November 28, 2020

Substance and Form

When I was younger, say between 13 and 21, to a great extent, I was much better at speaking foreign languages because I didn't really care that much about what I was saying :) 

To me it was important that I had a good accent, that I sounded like a native speaker and it was often at the cost of substance - the actual message I was delivering and the way I was structuring it. I might have sounded 100% like someone from New Jersey, but if you paid close attention to what I was saying, it wasn't very coherent. Now, provided, I was young at that time I wouldn't expect my younger self to be very coherent in the first place but I think I would have had struggled even if I had tried. 

As I got older, I started to realize that substance was actually quite important. Surprise (笑). As a lot of people, I imagine, I realized that most of what I was saying, no matter how complicated, was just a resonance of what was said around me. Almost everything I was saying and even thinking was something I'd heard from someone else before, only gravitating to those thoughts and language that was appealing to me and not forming it myself. 

I started to slowly deconstruct my thinking process, and the language I used to communicate that process in, and gradually created my own way of thinking and my own idiolect when speaking in my native language and foreign languages as well. As a consequence my form* started to suffer because I found it hard to concentrate on both (if I wanted both to be really good). 

Over the course of time, for me personally, the importance of substance over form grew and now when I'm in my late 30s, when speaking a language, any language, including my native one, I'm at a point where substance is noticeably more important to me than form. Not decisively more important, but I'd say 70-30. 

If I have time, I still like to maintain a high level of the language I'm speaking, speak with a good accent and play with expressions like a little child does with toys, but if I have to say something important quickly, I sacrifice form much more often than I used to.

Why am I saying this now?

In the work that I do as an interpreter, whether it be for the police or business, there are a lot of situations that are very heated, unpleasant and tense.

It's often almost as if I was in the middle of a verbal combat with a whole bunch of people involved and a whole lot is often at stake in the form of possible prison time, repatriation and most often money and no one gives a damn about my 'form'.

It has to be all about substance. Every word counts. It's important how I structure my thoughts and every laughter or every time I'm insecure about saying something will let the person I'm talking to know immediately I'm stalling, or that I reveal too much, or am revealing too little.

I've been thinking about this form/substance dichotomy for quite some time now, but it really hit home with me the last couple of times I was interpreting and realized my Chinese or Spanish were far from perfect and it just didn't matter. It didn't matter to me as an (ex)perfectionist and it sure didn't matter to everyone else present. If I compare that to my younger self where form had clear precedence over substance, the contrast is very evident, which is why I've been noticing the dichotomy lately.

The question for me is how to balance the two. In my ideal world, form and substance should dance together in a perfect tandem, but how hard is that... Speaking a foreign language (any language actually, even my native one) really well is just not easy, but substance is objectively more important than form and if one should give, I feel like it should naturally be form. One way of looking at it is, that language is just a vehicle for our thoughts and it is the thoughts that should always be more important. 

At the same time, we are civilized people with great cultural heritage and stand on the shoulders of literary giants we can follow. Therefore delivering a message that makes the most sense any message has ever made in the history of humanity while talking like a Neanderthal is just wrong and for the lack of a better word, not elegant.

As for me personally, I have a lot of work to do on both substance and form. I'll try to do my best, but it is not easy. I think substance should always have precedence, but should never be without form. 

I've also been thinking lately a lot about how important it is to have positive feedback from life and how your personality in general gains solid footing when your deliberate actions lead to tangible results. This in turn leads to more general confidence and more control which then leads to easier execution of whatever task you are involved with, including thinking and speaking. Summarized in one word - experience. But I think this is probably a different topic for a different time :)

* Substance is what you say (the message) and form is how you say it (accent, expression choice). 


  1. A very interesting article Vlad!
    I don't know if you've ever come across this but there is something called "nonduality" which basically makes all dichotomies like form and substance be seen for what they are - mental boxed which the intellect invents. In reality form and substance are one organism, one whole, inseparable (even if ration can be tilted with).
    This dichotomies, however, arise in many other areas of life. Actually, unless one deconstructs all these dichotomies, it's hard to see the consequences of presupposing them in the first place.

    I don't wanna get bogged down on a tangent here. If you want to, just check out some articles or do some research on nonduality.

