Cross-post: a perfect language

Two visions of a perfect language:

  1. A perfect language should be spare and clear.  Ambiguity and obfuscation should be made impossible or at least very difficult.  It should dissipate word game-induced confusion and allow reasoning in a straightforward, almost mechanical, way.
  2. A perfect language should be expansive and evocative.  It should provide the resources to capture every experience and intuition, every shade of meaning.  Far better to allow the possibility of confusion than to linguistically cut oneself off from a genuine aspect of the world and the human condition.

Analytic and Continental philosophy are divided by adherence to the different visions.  Do we dissolve philosophical puzzles by linguistic therapy, like Wittgenstein?  Does this mean removing pseudo-problems or just taking away the tools for expressing real problems?  Or do we, like Hegel, seek a grand synthesis in which every conflicting intuition can find its home?  This also has dangers, because attempts to “eff the ineffable” (as Roger Scruton once put it) often fall back on vagueness, and it really is possible to lose oneself in a fog of metaphors.

Liberalism is an attempt at a spare political language, one that cuts through problems by eliminating words and the ideas that go with them.  Politics is indeed simplified when one is not allowed to talk about anything other than equal preference satisfaction.  Justice becomes for Rawls a constrained maximization problem, no different than the ones engineers solve all the time.  There is the price that one may only have arbitrary, private preferences, but liberalism disallows the language one would need to criticize this, making it an elegantly closed system.  Russell Kirk’s conservatism of prudence, on the other hand, may do a good job of evoking certain political virtues misplaced by the modern world, but it is too vague to be used as an impartial analytic tool.  (For example, has any traditionalist ever given a criterion, one that could be applied by any third party to give the same result, as to when a proposed reform is prudent vs. a utopian effort to build heaven on earth?)  It’s application is next to arbitrary.

Scholasticism attempts a compromise practice between the two schools of modern philosophy:  openness to the whole of reality–even though it means dealing in subtleties–while demanding the sort of clarity needed for the laws of logic to operate.  It attempts to do this by making very fine distinctions, even at the risk of being cumbersome.  In theology, the students of Aquinas and Scotus–and, for that matter, Calvin–have an austerity to them, a refusal to be carried along by pious sentiment past where their “data” will go, that I find beautiful.  They strike me as being men of firmer faith than their more extravagant contemporaries, because they act like they care about what is actually true.  Did Balthasar really believe that Christ descended into an otherwise-empty hell, or was it just for him a good story that expressed his own religious enthusiasm?  The ratio of real evidence gathering and reasoning to opaque verbiage does not inspire confidence.

One might say that we at the Orthosphere are attempting to practice a scholastic politics.

26 Responses

  1. For example, has any traditionalist ever given a criterion, one that could be applied by any third party to give the same result, as to when a proposed reform is prudent vs. a utopian effort to build heaven on earth?

    A very good question.

    However, I’m not so sure that Scholasticism really resolves our problems with precision either. It relies on common sense to be persuasive, and, as modern people have shown, we can’t exactly count on that to always be there.

  2. So you want something that’s persuasive too? That’s really ambitious. The other two methods get a big boost of plausibility by closing themselves off to one line of attack by fiat. Vagueness is unassailable by logic, and liberalism/positivism closes off appeal of the illative sense against its own axioms.

  3. “Russell Kirk’s conservatism of prudence …. is too vague to be used as an impartial analytic tool”

    Do you mean that it is a failing of Kirk that his ideas can not be used as
    “an impartial analytic tool”
    And anyway, is it not a fundamental reactionary point that there is really nothing impartial in politics?

  4. Everyone has common sense. The problem is either they trust it or not. For the left, the common sense is a result of a culturally opressive environment. So they don´t trust their common sense. For almost all the rest of humans in the human history in every culture (even for modern evolutionists), common sense is a innate wishdom. Greek philosophers were the first ones to systematize the relations between different intuitions in a logical way. They used the veredict of intuition as a hallmark of what is rational. They used meta-concepts to organiza them: categories, relations, attributes etc : The very same concepts are being used in Artificial Intelligence, and the hardest part of he AI program is to build common sense in machines. In the so called Renaissance, there were very bad Popes, but none of them changed a single doctrine, since the body of Scholasticism were so precise that there were no discussionThe Scholastics deepened these concepts in very sophisticated ways. We are far from understanding it in order to continue the Scholastic program. There are a lot of concepts that the Modernity has unlearn, even it he Church. That is the reason why the moder cismatic ideas do not appear as such: because the language lack the precision of the ancients and the shcolastics.

