By- Pitamber Kaushik*
We communicate through symbols which are generally commonly-agreed-upon abstract representations of real-world objects and phenomena. The correspondence is usually clear but there’s a significant degree of fuzziness involved owing to unavoidable subjectivity inherent in even the most standardised definitions as well as differential human perception and understanding of objects and phenomena. Language in its narrow sense is the most commonly used means of communication, and in its broadest sense is the very term used to refer to any and all means of communication. No word, phrase, or sentence is a perfect point – its meaning dissipates around it in a fuzzy cloud and the nuclei of these clouds are slightly or even considerably different for different individuals in different contexts of place and time. Semantics is subject to personal, circumstantial, and temporal variation, which is at times a fairly systematic evolution and at others, quite chaotic-seeming. Nonetheless, language still serves as this wondrous abstract manna that enables us to exchange actionable instructions and perceivable knowledge about the world and ourselves. We can never feel another’s experience of reality in the truest and fullest sense – see the world through their eyes. We can never ‘wake up’ in their consciousness, i.e., in their first-person view. We are brains in a box, a biochemical bag that confines us. We are irrevocably and wholly imprisoned in a compartment of flesh and blood for life. Hence, we can never truly expect to feel another individual’s lived experience. Communication is the transmission medium that transcends this flesh prison, akin to a window in a prison cell through which environmental information can seep in, in the form of sensory inputs. Communication is the enforcer and courier of empathy. Language thus behaves as a veritable all-pervasive ether, an atmospheric medium that our minds operate in. Manipulating language is the key to manipulating interactive and collective action.
When I first arrived at a new solution to Bertrand’s Paradox, a classic puzzle in Probability, and the subject of my research paper published in Theory of Probability and its Applications, I was eager to report my findings. As an enthusiastic twenty-one-year-old with no formal experience in research writing but a strong penchant for spontaneous creative writing, I began to eloquently type out a description. Within a span of two hours, I churned out three full pages worth of description of the elegant streamlined flow of visualisations that had led me to the solution of the problem. I wrote the paper as intuitively and spontaneously as the deductions had come to me in a eureka moment – a sudden flash of a connection between the problem and the solution, akin to a thunder surge or a flash flood. My thought-stream had poured through the (digital) ink. I gushed with words as if explaining to a shadow figure the entire cognitive process that led me to the solution, paying least attention to objectivity, formalisation, and standardisation of terminology to make it universal.
Once I was done, I added a hastily put together diagram hand(cursor)-sketched in MS Paint and mailed the document to The Mathematical Gazette, a prestigious British mathematical journal. After months of anticipation, I heard back from them. The crux of the reviewer’s report is presented below:
Following an initial jolt of angst and frustration and days of dejection, upon patient reflection, I realised three things:
- I had not been mindful of the cultural context while writing. A lot of words that we Indians take for granted (prepone, uptil, tiffin, etc.) as basic English words are actually exclusive to the Indian register of the English language and are alien to native English speakers. Despite knowing my capsicums from my bell peppers, my lady’s fingers from my okras, and my brinjals from my aubergines, I had been oblivious to the subcontinental specificity of many common words that I had grown up exchanging at home, school, and college. Cultural Context Comprehension and Mindfulness are essential aspects of functionally effective communication. It is lazy and trivialising of the communicator to not take into account the context of communication in each of its dimensions. The vocabulary used when writing should not be agnostic to the context. Jargon, Terminology, Parlance, Writing Style, Tone, Person of Perspective, and degrees of Formality, Technicality, and Literary Quality ought to be regulated in accordance to the target audience and intended purpose of the text, among other factors and considerations. One needs to mind multiple parameters, step in the shoes of the reader and metacognise, and be meticulous in one’s choice of words and sentence structures in order to ensure that the communication is targeted and effectively serves its intended purpose of accurately getting the idea across.
