The Musings of a Recusant Medievalist
“A Call for a Return to Respect for Language”
The Musings of a Recusant Medievalist
“A Call for a Return to Respect for Language”
I am fond of words. I appreciate the beauty and power which the gift of language gives us; allowing us to communicate both the mundane and the complex, the real and the abstract, the emotional, the idyllic. Language, as a sharp tool in the hands of a skilled craftsman, can elevate thought and emote in us the feelings which make us human, distinguishing us as unique in all creation.
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore, never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Ordering a cup of coffee from your favorite barista would rarely be considered an utterance as pleasing to the ear as a Shakespearian sonnet or John Donne’s famous poem. Yet, in this simple act, we yoke the oxen of words to the plow of language. We employ specific words, we exchange a glance, we may either enchant or annoy the order taker with whom we are communicating by the selection of our words, the tone and volume of our voice, and with physical nonverbal cues. If, to our dismay, we do not receive our coffee as we intend, we are almost certain to lay blame at their feet, rarely with ourselves.
Having spent many years as a manager in a corporate environment, I came to understand that of the many and varied problems I encountered, the most frequent cause of problems was either directly, or tangentially, an issue of communication.
Older people experience loss of hearing, and we have all witnessed the elderly in hilarious discussion about some inconsequential subject or object, neither party comprehending the other, words misunderstood, meaning and context lost, annoyance, and petulance the result. No longer hilarious.
When our communication skills are poor, our vocabulary is deficient in its breadth or oxidized due to atrophy, we risk misunderstanding. Worse still, if the speaker’s intentions are mischaracterized by the listener, unpleasantness or anger may be the result.
It is, in most instances, the speaker who has not fulfilled his obligation as a coherent partner in conversation. As one learns a foreign language, it is always easier to read, or understand the spoken word than to write or speak. The listener need not come up with the words, that has been done by the speaker. The necessity of semantic choice resides with the speaker.
Everyone has experienced the frustration which results from turbid communications between spouses, parents, children and co-workers. Indeed, problems of communication can be more sinister in their outcome. Wars and all manner of disruptions between political states and within social structures have resulted from issues burdened or created by language.
In a world grown increasingly complicated, we have adopted as a society a corpus of language, both verbal and written, clearly unable to meet the needs of the thoughtful. How has this happened? How is it possible that in a world in which innovations in technology, science, and medicine have been remarkable; the manipulation of the extraordinary toolset of language we have inherited has resulted in university trained students unable to read, or understand, a work of even moderately difficult material?
Language, in common, modern use, is characterized by vulgarity, meanness of vocabulary, an affectation for devices such as repetition and an abundance of extravagance and hyperbola designed by marketing science. If one is even a casual observer, the gratuitous use of the word “amazing” will greet you within 5 minutes of tuning into any broadcast media. The word has been variously used to describe, within the space of an hours’ time, a pillow, a new recipe, a pair of shoes, and a jar of pickles. You get the point.
The use of these devices, and their effect on the “lingua franca” has been devastating. What remains to us is the ordure, the decayed remains of the living body of language. We have witnessed a distillation of language which has robbed us of essential components. The evaporation process complete, the remaining distillate is bereft of color, tone and nuance, and frequently lacks coherent meaning. It is now suitable for the masses. Mediocrity, and more importantly, control of the means of communication, is now complete.
The computer, and all its variants, has become as commonplace, and as necessary, as any tool in any workshop has ever been. Modern life, by which I refer to life in the present millennium, is virtually impossible without them. It has proven to be a tool of extraordinary capability. Yet, it is very difficult for most young people to understand that a mere 50 years ago, the ubiquitous calculator was merely an interesting gadget, beyond the scope and financial ability of most people. Engineering students used slide rules, as did NASA. The idea of the computer, as we know it, was a product of futuristic fantasy.
With our computers, we have applications which will spell for us, will write for us, will check our grammar, and ensure that we have written in a style which can be understood by someone at the 8th grade level. That then, is our goal for language: we must ensure that we have reduced discourse to a level without adornment, without subtlety, and which leaves the population permanently at a level of linguistic accomplishment approximating junior high school.
To understand how we have arrived at this state of linguistic sclerosis, we must begin the journey of thought and language in our distant past.
