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The Nice Use of Words

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

The Tyranny of Words. By Stuart Chase. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50.

In “The Tyranny of Words” Stuart Chase has called attention to himself in a way that not only excuses but demands frank comment from his reviewers. He has called attention to the fiber and temper of his mind and its operations with words. In previous reviews in other places he has gotten what he asked for, and with these comments we have been able to take the measure of several other minds. I am aware that I am entering a joint expose, a party of mental nudists.

Mr. Chase’s previous verbal costumes interest me: tragedy, worth, men, machines, fact, myth, nemesis, rich, poor, government, land. These are selected from the titles of his previous books. The words remaining in these titles are contemporary: waste, money, prosperity, Mexico, New Deal, economy. This anatomizing of titles pictures the tyranny between Mr. Chase’s words. The old battle-scarred warriors are holding the new youthful words in check, and the revolt is on. As in previous revolts and reforms, Mr. Chase has in this book broken his spear again. This time he admits it, but he insists throughout that he has just begun his genuine fight.

It is always interesting to ask what a writing reformer’s actual craft is. Mr. Chase is by trade an accountant and statistician. In this appearance he is auditing his own previous accounts with symbols. His favorite method is what auditors call “breaking down figures.” It is more than a method; it is his final plea that we all should break down our languages in order to know. One would like to know if he would have an auditor’s knowledge and skill if he broke down the auditor’s complex language about double-entry bookkeeping. Mr. Chase admits that he would not have been able to write this book if he had actually broken down the naughty words that he condemns in it.

But it is futile to try to define the kind of failure that this book presents. I would rather try to say what it claims to attempt. Semantics is the subject-matter and Mr. Chase begins at one of its traditional starting points, seeing that names name the things that they are intended to name. He supposes that this would be accomplished if everything were assured of its proper name, one name for one thing and each name different from each other name. I am not sure that Mr. Chase sees the fantastic tragedy of waste that this would entail. We can’t now afford that many symbols, even for men and stars where proper names are still attempted. Perhaps he would like to try numerical proper names. Skilled artists in symbols do not ask for that much raw material.

The next thing that seems desirable in semantics is a syntax of names, a theory and a set of rules for their combination. Mr. Chase seems aware of that necessity in some cases but not in all. He thinks that grammar is a nostalgic desideratum of the genteel tradition. A precise accountant should know better. A proponent of the new operationalism should be as insistent on this as Roger Bacon was.

Again the control of fictions has to be discussed, but no one should attempt this until he has freed himself from fear of figures of speech. Fictions arise and are conquered by a sophisticated rhetorical awareness of figures of speech, not by either an angelic or a god-like contempt for imagination. Pure intellects might get rid of fictions, but not persons whose imaginations work as rapidly and as romantically as Mr. Chase’s does.

Finally, it would be well to recognize the ideas in words so that one might recognize and make correct syllogisms before attempting an evaluation of the processes of abstract thought. I have been unable to find a correct syllogism in “The Tyranny of Words,” even when Mr. Chase announces that he wants to exhibit one. He approaches abstract thinking most closely when he substitutes “blab” for words that he cannot break down. If he would put his favorite subscripts with his blabs, he would have a numerical syntax very much like the latest invention of the school of logical posi-tivists. Mathematical logic uses letters instead of words in order to achieve clarity and abstractness. Mr. Chase would discover a great deal that would surprise and interest him in the “Principio Mathematica.” A nominalist should go at least that far in his semantic pilgrimage.

Many of us philosophers, as well as the other rogues in this nudist show, will agree with Mr. Chase in asserting the vital necessity for a reconstructed semantic discipline. I should agree that semantic art and science have a profound bearing on present world problems. I agree with him in a humility before the task. I disagree with him seriously in his contempt for all semantics before the twentieth century; an Alexandrian invented the science and its name. It is only with the help of the learning of the past and the dialectical oppositions of the tradition that we can become our own dialecticians. I propose a toast to Mr. Chase’s forgotten man, the dialectician.


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