Eskimos Have Two Words for Snow

One of many tropes on the web is that Eskimos have twenty-nine (or thirty-six or ninety-nine) words for “snow.” Like so many online legends, this one is false. Inuit people have just two words for “snow,” though they do have a rather larger lexicon relating to icebergs, slurry, and other features of serious interest to people subsisting in a cold environment. The purpose of the “snow words” claim varies. It seems often to be used to bolster the phenomenological position that environment molds consciousness. Others use it to indicate the more nuanced point that a paucity of terminology may produce a reflective lack of subtlety in our thinking about the world. Certainly, it is to illuminate this latter thesis that C.S. Lewis wrote The Four Loves, his analysis of the four Greek terms that distinguish our modes of affection for family, friends, lovers, and God. We may need even more terms to do justice to this most powerful of human feelings. Perhaps we are so fixated on love because we do such a poor job of understanding it. Before coining such neologisms, I propose that we examine some of the common terms we use to assert our understanding of reality. Unlike love, here is a subject we all claim to know, but the terms we use suggest otherwise.

First, a very brief context. All of our knowledge claims are about something, so our knowledge is only true if it reflects some actual state of affairs. Now that notion of reflection is important because it requires a dualism between our statement and that something else, and the capability to accomplish that must be rational (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”). Whatever else we think necessary for truth must be built upon this rationality. So what do we mean by an “actual state of affairs”? It could be some fact about the world or some coherence between our truth claim and the complex of other truths we embrace (see “What Counts as Justification?“). The key is that knowledge is always about something. I am convinced that this relationship between claim and that other something is the whole key to clear understanding and communication. I call it the claim’s justification or warrant, and my contention is that our lack of clarity about this subject produces no end of mischief in the world. Part of that murkiness derives from the very poor terminology we employ as we attempt to understand and communicate our declarations, something we do thousands of times daily. I wish we had in actuality as many clear distinctions for justification as the internet claims the Eskimos have for snow.

Instead, we have only confusion. Quick, tell me what an opinion is. The Supreme Court issues them citing estimable and subtle constitutional warrants. I issue them on the quality of my child’s Happy Meal. The use of this term references the most thoughtful expertise and the blindest prejudice. Everyone is entitled to one on any subject, thereby reducing the cumulative value to zero. Sentences that begin with, “In my opinion,” can be safely ignored for content. We wait for the pause that allows us to throw our own into the ring to lie there listlessly until covered by piles of other equally useless preferences and distastes. The etymology of the word reflects its emptiness, for it sources everything from judgment to flight of fancy. The word, like the declarative sentences in which it is used, all too often has no real meaning. As a signal for the 1:1 justification that gives heft to our truth claims, the word “opinion” is a featherweight. In the world of knowledge claims, it has all the gravitas and power of the word “thing” as used in general parlance.

Wouldn’t it be a good thing to replace opinion for words that establish a clearer reflection of the claim to our knowledge, meaning words that imply the kinds of justifications we are prepared to offer? I don’t think this is a particularly difficult task, provided we are willing to look honestly at what we claim to know. But that may be the real issue. We prefer to be vague. It masks our uncertainty. When we hear something we disagree with, we can say, “That’s only your opinion,” tarring the remark with the brush of inconsequentiality, yet we think our own opinion gospel truth. For that matter, some of us think the gospel to be truth. Is that an opinion? Is the gospel? To have any real conversation about truth, goodness, or beauty, we must be honest about what we know, honest with ourselves and then with others. That honesty begins with clarity about the basic words we use to frame our knowledge. Wouldn’t it be good for us to have a basket of terms with specific meanings to express gradations of knowledge rather than a Gordian knot of empty, ludicrous terms like opinion?

Let’s start at the beginning. Our knowledge begins with perception filtered through a reasoning faculty that seems unique to humans. And the most reliable perceptual nugget is a fact. Let us call it “a datum of experience.” Facts are the most reliable knowledge claims we have about the world outside our own heads. The definition tells us why. Facts are simple, pure perceptual inputs into our minds, requiring a minimum of reasoning or connecting to other facets of experience. Empirical science is built on a deep foundation of facts. Their simplicity is their elegance. We value them because of their reliability, which is entirely a product of their direct perceptibility. If it is 96 degrees outside, it is a fact to say so. It is not a fact to say it is hot or is that it is hotter today than yesterday, even if true. The essence of facticity is simplicity. Manipulating that datum of experience must be called something else, no matter how obvious the manipulation seems or how natural the addition to fact that we advance. Now people claim all sorts of things to be facts that aren’t, undoubtedly because the term retains some of its power even if used incorrectly, so I think we rather exploit the muddy understanding most people have about the term. If you agree with me, better still if everyone agrees with me, I feel safe to call any declaration a fact. Claim there is a purgatory in a Roman Catholic church and you have stated a fact. Say it in a Lutheran church and it becomes sheer malarkey. Put the earth at the center of the universe in the fifteenth century and you have stated a fact as obvious as the sunrise, one everyone “knows.” Somehow it sidles out to the frontier in time to satisfy the current fact of its new location. Does it make sense to you that facts about reality are dependent on the assent of the listener? On the consensus of the public? In the case of purgatory, we have an additional problem, for no declaration of its existence could ever meet the definition of fact. Purgatory is imperceptible. I am not saying the claim is false, only that it could not be a fact.