    For the evolutionist, common sense is the innate knowledge about really important things for survival that can not nor should be changed by education or persuasion. We the catholics bemieve that the common sense, or the conscious this is God-given knowledge in our soul, that permits us to know the world, to envision the Truth and to know what is good and bad

    Unlike the protestants. They do not trust themselves, and Luther revolutionary reform was the the first leftist. It is worth to mention that Voegelin consider Puritanism as the first organized modern gnostic movement. For the reformers, the human soul was completely corrupted by evil. For the ancient gnostics, the soul was corrupted by the Demiurge. For the Left, the man is corrupted by education and the economic superstructure, that is, Capitalism and religion.

    Everyone in history accept common sense with the exception of the ancient and modern gnostics (the left). Against this autodestructive revolt there is little that can be done rationally. It is the pure evil. We can do nothing against a person that think that ancients should be killed and childs should be aborted to “heal” mother Earth. These ideas a re the ones of the Evil, that was homicide since the beginning.

    Note that they do not apply these autodestructive ideas to themselves neither to their families, but to the rest. In this sense they follow common sense, but it is a common sense not informed by Christianity, as Thomas Aquinas would say. Even the Evil need to do good things to stay alive and do bad things.

  5. Sorry for the errors. I can not concentrate in the syntax of a prhase. without adding something more and introducing new errors.

  6. For the reformers, the human soul was completely corrupted by evil.

    While I’m sure you can find Reformers who believe this, this wasn’t Calvin’s view. The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity doesn’t mean everything is totally corrupt; it means that everything has at least some corruption.

  7. I don´t know Calvin in detail. For sure predestination has different consequences. That means that some chosen ones are not depraved, but Just Men. That is for Voegelin one clear sign of gnosticism: The circle of the ones who know, separated from the wicked ones, who are condemned. The gobern of the Saints, Himself plus the enlightened ones in Geneva has clear paralels with the self-appointed revolutionaries of the next centuries that with their wise direction will give the heaven to the Earth.

    But Luther was very clear:

    “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has. it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” .

    But clearly Luther believed that himself was free from this depravity of the intellect. Neither the ones that though like himself. There was no much differences between Calvin and Luther at last.

    The mere notion of Sola scriptura reject that the man can know the truth even with the aid of the Divine Grace. That is why the lutherans reject Greek Metaphysics . I can not imagine a more clear rejection of comon sense, natural revelation or whathever that can be know about God and his Creation apart from the Scripture, by means of the human intellect.

    The notion that men are wounded in their understanding by the Original Sin -but not totally depraved- is Catholic, not protestant. Of course modern Lutherans may think wathever they please following their anarquic tradition. But the modern left inherited the original protestant dogmas.

  8. The problem with Scholasticism is that its categories, inherited from Aristotle (who was primarily a logician, not a metaphysician), such as potency and act, matter and form, essence and existence, appear to be an analysis of the structure of being. However, the smallest shift in perspective shows them to be, rather, a grammar of description.

    The Catholic thinker who brings this out most clearly is Bl John Henry Newman in his aptly-named Grammar of Assent: “All things in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are nothing else; but the mind not only contemplates those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by an act of creation, of bringing before it abstractions and generalizations, which have no existence, no counterpart, out of it.”
    For him, every common noun stands for what is “abstract, general, and
    non-existing,” a notion or idea and not a thing.

    His contrast between Revelation and theology inevitably follows: “Revelation sets before it [the mind] certain supernatural facts and actions, beings and principles; these make a certain impression or image upon it; and this impression spontaneously, or even necessarily, becomes the subject of reflection on the part of the mind itself, which proceeds to investigate it, and to draw it forth in successive and distinct sentences.”

  9. Michael,

    This is because Newman was close to Nominalism, which is the dominant standpoint of Protestant denominations. Nominalism tries to preserve the omnipotence of God by not accepting general concepts, So that if I say with Aquinas: “God must do what is Good”, which is a proposition that indeed “limites” God to do some things and not others, it is meaningless for the nominalist since Good has no meaning when it does not refer to something concrete. That is the conclussion that Nominalista try to preserve: The unlimited will of God

    Following this philosophy we reach the principle of Sola Scriptura Logically, since we can not in any way know about what the Divine Love means beyond the concrete things that God teach in the Revelation. Abort? is good or Evil? let me see in the scripture….. God say nothing about abortion there so think about that whatever you please. Marry with a donkey? let me check… And so on.

