Applying ToT to the USMC

EDIT: I only discovered this after writing the article:

I mentioned that the Theory of Three allows for infinite progression and infinite regression, and I mean to demonstrate that with this post. We’ll take the Marine Corps as our example. First, let’s take a look at the Marine Corps using the chain of command:Now, I didn’t break apart every single command. First, I broke apart the golden ones, until we get to the interesting part of the operating forces – the Marine Expeditionary Forces (or MEFs). These represent the bulk of the Marine Corps. Each MEF consists of an infantry Division (DIV), a Marine Air Wing (MAW), and a Marine Logistics Group (MLG). Each Division is comprised of three infantry regiments, which in turn are comprised of three infantry battalions, which in turn are comprised of three infantry companies. That’s 27 infantry companies per division, if you’re keeping track. Each MAW consists of three Air Groups, which are composed of three or more Squadrons, which are further broken down into Sections. Each MLG consists of three Combat Logistics Regiments, which in turn consist of three or more battalions, which then consist of three or more companies.

Whew. There’s lots of threes at work here, if you didn’t notice. Let’s see what happens when we apply ToT at the Unified Combat Command level:

The Unified Combat Command is the center triangle, and the most important. To simplify things, we’ve skipped “Marine Forces Command” and “Marine Forces Pacific” and got to the meat and potatoes – the MEFs. Here, the Unified Combat Command is an idea which is basically defined by the three different MEFs; were I to draw UCC as a single triangle, each side would be a MEF. Similarly, each MEF is defined by a DIV, MAW, and MLG. Each of those are in turn defined by the red triangles that surround them; however, there wasn’t enough resolution to continue drawing distinctions.

Rather than draw out a diagram of every DIV, MAW, and MLG, we will simply be zooming in on one DIV. (The concept applies to all three, anyway, and there isn’t much structural difference between DIVs, MAWs, and MLGs.) Here’s the diagram:

Here, the triangle for the I DIV takes center stage, and is defined by three regiments. The regiments in turn are defined by three battalions. The thing we want to remember here is that we could draw any of these elements as a single triangle; when I draw a “regiment,” each side of the triangle represents a battalion. When I draw a division, each side of the triangle represents a regiment. These diagrams demonstrate how ToT can scale infinitely.

The battalion takes center stage here, and is defined by three separate companies. The companies, in turn, are defined by three platoons. I think you can see where this is going, but I want to drive the concept all the way to the individual Marine.Battalions have three companies of three platoons. Drillin’ on down:Here we see our form – every gold triangle in this picture represents an individual Marine. One thing I’ve been tossing around in my head is that the downward facing triangles we’ve been examining (the labeled ones) represent an additional element in their groups. For example, a Fire Team is made up of three individual Marines, PLUS the Fire Team Leader. This would be in keeping with how the Marine Corps is currently organized – fire teams have four Marines. The added element at the Squad level would be a Squad Leader; a Platoon Commander (1st or 2nd Lieutenant) at the Platoon level, and so on. Anyway, I wanted to drill down further:Here we see that we can drill down to the essence of a Marine – Honor, Courage, and Commitment – and even beyond that, and begin talking about what makes HCC.

I don’t have the time currently to discuss any more particulars about this, so I’ll just leave it at that for now and return to these ideas another day.


Everything and Nothing; The Rule of 0

Let’s touch briefly on metaphysics, shall we? Try to imagine everything that exists. If you’re anything like me, you do this systemically – beginning with your own home, then extending outward to larger and larger spheres.
You may have more or less circles. You might include more details – your apartment, your apartment complex, your street, your block, your neighborhood…and so on. Eventually, however, you come up against the largest distinction that you can make, the distinction between “everything (that exists)” and “nothing.” And it is this distinction which I’d like to examine more fully.
Everything bounds nothing; nothing bounds everything. It is common to draw a distinction between these two things, to say that they are fundamentally opposed. The diagrams I have provided also model them as being opposed. But what if we considered them equal? We cannot say that everything is greater than, or less than, nothing. (Space, by the way, is not “nothing,” even though some think that way. “Nothing” would be beyond the edges of the known universe – but it may be that there is something else way out there, in which case, nothing is beyond that.)

As I stated when discussing the Theory of Three, one can use a line to represent an idea; indeed, one can use a line to represent any idea. Lines, after all, are just symbols. Therefore, a single line can represent the idea of anything, everything, or nothing. A line is equal to infinity, as it could represent an infinite number of ideas. If this is so, designing a system that could process infinite detail would be beneficial.This system for grouping ideas can scale infinitely; it allows for infinite progression and infinite regression. I’ll demonstrate this concept using the Marine Corps in a future post.

With shapes, we can give lines a greater purpose. However, the most basic shape (as in, the one with the least number of sides) happens to be the most preferable. I’ll elaborate on that in future posts. The key concept to remember here is what I call the Rule of 0. The Rule of 0 is pretty simple – just remember 0. Why would we want to do that? Well, normally, people say “1 + 2 = 3” and we all assume that we are starting from a point of nothing. But we could be starting from somewhere else, say, 45, in which case (45 +) 1 + 2 = 48. This is obviously unconventional, but when using the Theory of Three, it is extremely helpful to remember 0, or you could get lost:

Think of 0 as our canvas of nothing upon which we can paint everything (or our canvas of everything upon which we can paint nothing, if you prefer). I will write more about 0 in the next post.

Origins of the Theory of Three

A few months ago, I tried to solve a problem which was beyond the scope of my capabilities. That problem was the chain of command. Here is a crude rendering of the chain of command:

The red rectangle at the top represents the highest element, with red arrows representing commands issued from that element. Green elements are subordinate to red but issue their own commands to the blue elements, which then pile on to the lowest level workers/soldiers/Marines. Even though it is convenient to think that the buck stops somewhere (i.e., LtCol Soandso is the commanding officer of 3rd Thinking Battalion), in reality, everybody in the military has a boss to report to. If you follow the chain all the way up you could argue it stops with the President, but he is (in theory) answerable to the people. In any event, when you’re a low rank (let’s say E3 or Lance Corporals and below – I use USMC jargon), like our lowly triangle, you pretty much get shat on all the time. There are very few (if any) effective ways to communicate grievances upward. At times, it may even be difficult to communicate mission-oriented information upward.

Most Lance Corporals and below live in relative fear of their Corporals and Sergeants and have little to no face time with anybody more senior than that. There are very few channels to properly approach a more senior person, and even though many will offer an “open door policy,” such a policy is tongue-in-cheek because they also advise that one “use the chain of command first,” which means going to those very same Corporals and Sergeants that might be causing the problems. So, what do you do?

Well, as I suggested here, you could alter the chain of command a bit by creating a billet that deals specifically with communicating the needs/grievances/etc of the Lance Corporals and below up the chain of command. I’ll borrow the graphic from that post so you can see what such a chain would look like:

This idea didn’t fly. I was told to think of a less “revolutionary” idea and a more “evolutionary” idea. And that’s just what I did. I examined the individual Marine – what were the essential ingredients that made a Marine? Well, this is an easy question for a Marine – we’d go straight to our Core Values. Marines have Honor, Courage, and Commitment. In a sudden burst of insight, I realized that’s all a Marine would ever need (given a little reconceptualizing). How is this? The Marine Corps could instill the Core Values in boot camp, but then have follow on training tie in with these values. So rather than worry about “job proficiencies,” you learn about what Honor, Courage and Commitment mean to an infantryman, what they mean to an air-winger, and what they mean to a maintainer. Thus were the beginnings of the theory of three:

The circles represent contexts that a Marine could exist in – such as infantry, air wing, and maintenance – and the picture demonstrates that, at least theoretically, there should exist values for A, B, and C that satisfy any context. So, how would one best group together Marines? Well, for one, I realized the chain of command already pretty much looked like a giant triangle.

