Matt Perryman

Ordinary blue gem reveals hidden “trap” built into the English language

By Matt Perryman

What makes a sapphire blue?


I’m not asking for some nerd answer about molecular bonds and chemicals and optical properties.


I’m talking about the deep blue color that you see when you look at it.


The appearance of blue has nothing to do with atoms and photons and whatever’s happening in your eyes.


We’ve gotta be careful because the structure of the English language tricks you.


“The sapphire’s blue,” you say. It is, but there’s more.


Baked into the logic of that sentence is the notion that this substance, the sapphire, has this property “blueness”.


The sapphire is blue. Case closed, yes?




The way English works, the sapphire has the predicate “is blue” the way you have two arms, have a bank account, or have a home loan.


The verb “to have” is the culprit.


It indicates possession. To say what a thing is means to list all the attributes that it has.


That’s a short summary of the main argument in Erich Fromm’s book To Have or To Be? 


Western cultures are stuck in a “having” mode. We relate to people, places, and things in terms of possession and acquisition — what we have or do not have or could have.


There’s another way, called the “being” mode. Now, there’s a pitfall waiting here, which is why I started from a concrete example.


Fromm warns the reader that, locked inside the “having” mode, we even talk about “being” as a kind of having.


So the sapphire is blue because it has blueness.


But that’s not why the sapphire is blue.


A blue object appears blue because it absorbs light in every shade except blue.


The sapphire lets the blue wavelengths pass right through it.


The “being” of the sapphire is what it gives out from itself.


That’s the exact opposite of “having”.


This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Up until a few hundred years ago, this was standard Aristotelian thinking.


Aristotle took his view of reality from a close study of living things. Life moves in cycles, from birth to maturity to death.


No surprise that he understood being in terms of movement and change.


As far as he was concerned, you could be active by sitting in your chair and thinking real hard. Activity concerns inner movement as well as outer movement of your body.


Being is what a thing does, not what it has.


You never imagined there were deep philosophical problems hiding right there in the grammar of the English language, did you?


Try this.


As you go through your day, pay attention to all the “dead” objects surrounding. Make the effort to seeing them as alive and growing, like slow plants. It’s a mind-blowing experience.


If you want to go real deep, take five quiet minutes and ask yourself “Who am I?” Odds are you’ll want to list off the things that you have. Then ask yourself the “being” question.



Matt Perryman 


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