CCR 634: Doing things with Words

When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Wittgenstein’s idea of language-games and the slippery play between signifiers and signified in relation to this election. As Wittgenstein argues in Philosophical Investigations, “For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word meaning it can be explained thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (43). In other words, the meaning of a word is distinct from the word itself, and it arises from how the word is used. Unlike the more positivist outlook of early Wittgenstein, late Wittgenstein argued that we can’t get some stable meaning of a word but must “look” at people using it and trace that usage. Using an example, he notes how a builder may use words, like “slab,” in highly contextual ways, following specific rules that outsiders won’t be able to decipher. Misunderstanding takes place when we aren’t playing the same game in a given situation and mistake the usage (and therefore meaning) of a word in a particular context. We are all bound by certain reference frames, certain go-to meanings stitched into our words, and these are not always valid or appropriate for every situation.

Though this is a simplification of Wittgenstein, to me, it gets at one of the issues with discursive differences between speakers: when speakers with radically different reference frames speak, they may have completely different meanings for the same words. When I hear Trump say “the people,” I don’t know what he means, but I’m skeptical if it’s the messy, diverse pluralism (soaked in historical significance) that I imagine with that phrase. The same goes with “fake news.” When I say fake news, I am playing the “Is it empirically verified?” game; when Trump and others use it, they are playing the “invalidate certain stories” game. Like the Pepe the frog meme, certain signifiers lose their original or intentional meaning and gain the meaning of the dominant players.

Furthermore, these approach to language reminds me of an enthymeme of sorts as each word finishes its meaning in the heads of listeners, essentially making meaning an argument. Using deliberately vague language maximizes each word’s ability to “argue” for different meanings in the heads of listeners, maximizing the buy-in of a particular term. Whatever Trump’s meaning of “we the people” is does not matter, as the word itself is vague enough to have an audience-induced meaning that carries the day regardless of Trump’s intention or the word’s historical and denotative meanings. Like words in a ritual, or magic words, context and contextual rhetoric gives significance to a word, not a dictionary. In this way, “meaning” is affective, not denotative.

This leads me to these ancient Greek texts. As the Dissoi Logoi notes, goodness, justice, etc., are contextual. Someone dying is bad for a family but good for the undertaker. Greek practices are shameful to Egyptian audiences and vise versa. As the text argues, things are “seemly” or “shameful” when done “at the right Moment,” seeming to point to a kairotic foundation to rhetoric. Looking at what words “do” or how they affect a particular situation seems to reveal that a stable meaning or association is hard to find.

And I think that Plato’s Phaedrus points to another key observation about words and meaning:

Soc.: When any one speaks of iron and silver, is not the same thing present in the minds of all?

Phaedr.: Certainly.

Soc.: But when any one speaks of justice and goodness we part company and are at odds with one another and with ourselves?

Phaedr.: Precisely.

In other words, certain terms, like iron or silver, tend to be easy to follow or easy to agree upon. The signifier-signified relationship is more robust. But more abstract terms, like justice or goodness, have a larger propensity for disagreement and misunderstanding. Not all words are created equal.

And this leads me to the Gorgias dialogue. As Gorgias notes, rhetoric is about “discourse,” but as Socrates quickly shows, the nature of that discourse is uncertain. It is unlike the discourse of math, for example, and instead deals with “persuasion,” they argue. And later on, Socrates connects it to “cookery” and “flattery,” more involved with experience than self-explanation and reasoning. In this way, it isn’t “dialectic,” following a rigorous method of knowledge creation–or in the case of Plato, recovery. It isn’t concerned with explaining itself or defining itself. It’s concerned with doing things, particularly convincing people, and in Plato’s mind, this makes it both dangerous and less robust.

In this way, and here I am thinking a bit about Burke and the Gorgias of the “Encomium,” rhetoric is very magical, or to continue Socrates’ cookery metaphor, it is like crafting a meal. When Trump says “we the people,” like combining the right ingredients in a meal, he isn’t concerned with what those ingredients “are;” he’s concerned with how it is experienced or felt by the audience–how it affects, whether they know why it affects or not. To quote Gorgias, “The effect of speech upon the nature of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of the bodies.” Words, like drugs, go to work in quiet, insidious ways, weaving through cultures and nervous systems, sometimes veiled from the semiosphere or consciousness itself, but they are always doing things–regardless of what they “mean” in a dialectical sense.

In this way, I think Nietzsche’s critiques of Socrates show their validity. While Socrates, applying his method to a general, shows that the “brave” general does not know what “bravery” is, Nietzsche points out that the general can still do his job–can still be brave without defining what bravery “is.” Weaver’s “Cultural Role of Rhetoric” takes this to the next level, pointing out how Plato’s dialectical approaches don’t have the same cultural power as rhetoric, as they are too detached and distanced from identity and culture–and I would add, practice and affect.

Like Socrates, I think, those trying to analyze Trump, asking what he “means,” are playing the wrong game. While we are playing the dialectical game of Socrates, Trump, intentionally or not, is playing the rhetorical, affective game of Gorgias and Nietzsche. His words are doing things, in many different ways, regardless of any abstracted ontology.

[Image: “Socrates” by Ben Crowe, via Creative Commons]


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