Matthew Yglesias a while back on Quine’s Word and Object:
It’s tempting (and conventional) to imagine language working neatly through such correspondences. Each word refers to some object in the world; each sentence describes a fact. Quine’s somewhat fanciful speculations on radical translation serve to undermine this account of meaning. Language is a social phenomenon, and languages are social practices with no guarantee of such direct correspondences. Quine observes that if we hear of a place where the local inhabitants describe pelicans as their half-brothers, it would be foolish to interpret this as a sign of profound genetic misunderstanding on their part. Instead, we see that their words don’t quite line up with ours, and a concept exists that somehow refers to half-brothers and pelicans alike.
[…] Those of us who try to describe the world for a living aren’t just poor handmaidens of those who try to uncover the truth about it… Rather, the process of description is the process of discovery. Language and science are, together, a joint process of discovery. Quine uses the phrase “ontic decision” to bypass the traditional question of what kinds of things are “real” as opposed to merely nominal. As he puts it, “The quest of a simplest, clearest overall pattern of canonical notation is not to be distinguished from a quest of ultimate categories, a limning of the most general traits of reality.” To paraphrase loosely — no doubt a bit too loosely for the tastes of one of the most precise writers I’ve ever read — a writer’s search for better, clearer, more concise descriptions of what we know is fundamentally of a piece with the searches for new knowledge.
I agree that a writers’ choosing concepts to describe things is in some ways basically similar to the part of science which involves ‘explaining’, or finding simple theories to describe the complexity we see. Both activities can be about spotting regularities in the messy world and re-describing what’s left of the mess with those patterns factored out. However it seems to me that writers’ efforts along these lines are badly constrained by conflicting rules. A scientist might notice that everything falls at the same rate, so they might name this ‘gravity’ and in future just say that all the stuff they describe falls with gravity, instead of describing each trajectory individually. A social commentator might notice many situations have in common an “irresistible force that draws you back to bed, or toward any mattress, couch, or other soft horizontal surface”, after which they need only mention ‘bed gravity‘. Or more poetically, a writer may notice a similar pattern in the behavior of a certain man and that of a disease, and say “He is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad”.
Notice that ‘more poetic’ here goes with a much narrower categorization. One man’s behavior is like a disease, whereas ‘bed gravity’ links a large range of familiar situations. ‘Gravity’ is an even more widespread pattern. This points to what I think is a difference between writers and scientists: scientists are actually looking for patterns that apply most generally, whereas a writer is cliched or dull if they aim to use the same metaphor again and again. Or worse, to re-use metaphors many others have used before them. They often can’t even use the same word or phrase their recent self has used before them without it sounding weird.
If writers were in charge of science they would say ‘you can’t put this whirlpool down to the coriolis effect too! You just used it for the jet streams and boundary currents. And it’s so hackneyed already!’ Some writers do what scientists do, and look for ways to describe reality concisely. But usually I think this is a topic for their writing: to say it is part of writing is like saying that gardening is a part of writing by virtue of there being books about it.
This is all mostly for novel categorizations and phrases. Writers do get away with re-using English words and common phrases. And using words presumably involves a bit of changing the meanings of the concepts around the edges as one goes. This is similar to the part of science where a scientist sees a particular flower and says, ‘ah, that’s a marigold’, perhaps ever so gradually thereby shifting exactly what it means to be a marigold.