    Hope you're doing well Vlad! Cheers!

    1. Hi and thank you for sharing. I never heard about non-dualism before.

      I will need some time to absorb and process this:)

      My first thought was that non-dualism strangely reminded me of structuralism, in the way both simplify a complex topic.

      As far as I understand, they main premise of structuralism is, that absolutely every combination of events is possible, we only see the particular ones that manifest themselves. For instance this sentence that I am writing theoretically existed before I wrote it, I just happened to choose these specific words and this specific order which happen to match that theoretical sentence and the sentence thus manifested itself as I wrote it.

      Critics of structuralism say that it actually doesn't say that much about anything and that was my first idea when I just read about non-dualism.

      True, when you look at substance and form from a specific angle, they are both part of one higher concept, but we could say this about practically any two things if we zoom out far enough. I think, at a certain moment we need to make functional distinctions between concepts. Strangely reminds me of Languages and Dialects. When can we say a dialect is a different language?

      That said, I'm sure there is much more to it and this is only my impression after 2 minutes of thinking. I'll process:)


    2. On non-dualism, I'd really recommend checking out Ursula LeGuin's translation of the Tao Te Ching (as far as English lang. versions go!).

      There's one particular verse which stood out as soon as I read your article and your discussion here, and which I'll copy below:

      'The uses of not

      Thirty spokes
      meet in the hub.
      Where the wheel isn’t
      is where it’s useful.

      Hollowed out,
      clay makes a pot.
      Where the pot’s not
      is where it’s useful.

      Cut doors and windows
      to make a room.
      Where the room isn’t,
      there’s room for you.

      So the profit in what is
      is in the use of what isn’t.'

      So I think that there is a balance between substance and form. Regarding the clay pot, having zero clay leaves you the max space to store your water but nowhere to put it, and having too much clay leaves you so little space to put water inside that it no longer has much utility. Form is clay, and substance is water.

    3. When it comes to TaoDe Jing, I am unfortunately not a fan :)

      We read and analyzed parts of it in the Classical Chinese original with experts on the text in the Chinese department I studied at. I read a few translations of it too and came to the conclusion that no one really knows what Lao Zi actually wanted to write and if it even made sense to himself at all. I feel like most modern translations are basically new books written by the translators inspired by DaoTe Jing. Like TaoDe Jing Impressionism or something:) I'm sorry for being so critical, but I honestly feel this way, especially after reading many other books from the period which were all very coherent and nicely written with a message.

      Many translation I read were substantially different from one another. Interpretations of the text as well. I would say, that at my best, my Classical Chinese was at a B2 level and when I read the text, I didn't see why it was so appealing to the modern folk. It's just nothing special and to me it seemed like people are seeing things in it that are just not there. It's not particularly revolutionary, special, literarily interesting. It's just very nebulous and it seems like people for centuries thought that one needed to be especially intelligent to be able to understand it and that's why it had clout. When in fact it's just not a particularly special nebulous text.

      I must've read about a thousand pages in Classical Chinese and there are books that are much more interesting than that from the same period. Like the Art of War to name one of the famous ones, which I've translated into Slovak, which is much more coherent, structured, sharp and it's clear the author knows what he's talking about.

      I don't know how familiar you are with Classical Chinese texts, but if you'd like to read a text that will challenge your thinking a bit, then 白馬論 from 公孫龍 is interesting.

      It reminds me of logical discourses of Ancient Greek philosophers which are quite rare in Ancient Chinese Philosophy.

    4. I felt the same way about Dao ad you Vlad... Until I started doing mindfulness meditation. Believe me, Dao makes no sense until you start meditating and see that you are not the thinker of your thoughts :)
      It doesn't require huge intellect. It requires experience into the nature of your thinking mind. It can shake your whole foundation on which your life was based.

      Have you ever tried meditation practice? :)

    5. Hi Erik:)

      Long time no see.

      I've been meditating on and off since I was 12 maybe. I was taught by someone who knew what she was doing but what I do now are mostly relaxation and concentration exercises.

