Thursday, December 12, 2019

Obsession vs Highly Emotional: The difference between obsession and being highly emotional


Obsession vs Highly Emotional: The difference between obsession and being highly emotional

Although the matter of our topic might give us the impression that we are dealing with emotions, unfortunately the topic is more about language rather than emotions. Having said that there is ample scope to discuss feeling and emotions one the language issues are clarified.

Natural languages can sometimes include features in words and expressions that go beyond the meaning of a word. Even if we accept that a word is just one form of carrying meaning in a speech act, there are many words that convey a type of meaning rather than just meaning. This is true of our words “obsession” and “highly emotional”: in effect natural languages do not deal with words but with concepts. As with other natural languages many concepts are made up of a group of words (the structure) rather than just a single word. Proverbs, sayings and phrasal verbs are such examples.

Unfortunately, it is not my intention nor is it the time to go into excursions in the philosophy of language or even linguistics. My intention is to argue for two positions: (1) although we can translate a speech act (text/spoken) from one natural language to another for basic ideas and factual things, in reality as philosophers we ought to be sceptical about the real value of translation. And this scepticism does not only apply to philosophical, scientific or literary works but also to ordinary circumstance in real life. A translation app on our mobile might give us the syntax on how to order a beer in Spanish but that is all it will do: there would be a semantic difference if one is (1) an English speaker and (2)  a British English speaker. So unless you are at a make believe British/Irish pub in Spain, your translator will not tell you that beer in Spain is ordered by different sizes of glass which are much smaller than the familiar pint glass in the UK, and to make things more complex that beer is cold unlike the UK.

My second argument is that Wittgenstein’s idea that ordinary language takes its meaning from the accepted use is in effect too generous to the powers of a natural language. My argument is that at the very best the established meaning is very specific in time and the prevailing culture of the speakers. My intention is not to criticise or discuss Wittgenstein but to alert readers to issues that might confuse a philosophical discussion rather than help the discussion. I am in no doubt that I’m not the first to point these things out but I don’t have the time to research the issue.

So going back to our topic the words “obsession” and “highly emotional” have the implied type of having a negative meaning. “Highly emotional” does not mean being “very sensitive” or “having strong emotions (about something/someone)” but rather someone who is highly emotional is someone who gets very agitated and maybe even aggressive about the subject. Someone who is highly emotional might even be described as unreasonable, but highly emotional in British English does imply a negative feeling; see for example the use in this article in the Guardian: Life after redundancy — episode 2 https://www.theguardian.com/careers/careers-blog/life-after-redundency-episode-2-mark-palmer-edgecumbe). Seeing the meaning of this word in US word definition sites they do include the idea of strong emotions (positive and negative) for something. But this does not negate the type of word we are discussing but highlights the deviation of the type/meaning of words over cultures.

Fortunately, obsession is less problematic; in ordinary language obsession has clear negative overtones. To speak of someone being obsessed with something is to imply that whatever they are doing it is not good for them or not a healthy activity. Of course, the person themselves might think that this is nonsense and they might be right. For example we can describe a friend of being obsessed with football but that’s maybe because we don’t like football but their football friends might think they are amazing. In a medical (psychological) context obsession is more serious and the ideas and feelings might lead to other negative effects, maybe even have a direct negative health effect. In effect we are departing from the idea that meaning is how we use language to the idea that meaning is very much context driven: ordinary use, banter, professional, medical legal and so on.

But this was one of the issues Wittgenstein warned us against: we as philosophers should not try to give special meanings to ordinary words that we use in everyday life. Philosophers should not compound language by inventing new meaning for words which no one else knows about. This is good advice although it seems scientists forgot their Wittgenstein.

We have two other philosophical issues we need to contend with. The first is the scientific method of the falsification of hypotheses. The scientific method is dependent on understanding empirical events through mathematical analysis: thus the first issue for science is how to translate mathematical uses into understandable ordinary language. And to complicate matters in ordinary language we do not usually have access to empirical events or objects which scientists concern themselves with: in our daily life we usually do not come across cells and molecules although we are made of such things or quantum effects although we are surrounded by these effects.

So the language of scientists cannot be the syntax and ordinary meaning of words everyone uses never mind that some phenomena are not represented in ordinary day life and ordinary day language: some non scientific people might discuss cells and molecules over a pint but not the general population. Thus obsession like many other words might have a meaning in ordinary language and a different one in a scientific and other technical professions (compare “reasonable” in ordinary language use and “reasonable” in a legal context).

The second philosophical issue we have to contend with is Thomas Khun’s paradigm shift principle. If we accept the principle of scientific paradigm shift, I would argue that what changes when there is a paradigm shift is not only our hypotheses, but also our science: what we accept physics to be today is different from what 18th century natural philosophers thought physics was. Indeed, if we reflect on this principle for a second when we have a paradigm shift in a scientific discipline we also change the language (and mathematics) of that discipline.

I would go further and suggest when we have a paradigm shift in society we also have a paradigm shift in the language employed in that society. Of course, the syntax might remain, but what matters is the meaning we give to such syntax. This would explain why it is difficult for parents to understand the language their children use and for the grandparents to be flummoxed and if not belligerent to the language employed by their grand children. But a more striking example is the shift between British English and American English (or any other English and other natural languages): the irony is that many American words and pronunciation reflect the original British English of a few centuries ago. (This is a fascinating subject but one needs to put in some serious time to really acquire a reasonable idea of this subject!!)

Coming back to our topic, one of the differences between obsession and highly emotional, is that an obsession might have medical or psychological implications whereas someone who is highly emotional might be a pain and annoying to other people but that’s their character and not a matter of something that is disturbing them. Highly emotional people might need to develop some good manners while obsessive people might need help and to learn how to deal with their issues.

In effect, if we want to describe positive emotions we would use “passionate”, and in matters of love we can use besotted or infatuated, instead of obsessed and for “highly emotional” we might use for example “someone with strong opinions” or “someone who feel passionate about something”.

To conclude we might want to complicate the matter even further. We might want to use the word “opinionated” except I have already argued that even the same language does not travel well in time and distance is space. In US English the meaning of opinionated is someone who might have an opinion maybe even strong opinions, whereas in British English opinionated means someone who is obstinate or unreasonable about their own opinion. The morale of the subject matter is that given how slippery and unsettled our language about emotions can be, how slippery and unsettled can a discussion on emotions be?

Best Lawrence



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