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Language (and Thought) Expansion

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Posted

Angela Roothan recently posted a piece to her blog which she titled Language Expansion to which I responded with some comments. My remarks reveal a particular interest of mine, and I am posting it here just in case it might be of interest to some of our group:

'I am wholly in favor of "language expansion" - who would not be? - but how is this done? And is it really expansion that is the goal? Or is it something more like disruption or constructive destruction wherein the individual's own current habit of thought and expression is seemingly almost annihilated only to be reborn as the beginning of a new habit which is once again to be subject to further disintegration? Now that I think about it, maybe dis-integration is an early stage in language and thought expansion. I will try to expand on this based upon some passages from the posting.

What John Lydons writing shows is that ‘non-elitist’ language can be as clear, creative, beautiful, and more mind-opening than, say, Thomas Mann’s or that of any writer of the literature canon.

Style is a most important aspect of writing. However, to the extent that style is regarded as a matter of form, then style in itself is far from sufficient for producing the most worthwhile writing, because it is also content that makes any writing interesting and, therefore, appealing. Accepting that Lydon's content is interesting at least because of the perspective that it provides, then it can certainly be the case that the "‘non-elitist’ language" he uses would best suit the story he presents - despite the fact that his style might not in the least strike the reader as (let us say) elevating by means of a strictly aesthetic experience (other than in the way the reader might conclude that such an ordinary or earthy style so very well comports with the importance of the perspective). So, sure, it can most definitely be worthwhile to move beyond "the literature canon" and embrace more ordinary manners of expression.

Yet, that does not exactly produce language expansion. Instead, language and thought expansion is more likely to follow by considering matters and terms such as "non-elitist" and, thereby, "elitist", as well as Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, capitalist, socialist, rational, science or scientific, etc.

These are categorical terms, terms that generalize by means of apparent similarities, of course, and, particularly in matters where at some point judgment will occur, categories most often serve as a shortcut way of imparting an immediate (even if only initial) sense or expectation that, based upon prior experience, something which fits into a particular category will ultimately be favored or disfavored.

Categories are no doubt essential to orderly thinking, and that may well be why languages are replete with categorical terms, but categorical thinking/expression is far too rarely regarded as being indicative of initial or cursory thinking, and the associations that produce categorical thinking/expression are far too often taken as the conclusions necessary to justify the favor or disfavor which color a category.

Language and thought expansion occur after an individual identifies an instance of categorical thinking/expression and then faces up to the fact that no linguistic term is necessary even if some term must be used, leaving that person to re-think and re-express using alternative terms which have the effect of discarding the category without dismissing the similarities upon which the category is based, but, at the same time, re-viewing the differences which the category in itself tends to hide. To put this another way, whereas categorical thinking/expression tends to occur in terms of either this or that, thinking/expression which starts from apparently unavoidable categorical thinking/expression and then dis-integrates the category tends to result in terms of both this and that whereby both the similarities and the differences are pursued. ...'

A day or two after I posted that comment, I ran across the following passage in Philip J. Harold's book, Prophetic Politics:

For Aristotle, violence against those who resist education in virtue is justified, since they respond to violence alone. The institutionalization of this violence is the practice of slavery, which Aristotle justifies ... with the figure of the "natural slave." There is a difficulty, however, as to how we discern natural slaves from those who do not deserve to be enslaved ... as Aristotle acknowledges. Since critical questioning along these lines can prove destructive of the whole institution of slavery, it is more convenient to assert that slaves in practice are slaves by nature, and ought to be ruled by the reason of another: "For he who can be, and therefore is, another's, and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature."

This doctrine of Aristotle's is a classic example, according to Walter Lippmann, of a stereotype. When Aristotle "had said that those who are slaves are by nature intended to be slaves, he at one stroke excluded the fatal question whether those particular men who happened to be slaves were the particular men intended by nature to be slaves. For that question would have tainted each case of slavery with doubt. ... Aristotle, therefore, excluded entirely that destructive doubt. Those who are slaves are intended to be slaves." For Lippmann, "This is the perfect stereotype," a pre-given perceptual shortcut entwined with our own social position, and which we therefore have a certain stake in maintaining. The stereotype prohibits the critical questioning that would diminish the stature of the institutions in which we participate or compromise our own respectability. ... Maturity is ... the capability of detaching oneself from stereotypes. [pp. 33-34]

Based on the above, Lippmann's stereotype appears to be an instance of what I discuss in terms of categorical thinking, more specifically that categorical thinking which is utilized as shortcut not as or at the initiation of reasoning but, instead, as a way of leaping to a conclusion in a way that gives it the appearance of having some sufficient justification. Given that categorical thinking is broader than Lippmann's stereotypes, it would seem that it is more the capability of detaching oneself from thinking in terms of categories that is necessary for maturity and probably wisdom as well.

