263. When an Arm is not an Arm

An arm is not an arm until it attaches to a body and moves in cer­tain ways. It is the rela­tion­ship between the arm and the body which makes it an arm, not a cer­tain weight or shape of blood and bone. This is really impor­tant. Even appar­ently sim­ple things are more than the sum of their phys­i­cal parts. Dur­ing the course of the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion – say the last 300 years – we have squeezed quite a lot of knowl­edge out of ana­lyz­ing the parts of things. But this kind of frag­mented knowl­edge has lim­its, and we have almost come to the end of it. As a lin­guist I can tell you about phonemes and mor­phemes, or nouns and verbs and all the rest. I can’t quite tell you how their rela­tion­ships all fit together to make a func­tion­ing lan­guage. Any lin­guist who says he can is a hum­bug. There are armies of hum­bugs (not only in lin­guis­tics). A “lan­guage” is an indi­vis­i­ble array of incred­i­bly com­plex dynamic rela­tion­ships. (An aver­age speaker has no con­cept of this). A human being is also an indi­vis­i­ble array of incred­i­bly com­plex rela­tion­ships. If you pick up a sev­ered foot or head, it is no longer a part of a human being. It is a piece of meat. The mas­sive com­plex of rela­tion­ships we call a human being cre­ates con­se­quences which could never be pre­dicted from the sev­ered head and foot. And so it goes with the orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions which human beings develop. A dance floor is not a dance floor until there are peo­ple to dance on it. It is the rela­tion­ship between the peo­ple and the floor which makes it a dance floor. Nor is a king a king until there are peo­ple who are will­ing to obey his rule. Until then, he is just a fool in a funny hat.

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