So what is it? How does it differ from the fact that it is 96 degrees, or the associated claim that it is hotter today than yesterday? We need more terms!

The moment we do something with a fact, we change it into something else. We may join facts together in some causal or correlative sense, thereby introducing more reasoning into our declaration. To say it is hotter today than it was yesterday is that kind of claim. This effort to associate or differentiate facts about reality requires us to manipulate them to some intention that reason must direct, and introducing even a little bit of complexity to a fact also introduces a larger chance of error. I may err in claiming a datum of experience to be a fact. Maybe I misread the thermometer and it is really 95 degrees. But my chance for error is greater when I attempt to link today’s temperature to yesterday’s. That comparison, because it involves both perception and my reasoning about it, is more likely to be false. It is not a fact though, even if true. We need a word to describe the increased complexity that reasoning about facts introduces. I think the appropriate word for this effort is judgment. To judge something to be true is to weigh it deliberately—the link to reasoning is implicit in the word. To judge something is to arrive at a more complex truth claim than simple facticity. Our judgments may be wrong and given that their complexity may extend from a simple cause-effect sentence to a scientific paradigm, it is likely that they often are wrong. The corrective for an error of fact is a fact. It is really 95 degrees, not 96. The corrective for an error of judgment is a better judgment, based on more accurate factual information or better reasoning in manipulating it.

To use judgment is to recognize the deliberation required to weigh our truth claims against some warrant or justification. The word evokes the courtroom with its presentation and evaluation of evidence, its careful articulation of opposing argument, and above all the rational structure of its process. To judge is to subject a truth claim to a dispassionate ratiocinative examination, for to judge prematurely is the literal meaning of prejudice. If I begin a truth claim with the words, “In my judgment…” I am throwing open my argument to your analysis, willingly subjecting it to your evaluation, accepting and even welcoming your opposing arguments, and above all acknowledging that our entire conversation on this subject is guided by reason rather than some other and lesser means of justification. To acknowledge that our judgment guides our discussion is to offer it the possibility of profit for both of us; therefore, the term is as superior to opinion as ordinary language to a baby’s babbling.

We are less hobbled by our understanding of belief. Here is a term with at least the possibility of clarity. Fortunately, its etymology opens it up to accurate understanding. To believe is to hold dear, to value. Think about the implications suggested by this etymology. What does it mean to profess a belief? What do we risk when we claim a belief to be true? How much of ourselves do we stake on the truth of such a claim? Oh, how we cling to our beliefs with the deepest attachment! Yet despite the stakes, how powerfully can we advance such a claim? Unlike opinion, the term has clear connotations. We think of a belief as a truth claim with a bit of suspicion clinging to its margins. We tend to approach the word as a less reliable cognate of judgment. If I should ask if you locked the car and you reply with “I believe so,” odds are that one of us is going back to check. I believe what I cannot know, what I cannot judge because of lack of evidence or rational connection. Or we think of it in the same sense as opinion in its most crippled sense: a belief is as unsupportable as the emptiest expression of taste. Our response is often dismissive (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?”).

But such is the confusion about the knowledge content of these terms that the use of belief may very well carry a heavier weight than I’ve indicated above. The word may just indicate a claimed degree of certainty equivalent to fact, and for some persons, its use indicates the very highest degree of confidence possible in a truth claim. In this sense, to believe is to know with absolute certainty. So which is it? Does proclaiming a belief convey a lesser degree of knowledge than our rational judgment or a greater? To my mind, nothing better indicates the sorry sense of our present understanding of justification than this kind of question and nothing cries out more loudly for the clarification that can only come from a corrected usage. How confidently can I assert my beliefs? The answer to this question must be delivered from two sources, each producing a different answer. The first is as old as western civilization, the second as new as our present culture.

