Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 3b, A thing is its valence

These ‘Part b’ things seem to be a recurring feature, so I’ll make a formal declaration about what they are now. Part A will be a discussion of the book and the major themes that arise. Part B will be an application of a theme, even if it is not one of the major themes from Part A. As such, this one will be about the claim that a thing is the thing you want to use it as, or ― at least ― what you want to use it as defines its parameters.

This is reminiscent of the discussion in Beginning of Infinity by Deutsch; that we have to apply a creative interpretation of what we see to make distinct objects out of them. In turn, this is reflective of Buddhist thinking that objects have no definite borders.

There are two senses in which this works. A table, for example: it is only a table because you intend to use it as a table. There’s no definitive definition: in the right place, a large tree stump is a table; a coffee table might not have 4 legs, etc. Short of imagining using it as a table, how should we draw the lines around it, in space or time? Without reference to its valence ― how you imagine using it ― it is no more a table than just a post-tree object, or just another part of the hydrogen/time/gravity evolving system. A tree stump that you use as a table doesn’t consider its roots, but without your interest in using it, the stump cannot be conceptually separated from its roots, and its roots are only an object separate from the soil because you understand their distinct function. The same is true inwards: you treat the stump as a whole, but it is no more that whole that it is separated into bark and buttress, phloem, sap wood, heart wood…

With people it is a bit more complex, because it allows Peterson to bring Gods back into the mix. For example, a person can be scary ― and thus of a God of Nature or Destruction or other “feminine” wiles ― or attractive ― and thus of a God of sex or love. They are not scary or attractive in some definite way, but by fact of how you perceive them; their valence to you: a thing to be cautious of or run away from, or to seduce.

And this brings us to gender more generally. (It will later bring us to Oat Milk…) There is an irony that Peterson shot to prominence in his objection to the Canadian State creating sanctioned language around gender, specifically he objected to the idea that misgendering someone should be considered a hate crime. It is worth giving Peterson his dues: as far as I can tell, he would use a person’s preferred pronoun. There’s nothing wrong with this: you can object to a government making it the law that you must say “Good morning” to someone who says it to you, and still have that as your habit.

Given the constructed nature of gender roles ― femininity and masculinity ― in Peterson’s book (progenitor, creator, destroyer, monster; ruler, figurehead, tyrant) it makes perfect sense that a person can see themselves and carry themselves in a way that completely violates the received idea of a relationship between sex and gender. And when that happens, that person is the gender they embody. And gender is tied up with sexuality, which is a defining part of a person’s valence (although, not solely). If you are feminine, you are female; if you refuse the dichotomy, you might associate with another gender or none at all. And you are that valence.

On a less controversial footing ― which may make it clearer, as there’s no illusion of political divide clouding the issue ― Oat Milk. In the EU, referring to vegan milk replacements as milk has been banned. They are taking the technical definition of “milk” as a product of lactation. (We’ll ignore, for a moment, that coconut milk has had that name since about 1200AD, and that meat-eaters can enjoy “hot dogs” and “chicken drumsticks”, or that there doesn’t seem to be any confusion over what peanut butter is…)

But, if a thing is its affective valence, then a creamy liquid to add to cereal or coffee or to be used in baking is a milk. A processed tube of mushrooms and beetroot intended to be grilled and put in a bread roll is a sausage.

11 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 3b, A thing is its valence”

  1. Hang on. I think there’s some confusion here. A stump IS a stump. Just because I use it LIKE a table, and I consider it can function LIKE a table, I make a category mistake by identifying a stump therefore IS a table. No. It is LIKE a table relative only to me. Without me, it is a stump.

    If the stump could talk, it might even try to identify as a full grown tree. The cold hard fact in the matter is that it remains a stump regardless of its supposed feelings it is a full grown tree and so insists everyone else must ‘respect’ the fiction over the fact and address it as if a full grown tree or be subject to criminal prosecution as committing a hate crime against stumps.

    1. Hi.
      First of all, thank you for your last comment, about symbols, myths, and dreams. I’ve referenced it in an upcoming post. Sorry I didn’t reply, I actually found it a really interesting perspective.

