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The decline and fall of language – and life

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’Decline of language is the decline of people who use it’ – Ian Robinson, The Survival of English 

AS A young man I was drawn to study philosophy at university because I thought it consisted of deep thinking about the human condition, and the pursuit of wisdom. My previous specialism was English Literature, and the works that influenced me the most delved into the mystery of things.

Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations struck me the most, especially these lines:

‘You do not enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars . . .’

This was not an apologia for hedonism, but a cosmic vision that combined man’s littleness with immersion in a world filled with meaning.

My conception of deep thinking could not have been better expressed than in the words of D H Lawrence: 

              Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,

              Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.

I was therefore shocked and disappointed to find so many jobbing articles in the academic journals that represented the ‘profession’ of philosophy with pettifogging, abstruse technicalities written in pseudo-scientific language. Person P performs action A at time T . . . and so on, ad nauseam. Or from another philosopher we learn that ‘persons’ are ‘centres from which behaviour is directed’ and that they are ‘loci of responsibility’. ‘What a piece of work is a man, / how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties’, said Hamlet, yet we are not merely a quintessence of dust, we are loci.

Fortunately there are humane philosophers. Outstanding thinkers such as Roger Scruton and Anthony O’Hear as well as some of the neo-Wittgensteinians, for instance, address themselves to things that matter, or should matter, to the soul and in a language that befits it.

But of the other type, it was some time before I realised this philistine language reflected a general linguistic decline in our modern culture which is degrading our conception of human life. The theatre director Jonathan Miller once suggested that each age seems to model its conception of the human mind on the latest technology. Freud’s accounts of the mind are riddled with metaphors drawn from hydraulics. In our age it is the computer.

Increasingly our institutions are described in terms drawn from technology and the language of economics. Some philosophers ‘cash out’ the meaning or implication of a phrase, or question whether it ‘gains a purchase’. Language used to describe universities and schools, as Leavis protested, imply they are industrial plants, factories. In the new jargon of what used to be called Personnel Management, employees are now ‘human resources’ – which is as reductionist as regarding workers simply as ‘hands’ (as Charles Dickens lamented).

The decline and impoverishment of language entails a decline in the way we live. Our ideas and thoughts are not mere ‘pellets of intellection’, to use Lionel Trilling’s strikingly critical phrase; it is, or should be, the whole person who thinks, and the quality of that engagement (not ‘process’, please!) has implications for our quality of conduct and value.

The prophetic Trilling feared that people will eventually be unable to say ‘They fell in love and got married’, but will as a matter of course say ‘Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference’. (The Liberal Imagination, p268). This, as he said, is not the knowledge of abstract or any other kind of thought: ‘it is the language of non-thought’.

The philosopher Simone Weil identified the essential characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century as being marked by the growing weakness, and almost the disappearance, of the idea of value. ‘Words like virtue, nobility, honour, generosity, have become almost impossible to use or have acquired bastard meanings; language is no longer legitimately equipped for praising a man’s character. It is slightly, but only slightly, better equipped for praising a mind; the very word mind and the words intelligible, intelligent, and others like them, have also become degraded. The fate of words is a touchstone of the progressive weakening of the idea of value.’ (On Science, Necessity and the Love of God). 

Since she wrote that, things have become worse. Even the word ‘value’ has been degraded into the notion of mere ‘preference’. Truth is now ‘My truth’. Many people, especially politicians, do not do things which are morally wrong but – only if they are caught out – they make ‘mistakes’ (as if they were miscalculations). People do not now lie or say evil things, they are ‘economical with the facts’ or they ‘mis-speak’.

In our technocratic age, power is all, because technology, especially Big Tech, enables it and human nature is flawed. Whether or not you believe there is a conspiracy at work is irrelevant to the following point: that in the utopian vision of ‘The Great Reset’, the very phrase implies that ordinary people are just electronic quarks, just components to be rebooted in a progressive algorithm of the giant program.

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Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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