September 26, 2010
The Quietus of ReasonBy Larrey Anderson
We live in a linguistic Wonderland. Most of us are aware that words have meanings. Too many of us have lost track of the fact that if we don't use words properly, or (as in a famous Monty Python skit) at least get "them in the right order," our statements become meaningless.
This is a deep philosophical problem -- caused by philosophers. Careful students of philosophy understand that the ruminations of world-class philosophers set the stage for how words are eventually used and abused by intellectuals, educators, politicians, and finally, by the rest of us.
Let's examine three simple concepts: The misuse of first-person singular pronouns (like "I"), the exploitation of "success-words" (such as "knowledge" -- "success-words" will be explained below) and the misapplication of first-person plural pronouns (e.g., "we"). This investigation will help us understand how the intellectual and political classes blatantly misemploy language to their advantage -- and to our detriment.
For our "post-modern" educators, politicians, and intellectuals, the initial culprit, in abusing first-person singular pronouns, was René Descartes. To put it mildly, Descartes thought highly of himself. In two short paragraphs, following the introductory opening of his Discourse on Method, Descartes wields first-person pronouns nearly thirty times. And he is just getting started talking about himself [i].
The Australian philosopher David Stove aptly described Descartes' real method:
Descartes' self-serving legacy lives on. The entire oeuvre of the current President of the United States consists of two autobiographies. Both of the books ooze with self-doubt and obsessive self-analysis.
Immanuel Kant, who admired Descartes, would up the ante in the high-stakes game of philosophical and political narcissism. But Kant would add a new twist. He would not only abuse pronouns, but he would mutilate "success-words."
David Stove gives these examples of "success-words":
Kant had the temerity to state (in writing), "I must, therefore, abolish knowledge to leave room for faith [iv]." [Emphasis added.] Notice the injury to both the personal pronoun "I" and the two success-words "abolish" and "knowledge" [v].
Immanuel Kant (or any other human being) could no more abolish knowledge than he could make the sun rise in the West. Still, Kant's transcendental idealism needed to make room for noumena (things we can't see) and, at the same time, attempt to explain phenomena (the things we can see). Kant's solution was the double-cancellation of two success-words. He would "abolish knowledge." What Kant actually managed to do, in making such a ridiculous claim, was demolish common sense and continue the slow demise of reason.
Flash forward to President G.W. Bush. His father's political gaucherie (best displayed in "Read my lips: no new taxes") paled in comparison to Bush the younger's claim: "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free market system." [Emphasis added.]
Bush's remark about abandoning free-market principles relies on exactly the same linguistic dissimulation as Immanuel Kant's assertion the he had to "abolish knowledge." Bush used the pronoun "I" in the contraction "I've." This means that Bush believed he had the power to save free markets by abandoning them. This outrageous avowal was discharged by Bush's neutralization of the success-words "abandoned" and "save" [vi].
Free markets that are "abandoned" are not "saved" -- they are exterminated. Not even the President of the United States has the power to abandon free markets, unless he becomes a dictator.
Bush's assertion simply cannot mean what the words say (and what Bush seemed to think the words meant when he said them). So, utilizing typical intellectual double-speak, Bush attempted to cancel, or to neutralize, the meanings of the success-words "abandoned" and "save." His words obviously failed to accomplish much of anything in the real world -- where the free market has neither been abandoned nor saved. Instead, the free market has been saddled with more government intrusions, distortions, and regulations.
The problem with language is everywhere. We have become so used to intellectuals, politicians, and the mainstream media misusing success-words that we barely recognize the double-talk. Charlie Rangel, or so it will be reported, has "refuted" allegations of impropriety. "Refute," as we saw above, is a success-word. But someone like Christine O'Donnnell, her critics will no doubt inveigh, "denies" the accusations slung at her. "Deny" is not a success-word. Charlie is clean; Christine is making excuses...or so the liberal narrative will unfold.
Keep an eye open for such abuses. The language of the intellectual elites is loaded against the right -- and most conservatives are oblivious to the fact.