The history of philosophy, and the study of language, are inextricably linked. The ancients understood that language and semantic meaning are fundamental attributes of our humanity. Thinkers, poets, and statesmen have written about the importance of language which underpins our ability to reason and communicate effectively. The very ideas of consciousness and being evolved from studies of the essence and the identity of man; at the very core of our existence, we think, we reason in language.
The necessity of effective language is at the foundation of any understanding of logic, and logic, with its formalization of human reason, is the spark of decision making, cogent thought, and rational human discourse.
The primary goal of speech is to convey information. The way we use the written word is different than spoken, conversational language. We cannot see the non-verbal cues on the page. Facial expressions and the tone of voice are missing.
In choosing our style of writing, we must, as a first principle, remember that without the conveyance of understanding, the beauty and persuasiveness of our offering is devoid of value on its face. In John Donne’s poem, there is a message. It is clear and unmistakable. It is also elegant.
The history of language, which is the issue we are about, was affected most profoundly by three events: the reformation of the Church and rise of secular humanism, the Industrial Revolution, and the Second World War.
However, to understand what has changed, we must understand that which was changed.
So, we begin our trek through history at the beginning, that is, with Plato.
Classicism – “How the ancients viewed the tool of language”
In his dialogue Cratylus, Plato discusses names and the etymology of words, predominantly nouns, and the relationship between the names we use and their inherent meaning, if any. The dialogue begins as a discussion between Socrates, Hermogenes and Cratylus. The substance of the dialogue is an investigation of whether a word has some necessary relationship to the object it represents, or if an object is unrelated to what it is named and is purely a matter of convention.
Cratylus, in opposition to Hermogenes, believes that an inherent natural meaning exists, for all things, and that a word represents the essence of an object. In Cratylus’ view, convention is not the real and correct source of names.
Plato, through his interlocutor Socrates, supports neither view. In his discussion with Cratylus, Socrates says:
“…that when you know what a name is like, and it is like the thing it names, then you also know the thing, since it is like the name, and all like things fall under one and the same craft”
Ultimately, Socrates says that the name of a thing is not, in and of itself, important. That language can change does not impose a change on the reality of the thing. The names are representations of the permanent and unchanging nature of the things themselves. Here, he is introducing us to the idea of the Forms, the immutable truths about all things, both corporeal and incorporeal. Socrates to Cratylus:
“On the other hand, if the very form of knowledge passed on from being knowledge, the instant it passed on into a different form than that of knowledge, there would be no knowledge. And if it were always passing on, there would always be no knowledge. Hence, on this account, no one could know anything, and nothing could be known either.”
Following Plato, Aristotle in his Categories furthers the work of Plato and gives us a system and quasi-scientific approach to the descriptions of words and names, and inferentially, to language itself. The categorization of names, the adoption of specific and meaningful attributes, such as quantity, contrariety and similarity, among other things, testify to the classification of objects, and the relationship between objects and our perception. Having understood and agreed upon these classifications, we understand the relationship required to communicate effectively, moreover, to communicate qualitatively.
With this modest beginning, Aristotle establishes the groundwork for which he will later demonstrate in the Metaphysics the building blocks of logic, reason, and identity for which he is perhaps best known, and for which the entire history and development of coherent thought, and Western cultural progress owes him so very much. The most basic of these building blocks are the “Laws of Thought”.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy,
the laws of thought are laws by which or in accordance with which valid thought proceeds, or that justify valid inference, or to which all valid deduction is reducible.
It has been generally accepted that these laws and the rules which are developed from them, without exception, give the basis for all rational thought, discussion and expression, and are the objects of formal logic.
While philosophers and academics have used different terms to describe these laws, they are generally accepted as the following:
- The Law of Identity
- The Law of Non-Contradiction
- The Law of the Excluded Middle
The importance of these laws cannot be overstated. They are in fact, axiomatic, and apply at all times and to all things. They have been used in the formulation of mathematical logic systems, semantics, and linguistic analysis. Indeed, our modern digital world has these classical laws to thank for the genesis of our extraordinarily technical lives.
The Law of Non-Contradiction is considered the most solid, and without it, Aristotle states, we would be unable to know anything. The law states in Metaphysics Book IV:
“.. the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect…”
Rational thought and reason, communication, and thoughtful discussion would be impossible without the ability to have a common understanding of our subject. What distinctions are possible between, for example, the moon and a rock, a bottle and a bar of soap.
