3. Thought And Language
From Clear Thinking by R W Jepson

"For words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools." — Hobbes: Leviathan.
"When we have words in our ears, we imagine that we have ideas in our minds." — Bentham.

THINKING, as we have seen, is a process which in a practical problem obviates or postpones the necessity for overt action: it saves us the trouble of actually handling tools or materials — we need only picture them in the mind's eye. Therefore thinking is impossible without symbols of some kind to represent these tools and materials. And when we are dealing with a theoretical problem, such symbols are even more indispensable, because we want some means of representing not only concrete objects, but also abstract conceptions — qualities, relationships, associations, and so forth.

The symbols most commonly used in thinking are Words. Words are not the only symbols used by thinkers, and so it cannot be said that they are absolutely essential to thinking. But they make thinking much easier; they enable us to label not only concrete objects and abstract qualities, but also classes, distinctions, similarities, relations and combinations; they make it easy to recognise these when they form part of larger wholes, and thus facilitate the analytic and synthetic operations noted in Stages 2 and 5 of the thinking process. As symbols, they are convenient, manageable, compact, and portable; they are capable of expressing fine shades of ' meaning'; and they are producible in speech and writing both for our own use and for communication to others. In these qualities lie their virtues and advantages, and, as we shall see later, their vices and their drawbacks.

But when we come to express our thoughts and communicate them to others in speech or writing, these labels by themselves are inadequate. They must, with the aid of other word-symbols, be fitted into the framework of language units, i.e., sentences, paragraphs, etc., before their significance can be understood, in fact before the thinking represented by them can be clearly conveyed. Thus it comes that language which already serves the primary purposes of expressing our feelings, influencing the activity of others, and establishing sociable relations with them, is also used as a conscious vehicle of knowledge and thought. The fact that it does serve all these purposes also has its difficulties and drawbacks.

The connection, however, between thought and language is necessarily close. Until a thought is translated into language, it remains vague, nebulous and indeterminate: language crystallises it and gives it form and substance. Thus language is an almost indispensable aid to clear thinking: the very process of having to put our thoughts into speech or writing, and the effort entailed in discovering adequate expression for them, are of themselves thought-clarifiers. We do not realise the depth or the shallowness of our thoughts until we try to utter them or put them down on paper. And if we are to share our thoughts with others, we can only do so (outside the imperfectly explored sphere of thought-transference) by using the medium of language. Thoughts that 'lie too deep for words' cannot be put to serious or practical use: people who claim to reach conclusions by way of them are often merely admitting that they have shirked the effort without which ideas cannot be clarified. Clear expression and clear thinking are complementary; and there are no short cuts to either.

In Chapter Two stress was laid on the importance of wording clearly, accurately and precisely the problem facing the thinker or the point at issue in a dispute or discussion. But clarity, accuracy and precision of language are necessary at all stages in the thinking process. Therefore we must look to our words.

In the first place, we must never forget the true nature of words — that they are symbols. We must rid ourselves of the belief that a name is an integral part of a person or thing, or that there is identity, or some natural, organic, inherent, or mystical connection, between things and the names given to them: the only connection that does exist between them is in the mind of the individual speaker, writer, reader, or hearer. This belief is to be found among primitive peoples, and still exists as an unconscious survival among those who consider themselves civilised. For instance, there are still people who cling to the notion that the names given to children determine their character or destiny, or that the 'fancy' name of a commercial product is a clue to its quality; and it is not a great step from this to believing that if a certain label (like democratic or fascist) is applied to a measure or an institution it must therefore be good or bad, as the case may be. When we once realise the fundamental fact that words are formal and arbitrary symbols — convenient reminders of persons and things — then we shall not lose our grip on reality or be guilty of verbalism, i.e., playing or juggling with words and deluding ourselves that we are dealing with the actual things and people they represent.

This warning is to be heeded particularly when we are thinking, reading, speaking, or writing about abstractions and generalities, for words representing them tend to become mere names unconnected with reality. They will remain mere names unless we keep in mind particular concrete examples of their application. These and other words therefore whose 'meaning' is vague and indeterminate must be used with care, and never unless we are clear in our minds what we mean' by them and unless we are prepared to point to the referents, i.e., things meant. It is a useful discipline to frame definitions of such terms; but the mere ability to translate a word by a set of other words is not in itself enough to prevent vagueness: we must at all times be able to anchor it, so to speak, to objective fact.

Again, we must realise that as the only connection between a word and its referent is in the mind of the person using it, the 'meaning' he attaches to it depends very much on his own experience. It is important therefore that in thinking we should try to dissociate from the 'meaning' of a word that part which is subjective, i.e., peculiar to ourselves.

In using words which symbolise a variety of referents, there is always a danger of equivocation, i.e., shifting the referent of a particular word in the course of reasoning or argument. The referents of some words like post and box are so markedly different that confusion between them is unlikely to arise; but there are other words like law and nature whose referents resemble one another but differ in some important particular. We run the risk of vitiating a whole train of thinking or argument if we use such a word more than once without guarding against the possibility that unconsciously we may be deceiving ourselves and others by shifting its referent. Similarly, we must guard against risk of confusion between the literal and the metaphorical 'meanings' of words, and we must remember that when we use metaphors we are in fact tacitly assuming some comparison or analogy that may not necessarily be based on objective truth.

