Detritus in the road

Warning about nouns does not mean that I won’t use them.  In the preceding post  Nouns and verbs I couldn’t avoid nouns however hard I tried, nor could I avoid using against and not! as nouns or where  nouns go in the sentence patterns.

In this blog, however, we are going to proceed like the Indie 500 under a caution flag: slow down and pay attention to the wreckage on the track that can cause us to crash.

Some examples of such detritus in the road.

When he was under questioning before the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning his nomination to become CIA Director, the Senators asked John Brennan about his involvement with “enhanced interrogation” while he was assistant to the Deputy Director of the CIA.  In one of his replies Brennan said, “I had some visibility into some of the activities there, but I was not a part of any type of management structure or aware of most of the details.” (NYT 02.08.13) We recognize that Brennan was using nouns to avoid saying what he did.   Why is it so easy to see through what Brennan was doing, but not to see through a simple noun like “pain”?

Another example of a road hazard is one that lies right in the path of this project: the noun “cancer.”  In his memoir of his grief over his wife’s death from cancer, C.S. Lewis  points out:

“One never meets just Cancer or War or Unhappiness (or Happiness).  One only meets each hour or moment that comes.  …  One never gets the total impact of what we call ‘the thing itself.’  But we call it wrongly.  The thing itself is simply all these ups and downs: the rest is a name or an idea.”

But that name or idea can be invested with such malignant properties that some doctors like Karl Menninger proposed to “abandon ‘names’ and ‘labels.’”  Susan Sontag objected to such proposals as paternalistic.

“It is not naming as such that is pejorative or damning, but the name ‘cancer.’  As long as a particular disease is treated as an evil, invincible predator, not just a disease, most people with cancer will indeed be demoralized by learning what disease they have.”  (Sontag [1979] 6)

More generally, we have the nouns “disease” and “illness” which Gatchel et al. (4) distinguish as follows:

“Disease typically refers to a process that interferes with the functions of an organ or organ system, resulting from infection, injury, genetics, or other precursors.”

“Illness, however, primarily refers to an individual’s experience of that disease, resulting in a range of physical, behavioral and psychosocial stressors.”

On its face, this seems like a useful distinction.  But it may be a distinction without a difference.  Can a disease process take place in a human body without that human being (red flag!) experiencing that process?  Well, you might point out that silent killers like Laura’s GBM can grow for months before she became aware of it.  I would counter with the many men my age who are living with prostate cancer and will die of other processes, totally unaware of how their prostates are changing, however slowly.  Would you call what’s going on in their prostates a “disease,” if they never experience it?  My point is not to resolve such questions, but to note how using nouns to categorize change quickly goes off into pointless hairsplitting.

A noun that has caused no end of argument, “God,” is a fourth example of a road hazard.  I would assert that “God” or similar nouns are names that people started using when they sensed or perceived moving (the movement, if you must) within and without the “things” around us.  The noun “God” kept being used even in the absence of this awareness.  For some people this noun became a substitute for this awareness or a means to try to arrive (again) at such awareness. Even philosophies as perceptive of activity, movement, philosophies that recognize when we try to make movement into fixed objects and then call them “things” or “persons,” even these philosophies construct their own road hazards.  Daoists use a noun to refer to universal activity/movement/change and then capitalize it in English and put a definite article in front to further fix “the Dao.” Some Buddhists take the Sanskrit word karma, which literally means an “act” or a “deed,” forget that it originally referred to doing and to the changes set off when we do.  They make karma into an object that we carry with us from lifetime to lifetime.  Westerners have turned the noun karma into an auto junkyard.

(Sidenote on activity/movement/change.  Aristotle, among many others, distinguishes activity from movement from change.  Like Aristotle, I will generally use “change” to cover all varieties of changing, moving, acting.  But I do not intend to make fine distinctions here and will use these terms interchangeably in this project.  Distinguishing among changes, specifying what we’re doing when we use different nouns, is important, but the first critical step to is attend to our changing, doing, moving.)

Laura would have no truck with talk about “God” or “the Dao,” but she had her own nouns for fixing the movement we perceive within and without: art, literature, and music.

I’m getting too abstract too quickly, jumping from Laura’s needle stick to neuroscience to philosophy (the latter jump, a not uncommon trend these days), but we need to stay aware of what we are implying even, or especially, when we think we’re speaking very simply, directly, and concretely. I will ignore for the moment a pronoun in the preceding sentence, and indeed in this sentence, even though we use it to dig the biggest pothole of all—“I.”  “I” is more dangerous as a road hazard than even “cancer” or “God.”  We will talk more about what we do when we do “I” under “Whoever you are, I love you.”


  1. Good question. The direction I’m still exploring started with a Ming dynasty Buddhist-Daoist-Confucian text known as “Anthology on the Cultivation of Realization” (translated by Thomas Cleary in Taoist Meditation) It has a great section on “thoughts,” which follows this insight:

    “Thinking is the door of entry into the Way, whereas thoughts are roots of obstruction of the Way.

    The work is more of a guide to meditating than a study of psychology (without meaning to imply any dualism between the two). The section closes: “Those who are free from thoughts after having had thoughts occur to them realize that thoughts have no essence of their own–being conditionally originated, they are therefore empty.”

  2. Thanks Ken. I get your point now. Just wondering but what’s the difference between having a “thought” and thinking ?

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