Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland, California, but spent most of her adulthood in Paris, France. Many years after leaving her childhood home she wrote, “There is no there there.” The same word, there, used in three different ways in a four-word sentence. I lived in Berkeley, California, for fifty years not too far from the there of which she was speaking, and would have to say there is lots of Oakland there in Oakland. Of course now there is much less of the kind of there there where she grew up than there was when she grew up there.
Perhaps a grander point to be made is that there never is the same there there because every instant in time the there there changes. This white screen in front of me now isn’t the same every time I look at it even if it hasn’t changed – I’ve changed – and when I hit a key it isn’t the same for you either, and after I have posted this statement, and it is “fixed” on the internet, it will still change every time your mind returns to these same words.
The whole Universe is like that. Nothing is ever the same. Of course, Plato would beg to differ with that assertion and claim that squares, and right triangles, and horses, and cows are categories that are unchanging. Some things are eternal like the number Pi, for example. It is the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter. It’s 3. Or 3.1. Or 3.14. Or 3.141. Or 3.1415. Or 3.14159. Or 3.141592. Or 3.1415926. Or 3.14159265359 – It has now been calculated to 13.3 trillion (1013) digits. So is it an absolute and fixed number? At what point does it become a fixed number? If so simple a thing isn’t fixed, or even fixable, what is?
Plato might say that ideas are fixed, that words mean some exact thing. He would claim that we know what we mean by a circle, and we know what we mean by diameter, and we know what we mean by saying divide the circle by the diameter. But do we really know what we mean by any of those abstract words? Are words defined by what is inside of the shell of a definition, or by what is excluded, or both, and what about the point of view when looking at a definition? A circle looks like a line when seen from the side, and from that view the diameter would equal the circle’s circumference.
We must be both flexible and rigid when using words, because there is no fixed there anywhere.