Lastly, there are words which in our own or others' minds excite feelings and convey notions of approval or disapproval and the use of which may arouse prejudice or set in motion other irrational forces. Such words have their place in poetry and in emotive prose — language appealing to the feelings or to the aesthetic sense — but they can only lead to confusion when used in reasoning.

Thus language, subject to certain safeguards, is a means of clarifying thought for ourselves. It is also the only medium by which we can understand and appreciate the thoughts and aims of others in the course of conversation, discussion, and reading. But for complete mutual understanding, it is essential that the parties should 'speak the same language'; i.e., they must see eye to eye when they come to interpret fundamental terms — they must use the same label or symbol for the same referent.

Even among the inhabitants of two countries that speak the same tongue, like England and the United States, the referents of words are not always the same. Here are a few examples:

Word Meaning
nasty unpleasantdisgusting
homely unsophisticated ugly
hypothecate pawn frame an hypothesis
politician a would-be statesman a political agent
billion a million millions a thousand millions
solicitor a legal consultant a tout

When it comes to translating one language into another, the possibilities of confusion are greater: a term may admit of two or more interpretations, and the wrong one may be taken. This happened not long before the second Great War in the British interpretation of a German dispatch, and there ensued what the newspapers are fond of calling "an international crisis of the first magnitude."

Hitler followed up his dramatic coup of reoccupying the demilitarised Rhine zone by making proposals for a general settlement of Europe, including an offer of a twenty-five years' peace. A further communication from him in response to an invitation to attend a meeting of the Council of the League of Nations summoned to consider the situation contained the following passage:

"The German Government assumes that its representative will take part on equal terms with the representatives of the Powers represented on the Council in the discussions and decisions of the Council. The German Government can participate in the Council proceedings only if it is assured that the powers concerned are prepared to enter into negotiations alsbald in regard to the German proposals."

When this communication was first published in English, the word alsbald was translated forthwith, a word with an impatient, peremptory, threatening connotation, with a suggestion of an ultimatum. The immediate effect on public opinion in England was little short of consternation at such an apparently glaring and gratuitous breach of diplomatic etiquette. When the German Government explained that alsbald meant also in due course and that this was the meaning intended, the result was almost an anticlimax.

Again there are some words which have forms alike or nearly alike in two languages, but different meanings and associations. Such a word is grotesque, which in English means 'ludicrous' or 'absurd,' but which in French has the far more derogatory meaning of 'clownish.' At an international conference on war reparations held at The Hague in 1929, Lord Snowden, then Mr Philip Snowden, the head of the British delegation, referred to a proposal of Monsieur Cheron, a French delegate, as " grotesque and ridiculous." There was consternation in French circles at this unwitting affront, which nearly caused what is euphemistically called an ' incident'; and in the French press the opponents of Cheron caricatured him as a clown. Explanations followed and apologies were proffered; but for a time the incident looked as if it might have ugly consequences.

There is a great deal to be said for an international language which would have made impossible such misunderstandings as these. But as it is, in the present babel, there are some vocabularies common to all languages — chiefly technical and scientific terms, which are understood alike in different countries. There are also an increasing number of words, common to a great part of the world, about whose referents there is general agreement — words like coffee, tea, chocolate, cigar, cigarette, alcohol, paper, which stand for things in common use. But apart from these and outside the spheres of science and technology, there is no guarantee that the use of a common vocabulary implies a common interpretation of the terms comprised in it; and this is nowhere more evident than in politics. Democracy, Fascism, Communism, Socialism and Imperialism are terms common to all political vocabularies, but the recent Peace Conference in Paris showed wide divergences in their interpretation. The Hon. Harold Nicolson, in a commentary on the conference broadcast in October, 1946, pertinently referred to such divergences thus:

"Among the many lessons which I have learnt from the Paris Conference, perhaps the most significant is that the west and the east do not speak the same language. . . . I mean that even those words which are common to English and Russian mean totally different things. Take, for instance, the word 'democratic'. . . . If you translate the English word into the Russian word demokratichesky, you are, linguistically speaking, translating with perfect accuracy, but you are not, in fact, conveying meaning any more than you would be conveying meaning by using the word 'large' to describe a large inkpot or a large railway station. To us who have been trained in the Liberal tradition of some three hundred years, democracy implies the fundamentals of personal liberty — that the people, if they so desire, can change their government; that no individual can be imprisoned, executed or exiled without public trial; that every citizen should have the right to express his own thoughts freely and to have free access to the thoughts of others, and so on. . . . But to the Russians, all these things which seem to us so precious and so essential are no more than outmoded bourgeois inhibitions. To them 'democracy' implies the classless state in which the means of production are owned in common. . . . It seems in no way inconsistent to them that supreme power should be vested in the hands . . . of a tiny oligarchy. . Let me take another word. . . . Over and over again I have heard the Russian delegate denounce Great Britain for being 'imperialistic.' Now, if that word has any meaning at all, it means an attempt on the part of a Great Power to impose its rule by force upon peoples who do not wish to accept that rule. Well, at the moment, we are clearing out of Egypt, and according to India her full independence; we are keeping to the pledge we gave in the Atlantic Charter, that we should not seek any territorial aggrandisement. We shall come out of the war owning far less territory than we possessed when we entered it. And what about Russia? Apart from the hold she has obtained over Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania and eastern Germany, she has either annexed or intends to annex vast areas upon her western frontier."

