Monday, February 2, 2009

Doubt versus ideology, humanists versus rationalists

I recently dusted off The Doubter's Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (The Free Press, 1994) by John Ralston Saul.

I found his introduction very compelling:

"Our civilization is unable to do what individuals cannot say. And individuals are unable to say what they cannot think. Even thought can only advance as fast as the unknown can be stated through conscious organized language, an apparently self-defeating limitation.

"The power of dictionaries and encyclopedias is thus enormous.... A dictionary can as easily be a liberating force as one of control.

"In the humanist view, the alphabet can be a tool for examining society; the dictionary a series of questions, an enquiry into meaning, a weapon against received wisdom and therefore against the assumptions of established power. In other words, the dictionary offers an organized Socratic approach.

"The rational method is quite different. The dictionary is abruptly transformed into a dispensary of truth; that is, into an instrument which limits meaning by defining language. This bible becomes a tool for controlling communications because it directs what people can think. In other words, it becomes the voice of Platonic elitism.

"Humanism versus definition. Balance versus structure. Doubt versus ideology. Language as a means of communication versus language as a tool for advancing the interests of groups."

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