The Language We Use
By Stephen Lewis at Feb 06, 2012
Most people believe that the Earth where we all live is being despoiled and threatened. Only a few would deny that there is any problem at all. Various reasons for this predicament are proposed and various remedies offered. Some think that nothing can be done, or even that nothing should be done - that’s just the way it is. So let’s enjoy it while we can. Others put their faith in a technological fix. Yet others suggest that it’s all a question of individual consciousness – each of us needs to change the way we think if we are to live sustainably. But, wherever we might locate ourselves ideologically, how we express our views is important. Are we being precise? Do we make statements that are capable of empirical confirmation or refutation? Or are we obfuscating the issues? Knowingly or not, diverting attention away from the real causes of environmental disaster?
Here are two quotes, two uses of words
Mankind has already caused the extinction of thousands of species already with processes like deforestation. (1)
The essence of the Western idea of progress can be simply stated: mankind has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and may be expected to continue advancing in the future. (2)
I’ve given the sources for these quotes at the end. They were both taken from extremely well researched and well written articles. I chose them more or less at random. There are thousands of similar ones. My point is not whether the statements are in some sense correct or not. Neither is it whether I or you agree. By concentrating on the use of words such as Mankind (Man, Humankind, or Humanity), I want to suggest that they are distinctly unhelpful in any debate, and certainly the debate about ecology and the environment. I could equally well have highlighted the reified word Western in the second quote, but for brevity I will refrain from this.
What do such statements really mean and what are the implications? This short essay is in part a critique of some of the language used in the ecological and environmental debate, and in part a plea for the use of more concrete and specific language. Before I continue, I would like to qualify my qualifications in this matter. I am not an academic linguist, nor a philosopher of language. I am certainly not an expert in semiotics. I am just a simple economist, historian and writer - with a concern for future of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Readers might take issue with some of my linguistic analysis. So be it! I just ask that the thrust of this argument is considered for what it is.
Let’s start with a simple sentence:
Sentence 1: George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.
This sentence uses correct English grammar, uncomplicated syntax, and doesn’t contain much lexical ambiguity. We know the subject, George, who did the cutting. We know he went somewhere, and we know which forest he went to. We also know what he did there: he cut down ten trees. If we are sure that the person reporting the information is reliable and honest, we might even accept it as a fact and say it’s a true statement.
Now imagine that it was your neighbour who one day walked into your garden and announced: ‘George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.’ What does he mean by this? What is his intention in telling you? After all, without some sort of context, it would be a rather bizarre thing to do. He might add the context himself by going on to say that this is wonderful news because George is building a house and he needed the wood. On the other hand, he might not feel the need to add anything at all because he knows from past experience that both he and you are concerned about the survival of the forest and, therefore, without it needing to be said, George’s action was reprehensible. Even if your neighbour had no intention at all when he uttered the sentence - which might be a little strange - you could, and probably would, want to put your own interpretation on the news. Sometimes you might be able to do this without any more information at all. You know George, you know what he’s up to and why, and you know what you personally think of such actions. On other occasions, you might want additional information before you can make up your mind what this sentence really means to you. For example: Did someone pay him to do this? What did he use to cut down the trees? What type of trees did he cut down? Why did he cut the trees down? How many trees are there in the forest?
Once we obtain the extra information we think we need, we can interpret what the sentence means to us. We can even, if we wish, make a value judgement, based, at least in part, on our own morality and ideology: ‘I think that what George did was good (or bad) because...’ Was he a hero or a villain? We might even decide that something has to be done. Either we decide to go and help George next time he goes to the forest, or we might start to look for ways of stopping him.
The key point here is this: whatever our interpretation and whatever our ideology, the sentence itself has not unduly hindered us from making up our minds.
Sentence 2: He went into the forest and cut down ten trees.
I have done two things here: Replace the noun George with the pronoun he, and taken away the information telling us which forest George went into. All the considerations that were applicable to Sentence 1 still apply here. But because he is a little vaguer than George, we might first need to ask: ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘Which forest?’
Sentence 3: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees.
A little semantic obscurity creeps in here. Did he cut down ten trees in total or ten trees every day? But this could soon be cleared up by asking another question. The sentence could then become:
Sentence 4: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees each day.
Let’s go a step further:
Sentence 5: Over the last twelve years, logging companies have gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.
The scale and duration of the tree cutting has increased - but we still know something about who was responsible, who caused it: it was logging companies, though we don’t know which ones. Yet we still don’t know where the forests are that are being cut down.
This means we might (or we might not) need to ask additional questions before we think we have enough information to be able to interpret the information the sentence provides. We will probably still want to know more about the context of the logging. Which forests? Why was it happening? Was it to build roads? Was it to provide open land to rear cattle to supply hamburger chains? Who is profiting? What were the effects of the logging on local communities? Are ten thousand trees a day a lot?
