When Words Lose Their Meaning

I’ve recently been reading James Boyd White’s wise book When Words Lose Their Meaning. His take on Thucydides is particularly relevant to our predicament. Given that it’s graduation speech season, I thought the following lines might be of particular interest:

Imagine you are invited to give a speech in appreciation of a public or private figure you actually admire. How can you do it without sounding like an idiot? (“Unparalleled devotion to public service”; “wonderful family man, loyal friend”; “great personal sacrifice”; “exemplar of American ideals”, etc., etc.). It is not an adequate response to say that one will simply state in plain terms what one means, as if language were a simple intellectual instrument for naming qualities and expressing judgments. (118)

Rather, White argues, “It is the task of the writer on such an occasion to remake his language so that it and his judgments are sound and fresh. . . . ”

But what if this seems impossible? Steven Millhauser has a fascinating short story in the New Yorker about a PR man who loses all faith in the ability of words to communicate. He once celebrated business for “the precision of its vocabulary—a self-enclosed world of carefully defined words that permitted clarity of thought.” But doubt sets in:

I was still able to do some work, during the day, a little work, though I was also staring a lot at the screen. I had command of a precise and specialized vocabulary that I could summon more or less at will. But the doubt had arisen, corroding my belief. Groups of words began to disintegrate under my intense gaze. I was like a man losing his faith, with no priest to turn to.

White’s solution to such a dilemma is to call for the use of language that is “literary–merging fact, value, and reason, fusing the particular and the general, uniting thought and emotion, logic and image–rather than theoretical or conceptual” (229). He insists that “the law is less a branch of the social sciences than of the humanities in that it seeks not to be a closed system but an open one” (273). That may well be an overreaction to the types of Law & Econ and CLS dominant at the time he wrote the book (1984). But it is a good guiding sentiment for how we allow the specialized vocabularies of other fields of knowledge to inform our work. . . . and how much confidence we should have in the degree of fit between our own conceptual apparatus and a messy world.

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