  10. Memetic Warrior

    “Good has no meaning when it does not refer to something concrete…”

    A notion like good or bad can serve a record or summary of concrete experiences. Newman gives an example: “’Dulce et decorum est pro patriâ mori,” is a mere common-place, a terse expression of abstractions in the mind of the poet himself, if Philippi is to be the index of his patriotism, whereas it would be the record of experiences, a sovereign dogma, a grand aspiration, inflaming the imagination, piercing the heart, of a Wallace or a Tell.”

    Instances of truth, purity, justice, kindness, and the like arouse in us similar sensations of love and approbation and we label them as good or honourable. Likewise, Newman’s clear disapproval of Horace’s servile compliance lends content to his notions of dishonourable, disgraceful and bad.

  11. Michael, but there is a great great difference between considering abstract concepts as poetic or internal experiences or alternatively as objective, commmunicable and universal. The latter is the point of view of Tomistic scholasticism and Greek Phylosophy. the former is the one of Modernity .

    Things can go moderately well when everyone accept the Bible as the touchstone. But when the modern societies reject the Bible as source of Truth, then every value becomes arbitrary.

    The agnostic nominalism is the cause of the modern division between personal values and objective facts, is and ought etc, and this leads to relativism, and that leads to the XX century brutalities.

    If there is no objective communicable abstract categories, there are no objective values. If there is no objective values, everithing is relative. If everything is relative, the correlation of forces willing to be or willing to do different things is the only arbiter. And brute force is the only universal language.

  12. My apprehension about embracing scholasticism is that I do not see it as any sort compromise between the two general schools of modernity. The genius of Suarez was his attempt to keep scholasticism relevant by synthesizing several of the schools together in the face of reformation, renaissance and modernity. Whether his synthesis was ultimately helpful or harmful is one issue; but there is no question that like many geniuses, his final product ruined the community it came from.

    No medieval scholastic work is self-contained and Suarez and his antecedents broke all these communal chains and alienated us from the authors, commentators and their context. I understand there has been a great movement of thinkers who are attempting to restart the whole process- reading Scotus or Aquinas fresh with new commentary- but I’m not certain that it doesn’t further ossify the sources or if it will be beneficial to us when speaking with others.

    Scholasticism, as a practiced school today, is just another conceit in the modern or post-modern philosophies; self-contained and fearful of going out on a limb.

  13. Christ didn’t descend to the Hell of the damned. He went where the souls of Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and others were waiting to go to Heaven, since those people died before His birth.

  14. Memetic Warrior

    “objective, commmunicable and universal.”

    Indeed, but as Wittgenstein reminds us

    “Compare knowing and saying.
    how many feet high Mont Blanc is—
    how the word “game” is used—
    how a clarinet sounds.
    If you are surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it, you are perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”

  15. The much-neglected German philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88) made a number of very suggestive comments about language:

    1) There is no “perfect language” which mirrors reality without remainder (Indeed, any attempt to create one would founder on Godel’s incompleteness theorem)
    2) Every language is a way of life based on patterns of communal experience (That is why Wittgenstein says that, if a lion could talk, we could not understand him)
    3) There is no universal language into which particular languages can be translated (This follows from (2))
    4) Only by entering into its actual everyday usage is a language to be understood
    5) We must distrust grammar and rely instead on the peculiarities of concrete word usage (Some people still fancy “I” is a referring expression).

  16. Michael Paterson-Seymour:

    The problem with Scholasticism is that its categories, inherited from Aristotle (who was primarily a logician, not a metaphysician), such as potency and act, matter and form, essence and existence, appear to be an analysis of the structure of being. However, the smallest shift in perspective shows them to be, rather, a grammar of description.

    I’m too ignorant of scholasticism generally to comment, but this is definitely true of (e.g.) David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism, which was recommended to me by Ed Feser as a competent expression of Aristotlean-Thomist essentialism well informed by modern science. On the one hand we have insistence that the approach is about ontology not language; on the other we get insistence that definitions of species (at least of natural kinds) are either necessarily complete or our capacity to grasp reality unravels. That just makes me suspect that Aristotle was the first positivist.

    So I am in pretty much full agreement with you about the limits and fragility of language.

    “All things in the exterior world are unit and individual, and are nothing else; but the mind not only contemplates those unit realities, as they exist, but has the gift, by an act of creation, of bringing before it abstractions and generalizations, which have no existence, no counterpart, out of it.”

    See, though, that is just nominalist-reductionist tommyrot, as Memetic Warrior suggests. (Sorry Newman).

