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Collectivist or Confused Clause in the WaPo

Summary:
Language is a complex phenomenon. How is it possible, with ambiguous concepts and syntax and slippery figures of speech, to say anything meaningful? Or to convey the same ideas in different languages, say, English, French, and Latin? (I don’t mention Chinese because it looks like Chinese to me—or, as Casca said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “it was Greek for me.”) Compare with the neat logic of mathematics. I will not address these deep issues, but I just read a sentence in the Washington Post that nicely illustrates the complexity of language and its political danger. In the first sentence of his otherwise instructive piece (“A Tale of Two Epidemics: Scientists in Sweden and Britain Fight Over Who Took the Right Public Health Path,” Washington Post, May 8,

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Language is a complex phenomenon. How is it possible, with ambiguous concepts and syntax and slippery figures of speech, to say anything meaningful? Or to convey the same ideas in different languages, say, English, French, and Latin? (I don’t mention Chinese because it looks like Chinese to me—or, as Casca said in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “it was Greek for me.”) Compare with the neat logic of mathematics. I will not address these deep issues, but I just read a sentence in the Washington Post that nicely illustrates the complexity of language and its political danger.

In the first sentence of his otherwise instructive piece (“A Tale of Two Epidemics: Scientists in Sweden and Britain Fight Over Who Took the Right Public Health Path,” Washington Post, May 8, 2020), William Booth writes:

… scientists around the world have begun to skirmish over which countries have pursued the best strategies to protect their people.

This sentence is non-sensical in any of the many meanings given to the word “country.” If the word refers to the people living in a given place, the sentence means that the people protects its people. If instead “country” means “states” or “governments,” we read that governments protect their people. But, at least in a naïve democratic perspective, it is people who have a government, not the other way around. The clause is even curiouser if we take “country” to describe a set of geographical features for, obviously, mountains can’t have a strategy to protect their people. And If we mean that a country is all that—people, government, mountains—then it seems that the sentence means something like a big blob is protecting its people.

Perhaps metaphors, personifications, hyperboles, synecdoches,  and circumlocutions are just a way to speak. Words are conventional and convenient ways to represent concepts. In Rome, shouldn’t we speak Latin like the Romans? We cannot avoid all linguistic shortcuts. So perhaps we should be as tolerant of the Washington Post as of the Wall Street Journal writing that “countries … reopen their societies.”

On the other hand, Orwell’s Newspeak is not just a (new) way to speak. In The Fatal Conceit (University of Chicago Press, 1988), F.A. Hayek explains how a way to speak can lead to serious political errors. Speaking of country, state, and people as being the same thing may lead to believing that this collective blob is a reality and to being unable to explain the underlying individual behaviors. It may amount to giving up the words and concepts necessary to conceive of individual liberty. Methodological individualism has much to recommend; speaking like a methodological collectivist doesn’t.

P.S.: Thanks to Andrea Mays, author of The Millionaire and the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2015), for the Shakespeare reference.

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