When we have asked enough additional questions, and obtained what we hope are reliable answers, we can then make up our minds:
‘This is wonderful! With nine billion people on the planet we need to supplement agricultural land wherever we can!’
‘This is horrendous; we are destroying our eco-systems and bringing destitution to countless local people!’
Logging companies is, in linguistic terms, a plural countable noun. We can say ‘four logging companies’ as well as ‘some logging companies’. Let’s change the sentence again:
Sentence 6: Over the last twelve years, business has gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.
Note that I have skipped the step of using a simple plural countable noun such as businesses. Instead I have used the word business, which is called in linguistics a singular uncountable noun. It’s singular because we say ‘business is’ not ‘business are’; it’s non countable because we can’t say ‘five business’, although we can still say ‘some business’.
This starts to make our task of giving meaning to the sentence and making an interpretation even more long-winded. More questions need to be asked - if we can be bothered. Questions such as: Which businesses do you mean? What type of companies are they? How many? And so on.
In addition, we can also remove any information regarding the duration of logging, the number of trees cut, or even mention of ‘the forest’ itself, or of any specific forest:
Sentence 7: Business continues to deforest the world.
This sentence may still be a true statement of fact; but we are getting so far removed from knowing who precisely has done what, where, and with what result, that it’s starting to become a little meaningless. But at least the verb deforest still has some understandable meaning, and the noun business still points, though very dimly, at the responsible subject.
The penultimate sentence is this:
Sentence 8: Humans continue to deforest the world.
Again it’s still true, but now any precision whatsoever regarding who is actually cutting down the trees has disappeared completely. It’s just the collective plural humans. It completely begs the whole question of which humans? Never mind all the other questions we have already asked; such as: which forests, where, when, for what purpose, who benefits and who loses? It seems to imply, I would suggest, that we (or we humans) are all responsible; the small peasant farmer in Africa just as much as the large capitalist agri-businesses or ‘roving-pirate’ logging companies.
And so to our final sentence:
Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation.
One could equally say Mankind, but Humankind is a little less gender specific. Here we reach the apogee of vagueness. Indeed, we have now somehow reified everything. Reification, from the Latin word res (meaning thing) usually means making a concept real, bringing it into being or making it something concrete. More generally:
Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete ‘thing’, or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.
As is often the case, German has a much more expressive word: Verdinglichung. Literally this is the process of ‘turning into a thing’. This process is of great importance. Often we talk about reification as being the act of changing abstract concepts, say truth, beauty or beautiful, into supposedly real or concrete things: Truth or Beauty. Notice how reification nearly always involves capitalization! But it’s not just limited to this. We can also turn a meaningful noun such as a man into a vague, reified concept such as Mankind - and give this concept the qualities of a real thing.
Philosophers, particularly it should be said German and French philosophers, and mostly of the Idealistic or Existential variety, love to reify concepts or processes. One could mention Heidegger’s ‘The Being of Becoming’ (Das Sein des Seiendes), or Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ (L’être et le néant) - to mention just two vacuous ontological obfuscations. ‘To be’ and ‘to become’ are verbs of condition or process: I am a man; a seed becomes a tree. You can’t hold am or becomes; and you certainly can’t talk to them or hold them responsible. But this is precisely what reification does. We make the simple verb ‘to become’ into a real thing and then we can start to interrogate it and even pass judgements on it!
George is a real thing or object. Actually he is a person (who can even act as a subject as well). Even the pronoun he refers to a person in our example. ‘A human’ usually refers to somebody concrete, though it can be used otherwise. With the use of humans, though it is tremendously vague, if it is used in the present tense then we could, at least in theory, go and introduce ourselves to all these humans, whether that means all homo sapiens or just a proportion of them.
But reification isn’t only about transforming an abstract concept such as beauty or beautiful into Beauty, or even a verb such as ‘to become’ in Becoming. It can also involve transforming simple nouns or adjectives into collective concepts, and then treating these concepts as though they had real concrete qualities – qualities such as volition or the ability to cause physical effects in the world. We can also reify a noun, signifying a real entity, such as a man, into Mankind, or a human (or the adjective Humane) into Humankind.