As you can see from my crude paint edit, the triangular form was there, lurking. Which is good news; we want members of an organization to identify with that organization, so if we model individuals as triangles and the group ends up being a super triangle, then that’s fantastic. Let’s take a look at what 3 Marines look like in a grouping:

I figured that grouping the individuals into a shape they already represented made the most sense. To elaborate, our “Marines” here are already triangles, and identify themselves as such. Therefore, it would be easier for them to identify with a “triangular” group. This grouping also models synergism, demonstrating that it is highly effective – 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. (Somewhere around here I discovered some other things and went a little bit off the deep end.) Here’s where things get a little wonky.

This grouping effect can repeat infinitely. So far, each line has represented Honor, Courage, or Commitment when it comes to our triangles. But once you’ve “mastered” the concept of a Marine and a Marine grouping, you can represent an ideal Marine with just one line. Therefore, each triangle you draw becomes a group, and you throw three triangles together to create a larger group (such as a squad, on to a platoon, to a company, to a battalion, and so on). Really, though, throwing three triangles together may be an unnecessary step (but it helps one conceptually):

Here we see the same idea represented two ways – one with the “Tri-Force” approach, and one with the dotted lines. The dotted lines don’t -need- to be there; this is the same group/idea of a group being modeled. Those lines demonstrate the exploded value of each of the lines of the triangle. They signify “hey, this is a loaded concept! If you do not understand this group, let me explode it out for you.” Below is a picture that also represents the infinitely repeating nature of this concept:

The thing that gave me pause for consideration about this idea – and something I may expound upon later – is that a lot of concepts come at us in threes. Honor/Courage/Commitment was already there for me to take, but here are some other ones off the top of my head: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; father, mother, child (family); the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot of logic working behind the scenes with this idea (namely, syllogisms) which makes me wonder if perhaps this is the eternal form – being that any idea/argument can be postulated and drawn as a single line, or one of the sides of this triangle. Remember that argument forms may be valid even if their contents are false. Another interesting observation was that the “TriForce” grouping has twelve lines – lots of symbolism there.

The Theory of Three, as I call it, could be used to model some powerful stuff – like belief. But it seems to be lacking in a practical application, because groups do not yet organize themselves this way.

Military Communication: Problems, Precedents and Solutions

A. Background Premises

1. While the Marine Corps is a unique war-fighting organization with a unique mission and capability, it is important to remember that it is still ultimately an organization. As such, it is susceptible to the same structural problems that any other organization is susceptible to, especially when it comes to organizational communication. Because the Marine Corps is a unique organization, it has unique communication needs.

2. America, and indeed the world, is entering a new era of rapid communications technologies that change the way we live, work, play, and fight wars. Per reference (1), “Most of us seek a firm direction that is outmoded. We need new thinking, new criticisms, new knowledge, new approaches, and new understandings. Creativity is more important than ever.” We have become an information society, which is “an environment in which more jobs create, process, or distribute information than directly produce goods,” and this change has impacted the military as well.

3. Reliable, timely and accurate communication is the key to organizational excellence and should therefore be a top priority for the Marine Corps. Per reference (1), “Numerous scholars have gone as far as to suggest that organizations are essentially complex communication processes that create and change events…Put simply, organizations of today and tomorrow need competent communicators at all organizational levels.”

4. Difficult problems sometimes require unconventional thinking. Daniel Pink, bestselling author and conceptual thinker, writes “the future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.” Modern technologies have overloaded organizations with too much information; many require people with a different tool set to make sense of all this information.

5. Specifically, problems related to communication have been effecting not only Electronics Maintenance Company, but potentially 3d Maintenance Battalion as well. It is not unreasonable to assume that communication problems may be effecting other units within the Marine Corps as well.

B. Organizational Communication

1. Per reference (1), “Organizing is an attempt to bring order out of chaos or establish organizations, entities in which purposeful and ordered activity takes place…the process we call organizing is accomplished through human communication as individuals seek to bring order out of chaos and establish entities for purposeful activities.” Communication is central to organizing.

2. Aside from individual communication competencies, which have their own unique challenges and solutions, organizational communication presents yet more unique difficulties. Organizational communication, per reference (1), is the “process through which organizations are created and in turn create and shape events. The process can be understood as a combination of process, people, messages, meaning, and purpose.” The Marine Corps is an organization devoted to the art of warfare; we are an organization which seeks to impose order on a naturally chaotic state (war) – as such, efficient and effective organizational communication is paramount to success.

3. Per reference (1), organizational communication as a process involves “creating and transmitting organizational messages [which] reflect the shared realities resulting from previous message exchanges,” a process which “evolves to generate new realities that create and shape events.” In other words, organizational communication strives to create common meanings and purposes – the Marine Corps already has established guidelines in this regard (initial training, the Core Values, ethical guidelines) but beyond initial training the degree to which they are maintained is variable.

4. Per reference (1), organizational communication involves individuals: “Individuals bring to organizations sets of characteristics that influence how information is processed…it is fair to say that organizational communication occurs across networks of people who seek to obtain a variety of objectives requiring communication interactions.” Per reference (2), “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and a weak communicator contributes to weakened communications up and down the chain of command.

5. Per reference (1), organizational communication depends upon “the movement or transmission of verbal and nonverbal behaviors and the sharing of information throughout the organization….Concern is expressed for message fidelity, or the extent to which messages are similar or accurate at all links through the channels.” This concept is not foreign to the Marine Corps; ethical guidelines (especially the second reference) mention the importance of such fidelity.

6. Per reference (1), organizational communication requires meaning: “Organizational communication is the symbolic behavior of individuals and organizations that, when interpreted, affects all organizational activities.” Furthermore, organizational communication has a unique purpose: “[it] seeks to reduce environmental uncertainty. It is people, messages, and meanings. It is intentional and unintentional messages explaining the workings of the organization. It is the process through which individuals attempt goal-oriented behavior in dealing with their environments.”

C. Functional Problems & Org. Communication

1. All organizations face similar problems with organizational communication, so before analyzing the Marine Corps (or any specific sub-organizations, such as 3D Maintenance Battalion, within the Marine Corps) it is instructive to analyze organizational communication problems in general. Such problems may be similar in character if not exactly in detail.

2. Open communication systems thrive in comparison to closed communication systems. Per reference (1), open systems are “organizations that continually take in new information, transform that information, and give information back…” while closed systems are “organizations that lack input communication, making it difficult to make good decisions and stay current with the needs of the environment.” Furthermore, “without appropriate change, organizational systems stagnate and die.”

3. Communication channels, per reference (1), are “the means for the transmission of messages. Common means are face-to-face interaction, group meetings, memos, letters, computer-mediated exchanges, web sites, presentations, and teleconferencing.” Proper selection and utilization of various channels – as well as the creation of new channels which “speed information transfer and shorten decision-making response time,” are organizational priorities.

