I'm very aware that those of you who have already read MSOU may have been exasperated at my decision not to follow up there on the implications of every tendril reaching out to some larger meaning. This blog was undertaken specifically to make up for that relative deficiency, but, as most of you will now know, I've jumped around quite a bit, and have not been systematic in following up on every issue.
This post specifically picks up on one of those issues, namely, the potential control of the quality of any debate about meaning by controlling the terms that are available for discussing it. For those of you who have a copy of the book at hand, the statements I want to expand on form a major element in the content of chapter five, titled "Error." For others, I'll simple quote briefly from a crucial section of the exposition so that you can feel at least provisionally "on board." The following is from page eighty in the book:
To determine the vocabulary for representing and discussing human affairs gives any group, whether it be an oligarchy, a nation, a religion, an ethnic group, a gang, an institution (in short, any organized group whatsoever) a powerful position in relation to its own interests. The choice or refutation of a particular vocabulary can be a powerful political act, since it promotes or refutes a particular organizing image of reality itself.
Attentive readers of this blog will already know that I've touched on this issue several times, usually in the course of making a point about something else. What made me decide to deal with it specifically in its own right was my realization that it was my own failing to deal with it directly that had resulted in my resorting to scarcely veiled sarcasm in my commentary on the manner in which others (with whom I disagreed) were selective in the connotations they ascribed to particular words. My parenthetical comment on Stephen Hawking's use of the word "God" in a previous post was what alerted me. I then remembered my comment in a still earlier post on Einstein's similar acceptance of the term (in a Spinozan vein) and Stuart Kauffman's attempt to co-opt the use of the term "sacred", probably with a nod towards Durkheim, in discussions of the meaning of research findings in the physical and biological sciences. Kauffman was particularly lucid on the issue in his piece for Edge.org, which can be found here.
At the same time, my conscience niggled me again about my avoiding discussion of this very issue with a good friend who was critical of my gloss on the meaning assigned to the words "sin" and "evil" in everyday contexts. My point, however, is not simply that using a vocabulary with a long history of very particular associations inhibits our own ability to express something different, but that, in using terms which have very different connotations for those who've used them to justify positions that are antagonistic to our own, we unknowingly yield an advantage to those with whom we disagree. We can, of course, use particular wordings ironically, as I think it likely that Hawking did in his pronouncement on the mind of God, but such irony is likely to be either invisible, or immediately interpreted as hostile by those who think and feel differently. (Possibly Hawking was again making a wry comment on an earlier pope's exhortation to him not to enquire into the workings of God.)
In MSOU I gave similar examples of semantic control of content via the use of specific metaphors. In the fields of politics, marketing, religion,and even specialized areas of human enquiry, the very vocabularies determine the direction of attention and thinking. And that's not even to mention the different significances of particular words accorded by different languages. Many years ago the playwright Arthur Miller commented on the problems of misinterpretation arising from the shared assumptions of people in the US and the UK that they were speaking the same language.
I don't know how far I can go with this, as it leads into every structural variant in languages themselves. Also, as I've illustrated both in the book and in this blog, particular polarities can promote particular kinds of metaphors, which themselves promote particular ways of thinking. If you go to Edge.org, and track down Lera Boroditsky there, you'll find she has some very significant things to say about the language constraints affecting such variations, as indeed George Steiner does, although somewhat less vividly, in the wonderful, but demanding, After Babel: Aspects of language and translation.
In the meantime, it should be clear that our language preferences are for the most part invisible to us, until, that is, we find that they prejudice the kinds of encounters we have with one another because they import assumptions that turn out to be anathema(!) to someone else. I guess, perhaps rather over simply, that drawing our attention to such phenomena is the very first step towards our investigating our unknowing collusion in producing them. I hope so!
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