In his dialogue Theaetetus, Plato calls knowledge “justified, true belief.” If you read it, you will find him unsatisfied with that definition, as well he should be, for it is a truth claim’s justification that proves it true, and to call such a claim a belief is to tinge it with a blinding desire. He also warns us against being too enamored of our own opinions and seeks a strong wall between knowledge built from beliefs and mere opinion. But this seems ridiculous in light of the association of belief with attachment. Of course, we love our beliefs. We hold them dear to us. The word implies that attachment. In the original Greek, it had a modicum of that meaning, and Plato certainly thought we should love and hold knowledge dear, preferring it to our own opinion. In the age when religious authority underwrote all claims to knowledge, a preference for one’s own opinon was an act of rebellion and appropriation from the omniscient source of all truth. The difference was in the means of justification. We might arrive at what might be called “just an opinion” from our own preferences or biases, but our knowledge was a kind of revelation of indisputable truth from above, a kind of gift opening us to a true state of affairs in reality. This was delivered via religious dogma or God’s deputies and was given as absolute truth. In that schema, beliefs could claim a certitude our judgments could only aspire to. That division was maintained through the centuries, though the source and the means of transmission was believed to have changed.  Our beliefs might be intimations of ideal truth, revelations of Gnostic knowledge or divine will, inspirations from Scripture (“inspiration” means “breathed into” and so thinkers from Augustine to Luther considered such inspirations the breath of God), or intuitions from a pantheistic Nature. Of course, believers clung to these with the deepest affection! They were the radiant beams of indisputable knowledge shining down in the murk of ordinary perception. The means of justification made beliefs indubitable, and in that context they were viewed as the very best kind of knowledge. So long as you accepted the justification. But the first great thought revolution, the Protestant Reformation, cast a perennial suspicion upon this kind of warrant. This is the foundation of modernism, and the modernist reliance upon the less imperious mode of justification, judgment, remains a thread in the fabric of our culture. But the power of belief would rise again.

It acquired an entirely different kind of justification in the twentieth century. Romantic intuition, the latest incarnation of divine transmission, had fractured upon the iron cliffs of doubt during the Victorian age (see “The Victorian Rift“) and belief put on its new clothes in the shadow of World War I. Cut off its divine and revelatory power, invent an entirely new mode of justification, the coherentist virtual circle, and call into question the modernist reliance on judgment, and you have a new sense of the power of belief. In this model (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?”), a dispassionate judgment is not available to the thinker whose picture of the world must always be colored by experience, whose reasoning must be formed by environment, and whose truths must always be personalized as a result. Given these uncertainties, the truth of any knowledge claim is only to be warranted by the linking of current beliefs to “truths” already accepted. The only truth test available thus becomes the principle of non-contradiction, a very weak test indeed made far weaker by the elasticity of the reasoning that applies the principle since the theory imagines reasoning to be as private as experience. In this twentieth century model, the truth of a belief becomes as reliable as fact, opinion, judgment, or imagining, so long as it coheres with the perspective of the believer. These terms are now all synonymous with belief. Truth is reduced to a kind of personal reality. What was once revealed as universal now structures a private universe for the believer. In such a model, my beliefs are both certain and private. Every differing perspective is merely different; none can be true or false. Persons say with straight faces that they don’t believe in evolution just as they don’t believe in Santa Clause. Every truth is negotiable. Every good is pragmatic. Every beauty is personal. I trade off my ability to convince you for your inability to dissuade me (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”).

In the current atmosphere, we can have no assurance that a person’s use of belief to justify a knowledge claim signifies the universal authority, affliction of doubt, or the private constructive, or, in other words, of the premodern, modern, or postmodern meaning of the term (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). I doubt that most speakers could clarify their meaning to their listeners. It might be instructive for you to inquire about the speaker’s sense of the universal truth of her beliefs. If she acknowledges such claims to be “true for me,” she is most certainly using the term in its coherentist sense, but if she claims her beliefs true for all, you might politely ask for some warrant. In practical terms, most people’s response is likely to be the same, for revelation and personal construction are equally irrelevant in our postmodern environment, and both are treated with a similar degree of disregard by those who equate beliefs with opinions and find them equally unpersuasive. No serious engagement with the truth quotient is generally required. What does not reflect the ego becomes a white noise.

But that is a loss, for beliefs in their modernist sense are fruitful topics for discussion because they mark the frontiers of our present knowledge. That is a useful piece of navigation, less for our differing beliefs but more for our differing judgments. To warrant them adequately may be our own responsibility, but the effort gains from our fertile disagreement. Beyond the limits of what we now know, you and I may find real reasons for both our beliefs and our disagreements concerning them in our conversation about what is true and good, and might find shining the light of analysis on our beliefs mutually instructive, so long as we recognize their justifications to fall short of those required for our judgments. But that level of delicacy is not likely to happen in the current climate because we have learned through experience that people hold their beliefs dear, so we are likely to seek sufficient cause to change the subject as soon as convenient since they profess to have nothing to learn from a disagreement that would quickly assault their sense of identity. After all, beliefs proclaim identity, and challenging them is a violation of etiquette, hardly polite in a culture in which the fixed meanings of essential terms have melted away like all those missing Eskimo words for “snow.”



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