      Regarding the stump is a stump is a stump, I have a few thoughts:
      In Peterson’s thesis, which includes the idea that we understand the universe as a forum for action, then things *are* what we use them as.
      What is the defining characteristic that excludes a stump from being a table?
      Why is it a stump, as a singular thing, and not a mix of bark and heartwood and phloem etc? And why is the stump a singular thing separate from the roots?
      There is some perspective from which a thing is what it is — but I find it hard to articulate what that perspective is…

      1. This is the problem (and also a benefit) with using symbols to describe things. Language is the vehicle for transferring meaning using symbolic sounds, symbolic figures. The confusion arises (again) when we forget or misplace that the symbolic reference IS the thing itself, and so we have all these word games played out to insist the symbols are real things but the real things are just symbols! This is why stuff like metaphysics and esoteric apologetics and many ideologies (the latest is this ‘progressive’ or ‘woke’ ideology) rely completely on going along with the charade. And so it’s interesting to be aware of when language is being intentionally used to redefine a thing into a feeling, usually to reverse a meaning. For example, females who breast feed are are not to be called ‘mothers’ by various medical professionals but ‘people who chest feed’. This attack on language is always a harbinger of relegating real things to be symbols and symbols to be real things!

      2. I agree that we need to be careful not to confuse the objects and their symbols. But I very much veer in the other direction to keep them apart.

        I don’t know if I accept a table is a single object. When you want to put one from Ikea together, it is 4 legs and a top and 2 dozen screws etc. And as soon as you want to build something out of it, it reverts to being legs and a top…
        You only talk about it as a single object when you intend to use it as a single object. (The same is true of a laptop — it’s one object, until you want to replace the fan, and so have to remove the graphics card to get to it, then suddenly it is at least 3 objects.)
        When does shaped wood become a table vs a chair? It’s just wood, intended to be used as a table.

        I don’t accept that a table is an object at all. The object is the material or the shape — but “table” assigns a use, not an object.

        If you come across a slab of wood in the park, and you don’t know if it was a chopping board or a top to a bed side table, you don’t pick one and hope you were right, you just call it wood.

        And so, a tree stump with plates and cutlery set out on it is a table. If I dig up that stump and sell it as a table, I don’t see that there’s any false advertisement going on.

        (Besides, I’m more agitated by Oat milk not being allowed to be called Oat milk anymore.)

      3. This is the ‘modern’ version of Platonic forms as if real and every manifestation just a shadow on the cave’s wall. To remain credible, the forms that have no physical properties had to be invested with a ‘nature’ expressed as physical properties and this led to an elevation of metaphysics to define reality. This led to the humors, the elements, the music of the spheres, and so on. We see where this kind of framing of the hierarchy between belief and reality leads: straight to ignorance and a shutdown of allowing reality to arbitrate our beliefs about it. There’s something fundamentally wrong with the method here.

        What’s wrong is the starting premise, that what exists (the noun – with physical properties) can and should be replaced by what is believed to form it (the adjective – with metaphysical properties like nature and intention and agency). It’s an epistemological error because it’s exactly backwards, which inevitably leads to a deeply suspect ontology. The humors are fiction. The elements are fiction. The music of the sphere is fiction. Intention is fiction. Agency is fiction. Metaphysics is fiction. It’s a backwards epistemology because it imposes on reality a Just So story that may or may not be true in fact but allows us no means to verify its accuracy. We know that when we presume our epistemology is correct first, our imposition on reality as if to accurately describe it (how we think, what methods we use to go about the business of consideration), then it should come as no surprise that we then reach predetermined conclusions AND hold these predetermined conclusions with an unreasonably high degree of certainty… believing as we do that we have arrived there independent of our biases. Well, we haven’t. We’ve imported them. We have, in effect, presumed the conclusion while, at the same time, dismissed reality from having any right to arbitrate our beliefs about it. After all, how can ‘reality’ arbitrate a ‘nature’ when we first accept the claim, the epistemology, that reality is the shadow but the form is real?

        I can’t tell you how often I come across religious believers (well, believers in any epistemologically broken ideology) certain that ‘evidence’ from reality – rather than supplied and imposed assumptions – have led them to some belief held with certitude… no matter how batshit crazy the belief may be (the conspiracy may be), no matter how diametrically opposed to and incompatible with evidence from reality that belief is in fact. This way of thinking doesn’t work to accurately reflect reality but presumes to be able to dictate beliefs into reality!