Political terms are notoriously unstable and their referents change as we and our environment change. When the word 'democracy' first appeared in Ancient Greece, the kind of rule it stood for is described by Aristotle as a degenerate and perverted form of government — the unbridled rule of the mob. It entered modern European vocabulary through France, where it appeared in the early days of the French Revolution as the opposite of Aristocracy, an object of veneration to the Greeks, but to the French revolutionaries a target for venom and execration. To early nineteenth-century England, democracy was associated with the worst excesses of the Reign of Terror in France, or at best with the vague aspirations of the French revolutionary movement. A democrat then was one who made a direct appeal to the mass of the poor. As late as 1866 Gladstone, when supporting proposals to enfranchise the upper ranks of the working class, was at pains to discourage the notion that such an extension of the electorate was democratic, assuming that to his audience the word would call up pictures of mob rule. But from 1870 democracy begins to rise in public esteem until the days of the first Great War which was commended for its purpose "to make the world safe for democracy." As regards its present ' meaning,' this is what Mr Stuart Chase says in his book The Tyranny of Words:

"The concept 'Democracy' may have useful meaning in a given context with severely limited characteristics, but it has no fixed and absolute meaning. One can intelligently discuss political groups labelled 'democracies' conducted in a given setting, at a given place, at a given time — how citizens, for instance, participated in the Athenian state or in the New England town meeting. But when one affirms categorically 'Democracy is thus and so, here, there, and everywhere he enters Cloudcuckooland."

Very often to-day, 'democratic' is little more than a term of approval or abuse. A competitor in a recent competition in The New Statesman put it neatly thus:

In Cleon's time meant "Government by the mob,"
Now, in the changing course of use and wont,
Means, just according to your bent and job
The Government by those you like — or don't.

Words, in fact, tend to remain fixed, while the things they represent tend to change. Even a word like ox, whose meaning we might think stable and permanent, meant very different things to a farmer in 1800 and his great-grandfather a hundred years before. To the latter it meant an animal tall, long-legged, raw-boned and wall-sided, valued for its power of draught and built to "traverse miry lanes and foundrous highways." To the former it meant an animal with short legs and a solid, square body, valued for its capacity to produce rich meat for the table.

But such shifting values due to changes in ourselves and our living conditions exhibit only one possible cause for confusion. There are two other causes: ambiguity and vagueness. Let me attempt to classify some examples.

Some words have a specialised technical meaning and a loose popular meaning. In some cases, the common word has been borrowed for use in a technical sense: in others, the technical word has come into common use (or misuse) and acquired in the process of transfer a loss of precision and exactness. Examples of the former are work, energy, force, metal and acid, which have specialised meanings in Physics and Chemistry. Examples of the latter are instinct, complex (noun) and allergic, which are popularly used in senses far removed from their technical senses. Value, wealth, labour, and capital all have very closely defined meanings in economics, whereas their ordinary senses are much more vague. Value, in the economic sense, means exchange value, which when measured in terms of money is termed price; whereas in everyday language we often use value as a synonym for utility; but the price we pay for a thing is not always a measure of its utility to us. In ordinary speech wealth is contrasted with poverty; it is another name for riches; we call a man wealthy when he has a large income or possesses an abundant supply of the good things of life. But economically wealth applies to everything that has the power to satisfy a want and at the same time is the result of effort, i.e., cannot be obtained without giving something for it in the form of labour or of goods. In economics both the rich and the poor have wealth, the difference being that the rich have much and the poor but little. Labour in popular parlance is frequently connected with labourer, a man who works with his hands. In economics labour is not restricted to manual labour, but applies to all efforts made by any class in the community to secure the satisfaction of their wants. The strict meaning of the word capital is wealth devoted to some purpose with the intention of obtaining an income from it; in this sense a plumber's tools or a coster's barrow form part of his capital. On the other hand, the popular idea of capital is associated with people who are richer than they ought to be, with fat cigars or luxurious limousines.

Then there are words like nature, law, and justice which are used to stand for so many varied referents that extreme care must be exercised to make it quite clear, from the context or otherwise, which particular referent is intended, to avoid shifting the referent ourselves in the course of reasoning or argument and thereby making it inconclusive or inconsequent, and to prevent ourselves from being deluded by any unconscious or deliberate attempt on the part of others to score a debating point or to effect persuasion by word-juggling. If we have any doubt, we should consult a good dictionary, like the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives examples of the various uses, and these we should study with great care. For example, if we look up the word nature, we shall find the following senses distinguished:

  1. The active supreme power in the universe. In this sense it is often personified and written with a capital letter and used as synonymous with God.
  2. The material things created by (i), i.e., mountains, lakes, trees, flowers, clouds, rainbows, etc.
  3. The qualities or attributes or characteristics of anything, or of mankind.
  4. The unregenerate condition of man, i.e., his state before the organisation of society; the qualities he shares with brute creation, or the qualities he would have if he had not learnt to regulate his passions and appetites and to submit to moral discipline.
  5. The opposite of Art and artificial, i.e., not fashioned by man.

Hence Wordsworth enjoins you to "let Nature be your teacher " (sense i or ii), Tennyson speaks of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" (sense iv), Whistler says "Nature is usually wrong" (sense v), the advocates of Laissez-faire said that trade should be left to take its natural course (sense v).

