DRMacIver's Notebook

Victims of metonymy

Victims of metonymy

This is an outtake from an earlier version of Learning to walk through walls that I was vaguely planning to spin out into a full newsletter post, but I'm not going to do that, so here it is in its entirety.

I know a lot of people who think they're bad at reading books. They're not, they're just victims of metonymy.

Metonymy is when "a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept". In fact, to a very large degree, this always happens when you talk about an action, because most actions are vastly more indexical than their symbolic representation would suggest.

When you say you are "bad at reading", reading is standing in for a much more specific action that you are bad at. You are not bad at reading, you are reading in a way that you are bad at (often in a way that anyone would be bad at). The same is true of being bad at almost anything else. Often when you have to find the trick of being good at something, what this really means is that you have to stop doing it the bad way and stop doing the good way.

But it takes a very long time for this to occur to you, because until this is pointed out in your head the name stands in for the action. This is what is done. In your library of agency when you look up the action "read a book", there is a particular physical action that comes up. You do that, and it goes badly, and you conclude you are bad at reading when the actual problem is that you are reading in a way that gives you eyestrain, or is physically uncomfortable, or doesn't give you a way to burn off nervous energy, or something else. Try experimenting with how to actually physically read a book and see if any variations are easier than others.

This is one of the ways that symbolization of the world lies to you. Just because you can name something that doesn't mean that name has predictive power. If I invent the word splorf to refer to either cats or things that are coloured a weird vomity green, I can't meaningfully say whether I like splorf or not, because cats are great and weird vomity green things are not, but a lesser version of this is what you're doing every time you conclude you are bad at a general category because you are bad at some specific thing named by it.

Some categories will have predictive power and after you've tried a number of variations it may be totally legitimate to conclude that you really are bad at the thing named, but often we will jump straight from the action to the label without bothering to test whether this is valid. That's being a victim of metonymy.