4. Messages in an organization can move in one of three directions – upward, downward, or horizontally. It should be noted, per reference (1), that “information flow cannot always be described in terms of specific direction,” because “informal network flow such as the grapevine…may move both vertically and horizontally, all within the transmission of one message.” In strict hierarchical structures like the military, a systemic bias for downward communication is present, while upward communication is notoriously difficult and unreliable. This is discussed in more detail below.

5. Communication load is an important consideration. Communication load, per reference (1), is “the volume, rate, and complexity of messages processed by an individual or the organization as a whole.” Furthermore, there can be three load conditions: specifically, optimal load, underload (wherein individuals are relegated to performing mundane tasks due to lack of new information input) and overload (where the load has exceeded system or individual capacity). One danger of ever expanding communications technologies is that we, as a society, may be fast approaching a situation of “permanent overload in many jobs, a situation that actually impairs rather than strengthens the decision making process.”

6. A final important general consideration is that of message distortion. Distortion is, per reference (1), “anything that contributes to alterations in meanings as messages move through the organization.” Distortions can occur for a variety of reasons, due to “load, message direction, channel usage, and the very composition of the [communication] networks themselves.” Furthermore, “organizational communication is characterized by the serial transmission of messages,” whereby a message is created from a source of authority and passes to a subordinate, who then undergoes a role transition and acts an authority to pass the message on to yet another subordinate, and so on down the chain of command. “Research consistently finds that original messages change or are distorted in the serial transmission process.” Language is a contributing factor to distortion, as “definitions of terms and concepts vary throughout the organization.” It is no exaggeration to say that distortion is inevitable and unavoidable.

7. Other functional problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other functional problems. For example, message function and structure; the role of organizing, relationship and change functions for messages; and the movement of messages through formal and informal networks are some of the topics that could be considered.

D. Meaning-Centered Problems & Org. Communication

1. A meaning-centered approach to communication, in contrast with a functional approach, per reference (1) “describes organizational communication as the process for generated shared realities that become organizing, decision making, sense-making, influence, and culture.” These concepts tie directly into Marine Corps priorities of developing a warrior ethos and abiding by the core values, per references (2) and (3). As such, these concepts warrant consideration.

2. Per reference (1), key assumptions of a meaning-centered approach to understanding organizational communication include the following premises: “Organizational cultures and subcultures reflect the shared realities in the organization and how these realities create and shape organizational events,” and “Communication climate is the subjective, evaluative reaction of organization members to the organization’s communication events, their reaction to organizational culture.” In other words, Marine Corps culture (“esprit de corps”) reflects the shared realities of the Marines in the Corps, and these realities create and shape events (be it by successfully maintaining gear, or winning wars). Furthermore, communication climate (or “command climate”) is the sum reaction of many Marines’ subjective response to command communications, which has an impact on Marine Corps culture (or “esprit de corps”).

3. Organizing can be understood as an attempt at reducing ambiguity by promoting reliable meanings. Per reference (1), “organizational members use rules and communication cycles to continually process…equivocal messages or messages susceptible to varying interpretations…. The main goal of the process of organizing is an attempt to reduce equivocality – ambiguity – in order to predict future responses to organizational behaviors.” Examples of this in the Marine Corps range from desktops and turnovers in the maintenance community to aid in job training and performance to rules regarding proper posture when speaking with seniors (parade rest and the position of attention). Furthermore, performance evaluations (such as proficiency and conduct ratings) can be understood as attempts to reduce ambiguity about job performance, per reference (1): “Supervisors reduce equivocality for their employees by the organizing of work assignments and the communication of task requirements… The supervisor understands what the employee believed the assignment to be by evaluating what was accomplished. The feedback to the employee (often in the form of rewards or punishment) reduces uncertainty about the adequacy of performance.”

4. Influence (as defined in reference (1): “organizational and individual attempts to persuade; frequently seen in organizational identification, socialization, communication rules, and power”) is a powerful tool to achieve organizational goals. Per reference (1), “who and what are viewed as influential, the way people seek to influence others, and how people respond to influence all contribute to organizing and decision making.” People “are more likely to be receptive to influence attempts in organizations with which [they] identify or have a sense of “we” or belonging.” In other words, Marines are more likely to respond to influence by the Marine Corps if the Marines identify more solidly with the Marine Corps. Identification is defined in reference (1) as the “dynamic social process by which identities are constructed; indicates perceptions of a sense of belonging. Usually associated with the belief that individual and organizational goals are compatible.”

5. Organizations tend to encourage identification through socialization; per reference (1), there are three major stages of socialization: anticipatory socialization, encounter socialization, and metamorphosis socialization. These will be analyzed in turn.

6. Anticipatory socialization, per reference (1), “begins before individuals enter organizations and results from past work experiences and interactions with family, friends, and institutions such as schools, churches, or social organizations.” Indeed, as reference (3) acknowledges, all Marines come from humble origins: “Our ethos has been shaped by ordinary men and women — heroes who showed extraordinary leadership and courage, both physical and moral, as they shaped the special character that is the essence of our Corps. They are heroes and leaders who are remembered not by their names, or rank, or because they received a decoration for valor. They are remembered because they were Marines.” Becoming a Marine begins before entering the Marine Corps, when the would-be Marine begins to consider the idea, talks with recruiters, and reads or otherwise thinks about being a Marine; this is anticipatory socialization.

7. Encounter socialization, per reference (1), “involves new employee training, supervisor coaching, peer groups, and formal organizational documents.” In other words, this is the training stage of a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps has an excellent training program, as per reference (3): “Marines undergo a personal transformation at recruit training. There, they receive more than just superb training; they are ingrained with a sense of service, honor, and discipline. It is there, as a former recruit depot Commanding General said, that Marines develop a sense of brotherhood, interdependence, and determination to triumph.”

8. Metamorphosis socialization, per reference (1), “occurs when the newcomer begins to master basic organizational requirements and adjust to the organization.” Personal speculation as well as anecdotal evidence suggests that metamorphosis socialization may be a problem in the Marine Corps; [The CO of ELMACO] has mused, for instance, why it seems to be that Marines lose their motivation between initial training and their first duty station.

9. Other meaning-centered problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, power, communication as culture, and further analysis of communication climate are some of the topics that could be considered.

E. Supervisor/Subordinate Relations, Peers, & Motivation

1. Per reference (1), “an individual’s relationship with his or her supervisor is one of the most important of the primary communication experiences in organizational life. It is so important, in fact, that the quality of this relationship usually determines how the individual identifies with the organization as well as the individual’s job and organizational satisfaction. Communication experiences with supervisors and peers are so influential that they contribute to the quality and quantity of an individual’s work.” In other words, an individual Marine’s ability to identify with the Marine Corps and live the core values is directly impacted by their relationship with their superiors; additionally, the quality of that Marine’s work is also impacted.

2. Per reference (1), “individuals who are satisfied with organizational communication experiences are more likely to be effective performers and to be satisfied with their jobs than those who have less positive communication relationships.” Reference (3) has another way of stating the same phenomenon: “…leaders must have the respect of their followers. If followers do not believe their leader is operating from a foundation of values, then words become hollow and lack credibility and the leader will be ineffective.”

3. Motivating subordinates (or, Marines) is a notoriously complex subject, but it generally falls to the supervisor to motivate the subordinate in any organization. One theory of motivation worth mentioning is the rewards theory, first professed by B.F. Skinner. Per reference (1), rewards are defined as “positive feedback or tangible reinforcements for organizational behaviors,” or more simply, rewarding Marines for being good Marines. It is worth mentioning that Frederick Herzberg proposes that satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not polar opposites; per reference (1), “what produces dissatisfaction in the work environment, if corrected, will not necessarily produce satisfaction or motivation.”