But someone who feels strongly that there is something wrong and unsatisfactory about modern civilised life might be tempted to argue that such a life was unnatural (sense iv) and therefore contrary to the Creator's wishes and designs (sense i). Not perhaps in so many words; but one frequently finds references to the "golden age" enjoyed by primitive peoples, which probably spring from confusion of this kind; the cry "Back to nature!" is often used as synonymous with "Back to God." In Pope's Essay on Man we find:

"Nor think in nature's state they blindly trod;
The state of nature was the reign of God."

It is too often taken for granted, especially by advocates of war as an instrument of national policy or by those that believe that international peace is an impossible ideal, that human nature (in sense iv) is both unchangeable and depraved. "Fighting is a natural instinct of man," they will say; " fighting is the natural way of settling disputes. You cannot change human nature." A saner and more optimistic interpretation of the history of civilisation would lead us to believe that human nature, on the other hand, is indefinitely modifiable and that "the modification of existing tendencies is the essence of all intelligent activity." Incidentally, the word fighting can bear two interpretations: on the one hand, it may be used to describe man's instinctive effort to master the difficulties of a changing environment; on the other hand, its sense is often narrowed down to that of enforcing his will upon his fellow-men by recourse to weapons. In the statement just quoted these senses are confused and the argument is worthless.

As for law, there is common law, canon law, statute law, international law; there are moral laws, natural laws, economic laws, laws of evidence. Think for a moment: do all these laws have equal force? Are offences against them at all comparable? Economic laws are merely convenient generalisations, statements of general tendencies, often hedged about with reservations; vet the fact that they are termed laws may suggest that there is some legal or moral sanction about them that makes them inviolable, and that any breach of them will be visited by severe penalties.

There are in fact three different senses in which law can be used:

  1. An arbitrary regulation made by human consent in particular circumstances for a particular purpose, capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended or rescinded without interference with the general scheme of the universe. According to such laws, certain events follow on certain others, but the second event is not a necessary consequence of the first — the connection between the two is merely arbitrary. The validity of such laws depends upon their endorsement by public opinion and upon their not running counter to the law (sense ii) of nature (sense i).
  2. A generalised statement of observed facts inherent in the nature of the universe. According to such laws, certain events follow on certain others, but the second event is a necessary consequence of the first, and the connection between the two is one of cause and effect. Their validity depends on observed facts, not on human consent or opinion.
  3. A handy expression to sum up a general tendency in cases where a given effect usually, but not necessarily, follows a given cause.

Justice is also used in widely different senses. It may mean the justice administered by judges in the law courts. It may be an abstract conception, embodying a set of moral principles which in our opinion ought to regulate human relations. When people demand justice they may mean that they have been denied something they are legally entitled to, or they may only be asking for the removal of some inequality which they have found to be a hardship and which to them is a cause of grievance. Similarly with rights: when people use the term they may mean rights enforceable at law or they may merely be referring to privileges they think they ought to have. There are moral rights and legal rights. We hear a great deal of the 'right to work' and the 'right to live.' And what does the latter term mean? The right to exist, or the right to a livelihood, or a right to be maintained at the expense of the community?

The difficulty with many words is that they have a relative rather than an absolute, or a subjective rather than an objective significance; i.e., their exact meaning is dependent upon circumstances, or upon the person who uses them, or on the context in which they are used. The word constitution and its adjective constitutional, which have a definite objective meaning, are often used in argument subjectively, i.e., the person using them gives them a special significance favourable to his contention. The constitution, according to one of the most recent authorities, Professor Laski, is "that portion of the rules (of a state) which settles (a) how such rules are to be made, (b) the manner in which they are to be changed, (c) who are to make them." Constitution, therefore, expresses something which has, or has had, a real existence. But political speakers frequently use it to signify something, not real, but ideal; not the existing rules, but the rules which, in their judgment, ought to exist. Thus "according to the constitution" is, as used by them, merely a vague term of approbation, and a means of persuading their hearers to accept a proposal on the ground that it is in conformance with established institutions. Constitutional and unconstitutional, similarly, often mean merely agreeing or disagreeing with some imaginary standard of propriety set up for himself by the person who uses them.

Liberty, freedom, and equality are dangerously loose terms to use without qualification. There is civil liberty, religious liberty, personal liberty; freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, the "freedom of the seas"; in fact, whenever you use these terms, it is as well to ask yourself, "Liberty to do what? Freedom from what?" The meaning of liberty, too, changes from age to age. It is often forgotten that Magna Carta, which is often referred to as the charter of English liberty, was wrested from King John by the barons and the Church, who were anxious not to see their ancient liberty (i.e., freedom from the interference of the King and his servants) impaired. There is an entertaining story of the Frenchman, who, on his first visit to the U.S.A. while Prohibition was in force, had the statue of Liberty in New York harbour pointed out to him by a proud American. "Yes," he replied, "we, too, erect memorials to our illustrious dead!" Liberty to that Frenchman, at that moment, meant liberty to drink what he liked!

Equality was the second of the vague aspirations of the Revolutionary movement of 1789. But what did it mean? Equality of status, equality before the law, equality of income, equality of opportunity...? Progress, prosperity, success, growth, improvement, luxury, poverty, necessity are also relative terms too frequently used in an absolute sense. Poverty is often used absolutely in the sense of destitution; whereas we may speak, and speak rightly, of a poor duke or a poor bishop — poor being properly applied to anyone who cannot out of his earnings or property maintain himself in the average style of comfort that obtains throughout the class of society to which he belongs. Are we justified in applying the term ' luxuries ' to a millionaire's yachts and shooting-boxes, deer forests and armies of servants, and at the same time refer to the factory worker's wireless set and weekly visit to the cinema as necessities? What is a ' successful ' man? Does it mean that he is wealthy, or famous, or prominent in his profession or merely that he has accomplished an aim or reached a goal?