      I still stand by what I've said: Having read DaoDe Jing in the original with professors that understood it quite well, having read a few translations and seeing that each translation was basically a different book invented by the translator, and having read a decent amount of texts from the same period in Classical Chinese which were completely 'normal' in the sense that you didn't have to spend an hour trying to understand each sentence because it didn't make any sense to you (mainly because it didn't have any deeper meaning that people are looking for): I said it before and I'll say it again:) DaoDe Jing is a not a particularly interesting nebulous text to which people assign more cleverness and meaning than it really has.

    6. Yes long time no see! I received your newsletter and was curious to read something new from you :)

      How are you getting through these pandemic times? Are you doing anything language related right now?

      Well, I guess I will have to admit the validity of your claims. You've done quite a lot of comparative work. I am sure you're right about the translations and the cryptic nature of the text of Dao.
      Unfortunately I only read one of those heavily influenced translations :(

      It's interesting to hear you've got such a long meditation practice under your belt! Were you doing meditation for betterment of focus & attention or were you also doing the insight meditation about the nature of reality (maybe in a Zen-like fashion)?

    7. I was a bit harsh with DaoDe Jing I have to agree. It is after all a very important text, so who am I to judge:) But.. you can take my opinion as another perspective.

      I've been dealing with the pandemic quite well actually.

      My meditation is mostly very practical. I only do relaxation and focus exercises and positive visualizations.

  2. "When can we say a dialect is a different language?" - that's a good question. I think we can't. Because in the moment we say X is a dialect, in that moment we've created a dichotomy/distinction between what's a language and what's a dialect.

    Nondualism goes a bit deeper than structuralism. It says that once you decide to conceptualize what "purity" is, you have to conceptualize what "impurity" is as well... for you're creating a dichotomy. But before such conceptualizations/distinctions are made, the reality is without such concepts. Language has no dialects until it's conceptually chopped up into dialects. Purity and impurity don't exist unless there is the same conceptualization done... for what is opposed to pure is impure. Etc. It's mental construction.

    Nondualism and nondualistic meditative practices deconstruct all those functional dichotomies and then REconstruct a new way of looking at conceptualizations from a position of clarity and pure perception... it's truly fascinating to read about nondual shifts in perceptions. The perceptions and functional distinctions will be there but they will not longer be taken for truth, for granted.

    If you are interested in consciousness and its structures, check out Spiral Dynamics. It's a developmental theory of consciousness which talks about different stages of how consciousness evolves. It's fascinating :)

  3. I've read this post 3 times now, and I must confess that I don't really comprehend your meaning when you contrast "form" and "substance."

    For me, "form" and "substance" feel like just aspects of the whole of communication. For me, "substance" feels like the frame that keeps a house from collapsing and "form" feels like the insulation that makes the house habitable (as opposed to just an empty frame exposing the resident to the elements). With the way I conceptualize it, my thinking is that "form" cannot stand without "substance." So it's honestly confusing to me that you're say people can sacrifice "substance" for "form," that someone can sound like a native speaker without saying anything actually coherent. Could you expand on that notion a little more? Maybe an example would help me.

    It's honestly puzzling to me bc I would have assumed that coherence was a prerequisite to sounding like a native speaker.

    1. Hi Liriel,

      I would say, using your house as an example (house as a whole):

      Substance would be the bricks, cement, steel-concrete beams, the general functionality of the house etc.

      Form would be the color the house is painted in, flowers in the windows, paintings on the walls, beauty of the front lawn etc.

      The dancing house in Prague would be a good example of little substance and a lot of form. It is an interesting house to look at, but functionally it is probably difficult to live in.

      In language:

      Substance would be: the actual message you are delivering. Whether what you are saying makes sense and how much sense it makes.

      Form: accent, use of colorful expressions (or their lack of), use of complicated sentences (or their lack of) etc.

      In language, in simple terms, someone lacking substance but having form is someone dumb trying to sound intelligent. Someone having substance but lacking form is maybe someone who never finished high school or read a book in their lives but is 'street-smart'.

      You wrote: "So it's honestly confusing to me that you're say people can sacrifice "substance" for "form," that someone can sound like a native speaker without saying anything actually coherent."

      I hope this is not going to get me in trouble and I am certainly not generalizing, but when I lived in London, it happened to me surprisingly often that when I was speaking to locals their English was mindblowingly beautiful, but when I actually paid attention to what they were saying, it was often literally nothing. Just empty generic phrases with no meaning behind them. Beautiful form against little substance.