Aristotle discusses Non-Contradiction most fully in his Metaphysics Book IV. In Section I, Aristotle begins with a discussion of “being,” he states that in order to fully investigate “being” we must do so separately from describing the attributes of a thing, which occur by “accident.” He states:
“Therefore, it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes”
Here we enter the arcane and frequently confusing world of metaphysics. For most of us, reading the term “being as being” will cause us to consider immediately putting down the book and take an aspirin.
As we proceed through the work, Aristotle further defines what is meant by “to be”:
“There are many senses in which a thing may be said “to be,” but they are related to one central point, one definite kind of thing, and are not homonymous”
Further, there are many senses in which a thing is said “to be,” but all refer to one starting point. A thing may be a substance, or be in the process of being a substance, or importantly, negations of substance. This negation creates the possibility of “non-being”, which is of course, the opposite of “being.”
Aristotle describes both “negation” and “privation”. Negation is described, for the purpose of this discussion, as “non-being” or the absence of “unity” while privation implies an underlying nature is absent. It is in these ideas of opposites that Aristotle fully develops the concept of “contrariety.”
In the Metaphysics he states:
“…the contraries of the concepts we named above, the other and the dissimilar and the unequal, and everything else which is derived either from these or from plurality and unity, …. And contrariety is one of these concepts, for contrariety is a kind of difference, and difference is a kind of otherness”
Aristotle completes this line of thought by stating that everything is a contrary or is composed of contraries and reaffirms his position that unity and plurality are the starting points for all contraries.
It is important to re-emphasize the significance of these laws or axioms. As first principles, these axioms apply everywhere and for all things. They are, in fact, immutable truths.
The semantic version of Non-Contradiction is adapted from the Metaphysics and is of specific interest to us here:
“These, then, might be easily persuaded of this truth, for it is not difficult to grasp; but those who seek merely compulsion in argument seek what is impossible; for they demand to be made to contradict themselves from the very first. But if not all things are relative, but some exist in their own right, not everything that appears will be true; for that which appears, appears to someone; so that he who says all things that appears are true, makes all things relative.”
This implies that opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time. The assertion and the subsequent discussion in the Metaphysics provides an intriguing view of the idea of relativism, a concept popularized in the twentieth century.
He summarizes later:
“Let this, then, suffice to show that the most of all beliefs is that contradictory statements are not at the same time true, and what consequences follow from denial of this belief, and why people do deny it.”
The importance of Aristotle’s representations is obvious— the way we observe the world, whether we rationally or irrationally make decisions, and the effect on language, communications, as well as social and political structures, is undeniable.
A common understanding of the meaning of representations; those elemental structures which, building one upon the other, bring forth ideas, must have the same meaning for each of us, or an intellectual congress between us is not possible.
The Arab scholar Avicenna, famously commented on the undeniability of the Law of Non-Contradiction with the following:
“As for the obstinate, he must be plunged into fire, since fire and non-fire are identical. Let him be beaten, since suffering and not suffering are the same. Let him be deprived of food and drink, since eating and drinking are identical to abstain.”
Aristotle has now established a direct link between rational thought, reason and logic, and the reality and nature of being, as identity, with language.
Words and phrases that form concise, coherent language are the mechanisms by which we distinguish the real and the true from the realm of nonsense.
The Rise of Christianity – “The integration of classicism and Christian philosophical thought”
The emergence of Christianity brought a need for the theologians and philosophers embracing this new religion to create, or adopt, a body of language consistent with their beliefs, and intellectually coherent to support the philosophy of their faith against reasonable and inevitable scrutiny. Yet, we cannot overlook important figures who helped provide a link between classical thought and Christian theological development.
Plotinus, a most significant, if not seminal Neoplatonist, was a student of Ammonius Saccas. Ammonius, who lived in Egypt and was an ethnic Indian, is believed by some to have been a Christian.
Plotinus introduced an element of mysticism into his philosophy which affects later Christian contemplative spirituality and may well have been the result of his influence by Ammonius. The influence of Eastern thought and the other worldliness of Eastern religion characterize Plotinus’ philosophy, and are an unmistakable component in the compilation of Plotinus’ thoughts by his student, Porphyry.