4. Gerald Salanick and Jeffrey Pfeffer have a theory of motivation that, per reference (1), “suggest[s] three basic determinates of attitudes or needs: (1) the individual’s perception of the job or task characteristics, (2) information the social environment provides to the individual about what attitudes are appropriate…and (3) the individual’s perception of the reasons for his or her past behaviors.” Moreover, “Salanick and Pfeffer identify four ways in which social information influences attitudes: (1) overt, evaluative statements of coworkers directly shape individual worker attitudes; (2) frequent talk among coworkers about certain dimensions of the job and work environment focus attention on what is considered to be important or salient in the work setting; (3) information from coworkers, or social information, helps an individual worker interpret and assign meaning to environmental cues and events in the work setting; and finally, (4) social information influences the way an individual interprets his or her own needs. Thus…job attitudes are a result of social information in the work setting coupled with the consequences of past individual choices.” In other words, the way Marines treat one another and talk to one another may have untold impacts on how that Marine perceives either his or herself, his or her unit and his or her Corps.

5. Other supervisor/subordinate and motivation related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other meaning-centered problems. For example, the pervasive nature of supervisor/subordinate relationships, the amount of time spent communicating between supervisors and subordinates, and gaps in the expectations between supervisors and subordinates are some of the topics that could be considered.

F. Communication Apprehension and Upward Distortion

1. The Marine Corps recognizes the importance of upward organizational communication, as per reference (3): “Subordinates should use the chain of command, but ideas must rise to the top.” Moreover, “leaders should make it their duty to bring subordinates’ ideas and criticisms to the surface where all may analyze and evaluate them.” Yet problems with reliable, timely, and accurate upward communication exist in all organizations. Generally, these problems may have their root in the phenomenon known as communication apprehension.

2. Per reference (1), communication apprehension (or CA) is defined as “the predisposition for behavior described as an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with others.” Moreover, “CA has been found to be meaningfully associated with such important organizational outcomes as occupation choice, perception of competence, job satisfaction, advancement, and job retention.” As such, CA merits further consideration.

3. Per reference (1), “Marilyn Hunt (1992) found that individuals reporting high-quality relationships with their supervisors were more likely to…conform to formal and informal requests, to attempt to clarify expectations, and to accept criticism from supervisors than were individuals reporting lower-quality relationships.” In other words, positive working relationships reduce CA and, furthermore, positively benefit Marines and the Marine Corps.

4. In contrast to paragraph 3, and per reference (1), negative working relationships have negative impacts: “…perceptions [of supervisors] influenced how much employees reported sharing information, ideas, and resources with work group peers. In other words, the less favorable the relationship with the supervisor, the more likely individuals were to withhold information even from peers.” CA can distort not only upward communication, but also horizontal communication, with important implications for mission accomplishment. If, for example, a Marine discovers a superior method for getting the job done, but due to communication apprehension resulting from negative working relationships refuses to share it with fellow Marines, the Marine Corps fails to benefit from this innovation and initiative.

5. Per reference (1), “Paul Krivonos (1982) summarized many of the findings about upward communication in the following four categories: (1) subordinates tend to distort upward information, saying what they think will please their supervisors; (2) subordinates tend to filter information and tell their supervisors what they, the subordinates, want them to know; (3) subordinates often tell supervisors what they think the supervisors want to hear; and (4) subordinates tend to pass personally favorable information to supervisors while not transmitting information that reflects negatively on themselves.” Moreover, “Janet Fulk and Sirish Mani (1986) suggested that the perception of supervisors’ downward communication, or the extent to which supervisors are perceived as actively withholding information, influences the accuracy of upward messages. The more the supervisor withholds, the more employees withhold and distort.” In a chain as lengthy and complex as the Marine Corps’ chain of command, nearly infinite opportunities for distortion and withholding exist.

6. Per reference (1), “when a positivity bias distorts upward communication, supervisors may not receive timely information about problems. Thus, needed information about innovation and change may be slow in coming, particularly if the supervisor is perceived as resistant to new ideas.” In other words, ineffective upward communication limits the effectiveness of higher-level decision making.

7. Biased upward communication may lead to abuses of power. Per reference (1), “the supervisor has the formal authority of the chain of command. The supervisor controls information flow and performance evaluation. Employees control technical performance and have vital firsthand information about the progress of work. Both are dependent on each other; the supervisor directs, but without compliance and performance, no work is accomplished. If the supervisor becomes abusive in directing the work, an employee group may seek alternatives by withdrawing from interaction with the supervisor or withholding information the supervisor needs to make good decisions. At an extreme the employee group may complain to others in management, transfer to other departments, or leave the organization.” In an organization like the Marine Corps, where the option to easily transfer to “other departments” or leave the organization do not feasibly exist, abuse of power may contribute to rising suicide rates as Marines feel suicide is their “only way out.”

8. Other communication apprehension and upward distortion related problems exist with organizational communication, but have been left undisclosed in the interest of brevity. Should it be required, additional documentation shall be provided on other CA and distortion problems. For example, the biasing effect of peer groups, romantic relationships and interpersonal relationships within an organization are some of the topics that could be considered.

G. Immediate Solution; Benefits and Risks

1. Given the problems discussed above and the background premises introduced, innovation is required. As such, it is my recommendation that ELMACO immediately create a “Communications NCO” billet; a dedicated “communications expert” to mitigate identified problems.

2. Figure 1 provides a basic outline of how the ELMACO Communications NCO would “fit-in” with the current chain of command. In a sense, it can be said the chain of command is completed by the addition of this billet. Whereas the chain of command has always provided relatively effective downward communication, as established elsewhere in this paper, it has had difficulty establishing equally effective upward communication. By providing a means for reliable upward communication, the Communications NCO billet “completes” the chain of command. Furthermore, the billet may help bolster downward communication by providing another effective channel for commanders to utilize.

3. The Communications NCO would be focused upon neutral, unbiased reporting of command-identified valuable information in a timely, reliable manner. As such, the Communications NCO would not be held accountable for positive or negative reports, but rather, the emphasis would be placed upon accurate reports. The Communication NCO would be held accountable for failure to maintain integrity in reporting the facts and for knowingly biasing communications.

4. The new billet provides several potential benefits, which will be named in this paragraph and discussed more in-depth in following paragraphs. In no particular order, the billet would provide a means to frequently and accurate gauge command climate; to reinforce Core Values, ethics, reliable communications, and training efforts towards these ends; to provide information to higher commands in a rapid manner; and to prove proof of concept for future development of Marine Corps communication structures.

5. The Communications NCO billet could establish a variety of procedures and methods for assessing command climate in a frequent and reliable manner, for example, through anonymous surveys. Because the Communications NCO would be evaluated for reporting accurate information as opposed to positive or negative information, communication apprehension when reporting information up the chain would be significantly reduced. Such a billet could potentially provide commanders with an immediate, reliable pulse on morale and welfare, with benefits for decision making impacting all levels. Moreover, the Communications NCO would be able to assist in increasing motivation while simultaneously providing commanders an increased ability to recognize and reward outstanding achievement.

6. The Communications NCO billet could assist in buffeting efforts to maintain high standards of ethical conduct and training. Additionally, such a billet stands to mitigate problems with metamorphosis socialization as described in section D paragraphs 5 & 8 by assisting the command in creating messages aimed at increasing identification with the Marine Corps and the unit as discussed in section D paragraph 4.

