Funking Baskets

I quite often cite that philosophical problems involve poor or confused use of language, but here would like to pass a brief comment on something the poor and confused often think is a problematic use of language: profanity.

Elsewhere I have, and presumably later on will again, describe language as variously a tool, and a toolkit, for cognitive and semantic tasks. And it would be a slightly odd tradesman who would carry around a tool that served no useful purpose whatsoever. It would be even odder if every tradesman carried such a tool. Even a relatively empty use of language, such as gossip, has some function, e.g. to allow the discharging of social bonds between those content to be petty and malicious, or worse, those interested in people generally.

So what would be the function of profanity, on a view that has it performing a useful task? I would say that the lexicon of profanity is deployed in edge situations, situations where the comfortable, mainstream, toothless body of language is no longer sufficient. Sufficient either to express or to affect. Profanity is used to vent the greatest pains or frustrations, or to attack those who are the greatest threat or initiators of the worst calumnies against us. Such an area of language is therefore unlikely to be pleasant in itself, or drawn etymologically from anything not considered contentious, taboo, or significant. By definition it cannot be pleasant, but that hardly inveighs against its value or usefulness.

The normal avenue of attack against profanity is that it signifies a lack of vocabulary or even intelligence. I, however, have not noticed an exchange of brain cells, or words from another area of language, in exchange for some invective. It seems much more likely to me that detractors are those with the bad taste to be easily offended.

There is one problem with the use of profanity, however, and it is one of overuse. To achieve its function profanity must remain on the edge, it must have the force to indicate that the user has been affronted, has been hurt, or otherwise infringed upon (not that the edge it describes is always a negative one – we sometimes wish to indicate via profanity just how welcome or enjoyable something is, even if the force of the expression derives from negative associations). Overuse depicts one as lacking a sense of proportion, and that is a much better reason to find it distasteful than some bloodless prudence.

Perhaps not the most popular of views, but the subject matter does lend itself to a rich variety of responses to any who disagree.

More than a metre ruler and piece of string needed

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to tackling a book from my Christmas book pile.  I was somewhat sceptical about the title ‘Measuring the World‘ as I neither a enthusiastic nor good mathematician or geographer.  And yet, this was an exceptionally interesting read and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Following the lives of Carl Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, this interweaves their existences and exploits in a very accessible way.  Although not lacking in mathematical terminology, it is possible for even the basest scientists like myself to follow.

If like me you automatically think of squid when the name Humboldt is mentioned, think again.  That was Alexander’s brother.  Their unique upbringing lead them both to be leaders of intellectualism in eighteenth century Prussia.  Baron Alexander von Humboldt had an insatiable appetite for gathering mathematical information, plants and animals.  The book portrays him as a purposeless child who finds his calling after an illness brought on by falling into an icy lake.  The story shows his expeditions through South America with his companion/associate/lackey Bonplant whom he collected in Paris.  Humboldt’s wealth brought his freedom to an extent but his passion for adventure overrode his passion for family life as Kehlmann details the Baron’s infrequent and distressing sexual encounters.

As for Carl Gauss, his more humble beginnings and miraculous grasp of maths lead him to become one of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment.    He was not by all accounts an easy man to know particularly if you were his son.  According to Kehlmann, Gauss’ brilliant mind and gift for mathematics was something he was not enthused about.  Neither was he interested in flattering the aristocracy that could grant him his fortune.  

Whether Kehlmann’s narrative of the meeting of Humboldt and Gauss is fact or otherwise, this is still an insightful introduction to two great Prussian minds that are sadly often overlooked.