Pieper, Language, and the Truth II

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, September 18

Part 2 of 3: The Breakdown of Communication

In part 1 we discussed the dual purpose of language: to convey the truth and to communicate that truth with others. In this part we will examine how we think, how this affects our use of language and how poor thinking can lead to a breakdown in communication.

The intellectual course of the last few centuries is founded in individualism and has manifested itself in the worldviews of subjectivism, relativism and progressivism. As such, our relation to the truth and to each other has changed drastically. The ultimate end of man is a value-neutral progress because, as 17th century English intellectual Thomas Hobbes points out, we can’t seem to agree on any end of man beyond our own survival and comfort and, therefore, to pursue any collective end beyond our own individual desires is illegitimate. However, such “compromise” gives up on any objective truth as unobtainable. We will never agree on what the truth is so the best we can do is to let everyone do their own thing in peace. Let everyone follow their own truth and let’s be done with all the nastiness of conflict that comes with disagreement over the truth.

However, it is not in our nature to be value-neutral; we each have our own set of ideals which we seek to further and this manifests itself in society. Thus, in striving to neutralize the truth we merely open ourselves to new abuses. Pieper had the following to say on such neutralization of the truth, “Public discourse, the moment it becomes basically neutralized with regard to a strict standard of truth, stands by its nature ready to serve as an instrument in the hands of any ruler to pursue all kinds of power schemes.” In other words, when language ceases to represent anything of actual objective meaning it is rendered meaningless and then it, in turn, may be used to mean anything. This divorce of language from reality destroys the communicative aspect of language and makes it ripe for abuse for the sake of power. When language no longer serves to communicate reality between persons it is readily reduced to a mere tool of propaganda. This leads to violence to the truth and violation of the dignity of those human persons subject to such violence.

In the Sophist Plato criticizes the sophists for fabricating a fictitious reality. That is, they use language to convey their own “truth” divorced from objective reality. In doing so they deny participation in reality of those over whom they hold influence and, in doing so, replace the communicative aspect of language with an aspect of manipulation, of exerting power over others. The subjectivists of the modern world, though often unintentionally, fall into a similar trap. In divorcing our words from a universal reality that may be shared by all and instead treating our words as merely subjective, as a means to express our own “truth” we destroy true communication between people in favor of so-called “self-expression” – although it may be more appropriately called self-exertion; that is, we are exerting our fictitious self-reality onto other at expense of the universal truth.

From slogans to blind emotionality, from partisan simplification to autocratic terminology, fictitious realities bombard us from every corner as people chronically abuse language for some gain. Truth has become a scarce commodity as language seems to be used more today to obscure reality than to communicate it.  Such abuse is not new. The sophists of antiquity represented a powerful force but men like Socrates and Plato were receptive to the truth and their opposition to the abuse of language by the sophists and their fictitious realities lead to the founding of the Platonic Academy. The academic tradition continues today and, though troubled in its own right, still represents an opposition to the abuse of language and a refuge for the truth.

Christian Ohnimus is a registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He is a contributor to The Porch and The Catholic Renaissance.

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One thought on “Pieper, Language, and the Truth II

  1. Pingback: Pieper, Language, and the Truth III | The Porch

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