Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Whisper from the East

The first comment on my initial entry was not a comment at all, but an automated response from a machine. I understand now that it was “comment spam”, a new scourge of the Internet that my blog environment has tools to deal with (and which I have now activated).

Annoyance aside, the event got me thinking. In today's world, we tolerate such things, or if they get too annoying, we implement tools to deflect them. The thought that someone would speak to us in some form (verbal, written, whatever) without really intending to engage in a dialog is part of our culture. We're bombarded with words that have no meaning, and we think nothing of it.

I have been reading an interesting book written by brilliant German philosopher Josef Pieper. It's called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, and in it he distills the thinking of Plato on the topic of dialog. It's a short enough book already, but at the risk of ruining something by double-distilling it, here's a summary of what Pieper says about Plato's thoughts:

  1. Words convey reality.

  2. The purpose of communication is for men to communicate true things about reality one to another

  3. Whenever words are used for something less than communicating true things about reality, then not only are the words debased, the act of communication itself is made into something less than it is intended to be, and the parties involved are no longer treating each other as true men, with all the dignity that goes with that.

This last point is worth noting, and even worth quoting Pieper:

Whoever speaks to another person – not simply, we presume, in spontaneous conversation but using well-considered words – and whoever in doing so is not explicitly committed to the truth – whoever, in other words, is in this guided by something other than the truth – such a person, from that moment on, no longer considers the other as partner, as equal. In fact, he no longer respects the other as a human person.

(Can you tell this was translated from German?)

This rises out of Plato's writings wherein Socrates debates against the sophists – people whose “skill” lay in their persuasive ability. Persuasive about what? Well, it didn't matter to the sophists – they could be persuasive about anything at all, and usually for a fee. They prided themselves on their verbal gymnastics, and thought nothing of the fact that their words were divorced not only from any objective external truth, but from any foundation of truth within themselves. The sophists didn't even worry that their words didn't reflect what they themselves believed – the only thing that mattered was the elegance and persuasiveness of their speech (Plato's play Gorgias is an example of a dialog between Socrates and the sophist Gorgias.) Plato's term for such disconnected dialog was flattery - a term we use today for speech intended to “butter up” someone, but probably Plato's intent was much broader. Plato would probably appreciate the phrase used by the author of Ecclesiastes: “vain words”.

Pieper's book got me thinking, and the bit of comment spam got me thinking even more, about a simple fact: our culture is drenched in this type of speech constantly - “24/7”, to use the modern idiom. Heck, there are several entire industries devoted to churning out such language, and people highly trained in and well paid for the skill of coming up with such language. The advertising industry alone is almost entirely devoted to it, and nearly every media outlet (radio, television, magazines, even web pages) is devoted to language used for something other than what Pieper identifies as the purpose of language: to communicate true things about reality.

In other words, we're a culture in which our primary tool for comprehending and communicating truth – language itself – has become divorced from that truth and used for something else.

In other words, the sophists have won.

Or have they?

Think about that. Get the book, if you can, and read what Pieper has to say. Think about the significance of such a state of affairs. In my next post I'll discuss some of my thoughts on the implications of this situation.


bloggednose said...

The same thing happened to me with my first comment. How does one obtain the tool to prevent comment spam from occuring?

SarahD said...

I'm not sure I'd say the sophists have won, but they certainly are enjoying a Golden Age. There are still a few bastions of common sense and respect out there. I haven't listened to Rush Limbaugh since the early 90's, but I recall he used to state frequently that "words mean things". I'm not sure that he was taking a jab at sophism, but the phrase stuck with me nonetheless.

I am occasionally made fun of by my friends (and by my husband) for my insistence on finding just the right words to convey my meaning. "Just blurt out what you're thinking", they say. The problem is, I never accurately represent what I'm thinking when I blurt it out -- conveying the full truth of my thought requires serious consideration and the patient use of a good vocabulary. I suspect sophism is thriving because it is easier to wield sophistic language than it is to make the consistent effort to represent the truth in one's communication. A very sad and dangerous state of affairs.