Two visions of a perfect language:
- 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.
- 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.