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Posted

It seems to me that you are pointing towards Habermas's distinction between strategic action and communicative action, or else I am minded to think that - given Angela's initial reference to Habermas - she read you that way. The stereotype is a shortcut to success, in the sense of the strategic focus on achieving this regardless of the development of understanding, whereas a communicative act is supposed to result in understanding and rely on mutuality of (communicative) intent. The problem with pointing to Lydon's writing as 'more mind-opening' is that it is not obvious why his intent is communicative rather than strategic, unless we beg the question or assume that there is some correlation between clarity of writing and purity of aims. It is not really analogous, but if we think of Galileo using Italian (Tuscan) instead of Latin to appeal to a wider audience, we could say that this was a strategic act dressed up as a communicative one, or else that it was actually both. This is then why the appeal to Lydon is too simplistic, I think.

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... Habermas's distinction between strategic action and communicative action ... - given Angela's initial reference to Habermas - she read you that way.

There might be something else going on as well.

In the latter part of my response to Angela, I expressed my reservations about "the notion that violence is inherent either in the functioning of language or in the way we often use language". I said:

'In conversations of the sort that this blog entry has in mind, I think it would be a good thing to describe the use of language as the presenting of challenges even if the challenge approaches the level of being at some point possibly traumatizing. The dis-integration I mentioned earlier is necessarily challenging and might be sometimes traumatizing, but, ultimately or ideally, the conversation is only an invitation to the other to dis-integrate for himself or herself. However, even such an invitation will often be challenging or even perceived by the other as the putting forth of a challenge, but this is not an inherent violence. For that matter, the perception that one person in a conversation is more skilled linguistically than others presents its own sense of being challenged, but the use of that skill is not inherently violent.'

Angela subsequently wondered whether my reference to linguistic skill was itself necessarily a matter of "seeing the language of the elite as a norm". I then noted that it would be possible to substitute "the machinations of personal thought that go into producing judgment – including how personal thought is affected (without being necessarily determined) by the context of the social/societal" for the linguistic skill terminology. I was essentially reiterating my earlier point about the non-necessity of particulars words in expression, but now I think what I should have done (in addition) is point out something else.

Angela appears to have regarded the discussion about linguistic skill as unavoidably invoking an objective or social/societal norm whereas I had thought that by making "perception" the subject of the sentence I was emphasizing the subjective perspective which would give rise to the individual subject's response. That subjective perspective does not depend on either a denial or ignorance of the context effected by the social/societal, but that subjective perspective does operate with the presumption that the social/societal does not (or is not sufficient to necessarily) determine what is experienced as the subjective perspective.

What I should have done was refer to a section from Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a conversation between Dr. Copeland, a black physician, and his daughter, Portia:

'I am not interested in subterfuges,' said Dr. Copeland. 'I am interested only in real truths.'

[Portia responded,] 'Well, this here is a truth. Everybody is scared of you. ... Everybody haves feelings - no matter who they is - and nobody is going to walk in no house where they certain their feelings will be hurt. You the same way. I seen your feelings injured too many times by white peoples not to know that. ... Hamilton or Buddy or Willie [Copeland's other children] or me - none of us ever cares to talk like you. Us talk like our own Mama and her peoples and their peoples before them. You think out everything in your brain. While us rather talk from something in our hearts that has been there for a long time.'

Portia's remark might be interpreted as being indicative of the commonly supposed rational/emotional dichotomy; it is certainly not something so simple (or simplistic) as an outright rejection of "the language of the elite" or that language style "as a norm." Instead, and as the story later almost almost makes explicit, what drives Portia and her siblings to talk as she does is the absolute lack of charity, the refusal or inability on the part of Dr. Copeland to respond to those other individuals according to each one's uniqueness, their differences; their own individual otherness:

There was quiet, idle talking, but Doctor Copeland did not listen or speak. Now and then he looked at Karl Marx [a.k.a Buddy] or Hamilton. Karl Marx talked about Joe Louis. Hamilton spoke mostly of the hail that had ruined some of the crops. When they caught their father's eye they grinned and shuffled their feet on the floor. He kept staring at them with angry misery.

Doctor Copeland clamped his teeth down hard. He had thought so much about Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and Portia, about the real true purpose he had had for them, that the sight of their faces made a black swollen feeling in him.

Dr. Copeland always regarded these others impersonally, strictly in terms of the possibility of their being cogs - even if very important cogs - in Copeland's notion of a great Marxist purpose. The rational-emotional distinction is properly regarded as a false dichotomy, a shortcut of categorical thinking, often a stereotype. The same is to be said of the subjective/objective distinction, and both distinctions are often applied as utterly simplistically as is the elite/non-elite language distinction: so very simplistic as to not be able to consider - or even suggest - the variety of possibilities that might be pursued to overcome the problems that actually are associated with such distinctions. These are all examples of categorical thinking (and the associated prejudices) which make full use of such thinking only in conjunction with dis-integration.

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