There are other adjectives like successful commonly used as if they meant something definite in themselves, such as reasonable, suggestive, expressive, subversive, destructive, questionable, significant, characteristic, creative, productive, desirable, judicious, dangerous, beneficial, unfit, and that recent creation tendentious. All these are favourite words in the vocabulary of those who are too lazy or too busy to be explicit — politicians, journalists, critics, reviewers especially. A suggestive book — what does it suggest? An expressive gesture — what does it express? Subversive propaganda — subversive of what? Desirable result — desirable to whom? To anyone other than the person using the expression? Perhaps the reader is supposed to answer these questions according to his individual taste! But it is more likely that the effect on him is merely to add a few more blurred and hazy notions to a mind already confused.

During discussions on the pre-war Act for the raising of the school-leaving age, the President of the Board of Education explained that exemption would be granted only to those children taking up beneficial employment. "Beneficial to whom?" it was pertinently asked; to the children, to their parents, to employers or to the community generally? When we talk of the sterilisation of the unfit, whom do we mean? persons unfit for what? To leave the term vague and unqualified is to invite long, vain, and aimless discussions.

The course of almost any discussion or debate will reveal wide differences of opinion on the interpretation of words, the meaning and application of which might at first sight appear to be unequivocal. I was present lately at a debate on a familiar subject — " The spread of education is the spread of discontent." It was obvious that the speakers were not agreed on what constituted education; some interpreted it in the narrow sense of school and university training, others in the wider sense, which included reading, travel, social intercourse, etc. Nor were they agreed on the meaning of discontent; to some it meant grumbling and general dissatisfaction with one's lot; to others it meant what they termed divine discontent, the laudable ambition to remove abuses in our social life, to make the world better by our presence in it, not to rest content with present achievement but always to aim higher, in fact, a form of idealism.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that a great many questions are submitted to the B.B.C. Brains Trust which give rise at once to the familiar dictum, "It all depends what is meant by . . . "? For example, before the question "Has civilisation added to the happiness of mankind?" can be answered it is necessary for the referents of civilisation, happiness and mankind to be clearly stated. As soon as you begin to ask people what exactly civilisation means to them, you will get the most varied replies. One will say it means things like street lighting, main drainage, trolley buses and public libraries; to another it means a baby car, a labour-saving kitchen, a bathroom and indoor sanitation; to another, table-napkins, finger-bowls, dressing for dinner and a large staff of domestic servants; and another will say it does not depend on any of these things but means tolerance, kindliness, good manners and refinement generally. As for happiness, to some it means a clear conscience and the serenity which comes from complete adjustment to one's environment, to others worldly fame and material success, and to others mere pleasure and sensual gratification. And mankind — what specific people are referred to? Every human being? Or only those whom civilisation has reached? It does 'all depend,' doesn't it?

Thus a question in dispute often turns out to be not factual, but merely verbal: i.e., when it has been cleared up, it is found that the disputants were in agreement as far as facts were concerned, and that their difference turned merely on the names to be given to the facts or on the 'meaning' to be attached to certain terms. Hence if a discussion is to be useful and meaningful and verbal confusion avoided, precise indication must be made at the outset of the sense in which such terms are going to be used: in other words, the terms must be defined for the purpose of the discussion in hand.

Abstract terms like discontent, civilisation and happiness are notably difficult to define. Heroism, Humanity, Justice, Liberty, Culture, Beauty — any attempts to define these terms in a short compass would be instantly challenged as inadequate or even misleading. Hardly anybody has sufficiently clear ideas in his own mind of the exact implications he himself attaches to any one of these terms, although careful thought and serious discussion may serve to clarify them. Such general abstract terms, as a rule, mean very little until they have been applied to particular concrete cases: e.g., if you wanted to be quite sure in your own mind what you meant by heroism, your best procedure would be to consider very carefully a number of actions performed in various circumstances, and decide which of them you would label as heroic; you would need to distinguish these from the actions you would prefer to call brave or reckless or daring. Then, having made your own notion of heroism clearer, you would want to find out how it compared with the notions of others, and thus by the processes of induction and deduction you would arrive at a workable definition. The Socratic method can be recommended as a useful aid to building up a comprehensive definition of an abstract term. This was the method of question and answer adopted by Socrates to disconcert the Sophists. Here is an example of a Socratic dialogue in which the subject of inquiry is "Sport"

Socrates: What is Sport?

Sophists: A game, of course — cricket, football, and the like.

Socrates: But are all games sport? What of ping-pong?

Sophists: Ping-pong is a drawing-room game.

Socrates: Then it must be an open-air game?

Sophists: Yes, besides, you don't get much physical exercise playing ping-pong.

Socrates: Then physical exercise is a necessary element?

Sophists: Yes.

Socrates: Then if you take a football and kick it about in a field, it is sport?

Sophists: No: I said sport was a game; you must play it against some one.

Socrates: Then there is an idea of contest in it?

Sophists: Yes.

Socrates: But tell me, is climbing a sport?

Sophists: Let me see: I suppose it is.

Socrates: But where does the contest come in?

Sophists: Well, perhaps it isn't.

