Pragmatic Limitations of Language

Heather at commented briefly on the recent Political Spectrum post. Visting her site, she is all about words. Check it out. But even before visiting, I had the idea to visualise my reaction to her response.

To be fair, this is a response I get from my Pragmatist colleagues: don’t get your knickers in a twist arguing semantics. But in my noggin, I envision this Venn diagamme. (Well, not exactly. I just made this up, but you get the point.) Since the topic happened to be on the definition of Conservative, I’ll retain the context, but this is arbitrary.

Before I get to this, I want to set the stage with a more common and arguably more agreeable term: tree. If we ask a large number of people on the street to provide attributes of a tree, we might get something like this image abstraction below.


Venn: Tree

Although people may have different ideas, there will be some key core elements—trunks, branches, and roots. Of course, within the taxonomy of trees, there are types—pine, oak, willow, redwood, birch, and so on—each sharing these key attributes. These trees have some distinct attributes—coniferous versus deciduous, green versus red, flowering versus non versus, fruit-bearing, nut-bearing, height, and age. I think I can stop.

In general, I think it’s safe to say that if you point to a tree, and ask what it is to a person with sight and language, they will either respond ‘It’s a tree’ or ‘It’s an elm’. Even the elm response can be quickly qualified with a follow-up question, “What is an Elm?”

I understand that a botanist or an arborist may have a more nuanced definition. In fact, when I lived in a rental property outside of Chicago, my wife at the time defended the life of a tree that looked rather like a berry-bearing ficus, but that the village elders said was a weed and not allowed to remain. Here, we get into whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable or a squash is a berry or a fruit, or is corn a vegetable or a grain—or are we discussing maize? I get it. Even here, we can quickly come to terms. I said chips; I meant fries.

I could even get into the political conversation where the US justice system tried to redefine person to strip the rights away from those they didn’t want to have them. Of course, the United States has a history of not considering people to be people, though some were given 3/5ths and 4/5ths of personhood. Mighty white of them.

Back to trees. There are natural and artificial trees, but these are just simulations—hullo, Baudrillard. In the English language, there are non-arboreal trees, some not even rendered from fibres. We’ve got shoe trees—for which I fail to see the relationship to trees—and bell trees. We even have tree structures, like a taxonomy or a family tree, leveraging the branching metaphor. Some of these things escape the main bubble, but the connexion is never lost and is easy to navigate to a core understanding.


I think we are amicably on the same page here and ready to move on from tree to conservative. Here, the circles are much more varied and divergent. Although there is common ground, as well there are points where there is no intersection in meaning.

Venn: Conservative

I’ve discussed a simpler abstract term before: fairness. To recapitulate, most people will tell you they want situations in the world to be fair. Only fair means entirely different things to different people. I’ve written about this in several places, so I’ll continue on our conservative journey.

Venn: Fair (oversimplified for effect)

Not only has the term conservative morphed over the years, it has different meanings—though to be fair, probably fewer than ‘liberal’. As I’ve discussed here before prior to the recent post, liberals are conservatives, but no one is really defending this position because the goal is identity, and identity involved separation to be distinguished.

Like fair, conservative has some common ground. The challenge is to understand which flavour is being used. Are you communicating by using the same term, or are you talking across each other? In some cases, this can lead to what I’ll call false positives (borrowing the language of statistical errors) where you think you are in agreement, except you aren’t. The other side of this coin is the false negative, where you think you are in disagreement when in fact you are talking about two different things.

This happened to me. A mate asked me to meet her at a certain time and place —I’ll just use McDonald’s because it is so ubiquitous. I went to the McDonald’s and waited. After a while, she called.

“Are you close?”

I scan the car park.

“I don’t see you. Maybe I missed you. I’m parked on the side near Taco Bell, not the oil change place.”

“There’s no Taco Bell at McDonald’s. What McDonald’s did you go to?”

It turns out that she was a distance away and wanted me to meet her halfway—like two-thirds to be honest. I assumed she meant the one we’d commonly visit.

This is a false positive. Communication was presumed to occur. It did. It just wasn’t useful. And since the reason for the rendezvous in the first place is to save time—one might say to ‘conserve’ time, but even I wouldn’t stoop to such a low target.

Wrapping up, the challenge is that trees are objects in the world. We can quickly recalibrate ourselves by reference. This is not possible for abstract concepts. I tend to refer to these are weasel words. Some use these words unknowingly. Whenever I hear some yahoo wintering on about freedom or justice, my first impression is that this bloke is tripping on a Kool-Aid propaganda overdose. Most common people falsely believe that people can understand what’s in their heads.

And to be fair—the left sort, not the one on the right—, when these yahoos utter the term, they are probably using it like their neighbour. But walk a few blocks or miles, and that bet is off. Sure, if the people have a common connexion, this might moderate the differences. But if one attempts to triangulate across worldviews, all bets are off. You may or may not be singing from the same hymnal.

Political Spectrum

I am trying to avoid commenting on the recent SCOTUS decision and how it is symptomatic of how the United States remains a failed state—at least a zombie state—, so this preamble should suffice for now.

I was chatting politics into the wee hours with my son, who’s been on this earth for almost 25 years now. I consider myself to be on the left of traditional political scales. He considers himself to be on the right, but he’s trying to make sense of the scales and dimensions. He had two questions: First, ‘What are the crucial dimensions and positions that define left and right?’ Second, ‘Where do Liberals fit into the equation?’

Knowing me, he wanted to provide some context and confer with me his knowledge that would also serve to frame and anchor the conversation. A key point was to have clarified the adopted nomenclature and positioning on a theoretical map.