7. Per reference (1), “the greater the degree of socialization, the more likely individuals will respond favorably to organizational persuasion. In fact, little doubt remains that socialization relates to organizational commitment, decision making, perceptions of communications climate, and overall job satisfaction.” A commitment to improve metamorphosis socialization (in other words, emphasis on ethics and core values training) beyond initial training in a Marine’s career may yield positive benefits in the form of retention increases, better leaders, more productive command climates, and a more motivated cadre of Marines.

8. The Communications NCO billet could furthermore foster increased awareness of the importance of communication competency in daily tasks, and, moreover, provide relevant training aids to the command in order to raise aforementioned competencies. It may be unrealistic to expect all Marines to be communications expert, yet the benefits of having dedicated communication experts (such as the Communications NCO) are potentially incalculable through a variety of metrics, including money, time, and lives.

9. While the Communications NCO would more or less report directly to his or her respective Commanding Officer, he or she would still be available to higher commanders as the situation necessitated. If, for whatever reason, the Battalion Commander required immediate information about the welfare of a particular company, the Battalion Commander could leverage the assets of the local company’s Communications NCO rather than wait for the information to sift up the chain through other means. This model makes the Communications NCO the “eyes and ears” for higher commands, and the “mouth” for lower commands, in a manner of speaking. Such a model is likely to reduce surprises to commanders of all levels, in addition to helping ensure unity of Commander’s Intent at all times.

10. Specifically, the ELMACO Communications NCO billet, if successful, could provide proof of concept for the theoretical model outlined in this paper. If effective, Communications NCOs could be trained at other companies in the Battalion, and a Battalion Communications NCO could be created (see figure 2). Extremely long-range implications include exporting the model further and potentially creating a new MOS dedicated to ensuring effective communications at any command.

11. The Communications NCO has the potential to benefit in other regards as well. In short, the billet has the potential to positively impact the command, the mission, morale, retention, and is in keeping with the Marine Corps’ expeditionary model by fostering more rapid communications at all levels of command.

12. The immediate risk for employing such a billet is minimal. Initially, it would require reassigning only one qualified Marine to get the program up and running. I nominate myself for this duty. I believe I have demonstrated sufficient integrity, motivation, Honor, Courage and Commitment to tackle this task. I can’t guarantee perfection but I have every reason to be confident I will deliver results. Per reference (3), “Leaders must allow subordinates the opportunity to show initiative…. Because innovation is imprecise and because subordinates, especially junior ones, will make mistakes, protect them. “Zero defects” are not a standard of measurement. They do not encourage initiative; they stifle it.”

H. Conclusions

1. This document was intended to be comprehensive yet brief. Much of what has been written here could be expanded upon. In any event, organizational communication represents a challenge not just for the Marine Corps, but for any modern organization.

2. Unusual problems often require unusual solutions. With low risk and high potential reward, such a plan seems to promise great benefits for little investment.

3. I can provide further documentation, analysis, and correspondence as required.

I. References

(1) Shockley-Zalabak, Pamela S. Fundamentals of Organizational Communication, Seventh Edition. 2009, Pearson Education, Inc.

(2) MCRP 6-11B W/CH 11 Marine Corps Values: A User’s Guide for Discussion Leaders

(3) MCWP 6-11 Leading Marines

[“J. Durden”]

Language and/is Reality

1. Introduction

The objective of philosophy, in the broadest and most fundamental sense, is concerned with thinking. But this begs the obvious question – what is thinking? One professor at the University of Utah asked his students this simple question with varying results:

I recently asked some college honor students to define thinking. After pondering the question, a student majoring in sociology said, “It consists of reflecting on some idea or insight and exploring its logical connections and implications for making sense out of something.” In response to the same question, an English major responded: “It’s the ability to write a convincing argument in support of a particular point of view.” According to a premedical student majoring in biology, “Thinking is the ability to use information for analyzing data in order to solve some problem.” A philosophy major said without hesitation, “It’s a critical openness to new ideas as one explores their logical foundations.” And a student whose major is undecided said “It’s what I’m trying to do in response to your darn question.” (Geersteen, 2003)

It seems that a precise definition eludes consensus; indeed, as American writer and television producer J. Michael Straczynski once famously remarked, “The quality of our thoughts is bordered on all sides by our facility with language” (Lewis, 2009). The purpose of this essay is to more closely examine the link between language and thought, and put forth the foundation for an argument that asserts that language is, more or less, thought, as well as consider the implications of that idea.

2. Evolution of Language

In his work, Evolutionary Biology of Language, Martin A. Nowak goes to great lengths to establish a logical model that tracks the way in which a simple system of symbols could have evolved into modern language. His model involves quite a bit of advanced logic and mathematical concepts (which are beyond the scope of this essay), but the basic idea is that language evolved from a rigid system of limited symbols whereby one object had one symbol to the more modern system which allows for (perhaps) unlimited expression of ideas and events. Another expert who has also tracked the evolution of language remarks on the character of modern language systems: “Present-day human languages can be readily deployed to talk about events, objects, people and places far removed in space and time from the act of speaking, and the signs used to talk about such displaced referents have no detectable physical similarity to the referents themselves” (Urban, 2002).

Nowak (2000) incorporates arguments about evolution in his analysis of language: “Evolution relies on the transfer of information from one generation to the next. For billions of years this process was limited to the transfer of genetic information. Language facilitates the transfer of non-genetic information and thus leads to a new mode of evolution.” Essentially, he asserts that language has evolutionary advantages, and thus more effective (or “fit”) systems of languages would be the ones that get passed down from our ancestors, while less “fit” systems would become extinct. How do systems become more or less fit? It has to do with how many symbols and how many definitions there are in a system:

In other words, adding the possibility of describing more and more objects (or concepts) to the repertoire of a language cannot increase the maximum amount of information transfer beyond a certain limit. If, in addition, we assume that objects have different values, then we find that the maximum fitness is usually achieved by limiting the repertoire of the language to a small number of objects. Increasing the repertoire of the language can reduce fitness. Hence natural selection will prefer communication systems with limited repertoires.

He goes on to assert that “successful communication increases the survival probability or performance during life history and hence enhances the expected number of offspring. Thus, language is of adaptive value and contributes to biological fitness.”

If languages which retain fewer concepts (“reduced repertoires”) have increased biological fitness and evolutionary advantage, how did modern language come to be so complex and accommodate so much ambiguity and confusion? Nowak (2000) offers his thoughts in his conclusion (emphasis my own):

Efficient and unambiguous communication together with easy learnability of the language is rewarded in terms of pay-off and fitness. While we think that these are absolutely fundamental and necessary assumptions for much of language evolution, we also note the seemingly unnecessary complexity of current languages. Certainly, systems designed by evolution are often not optimized from an engineering perspective. Moreover, it seems likely that at times evolutionary forces were at work to make things more ambiguous and harder to learn, such that only a few selected listeners could understand the message. If a good language performance enhances the reputation of the group, we can also imagine an arms race towards increased and unnecessary complexity. Such a process can drive the numbers of words and rules beyond what would be best for efficient information exchange. This should be the subject of papers to come. (Nowak, 2000)

Here Nowak admits to one of the most fundamental problems with language – the way in which it can be ideologized. Before I tackle that idea, which deals with large social systems, let us first examine more mundane dangers associated with misunderstandings of language.

