Reading the Magical Letter Page

Until Monday when I begin the discussion of Lingua-U and philosophy, there is another important body of work that requires serious attention and study. It is the field of phonosemantics with a leading voice in the prominent and unconventional linguist Dr. Margaret Magnus.

Magnus has gifted the world with an extensive website on topics that revolutionize the study of language, or ought to, if more linguists were not blinded to the evidence she has compellingly presented. She provides a variety of resources from the scholarly (her entire doctoral dissertation at M.I.T.) to the popular (a series of informative looks at the “magical” properties of the English consonants and more).

I do not dispute her strongest claim: that she has successfully demonstrated the validity of Plato’s “Socratic Hypothesis” regarding the nature of language. This is how she tells her story on the opening page of her website:

I read dictionaries. And I write dictionaries. It was an occupation which seemed initially thrust unfairly upon me by financial necessity, one which over the years I have come to love deeply, one which I now practice fervently at my economic peril. It has taught me to experience words and language quite literally as living beings, as beings who outlive each of us, who are recording within their very selves the patterns of our thoughts, as beings who care a great deal how they are employed. I wander into their dominions ever more deeply moved, ever more faithful that there is after all a reason behind this chaos of experience….

These voyages into the forest of dictionaries have rewarded me with what for me was a major insight into how word semantics works, though, of course, my understanding of the Word continues to evolve daily. I literally begin to feel the words in a different way than I did before, and there’s no doubt in my mind that what I feel actually is there. What I see runs counter in a big way to what most linguists assume about word meaning. The gist of what I see can be stated fairly simply:

The Socratic Hypothesis

Each consonant and vowel in a language has a meaning, in the sense that every word containing that sound has an element of meaning which words not containing that sound do not have. What underlies this sound-meaning is the form of the sound, i.e. its pronunciation – a sound means what it is. For example, to pronounce a stopped consonant [b, d, g, p, t, k], you completely block the flow of air through the mouth. Consequently all stopped sounds involve a barrier of some kind. The nature of that barrier varies depending on whether the sound is voiced [b, d, g] or unvoiced [p, t, k], whether it is labial [b, p], dental [d, t] or velar [g, k], and so forth. This meaning is different from the referent, which is what we normally think of as the meaning of a word. Reference is a separate process from sound-meaning, and is layered on top of it. Reference is less central to word semantics than sound-meaning, although it is much more obvious to the casual observer. This aspect of meaning which is determined by sound lies much closer to what we call the connotation than the denotation. Sound meaning does tend to predispose referents, but does not largely determine them. That is, you can’t predict what a word will refer to based on its sound, but you can predict that a high percentage of words beginning with /b/ in every language will involve explosions, birth and loud noises. You can also predict that if a word referring to a sound begins with /b/, the sound will either begin abruptly or be very loud or usually both. Sound affects meaning in every word in every language. However, because of the way reference interacts with sound-meaning, its effect is not as obvious at first glance in concrete nouns and other words with very inflexible referents. What all the various referents or senses of a word have in common is their sound-meaning. Thus by virtue of its sound, the ‘get’ in ‘get up’ is the very same word to the English-speaking ear as the ‘get’ in ‘get away’, ‘get involved’, ‘get through’, ‘get fat’, ‘get a Lamborghini’. The glue that holds all these senses together is the meaning of the /g/ followed by the meaning of the /e/ followed by the meaning of the /t/. All of this can be and has been verified empirically by simply cataloguing the relationship between sound and referent and taking statistics.

I have come closest to this mysterious encounter with the Word by spending time within speech sounds and their relationship to the meanings of the words which they form. I am not a lone wanderer in this particular forest. I count among my more prominant predecessors none less than the gods!

So you see, I have verified the Socratic Hypothesis for all the English monosyllables in a commercial spelling checker word list. The fact that this test has been carried out on all the words in a well-defined portion of the vocabulary is important, because it constitutes scientific verification of a fact which is very central to the workings of language, and which is not in general acknowledged to be true. If only those words which fit nicely into a pattern are accounted for, you have demonstrated nothing. For example, you may show that lots of ‘gl’ words concern reflected light, but unless you show that all letter combinations are similarly limited and that other letter combinations do not contain a similar percentage of words concerning reflected light, you have demonstrated nothing, and you have no solid foundation from which to go forth and make really general and far-reaching claims about the nature of language. This Socratic Hypothesis could in principle be proven false, but can in fact be verified as true by repeatable experiments, such as those outlined at this Web site. I therefore strongly encourage readers who are at all interested in whether the Socratic Hypothesis is true to check it out for themselves. In addition, in myAnnotated Bibliography, the interested reader can find references to other accounts of comprehensive tests which have been conducted for other languages.

