A Word Comes Opportunely Into Play

Words are weapons. And they often tell us remarkably little about the underlying ideas.

“For there precisely where ideas fail / A word comes opportunely into play”, Goethe’s Mephistopheles says to the student in Part I of “Faust”. And he continues: “Most admirable weapons words are found / On words a system we securely ground.”

Every day, we fight with words but without ideas: During bar room discussions and on social media platforms, we throw words at each other without worrying about the underlying ideas.

At this point, we must pause to inquire about the meaning of the aforementioned sentence from Goethe’s “Faust”. What do we mean when we speak about an “idea”? Is an idea more than a word? Or do ideas constitute a special category of words and terms? How can we find out?

Philosophers devoted their careers to this question, and encyclopedias are filled with explanations and definitions. It’s easy to look up what separates and “idea” from a “word”. In everyday life, however, we simply talk. Words form sentences, we discuss with and inform each other and are relatively certain that we achieve a certain level of mutual understanding. Only sometimes, when agreement eludes us, we begin to harbor doubts. Are the words of others imbued with the same meaning? Do others contemplate the same ideas when they pronounce a word?

For some time, civilizations have cultivated the notion that meaning must be codified and subject to binding norms. For decades, multi-volume encyclopedias and thesauruses built their reputation and sales revenue on the assumption that the definition of each word could be found by opening the book to the correct page. Today, online discussions frequently refer to online encyclopedias as if they spelled out beyond doubt what separates a “tower” from a “skyscraper”. But everyone knows that Wikipedia is merely the outcome of a consensus process between experts and laymen. It’s hard to justify the website’s definitions as binding.

Some ideas and terms emerge from areas of specialized knowledge, and it’s often possible to observe a certain linguistic imperialism of the particular school of thought over the meaning of its ideas. Audiences generally accept the clear definitions of the sciences and assume that their limitations – which emerged from the rather insular world of specialized discourses – are applicable to the full range of human communication. For example, physics has occupied the definition of words like “force” and “energy”. But why should we limit ourselves to the rather narrow definitions espoused by physicists? The words are much older and much more diverse in meaning than their modern scientific usage suggests, and we must not necessarily transpose that particular use to other areas of our lives. It would unduly rob language of its diversity.

Another source of established definitions are legal codes. I have previously written about the difference between “ownership” and “property”, and some readers suggested that the definitions I used were not synonymous with the definitions found in modern legal documents. But why must a text on philosophy conform to the norms set out in legal codes for the adjudication of contractual disputes?

Indeed, the German Constitutional Court itself has argued along these lines. In deciding whether the slogan “soldiers are murderers” fell under the protection of freedom of expression, the court argued that it must not compare the colloquial use of the term “murderer” against the legal definition of murder. Everyday usage of the word differs from the strictly legal definition.

But don’t we require clear definitions to be able to converse and debate intelligently about complex issues? Well, we might also take the opposite view: Clear definitions often belie the complexities of reality. We can forever fight over whether the facts of human life conform to definitions, whether events of the world are fully captured in words.

This doesn’t render clarification superfluous. If we feel misunderstood, it is of course possible to talk about the meaning of one word or another, and about why that particular meaning is appropriate. Yet the goal of such a clarification is different: Instead of finding the right word of an idea, it aims to render the object of discussion itself less opaque.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: The future of Europe‘s political map


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