Linguistics, Ethics, and Freedom J.

Jacob Tawney Some time ago I wrote about the role of consonants and vowels in the formation of words and consequently the role of words and syntax in the formation of ideas. Inspired by a comment from a friend of a friend, I want to extend these ideas to and consider some parallels in ethics. First, let me summarize what I wrote about previously. Linguistics The purpose of language is to disclose objective truth. In this way, language is inherently teleological in nature. It strives towards perfection, perfection that is measured by the manner in which it authentically discloses truth. This top-down manner in which truth itself, as telos, pushes down on language has two closely related implications. First, as stated, language itself never exists for its own sake, but it always exists for a purpose: to disclose the truth of being. In an article from The Review of Metaphysics (December 2005), Fr. Robert Sokolowksi put this in plain terms, “The focus of speech is not the speech itself, but the things spoken about” (“Visual Intelligence in Painting”, 334). Second, it is the pressure from above that gives existence to language. That is, the reality of truth-disclosure makes language necessary; language not only exists in order to disclose truth, but also because truth exists to be disclosed. This teleological pressure operates on two levels of language. The first is the level of syntax-word. In a matter-form relationship, the words play the role of matter which, unless formed by a proper syntax, becoming meaningless (irrational). In Christian Faith and Human Understanding, Sokolowski describes the process of lexicon-syntax as follows: “The most conspicuous feature of our verbal articulation is the way in which phrases are embedded into one another. This is the work of syntax; it makes it possible for us to segment our speech ... into parts that are not just concatenated sequentially one after the other, but are stacked within one another .... Speeches of unlimited complexity become possible. It is this embedding ... that differentiates human speech from animal cries and sounds” (Christian Faith, 169). What is essential for our purposes is to understand that random sequences of words are limited in their freedom to express truth (the very purpose for which they strive) precisely because of their lack of form, or syntax. The role of syntax is to “clip” or “segment” the words in order to give them definition. This clipping is not a hindrance to the abilities of the raw material of words, but is the device by which words are given their freedom to express coherent ideas. As Sokolowksi says, it is syntax which “differentiates human speech from animal cries and sounds.” The rules of syntax that govern the manner in which words are used receive their being from the downward push of rationality (truth in need of disclosure). In turn, rational syntax pushes down upon the words themselves. At the level of phonemes, the matterform relationship is played respectively by vowels and consonants. Again from Sokolowski,

“Syntax has to be related to the phonemic structure within each word, and it is specifically the consonants that function on this level in a manner analogous to syntax. Consonants are like the syntax within words. Consonants clip and trim the words we speak.... Consonants order the more elementary vowel sounds, the wails and howls and whimpers and glee that do not need to be taught to us. Vowels alone would be an unlettered human voice; it is the consonants that make the voice rational” (Christian Faith, 169). Again, what is important for our purposes here is that the consonants, in their “clipping” of the vowel do not hinder the freedom of vowel-sounds, but actually impart upon them a freedom to operate in their intended manner: to express a rational sound, i.e., disclose the objective truth they seek to present. Unlettered vowel sounds, which can be produced by non-rational beings, are not free to be anything more than random sequences of emotional utterances. It is precisely because of the rational nature of consonants that humans have to be socialized into their use just as we have to be socialized into the rules of syntax (“Visual Intelligence”, 335). In the use of language, little children must learn to clip the natural vowel sounds in order to impart meaning in their words. The form imparted by the consonants (as in any matter-form relationship) gives freedom to the vowels, the freedom to authentically disclose truth. This top-down pressure from truth through syntax and into the consonantal clipping of sounds to form words is described by Sokolowski: “We shape sounds into words because we want to combine words into phrases and discourse (and we combine words into phrases because we want to display things” (“Visual Intelligence”, 336). As stated above, without the need to truth-disclosure, syntax would not exist, and by extension neither would words or letters. The letters and words are not only ordained towards the process of disclosing truth, but they find their very being in their telos. There is yet a deeper level of language that I did not discuss in my previous piece, the level of prosody, or “the rhythms and beats that are proper to a language” (“Visual Intelligence”, 337). According to Sokolowski, even the unborn child is sensitive to this aspect of the motherʼs voice; the rhythm of her voice penetrates the womb and is accessible to the child through vibrations in the amniotic fluid. Even in the womb, the baby is learning to “recognize the melody and rhythms of language, that is, the intonation contours and the stress patterns that constitute the particularities of both its motherʼs voice and the sounds that will become its native tongue.... Thus the newborn comes into the world prepared to pay special attention to human speech” (“Visual Intelligence”, 337). Sokolowski calls this rhythm the “cadence of language,” and maintains that the child is accustomed to it long before rational words can be formed. “By the end of the first year, the babyʼs babbling rises and falls in intonation to mimic questions and statements” (“Visual Intelligence”, 337). Parents will attest to the distinction between the coos of a newborn and the semi-rational babbling of a one-year-old, the child who is already displaying knowledge of the “cadence of language.”

