman Trivium, a curriculum that included 'meta' subject such as grammar, logic, and rhetoric to form the mind.

“There arises from a bad and unapt formation of words

a wonderful obstruction of the mind.”

[Francis Bacon]

Quadrivium followed with music, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. The since-abandoned curriculum was based on the assumption that language and numbers are the basis of our world. Postman suggested seven helpful ideas in relation to language:


Process of definition—a definition is an instrument of purpose; it's valuable to know the question that led to it. There's a measure of arbitrariness in definitions, their authority rests on their usefulness. Thus you should consider definitions hypotheses with embedded philosophical, political, and epistemological points of views.


Question—how you ask your question determines the answer you get. When you witness ineffective action, that's the result of questions badly formed. Thus, questions are the most important tool you have at your disposal. Anything we discover and learn is the outcome of a question.

Yet, companies still hire based on answers. Interesting, isn't it? Start reading the news, if you must, by digging into the question behind the article. I find the lie is often  in the question. Different systems of knowledge require different considerations and format questions. Roland Barthes said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.”

Also, see the art of asking.


Simple words are the most difficult—appearances can be deceiving.

Let's try a few: “true,” “fact,” “false,” “law,” “good,” “bad.” These are words you use in a broad range of applications. The “law of supply and demand” is different from “Grimm's Law” in linguistics or “Newton's Law” in physics or the “law of the survival of the fittest” in biology.

“True” in mathematics is different from “true” in economics,

or speaking a “truth” in a literary work.

Further, your authority in a subject goes hand in hand with competence. The appeal to logic is different. What do the words in different contexts imply, what sources of authority do they appeal to, in what circumstances are you using them? Sometimes a text, ad, talk conceals more than it reveals. Can you tell the difference?


Metaphor and its uses—a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance. It finds connections between things in the mind and new connections to explore.

Metaphors structure the way we talk and think. Take for example my use of trees and weeds in this short article about ideas. Come to think of it, trees are very popular as metaphors. They don't seem to be as popular as living creatures these days. 'Food for thought' is another metaphor.

Rousseau wrote, “man is born free, but is everywhere in chains” in The Social Contract.# Likewise, metaphors fill our conversations. “Time is money,” often comes dressed as 'I don't have the time to give you' or 'Is that worth your while?'


Reification—this means treating ideas as things (from Lat. res, thing, and fication, making or causing.) “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” said Shakespeare. But he didn't take into account the propensity for identifying a name with the object it labels. Try calling a rose stink-weed!

This propensity to confuse a thing with a name is good for advertising. A human tendency for over promising is why in 1962, Italy passed a law that banned names with superlatives (super-, ultra-, stra-) for consumer products. There's a lot riding on a name. And for this the reason product naming is a valuable skills.


Style and tone—an academic paper has a certain tone and mode of writing, different from an essay for a magazine, for example. Read historian Alessandro Barbero, and you will find his style and tone slightly more formal than that of his legendary talks at the Festival della Mente (of the mind) in Sarzana.

Manner is as important as matter. That's why it's valuable to read authors directly, and in the original language.


Media is not neutral—here Postman borrows from Marshall McLuhan's “the medium is the message.” Encoding and coding of information has bias in it. If you speak more than one language, you already know how the world changes whether you describe it in French, or German, or Spanish.

Channels matter, too. Radio is a different form than painting, television, or print. Each medium classifies things by the way it frames them. Instagram, like television, favors the attractive. There's no neutrality in channels. Each is a way of seeing and doing, with its own culture.

Language has tremendous influence on thought and culture. This is why I appreciate the French for protecting from Anglicisms. And conversely, I disprove of Italians using them when there are perfectly good words within reach. One example that disappoints: “supportare” used instead of “sostenere.”

But there's something else to consider for critical intelligence.


How myths inform our lives

To make this part of my argument, I rely on Mary Midgley's The Myths we Live by. This relates to narrative. Prominent ideas cannot die until the problems that arise within them have been resolved. Hence, these ideas become organic parts of our lives.

Enlightenment, which is still a cultural guidepost in much of the Anglo-world, has as the main philosophical idea freedom as an overriding concept since the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 18th century, the first public education centers appeared, free and mandatory for the entire young population.  

The machinery imagery from that time

still permeate culture and its metaphors.

“The building blocks of life” is a reductive picture of the teeming activities of nature. Organic matter has no building blocks. The human brain is not a computer. German neuroscientist Olaf Sporns says, “Neuroscience still largely lacks organizing principles or a theoretical framework for converting brain data into fundamental knowledge and understanding.”

Neuroscientist Karl Lashley already argued against the mechanistic metaphor in 1951.

“Descartes was impressed by the hydraulic figures in the royal gardens, and developed a hydraulic theory of the action of the brain. We have since had telephone theories, electrical field theories and now theories based on computing machines and automatic rudders. I suggest we are more likely to find out about how the brain works by studying the brain itself, and the phenomena of behavior, than by indulging in far-fetched physical analogies.”

Any attempt to reduce the brain to a discrete thing has so far failed. Perhaps we should be content with understanding some of its parts, as the whole is much greater than our ability to grasp it. Which takes us to the meaning of myth. A myth is stories woven from metaphors.

Enlightenment was developed as an answer to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, says Midgley. Morality was seen as a social contract freely made between fellow citizens for civic purpose and ultimately self-interest. But it backfired.

The idea of freedom put individualism in tension with competitiveness. Because its concept of 'unity of all humanity' clashes with the idea of 'duties to outsiders': what about slavery? Schools are also a useful narrative guidepost. They became state-regulated institutions in the 19th century with the expansion of capitalism.

Consider how these ideas are shaping your intellectual and moral thinking today. How are they informing the technologies humanity is building?


[A light through the fog image by Martin Winkler]


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