3. Language Assumptions

“Everyone who reads this paper knows of the order of 50,000 words of his primary language. These words are stored in the ‘mental lexicon’ together with one or several meanings, and some information about how they relate to other words and how they fit into sentences” (Nowak, 2000). Language is a fundamental fact of human existence, but it is also one that is taken for granted. As the quote above illustrates, we all have a sort of mental dictionary we tote around, and during communication, it is all too natural to assume that the definition we have in mind for a word we use when we are speaking matches the definition that our listener has in mind for the same word. Often times, conflicts that arise as a result of this are minimal, but other times they can have important consequences. Imagine a scenario where a friendly girl tosses around the phrase “I love you” in the most trivial of ways, utilizing the phrase as a sort of goodbye, which seems so common these days. (Her interpretation of the word love is casual and can be supported by more than one of the many definitions found in any number of dictionaries – the website has no less than 14 definitions for love.) In a communication moment with someone who thinks of the word love as having more gravitas, she is bound to create a miscommunication – the person to whom she is speaking will receive an entirely different message than the one she intends. This could result in disappointment for her listener, such as in the case of her listener being a man who was infatuated with her. Twist the scenario a bit, and imagine she did mean the more serious interpretation of love, whereas her male listener assumed she meant a more casual one, and now she is prone to feel the negative impacts of communication loss.

Recall Nowak’s (2000) idea of language fitness, first visited above: “…The fitness contribution of a language can be formulated as the probability that two individuals know the correct word for a given event summed over all events and weighted with the rate of occurrence of these events.” Essentially, a language is more “fit” if the chances of the speaker and listener having the same definition for a word (love in the previous example) are high. It follows that the higher the number of disparate definitions for the same word there are in a given language, the less fit that language becomes. English seems especially rife with words that have numerous and disparate meanings, and it is no exaggeration to say that a 15-page paper could be written on this subject alone. I implore you to consider the use of words such as “socialist,” “communist,” “harassment,” “equality,” “family values,” “oppression,” or nearly any other politically charged word in the public sphere, with the idea that the person speaking the word could be talking about something entirely different from the person listening to the word, even though they are both considering the same word. Since this essay is concerned only with impelling contemplation, the previous analyses should suffice as a primer on this particular point.

However, definitions of words are not the only assumptions we make regarding language. The literature establishes that the average person is both ignorant and arrogant when it comes to language, a rather dangerous combination:

In matters of language history, structure, function, and standardization, the average individual is, for the most part, simultaneously uninformed and highly opinionated. When asked directly about language use, most people will draw a very solid basic distinction of ‘standard’ (proper, correct) English vs. everything else. (Lippi-Green, 1994)

That we posit the existence of something called language can itself be considered an assumption, which, furthermore, has an impact on how human societies are organized:

Beliefs about what is or is not a real language, and underlying these beliefs, the notion that there are distinctly identifiable languages that can be isolated, named, and counted, enter into strategies of social domination. Such beliefs…have contributed to profound decisions about, for example, the civility or even the humanity of subjects of colonial domination. They also qualify or disqualify speech varieties from certain institutional uses and their speakers from access to domains of privilege. (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)

More examples of how language has a tangible impact on our lives will be discussed later. We hold other assumptions about language that are of paramount philosophical importance. Indeed, how we think about language may impact perceptions as fundamental as how we define ourselves: “Language socialization studies have demonstrated connections among folk theories of language acquisition, linguistic practices, and key cultural ideas about personhood” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). Moreover, thoughts regarding language (especially in the Western nations, like the United States) underpin assumptions regarding the nature of reality: “In the vernacular belief system of Western culture, language standards are not recognized as human artifacts, but are naturalized by metaphors such as that of the free market” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). This stands in stark contrast to a more reasoned and self-examined perspective, informed by a more comprehensive understanding of language, its functions, and its evolution:

Deconstructive rhetorical analysis is based on the premise that all claims to transcendent truths are radically undercut by the fact that they are made within a given language and culture which impose limits on the thought and perception of individuals making the claim. We do not have unmediated access to a truth; rather, our view of the world is a function of a set of culturally constructed assumptions which shape our perception of the truth…Deconstructive critics also assert, though, that rhetoric is always open to multiple interpretations which are themselves a function of the interpreters’ own beliefs and values. Any deconstructive reading is offered as one among many possible interpretations.” (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

A key point here is that not only is language ineffective for establishing perfectly objective observations of reality form the perspective of the speaker, it also depends upon the interpretations of the listener. Thus, miscommunication can result either from poorly phrased speaking or from various deficiencies in the listener. For example, while a speaker’s poor accent can increase the odds of communication loss, a listener’s desire to understand the speaker is perhaps even more important:

…Accent…is most likely to pose a barrier to effective communication when two elements are lacking. The first is a basic level is communicative competence on the part of the speaker…. The second element, even more important but far more difficult to assess, is the listener’s good will. Without the goodwill, the speaker’s…degree of communicative competence is irrelevant. Prejudiced listeners cannot hear what a person has to say, because accent, as a mirror of social identity and a litmus test for exclusion, is more important. (Lippi-Green, 1994)

The assumptions of language we take for granted can be exploited through the imposition of language ideologies.

4. Language Ideologies

The phrase “language ideology” is defined by different authors in different ways, but for the purpose of this essay I provide the following: “The definition [of language ideology] used here is: a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed from above, and which takes as its model the written language. The most salient feature is the goal of suppression of variation of all kinds” (Lippi-Green, 1994). In other words, a language ideology seeks to impose a standard of language upon as many potential speakers as possible (for example, within a nation as in a national language, though certain social groups may exclude others on the basis of ‘official’ languages).

Language ideologies may be the common denominator in what defines a social group, to include a nation: “…The nationalist ideology of language structures state politics, challenges multilingual states, and underpins ethnic struggles to such an extent that the absence of a distinct language can cast doubt on the legitimacy of claims to nationhood” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). The language consensus – that is to say, agreement on what is and is not proper language and thus thinking – informs the way the state structures itself. Absence of such a consensus may cause the entire system to dissolve as people perceive the organization to lack legitimacy. These assertions are not based on pure abstraction, but rather on empirical studies of linguistic histories: “Macrosocial research on language planning and policy has traced distinctive ideological assumptions about the role of language in civic and human life and distinctive stances toward the state regulation of language, for example, between England and France” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994).

Literacy and orthographies (systems of writing) have a profound impact on language ideologies. They tend to lend credibility towards notions of language consensus: “Ideologies of literacy have complex relations to ideologies of speech and can play distinctive, crucial roles in social institutions. Even the conceptualization of the printed word can differ importantly from that of the written” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). It is relevant at this point to call attention to the distinction in linguistics between ideologies of speech and ideologies of printed word. Imagine how hard it would be to enforce a proper way of speaking, for instance – especially without the aid of the written word! Thus, written word has a synergistic effect with the spoken word; the two working together can create a far more powerful language ideology than perhaps either could alone (though it is rather hard to imagine a written language without a spoken component – unless you count math, which will be discussed later). Due to length considerations, this essay cannot fully examine the ways in which various parts of spoken language have important impacts. Concepts of literacy have a profound impact on society:

The definition of what is and what is not literacy is always a profoundly political matter. Historical studies of the emergence of schooled literacy and school English show the association between symbolically valued literate traditions and mechanisms of social control. Analyses of classroom interaction further demonstrate how implicit expectations about written language shape discriminatory judgments about spoken language and student performance. The nineteenth century foundation of English as a university discipline created a distinction between reading as aristocratic and leisurely and writing as work. Composition as skill training for employment is the dirty work of English departments, with consequences for gender politics (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994).