The three levels of human speech are the (1) the level of the sentence, the process by which syntax both governs and perfects the material provided by words, (2) the level of phonemes, the process by which the consonants both govern and perfect the material provided by the vowels, and (3) the deep prosodic level, a cadence of rhythms and beats (“Visual Intelligence”, 338). At all three levels, the top-down teleological process operates providing a downward pressure from the telos of language, the objective truth that language seeks to present. * Ethics We are now prepared to extend the ideas of Sokolowski to the area of ethics. Just as language is motivated in a teleological manner, so to is human action. And just as objective truth provides the telos of language, so to does objective truth provide a telos for ethical behavior. In our description of the ethical structure of human behavior, however, let us work from the bottom up. At the deepest level of language we found the “cadence” of rhythms and beats accessible from a very early age. In the ethical realm we find a natural law that is inscribed on the hearts of all rational beings. From a very early age with only a minimal amount of socialization, children inherently understand right from wrong. They understand that acts of love promote the good of both the lover and the beloved, and they understand that acts of violence destroy both the perpetrator and the victim. Note that understanding this law does not imply that it will always be adhered to, but it does mean that the child is aware of when it is and is not being adhered to. The natural law will provide the most basic raw material for the ethical life, much like the cadence of language provides the most basic raw material for rational speech. The second level of language is the form imparted by consonants on the more primitive vowel sounds. The consonants clip the otherwise endless sounds of vowels and at the same time given to them rationality. The same relationship holds between ethical norms and otherwise random behavior patterns. Whether we view these as obligations, commandments, or norms, the purpose is the same. Random behavior is unintelligible without a structure. While children have an inborn sense of natural law, there is a certain amount of socialization that must occur in order to impart a specific moral code onto a child. The top level of language is where the distinction between rational and non-rational beings becomes most evident. The syntactical structure of words allow for “speeches of unlimited complexity.” In the moral realm, the role of syntax is played by the virtues. The mature moral man takes the more basic norms and learns to apply them to specific situations, to perfect them and give them a rationality unparalleled elsewhere in the natural world. In other words, the virtues call the ethical man to transcend the commandments, to recognize that to be fully human requires an ongoing process of perfection, one that only begins with ethical norms. The mature moral man not only knows the norms of ethical behavior, but internalizes them to the point that he is truly free to create moral responses to a wide variety of situations, responses of “unlimited

complexity.” This process requires a great deal of socialization, which is a more contemporary way of saying that virtues are a habitus. It is also at this level that the individual becomes most aware of the teleological nature of the ethical act. Much like in language, when a person is piecing together words in order to present a complex and coherent thought, he becomes imminently aware that he is using language to express some truth, so too in an authentic act of virtue the actor deeply understands that he is using human action as language in order to express truth. John Paul IIʼs monumental Theology of the Body was relentless in its call to see human action as a language that expresses the truth of the person.** In the case of language, truth of disclosure provides the downward pressure for syntactical structure, which in turn passes that pressure onto the logical of phonemes in the consonant-vowel structure. Similarly in the case of the ethical act, the truth of the human person, the perfection of the person qua person, provides the downward pressure for a life of virtue. The human person is called to a life of virtue precisely because that life will serve as a teleological mechanism; indeed the virtues are necessary for the perfection of the person, and hence they find their very existence in the objective truth that human action is to disclose. The virtues, for their part, pass on the teleological pressure to the level of ethical norms. The norms, or obligations, are always at the service of the more complex life of virtues; they are not only necessary for a life of virtue, but they find their raison dʼetre in the virtues. Without the need for the truth of the human person to be disclosed, virtues would not exist, and without virtues, ethical commandments would cease to be. The fundamental flaw of ethics manuals as of late is in their attempt to describe the ethical act in terms of norms only; they fail to see that norms exist because of the downward pressure of virtue. Without virtue, there are no norms, and consequently the texts fail to have any real ethical meaning. Freedom In the first part, we went to great lengths to emphasize that the structure imposed by syntax onto the raw material of words (and the structure that consonants impose onto vowels), was not at the disservice of freedom, but in fact finds its logic only within the context of freedom. Without the imposed structure of consonants, vowels would not be free to disclose truth. Similarly, without the structure of syntax, words would not be free. Said differently, the accomplished orator, by not only adhering to the rules of the language but also internalizing them at a deep enough level to understand their origin and purpose, is far more free to express truth in a creative manner. His language, precisely by being perfected in syntax, becomes truly free. Something similar could be said when comparing the child who randomly bangs on the piano to the accomplished musician who has studied the “rules” of the instrument. This example is describe by Servais Pinckaers, O.P, in The Sources of Christian Ethics: “Of course anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom. It cloaks an incapacity to play even the simplest pieces accurately and well. On the other hand, the person who

really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. He can play whatever he chooses, and also compose new pieces. His musical freedom could be described as the gradually acquired ability to execute works of his choice with perfection. It is based on natural dispositions and a talent developed and stabilized by means of regular, progressive exercises, or properly speaking, a habitus” (Pinckaers, 355). Granted, all of this hinges on our definition of freedom. Perhaps the main thesis of Pinckaersʼ book is to both distinguish between the scholastic notion of freedom for excellence and the nominalist freedom of indifference and to attempt to re-instate a freedom for excellence into Catholic ethical thought that has been lost in a nominalist vacuum for centuries. Understood in its proper teleological context, the ethical act is serviced by its structure of virtue not as a means of inhibiting freedom (as would be the case in the mistaken view of freedom of indifference), but precisely as a means of perfecting its freedom. A being is free insofar as it is perfected, i.e., insofar as it discloses the truth of its being; a person is free insofar as he is perfected qua person. The life of virtue, providing as it does the “lines” in the ethical painting of a manʼs life (or the “syntax” in the ethical oration of his life), gives that life a certain rationality over otherwise randomness, and thereby gives it a perfection as a human life. This rationality not only takes place in the context of authentic freedom, but freedom finds its source in rationality.

* It seems to me that there is an additional level that operates above syntax, the level that takes coherent sentences and assembles them to form logical arguments. Sokolowski includes this in the level of syntax; he refers to the sentential level as the “argumentative level.” However, it seems to me that the process of forming coherent ideas out of words is decisively different (and not just a matter of a degree of complexity) as the formation of logical arguments. ** Much like language can fail in its call to express truth, i.e., in the act of lying, so too can the language of the body “lie,” or fail in its call to express the truth of the human person. This is precisely what happens in acts of infidelity, contraception, and objectification.

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