I have other posts that I am working on, but it seems like I won’t be able to actually get myself to finish writing them until I write this one that I’ve been avoiding, and I’ve been avoiding it because it is about John Locke, and I feel like I just wrote a post about John Locke. But the thing is, the last post may have made it seem like Locke was almost at new age-y levels of excitement with getting us in touch with our emotional connections to one another, and really, that’s not quite right. In fact, Locke’s list of main abuses of language that humans engage in ends with just a general condemnation of all figurative speech in general, though in fairness to Locke, he does start by acknowledging that this is a hot take, and in fairness to figurative language, he does so in what might be the saltiest way possible. Apologies for the length of this quote, I think in this instance, it is best to simply provide the entirety of Locke’s polemic against figurative language, so we can think about the various parts of it later, rather than me quoting bits and pieces from it as I go:
Since Wit and Fancy finds easier entertainment in the World, than dry Truth and real Knowledge, figurative Speeches, and allusion in Language, will hardly be admitted, as an imperfection or abuse of it. I confess, in Discourses, where we seek rather Pleasure and Delight, than Information and Improvement, such Ornaments as are borrowed from them, can scarce pass for Faults. But yet, if we would speak of Things as they are, we must allow, that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheat: And therefore however laudable or allowable Oratory may render them in Harangues and popular Addresses, they are certainly, in all Discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where Truth and Knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault, either of the Language or Person that makes use of them. What, and how various they are, will be superfluous here to take notice; the Books of Rhetorick which abound in the world, will instruct those, who want to be informed: Only I cannot but observe, how little the preservation and improvement of Truth and Knowledge, is the Care and Concern of Mankind; since the Arts of Fallacy are endow’d and preferred. ‘Tis evident how much Men love to deceive, and be deceived, since Rhetorick, that powerful instrument of Error and Deceit, has its established Professors, is publickly taught, and has always been had in great Reputation: And, I doubt not, but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality in me, to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair Sex, has too prevailing Beauties in it, to suffer it self ever to be spoken against. And ’tis in vain to find fault with those Arts of Deceiving, wherein Men find pleasure to be Deceived.John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (3.11.34, p 509)
The reason I keep thinking about this paragraph in Locke is because of a book that has been sitting on my coffee table for a while now, that I read several years ago, after reading a very compelling review of it (which I cannot for the life of me recall or relocate). The book is titled “The Lifespan of a Fact” by John D’Agata, Author. Jim Fingal, Fact-Checker. It has apparently be adapted into a broadway play, which adds an entire layer to this that I am not going to think about today.
The story of the book is this: John D’Agata wrote a piece about a suicide in Las Vegas. It was rejected from one magazine, and submitted to another. The intern assigned to fact check it, Jim Fingal, began to correspond with him about the enormous number of factual inaccuracies, fabrications, speculation disguised as reporting, etc. D’Agata seemed intransigent on correcting any of these issues, despite the piece being ostensibly non-fiction (D’Agata seems to maintain there is some category, “Essay” that is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but the articulation of what this means is not very satisfactory).
I was engrossed by this book, and definitively took Fingal’s side on, if I recall correctly, literally every single point offered as a correction? There may have been one or two things where I thought “okay, I wouldn’t assume that a comment like that was attempting/purporting to capture objectively accurate facts” but for the grand majority of them, it was boggling my mind to think that the person authoring the article was not only making the errors in the first place, but resisting corrections that were being provided.
I became increasingly angry with the author of the book over the course of the book. Like, actually mad.
I assume that my reaction to this book is not universal (protip: discovering that lots of people don’t think/react like me has been very helpful for navigating the world, and I wish I’d really embraced it sooner, instead of just giving it lip-service). There are lots of ways people might react to it differently than me. First off, some people probably just don’t care that much? That seems pretty plausible. I mean, the fact that it was made into a broadway play suggests that maybe a bunch of people cared about it in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated, but the fact that no one thought to tell me about that play suggests that it wasn’t a super big deal on the relevant parts of my social media networks. As a contrast, when Netflix announced the Gilmore Girls revival, no fewer than seven people made sure I was aware of that, in addition to the fact that I heard about it through it being a news story, and also because I am a Netflix subscriber.
