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Sunday Quought: Language as Progress

It’s odd to talk about progress these days when everything seems backwards. We are given every reason to become pessimists and end up like Stefan Zweig. That these reasons are given by cultural pessimists might push us to withstand only because we want to deny them that victory too. Revenge, however, is their way so    whatever victory that kind of resistance would lead to would not be really ours.

There is, then, no other option then to find a basis for our optimism in reason.

“(..) the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts.” G.H. Mead, “Mind, Self & Society”, 1934, The University of Chicago Press, p. 7.

Society is the soil and the individuals are the flowers. The flowers are not there just to fertilize the soil but the soil isn’t something we can leave unfertilized either. Staying on-metaphor: language is the fertilizer. It’s allowing the soil to bring forth better flowers but takes, without coercion, from those flowers to make for an even better soil.

Nothing can be further removed from current opinion. If only because it is dynamic – and this world of now hates anything that is elusive; anything that can’t be decomposed in parts and reassembled in the whole we (think we) need. We live in anti-Darwinian times where we think we can make leaps without evolving.

But aren’t our cultural pessimists the ‘owners’ of the primacy of the whole (society)?

Well, it would certainly appear so. They claim words like identity, patriotism, the greater good and so on. I believe that this makes us, optimists, uneasy with this fluffy, naïve but utterly scientific idea of this ‘whole’. We know we’re flowers and we don’t want to be crushed into fertilizer for somebody else’s wacky idea of an ideal society.

What then happens to make the collective so suspect and the individual so needy of protection?

Maybe we have to put it in dynamic terms (along the lines of G. Vico):

  1. some set of people create a whole in which individuals can thrive,
  2. individuals realize what loss they’ll endure if their society perishes,
  3. identity, patriotism et al. are created to better defend against threats,
  4. this new restricted ‘we’ is defined as against that foreign ‘them’, and,
  5. fighting the foreigners is inevitable and cultural pessimism unavoidable.

There really is a lot to this conservative analysis. Failure to admit that is a failure to make sense to most of our neighbors. It is  what makes a progressive, optimistic analysis suspect in the eyes of many. There is no magical universal & transcendental ‘we’ that can switch off the concrete immediate & tangible ‘we’ of some specific society we’ve grown up in. Our horizon is always limited and cannot be extended by the sheer will power of ‘how things ought to be’ (see  H.-G. Gadamer).

Still, this is not where reason stops. Reason can’t stop at a certain restricted sense of ‘we’. Aristotle sensed that (and is the best proof of the ability of one can capture this truth and at the same time remain restricted to the own horizon), humanism defined that and the enlightenment entrenched it. There is an impossibility to build walls around a certain restricted sense of ‘we’. It has been tried time and time again and history is clearly showing that a continuous expansion of the ‘we’ in the sense of including others is as unavoidable as C. Darwin‘s evolution. In a sense this is what H. Bergson captured as the dynamism of cultural evolution.

The truth then is that the whole is a concrete society and identity (as conservatives want to have it) but is at the same time in a constant creative flux (as progressives want to have it).  The misery of our days is caused by only wanting to see either this side of the medal, or the other. It makes our times swing like the mood of an individual with bipolar disorder. As long as it swings, people will feel threatened and the momentum is with cultural pessimism and conserving what one has. Preservation is a biological priority.

So, what we experience is the base reflex in which we are forced to acknowledge that there is more than one conceptual scheme. Such schemes are viewed as mutually incompatible; as a clash of cultures, a clash of an unavoidable multiplicity of ‘we’-‘s. As D. Davidson logical insight had it though, “there is no such thing as a conceptual scheme”. What happens is that we put arbitrary walls around ‘our’ language, much like as if we could stop genetic evolution. The real threat however doesn’t lie in our reflexes, it lies in the fact that a few of us stand to benefit disproportionately. That threat is more serious now because these few have means at their disposal (created by progress) to win decisive victories. With each victory their dynamic is to further reduce the ‘we’ until we regress to a caste system. This is the race to the bottom going on as we speak where a few flowers claim the right to use all others merely as fertilizer. Some even claim the enlightenment as the flag under which they are allowed to be uncritical about their own assumptions!

Back to language. Language does not let itself be coerced into being more than one language. Language will always be ours in the most universal sense of ‘us’. Sure, language is abused but the outcome of such abuses are easily classified as propaganda (actually with such ease that censorship and conservation of a restricted ‘we’ are pretty much co-extensive). As long as we talk to each other, there will be progress. Actually, talking to each other is all there is to progress (see J. Habermas). The analysis of the phenomenon of language as per  P. Grice reveals that it is nothing else than the principle of co-operation. Language is ours and can’t be claimed by anyone and any group. Language also allows each of us to co-operate even if (rather: especially when) we don’t make the headlines (because we can’t force the issue).

This is the true dynamic of progressive insight but unfortunately it does not guarantee progress. It is up to us to stop the dynamic since the 70’s of a race to the bottom where polarization seems unavoidable because nuance is made suspect. The only thing we can do to resume the race to the top that we enjoyed for a brief two decades after WWII is talk more and disallow the center stage to those who want to shut up creative and critical discussion of individuals. This includes those progressive individuals who think they know how things ought to be specifically because they disallow the people to contribute. Impatience is also a vice. The speed of change our current, concrete ‘we’ can endure is limited. This is good because it allows us to not get ahead of ourselves in engineering a society based on an artificial language which is no-one’s but the happy few who created it.

None of which means that we can’t be ambitious. Public reason is ambitious and the individuals as named in the above express that ambition as I. Kant did in establishing the principles of critical attitude. He didn’t put forth an easy list of ‘do’-‘s and ‘don’t’-‘s that are carved in stone but did establish no go-areas which are, at present, violated regularly. He didn’t have the final say. In his tradition stands J. Rawls who voiced that reason has it that the fact that there are differences should be restricted to differences that benefit all based on the freedom of all to contribute to the discussion. He did not specify any minimum or maximum as that is a matter of nuance that can only emerge out of language and further insight. He did “include the middle” by not forcing people to forcefully give up their own comprehensive, current sense of ‘we’. His attitude was, as ours really ought to be, one of allowing that diversity as a source of richness based on the confidence of a consensus appearing when and if we talk. As long as we acknowledge the last ‘we’ being inclusive.

This is where we as individuals can play our role in giving back: share our opinions without bigotry.


November 22, 2015 - Posted by | language, life of the mind, Tuesday Quought | , , ,

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