- Even if the controversial Lateralisation (Qualitative Role Differentiation/Functional Dimorphism of Cerebral Hemispheres) theory is true, the Left and Right brain, analytical and creative, must work integrally in order to produce any effective piece. I used my analytical and intuitive faculties disjointly and that led to a misconveyance of my thoughts. Words are the conduits, the vessels for the conveyance of our flowing thought-stream. They thus need to be faithful embodiments of our ideas. To take a plumbing analogy, I had used poorly-fitting, non-standardised piping parts to convey the gushing stream of my mathematical inspiration, resulting in a leakage of my analysis. Language is a medium through which we transcend the Wittgensteinian flesh prison of our minds and overcome the solipsistic barrier of apathy. It is thus of utmost importance to ensure that our communication as a means is end-oriented (objective-oriented) and serves a function. It is important to make a distinction between technical and creative writing, using the opposing forces of open-endedness/multilateral interpretability and standardisation (terminology, jargon, systematised notations) in varying proportions as the situation and context of the communication (writing) demands.
The bottom line is that I realised I needed to be more objective, standardised, and precise in my communication since this was an academic context, preferring terminology over creativity in writing. Negligence, comfort-zoning, and habituation had caused me to view communication as solely a medium of self-expression rather than a tool serving the function of communication, a liaison between people. In hindsight, it was a rather limited, egocentric view of language. My epiphany had overpowered my clarity and clouded my judgment.
- When the critical review note first arrived, I was taken aback by the onslaught of criticism and negative feedback, owing to the fact that I had always been considered a good writer – I had written extensively in newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. It was thus difficult for me to grasp that my academic paper in mathematics would be rejected for language, of all things, especially when the originality of my (technical) core research idea and finding was duly acknowledged. In calm and comparatively detached retrospect, I now realise that excessive enthusiasm and zeal had gotten the better of me. I had taken my communication skills for granted and communicated thoughtlessly and indiscriminately. With communication, there’s no one-fits-all scheme or style. Communication must be customised, considerate, and adaptive. In hindsight, impatience had ironically hijacked the same rationality which had helped me make the discovery, while I was writing the paper. Emotions had taken precedence over logic, a potential benefactor in innovation and discovery but a dangerous prospect in reporting findings in exact sciences. I was being emotional with language but not practical, forgetting the role it had in that situation – communication (conveyance) not mere expression.
In the sheer satisfaction of having found a new solution and my excitement of conveying it to the world entire, it had slipped me that mathematics is definitely the language of the universe but not a universal human language by itself and that abstract thoughts need to be put into concrete, specific, precise, and unanimously-agreed upon terminology in order to ensure unambiguous communication and universal comprehension. The better course of action would have been to focus on the goals, be considerate of the need for the reviewers and readers to understand my thought process alike, and organise my analysis with a neutral, practical, and utilitarian viewpoint, deploying a standard, scientific, functional approach to academic communication. Instead of focusing on merely getting my point across as soon as possible, I should have focussed on the how’s of it, being respectful of the need for clarity and comprehensibility.
Communication is not merely a unilateral means of self-expression but a bridge between two or more minds. It should be more than simply being a crystallisation of one’s amorphous thoughts and abstract ideas – a mere embodiment or a static edifice. We often treat means of communication as registers for journaling our thoughts alone. We must be mindful of the fact that channels of communication are dynamic pathways for consequential exchange, not just platforms for indiscriminate sharing. Communication is a conduit, not just a vessel, for the supply of information, instructions, ideas, and sentiments and must be handled with the same responsibility, sensitivity, care, and regard as any vital connection.
1. Read, R. (2015, April 26). Wittgenstein in 800 words. The Philosophers’ Magazine. Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://www.philosophersmag.com/essays/36-wittgenstein-in-800-words
2. Candlish, Stewart and George Wrisley, “Private Language”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/private-language
3. Kaushik, P. (2022). A new solution of Bertrand’s paradox. Theory of Probability & Its Applications, 67(1), 158–160. https://doi.org/10.1137/s0040585x97t990836
4. Introduction to indian English. Oxford English Dictionary. (2022, March 28). Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://public.oed.com/blog/introduction-to-indian-english/
5. Güntürkün, O., Ströckens, F., & Ocklenburg, S. (2020). Brain Lateralization: A comparative perspective. Physiological Reviews, 100(3), 1019–1063. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00006.2019
Note: The views expressed by author are personal.