Learning a new language usual stirs up feeling of delight and jealousy in me. It’s hard to imagine you’ve gone through your whole life up til now without access to the word schadenfreude or that you haven’t had a silent way to say “I know how you feel” without interrupting the person speaking.

Since joining CFAR, I’ve had the opportunity to occasionally stumble across exactly the word I want for a rationality class in a language I’m unfortunately not fluent in. For example, around the office, we tend to use clumsy circumlocutions to express the difference between “System One-knowing” and “System Two-knowing.”

When you keep repeating to yourself that you should really check your pockets for keys before you leave the house, and you can call to mind your reasons for doing so, you’ve got an analytical, System Two grasp on how you can avoid getting locked out of your house again. But when your hand automatically pats your pocket as your foot hits the threshold, the task has moved into instinctual, running-in-the-background System One.

English has a number of words for ‘knowing’ but none get as close for me to the System One/System Two divide as the French verbs savoir and connaître. You can ‘savoir’ facts like an address or the proper way to conjugate savoir in the first place. But you connaître the way to your friend’s house when your feet can take you there automatically, while you get to indulge yourself as a flaneur and people-watch on the way.

If you connaître the route to the house, you may have trouble pulling up the verbal, step by step directions someone else would need to be able to get a savoir handle on how to meet you there. (My friends are all too often subject to directions like, “And then you keep walking til you get to the place where you turn.”) But after a couple of trips, your companion may find that the route has slipped into connaître for them, too.

In order to identify and teach rationality skills, we spend a lot of time and reading trying to tease habits we’re running at the connaître level into the explicitness of savoir so we can examine them and see if there are helpful adjustments to be made. But ultimately, we want to let our revised patterns slip back into connaître so we can stop burning active attention on them, and move on to the next project.

While we do this, most of my coworkers still use System One/System Two language, but I like being able to mentally slip into French. It helps make the distinction more concrete, since it draws on distinctions of language I’ve used before and feel fond of. It will still be a while before I have as much experience with Kahneman’s languages as with le français. Analogies and cognates can help bridge the gap, so you have to learn a new framework in a foreign language. Or, technically, a more foreign one.

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Once I noticed the savoir/connaître parallel, I asked around the office to see if any of my coworkers had been envious of another language’s ability to express an applied rationality concept that was clumsy in English. Anna Salamon suggested the ser/estar distinction in Spanish.

Both verbs roughly translate as ‘to be,’ but estar has a more transient flavor, while ser denotes a more permanent kind of identity. So, ser lísto means “to be smart” while estar lísto means “to be ready.”

Whether you’re trying to keep your identity small (per Paul Graham) or think in terms of growth mindset, it’s nice to be able to make a clean distinction between you-as-you-are-now and you-as-you-want-to-continue-to-be. I’ve always tried to hang on to the nuance by just tacking on a “for now” (as in, “I can only do ten pushups without collapsing… for now!), but it’s nice to imagine I could say it as simply as Spanish speakers may be able to.

 
Are there any ways rationality frameworks pop up naturally in other languages you know?
 

6 comments

  1. Newfur
  2. Alexander Kruel
  3. Izaak Weiss

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