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.

18 thoughts on “A perfect language

  1. Amen! A noble ambition.

    I would not however say that Scholasticism is a compromise between the two sorts of languages, but rather a completion of both. It aims at a synoptic analysis. That project is not of course completable here below. But it must ever and always be completed already, by omniscience – there being no other intelligence adequate to completing an infinite stack of languages – in order for any sort of account of reality ever to have got started in the first place.

  2. I once adhered to 1. Now I regard 1 as intrinsically dishonest. You can’t banish equivocation because eqivocators want it and thus will recreate it. The people claiming to approach 1 are largely trying to disarm you, to stop you finding out their equivocations.

    So, let’s banish equivocators, then. OK, you just have to wait until the Last Day.

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  4. What do you mean about vagueness in language? Every time you use an adjective you indulge in metaphysical leaps that would goggle most logicians. JRR Tolkien once said that the only true genius ever produced by our species was the first human ever to use an adjective.

    That said, I think the problem I have understanding the language of someone like St Maximus the Confessor is that his language may just be too precise. Here is someone who is describing matters at the very frontier of human understanding with an exactitude usually reserved for discussions of geometry. Charles Williams’ prose sometimes has this quality:

    The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A
    metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the
    meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the
    Ascent of Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the
    Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of
    the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology.

    I have no clue what he is talking about, yet I have no doubt that to Williams himself, what he had to say about the nature of God’s relation to His creation was as clear as the congruence of angles created by the transversal of parallel lines.

    Having consciously selected Orthodoxy over Catholicism, and being by temperament romantic rather than minimalist, I would be as chary of a Scholastic speech as I would of Newspeak.

  5. Different types of language are appropriate to their respective purposes. For physics, a language of minimal ambiguity is necessary. For anthropology, as the study of culture and consciousness, the language needs to be flexible, metaphoric, even apocalyptic. The Prophets and William Blake will tell us more about consciousness and culture than Rawls, who treats ethics as though it were a quantitative science. Newton’s language is meet for a discussion of physics, and Wittgenstein’s for a discussion of propositional logic.

    Currently, Bonald’s Language Type 1 is the default language for discussing both physics and anthropology. Institutions deny that Bonald’s Language Type 2 has any validity. Modernity is constitutionally against diversity.

      • Coincidentally (or not), one of my courses this semester was “Theories of Language.” Of my three classes, “Theories of Language” elicited to most vital student engagement. One of the topics that we discussed in the last two weeks was the meaninglessness of so much modern palaver. The students identified what we called “dead language” as the dominant type of language in their educational experience. Strangely (or not so strangely) they liked Martin Heidegger’s essays on language even though, as they confessed, they could hardly understand him. Neither can I. But I agree with them that not understanding an utterance can be a profoundly meaningful experience. MCB says something like this in his contribution to this thread.

        Kristor – I will get to the fundamentally mendacious character of diversity as soon as I can. (Sincerely, Tom)

    • “For physics, a language of minimal ambiguity is necessary”
      Not really. For as CS Lewis noted, the statement that space is curved is as mystical as saying God is a circle whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere. (or is it other way around).

    • Prof. Bertonneau,

      In your opinion, are there certain languages that are better at being Type 2 languages than others? If so, which languages would these be in your view?

  6. Everyone, if I understand the Apostle’s Creed, the Hell Christ descended to wasn’t the one for the damned. It was where the souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others waited to go to Heaven, since those people died before Christ’s birth.

    • Yes, of course. I don’t know the passage of Balthasar Bonald is talking about. Presumably, once you have emptied Hell, the limbo of the fathers starts to look a little pointless, and you empty it as well. Why would Iscariot get right in and Solomon have to wait?

      • I don’t know where Judas’s soul went, and one of my favorite theologians, Fr. Gregory Hesse, said that even the Church doesn’t know where it went. But it’s hard to believe Judas will be in Heaven when I remember that Christ tells us that Iscariot would have been better off if he had never been born.

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  8. DrBill, von Balthasar wrote an Ignatius Press book called something like “Dare We Hope that All Men will be Saved?”. Maybe Bonald alluded to it in the post we’re talking about.

    • Indeed. Balthasar is, I believe, best known for two claims: 1) Christ descended into the Hell of the damned, and not in order to liberate souls but just in order to suffer more; 2) it is possible that Hell is empty. I was putting the two together.

      • Bonald, maybe Fr. von Balthasar should have reread Ludwig Ott’s book “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma,” since it says that God is impassable, that He can’t suffer. To suffer, Our Blessed Lord needed to have His human body and His human soul. But He’s neither of them. He’s the Holy Trinity’s second divine Person who integrated them into Himself and separated from them when He died on the cross. Did von Balthasar think that God the Son and His soul went to Hell while His body lay in the tomb? Maybe von Balthasar would tell me that, although God the Son didn’t feel pain there, His soul did?

        Fr. von Balthasar was a neo-modernist in St. Pius X’s sense of the word “modernist.” Sadly, Pope Francis sounds too, too much like one.


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