Thursday, June 2, 2011

“We Need To Go Deeper”: A Pragmatic Exploration of Language and the Philosopher

Philosophy, to paraphrase Finley Peter Dunne, ain't beanbag. It is not easy stuff. To be a philosopher is, if not to plunge into the deepest secrets of the universe, at the very least to plunge to the heart of how we know the stuff of that universe and talk about it. This is a subject of, not specialized, but universal interest; and yet it is understood by many that philosophy is for philosophy majors in their ivory towers. This has been counteracted in one direction by those who seek to make all philosophy political, in the same way that a current suffering is counteracted by suicide; and as such intellectual copping-out is not terribly appealing, I do not think it wise to take such a route. Moreover, such a route, not grounded as it really ought to be in anything unchanging and teleological about the nature of human beings, inevitably ends in a sort of self-consuming hipsterism. A good example of this is the history of colonialist and post-colonialist thought: each epochal writer accuses the epochal prior of some prejudice left unexamined, and in doing so devours their own tail, until there is nothing left upon which to build, because the act of proposing an opposition inherent in every system whatsoever is fundamentally destructive as divisive in method. One must take with one hand what one gives with the other.

But to reflect on politics and philosophy is not the purpose of this particular offering. Rather, inspired by a fantastic discussion with a dear friend of mine, I want to reflect on a rhetorical point in the study and exposition of philosophy, the ever-present rhetorical role of language. There have been two distinct movements in the field of philosophy, the analytic and the synthetic. Each has presented us with a remarkable set of conclusions, conclusions which proceed from such differing principles as to make them the most difficult and unlikely of bedfellows. If the comparison may be allowed, the synthetic is rather like a child who has been raised by a set of conservative and strongly religious parents, and the analytic has been raised by a set of free-love supporters living in an anarcho-syndicalist commune. They have met in the university setting, where they were both given a copy of Plato's Complete Works and told to have at it. To expect any agreement on anything but the most general points over a short time would, perhaps, be folly, given their differing backgrounds. The synthetic study arose out of the stricter adherence to the classical and medieval tradition; the analytic, out of a re-examining of the very early classical tradition alongside a rejection of vast parts of the medieval tradition. With the two traditions came vastly different understandings of method.

Prelude: The Situation of Analytic Philosophy and its Discontents

(N.B.: At the time of writing this, I forgot to add a note that when I am speaking of Analytic Philosophy here, I mean it broadly, including what results (post-colonialism, etc) from what is now properly known as Analytic thought, Frege and Russell and the like.  While post-colonialism is not Analytic in the sense that Frege and Russell are, in the sense of logically analyzed propositions, it is analytic in the sense of the breaking-down of the thing into perceived dichotomies.)

If much ink has been spilt about different movements in philosophy, most of that ink has been about the Cartesian shift from medieval to modern thought. Whereas the medievals taught that the foundation of our knowledge of things was the trusted if cautious infallibility of the senses, from which they deduced about other things, about themselves, and about God, Descartes placed the source of human knowledge in vastly separate deductions. Firstly, in his clear and distinct perception that he, a being that thinks, the reality of which being is deduced from its thought and therefore by his mathematicism a thinking being, existed, and secondly, in the confidence derived from his own admitted perfections as a thinker that God exists and is good, and thus not a deceiver in giving him sense impressions. While there have been varying opinions about the usefulness of this split in both traditions, these by and large characterize the more general principle that in the modern tradition, the thinker moves from thought to world, and in the classical tradition, the thinker moves from world to thought.

I am not really a fan of the analytic method, myself, as it is something holding with itself a large amount of philosophical baggage it can not easily escape and which tends to pollute the direction it takes. But it is undeniable even to honest proponents of the synthetic Aristotelian-Thomistic direction that the other tradition has made invaluable contributions “from the other direction” to the synthetic oeuvre, in such places as the continued exposition of the concept of “person” (as Robert Spaemann in his “Persons: The Difference Between 'Someone' and 'Something'” elegantly and powerfully demonstrates) and in the understanding of Art, as Jacques Maritain repeatedly shows in all his work. It is nevertheless incredibly difficult to penetrate as Spaemann and Maritain have into most analytic work from a synthetic or even a literary perspective. Picture any time one attempts to read Kant to see how this plays out in the rhetorical expression of modernity; or more directly, Hegel, in the transition to continental thought. This is not always the case, as one sees from existential authors like Kierkegaard or Sartre; or in Nietzsche for a singularly defiant exception to the rule concerning philosophy and rhetoric, as in his work philosophy becomes rhetoric. But it has become so institutionally accepted that to write impenetrably is to be intelligent that I would propose that the more obtrusive movement in writing has become accepted, and one need look no further than to authors like Judith Butler. Whether this is as everyone would like it is immaterial, because it has become what everyone accepts. But wherefore, indeed, must we accept it?