This isn’t to imply that using such reified words as Mankind, Humankind, or Humanity leads to a complete semantic lack of meaning. If I write the rather inelegant sentence: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with Humanity’, I guess most people will roughly understand what I’m getting at. Some might even place the word Humanity inside inverted commas. Not to signify a quotation, but rather to alert the reader to the fact that the word is some sort of abstract concept, or perhaps that it’s meaning is contested, or even to signify some sort of post-modernist irony. But Humanity is not a living thing; it can’t have empathy with anybody! Ultimately it’s not an ‘it’. I might want to make my sentence slightly more understandable by writing for example: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with other parts of Humanity.’ Immediately you can notice that I’ve already split up Humanity into parts or groups - in order to be more precise with regards to whom exactly it is I might be suggesting has empathy with whom? I might go a step further in this direction and rewrite my sentence as follows: ‘The greatest redeeming factor of all people is that they have empathy with all other people.’ Immediately, I would suggest, by de-reifying the words it’s much easier for readers to either agree with the statement or want to refute it. The path is immediately open for anyone to say: ‘Well that’s not true; most people don’t empathize with others!’ It is also much more amendable to the design of a scientific test of the validity of the proposition. Of course, it could be argued that the original sentence, which twice uses the word Humanity, can be equally contested in the same way. That it is equally amenable to scientific refutation or confirmation. But one can’t test any statement about Humanity as it doesn’t exist. In order to do so one would need to translate the statement into a testable form - by using such words as ‘all people’.
A final point on Sentence 9 is perhaps of interest – though it is not critical. Here is the sentence again:
Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation
It is surely a wonderful thing that English, and many other languages, can evolve and create such verbs as deforest and a noun such as deforestation. Google begets ‘to google’! But using the word Deforestation is also reification. Deforestation isn’t a thing, I would argue it’s not even a process, it’s an idea. So if we say: ’Deforestation is causing major problems for the people of Bangladesh’, this is just evasion. Somebody, or some group of people, somewhere is actually cutting down the trees for a specific purpose.
So in what way does this all matter? In general or as it relates to the debate about ecology and the environment. Surely it’s all semantics - both in terms of the scientific and linguistic meaning of the word and in its everyday usage! I would contend not. My argument regarding the use of vague or reified words such as Mankind, Humankind, Humanity and such like can be summarized as follows:
- The subject is not a real person or group of people. It is not even an identifiable group: a class, a government or certain private companies.
- Reified concepts such as Humankind can’t do or cause anything.
- Even if the statement is understandable, has some meaning, and even if it is in some way ‘true’, it is usually just a platitude or a tautology.
- This means that who actually is causing the effects, the damage (yes ‘cause and effect’) can’t be identified or held accountable.
- Implicitly or explicitly, the culprit is everybody - even though this is blatantly not the case.
- This can lead to Quietism, to a turning in on one-self. I am as much to blame as anyone else so I must work on myself!
- As I do so the real culprits can just go on as if nothing matters – except their own profit.
That is not the end of the story. If I write the sentence: ‘the majority of the destruction of the forests in the Amazon over the last thirty years has been carried out by private capitalist companies from the rich countries; intent only on their own profit.’ This is a statement that is amenable to confirmation or refutation. For the sake of argument, people at either extreme of the ideological divide might even agree to it. But even if capitalist companies were the proximate cause of the felling, there are at least two retorts. One is that while this may be true it is Mankind’s incessant demand for resources and industrial and consumer products that is the underlying or ultimate cause. The logging companies are only meeting that need. Once again we are back to the reified concept of Mankind. Whose consumer needs are being met? Another often used retort is simply that the desire to maximize profit lies at the core of a successful economy and must be encouraged in all circumstances. Fair enough, but at least we know the field upon which the battle must be fought. It’s not a question of Mankind’s collective culpability, but purely a question of who really benefits and who loses - including, we might add, in the non-human world.
Finally, I think it is important to add that many contemporary commentators and historians do not fall into this quagmire of language. They try to tell, as explicitly and truthfully as they can, what is happening now and or what happened in the world in the past. This might be regarding commercial logging in Africa or Indonesia or it might be what is their interpretation of what happened during the land clearances and Enclosures in Britain.
Here are two sentences that I have written – one contemporary and one historical:
Despite the ban on commercial whaling, every year hundreds of whales are still being illegally slaughtered by Japanese commercial whalers in the Antarctic sanctuary - using the pretence of Research.
Note I haven’t written: ‘Mankind is killing the whales.’
The Ariège forests in France were not decimated by hundreds of years of communal usage. Most trees were cut down by rich private capitalists for private gain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Note I haven’t written: ‘Humans caused deforestation in the Pyrenees.’
You might or might not agree with my two statements, but at least they are clear. And it wouldn’t be too difficult to go about confirming or falsifying them. It’s even pretty obvious (if you accept them) what might need to be done!
I am not immune to using the type of language I have described, but I think it is unhelpful and even invidious and I will try to avoid it in the future.
2. Robert Nisbet, Idea of Progress, Literature and Liberty, Cato Institute, 1978.