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Names

To say something unusual in specialized language is easy. A few formulas may unmistakably express a new worldview. To say something unusual in everyday language is very hard. You must choose your words not only to say what you mean, but to refuse to say what the hearer expects. Names alone cannot do it; it takes sentences.

Consider how advanced ideas become basic ones. The joke goes that in 1919, when Eddington was asked whether it was true that only three people understood general relativity, he hesitated and finally excused himself: “I was wondering who the third one might be!” Now undergraduates study it. Postulate that our undergraduates are not smarter than the best minds of 1919. Consider musicians: the violinist’s vibrato, the guitarist’s tremolo, were once the distinctive techniques of particular virtuosos; now they are part of mere competence. Nobody could play Liszt but Liszt until everybody had to play Liszt. What were once expeditions are now vacations.

This is more than a pattern; it is a phenomenon. What happens is naming: giving something a name is the first step in its domestication. The wild equations of general relativity were tamed by the associations that gathered around the name: the bowling ball on the rubber sheet; the paradoxical twins; the absentminded professor; the starship Enterprise. Any whale can be handled once it has enough harpoons in it.

There is a tension between thinking in names and thinking in sentences. Math and science work with names; verbs only participate syntacitly. This is an envied state. Whenever we see a field on the make we see it embracing gerunds, copulation, and anaphor. The textbooks always show the development from sententious thinkers to name-wielding scientists as the axis of progress.

But something is suspicious here. To be useful names must be unlike other words: they must have definitions, and there must be some procedure to ascertain that two definitions refer to the same thing. Otherwise a name is not a name at all; it is just another word.

The decline of Freudianism comes to mind. Freud gave names—ego, id, repression, neurosis—with a certain drama between them. The names and the drama were then taken up by a series of schools. Each school recast the roles with new definitions, or rewrote the old roles into a new drama, until finally the names, because they meant everything, no longer meant anything in particular, and were heard no more.

This matters. How many brilliant thinkers, who might have enriched the study of the mind if only they had been content to write sentences, went to waste following a dumb faith in names? They should have been warned that mere sentences are never wasted: good writing is always good thinking. It can be translated into whatever names are current, and lasts when names fail.