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Sunday, April 15, 2007

particular/general language

Wendell Berry, in his essay "Imagination in Place", writes
All this [pressures of farming] calls for an exactly particularizing language. This is the right kind of language for a writer, a language developing, so to speak, from the ground up. It is the right kind of language for anybody, but a lot of our public language now seems to develop downwards from a purpose. Usually the purpose is to mislead, the particulars being selected or invented to suit the purpose; or the pariculars dangle loosely and unregarded from the dislocated intellectuality of the universities. This is contrary to honesty and also to practicality.
This reminds me of questions about the role of theory in physics. It is generally concieved to be the theorists who design the language and the experimentalists who work within that framework, occasionally finding that the framework is inadequate, thereby requiring a reworking.

If top-down language is dishonest and impractical, then what is its appropriate role? Could the tension here be between passing of knowledge through experience and through writing or language? A person that is able to do something can then teach someone else to do it. Songs can be passed down orally from generation to generation.

But Wendell Berry is also an author and thus captures something in his writing. Perhaps the point is that it is always through example that he teaches. There's something appealing to me about this picture of knowledge embodied in experienced people rather than in books, because I am so heavily biased in the other direction. But whenever one encounters what one lacks, it needs to be taken slowly so that what one has isn't destroyed in the process.

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