The ontology of half empty or half full

I join Gary Larson in taking a sideways view.

Gary Larson's cartoon of the four basic personality types

I was given Gary Larson's "Far Side Gallery 4" decades ago, probably around when it was first published, and I think this cartoon is in there. It's easy to see the basic ‘half full’ and ‘half empty’ as simply a optimistic and a pessimistic view on life, but maybe like Larson, I was never quite happy with that. Anyway, I definitely have the third personality type shown here …

I came back to this recently through some reaction to my being critical of things or people. This happened on several occasions, and there's a pattern there. Some people when hearing me being critical start defending and pointing out the good things about whoever or whatever I was talking about. It came to me that these other people are treating me as if I was a pessimistic ‘half empty’ type of person. Not at all! So I find this type of reaction thoroughly disheartening, as I am being thought of as a negative person, which I am not.

I started thinking about this more deeply. Is being critical really seeing the glass as half empty? Let's take an ontological detour as a way around this.

Where do the different connotations of ‘half full’ and ‘half empty’ come from? How come there is a difference, when the purely rational meaning is the same? I see the phrase ‘half full’ as having connotations of a process of filling up. Half way on the way to being full; half filled. You can be positive or negative within this frame, too. Saying “it's not completely full yet” maybe negative from a formal point of view, but still sits within the image of a filling process. Saying “there is still some left” likewise is making a positive point about a process of emptying.

For me, it's the underlying metaphor of process, and the difference in attitude that goes along with that, that matters to me, not whether what you say is formally positive or negative. A filling process of something good is linked in my mind with abundance, with gift, with having so much that you can't help wanting to share it. An emptying process of a vital resource is linked in my mind with scarcity, with deprivation, and potentially therefore with competition, property claims, arguments and so on. To me, the underlying metaphor is like Carol Dweck's ‘mindset’ that I mentioned in my entries on About charisma and What is inner work?. A fixed mindset seems analogous to the emptying into scarcity; a growth mindset to the filling leading to abundance.

If you see something that is half full as completely full, you're missing something. It makes sense to me to think about the gaps, what is missing; perhaps what one can do to fill the missing part. But there is something good going on, and it's worth considering joining in that process, rather than just automatically starting to fill up your own glass from nothing. That would be like saying “the glass may be half full, but I don't like what's in it.” I don't think that's the image that people have when using the phrases ‘half full’ and ‘half empty’. It would be more like the “Hey! I ordered a cheeseburger!”

If you see something as half empty, declining, running out, then what's the point of trying to fill it up? It might work for a short time, but that looks like the way to burnout, to disappointment, to resentment even, unless you have an unlimited supply of whatever it is. If what you see is a dwindling resource, do you want to be caught in a culture of scarcity? Maybe the thing to do is to reframe what you are looking at, and find something more essential that is abundant.

I'd like the people close to me to be happy with me being constructively critical, and to recognise the fact that I love seeing people grow and develop. Any teacher or educator, counsellor, coach, therapist, or manager may see others (as well as themselves) as half full, may see what is missing, and may look out for ways in which we can all approach greater wholeness, towards overflowing with what is good.


See also The middle way between yes and no.


Topics: Complex psychology; Personal development


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