THE FIRST BASIC RULE OF REASON

 

            The first rule inherent in the “Old” idea of reason is that words should be used primarily to communicate ideas and the emotional and image effect of words should enhance and supplement ideas, not substitute for them. This is an intensional intellectual approach to language that emphasizes meaning, understanding, and sticking to the real issue. Supplanting ideas with emotive and image effect leads in one way or another way from the point at hand. The most inclusive and general way to sum up this first basic rule of reason is to state simply: ARGUING BESIDE THE POINT IS WRONG.

 

DEFINITION

 

            John Locke, because he believed that words were sensible remarks of invisible ideas, energetically promoted clear definitions. This emphasis on definitions displayed a pioneering quality because before his time very little serious work had been accomplished in the field of definitions.  Few dictionaries existed, and those that were around only explained a few “hard” words. Locke saw a need and made an effort to acknowledge it. He said, in Chapter 10, Book III of his Essays, “…there is no such way to gain Admittance, or to give Defence to strange and absurd Doctrines, as to guard them round about with Legions of obscure, doubtful, and undefined words:…For Untruth being unacceptable to the Mind of Man, there is no other defence left of Absurdity, but Obscurity.” (28)

            It is important to notice that in his discourses, Locke insisted on definitions of Ideas not only in the field of science but also moral philosophy, a subject studied seriously by the American Fathers. In discussing the imperfections and abuses of language he maintained that definitions could make moral discourses clear and then states, “This I have here mention’d by the bye, the shew of what Consequence it is for Men…to define their words when there is Occasion; Since thereby moral Knowledge may be brought to so great Clearness and Certainty. And it must be a great want of Ingenuity, (to say no worse of it) to refuse to do it: Since a Definition is the only way, whereby the precise Meaning of moral Words can be known;…” (29)

            Locke died in 1704. In 1721, Nathaniel Bailey published the first dictionary that attempted to include all English words. It met immediate success. Ten editions appeared in twenty-one years. Bailey desired “…to fix the language by means of a Standard Dictionary, which should register the proper sense and use of every world and phrase, from which no polite writer henceforth would be expected to deviate.” (30) Thus was initiated the “Golden Age” of dictionary making.

            Bailey’s dictionary had annoying imperfections and Dr. Samuel Johnson, encouraged by Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and other literary men of England, conceived the idea of producing a more scholarly work. In 1755, Johnson’s monumental Dictionary of the English Language was published. This famous work raised lexicography to a department of literature and encouraged a renewed curiosity about definitions. The interest was so high that before the turn of the century four other Englishmen also published dictionaries and controversy on their relative merits was intense.

            The golden age of dictionaries coincided with the birth of the new American nation. The spirit of the times inspired men to think in terms of clear ideas and to recognize the need of commonly accepted definitions to facilitate the communication of those ideas.

            In 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was published, a sophomore at Yale University by the name of Noah Webster resolved to devote his life to the welfare of his new country. He worked tirelessly to promote a national spirit, a national union, and a national language. He crowned these activities with the publication of his great American Dictionary in 1828.

            The extent of the enterprise undertaken by Webster is impressive. He learned twenty languages in order to be familiar with word usages in other lands. His linguistic research was meticulous and unique for his generation. He would spread the grammars and dictionaries from various languages on a specially built semi-circular table. He did his work in a pendular motion from one end of the arc to the other, and back.  In this manner he was able to discover the affinities of languages and search out the primary sense of each word to clarify root meanings. Nothing to match this quality had ever been done before. “Webster” became the standard dictionary in the halls of congress, in the courts of law, and in the American schoolroom. Because of these endeavors the United States began its career with a unity of language and ability to communicate.

            In the early part of the twentieth century, when “ideas” began to go out of favor, an accompanying change in attitudes toward definitions began to appear. Modern linguistic philosophies now reject the former admiration for clear definitions. They feel that definitions obscure rather than clarify knowledge. For example,  Thurman Arnold maintains, “It is not generally recognized that the more we define our terms the less descriptive they become and the more difficulty we have in using them…The answer is that in writing about social institutions he (the observer of social institutions) should never define anything…If he is ever led into an attempt at definition, he is lost.” (31)

Kytle, in a recently published text, Composition and Discovery, for high school and college students, teaches that “There is no such thing as a definition of an abstraction.” (32) In The Birth and Death of Meaning, Ernest Becker cites Popper’s opinion to support his own when he says, “…contrary to the popular prejudice of seeking precise definition, science tries to attach as little weight as possible to the terms it uses. In other words, the more we avoid precision, the more explanatory power our language seems to have.” (33) Ruse says, “Dictionary definitions permit us to hide from ourselves and others the extent of our ignorance.” (34)

            The men who now set the patterns of modern thought have a distinctly different attitude toward definitions than that held by older American philosophers. Originally considerable effort was spent in encouraging appropriate intensional definitions. At the present time, among intellectuals, intensional definitions are discouraged. Those who promote a “new reason” are usually the same as those who deplore pressure to force their thoughts into little square boxes. Definition is viewed as a constriction of experience and the creation of an abstractly false world.

            This disagreement over the need for definitions creates a serious difficulty in the promotion of rational discourse. Some people consider “coming to terms” the first step of the reasoning process and believe those who refuse to make this effort are irrational, emotional, and tyrannical. Others actively discourage definition on the theory that definitions lead to empty verbalizations and obscure reality by creating an illusion of knowledge that has no objective existence. When persons of these different persuasions attempt to reason together the soon reach an impasse.