Empowering words

The limits of our thinking are often the limits of our conventional language, but it does not have to be so. Words are ours to command, and the meanings of words are ours to change as the need arises. If we want our language to be empowering rather than habitual and limiting, we need to exercise our creativity with regard to the language we use.

When I first started researching and writing philosophy for my Ph.D., I remember the recognition of this point as one of the most liberating moments. “You’re always entitled to a stipulation” my supervisor said, and him saying that probably marked the point when I started to realise just how creative philosophy could potentially be (even though much of this creativity is not often used by those trying to climb the academic career ladder). What that means is that when the need arises, we can make up and modify words and phrases – provided of course that you make it clear what you mean. This is exactly what great thinkers of the past have done: think of the Buddha’s Middle Way, Plato’s Eidola (‘Forms’), Jung’s archetypes, Heidegger’s Dasein and Sartre’s Existentialism. All of these terms, that have shaped people’s capacity to have new kinds of thoughts, are coinages, or at least radical modifications of previous terms. Rather than revering and petrifying these past coinages, we need to emulate these thinkers’ creativity. By having a wider variety of word meanings, we then have the tools to potentially develop new and more adequate beliefs.Compass_rose_Cantino Alvesgaspar CCSA3-0

But after my initial period of studying philosophy , I began to realise how relatively unusual this perspective was, and how conservative most people are when it comes to words and their usages. This unnecessary conservatism can take a variety of forms. Perhaps the most basic one is the conviction that a word “really means” what we have been used to it meaning, so that someone using it in a different way becomes offensive in some way. For example, I have been told that religion “really means” supernatural belief, and that Christianity “really means” the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. These are, indeed, meanings that can be adopted for these terms, but they are far from the only ones in a complex field of traditional usages. Those who insist that a word “really means” this or that seem to be avoiding taking responsibility for the fact that they are themselves choosing to interpret it in one way or another. This is a form of repression – of the failure to recognise alternatives as options.

The appeal to a dictionary is another form that this appeal to what a word “really means” can take. Now dictionaries are extremely useful things, but what they tell us is the established conventions of word meaning and usage, not the limits of how we, in our practical situations, may choose to use words. But all too often people use dictionary meanings as prescriptive devices to curtail thought heading in new directions. Anybody who uses a word differently from what it says in the dictionary is assumed to be just wrong.

Another pair of fallacies that may attend the appeal to dictionaries are the etymological fallacy and the original language fallacy . In the etymological fallacy, it is assumed that what a word “really means” is determined by its origins: so, for example, rationality must mean proportionality because it comes from the Latin “ratio”, which involves the idea of proportion. Of course, etymologies can help us appreciate some of the past associations of a word, but not much more than that. In the original language fallacy (beloved of Religious Studies scholars) it is assumed that the true or correct meaning of a term originally derived from another language must be what it meant in that language – and indeed that we must be able to find the truths of a particular religion more directly if we study them in the original language. This takes an extreme form in Islam, where nearly every Muslim boy learns Arabic by rote, and translations of the Qur’an are not even recognised as ‘true’ Qur’ans.

But if we ignore the constraining influences of these kinds of traditional attitudes, as I urge, and dare to use our linguistic creativity, there are also, of course, certain responsibilities that come with that freedom. Though what we do with language is our own business, when we are using it to communicate with others it obviously needs to be transparent to them. Creative use of language, as in Shakespeare, demands a little more of the reader or auditor, and may require glosses or explanations – but with the possibility of greater rewards in return for that effort at comprehension.

One key responsibility seems to me to be that only a helpful purpose should motivate coinages: which means, for example, avoiding mere exclusive language. In my own work I have heard various complaints about ‘jargon’, and ‘jargon’ is normally a term for unhelpful language used by a group to mark ‘in’ status and exclude outsiders. If terms like incrementality, justification, objectivity or archetype are not familiar to you in the sense I use them, then I can only assure you that the normal reason I use new or modified meanings is to try to capture helpful senses and get away from less helpful ones, not to exclude people by confusing them (even if that is sometimes an unfortunate side-effect). For example, the use of ‘objectivity’ to mean ‘God’s eye view’ seems to me comparatively unhelpful because none of us has, or could possibly have, any experience of a God’s eye view – and the use of the same word to mean the gaining of a wider and more adequate perspective, already also in use, is much more helpful. So I use the word in the latter sense and avoid the former, particularly as I see the former sense leading people in some very unhelpful habitual directions. Challenging this use is one way of challenging the basis of the assumption that God’s eye views are possible.

Another responsibility that seems to come with stipulative creativity is that of continuity. People need some sort of hook to hang their meanings on, and generally there is some connection, an association of some sort, between past meanings and new ones. That’s why gradually modifying meanings seems preferable to making up new words from scratch. Continuity can give people the opportunity to start relating to old words in new ways, but it also carries the danger that they will just relapse into the old ways – after all these are reinforced by the context in which they have become usual, and the way that everyone else uses them. Thus a balance needs to be struck – on the one hand insisting on a new sense in order to open up new veins of thought, but on the other maintaining some continuity. That’s what I’ve generally tried to do in Middle Way Philosophy, but that doesn’t prevent the continuing danger of both types of reaction: either bafflement or complacency.

New uses of language often take the form either of distinctions (e.g. ‘joy’ distinguished from ‘happiness’ in Carl H’s recent comment on my previous blog) or of syntheses (e.g. objectivity has the same reference as integration). Either of these can be helpful as long as they’re not presented as the “real meaning” of the term, but rather just as a way of enriching the meanings available to us. The vice of analytic philosophers seems to be to make constant distinctions, with the accompanying assumption that these distinctions tell us final truths that we were previously missing (the ultimate sin for an analytic philosopher is ‘conflation’). But in my experience, people are more likely to use words in different contexts without realising their relationship – for example, scientists often seem to assume that their ‘objectivity’ is completely different from that of artists. Syntheses generally need a lot more attention, but of course they are not final either. There are also differences between the way scientists can be objective and the way artists can be, and the context will determine whether appreciation of these differences needs more attention than the similarities.

But I don’t just want to defend my own freedom to use language creatively. I would like to see other people doing it much more than I generally experience them as doing, and scuttling to their dictionaries and scholarly certainties much less. Perhaps the place where most verbal freedom is actually exercised is poetry (though even here there can be resistance to innovation). If you want a (relatively) safe place to experiment, I can highly recommend that you play with language in the context of poetry. That’s indeed where I started – I wanted to be a poet, in my early twenties, long before I even got interested in philosophy. A blank page can be daunting, but also liberating. You can put anything you like on that page, and it can mean whatever you want it to mean. To quote one great poet of the past “Oh brave new world, that hath such people in it!”


Picture: Compass Rose from the Cantino Planisphere, replica by Alvesgaspar CCSA3.0

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

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