Yet Plotinus maintains the classical and Platonic approach to the importance of language, the relationship of being, and the nature of intellect. As described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Intellect is the locus of the full array of Platonic Forms, those eternal and immutable entities that account for or explain the possibility of intelligible predication. Plotinus assumes that without such Forms, there would be no non-arbitrary justification for saying that anything had one property rather than another.”
The historically prominent figure of Augustine immediately enters the frame. As a “Doctor of the Church,” his influence on later Christian theology is profound. In his De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine discusses language as a tool in the interpretation of scripture. In this quote, we can see Augustine adhering to a theory of language which characterizes the real and attaches the written word to both the physical and the representational.
“There are signs of another kind, those which are never employed except as signs: for example, words. No one uses words except as signs of something else; and hence may be understood what I call signs: those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else. Accordingly, every sign is also a thing; for what is not a thing is nothing at all.”
Later, Christian thought is expanded by the towering figure of Thomas Aquinas. In the Middle Ages, Aquinas successfully integrated the philosophy of Aristotle with the theological concepts of Christianity. He remains, in my view, the most important figure of Christian philosophical thought.
Aquinas introduces the concept of “analogous equivocation.” In his view, words can be either univocal, that is completely unambiguous; equivocal, that is uncontrolled or completely ambiguous, or controlled equivocal. The use of controlled equivocation is necessary, in his view, to allow for the accidents of language. By accident, we refer to the Aristotelian concept of accident; that is, an attribute of a thing, here a word, which is not a necessary or frequent attribute of that thing. Aquinas does not deviate from an Aristotelian metaphysic, and his philosophy maintains a relationship between language and representational knowledge.
History is littered with the significant events which have shaped our present world. One need only visit any bookshop to find books which explain the world, or purport to explain it, from almost any perspective. Yet, as a study of the first historian, Herodotus tells us these events are frequently, if not always, written from the perspective of the writer. Objectivity is a rare commodity in the study of history.
Reformation and Secular Humanism – “The rise of the individual, the loss of control”
The modern concept of individual sovereignty finds its roots in the reformation. Reformation is a common euphemism for what was, in fact, a revolution. The authority of the church in a period of political factionalism provided a bond, albeit tenuous, between the numerous and diverse structures of western governments. A common ecclesial language, a common Bible, and a common understanding and philosophy of Christianity provided a stability of sorts to an otherwise fractious and divisive political landscape.
While the most common understanding of the cause of the Protestant Reformation was the abuses of the church as an institution, the more profound reasons were theological and philosophical in nature, and altered forever the relationship between man, religion and the state.
The somewhat obscure concepts of Sola Fide, Predestination and Sola Scriptura are fundamental and understood by few; however, they are the basis of a revolution to the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church, not merely a reformation of doctrine.
Luther, in The Enslaved Will, his public treatise in an ongoing battle over free will with Erasmus, states:
“But so much was necessary to eradicate that shameless and blasphemous proposition that Scripture is obscure, so that you could see, my dear Erasmus, what you are saying when you deny that Scripture is quite clear.”
Luther believed that the meaning of Scripture was clear, so long as it was his interpretation.
The belief in the authority of any individual as a plausible interpreter of sacred scripture gives rise to what is, in modern times, a religious relativism. The explosion of denominations in Protestantism is a result of this theological antecedent. If your church affiliation doesn’t believe what you believe, one can either bully it into changing its beliefs, or create a new one. While no official numbers exist, estimates from reasonable sources state there may be as many as 50,000 different Protestant denominations.
The proliferation of translations of the Bible is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation. The belief that a Bible produced in the vernacular was necessary to allow the common people to understand the meaning of the Bible was a laudable goal. Given an acceptance of the concept that each Christian has an individual and personal right to interpret the Bible, the possibilities are endless. There are currently 450 English language versions available.
The language, or translation of sacred scripture, allows the author virtually unlimited opportunity to craft a Bible which has as its goal the manipulation of belief in the reader. The view of the author becomes codified in sacred text. Here we return to the admonition regarding history, the reader must consider the goals and background of the writer if he is to read objectively.
Religion is the most personal and arguably most important practice in which human beings engage. Our beliefs are the link between our reason and the unknowable. Our personal ideas of identity and being are defined by our belief system, or lack thereof.
