Oh, for 20 years and more I have been collecting bits and pieces of a story, something started in a morning class as I tried to connect my brain to classical texts that expressed ideas I disagreed with… the next excerpt from N+1 seems to be another item of interest:
Today we take it for granted that philosophers would prefer not to use words like the rest of us, but Socrates, for one, advised his followers to do their thinking in the street—making use of everyday objects like shoes and carts in even the most complex arguments. Cavell’s peers made similar use of everyday language—you can’t walk into a philosophy course without hearing the phrase “the cat is on the mat”—but, by contrast, they were so intent on defining and distinguishing that one almost expected to find a “dictionary of terms” at the end of each paper they published. But what exactly happens, Cavell asks, when you look up a word in such a dictionary, or hunt its definition down in the text? Can a philosopher really choose what her words mean?
Consider what takes place when you encounter a less philosophical word — not “reason,” say, but “umiak”:
You reach for your dictionary and look it up. Now what did you do? … We tend to take what a native speaker does when he looks up a noun in a dictionary as the characteristic process of learning language. … But it is merely the end point in the process of learning the word. When we turned to the dictionary for “umiak” [a type of Eskimo boat] we already knew everything about the word, as it were, but its combination: we knew what a noun is and how to name an object and how to look up a word and what boats are and what an Eskimo is. …What seemed like finding the world in a dictionary was really a case of bringing the world to the dictionary.
Cavell’s larger argument is this: If we must bring the world with us to understand a definition, then we cannot define away the ambiguity in words, for the world we bring with us is already hopelessly ambiguous. — Charles Peterson, “Must We Mean What We Say?”
Tangentially-related to this are the world-in-a-raindrop moments of trying to explain “Jeck” cookies to people unfamiliar with German traditions of Carneval, or explaining the novelty of having actual drag queens at a Philadephia Mummers’ Parade this New Year’s Day. You could look in a dictionary and find definitions of the individual terms, but the real explanations can only come in stories and other forms of expanded context.