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Language, Truth, and Consequences

Mind-Forged Manacles

In 1989 the editors of the University of Toronto Quarterly sent out a questionnaire, the key passages of which seemed to me the following:

Is there a gulf between the educated, non-academic public and the university intellectuals, a gulf that is new (or widening) and that is both the cause of a decline in public culture and the consequence of the intellectuals’ commitment to their university professions?....

Is there a nostalgia for public intellectuals that were it satisfied would issue in ideas as quaintly anachronistic as ‘public forms of fiction’ unmarked by modernist or post-modernist reflexiveness and difficulty?

My own reply follows.


I’ve read and reread your letter and questions but remain puzzled. Symposiums of this sort are normally geared to possible action—“Is too much money being spent on high-tech medicine and not enough on preventive medicine?”, “Should the UTQ devote more of its space to politics?”, and so forth. Here I can’t see what is being aimed at, not explicitly anyway, and facing your plethora of questions I feel as if I were trapped amid the labyrinthine options and permutations of a diet sheet.

Moreover, when I read or dip into journals like the New York Review of Books, Commentary, and Scientific American, I see no lack of intelligent academics writing clearly for intelligent non-specialist readers without talking down to them and without losing sight of the fellow specialists waiting to pounce on them in the correspondence columns. Nor is the prose in high-tech journals like Critical Inquiry always hopelessly coruscated.


However, reading between the lines, I can sense a pattern of sorts.

Would it be a good thing if Canada had non-specialist journals of the caliber of the NYRB, Commentary, the New Criterion, the Village Voice? Obviously yes. They are not simply places in which ideas are mediated. They are forums in which no-holds-barred arguing about important public issues goes on, and on the face of things there is no reason why there couldn’t be Canadian journals as lively and invigorating.

But, some things can’t simply be ordered from the Sears catalogue, and there’s a chill-factor to be considered here.


Writers like George Orwell, and Dwight Macdonald, and Mary McCarthy were intellectual free-lances, unafraid to challenge what Orwell called “all those smelly little orthodoxies which are . . . contending for our souls.” As are writers like Nat Hentoff and Joseph Epstein, and as were the contributors to Scrutiny in the 1930s, for me still the model of what a high-intensity professional journal in the humanities should be like.

In Canadian universities, if I can judge from my own, orthodoxies are becoming increasingly entrenched. Latin America, South Africa, pornography, nuclear disarmament, affirmative action, and so on—by now, for a lot of people, there is obviously only one intellectually respectable position with regard to a number of issues.

And to suggest that things may be more complicated than they seem—that if liberals, for example, want to preserve their own freedom to read and look they must be prepared, along with Alan Borovoy and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, to put up legally with the existence of hate literature—is to risk immediately having a whole nexus of unsavoury attitudes ascribed to one.

So that if a younger faculty member were to venture significantly beyond the pale in these days of peer evaluation, grant-giving, and other control systems, it could have significant consequences for his or her career. An experienced and highly professional child psychologist of my acquaintance spoke to me recently of having been severely reprimanded by colleagues when she referred to a little girl as behaving “seductively.”

I don’t doubt, either, that one reason why that admirable Scrutiny-like journal Compass (1977-80) failed to obtain the modest funding that would have enabled it to carry on was that it didn’t subscribe to a gung-ho literary Canadianism.


A great deal of momentum is required if one is going to go seriously into a subject without safe preconceptions as to what one will find there. And the life of the mind—our collective thinking and arguing, with an eye, ultimately, to social action—becomes blurred and blunted when there can’t be a free passage back and forth between theories and practices, a testing-out of each in the light of the other, and a refusal to ignore particulars when they fail to fit with what some theory tells one ought to be the case.

Which is why I myself go on being grateful for journalists like June Callwood and Barbara Amiel (“Barbara Amiel? Did he say Barbara Amiel?”), and for the free, sophisticated, and multi-voiced debates on the Left in the Village Voice, and the robustly heterodox feminism of books like Good Girls/Bad Girls and Coming to Power.


Moreover, lurking around, as you remind us, is an attitude that would make broad-spectrum intellectual debate impossible.

For me the central passage in your letter is your allusion to the belief that “serious thinking about art, ideas, politics, and society can no more be carried on today in the prose of an Orwell than serious thinking about nature can be carried on by scientists working in basement and garage laboratories.”

Well, a lot of prose is inadequate to its pretensions, and academics are as capable of superficiality as anyone else, as witness a best-seller like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind or Russell Jacoby’s equally simplistic lament from the Left in The Last Intellectuals. But if instead of “the prose of Orwell” your statement were to read, “the prose of Orwell, Rawls, Nietzsche, Arendt, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Braudel, Clausewitz, Benjamin, Leavis, Beauvoir, Freud, Gombrich, Huizinga, William James,” the absurdity of that belief would be obvious.

For of course it’s not a question of simple, which is to say over-simplifying, prose versus difficult high-tech prose. As Jacques Barzun pointed out years ago in an attack on jargon, a statement like “If there are more trees in the world than there are leaves on any one tree, then there must be at least two trees with the same number of leaves” is difficult on a first reading not because of its language but because of what it says.


Obviously not everything can be conveyed to everyone. “I know not whether the reader will readily apprehend this reasoning,” Hume observes at one point. “I am afraid that, should I multiply words about it, or throw it into a greater variety of lights, it would only become more obscure and intricate.”

And Leavis amusingly recalls how Wittgenstein, dropping in on the Leavises early one afternoon in 1930, stayed and stayed and stayed, trying to explain (to bemused ears turned after a while to other guests) a philosophical paradox, and afterwards apologizing for his lateness at a philosophical gathering by saying that he had been “arguing all the afternoon with Dr. Leavis.”

