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Words are not static. They are dynamic. Like the birth of a child, there remains always something mysterious, even miraculous, about the birth of a thought and about the words we use to bring that thought into being…

Perhaps Johnny Mercer has already and long ago settled the gentlemanly epistemological debate that has emerged between Joseph Pearce and me. Mercer’s observation that “you’re much too much and just too very very to ever be in Webster’s Dictionary” recognizes an important truth, repeated without question or objection by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra. There are qualities that resist definition. To repeat myself: Definitions are abstractions of reality that are elusive if not illusory. They cannot apprehend the essence of the thing defined, and often end up maiming and distorting it. When, in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Sissy Jupe (“girl number twenty”) cannot define a horse, although her father works in the horse trade, her teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, calls on the pallid and ghostly Bitzer who nearly manages to define horses out of existence:

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now girl number twenty,” says Mr. Gradgrind with the rigid surety of a declarative sentence, “you know what a horse is.” Were only that life and the world as uncomplicated as Mr. Gradgrind imagines them to be.

Bitzer’s abstract and conceptual definition, as lifeless as he is, reaffirms the wisdom of Dr. Johnson, whom Mr. Pearce suspects I have misunderstood. “Definitions,” Johnson wrote, “are tricks for pedants.” There is perhaps no more pedantic figure in all of English literature than the heartless, disdainful, and unimaginative schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind: “A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.” Definitions, whether of horses, men, or matter, sometimes obscure as much as, or more than, they illuminate, and are for that reason of limited utility.

It is, of course, absurd to dispute Mr. Pearce’s emphasis on the importance of words and their meanings. Words matter. Without shared meanings, as he sensibly points out, the world would become a Tower of Babel and all verbal and literary communication would effectively cease. But words are not static. They are dynamic. Words are not mere categories of meaning. They are historical realities. The choice of a word is thus not merely linguistic, it is also moral. Were I to say in 2017 that Jews are the equals of Germans or that blacks are the equals of whites, most would shrug their shoulders and nod their heads. My statements would be true, but they would also be unremarkable. Had I uttered the same words in Berlin in 1935 or in Birmingham in 1963, my statements would have been far more controversial and perhaps far more courageous. In those times and in those places, their truth might even have been greater since so many had adopted propositions to the contrary that endorsed prevailing untruths. Historical context shapes and alters meaning.

In his exploration of the various meanings of “love,” Mr. Pearce helps to make my argument, and I am grateful to him for doing so. As Mr. Pearce’s analysis shows, words depend for their meaning not on their definitions alone but on their context and associations. A Christian, a romantic, and a materialist can convey different meanings of “love” because of the prior and distinct associations each attaches to the word, an act that is inseparable from their moral purpose in making such associations. The word “love” provides a link between their minds and imaginations and the reality they wish to convey, often at the exclusion of other possibilities.

The effort to establish precise definitions has, I fear, set Mr. Pearce on an impossible errand. His noble but quixotic soul, on a quest to discover and secure “objective meaning,” may be tilting at windmills. For no two persons ever say or write precisely the same thing in precisely the same way. Perfect communication and perfect understanding are unattainable. As the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset explained in The Modern Theme:

Perspective is one of the components of reality. Far from being its deformation it is its organization. A reality which would remain always the same when seen from different points is an absurdity.

It is often an unnoticed, but perhaps now an irresistible, error to substitute vocabulary for thought, assuming that once we have defined a word we have understood and mastered it. If the German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, is to be believed, even science lacks such precise definitions. In his Gifford Lectures on physics and philosophy delivered in 1955 and 1956, Heisenberg said:

Any concepts or words which have been formed in the past through the interplay between the world and ourselves are not really sharply defined with respect to their meaning; that is to say, we do not know exactly how far they will help us in finding our way in the world. We often know that they can be applied to a wide range of inner or outer experience but we practically never know precisely the limits of their applicability. This is true even of the simplest and most general concepts like ‘existence’ and ‘space and time.’

Heisenberg’s rejection of objective meaning does not of necessity lead to the embrace of the subjective, which Mr. Pearce rightly dismisses as “relativist nonsense.”

