Boys and tables: Asking may not be enough

In my last post, I talked about the parable of the blind men and the elephant, concluding that if we want to know how others see the world, “we need to ask.”

But often, simple asking is not enough. John Dewey includes the following story (from Ogden and Richards, quoting J. H. Weeks) in his Essays in Experimental Logic. He obviously liked the story as I do, because he repeats it in his Logic: The theory of inquiry:

I remember on one occasion wanting the word for Table. There were five or six boys standing around, and tapping the table with my forefinger, I asked, ‘What is this?’ One boy said it was a dodela, another that it was an etanda, another stated that it was bokali, a fourth that it was elamba, and the fifth said it was meza.

[It turned out afterwards that] one boy thought we wanted the word for tapping; another understood that we were seeking the word for the material of which the table was made; another had the idea that we required the word for hardness; another thought we wished for a name for that which covered the table; and the last, not being able, perhaps, to think of anything else, gave us the word, meza, table—the very word we were seeking.

References

Ogden, C. K., & Richards, I. A. (1949). The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism, 10th ed. With supplementary essays by Bronislaw Malinowski and F. G. Crookshank (orig. pub. 1923). Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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