The futility of words

“Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living. Talking is often torment for me, and I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words.”

— Carl Jung

My research into the insufficiency of language yields some nice results. Thank you Google.

To Gustav Schmaltz
30 May 1957
Dear Schmaltz:

I understand your wish very well, but I must tell you at once that it does not fit in my with my situation. I am not getting on at 82 and feel not only the weight of my years and the tiredness this brings, but even more strongly, the need to live in harmony with the inner demands of my old age. Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living. Talking is often torment for me, and I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words. I have got my marching orders and only look back when there is nothing else to do. The journey is a great adventure in itself, but not one that can be talked about at great length. What you think of as a few days of spiritual communion would be unendurable for me with anyone, even my closest friends. The rest is silence! This realization comes clearer every day, as the need to communicate dwindles.

Naturally, I would be glad to see you for one afternoon for about two hours, preferably in Kusnacht, my door to the world. Around August 5 would suit me best, as I shall be home at then in any case. Meanwhile, with best greetings,

Yours ever,

I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words

Carl Jung

Clearly, the main theme here is solitute and slience, but I keyed in on the futility quote.

Conceptual Abstraction

Shared Concept Image

I tend to go on about weasel words and the insufficiency of language, but I tend to get a lot of resistance by people who insist the chasm isn’t as expansive as I make it out to be. This makes me wonder how one might create a test to determine how much is similar and how much doesn’t.

To summarise my position, abstract concepts of this type are specious archetypes that cannot exist in the real world: truth, justice, freedom, fairness, and so on. The common thread here is almost always that they exist in the realm of morality, another false concept.

It seems to me that one could construct a sort of word cloud intersecting with a Venn diagramme. I’d assume that more articulate people would have more descriptors, thereby creating landscape with more details and nuance for any given concept.

Additionally, I could see a third dimension which would capture diametric meanings. There is also the issue of diverse contexts, e.g. in the case of justice, we have distributive, retributive, restorative, and procedural flavours, so one would need to be taken into account.

In everyday existence, I notice that these terms are good enough and have enough substance to trick people into believing not only that it’s real but that the are operating with a shared concept. My point is that it’s more apples and oranges. We could employ dimensions that make these appear to be similar.

  • Approximate spheroids
  • Fruits
  • Contain fruits
  • Have skin

Additional scrutiny would illustrate the differences.

  • Colour
  • Taste
  • Consistency

This difference between this concrete case is that we can observe the objects to compare and contrast, but with abstractions, we have a sort of survivorship bias in play. We remember what we agree on and forget or diminish the parts we don’t agree on. And we don’t necessarily even know the complete inventory of descriptors of our counterparts.

The image at the top of the page is not to scale. I don’t know what the percent breakdowns are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a situation where there were 10 possible descriptors, that only 4 would be commonly shared—so 40 per cent—, leaving 6 not in common—60 per cent.

In any case, I wonder if anyone has attempted this sort of inventory comparison. I haven’t even looked, do there could be tome upon tome published, but I don’t suppose so.


As part of my indictment against language and its insufficiency to facilitate precise and accurate transmission of abstract concepts, I happened upon a quote by Karl Popper:

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

—Karl Popper

“However, the problem still remains: what should we do in order to make our meaning clearer, if greater clarity is needed, or to make it more precise, if greater precision is needed? In the light of my exhortation the main answer to this question is: any move to increase clarity or precision must be ad hoc or ‘piecemeal’. If because of lack of clarity a misunderstanding arises, do not try to lay new and more solid foundations on which to build a more precise ‘conceptual framework’, but reformulate your formulations ad hoc, with a view to avoiding those misunderstandings which have arisen or which you can foresee. And always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstand you. If greater precision is needed, it is needed because the problem to be solved demands it. Simply try your best to solve your problems and do not try in advance to make your concepts or formulations more precise in the fond hope that this will provide you with an arsenal for future use in tackling problems which have not yet arisen.

— Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, Karl Popper

Popper’s point here is more that some people won’t understand what you are saying, which differs from my concept that some ideas just can’t be conveyed. Some people will assume their interpretation is the true meaning, but this assumption may be incorrect. Even more problematic is when different people assume to know the true meaning, yet their definitions differ materially.

Charles makes another point commenting on this quote on his Thing Finder blog.

And there will be even more who deliberately choose to misunderstand you. The man in search of truth will always be at risk from the man of conviction.

Charles Bayless, Thing Finder blog

Some if not most of this deliberate misunderstanding is captured in Upton Sinclair’s quip:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

—Upton Sinclair

But this still doesn’t capture the point the some concepts are actually nebulous; there is nothing there there.

I’ll leave this post with a quote from Le Petite Prince:

Language is the source of misunderstandings.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Indeed, language is simultaneously expanding and limiting, but like faith in technology, faith in language may lead to an untimely end.