We started with the origins of the left-right distinction, which was barely a valid dichotomy even as it was coined in France. There was no duolith. Those on the left or right had features in common but taken holistically, this was a reductionist categorisation, as tends to happen. Exacerbating this, as it does today, still, the politicians with voices remained to the right of the unvoices masses.

He asked about the difference between freedom and liberty because his sources differentiate the two. Whilst connotation and nuance may enter the picture, etymologically speaking, freedom is a native English word whilst liberty is French via Latin. Connotatively, freedom is an absolute measure whilst liberty is granted within a political framework. Positive and negative liberties aside, liberty is an attenuator. It restricts freedom even if it allows most of the signal through. Effectively, liberty is permission by the state to act in certain ways.

By the end of the conversation, he was framing the key difference around notions of national identity and nationalism—I versus we. I shared my thoughts on the construction of identity, thus making for a poor foundation, though we both agreed that national narratives have been the impetus for much activity. (I am reluctant to insert the word progress here.)

After our conversation, I began researching dimensions established or otherwise proposed by political science. This led me to a place I found interesting—the distinction between radical, progressive, conservative, and reactionary positions. For some reason, this never really occurred to me.

I’m not sure one can employ these terms in general discussion without definition and qualification, but I feel they are useful in their own right. Typically, I view the political landscape—at the highest level and with a US-bent—as Left (communists, socialists, anarchists, progressives) and Right (conservatives, liberals, and fascists). I also know that this is imprecise, but maps always are.

This new vocabulary helps by distilling the map to this—ordered differently:

  • Right
    • Conservative
    • Reactionary
  • Left
    • Progressive
    • Radical


Conservatives want to maintain the status quo. This is interesting usage adoption. Fundamentally, advocates of this view want to promote and to preserve traditional social institutions and practices. In Western culture, conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as organized religion, parliamentary government, and property rights. Conservatives tend to favour institutions and practices that guarantee stability and evolved gradually. Adherents of conservatism often oppose progressivism and seek a return to traditional values

In Western culture, conservatives seek to preserve a range of institutions such as organized religion, parliamentary government, and property rights.

My first thoughts when I hear the term are a harkening back to the old ways—the Ozzie and Harriott mythos, white picket fences, Mom and apple pie. But this is different. Effectively, rather than reaching back, it wants to preserve the current moment in time. Where it gets more nebulous, I think, is that some people include nostalgia in the now. Duratively, perhaps a person might remember some aspect of their childhood. Though this has been lost by now, they imagine it as part of their identity. This can also extend further back as they wish some other historical aspects can be cherry-picked. Perhaps the white conservative wishes to be able to subjugate women as was the practice in the 1950s of America, but to not conserve high union participation and high marginal tax rates, as affronts to freedom (or whatever). This ends up being an exercise in selective memory and revisionist history-making.

This needs to be distinguished from a so-called traditional conservativism in the tradition of Burke or Hobbes, who want to conserve some sense of fundamental morality they feel derives from nature.


Reactionaries oppose whatever is in effect at the moment—the petulant toddler—but with a twist. Like the conservatives, there is a conservation effort but rather than a focus on the status quo, the focus is on status quo ante, which is a return to the old ways, tried and true.


Progressives support social reform. Ostensibly, they don’t oppose tradition, but they feel that old structures need to be reimagined and reinterpreted in face of social and technological change. An underlying metanarrative is the notion of progress. I am not going to comment on progressivism generally and the nuances evident in the American flavour of it.


Radical politics denotes the intent to transform or replace the fundamental principles of a society or political system, often through social changestructural changerevolution or radical reform

During the 20th century, radical politicians took power in many countries across the world. Such radical leaders included Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in Russia, Mao Zedong in China, Adolf Hitler in Germany, as well as more mainstream radicals such as Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Of course, Donald Trump is a more recent example in the United States.


To me, these terms operate on a gravity to now. Conservatives are heavily anchored in the familiar and seek stability. Then they see factors in the past that they imagine will also serve this purpose, so they wish to incorporate these and carry them forward. Conservatives are not unaware of the need for change, they just want to not create waves in the process.

Likewise, although placing a heavier weight on the past than even conservatives, reactionaries are not fundamentally opposed to retaining what is working currently. The term working is subjective and perspectival, so they may wish to retain something that works for them at the expense of others. This is a challenge for conservatism as well. Just because racial segregation seemed to work for an equivalent person in the past doesn’t mean it worked well for the excluded.

Like reactionaries, progressives aren’t afraid of keeping a foot in the present—and there may be plenty of lessons to learn from the past—, but they feel that given the change in the underlying terrain, some refactoring is in order.

And then there are the radicals. I suppose that radicals have different motivators, but in essence, they feel that the current implementation is substantially broken, and it needs more than a few small tweaks and a fresh coat of paint. These people are renovating rather than redecorating. They may even want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some may wish to keep the baby.

As for me, I usually place myself in the Progressive camp, but under the definition, I am more of a radical. The system is broken. We don’t just need to delete it, we need to install a new one.

Thomas Jefferson said that the United States should rewrite the Constitution every 19 years. Why 19 years? Who knows? Given the intransigence in American politics, this would have been a disaster. And given the powers that be, the debate would be over which parts to conserve and which to progress. Being the cynic that I am, my guess is that it would devolve to worse than we have now.

DISCLAIMER: For the record, I don’t endorse the placement of the political ideologies on the horseshoe image, but I find it interesting and it grabbed my attention. I hope it grabbed yours, too.