The synthetic writers, while not exempt from the charge of pedanticism (which, while many times having the same motivation, is not the same charge laid out here against Butler and the like) are nevertheless justified in saying that finer distinctions require more precise words and qualifiers. It is not enough to say that matter is “what underlies change” if one is explaining the concept; one must move to more abstract conceptions like “philosophically indeterminate” and “possibility of being” to make the concept more determined in the mind of the philosophical audience. And when one hits metaphysics it is very easy to begin to drown in Latin. I am still, after several years of study, left scratching my head when one uses the term “determinatio ad unum”, which I am assured is a fairly simple concept but for all that is never explained to me. And to say that my understanding of esse and essentia was tenuous for a vast part of my metaphysical education would be an understatement. (Thank you, Senior Philosophy class, for your unending patience. May you be rewarded with much cattle.) But such complexities are nevertheless usually resolved by a most patient teacher whittling out the history of the term in the mind of the student, then explaining the application in particular cases, usually through several analogies.

Enter Derrida. Derrida is not synthetic. Derrida said a couple of good things which could comprise a very short list, but in the process did one very bad thing. Derrida used words that are not words, and said that this is how one should “do” philosophy. This is not to say that Derrida made up words. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger...all these people made up words, both in making new ones and in making new meanings for old ones, for better or for worse. Many of these words have become mainstays of the philosophical vocabulary, such as phenomenon and noumenon, form and matter, essence and existence (or the technical meaning of esse, for Aquinas.) I am not complaining about this, in principle. What Derrida did was take a perfectly valid word, 'difference', change the 'ence' to 'ance', making it differance, and proceed to give it a “meaning” so metaphysically convoluted that one is actually not allowed to convey an idea in a manner other than affective or emotional by means of the word. Let us say that I, after asking that teacher what esse and essentia really are, and getting a good explanation, decide to hazard another question and ask the learned professor what differance means. One usually gets one of two answers: either it is a word “without a determinate meaning”, as though it is some kind of linguistic prime matter, or one is subjected to a ten minute lecture on postmodernism which concludes with the first answer. It is a word with no definition, say supporters of Derrida, because it is the difference between things having definition. Now, I realize that this sounds nice, but to one who understands the meanings of “difference”, “between”, “things”, “having”, and “definition”, this can only result in a mental absurdity for synthetic thinkers. The Derrida supporter only looks at the one thus confused with a self-righteous smirk and says “Ha! See, o pathetic Scholastic, how I have revealed the prison of your logocentrism!”

I am not a fan of this move; it is a purely rhetorical political move, not a philosophical one. As luck would have it, my friend from above with whom I had the conversation is a damned extraordinary teacher who, though coming from the same Aristotelian nurture from which I have received, nevertheless has been more fully educated in the history of the movement from modern, to poststructuralist, to colonial, to post-colonial, to Anglophone philosophy; and who as a good friend of mine and a forerunner in that education has been a great help in all sorts of educational need. He was kind enough to explain the benefits of Derrida's move, and the assorted language-tricks which have punctuated that tradition, in an explanation more penetrable than most postmodern scholars have seen fit to couch their field. And while I can appreciate the, so to speak, accidental benefits of that tradition, I am still of the opinion, as someone interested in knowledge and not just political manipulation of the mind, that such postmodern “thought” is ultimately pure sophistry, a linguistic self-pleasuring and not a real academic discipline.

This is a claim that inspires much ire. “But Tsunami, you closed-minded, logocentric blithering idiot,” (they say, because post-modern poststructuralist argument has as its first line of defense the accusation of the one who claims to dislike it that it is the fault of the one disliking) “don't you see how powerful a tool poststructuralist thought has been in political liberation, women's rights, pastoral ministry, assessment of prejudice and generally societal harmony?” The answer is that I do see how it is “useful”, and that's part of the reason why I dislike it so. It is not honest. Real postmodernism, if taken honestly and not simply used to service the views of every single pedestrian that walks past the street-corner, is an amoral tool, devoted to destroying perceived oppositions for no purpose other than that of the one using the analysis. Based on the thought of Saussure, Derrida equates the “conventional” character of language with the “artificial” character of language; and if artificial, it seems, then words are a fact about language and not the world.

This is not true, though, because the reasoning does not follow. Conventional does not equal artificial in every respect, in the first place; it only implies an artificiality in which sound is chosen to mean which thing. It is conventional that we call a container which holds flowers and mud a flowerpot; it is artificial that we choose that sound; but it is not artificial, but natural that we require a word for this flowerpot. And indeed, there is a certain art in wordcraft, as Shakespeare exemplifies and Pratchett notes in The Wee Free Men. (The word “susurrus” is a delightful example of a word that sounds like what it means, a “rustling.”) The compelling artistic necessity, the urge to find the right word for this phenomenon, constitutes a recognition of fittingness, something which seems foreign to Cartesian and post-Cartesian thought. At a certain point, deconstruction of linguistics hits the bedrock of reality. And the problem with this issue is that most deconstructionists do not admit this; objective reality is a problem for them, because it is part of the old scaffolding which poststructuralism aimed to destroy, the notion of one reality or one truth. I used the word “natural” above to describe the point of this collision; it is precisely this notion of nature which poststructuralists deny as a sort of Ur-structure.

Mind, you don't see that many dyed-in-the-wool poststructuralists anymore, for this reason. Instead you see their politically reactionary nephews, the postcolonialists (although they are on the way out too.) Apply the rules of poststructural linguistics to politics and you get colonialism, when you analyze out the prejudice of the conqueror; apply them again and you get postcolonialism, the “liberation of the voice of the conquered.” This I see all the time, and it has all the problems of poststructuralism, plus the political mistakes of those who study analytical linguistics instead of economics. In any case, poststructuralism will get little more out of me, for the simple fact that it is not philosophy and does not deserve commentary from an actual reputable philosophy department. It is a form of Rhetoric, which is why my friend who is so well acquainted with it is quite right to study it, it is his chosen field. But it is not really a seeking-after-Wisdom, which is what philosophy is; and it is the culmination of a movement which, while accidentally being useful at times, eventually devolves into madness and the abyss. A sign of this is that literally anyone can be considered a conqueror or a conquered, and there is nothing to say why the conquered should be given a voice in some situation that should be regarded as equal to the conqueror. If one wishes an example: a serial killer who murders soap opera stars to fight consumerism out of some insanity is in some sense oppressed by consumerist culture; should they be given a voice over that of the soap opera star who has not been systematically murdering people? Any situation involving the oppressor and the oppressed may undergo a relativistic shift.

And this is indicated by the problem it introduces, the key problem for the author: the madness evinces itself in the way such “philosophers” write. Judith Butler, recently the current “thing” in the postcolonial movement, has received an award for being the worst writer in academia, for this ninety word (!) sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
(Butler, Judith. “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” Diacritics 27 (Spring 1997): 13–15.)

To quote Tom Lehrer in “Lobachevsky”: “This, I know from nothing!” And indeed, who could? For, not content with giving her undergraduate students the run-on sentence of the century, Prof. Butler is a great fan of the Derrida-reminiscent fabrication of words. “Hegemony”, formerly a word one might associate with Chinese dynasties, has been adapted by Butler to mean, presumably, some sort of ideological prejudice looming in the background of politics undetected. Mind, one couldn't get that from this sentence. One could not get anything from this sentence. This sentence, in its fashionably-eccentric character and lack of willingness to give up its meaning to even the persistent reader, is like the love-child of Ebenezer Scrooge and Lady Gaga. D.G. Myers wrote an excellent examination of this phenomenon of purposefully horrific writing and the wake it generated, which included an incredibly obtuse defense of bad writing as such by Butler herself. Remarkable indeed, because now we have seen something which might be a travesty: a defense of writing which has no rhetorical efficacy in itself, written by a sitting professor of Rhetoric (!) at UC Berkeley!

When I read that sentence, I long for the days when the philosophers I disagreed with (or, for that matter, those whom I agreed with) knew how to write. This is not without parallel to my longing for the days when the most vocal atheists knew how to think and argue, unlike the insufferable Prof. Dawkins. But then I remember who the greatest author, rhetorically, in that series was, who had a golden pen to seduce and corrupt, and I remember it to have been the same man who took all analytic philosophy before him or since to task. If analytic philosophy is a history, Nietzsche is the prophet of its eschaton. I will not go into too much detail, but this is a thought: Nietzsche thought that those who would propose something and not hold themselves to it simply because they proposed it, challenge the whole world with it and defy the opponent with one's own will to power, was a coward. Now, these post-structuralists do propose things, and they parley agreement to themselves in-house, the nods and grunts of their fellow post-structuralists who want to be “in the know.” But they hide their doctrines so thoroughly behind the guise of a cloak of substandard prose as to remove them from actual “criticism”, the field in which they profess to be expert. They say, with Prof. Butler, that “complicated matters demand complicated language”, an aphoristic sentence which is by its very vocalization put out to sell its body on the street. I do not buy this as the real, deep reason they use such obtrusive language as a matter of course. I think, and Nietzsche would say, that it is because of a very deep-seated fear of being outed as charlatans.

Synthetic Philosophy and Linguistic Theory: The Ladder out of the Hole of the Linguistic Madness

Whatever the laments of the other tradition, it does not deserve our sympathy as it is itself. To say that analytic philosophy has had its moments in the Sun would be an understatement given the way Scholastic and synthetic thought has been systematically jackbooted into the ground since the time of Descartes. Why did this happen?  
We are given a few excuses: Scholastics “did nothing but repeat what their teachers said”, “discussed pointless questions”, “were too dogmatic.” To the first, this Scholastic would say that this would be quite fair to say, if one knew nothing about how vastly important disagreements in Scholasticism were in moving forward at any point. Every single point of Scholastic thought took into account objections, replies to the objections, the clear elucidation of the answer to the question at hand, and even a cursory glimpse at the Summa of Aquinas will reveal that this misunderstanding of the use of authority deserves to be cast into a kindergarten waste-paper basket and burned to ash. A more conspiratorial me would say that this prejudice was maliciously perpetuated and reinforced only by the more stubborn adherence of later Scholastics who seem to have missed the point, and that more conspiratorial me would be right, as the impugning of “the Schoolmen” was part of Descartes' mission.

To the second, the discussion of “pointless” questions, we are often informed of a question as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In the first place, historically, that was not even an actually posed question, but probably designed to ridicule Scholastics. Secondly, any Scholastic knows that this is not how such a question would be posed; it would be broken down into “can angels move”, “can angels dance”, “can angels occupy a place”, “do angels have number”, “do angels have size”, “are angels corporeal”, and so forth.  The first question seems silly; but if you, as did the Scholastics, believe in angels, the parts of the question are of the most fascinating importance! So wherefore should one spurn the noble “pointless” question, when every question (including the famous Thomistic Quodlibetal “which has more force to move man, wine, women or the truth?”) is so pregnant with explanatory value? In other words: there are no stupid questions.

To the third, well...yes. There were a lot of people asserting a lot of things without first investigating them. There are also a lot of moderns, postmoderns, structuralists, poststructuralists, fundamentalists, atheists, and greengrocers at the corner store who will dogmatically assert things for lack of knowledge of the cause of their truth or falsity. We do not, however, judge analytic philosophy, atheism (or honest atheism, anyway), fundamentalism or the occupation of the greengrocer by their dogmatism. We may very possibly judge them, if not charitably, but we cannot judge the field in which they are, unless their dogmatism somehow represents their field; and as the great Scholastics represent the field better than the shoddy ones, Aquinas and Aristotle being no dogmatists themselves in philosophy, this is a false accusation of Scholasticism as such, albeit one which indicates a need for caution. And even in the case of Scholastic dogmatism, this dogmatism was grounded upon the words of those who still find a real purchase in the modern understanding of the world, whereas a dogmatic Cartesian would be laughed out of any medical convention.

Putting these aside, one thing characterizes synthetic philosophy, and that is the movement from first principles and appearances to demonstrative knowledge. While there are many theories about how this works, the medieval theory illustrates in parallel the way I think we ought to view the use of language in philosophy. When you come to know things, you start from what you see; to Aristotle, this is what is “most known to us”, whereas the things farther from our initial grasp are “most knowable”, concluding with God being most knowable of all. For when we move from the effect, what is “more known”, to the cause by syllogism, we know both something about the cause and something about the effect as it shares in the cause; and the cause is necessarily greater than or equal to the effect. This is the principle of sufficient reason. As we sense many instances of things, we form concepts in our mind through the process of induction. Thus, seeing many dogs, I form a concept of “dog”, separated from what is accidental to being a dog: what can come to be and pass away without making the dog “not a dog.” Then, when I say “Toby is a dog” and “Wally is a dog”, I am referring to two different existing living things, Toby and Wally, both of which have that by which a dog is a dog and not a cat or anything else. I and my society or culture come up with words (“dog”, “cat”, “spoon”, “fork”, “spork”) and we use these to signify a thing.

So far, there is nothing controversial about this. But it illustrates the ancient and medieval linguistic principle: the modes of signifying in language are taken from the modes of understanding in which man understands a thing, and as man understands a thing as the thing is, these modes of understanding are taken from the modes of being of things. Linguistics itself, as human beings study it, is concerned with the connection between the modes of understanding and the modes of signifying. And it is in this way of looking at things that we start to get the notion of what medieval linguistics was all about: language is something over and above the understanding, whereby we signify the understood thing to someone else capable of understanding things as they are. This language is borne into life by convention; if I suggest that there is a susurrus emitting from the bulrushes, and the one to whom I am speaking is not so familiar with either English or botany to know that I mean that the sedge plants over there are shaking and making a sound, then there is no language between us, no signification. The other person may yet have some sort of understanding that sedge is a plant, and that the plant does not normally shake, and they may lack only the knowledge that “susurrus” and “bulrushes” are both perfectly good English words, yet that is enough to eliminate language, that these words are not accepted between me and my companion by the bulrushes; we lack convention.

Why is this so important? After all, the post-colonialists think language is for signifying and conventional as well. They do, after all, write academic papers. But this is not the whole of the thing; signification and conventionality are what it is to be a language, but not what it is to be a good language. It is here that we arrive at the bone of contention in linguistics, a bone which has been tugged from both sides since the essentialist-existentialist, nominalist-realist debate which has so plagued philosophy peeked into the tent of linguistics. I may have a “language” which is utterly, so to speak, without “that swing.” My words can be so chosen and formed, like notes in an atonal musical piece, as to be utterly incapable of aesthetic order or expressive unity within a sentence. One is reminded of Orcish in Lord of the Rings, a language so ugly that only the ugly speak it out loud; even to think it is to do violence to the mind. And as Louis Armstrong said, in a sentence which wonderfully expresses the simultaneously relaxed and tight “play” of language in slang, “it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.” Sure, one can signify conventionally in Orcish; but one, in doing so, makes oneself like the Orcs. This is a variation, a subversion, on Derrida's claims about language; language makes one like it, but it is through a certain logocentric outlook that one is able to escape the sort of ideas about language that would make this an unfortunate phenomenon. Logocentrism, this Western outlook on reason and reality, if it is a cage, is a cage for the free.

And how does this cage, as I claim, so set us free? Buried deep in this logocentric background is the notion of the complimentary necessity of fittingness: the idea that, over and above the necessity needed to achieve something at all, there is a necessity if one is to do something well, which is what one inevitably aims to do in willingly doing something for the sake of happiness. If I wish to cut wood, I could use a whittling knife, but it would take a long time and require altogether too much effort to be reasonable. In point of fact, when one wishes to cut down a tree, one buys an axe. (“Axe” is another example of a word that sounds like what it is for. One “hacks” with an axe; there is a certain therapeutic benefit to using the sharp and sudden word “hack”, and there is a therapeutic benefit to the act itself when done with an axe and not a whittling knife. “Whittle”, as well.) Likewise in the crafting of language itself, one comes up with words like “hack”, “whittle”, and “axe”, which evoke the thing they intend to signify. This, on the level of wordcraft, is how fittingness plays a role; not just in making a language itself, but in making a language good.

But there's more to language than wordcraft. How about sentence formation and structure? Let us take a classic sentence: “I think, therefore I am.” In the Latin it is, of course, “cogito, ergo sum.” The Latin emphasizes the “think” as an act of the “I” in an integrated fashion, and thus emphasizes Descartes' notion of man as a thinking being. But in the English, one can see how philosophical nuance is made more possible analytically: “cogito” is broken down into the parts “I” and “think”, each of which may be italicized or inflected for emphasis. “I think, therefore I am.” “I think, therefore I am.” The same goes for “sum.” Different languages make different sentence descriptions which actually erode the possibility of emphasizing what might be a matter of the easiest practice in other languages, for the purpose of emphasizing some sort of linguistic attitude which is commonplace or accepted by those who speak the language. In this way polyglots are at an advantage in philosophy; it is not just pretension that can cause people to quote translations in other languages. There are four or more words for love in Greek, while there is just one in English, which we have to qualify heavily to produce a linguistic equivalence. There are even words which are, because of the character of experience and the known, wholly incommensurable with expression in most other languages. The Hawaiian “da kine”, for example, is nearly entirely contextual and thus to a certain degree untranslatable without a participation in its use. (Nevertheless, it differs from differance in that it does have a meaning, albeit a variable one; if someone says “Brah, go drive to the store and da kine,” said “brah” will know that it means, in some given situation, “buy cigarettes and Spam,” a perfectly definite meaning.)
Sentence structure and wordcraft alike benefit from fittingness. So in order to understand the root of goodness in language, let us examine fittingness as it is understood classically and fittingness as it is understood by postcolonialists, as represented by the difference between pedagogy/conversation and what I will call “proportioned speech”, since that seems to be the expressed intent of Prof. Butler, to proportion her writing to the issue described in its supposed complexity. Working with the aphoristic expression above as characteristic of (though paraphrased from) her defense of bad writing, “complicated matters demand complicated language”, and working with the Aristotelian-tradition axiom that “whatever is received is received in the mode of the receiver” as the root of a pedagogical or conversational language, what is the notion of fittingness expressed in these two traditions?

The Aristotelian one, I think, has been mostly expressed above; language is for signifying. This is not to say the merely workhorse interpretation of “explicitly and rigorously getting the point across.” If this were the case one could not have rhetoric, which Aristotle defended, and poetry would be a fool's errand. (Indeed, perhaps it is...but folly is not always a bad thing after all is said and done.) Poetry signifies in a different way than rigorous speech, and one no less necessary for the human personal and common goods. Philosophical language circumscribes experience, and poetry inscribes philosophy with the experience itself. It is all quite different to know that “summer is warm,” “the sun is radiant,” and “flowers tend to be at a certain time of life” from knowing experientially the way summer is warm such that one may pen Sonnet 18. Signification is, at root, to convey the concept or understanding from one human mind to another. Thus we have language, and words that sound like what they mean. These being received in the mode of the receiver means that there is an interest in employing language in a way that does not just describe but also has power to convince or persuade, to evoke and direct. Hence, the word “bee”, which has such power in its strong-vowel simplicity to remind us of that rather complex insect. This is the place from where “common” language arises.

The specialized language of the academic has a place here. It is not enough to say “the way something is” when one wants to say what nature means. The definition lies behind our normal intuitions; it is composed of more primary concepts, which require new words, because they are so primordial and distant from the immediate use of language. Words like “act” and “potency”, in the Scholastic scheme, while not magic, are like magic; they are intellectual tools to reach beyond what we see and extract the true nature of things. They have a purpose and a unique beauty, like hidden Philosopher's Stones for the mind; and they ought to receive our respect, as a wise alchemist would respect his tools if, like these words, they actually held a power. Thus, they are a bit more difficult to understand than normal common language; they are technical terms, requiring a trip of the mind down the little streams of the understanding of what we do see. But they are not mystical; study will yield them up, and they can be understood by more than one person in the same way.

Here meaning is seen as something discovered, and the human being is the one to whom it is given to name the phenomena. Yet in discovering meaning, the synthetic philosopher is not moving outside the foundation one has in the senses; rather, part of the character of synthetic philosophy is that nothing is superfluous. Every proof, every syllogistic motion moves from something to another thing as a cord in a webbed net, such that each move must be as certain and rigorous as is possible for that science, while the synthetic philosopher recognizes that to each science belongs its own degree and sort of certainty. This informs the words we use, which nevertheless each have their own particular character. Thus no word becomes superfluous; no meaning becomes frivolous; grammar is one of the most important sciences, because the grammar of a language belonging to a (principally) synthetic culture is not artificial, but reveals the inner workings of the human mind.

From this arises a curious phenomenon, that for non-philosophers philosophy becomes incredibly difficult to decipher. The synthetic answer to this has always been that if the meaning is difficult to decipher, it is because the concepts and the tradition themselves have an order one must follow, an order from the more known to the less known, one which reflects itself in language but which is rather something inherent in the character of knowledge itself. This, from synthetic thought, is understandable if one accepts what has been said above, that synthetic thought is the attempt of the intellect to bungie-jump into the deep places of the universe and claim, in the process, her deeper causes as prize. What of the postcolonial tradition, though, represented by Butler?
One sees a similar reasoning in her defense of bad writing, an article written (in my opinion) in a rather snarky fashion having the pugilistic title “A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back”. Verbatim:

If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense. Language that takes up this challenge can help point the way to a more socially just world. The contemporary tradition of critical theory in the academy, derived in part from the Frankfurt School of German anti-fascist philosophers and social critics, has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or "natural" understanding of social and political realities.
(Butler, Judith. "A 'Bad Writer' Bites Back". New York Times, 3/20/1999; URL=

Common sense, she claims, gives us normal language (the inheritance of our logocentric, Scholastic culture, presumably) which is occasionally abused by unclear definitions (as, perhaps, when one uses “he” in an academic paper intended exclusively rather than inclusively in an attempt to disparage women, or uses “man” instead of “human” in the same way for the same purpose.) Following along, Butler dictates that unclear definition demands...what? New words having no meaning whatsoever, or a meaning that itself indicates the choice of a neologism to be informed by the underlying (hegemonic) prejudice that the author has the privileged position of being within their rights to dictate how language and thought should work? Since when (I ask those in the academic community) did we lay down the arms of the English department before the altar of political conditioning? When did we allow it to be a decided thing that Grammar and Vocabulary, formerly so dignified, ought to be two-dollar prostitutes for their new pimp, Political Science?

This is, to return to the point about language, a fundamental misunderstanding of the synthetic phenomenon of deep thought demanding deep language. Butler is advocating that language should be a political tool for the purpose of informing those who are not In The Know that they are to toe the line or walk the plank; if you do not know what hegemony means, you are therefore a victim of hegemony, and the solution is to buy the postcolonialist product and become one of The Chosen Few. This is to turn philosophical writing into the sort of writing one sees in a commercial mission statement; words such as “synergistic” and “actioning”, verbal Mata Haris which seek to undermine the linguistic common good, are agents of the same Empire in a different department. It is linguistics as condescending marketing. Worse, it is as though one has taken a moderately talented band (such as the Oneders in the movie “That Thing You Do”) and put it at the mercy of a commercial machine; “hegemony”, as a word, might have admitted some neologistic potential, and is, as a concept, “a neat idea”, but was never going to be The Beatles, and yet now it has been made an all-important concept. Such a misplacement fundamentally cannot really hold. (As a side note, I hope the reader will notice the predictable scare quotes around “natural”, a word that does not mean what I think Butler thinks it means.) What this notion of fittingness represents is nothing but a denial thereof. Words cannot fit something when there is no way in which “something” can be said to be thus; only according to a thing's nature can something signify the way something really is or tends to be.

Conclusion: Save The Pitchforks And Torches, You've Got The Wrong Field

Philosophy is not at fault for postcolonialist crimes against language. This sounds strange, until one admits what I have insisted upon for the entire paper: postcolonialism and poststructuralism are not philosophy. They are ambiguous tools of political science which, because they tend to engage some of the more experiential aspects of that science, seem to be too close to the individual to be politics and too abstract to be anything else, and are therefore deemed practical philosophy, despite their denial of the wisdom philosophy (philosophia) implies etymologically. They deny natures, deny the understanding of things, deny the purpose of philosophy as impractical, and denounce those who try to understand the world in a more than opportunistic way as logocentric. Their focus on praxis subverts their “philosophical” claims because philosophy is not praxis; it is that from which praxis proceeds. Ultimately, the only way in which they serve a good purpose is when they are subordinated to a good cosmology, and left to themselves, they actively undermine any possibility thereof.

Which mode of synthetic thought proceeds in the right direction, of course, is for philosophy as a field to discover, if it has not already. As an Aristotelian-Thomist I tend to think it has, but this is immaterial to the purpose of this particular exploration. What is important is to recognize that we must remain at the level of common language, and treat the notions of poststructuralism as possible critiques; and precisely that, possible, since there is nothing in that field itself to say whether the critique is valid or not. The continuing relevance of philosophy utterly depends upon this. That being said, since (in my opinion) Judith Butler's work is more of an academic fad than a serious system, I have some hope that the absurdity of her conclusions will prevent further damage to philosophy in that they will make it more difficult for anyone having half a brain to believe them.


  1. Thank you, Brother! Do spread it around if you like it!