Explore Margaret Magnus’s website.

How does the proof of the Socratic Hypothesis inform my reading of Ken Wilber’s Integral Semiotics and the nature of Lingua-U? We’ll turn to that question next week.

Is There a Spiritual Crisis Among Young African-Americans?



An editor at Sojourner’s thinks there’s a Black crisis caused by the “promise of integration”. A provocative commentary published by Anthony A. Parker is called “Whose America is It?”:

The effect this loss of control has had on my generation is devastating. Growing up in “integrated” America has established a pattern of cognitive dissonance among young blacks. Inoculated with secular values emphasizing the individual instead of the community, and progressive politics over theology, young blacks rarely recognize each other as brothers and sisters, or as comrades in the struggle. We’re now competitors, relating to each other out of fear and mistrust.

The decay of culturally specific institutions in the black community has meant the supplantation of concrete programmatic policies designed to alleviate our worsening condition in America. Whereas black America once had a unique platform from which it could (and did) address issues, we are now reduced to angry rhetoric. Without ownership of black institutions, our best interests will never be served, our leaders will not be held accountable, and the only vested interest we will have is in our problems. And they are legion. Black-on-black violence, drug abuse, high school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, single-parent households, high rates of incarceration, crime, homelessness, and inadequate health care, just to name a few.

WHO ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING? And how are we going to get there? We can no longer answer these questions. Indeed, we have stopped asking them. But just as the future of blacks seemed to be in peril when integration was introduced decades ago, our future as a viable racial and ethnic group in this country will be greatly diminished unless a new model for racial and cultural development is established.

Let’s just say this much: ASSIMILATED DOES NOT EQUAL INTEGRAL. Assimilated means the particularity gets left behind in favor of the universal. Integral means that both the particular and universal are affirmed. And “integrated” is just a confusing term one ought not use if one really means Integral or Assimilated.

For what it’s worth, the article is based on something the author wrote in 1990. I remember that time well, my senior year studying Comparative Religion and Philosophy at Harvard. It was postmodernism’s heydey, the Green revolution. How well has it aged?

On the philosophy of personal branding and selling

Personal Branding

One of the most important pillars of the integral worldview is its understanding that there is not simply one self, but a myriad of constructed selves operating in highly complex contexts which are themselves manifestations of an ultimate reality.

So the self is personal and transpersonal; either way, the self does not exist independently from the language used to communicate its nature. The self is always communicated; that is to say, from a perspective which emphasizes certain values, the self is always branded.

One contrarian, Olivier Blanchard, hates putting the word personal next to the word brand. On The BrandBuilder Blog, he writes:

Here’s the thing: People are people. They aren’t brands. When people become “brands,” they stop being people and become one of three things: vessels for cultural archetypes, characters in a narrative, or products. (Most of the time, becoming a brand means they become all three.) Unlike people, brands have attributes and trade dress, slogans and tag lines which can all be trademarked, because unlike people, brands exist to ultimately sell something.

That core need to build a brand to ultimately sell something is at the very crux of the problem with “personal branding.” Can you realistically remain “authentic” and real once you have surrendered yourself to a process whose ultimate aim is to drive a business agenda?

Perhaps more to the point – and this is especially relevant in the era of social communications and the scaling of social networks – is there really any value to turning yourself into a character or a product instead of just being… well, who you are? And I am not talking about iconic celebrities, here. I am talking about people like you and me.

Think about it. Those of us who truly value attributes like transparency and authenticity (and that would be the vast majority of people) don’t want to sit in a room with a guy playing a part. If I am interviewing an applicant for a job, the less layers between who he is and who he wants me to think he is, the better. Those extra layers of personal branding, they’re artifice. They’re disingenuous. They’re bullshit. I am going to sense that and the next thought that will pop up in my head is “what’s this guy really hiding?”

via R.I.P. Personal Branding.

Leaving aside whether Blanchard has accurately described any actually existing school of personal branding thought, he does have a perfectly legitimate view of the self from a perspective which sees business values (reputation, image, profit, etc.) as anathema to personal values (namely transparency and authenticity).