    That’s why I’m (at least some kind of) Platonist, as unfashionable a thing as that is to be. Realty really does contain ontologically real unity (form) in addition to diversity (matter). Real human beings do exist (for example), as actual unified beings with an essence, not as mere collections of atoms in the void to which mind ascribes an unreal unity.

    I’m just not convinced that the Aristotlean account of it is fully coherent. I don’t think that mousetraps lose their essence when no human being is around to see them trap the mouse, for example. Aristotleanism is too relativistic about essence.

  17. “Real human beings do exist (for example), as actual unified beings with an essence, not as mere collections of atoms in the void to which mind ascribes an unreal unity.”

    Exactly. A concrete person in front of the eyes is not less an mental abstraction than “Person” or “Love” or “the Good” or USA, if any, it is a _richer_ mental abstraction. Because all of these things are in the mind. Even an electron is an object in the mind. They are not in the “reality” outside, that, by the way, no one has seen directly. Is trough the mental objects and categories that we see and understand what is outside.

    The proof that this is that way is that you can not communicate with a being with different mental constitution, even if both of you see the same “material reality” for example, a chiken. your universes are completely different.

    Paradoxically, IMHO the demise of the physical sciences and the growing importance of computer science is changing the balance from “material reality” to “perceived reality”, The Modernity reject Metaphysics since for the moderns influenced by newtonian physics like Kant, the ultimate reality is the pysical one. Now things are shifting again toward the mind as the ultimate reality, and non reductionism and classical metaphysics is coming back again.

  18. Memetic Warrior:

    Because all of these things are in the mind. Even an electron is an object in the mind. They are not in the “reality” outside, that, by the way, no one has seen directly.

    I’m afraid that simply has to be wrong. Our blog host (for example) and the number four do not exist in our minds: they would not ontologically wink out of existence if either you or I took a dirt nap, and reality (both in matter and form, that is, diversity and unity) in general persists independent of our minds. I’ve noticed in general that when people die, reality persists.

    The problem with Aristotleanism (assuming I’ve grasped it correctly) isn’t that it is too realist. The problem with it is that it is not realist enough.

  19. Zippy wrote, “That’s why I’m (at least some kind of) Platonist, as unfashionable a thing as that is to be…”

    Not really unfashionable, especially in theological circles. Ressourcement theologians and the school associated with Communio have drawn quite extensively on Neo-Platonic insights, not least as a result of their studies of the Alexandrian Fathers.
    Sources Chrétiennes, founded in 1942 by the three Jesuits, Cardinal Jean Daniélou, Père Claude Mondésert & Cardinal Henri de Lubac has been a major influence.

    It is worth noting that the Fathers in general had some hard things to say about Aristotelian dialectics – “That miserable Aristotle,” says Tertullian, “who invented dialects, the art of building up and pulling down.”—De Præscr. 7 Likewise, St Gregory Nazianzen speaks of “the artifice of Aristotle’s art as among the plagues of Egypt.”—Orat. 26, Faustinus called him “the bishop of the Arians,” and St John Damascene claimed the Monophysites made him the thirteenth Apostle. It was not until the 12th century that anyone had a good word to say for him; Abelard famously promoted him and not a little of the old suspicions lingered on into the next century.

  20. Michael Paterson-Seymour:

    Ressourcement theologians and the school associated with Communio have drawn quite extensively on Neo-Platonic insights, …

    Well, a sociological problem with resisting positivism is how easy it is to fall into (or be pigeonholed into, as it were) a postmodern trap; and vice versa, for that matter.

    That’s how modernity tends to work in general: set up a false dichotomy between two incoherent ideas (in this case between positivism and postmodernism, but there are plenty of others — political liberty/equality for example), and fill the public intellectual space with such a cacophony of noise that the fact that both horns of the dilemma are each in themselves illusory nonsense becomes impossible for most people to see.

  21. My glance at Oderberg did not convince me that he had solved the species problem. But I will have to return to him.

    Anyway, I don’t think that species, or any other thing with fuzzy boundaries, necessarily undermines essentialism.

  22. Thomas supplemented Aristotle with Platonism.

  23. Memetic Warrior,

    I’m not sure where your getting your idea that Aristotelianism holds that the mind is all that matters, that seems more idealist than Aristotelian.

  24. > Thomas supplemented Aristotle with Platonism.
    which wasn’t a violent change, because Aristotle already is a kind of Platonist (the form-immanentist kind, one might call it).

  25. The Man wqho was… wrote, “Thomas supplemented Aristotle with Platonism.”

    Yes, only consider the number of times he cites Pseudo-Dionysius and St Augustine

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