Additionally, literacy can often be fueled by cultural factors: “Anthropological studies of literacy…recognized belatedly that it is not an autonomous, neutral technology, but rather is culturally organized, ideologically grounded, and historically contingent, shaped by political, social, and economic forces” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994). These impacts are only accelerated when one factors for the court of law or other systems which rely on the transcription of “the truth,” such as journalistic pursuits:

Transcription, or the written representation of speech, within academic disciplines and law, for example, relies on and reinforces ideological conceptions of language…In the American legal system the verbatim record is an idealist construction, prepared according to the court reporter’s model of English, against which incoming speech is filtered, evaluated, and interpreted. It is considered information if a witness speaks ungrammatically, but not if lawyers do, and edited is applied accordingly (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994).

One may ask at this juncture how it is that language ideologies are imposed and sustained in the first place. This is an excellent question with an unfortunate answer – the entire system is imposed right under our noses. It begins in the classroom: “Standard language ideology is a basic construct of our elementary and secondary schools’ approach to language and philosophy of education. The schools provide the first exposure to SL ideology, but the indoctrination process does not stop when the students are dismissed” (Lippi-Green, 1994). I hypothesize that this may be a result of how education has come to be synonymous with college (evidence by the phrase “get an education,” which generally means, a college degree) thus eliminating the perception that education is a multifaceted process and that there are many ways to become educated. A hard truth that we need to face is that our public education system is not infallible and likely never will be: “Much of what the American educational system teaches children about language is factually incorrect; in this it is thorough, consistent, and successful across social and economic boundaries. The phenomenon has been observed by others” (Lippi-Green, 1994). After the school system, there are several other guardians of standard language ideology which will be named, but not analyzed thoroughly (due to length constraints): “There are four immediately identifiable proponents of SL ideology…: the educational system, the news media, the entertainment industry, and what has been generally referred to as corporate America. At the end of the article, I argue for adding the judicial system to this list” (Lippi-Green, 1994). Lippi-Green’s article provides a convincing case to consider the judicial system as a fifth enforcer.

Considering that language can be crucial to how one defines one’s place in the world (as examined in the article Language and Borders), such totalitarian impositions have observable consequences:

The phrase “language and borders” suggests that language differences signify categories of person defined by ethnic or national origin and that these categories are opposed to each other. People act in ways that are taken as “having” a language, which is equated to “belonging” to an origin group. Borders emerge in specific contexts as a metonymy of person, language, and origin category. This metonymy can be fleeting or quite rigid and in varying degrees politicized. (Urciuoli, 1995)

Stated more simply, the language a person speaks comes to fully define that person in the perception of others. Ideas like ethnicity and nationality could be deconstructed as nothing more than a difference in language. Urciuoli (1995) goes on further to say, “What does exist, in any society, is the fact of linguistic variation from which people deploy language forms in acts of identity. From such acts, people’s sense of community, group, and language emerge in specific places and times.” This need not be interpreted only with regards to nations – think also of subcultures, such as internet gaming communities, the military, or any other culture which has a language unto itself.

I would now like to take the time to examine the counterargument that language is not the only way to think, that surely there must be some other way of thinking.

5. Alternative Models of Thinking

The most common split in cognition theories is that humans are capable of thinking verbally and mathematically, and that these two modes of thinking are distinct from each other. Such a worldview is evident in the organization of the SAT exam, for example, which is split between math and verbal components. Nowak (2000) seems to hint that language is not the only mode of thinking when he writes, “Our language performance relies on precisely coordinated interactions of various parts of our neural and other anatomy, and we are amazingly good at it. We can all speak without thinking. In contrast, we cannot perform basic mathematic operations without concentration.”

Let us examine mathematical thinking more closely. At first glance, the literature is convincing in establishing mathematical thinking as distinct from thinking through language:

Most schools assume that teaching mathematics compulsorily and over a number of years they are providing the conditions through which pupils will develop their mathematical thinking. This assumption, usually unchallenged, rests on a view of mathematics as a logically developed discipline, together with the expectation that the logic will spill over and be absorbed by the pupils into all aspects of their lives as they pursue a study of the content of mathematics, for example, in learning number, geometry, trigonometry, or algebra. Experience, however, tells a very different story…Certainly an inordinate amount of time in schools is spent teaching mathematical content and techniques while the process, the means through which mathematics is derived, receives little attention….Exploring process is not very profitable when teachers do not understand the kinds of thinking from which process springs. (Burton, 1984)

In summary, mathematical thinking is a different process for thinking, and one assumes it would be distinct in nature from thinking through language. However, once the literature is read more deeply, apparent distinctions evaporate (emphasis the author’s own): “The process is initiated by encountering an element with enough surprise or curiosity to impel exploration of it by manipulating… Although the sense of what is happening is vague, further manipulating is required until the sense can be expressed is an articulation” (Burton, 1984). Expressing an articulation? Isn’t that the precise point of language? Yet wait, there’s more (emphasis my own):

Pupils need tools to help them structure their responses so that they can build their reflective powers. Further, they need encouragement to capture their feelings at the moment of expression. Consequently, students of all ages have been encouraged to develop the use of particular words that reflect their responses as they tackle questions…The key to recognizing and using mathematical thinking lies in creating an atmosphere that builds confidence to question, challenge, and reflect. (Burton, 1984)

I assert that mathematics is just another type of language which is also based on symbols (generally, numbers instead of words), and that, in fact, all human thinking is symbolic in nature. There is a school of thought which asserts truth through symbolic logic, and it is worth examining at this juncture.

6. Symbolic Logic

What is symbolic logic? Aside from a rule system that has useful applications in computer programing and math, for instance, I assert it is nothing more than another language. In any event, one proponent describes it as follows (emphasis my own):

…Symbolic logic, is, in its broadest sense, a new science which studies through use of efficient symbols the nature and properties of all nonnumerical relations, seeking precise meanings and necessary conclusions. As an applied science, it holds immense promise. For example, it may give us an unambiguous language for political, economic, and social fields, which will conveniently reflect the structure of these fields and make discussion and analysis easy. (Berkeley, 1942)

Symbolic logic seeks “precise meanings” and supplies us an “unambiguous language…” It should be clear at this point that it is nothing more than another language (and thus owes no higher claim to The Truth than any other language), but, the following quote about one of symbolic language’s chief powers may help shed some more light on the situation (emphasis my own): “We observe first that symbolic logic can define certain ideas which neither mathematics nor the dictionary can possibly define; for example, symbolic logic can define number.” (Berkeley, 1942) There again, symbolic logic is concerned with defining things (and it is even said later in the article that symbolic language competes with dictionaries); how can one not conclude it is just another language?

For those unfamiliar, symbolic language did indeed take off as a philosophical idea and has had many practical and important impacts. However, as mentioned before, it is no more a path to conceptualizing The Truth or reality as any other path. It is still a language, though a refined one, and still subject to the pitfalls of language (emphasis author’s own):

As we noted earlier, no language, as the product of a given culture and history, can claim to have unmediated access to the real. Making such a simple assertion implies a kind of cultural arrogance, forgetful as it is of the multiplicity of languages and of the linguistic reality that each provides a variety of ways to structure the real. Language is a mediational tool which enables the construction of cultural reality. Such terms as real, authentic, and genuine, especially when they are repeated without much critical self-awareness, give the impression that successful language use provides access to The Truth itself.” (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

Symbolic logic was not without critics, however.