Given the right of personal authority over our religion ceded to us by the Reformation, is it any wonder the next fortress to come under siege was the relationship between the citizen and the state?
Personal sovereignty, or the illusion of personal sovereignty, was born in the intellectual cauldron of the Reformation and Enlightenment. Secular humanism, the preeminence of man as an individual, in conjunction with the concept of inherent and natural rights, laid waste to the historical subjugation of man to his state and his God.
The view of man as an independent being, responsible only to himself, and for himself, accelerated throughout the period following the reformation and found its home in the philosophy of Locke and other like-minded individuals.
The release of man from the authority of the Church and, presumptively, the authority of other men, as well as a desire for a democratic and just government, brought about the revolutionary period in the American Colonies, as well as in France. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were fine ideals to be sure.
The modern democracy, best represented by the United States, is a scant 250 years of age. The idea of personal liberty, while featured prominently in daily speeches and screeds of the governing class, does not really exist, except perhaps in an illusory or transient way. The libertarian ideal is a minor inconvenience in the halls of power.
Despite our best efforts and fervent desire, we are never actually free, and as a society we must be controlled, herded and managed. True personal sovereignty, the goal of anarchists for centuries, cannot coexist with the common goals of society. It is, therefore, necessary for individuals to surrender some aspects of personal sovereignty to the state for order to be maintained. The type of control we cede defines the extent of our submission for the common good. The nature of the things to which we submit also determines the style of government we adopt. It is with this knowledge that we must review ourselves with open eyes and understand that we are chess pieces in a very serious game.
The Industrial Revolution – “A human tool must be forged”
The Industrial Revolution changed forever man’s relationship with his environment and his work. The dissolution of the family as the basic social structure began with the movement to an industrial society, and away from an agrarian one. We see the negative results of this change in cultural policy and the precipitous decline of commonly held values.
A dissociation of man from the product of his efforts has given us a society in which specialization renders general knowledge rare at best. The automatons required to gather the products of the assembly line have been created and refined. With the idea of productivity as its goal, the assembly line of 1910 is now the office, with its cubicles and its Human Resources departments ensuring obedience to a panoply of supposed goods. Each individual plods his way through the day, rarely engaged and never fully understanding how his efforts create anything at all. Modern workers have been dehumanized, and their efforts are equivalent to that of mere machines, necessary only to produce some largely useless artifact.
This herd mentality is not natural in us, we must be trained. The forum for this training is compulsory public education.
In his book, The Underground History of American Education, John Taylor Gatto explores the public education system, its founding principles and its successes and failures. By successes, Gatto refers to the ability of the education system to transform a society to the will of the state and its economic puppet masters.
We prefer to believe that the state has as its goal the education of the masses, the enlightenment of the individual, and the flowering of a utopian society. While this may be the intent of some, the energetic and optimistic young teachers glowing with purpose as they arrive for class, the reality is that the intent is control, control of thought, control of purpose and the molding of the individual into a compliant cog in the machinery of a well ordered state.
The public education system of the United States is based in the education system of 19th century Prussia. The belief that children could not be trusted to their parents is a direct outgrowth of an education system developed to ensure obedience, obedience to the state, to the military and to the coming industrial society.
Gatto follows the history of education from its foundational thinkers such as Mann and Dewey and arrives at the present. A belief that the original intent of compulsory education, while steeped in questionable motive, has somehow changed and improved is misguided. In fact, the original effort has been upgraded and modified to comply with new requirements, the psychological and social modification of society, beginning with our children.
In perhaps the most extraordinary quote which Gatto provides in his book is this by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M Pierce to the Childhood International Education Seminar in 1973:
“Every child in America entering school at the age of five is mentally ill because he comes to school with certain allegiances to our founding fathers, toward our elected officials, toward his parents, toward a belief in a supernatural being, and toward the sovereignty of this nation as a separate entity. It’s up to you as teachers to make all these children well-by creating the international child of the future”
“In utopia, everyone has a fixed place. Envy and ambition are unwelcome, at least among the common classes. The prescription should sound familiar, we’ve encountered it before as the marching orders of the Prussian volksschulen. Unfortunately, we know only too well how that Pestalozzian story ended.”