Rather than objectivity and the universality of meaning or subjectivity and the absence of meaning, I emphasize a third alternative: the historicity of language and the historicity of meaning. “There is in the soul an intimate and responsive urge to clothe thought in words,” declared the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. We also give birth to thought in words. Like the birth of a child, there remains always something mysterious, even miraculous, about the birth of a thought and about the words we use to bring that thought into being. Yet, the attachment to, and the affection for, the tools of their craft should not blind writers and orators to the limits and imperfections of language. Language communicates meaning. At some times and under some conditions, it communicates badly. A language that is not fixed but fluid, a language that can convey the greatest nuance, is of superior quality. Our use of language, to paraphrase Blaise Pascal, ought to be governed by l’esprit de finesse rather than l’esprit de la géometrie.

The quality of language and the clarity of meaning thus depend not merely on definition. As Mr. Pearce’s own discussion implies, neither words nor ideas exist suspended in a vacuum (something, Pascal also noted, that nature abhors), their meaning established, distinct, and unchanging. Words, and the ideas they beget, are inseparable from the people who articulate them, as well as from the intentions, the circumstances, and even the audience for which they spoke or wrote those words. Perhaps I am describing the literary variant of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Even truth, it turns out, is variable. For human beings, truth is historical rather than eternal. Truth once rested on the adherence to certain articles of faith. Later truth came to reside in the laws of nature. “One way or another,” concluded the English philosopher Owen Barfield in History, Guilt, and Habit, “what matters is our coming to realize that the way we habitually think and perceive is not the only possible way, not even a way that has been going on very long. It is the way we have come to think, the way we have come to perceive.” I do not wish to suggest that the changing nature of truth means that truth does not exist. It may even be that, as Christian theology affirms, truth is inscribed in the mind of God. But as a historian, and more so, as a lowly descendant of Adam, I have no access to the mind of God. If I did, I would not have the words with which to describe it. From the human perspective, then, truth is only and ever incomplete, contingent, perhaps momentary, and always haunted by the possibility of error. Such is the consequence of acknowledging the historicity of our language and our thinking, a reality that we cannot escape.

Mr. Pearce and I nonetheless agree that in the beginning and in the end is the Word. “The corruption of man,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is followed by the corruption of language.” I am inclined to think that the reverse is true, and that the corruption of language precedes and aggravates the corruption of man. I do not know whether Mr. Pearce shares my view, but I am certain that George Orwell did. Orwell’s preoccupation with the deteriorating standards of language, about which he wrote in his novel 1984 and in such essays as “Politics and the English Language,” dominated the final years of his life. He was concerned with the debasement of language and the proliferation of untruth. The antidote, feeble though it may have been, was the capacity of some to retain an individual language and a set of personal beliefs that enabled dissent from the official lies, which, without their resistance, would have enjoyed unanimous approval. Such a person was Winston’s Smith’s mother, whom Winston recalls was not “an unusual woman, still less an intelligent one; and yet she had possessed a kind of nobility, a kind of purity, simply because the standards she obeyed were private ones. Her feelings were her own, and could not be altered from the outside.” The consummate nonconformist, Winston’s mother could think and speak for herself. Her calm opposition defied both tyranny and untruth, ensuring that the former would never fully vanquish society or the latter fully subjugate the mind.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thank you for this wonderful essay that has brought forth a floodgate of thought; all the way back to the abc’s, the very form of order from which our language is structured. Building blocks of words to be arranged into meanings and messages that have no end.

    There are many vocations in this world, and you being a historian or others as being a philosopher, theologian, teacher, to name a few, are specific vocations where “words really matter”. To be able to convey truth, meaning, and understanding in order to win one’s trust is a gift from God. From that gift, a great responsibility of discipline is required to discern the meaning within the language of a vocation in order to communicate meaning to others.

    I do believe God has given to us, his creation, life being a gift, the ability to know Him. He has given to all people an opening to His mind through His words that He so graciously had preserved in the Holy Bible. His words He inspired to be written down through His chosen messengers. God delivered His message through sinful, forgiven men,to be recorded for all future generations. This is but a glimpse into His mind, but He reveals within His word that it is a sufficient glimpse for us, His fallen creation, to be brought back into His eternal glory. Thank God for His messengers.

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