12 August 2009

Language and Thought

In his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau puzzled over the paradox apparently involved in the inception of human language. In order to have language, Rousseau thought, one must already be in possession of abstract thoughts; yet in order to have abstract thoughts, one must already be in possession of language. Thus we are faced with a dilemma: either language had no beginning, because it was impossible; or it appeared by miraculous intervention. Neither was a particularly appealing option to Rousseau, so he left the paradox's resolution to others.

The relation of language to thought has puzzled us ever since. Interestingly, however, for some time now--certainly through the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first--political reformers have operated on the assumption that the direction of causality goes from language to thought, not the other way around. Thus controlling language leads to controlling thought. If people can be trained not to say certain things, they will in time, it is thought (hoped, feared), no longer think those things. The prohibitions can become so deeply ingrained that they become second nature, habitual practice that no longer requires deliberation or conscious self-control. And that, of course, is tantamount to controlling people, which is the ultimate goal of most political reformers.

The point was brilliantly made in George Orwell's
Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is recently explored again by one of today's great essayists, Theodore Dalrymple. (I have my own brief discussion in chapter 7 of my Actual Ethics.)

Although I am no expert on the matter, I tend to think the political reformers are right: controlling speech is a first, and a significant, step toward controlling behavior. Whether language ultimately determines thought or the other way around, I am not sure. But as the range of taboo speech increases, the realm of free exploration of thought shrinks. It is for that reason that I think it must be resisted. Control one's speech for decency, clarity, penetration, perspicacity, wit: but not for political expediency. Refrain from saying what is unintelligent, unbecoming, or ugly: but not what offends bigotry.

A vigorous citizenry arises only in conditions of robust freedom, and it can be sustained only in a culture that allows, even encourages, a wide scope of liberty to speak, think, and act--and, of course, to take responsibility for one's speech, thought, and action. A citizenry that guards its words (and thoughts) for fear of running afoul of political sensibilities will not be a "civilized" citizenry--which is usually the rationale given for the establishment of speech codes. It will instead be, or become, a servile and dependent citizenry, increasingly unable to exercize one crucial feature of humanity, independent judgment. And that, as Jefferson said, makes them fit tools for the designs of ambition.

No comments: