Saturday, September 6, 2008

Peevish conservative musings about words

When it comes to words and concepts, boy do I hate the trendy. And I love the traditional. This is one way in which I’m a very conservative guy.

Language is a beautiful and powerful thing, and its beauty and power depends on a kind of conservative impulse: recognition that words and their sometimes delicate and complex meanings must be preserved and maintained and appreciated.

Take a word like “awesome.” Having been raised by wolves, I approached adulthood thinking that “awesome” meant “terrific” (and “terrific,” of course, meant “bitchen”).

Evidently, many people were raised by wolves. It’s not just me.

But somewhere along the way, I developed a love of words and history. And, now, I cannot separate the word “awesome” from “awe,” and I cannot think of “awe” without thinking about our linguistic predecessors, centuries ago, struck with fear or reverence by things big or powerful or intricate—in ways that are increasingly lost to us. I sense a link to these people, and all people in between, through this one word.

Or consider the word “creature.” For many, a creature is simply a monster, or perhaps an animal. But I cannot now use this word without thinking of the act of creating and the thing that creates. The word has a depth and history that embraces all that, and so, to me, the word seems rich and wonderful, snaking through time.

Imagine having no sense of such things!

 * * *

Well, it’s 2008, and I’m a teacher, and so I don’t have to imagine it.

Today, I read through some student writing. I had asked the students of my Ethics class to write a brief answer to the question, “What is morality?” Mostly, I just wanted to see how they write and think (it’s early in the semester).

Students expressed some curious ideas about morality. One common theme is the notion that morality is “personal,” not in the sense that it is something a person has, but in the sense that it expresses the individual’s distinctive perspective—perhaps even his whims. To these students, morality is somehow a creature of the individual!

Students tend to show up with trendy junk in their heads, which is understandable, since everyone, and especially young people, live in a world piled high with such junk, obscuring anything old or venerable. Often, they’ve picked up various chunks of pseudo-sophistication (“well, of course, everyone has his own reality”), popular psychology (“he’s in denial and so he can’t see the truth”), and New Age blather (“I’m not very religious, but I’m very spiritual”).

They’re young, and so this stuff can still be scraped out or supplanted without great effort.

Unfortunately, well-educated adults, too, sometimes embrace this groovy junk. For instance, several of my friends insist that “morality” is somehow a personal matter—like a personal “philosophy.” For them, “morality” is not a synonym (more or less) for “ethics.”

“Oh no,” they’ll say. “Morality and ethics are quite distinct!”

What on earth are they talking about?

I am aware that, in the last few decades, a sense of “ethics” as a code of conduct associated with a particular profession has become more familiar. People are now accustomed to speaking of the ethics of the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher, the engineer, and so on. And it makes sense to think of this kind of code as being distinct from morality or ethics in the ordinary sense.

“Morality or ethics in the ordinary sense.” —Is there anyone left who even knows what I’m talking about? (Do remember that I am in California.)

I do hope you all understand that there was a time when people talked about right and wrong, virtue and vice, duty and obligation. People would say that so-and-so is a “good woman” or that she “takes her obligations seriously.”

Some people still say such things!

So, what is the name of that area of life that they are talking about? Evidently, “ethics” is out, since that’s about professional codes, etc. And “morality” is out, since that’s about one’s “personal” code or one’s dating practices.

Trendy (including academic) language and thinking have made people idiots.

Listen, we’ve got words for this. In the English language, that area of life is called “morality,” otherwise known as “ethics.”

* * *

Earlier this evening, I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. I looked up “morality” and “ethics.”

Let’s start with “ethics.” The OED cites many instances of usage starting in the 17th Century in which “ethics” means a kind of study of “morals,” or it means the “study concerned with the principles of human duty.” (Ethics as a branch of knowledge of right and wrong.) A bit later, the term was also used to refer to “moral principles” and also rules of conduct for “certain associations or departments of human life.” —Aha! That’s that narrower professional sense of ethics, I suppose.

The adjective “ethical” has been used to mean “pertaining to morality” (and also pertaining to the “science of ethics”) since the 17th Century at least.

Now let’s turn to the word “morality.” Very early on, the term was associated with “ethical wisdom.” Also early on, “morality” was used to refer to “moral virtue”—especially “in relation to sexual matters” and “personal qualities” that are good.

This narrower sense of morality appears to have survived.

At the end of the 16th Century, “morality” started to be used to refer to “Conformity of an idea, practice, etc., to moral law; moral goodness or rightness.” This is what I have long taken to be the word’s central meaning. The OED cites contemporary usage of this meaning.

Starting in the 17th Century, “morality” was used to mean “the quality or fact of being morally right or wrong; the goodness or badness of an action.” The OED again cites some contemporary examples of this usage.

Starting in the 18th Century, “morality” could refer to the study of right and wrong conduct, i.e., “ethics.” Sound familiar?

OK, so now hear this. If one takes the long (and the OED) view concerning the meaning of words, then there is little justification for insisting on some sort of clear or systematic difference in the meaning of the words “morality” and “ethics.” These words are largely synonymous. They have been used to refer to “right and wrong conduct,” and they have been used to refer to bodies of knowledge (or areas of study) concerning right and wrong conduct.