        How we think determines what we think, and today’s social media algorithms demonstrate the powerful extent to which vast numbers of people (especially Millennials) can be intentionally manipulated towards a specific belief goal (whoever is paying for that belief goal to be desired) yet honestly believe themselves to be making the decision independently. They have no clue the price they see on Amazon, for example, is different based on their aggregate data profile than what you or I might see. Your news feed will be quite different than my news feed… if we use the digital convenience of allowing our devices to provide us with ‘suggestions’. These algorithms grant us the veneer of believing we have independence and choice when, in fact, we have been intentionally manipulated. How we think determines what we think.

        So, the term ‘table’ is a linguistic convenience. That’s why anything can be used AS a table but this doesn’t magically turn that ‘anything’ into a table. If I use a stump temporarily as I would a table to, say, act as a flat surface for my coffee cup to sit on, this doesn’t change the stump into a literal table and we can test this. If I asked you to go find me a table left in the woods and bring it back, you would have a general idea of what you might look for. Would you return with the same stump I had used temporarily? No… especially if you came across a manufactured flat surface with four legs! The stump fully describes itself as the remainder of the tree once the main trunk is gone. The stump is a stump is a stump and does not become something other than a stump when used by others as something more like a table. This is the very word game I was talking about. Physical characteristics (used to describe what constitutes nouns) are not altered by language; believing they are is an epistemological error that gets it exactly backwards. Importing the notion of a table and then imposed on the stump does not turn the stump into a table in reality but, by linguistic convenience, allows us to us the stump LIKE you would use a table. In reality that individual thing is a stump. It has not changed its physical properties one bit because we call it something it is not.

        There is no uber table, no one progenitor table from which all other tables descend. The term is simply a linguistic convenience to relay some of the characteristics we have lumped together to describe what a table is, a kind of manufactured flat surface with some number of legs for stability. Because there are hundreds of ‘kinds’, we have hundreds of adjectives to refine the general notion of a table to a more specific kind of table. The physical existence of ANY real table of ANY kind is ONLY at the individual level, as in that table. And that table is a table only insofar as it fits the linguistic meaning of what defines the term even if we can use it a hundred different ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with the characteristics of what defines a table (like breaking off a leg and beating me about the head and shoulders with it until I finally stop writing this comment!). Words describe reality; they do not define it. This understanding is paramount to allowing reality to arbitrate our beliefs about it. And that method is called ‘science’.

      4. What is it that “magically” turns unmanufactured material into a table?
        Why isn’t it a large stool?
        Or an elevated chopping board?
        Or a children’s play den?

      5. Because part of the etymology of the word is from a squared flat plank. The ‘manufactured’ bit refers to the squaring part, although that same sense can be extended to any designed shape. My intention here is to point out that words are linguistic symbols to transfer meaning. Language is a vehicle and not a driver but is being used these days as if it were. For example, want to change your biological sex? Presto! Just change the language. See how magical that is?

      6. The fact that the language is the vehicle is precisely why I’m sceptical of you calling on etymology, and not allowing for a distinction between sex and gender.

        I accept that the words are the vehicle. And so, a thing is a table when it is useful for a person to talk of it as a table. Not because it magically has some inherent quality of being a table.

        Also, the etymology — tabula — is an inscribed plank

      7. Well, I wanted to clarify originally that using something as table didn’t turn that into a table. There is a linguistic difference that is important to recognize that language doesn’t change objects. This is why I raised why this matters
        in the example of going along with the fiction that language alone can magically change one’s biological sex (which is why the fuzzy term ‘gender’ plays a central role in this deceptive linguistic tactic), and that this misplaced understanding, this widespread confusion, regarding the role of language (understood as either the vehicle or driver describing reality) has real world consequences far beyond trivial disagreements. In other words, this difference matters.

  2. I was attracted to Professor Peterson’s rhetoric at first but it soon became tiresome. Defining a thing by the use to which it is put is silly. A rock, used to balance a wobbly table is no longer a rock but a “table stabilizer”? A table, made by a craftsman for that purpose is still a table, if used temporarily or permanently as a scaffold to paint a high ceiling. It is a table being put to another use. In fact we reward people who are clever enough to show us how to repurpose things. I remember my parents cutting the legs shorter on a too small dinner table to make a coffee table. Did that make it a different thing? Yes, it was a table with shortened legs.

    Why do people relish redefining things to serve their purpose (maybe sounding intellectual)? Defining things but their use is an illusion. A hammer is used to hammer things. I wonder where the verb form of that word came from? Possibly the normal use of a hammer? But is that the only use of a hammer? Can it not be used to balance a table with one leg shorter by a hammer’s width than the others? Does that make the hammer not a hammer?


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