Socrates: O eminently wise one, is not the climber struggling with the forces of Nature?

Sophists: Of course that had not struck me.

Socrates: But the climber risks his neck; is risk, then, necessary to sport?

Sophists: No: I don't think so.

Socrates: But when you play cricket, you risk having your skull split by a fast ball?

Sophists: Yes: but that is only incidental : it is part of the game.

Socrates: What I suppose you would call a sporting risk!

And so on.

You can use this method in discussion or you can assume the double role of Socrates and his victim and examine yourself in this way, and the more methodical, strict and painstaking your self-examination is, the clearer and more distinct your conception will become.

In the search for a clear and distinct conception of the thing for which a term stands, comparison and classification are useful aids. For instance, if you sought a clear idea of what is meant by dictionary, you would find it useful to consider first what other things it resembles, and then in what respects it resembles and differs from each of these other things — things, say, like encyclopaedia and concordance. You would find that all three were (1) books, (2) intended for reference, and (3) alphabetically arranged; but that, whereas an encyclopaedia contains information on every conceivable subject or on some group of subjects, and a concordance contains the words or subjects peculiar to some book or to an author's works, together with citations of passages, a dictionary contains the words, with their meanings, of a language or of some special department of knowledge. You could now classify all three under the genus, or general term, "alphabetically arranged book of reference "; and, when you want to distinguish between them, you can give the special characteristics which mark out each species of the genus one from another. Such a method will be found useful in distinguishing clearly and sharply between so-called synonyms — to find first the common, and then the peculiar characteristics of the things or notions they represent.

It should be noted that such classification of things into genus and species is not comprehensive, exhaustive, or permanent like the classification used in the natural sciences, such as botany and zoology. It is made only to serve the purpose immediately in hand. What for one purpose is a species may be for another purpose the genus; for example, dictionary which was a species above, may be the genus of which lexicon is a species.

Now when you come to frame the definition of a term, i.e., to formulate it and put it into clear language, you cannot do better than proceed on similar lines. A definition, to be satisfactory, must state the essential attributes of the thing to be defined; and this is best done by stating the genus to which the thing belongs and then giving the peculiar marks or qualities that distinguish it from other members of the same genus. The following definitions have been framed on these lines;

SubjectGenusDistinctive Character
science issystematised and formulated knowledgerelating to the laws and general characteristics of some class of facts
logic isthe scienceof the general conditions of valid inference
economics is the scienceof the production, distribution, and conservation of wealth

It should be noted that all essential attributes must be included, and all non-essential attributes excluded. Thus, in a text-book on psychology "inborn capacity to learn" may be taken as a satisfactory definition of intelligence, but the omission of inborn would fail to distinguish it from acquired capacity, and the omission of to learn would fail to distinguish it from other inborn capacities, such as to grow, etc. On the other hand, a child's inborn capacity to learn" would be an unsatisfactory definition because it would be too narrow — for the author did not mean intelligence to be confined to children.

A definition should not be tautologous, i.e., it should not contain the word to be defined or a direct synonym or derivative of it; e.g., it would not help much to define an irresponsible person as one lacking a sense of responsibility, or a judge as one who exercises judicial functions. As a rule also a definition should not be in negative terms: it should state what a word implies rather than what it does not imply. In some cases, however, it is impossible to avoid using negative expressions: e.g, celibacy is an unmarried state. Lastly, a definition should not be expressed in obscure, ambiguous, or figurative language: it is obvious that a definition defeats its own end if it is more difficult to understand than the term it is supposed to elucidate.

But once again I must emphasise that ability to frame satisfactory definitions of terms is not a substitute for personal knowledge of the things for which those terms stand. It is admittedly unsatisfactory to try to define a term merely by citing examples of its application; but a parrot-like reproduction of a definition without ability to point to the referents is just another instance of the verbalism fallacy.

Lastly, we must in reasoning beware of being led astray by Metaphors. A metaphor is a compressed comparison. We shall discuss in Chapter Seven the legitimate and illegitimate uses of comparison. It may serve to illustrate, to elucidate, to add force or emphasis, to suggest profitable lines of investigation; but it must not be used as the sole or even the main basis for argument. So there is a proper sphere for metaphor; metaphors add to the attractiveness of style in writing, if they are apt and fresh, and they often will help us to make difficult points clear; but they are out of place where scientific accuracy is required. Always use them with care; avoid trite and hackneyed metaphors, whose edge has been dulled and whose point has been blunted by constant use — they are the most dangerous. The more familiar a metaphor, the more suspect it is, and the more likely you are to have forgotten that it is a metaphor. Are you conscious of the metaphor, when you talk of the progress of civilisation or the progress of mankind? If people were aware that the literal meaning of the word is forward movement, they would not use it invariably in the sense of improvement or betterment. For a step forward is not necessarily a step in the right direction; a disease can progress — i.e., it can become progressively worse; and the onward march of an army can lead it to disaster, not victory! A host of misconceptions arise from failure to realise the true implications of the word: e.g., people have come to regard the new always as superior of the old; they imagine that life in the twentieth century must be better and healthier and happier than life in the Middle Ages, and that the latest is bound to be the best. There is no greater fallacy.