His view resonates with postmodernism’s obsession with transparency at the expense of all other values, and its de-coupling of authenticity with achievement (“Tell me how you really feel, not what you want to achieve.”) Blanchard can hardly imagine that achievement and its necessary components (e.g., slogans, tag lines, resumes, etc.) can actually be authentic to a self, apparently because they are foreign to his self-sense (they look like artifices to him).

Blanchard’s post earned a strong and lengthy rebuke at the Personal Branding Blog, where Oscar Del Santo replies, in part:

His tirade begins with a statement that sadly lacks philosophical or sociological sophistication and can therefore be easily dismantled: “People are people,” he tells us, “they aren’t brands. When people become brands they stop being people.” Not quite, I’m afraid. By the same token and under the same faulty premises we could fallaciously argue that people are not consumers, clients, voters, patients, citizens or biological entities. Yet people are of course all of those things and many more depending on the specific context and focus under consideration. And there is no question in my mind that in our digital 2.0 world people are (perhaps for the first time) also brands and have brand-like attributes they can use for their benefit without in any way, shape or form forsaking their humanity or their identity as people.

From the ulterior development of his argument, we learn that the animosity Mr Blanchard feels towards brands and personal branding stems from his negative associations with selling and the misconception that we can only sell by becoming “a character or a product”. “That core need to build a brand to ultimately sell something”, he states, “is at the very crux of the problem with ‘personal branding’. Can you realistically remain authentic and real once you have surrendered yourself to a process whose ultimate aim is to drive a business agenda?”. The answer to his question is obviously a resounding ‘yes’: I have not surrendered myself to any evil process or become inauthentic to create a successful personal brand and sell my services any more than I believe he has done so in order to become a social media author and sell his books. To claim otherwise without proof is intellectually arrogant and plainly misguided. And of course, both he and I – along with everyone else with a career – have “a business agenda to drive” (even if it is is just to remain in business!) and need to sell a product, service or idea: and we are none the worse for that.

I am glad to find in his post the words transparency and authenticity and once again sad that he should need to retort to expletives and offensive accusations to put forward his case (“those extra layers of personal branding are artifice… They’re bulls**t… Don’t be a fake. Drop the personal branding BS”). On at least one account I can most certainly put his mind to rest: nobody here is trying to be a fake or condone such behavior. In fact, our personal branding philosophy goes well beyond his own premises and not only has transparency and authenticity at its core, but is emphatically built on the primacy of values, can be profoundly spiritual, and is open to people from all walks of life including minorities….

Del Santo correctly realizes that Blanchard is attacking a straw man, not personal branding as it is actually described by its proponents. He and Blanchard seem unable to recognize whether “selling” can be part of the “authentic” self or not. Drawing on his personal experience (and that of others, I’m sure), he disagrees.

But is it really necessary to say that one or the other must be correct? When human development is understood as a continuum, and the self is understood as a developmental line, then actually both views can be viewed as correct from a certain point of view.

Let us loosely apply the labels modern, postmodern, and integral to describe the different philososphical points of view, each arising in a developmental sequence.

  1. The modern self is seen as divided between personal and business, and the latter is often taken as a roadmap for personal development. You are what you earn. Your business is like your family. You are the CEO of your own life. Your life has a bottom line. Achievement is everything. You work with brands, but you are likely to think of those brands as external to yourself. Your work life and personal life are highly differentiated and possibly segregated, and it is common to want to “leave work at the office.”
  2. The postmodern self is seen as authentic. You are more than the sum of your achievements. You are what you feel, think, and do. You are so inherently complex and nuanced that no social structure, no business, can fit you without alienating who you really are. Being real is everything. You know what’s real because it’s what you are developmentally moving away from: it’s everything that a business is not. The postmodern self sees its own stage of development as the end-point of self-actualization and does not recognize the difference between the modern self and the integral self.
  3. The integral self is seen as both authentic and an achievement. You don’t just be yourself, you become yourself; thus, selfhood is finally recognized as an achievement. Excessive attention to the interior life and its dramas fades away. Excesssively anti-business views and anti-achievement attitudes fade away. What remains is an achieving, evolving self. The new self must find ways of communicating itself and connecting with others who recognize its value. The new self reaches for a (trans)personal brand, a (trans)personal image, a (trans)personal worldview, etc., which allows it to integrate the stages of its previous development and interrelate with others.

So when looking at the debate between personal branding and its critics, it’s important to ask yourself: what is the self that is being branded? There is not just one self, and people often talk past each other when they fail to recognize this philosophical point.