Sometimes too, as Louis Armstrong reportedly said when asked what jazz was, “If you has to ask, you ain’t never going to know.”


But one of the glories of scholarship, as in Charles Taylor’s Hegel or Gardner Davies’s books on Mallarmé, is the ability to be lucid about difficult matters without over-simplifying them. And in a good-faith encounter between intelligent equals it should in principle be possible to explain what one is up to, or what someone one admires is up to, and move back or down until one can draw on works and experiences with which the other is acquainted.

Wittgenstein was obviously always trying to be clear. Another memorialist recalls how “He would talk for long periods without interruption, using similes and allegories, stalking about the room and gesticulating.”

And part of what makes a masterpiece of compact exposition like Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals accessible is the disposition revealed in a passage like the following:

What would be said if we were asked to be satisfied with a division of the epochs of the world into the earlier centuries and those following them? Does the fifth, or the tenth century belong to the earlier centuries? it would be asked. In the same way I ask: Does the conception of extension belong to metaphysics? You answer, yes. Well, that of body too? Yes. And that of a fluid body? You stop, you are unprepared to admit this, for if you do, everything will belong to metaphysics.

Or, very beautifully, in this from Critique of Pure Reason:

The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space. Just in the same way did Plato, abandoning the world of sense because of the narrow limits it sets to the understanding, venture upon the wings of ideas beyond it, into the void of pure intellect.

Even Plotinus, for all his pointings to the ineffable, works constantly at trying to make himself clear to his philosophical readers in normal dialogic terms, alert to objections that might be raised, occasions for misunderstanding and confusion, possible exceptions to his generalizations, and so forth.


By and large, the best professionals aren’t immured in their professional jargons. Nor do they view the discourse of persons who don’t possess those jargons as having, where challenges to their own authority are concerned, a merely symptomatic value as an index to prejudices, anxieties, hostilities.

In contrast to the dominative kind of psychiatrists or social worker, they are prepared to attend, as one person to another, to what is said to them, without feeling that they already know what it signifies. And technical terms don’t enter their experiencings prematurely and exclude all those features that don’t immediately fit the aim of creating professional discourse.

Which is why in principle a professor of English should be able to teach both graduate students and freshmen without baffling or boring them. If one’s critical approach is coherent, tested out, and thought through, it should be capable of functioning well at all levels, and if it doesn’t allow one to reach back to one’s own pre-professional enjoyment of reading—essentially the child’s curiosity about what happens next... and next... and next—so much the worse for the approach.


And the pleasure that students take in acquiring new technical terms should involve knowing how to use them in a variety of contexts, seeing what they don’t apply to as well as what they do, and having an enhanced sense of plenitude and growth. As Rousseau observes,

The mind which derives its ideas from real relations is thorough; the mind which relies on apparent relations is superficial.... When the understanding lays hold of things before they are stored in the memory, what is drawn from that store is [our] own; while we are in danger of never finding anything of our own in a memory over-burdened with undigested knowledge.

Terms like Wittgenstein’s “family likenesses” or the basic terminology of metrics permit of fuller experiencings and more subtle and accurate descriptions of them.

And my own strong impression from the reading of theses, grant applications, and the dossiers of job applicants is that the principles of solid, intelligent, and humane academic argumentation remain the same regardless of what position people write from or the technical terms that they employ.


Nor is all this a matter of what is sometimes contemptuously referred to as mere talk. The modern non-academic generalists who have mattered—the Arendts, Benjamins, Orwells, Beauvoirs, et al—have been political moralists. They have been concerned with action, with power, with interrelationships between theories and practices.

And though Orwell never gave any sign of having read Scrutiny, Q.D. Leavis, herself a model of clarity and commitment, was able to say this of him in 1940:

His varied writings bear an unvarying stamp: they are responsible, adult and decent.... Without having scholarship or an academic background he yet gives the impression of knowing a surprising amount about books and authors—because what he knows is live information, not card-index rubbish, his knowledge functions.... [H]is style is refreshing, that of the man whose first aim is to say something which he has quite clear in his head.... He is evidently a live mind working through literature, life and ideas.

Even more to the point, she observes that, though

He is and probably always will be a critic of literature who, while not a Communist, has nevertheless corresponding preoccupations.... the great thing is, he has a special kind of honesty, he corrects any astygmatic tendency in himself because in literature as in politics he has taken up a stand which gives him freedom.... If the revolution here were to happen that he wants and prophesies, the advent of real Socialism, he would be the only man of letters we have whom we can imagine surviving the flood undisturbed.


Obviously by now there is an alternative tradition of intellectual academic prose that goes back to Hegel and numbers Heidegger and Derrida among its luminaries, and one must live with it if one’s interested in what’s being said (though my own patience ends decidedly this side of Fredric Jameson).

But it seems to me a bad tradition none the less, in that it offers far more opportunities for obscurantism, mystification, and authoritarianism.

Orwell seems to me still essentially right when he says, “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

And if one aspires to heights and depths beyond Orwell’s reach, one would do well to bear in mind that, apart from the fustian Zarathustra, it isn’t the prose of Nietzsche that’s become passée.

What is passée, almost certainly, is the prose of a lot of those very professional philosophers for whom, in the absence of the proper linguistic signals, Nietzsche was during his lifetime, and for a good while afterwards, merely a basement tinkerer and putterer.




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Language, Truth, and Consequences - Preface In Defence of Language; If It Needs It Playing for Real: Discourse and Authority Communication, Communion, Communality Mind-Forged Manacles; Reply to Questionnaire