We shall have occasion later to note how difficult it is to separate our sense-impressions from the inferences and the emotions that accompany them. Our vocabulary is full of words that convey at the same time not only a sense-impression but also the inference made and the emotion felt by the person who experienced it. When we say, for example, that we have been listening to a long-winded harangue, we mean that we were restless or bored and that we did not like the speaker's subject or his manner of treating it. The same address might have been described by the speaker's admirers as a stirring oration; they were obviously as interested as we were bored, and for them the speech was all too short. Probably the cold fact was that Mr So-and-so spoke for an hour!

We do not, in fact, sufficiently distinguish in language between a clear expression and a cogent expression. As Burke says in his essay On the Sublime and Beautiful, the former appeals to the intellect, the latter to the passions; the one describes a thing as it is, the latter describes it as it is felt. Just as a moving tone of voice, an impassioned facial expression, or an agitated gesture affect us independently of the subject which excites them, so certain words and certain dispositions of words touch and move us more than those which express the subject-matter more clearly and distinctly. We yield to sympathy what we refuse to mere description. The truth is, all verbal description, however exact it may be, conveys a poor and insufficient idea of the thing described without those modes of speech that mark a strong and lively feeling in the speaker himself. Then as it were by an infection of the emotions, we catch the fire kindled in him.

Language would, of course, be poorer if it did not contain terms which carry with them emotional values, and which connote approval or disapproval, and words or combinations of words which, as it were, weave a magic spell about the reader with the rich associations latent in them. Such words are the very stuff of poetry and impassioned oratory. But where facts are in dispute, there is no room for them; they cloud and confuse the issue, they effectually beg the question, they disclose prejudice on the part of those that use them, and they often help to confirm the prejudice of others.

Such words and phrases are the stock-in-trade of those keen controversialists — politicians, pamphleteers, leader-writers — who, knowing the weaknesses of human nature, confidently appeal to the heart rather than to the head, use flattery or abuse instead of argument, and sacrifice truth to picturesqueness.

Thus 'a far-sighted prophet' to his supporters is in the eyes of his opponents 'a crazy visionary'; a 'bold manoeuvre' becomes 'an impudent plot,' a new idea is derided as 'a new-fangled notion,' a 'delicate hint' is turned into 'a subtle insinuation,' an 'ingenious plan' into 'a hare-brained scheme.'

People betray their prejudices by the terms they use. Temperance advocates refer to the sale of alcoholic drinks as 'the liquor traffic.' Those who object to the manufacture and sale of war munitions speak of it as the 'arms traffic.' Those who have not become reconciled to the necessity of unemployment insurance will speak of ' lavishing the dole on idlers.' A newcomer whose arrival is resented becomes an ' upstart'; a sub-committee whose proposals are unpopular becomes a 'caucus.' The effect of the use of these derogatory terms, of course, is to beg the question on the point at issue. (See Chapter Nine, Section 3.) They do not mean that there is anything intrinsically bad in the objects to which they are applied, but merely disapproval on the part of the persons that use them.

In the appendix to Sir G. C. Lewis's Use and Abuse of Political Terms, a list is given of correlative terms of approval and disapproval used in political controversy. Here are some:

Approval Disapproval
party faction
movement agitation
popular leaderagitator
efficient organisationwire-pulling
wide discretion arbitrary power
esprit de corps class interest
secular education godless education

On the eve of the General Election of November 1935, in a topical article in Punch, election candidates were advised to remember the following useful phrases

Your Side The Other Lot
comprehensive programme of reformunscrupulous electioneering manifesto
trenchant criticismvulgar campaign of personal abuse
shrewd thrustunmannerly interruption

It was interesting to note in the newspaper reports and comments on the disturbances in Spain in 1936 the different terms used to describe them and the parties concerned. As the struggle progressed, the efforts of the papers of the "Right" to discredit the lawfully constituted Spanish Government became more and more noticeable. In a letter to the New Statesman of August 8th, 1936, Mr Julian S. Huxley classified the terms used in one newspaper — not one of the popular or sensational kind — in its issues first between July 20th and July 23rd, and second between July 27th and July 30th; and then compiled a table of analysis showing how the descriptive terminology changed, and changed in a way that set the constituted authority in a worse, and its opponents in a better, light. Mr Huxley's classification of terms was as follows:

The Constituted Authority
Less FavourableNeutralMore Favourable
Madrid Government
Spanish Government


Their Opponents
Less FavourableNeutralMore Favourable


Provisional Government

His analysis is as follows:

Date Government Opponents
Neutral Less
Neutral Less
20th→23rd 23 25 80 4085
27th→30th651 25381339

One might have disagreed with Mr Huxley's classification in some respects, but the general conclusion drawn was difficult to confute.

Powerful Influence
Question-begging phrases with an emotional appeal have been known to exercise a powerful influence on public opinion in times of excitement. Miss Rose Macaulay, in Potterism, mentions some of the cries used in advertisement and news propaganda during the first Great War to stimulate recruiting and to stiffen the national resistance in the struggle with Germany:carrying on, doing one's bit, seeing it through, fighting to a finish, gallant volunteers, the indomitable Britisher, innocent women and children. These cries were repeated a few years later in the ' campaign' against railway strikers. " An appeal to strikers, published in the advertisement columns of two papers at the expense of ' a few patriotic citizens,' said ' Don't bring further hardship and suffering upon the innocent women and children. . . .' In another column was the Union advertisement and that was worse. There was a picture of a railwayman looking like a consumptive in the last stages, and embracing one of his horrible children, while his more horrible wife and mother supported the feeble heads of others, and under it was written, ' Is this man an anarchist? He wants a wage to keep his family,' and it was awful to think that he and his family would perhaps get the wage and be kept after all. The question about whether he was an anarchist was obviously unanswerable without further data, as there was nothing in the picture to show his political convictions; they might, from anything that appeared, have been Liberal, Tory, Labour, Socialist, Anarchist, or Coalition-Unionist. And anyhow, supposing that he had been an anarchist, he would still, presumably, have wanted a wage to keep his family. Anarchists are people who disapprove of authority, not of wages. The member of the Union who composed that picture must have had a muddled mind."

