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On knowledge, clarity, and more


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,

‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything.

 Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll



Knowledge is light

If you do an Internet image search on “bright idea” you’ll get a page full of pictures like the one above. The imagery of a light bulb (so well-known) symbolizes the sudden arising of a new idea or of understanding something that was previously perplexing (this is usually expressed with: “it dawns on me” or “I get it”).

There are many metaphoric expressions and idioms with the idea of understanding and knowledge connected to light and a lack of understanding and ignorance connected to darkness. When you have some knowledge about something, it is as if you are shining a light on it. Not having knowledge is like being in darkness. We usually talk about: e.g. the brightest children in the class, the most brilliant scholar in his field, her dazzling/sparkling wit, etc.

“Light,” in such idioms as “shed light,” “shine a light on something,” “bring something to light,” “see the light,” and “see something in a whole new light” represents not a physical but a cognitive phenomenon that suggests clarity and understanding.


Understanding is seeing; ideas are light sources



I see what you mean. Now I’ve got the whole picture.

What is your outlook on that?  I view it differently. It looks different from my point of view.

Let me point something out to you. Let me illustrate my point.

It is a concise, lucid description. She made her point crystal clear.

It’s a transparent argument. The argument is clear.

Could you elucidate your remarks? That was a brilliant remark.

That’s an insightful idea. It was a very enlightening discussion.

Now I see this in a whole new light. I need time to reflect on this.

I had a flash of inspiration.

(or: It was a murky discussion. The discussion was opaque.

I haven’t got the foggiest/faintest idea what you’ve been talking about.)


Intelligence is like a knife or blade

The more intelligent someone is, the sharper the blade. Thus we say for someone that s/he is very sharp/ sharp-witted (s/he notices and understands the things), s/he has a razor-sharp mind, s/he has a keen intellect, s/he is an incisive critic, they made some pointed remarks, or scathing comment/ criticism.




Clarity of communication

Clarity of communication means that we must be clear in how we communicate our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.  Careful use of language is essential in order to prevent misunderstandings. Clarification is important in many situations, especially when what is being communicated is difficult or confusing in some way. For example, when we talk about “theory” one person may have in mind its meaning “hunch, speculation” while another may be thinking of “scientific understanding, explanation”. Defining our terms can greatly help us in the quest for clarity.

In an interpersonal exchange clarification is the skill we use to ensure that we have understood the message of the speaker. Clarifying can involve asking questions, paraphrasing, or occasionally summarising what the speaker has said. Some examples of clarification-seeking questions are:

  • “I’m not quite sure I understand what you are saying.”
  • “When you said …….. what did you mean?”
  • “Could you repeat ……..?”
  • “So, I think what you’re saying is …….. Is that more or less right?”

In communication, clarification involves offering back to the speaker the essential meaning, as understood by the listener, of what they have just said. Thereby checking that the listener’s understanding is correct and resolving any areas of confusion or misunderstanding.

This clarification (or confirmation/correction) process is typical of ATC communications as well. “The pilot/controller communication loop ensures the integrity and accuracy of communications. Readback/Hearback errors may result in an event such as: operational deviation; airborne conflict; less than required separation; runway incursion; near midair-collision, etc. Strict adherence to this closed loop constitutes a line of defense against communication errors.”


Clarity as an important principle of critical thought

If we imagine that thoughts and ideas are represented as beams of light, communication of a clear or precise idea can be represented by a sharp, focused beam.

Clear thinking is the ability to express ideas in a simple and straightforward manner. It also involves the ability to analyse statements and follow logical arguments. The claims we make must be expressed in a clear and logical manner, and should be based on facts and evidence.

Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher, mathematician, and social critic, places an emphasis on clarity and exact thinking, because when we are able to reason and make notions and decisions with the use of exact thinking and clarity, we can free ourselves from the deceptions that we make.

When asked a closing question on the BBC programme Face-to-Face in 1959: what would you tell a generation living 1,000 years from now about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned, his answer was short, but pithy:

“The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.”



One more (random)  thought on devotion to clarity

I strongly feel that it is important to be honest and frank and clear. It is obvious that in our society clarity sometimes sounds pugnacious and threatening to some people, even if it isn’t. People ‘obsessed with clarity’, and thus straightforward and incisive, may often sound harsh to other people.

No one is perfectly rational, I’m well aware of that, but it’s particularly important to apply rational and clear thinking best as we can, as it is necessary in order to develop some immunity to the kind of bullshit (pseudoscience, stereotypes and prejudices, ELT neuromyths, etc.) that surrounds us in our everyday lives.


About ljiljana havran

English language teacher (General & Aviation English), passionate about learning and teaching. Curious, adventurous, a lifelong learner. Love: good books, music, lots of dance.

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