Monday, November 29, 2010

When Words Become Icons

The following is another post that I removed when I repurposed the blog.  I didn't realize at the time that I was describing a form of known cognitive bias that arises through the use of heuristics.  I'm reposting it now because it is related to a post that I am composing at the moment.

John Maynard Keynes from his Preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, dated December 13, 1935:

The Composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle to escape,and so must the reading of it be for most readers if the author's assault upon them is to be successful,- a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression. The ideas which are expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been into every corner of our minds.

One aspect of Useful Fictions that I have yet to touch upon is the effect of changes to the usage and meaning of key words and phrases on the application of Useful Fictions. A key aspect of "habitual modes of thought and expression" is the assumption that the meaning of words and phrases are immutable, that they mean what they think we mean. But the fact is that the meaning of words and phrases-- particularly politically charged ones-- morphs over time, particularly in our sound-bite cultural. For example, "socialism" does not mean today what it meant in the times of Marx, Hayek and Arendt. Such politically-charged terms have become what I call "iconic:" they are designed to illicit negative, emotional reactions, not to be descriptive or accurate.

But that's a topic I'll flesh out later.