Anyway, the more important variation is, there are probably a lot of people who read the book and didn’t think that John D’Agata came across as an entirely unreasonable person in it. They might have thought that Jim Fingal seemed like a super pedantic stick-in-the-mud hall monitor or something, and that D’Agata seems to be in the right about the standards of accuracy for a non-fiction essay.
That’s a hard perspective for me to get my head around (it is much easier to get my head around someone who just finds it boring).
As is often the case, however, I can get a little help from early modern philosophy. Because Locke is giving voice to a certain sort of hard nosed Joe Friday attitude that seems, perhaps, too extreme in its rejection of the non-logos elements of rhetoric (such as pathos and ethos).
There are two mindsets I can get into for rejecting what Locke says here, one of them I think is actually just misguided, and the other one I think has something to it. The misguided one is roughly “no one likes a killjoy”. Which might be true, but doesn’t make what Locke said wrong. Like, Locke could be entirely correct (other than the casual sexism he throws in at the end, and such), and still be a wet blanket to point out that eloquence is a cheap trick to get people to agree with you, when they shouldn’t. Like, it might be that if everyone talks without figurative language, it’s less fun, but better for truth and the improvement of the intellect, and then we’d all be less entertained, but better informed. And if you said “ugh, Locke is such party pooper” you’d be right, but you wouldn’t have really overcome his argument (you’d probably be able to rally a bunch of people to the cause of kicking Locke out of the party though, so, score one for the persuasive power of rhetoric, I guess?)
The more interesting mindset for resisting Locke, here, though is that maybe our personal logos-es (logoi?) are sort of broken? Locke suggests that the only use of eloquence is to cheat. This is reminiscent of the Socratic definition of a sophist as one who makes the weaker argument into the stronger. But if we’re not uniformly good at responding to stronger arguments as though they are stronger, and weaker arguments at though they are weaker, then, reason alone isn’t going to cut it (note, though: eloquence isn’t a great solution to that specific problem unless it counteracts the specific breakdown in our evaluation of the strength of arguments. But at least it is a way to avoid us falling into the same specific pitfall every time?).
So, Locke seems to be operating on the assumption that we are kind of like perfect rational machines in some sense (though, it is also clear in other places he recognizes that this is not true), and that if you just give us uncorrupted stream of data, we’ll process it correctly. From that perspective, any fancy flourishes you add in are just going to add noise to the datastream and take us further from that ideal clear signal. If you think we’re not perfect processors of data, then, it’s not like getting differing outcome by expressing things poetically is just automatically a corrupting influence away from that pure ideal, because the idea of a pure ideal is nonsense—but neither is it necessarily taking us in a better direction.
Usually, I want these essays to come around to some sort of lesson in the end. Like “my anger at D’Agata was misdirected because I was mistakenly embracing an extreme Lockean form of rationalism” (I don’t think this is the case) or “there is a good insight to draw from skepticism because it teaches us to ratchet back our confidence” (this is true, but not really the lesson to draw from these observations). Instead, I think this is just a sort of messy situation. I am no closer to understanding D’Agata than I was before. I think that Locke’s vociferous condemnation of figurative language makes sense if we think of humans as having some sort of idealized talent for processing evidence (or even, a capacity that approximates the ideal, in the aggregate), but the story is just more complicated than that, in reality, because we have all sorts of weird tendencies and biases and weirdnesses in how we think that probably mess up that Lockean picture. It mostly just means that a life without poetry and metaphors would be less fun, and it isn’t really clear whether we’d be closer or further to the truth. As far as I can tell, though, none of that excuses D’Agata for getting things in his essay wrong on purpose because he thinks it makes the lines of his essay flow better, though.
That still just makes me angry.