  4. Thanks! I believe I understand now; the example helped, and I hope it doesn't get you into trouble either :)

    It's not that the folks who speak without substance are saying things that don't have semantic meaning, it's that they're not saying anything meaningful.


    1. Correct:)

      Again, I didn't mean to offend anyone and wasn't generalizing, it is just that while in London, the beautiful form Vs little substance situation happened often enough for me to be surprised why I haven't noticed it anywhere else up until that point.

  5. I wonder Vladimir, you seem to be a bit of a philosopher!

    You might want to check out Zen Buddhism. In Zen it's the main topic - there is emptiness (reality) and form (manifestation). In the end, through meditation and inquiry (koans), you come to realize that form is emptiness but emptiness is form!

    1. We learned about Zen buddhism in college but I'm not an expert :) And I'm am not attracted to Buddhism in general too much to be honest. I like Classical Ancient Greek philosophy and then a few philosophical ideas throughout history as presented by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche etc.

    2. Ancient Greek philosophy is great! Unfortunately it doesn't as far as contemplative traditions (with the exception of Plotinus, Socrates and probably Christian Mystics). Even figures like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in final analysis come close to Eastern insights into the nature of reality (they, after all, studied Eastern thought and it influenced their views), but none of them reaches the merits of insight available in Zen or some other contemplative traditions. I mean, I am talking about liberation from the illusion of being a person beyond one's eyes. Contemplatives go one step further in realizing that there is no such a person beyond one's eyes, that there is only reflexivity of the mind to jump from one thought to the next without an entity. There is just awareness on the background of which it all happens. In the final analysis, mind is a great illusion. There is no such a thing as a true thought nor anyone thinking these thoughts. Even Derrida has come close to this insight but in the end got mired in the idea of postmodernity. I wonder if the West is ever going to be able to produce such a radical transformation of the individual as East, it definitely seems so!
      I am sorry this completely diverted from your article :)

    3. No worries:)

      By Classical Greek Philosophy I meant Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. I admire them, because I feel that is where the foundations of proof-based critical thinking were laid which is the Alpha and Omega of our current progress as humanity I feel:). Of course what came later is much more elaborate, but I am a great admirer of these three gentlemen for starting what they started.

      Reading what you wrote about Zen Buddhism, I feel like this or similar ideas have been discussed many times in Western philosophy. I said I'm not an expert, but I did read about a 1000-1500 pages about Western philosophy, either original works or secondary literature, and I feel like I've seen ideas like these started, discussed, closed and dismissed over the centuries from philosopher to philosopher like a game of cross century philosophical ping-pong :)

  6. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are golden!

    This is a good point you're bringing about about the different ideas intersecting. West hast definitely produced a lot of great ideas like the idea of democracy and social justice. We could call this a collective reform, or the idea that the order of things can be changed, updated, more socially just. Or that we can infer something about reality.
    Whereas in the East the stress was put much more on the individual revolution than on the collective revolution. The idea that all ideas and thoughts are just dream stuff. That we are ultimately something altogether different from what we thought we were. That we're not born nor can we die, for these terms are fabricated (the same way all other terms are just dream stuff, "day"-"night" being just labels, in the universe there is no days nor nights [they are just concepts within our minds]). In reality, we are that which woke up when we were born. And that's beyond the mind. Thinking mind cannot go there. Only intuitive realization of our being. That which is not was born into that which is.

    In the end I think we need both - collective & individual transformation.


  7. What an interesting article! I completely agree, and was encouraged seeing the that your perfectionist mindset had shifted slightly (which I hope has reduced the horrible stress that comes with it). I have been trying to also think of this with language learning, the danger of thinking it is some sort of performance can crush the enjoyment of simply communicating (maybe an incorrect translation in my head of form and substance lol).

    On a completely separate note, I miss your videos Vlad! Come back to Youtube soon! :))


  8. Vlad, check out whatever you can find about Ramana Maharshi and Meister Eckhart! You might find it interesting how these two towering icons talked of substance and form of the cosmos!

  9. Indeed, it would be a shame to have the ability to speak several languages but have nothing worth saying.