Sort Of But Not Exactly

Over the past couple of days, I’ve stumbled on several links that approach, but do not coincide with, my hermeneutical interests. First, I heard a story on NPR from their series about evolution, “When Did We Become Mentally Modern?” I’m not an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but the story sounded off-kilter in a number of ways. First, and most prominently, it vests a great deal in the concept of “Symbolic Thought” without articulating just what the portentous phrase might refer to (and the segment oddly devoted a significant portion of its airtime to the topic of how puzzling the idea is, without then explaining its context or referents). As best I understand, the term derives from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and has to do with the capacity to form and manipulate abstractions. Second, I’d be interested to hear more detail about how one leaps from the discovery of a shell-made-into-a-bead to the absolute confidence that these beads constitute evidence of “symbolic thought”: “There was no doubt that if we had beads, we had evidence for symbolic thought.” I’ll trust the serious study of archaeology that some important steps got left out.
Still, the Piagetian/developmental angle casts an interesting light on my arguments about words exemplifying a atypical instance of communication and meaning; again, I’m persuaded that we do better to theorise about meaning on the broader, more prevalent evidence of non-verbal expression and inference.
Then David Akin linked to an essay by the late historian Tony Judt, to the effect that “words” are in danger of “falling into disrepair.” Now, as my students will rapidly assure you, few people care more about precision in composition than do I. But Judt’s column seems to betray some confusion about the way that communication works. In the first place, words simply are not all that we have; we’re immersed in a seething profusion of expressive signs, gestures, marks, indicators, and so on, and as lovely and precious as we may regard words, we have much to fall back on even if words fail us. Second, though, Judt seems to suppose that the precision and elegance in expression that he and I prize itself is a unique, imperishable phenomenon — whereas I would argue (reluctantly) that our beloved kind of limpid rhetoric belongs to a particular cultural setting, a setting that may not extend as far as we would wish it. And outside that context, other rhetorical modes may more effectively and (shudder) more precisely communicate what speakers/writers and their audiences want to learn from one another.
The mode of communication for which Judt (and I) labour belongs to academic culture, but even within the academy we should allow for the possibility that particular disciplines, practices, and historical moments place a higher value on different ways of communicating. I share Judt’s disappointment that so few students, and even colleagues, share our understanding of and striving for clarity, and I dread the experience of losing the facility with words that I’ve sought to develop and maintain for as long as I can remember — but his apocalyptic tone relative to our culture at large strikes me as overblown.

3 thoughts on “Sort Of But Not Exactly

  1. And what are those mortals who care about words and grammar to do when we run into, “I went to lay down and the enormity of the bed with less sheets than necessary and comprised of rough linen…”

    Maybe that would make a good game! How many egregious errors can one make in one run-on sentence. The one above represents my current least favorites. (It it doesn’t finish the sentence well enough to label it run-on but hey, I’m not perfect either.

  2. Oh, there’s no impediment to our trying to help people with their diction, Mom (I’m not giving up!) — but language changes, even within the academic/elite culture that adheres to the Queen’s English. We need to keep alert to the extent to which our linguistic subculture risks becoming quite irrelevant to public discourse if we’re unwilling to allow our usage to adapt to its new environment. Otherwise, we become mere peevologists, rather than helpful guides to clearer, more precise communication.

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