Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

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