Gatto also introduces us to Edward Bernays. Bernays, although not widely recognizable, is one of the most influential people of the 20th century. This nephew of Sigmund Freud is the creator of the modern art of marketing. He recognized that the opinions of the masses are not only malleable, it is the responsibility of the ruling classes to mold them. His early books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda are seminal works, admired by such luminaries as Henry Ford and Josef Goebbels.
“The need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which public opinion may be regimented.”
The work Propaganda was written in 1928. He writes further:
“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. We are dominated by a relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public.”
Gatto said that the critical pollution of language necessary to implement this strategy was already in use. The tools of delivery since Bernays have changed and improved exponentially since 1928.
The weaponization of the education system, when obscured by the philosophical construct of subjectivism and the tool of public indoctrination, is a noxious admixture indeed. Perhaps not surprisingly, we find their coupling in the 20th century— that most deadly, and technologically prolific period in the history of the world.
The Second World War and Post-Modernism – “The rise of technology and language games”
The Second World War was the single most influential and catastrophic event in the history of mankind. The number of deaths, with estimates of 75 million common, and the destruction of infrastructure permanently modified our social and cultural normative behaviors.
While these appallingly negative events occurred, the technological advances which were developed, attendant to the devastation of war, have never been equaled in any similar period of history.
Advances in science, technology, medicine, and importantly to our discussion, communications, changed the world forever. The invention of the printing press is the only other single event which can compare with the influence on mass communications resulting from the war and the post war period.
Europe, following the war, was no longer the master of colonial empires. Its cities were in ruins, its economies shattered and its citizens, those who managed to survive, occupied a truly dystopian landscape. It’s collective psyche, burdened by hundreds of years of wars, was searching for something to replace the system which had allowed them.
In France, a group of young post war philosophers sought to remake the very idea of reality. Given the state of their world, one can understand their disillusionment.
These philosophers, including Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, building on the ideas of Marx, Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, among others, developed the philosophical construct which has come to be known as Post Modernism.
The Stanford Encyclopedia article on Post Modernism begins:
“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”
The most important word in this quote is “destabilize.”
These Frenchmen developed ideas which fly in the face of objective reality. Their influence on modern cultural thought is staggering. It has affected, or undermined, nearly every aspect of our existence. So pervasive and insidious are its effects that issues of public policy and discourse depend on acceptance of its basic premise. Perhaps the most astonishing is the effect of these incoherent philosophies on language.
At the core of post-modern belief are the fantastical and nonsensical arguments relating to the nature of reality.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, an early 20th Century philosopher, introduced the concept of “language games”. He posited that various groups developed words adapted to their specific use, and that word meanings need not have a single, common root. Understanding the importance of such a system of language, he quite properly described the importance of the keepers of language, those who established the meanings and ensured compliance to these meanings within the group.
Foucault’s ideas of language are rooted in Kantian concepts of knowledge. The classical view of language as “representational” of knowledge is discarded by Kant, and further de-linked by the Post-Modernists. Language was therefore untethered from its dependence on objects, representation and objective reality. Foucault writes:
“Literature is a form of language that breaks with the whole definition of genres as forms adapted to an order of representations, and becomes merely a manifestation of a language which has no other law than that of affirming in opposition to all other forms of discourse its own precipitous existence.”
In the world of the Post-Modernists, I am free to create my own reality. Unfortunately, language remains our only instrument for communications of ideas and information. When a common vocabulary is not present or is debauched, what remains is cognitive and linguistic dissonance.
My reality is not your reality. Truth is dependent upon experience, and language, the carrier and tool of reason, is distinct and separate from our being. This is what they would have you believe. Relativism is born and is pervasive in our modern society.
When words and language are disconnected from objective reality, the tool of language is free to be used as an instrument for abuse and manipulation. Presented subliminally to us at every opportunity by the tools of mass communication, an intentional subversion of our orthodoxy is underway, and sadly, it is succeeding.
Fortunately, the concepts developed by the Postmodernists did not receive universal acceptance.
Professor Carroll Quigley, the Georgetown academic writing in the 1960’s, arguably the height of a cultural and social revolution, described a “cognitive system” which could be defined:
“…every people, in order to think about its experiences and to communicate about them, must structure these experiences. At a minimum this process means that the culture imposes on its experiences a system of categories and a system of values for these categories.”