Unsurprisingly, they are not exactly the same. “Morality” has at times been used narrowly to refer to moral virtue especially “in relation to sexual matters.” But this is not a dominant meaning.

And “ethics” more than “morality” has been used to refer to a code for a particular profession. But, again, this has not been a dominant meaning, as far as I can tell.

So where do people get this idea that “morality” and “ethics” are quite distinct?

And where do my students get the notion that morality is some sort of personal take or philosophy about conduct?

* * *

Obviously, language has always been a dynamic thing. Words do change over time; they take on new senses and lose older ones. Sometimes new words appear and old words are abandoned.

But I think there was a time, not so long ago, when the educated elite (yes, I’m using that phrase) were routinely brought up to speed concerning those delicate meanings and histories that I talked about earlier. These people could generally be counted on (for instance) to understand that “awesome” has to do with “awe” or that “creatures” are things created.

The conservative within me is pleased to contemplate this inertial mechanism.

But the machine seems to be breaking down now, at least in my world. That lovely inertia of meaning that tied us to our past has eroded away, and now, even among the educated, words are often just words, meaning only what the noisy and colorful knuckleheads of our time mean by them, which is usually a cheap and trashy thing with no provenance and zero wisdom.


Anonymous said...

You go, girl. (Just kidding. Get it? Abuse of language?)

Last night-this morning I read _Notes on the Definition of Culture_ by T.S. Eliot, the title of which did not appear on the list of "conservative" books that you posted hereabouts (or maybe on DtB or CP) a few weeks ago, which I printed out and taped to my file cabinet, and which you got all up in my grill about. But while reading your awesome article, it occurred to me that you would appreciate Eliot's attempt to rescue the word "culture" from misuse.

On the other hand, Eliot says that culture is, as it were, the "incarnation of religion," that religion and culture are neither in "relation" nor "identical" but in "unity," that there is equal danger in thinking that we can have either one without the other (other than for short periods). I wonder how you would evaluate these claims of his.

Eliot anticipates Kirk, whom you did mention to us, and whom I paraphrase and oversimplify here: "No religion-no society."

According to Eliot, the elite, including intellectuals, need to, among other things, preserve the unity of religion/culture for the sake of the whole society. Seems to me, however, that our own elites are more concerned to eliminate religion from society, either altogether, or at least from public life. Our elites are doing the opposite of what we need them to do for our culture (such as it is) and are going to be the death of us, if they are not already. One conclusion I drew from the book is that we need better elites (or for our elites to be better).

Eliot is clear that such an analysis is sociological and not theological; it does not relevantly address the truth or falsity of religious claims. I might add that I would not want anyone to believe religious claims that are false as a means to preserving culture.

Now as for the word "awesome," you might re-consider Rudolph Otto's _Das Heilige_ (I know that you know what that means, you German). You might find in Otto's analysis a reason, not just a pragmatic justification, for believing in theological truth, starting from human "awe" of the Numen.

Anyway, with all seriousness, great article. You well remind us of Socrates' comment, "For, dear must know that to use words wrongly is not only a fault in itself, it also creates evil in the soul." (Crito 115e)

Anonymous said...

(Whoops, that was from Phaedo, not the Crito.)

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful last sentence; thanks for a wonderful essay, BP. I often realize how shallow my own students' sense of language is; I'll be talking in class and suddenly realize that I must stop and give them a glimmering of the rich shades of meaning and history in words that they have passed their eyes over but not understood, seemingly without curiosity and with zero appreciation of history.

For example, when I teach Kant's idea that "practical love" is superior to "pathological love," of course I must stop and inform students that "practical" refers to *practice* or *action*, so that they may start to think about what Kant could mean by the phrase. I must tell them that Kant is not referring to a "sick" or psychosis-ridden type of love with that beautiful word "pathological;" he's referring to pathos--or, ultimately, feeling. He's saying that only acts of caring can be a part of our duty, since we have control only over acts; and that we can't control whom we love, so that this feeling sort of love is inferior. ( I don't entirely agree with these claims, by the way.)

Not only do students have no idea of the depth and history of words, but this absence renders them helpless to read classical literature and philosophy, sometimes. A real shame. It's wonderful, as an instructor, to be able to show them the power of knowing about words, as well as the power of well-chosen words themselves----and the absolute beauty of well-chosen words.

--All manifested in your essay.

Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I think that, as moving as your plaint is, it suffers from what the posters at Language Log call "the recency illusion" -- the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent.

Lamentation about the decay and loss of linguistic sophistication goes back to the Silver Age, if not farther. Aelfric complained about his monks losing the sense of words when copying and introducing solecisms. There was no golden age of linguistic competence; rather, there were elites and what they tried to preserve, and always, always a sea of barbarism to carry their carefully wrought work to perdition.

Roy Bauer said...

I could respond, Jonathan, but I think I'll just say this. If this is what you say to your supporters, I'd hate to see what you say to your detractors.

Move along Jonathan. Just move along.