One author wrote a multifaceted rebuttal based on logical arguments, though a full treatment of those arguments is beyond the scope of this essay. Of more relevance is the following analysis, which rejects the idea that the definitions of things should be fixed, or, in other words, that language ideologies should be enforced (emphasis author’s own):

But Formal Logic has perversely chosen to build on the fiction that the meaning of terms is (or ought to be) fixed, and to talk about propositions rather than judgments. So the proposition becomes a helpless formula, totally incapable of reproducing the features of living thought. It has acquired its meanings from past uses; but these do not protect it against ‘willful modifications’ at the hands of masters of language like Humpty Dumpty, who make words mean what they please…Is not the whole history of philosophy one long illustration of philosophic audacity in manipulating language, and does not experience show that philosophers frequently get away with their arbitrary modifications of ‘the‘ meaning of words and ‘propositions?’ I can not admit, therefore, that…symbolic logic [is] in any way relevant to the procedures of our actual thinking. (Schiller, 1932)

An important implication of this argument is that words/ideas/what-have-you are defined by past uses, but this provides no protection from those who would manipulate definitions for their own advancement. Thus the Jew in Nazi Germany, for instance, can suddenly become the scapegoat for an entire nation’s woes. There are many examples of this but unfortunately little room for a detailed analysis; I am sure the reader can think of his or her own examples of how words have been manipulated to mean entirely different things, for good and for ill. The take away point from this section is that a more accurate conceptualization of human thinking is thus: all human thinking is symbolic – and language can be thought of as nothing more than a system of symbols created for the purposes of communication. Therefore, symbolic logic is ‘just’ another language, like English or mathematics.

7. Practical, or Less Abstract Implications

So far, many of the examples mentioned in this paper have been of an abstract nature. Here, I hope to provide a brief look at some real-world, practical implications to the understanding of language I have outlined above. Geersteen (2003) outlines why it is important to think more clearly:

What makes higher-level thinking so important? To begin with, we live in a world of unprecedented change and expansion in information. New information continues to multiply as old information becomes obsolete…Constant and accelerating shifts in information mean that all members of society need greater skill in assessing and evaluating knowledge.

An understanding of language ideologies may yield answers to significant and challenging contemporary problems, including (but certainly not limited to) those outlined in the quote below:

Many populations around the world, in multifarious ways, posit fundamental linkages among such apparently diverse cultural categories as language, spelling, grammar, nation, gender, simplicity, intentionality, authenticity, knowledge, development, power, and tradition. But our professional attention has only begun to turn to understanding when and how those links are forged – whether by participants or their expert analysts – and what their consequences might be for linguistic and social life. A wealth of public problems hinge on language ideology. Examples from the headlines of United States newspapers include bilingual policy and the official English movement; questions about free speech and harassment; the meaning of multiculturalism in schools and texts; the exclusion of jurors who might rely on their own native-speaker understanding of non-English testimony; and the question of journalists’ responsibilities and the truthful representation of direct speech. Coming to grips with such public issues means coming to grips with the nature and working of language ideology. (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)

Indeed, an understanding of language ideologies may be critical to achieving true intellectual freedom. As was quoted in Nowak (2000)’s work above, it is not unfeasible to imagine that certain people/groups/interests have a vested interest in an “arms race” towards ever increasing complexity and ambiguity. As his work demonstrates, this is more than just a social justice issue – if the fitness of our language continues to deteriorate and we can no longer efficiently and effectively communicate with one another, we will be at an evolutionary disadvantage. How much danger we are in is up for debate, but it certainly warrants consideration.

We should be wary of ideological interpretations of language: “Important sociolinguistic changes can be set off by ideological interpretation of language use, although because they derive only from a larger social dialectic, such changes are likely to take an unintended direction, as in the historical case of the second person pronoun shift in English.” (Woolard, & Schieffelin, 1994)

One example I would point out would be the “politically correct” movement, which seeks to define what is and is not acceptable for conversation and even intellectual debate. Such ideas are dangerous because they limit the amount of discourse in society and in the academy, and, further, can allow for certain ideologies to propagate unopposed and without critical evaluation. The whole idea of freedom of speech, after all, is to protect the ideas that we do not like to hear; the ideas that we enjoy hearing need no protection, and yet, if we do not listen to ideas we do not like, we may not be able to see the ways that the ideas we do like potentially poison our thinking (and in turn, our society and world).

Figurative speech is often employed for ideological purposes. This essay cannot hope to examine every use of figurative speech possible, but will provide one example related to the “whole language” movement in education to illustrate the point (emphasis author’s own):

We mean the term rhetoric to refer to the effort to persuade or argue forcefully for a position. More specifically, following a tradition that goes back to antiquity, we use it to refer to…figures of speech….An example…is the use of the word ownership to describe the relationship that the movement wants to foster between student writers and the texts they produce. In this context the word ownership is being used figuratively. It does not refer literally to an act of economic possession; rather, it uses that act as an analogy for the idea that writers can have control over and feel pride in what they write. The use of the word ownership in this metaphorical or figurative way serves as a rallying cry for teachers. The intense control that the word implies is a goal that teachers can strive for, a value that they can share. Thus the use of this figure attempts to persuade the uninitiated and to produce group solidarity. It serves the rhetoric of the movement. (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

Figurative language can be evaluated critically to reveal the deepest assumptions of its users, however:

We argue, though, that the figurative language of a text does more than persuade. Read critically, it also reveals the deepest assumptions that underlie the text’s arguments. All arguments proceed from a set of assumptions held by the persons making the arguments. These assumptions are what can be taken for granted, the unquestioned ‘truths’ that underlie the explicit claims evident in the text. (Blanton, McLaughlin, & Moorman, 1994)

A wise philosophy professor I had the good fortune of studying under once told our class that philosophy was the business of questioning assumptions. If that is the case, we should always be on the lookout for figurative language, and seek to evaluate the assumptions that lie lurking below powerful rhetorical language.

8. Conclusion

We are left then with the simple-seeming question posed at the beginning of this paper: what is thinking, and what is the proper way to go about thinking? The answer is likewise simple: thinking and the proper way to go about are entirely up to the thinker to define. Some may deride this idea as infantile and naive; but I believe a full appreciation of the implications of this idea reveal it to be as liberating a philosophy as can be conceived – it permits true freedom of thought. As Kierkegaard once remarked: “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find an idea for which I can live and die.” The extent to which we can conceptualize of thinking as correct applies only so far as a thinker can effectively communicate with another through whichever language facilitates the most clarity between the two – be it English, algebra, symbolic logic, or some soon-to-be invented language. Cognizance of the communication medium and respect for differing abilities among speakers/listeners to comprehend messages encoded in that medium are paramount to understanding and commonality. Indeed, “A…crucial concept is that the burden of communication is shared, on every level, by both participants…” (Lippi-Green, 1994). Perhaps, one day, humans will evolve an entirely new system to replace symbolic thinking/language, but until that day we are compelled to live with what we have. A rigorous review and critical evaluation of the mediums we choose to communicate in, and all the associated implications, seems likely to reduce unnecessary conflict and to, dare I say, promote peace.

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