Lexicon: an introduction

When we talk about politics, or life, or art, we have to use words. But two people never use words in quite the same way. Words play games with us; they are too vague, or too precise; they claim technical status without warrant, or abuse well-established technical terms; they make us mistake verbal differences for real ones, and vice versa; they hide metaphors that seduce us into unconscious inferences. Language takes our meaning and deposits it in anunintended place, as if a department store had entrusted the design of its escalators to Escher. (Maybe they have). These confusions can cripple action and destroy friendships. It was ever thus, but each age generates its own misprisions.

On this page I am planning to publish a series of essays on language and values. Most of these essays will be about a single word; how we use it, what problems there are, and how we might use it better. Of course, I have to use other words to write the essay. As the Austrian thinker and reformer Otto Neurath said, one is always repairing the boat when already afloat. Other essays may take a phrase or a general theme in the workings of language. I aim to publish at least one a fortnight.

One name for what I am doing here is ‘philosophy’. This is not a discipline that you need a qualification or training in to practice, though the concepts and patterns that have been developed in various philosophical traditions can help. Languge is intrinsically communist; it belongs to us all and we all make it together. If we remake our language reflectively, in awareness of the traditions of thought that have gone before, we are doing one (not the only) kind of philosophy.

My general take on language: words of the kind I’m going to write about here do not usually denote a single concept, but a field of meaning. No-one has absolute ownership of a bit of language, though sometimes it makes sense to obey the rules of a particular technical discipline. How we should use a word is an ethical question: clarity and precision may matter; etymology and intellectual tradition may help; and it will above all depend on what we want to use the word for. I shall sometimes write about words outside English. Translation, I think, is always a compromise: words in different languages belong to different webs and differ physically even if they denote the same thing.

In some cases, it’s helpful to develop a single concept rather formally and pin a single name to it, as Anglo-Saxon philosophers like to do. I shall sometimes distinguish between (1) foundations – what makes a statement about X true or false ? (2) definitions – what does (or should, or might) the term X mean ? – (3) accounts – what sorts of thing generally are X ? and (4) specifications – what sorts of thing are X here and now ? When I write about the good, I take care to distinguish these, because I have a particular definition and account to defend; but it’s not always useful to be so formal.

My perspective on values might be called liberal, leftist and poetic. Liberal, in that I take ‘negative’ or ‘objective’ freedoms like freedom of speech seriously; leftist, in that I think the world we have is wildly unjust and that the hierarchical structure of capitalism may not be the best bet for the future of humanity; and poetic, in that my belief in the play of language and concepts prevents me subscribing absolutely to any fixed point in language, and that I take the evocative and physical properties of words seriously. Poetry’s physical embodiment is as much an escape from the tyranny of meaning as the expression of meanings.

Intellectual sources include Greek, European and Anglo-Saxon philosophy; Buddhism; psychology and psychoanalysis; economics (which is my professional background); chess; and poetry in a number of languages. At the heart of my approach is a conception of the human good which owes a good deal to Aristotle and will be discussed in the essay (or essays) on ‘good’. Other terms of value (freedom, equality, happiness, …) gain much of their credibility from the light they shed on the good and the ways in which their intelligent use can contribute to its promotion. If freedom and equality are good things it is at least partly because they tend to make life better.

Among the trickiest words in our whole culture is the term ‘expert’. This blog is neither exclusively for specialists nor a work of popularisation; it tries to offer some new ideas, it draws unapologetically on a wide range of traditions, and it is written for the general intellectual. Reader, that means you.