The misuse of the word Anarchist here is typical of the way in which a term having a well-defined meaning in a technical or semi-technical sense is often bandied about in a vague, loose way as a term of abuse. Anarchy, as Miss Macaulay explains, means absence of government — an almost ideal state in which the members are so well able to discipline themselves that they need no outside authority to coerce them. An Anarchist is one who holds this idealistic conception of future human society. But because some people who professed themselves anarchists, or were described as such by their opponents, have resorted to violence and even to assassination in attempts to attain their ends, the term has been loosely applied to any who struggle against the established order. There is a strong prejudice, in fact, against most words with the suffix -ism or -ist. We do not hear quite as much of anarchist and anarchism as we used to at the end of the last century; bolshevist and bolshevism have taken their places. Bolshevism, properly speaking, describes the political system of the Union of Russian Soviets — probably, as Miss Macaulay says, " the severest, most rigorous, and authoritative form of governmental oppression under which man has yet lived " — but, if we judged by the way it is applied by those who disagree with it, or those who use it as a conveniently explosive term of disapproval, it appears to mean just the reverse, i.e., violent rebellion against law, order and authority. In face, it often appears to mean nothing more than a desire for better conditions or higher wages, with, possibly, a belief in the strike as a legitimate means of securing them. Communist and fascist, also, are too often used to-day merely as synonyms of the extreme left and right among political parties, and communists and fascists are therefore assumed to possess the disagreeable qualities of all extremistsi.e., people who will stop at nothing to attain their ends. Capitalist is another much abused explosive term. Perhaps it is hopeless to expect it to be confined to its dictionary meaning, i.e., a person who has invested such wealth as he has in some productive undertaking instead of keeping it loose and ready to spend. Nowadays, with or without the epithet bloated, it apparently means someone who has more money to spend than he ought to have, and who is usually unscrupulous into the bargain.

I remember well at the General Election of 1906 that one party described the enlistment of Chinese native labour in the Rand as "Chinese Slavery." A more blatant example of begging the question could not be imagined; yet many electors accepted the phrase as a final judgment on a matter of considerable dispute.

Slavery, besides appealing strongly to the emotions, was a gross overstatement. Exaggerated and intemperate language accounts for many misunderstandings and misjudgments, not only because it may arouse our worst passions and prejudices, but also because we often discount it, as it were, in advance. It is the old story of the boy who cried "Wolf! " When emphatic language is justified, we may refuse to attach any importance to it.Why? Because all of us, high and low, habitually indulge in overstatement. Is it the craving for excitement that makes us do it — that craving which the popular Press appears eager to satisfy? Is it that we can obtain no 'kick' out of the bald, literal truth?

Hence, in our popular newspapers, any out-of-the-ordinary event is a sensation, every accident a tragedy, every law case a drama. The Editor of one such newspaper, in a style sheet, issued to his subordinates as a guide to the make-up of their headlines, counsels the FREE use of words like MYSTERY, SECRET, TRAGEDY, DRAMA, COMEDY, SCANDAL. (Note the emphasis laid on FREE.) The Leader of the Opposition will describe a government bill as "the most monstrous hash of crude and undigested proposals which he remembers in a long parliamentary experience." A member of parliament will describe a new Pensions Bill as "the most brutal insult ever flung in the face of the poor." And in our own informal, everyday language extravagance is the rule rather than the exception: "awfully good," "terrifically handsome," "frightfully nice".

You may say, and I agree, that hyperbole is a recognised figure of speech; that no one takes these estimates seriously; that it is all a form or a flourish or part of an amusing game. But it is a dangerous game. When we are accustomed to use the epithet appalling for a thing mildly unpleasant, is it surprising that when no other word can be found to describe conditions which really ought to make us turn pale — such as starvation, slums, or the "toll of the road " — we find it difficult to bring home to ourselves or to others the true state of affairs?

And if, as you might say, it is a game in which both sides have to make due allowances, and 'knock off so much per cent,' isn't it like keeping one's watch always going fast? Isn't it easy to forget just how much allowance to make?

In any case, few people would deny that nowadays anything stated with complete calmness and fastidious precision . . . had almost the effect of satiric epigram." Absolutely literal statement is regarded as irony. Miss Rose Macaulay in an amusing essay tells the experiences of a candidate who spoke the truth to an audience of electors. The audience thought he was uproariously funny; the chairman angrily pulled him down and hinted that he was drunk!

Is it an anti-climax to suggest that we might have more respect for the English language? This may be regarded as the cry of a pedant in the wilderness. It may be too late to regain the true senses of famous, momentous, stupendous, colossal; it may be too late to regain for tragedy the meaning of a "conflict of wills on the highest plane of human endeavour," or for crusade the meaning of "a movement inspired by high religious or ethical faith," but I cannot end this chapter without a plea for their recovery, and a general protest against the putting of noble words to ignoble uses.

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