Another example is the use of first-person plural pronouns (e.g., "we"). Although he was not the first to abuse these pronouns, the philosopher Bertrand Russell left us some real diamonds:
The logical molestation of "we" in the quote is obvious. Russell seems to be advocating the impossible: shared solipsism. Not to belabor the obvious, but if only two people exist (say, two solipsists -- the rest of us are all illusions), even two self-professed solipsists do not, and cannot, exist alone. "We alone exist" is patently false. "Two is company" turned out to be a philosophical truth beyond the grasp of Bertrand Russell.
Russell, had he been consistent, would have written "I" instead of "we" throughout that quote. But then Russell would have been recognized as both a failed solipsist and a narcissist. He avoided those labels by cheating with first-person plural pronouns.
Obama manipulates the word "we" in almost exactly the same fashion as Russell. Three of Obama's main campaigns slogans were 1) "Yes we can," 2) "Change we can believe in," and 3) "We are the ones we have been waiting for." [Emphases added.]
Slogan 1 is a meaningless phrase. Who constitutes "we"? And what can those people do? Vote for Obama? I guess "we" could have. Nearly all of the official campaign posters that included the words "Yes we can" featured only Obama's visage. "Yes I [Obama] can" is what must have been intended. By using "we" rather than "I," Obama positioned himself far from isolation in Russell's delusional desert -- which is jam-packed with solipsists who "alone exist."
Slogan 2, "Change we can believe in," is guilty of multiple linguistic crimes. Notice that neither "change" nor "believe" are success-words. Change can be bad or good and beliefs may or may not turn out to be true. Only the gullible would trust the logic behind "change we can believe in." Throwing in the pronoun "we" at least identified the intended audience of the slogan as the credulous.
My personal favorite is Slogan 3: "We are the ones we have been waiting for." This suffers from all the flaws of Slogan 1...and then some. If the phrase were literally true, then Obama should probably hand over his office (let's say on weekends and Wednesdays) to some random other "we" or "one" we have been waiting for.
Of course, the phrase has nothing to do with "we." It means "I [Obama] am the one you have been waiting for." We have returned, full circle, to the narcissism of René Descartes. And the progressives wonder why Obama's critics call him "the Messiah."
Larrey Anderson is a writer, philosopher, and submissions editor for American Thinker. He is the author of The Order of the Beloved, and the memoir Underground. His next book, The Idea of the Family, will examine the role of procreation in human self-awareness.
[i] The first chapter of the Discourse on Method is approximately 2,600 words in length (barely twice as long as this article). Descartes refers to himself 150 times in the first chapter. In the next chapter he refers to himself once in 24 words. Thus, in the first two chapters there are over 300 self-references in fewer than 6,000 words. (I.e., in one of every twenty words, Descartes specifically mentions himself.) Keep in mind that Descartes' book is not an autobiography; it is, as the title tells us, a discourse on method.
[ii] From Stove's essay, "Epistemology and the Ishmael Effect." I have used a few of Stove's philosophical examples -- but given them a political twist -- in this article. The best book on the decline of reason in postmodern and deconstructionist philosophy, education, and public affairs is Stanley Rosen's Hermeneutics as Politics, Oxford University Press, 1987.
[iv] This quote is from the second (updated and corrected) Vorrede to Kant's most influential work, Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
G.W. F. Hegel (the grandfather of Marxism) went even farther than Kant. Hegel claimed in the Einleitung to his Logik that the content of his Logik "is the exposition of God as He is in His eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind." So Hegel knows what God knew before God created Hegel. That's the statement of a really, really smart philosopher (as intelligent as God, in fact), or someone who has managed to transcend even narcissism and/or someone mentally unhinged.
[v] "Abolish" is a success-word. It means, "Formally put an end to a system." "Knowledge" is also a success-word: "facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education." "Knowledge" cannot be "abolished" without radically altering both words -- but a clever and famous philosopher (like Kant) can, and has, obfuscated the meanings of these two words.
[vi] "Abandon" is a success-word because it means, "give up completely (a course of action, a practice, or a way of thinking)." "Saved" is also a success-word: "keep safe or rescue (someone or something) from harm or danger."