Certainly, the mention of categories is a marked similarity to the foundational principles found in our earlier discussion of Aristotle. Quigley said further:
“…structures reality and this limits human experience within a culture, so that members of that culture cannot become aware, think about or communicate about what is excluded…”
Quigley describes the relationship between modernity and the arts. His critique of literature is as follows:
“Most of our literature from about 1900 to about 1940 was an attack on the middle class cognitive system (future preference, endlessly expendable material demand, external, material status symbols, psychic anxiety), but since 1940 most of our literature has been simply a verbalization outside our cognitive system and outside of middle class values, as protest against these and as a rejection of all the cognitive structures which makes thought and communication possible within our society.”
The relationship of the arts to Post Modernism is strong, and in the visual arts the true character of their dislocation from the real is evident. Quigley writes:
“It culminated in the theatre of the absurd and the meaningless poetry and painting of today, which reject meaning by rejecting all context”
This idea of “rejecting all context” is intentional. The idea of art as representational of the higher ideals of humanity, its beauty, its meaning, its truth, are rejected for a world without connection. It is in their art that we see the absurdity of their reality. There is none.
Absent a meaningful authority having jurisdiction, whether civil or ecclesial, to govern and order society, some mechanism is required to ensure the hidden holders of power maintain their control over the masses. The requirement for control exists independent of the political system. Those of us who live in modern democracies are given the perception of authority, unfortunately, it is only perception.
The mechanism for control in our society is language, the delivery system is mass communications.
The Mission at Hand – “A call for a return to respect for language”
The manifold attacks on the fortress of language, both by design and incident, visited upon us in recent years have culminated in common speech and writing being degenerate.
The abuse, or absence of pronouns and the mischaracterization, and creation of words without cognates in historical language have coupled with outlandish attempts to describe states of existence which have never been imagined in the history of mankind.
Is this the goal, the terminus of post-modern philosophical thought? Have reality and reason become as unfashionable as spats and petticoats?
A subjective and insidious reality is replacing orthodoxy. Self-evident proofs of logic have been displaced by the phantasms of nightmares. Objective truth, any truth, is considered outdated. All points of view, however absurd, must be given equal status. Your truth, say some, does not apply to me— I have no experience of it, so it is not true for me. But truth is the same for everyone. Isn’t that what truth means?
A linguistic alchemy, taking place in the full light of day, is recombining the base elements of language in ways not intended to facilitate communication, but to impose the will of its creators on an intellectually lethargic and susceptible population.
Until very recently, the term “marriage equality” did not exist. It is a fabrication, an artifice born of Promethean clay and marketing sophistry working at its most nefarious. It is a success story, a phrase designed to clothe its salesmen with a veil of moral superiority. The ownership of this phrase, and phrases like it, bestow upon their user the high ground on the battlefield of ideas. If one is contrarian and disagrees with the premise on which the phrase is based, then one is opposed to equality. Can any sane person be opposed to equality?
When coupled with the tool of repetition, the unthinking and irrational majority among us display a near Pavlovian response to the manipulation of language. One need only recall the endless use of the term “WMD” in the period before the Iraq war to appreciate the power of repetition. The subordination of the many to the will of the few is complete. Bernays would be proud.
Yet behind all veils something is hidden, there was no WMD. We have been carried as an alluvium on the river of mass communications. Recently deposited on the shore, we have entered the boat, and as Charon prepares for our crossing of the Acheron, we must consider the nature of the journey we are taking. Will this passage separate us permanently from the solid ground of reason and rationality? The far shore is that place occupied by a never-ending supply of language games, a dystopian landscape indeed.
In Protagoras Plato’s famous dialogue with a sophist, he says:
“That you are about to hand over your soul for treatment to a man who is, as you say, a sophist. As to what exactly a sophist is, I would be surprised if you really knew. And yet, if you are ignorant of this, you don’t know whether you are entrusting your soul to something good or bad.”
These remarkable words hold the same power today they did 2500 years ago. The effort we expend to listen and read, the inquisitiveness and rationality which attends our decision making, and the conciseness and clarity of the language with which we communicate, remain our only defense against the manipulation of our soul by others.
So to you I make a fervent plea: take care in your speech, take care in your writing, and, perhaps most importantly, take care in your role as the most influential pedagogue to your children, for you are their primary and responsible motivator and accessible repository of truth.
With that, I end this reflection.