T.D. Weldon
The Vocabulary of Politics

Again we have the situation in which the use of an existing word has been stretched to meet a new factual development. We get into trouble only if we suppose that this verbal usage has brought into existence new and peculiar people and things, the ghosts of those which the old usage required. Linguistic conveniences do not beget metaphysical entities,...


. . . much time and energy had been devoted to such questions as 'What is the essence of free-will, life, and purpose?', 'Does freewill exist?', and so on, when what should have been asked was 'What observable human and animal behaviour do we need "free-will" to describe or explain?'


Even as metaphors they are unsafe and we are much better off without them.


The question to be answered is 'What are the things about which it is important that people should be allowed or encouraged to make their own decisions?' Freedom from inspection by Government officials and freedom to go to the doctor when one feels poorly are both considered fairly important by most contemporary Englishmen. But few people seriously regard them as the only things that matter, and the importance of both of them tends to be considerably exaggerated for party political reasons.


. . . it seems clear to some optimistic scientists that all our difficulties will some day be reduced to trivial dimensions by the progressive formulation of appropriate problems which can be solved by puzzle-solving techniques. I doubt whether this view is correct because I do not see any reason to suppose, or indeed any meaning in saying, that the world has been fabricated or created; hence there is no ground at all for holding that it has been so constructed that all difficulties can be overcome or eliminated by scientific research. But this is not a question on which discussion can profitably take place since no definite sense can be given to it.


. . . the alternative to intellectualism is not anti-intellectualism.


They were disagreeing about the foundations of morals. Yet just what it means to say 'A and B are disagreeing about the foundations of morals', or 'of politics' is not immediately apparent.


I do not propose to dwell here on the errors of faculty psychology. They have been demolished too often to deserve any further attack. It is enough to point out that one of the worst of them is the doctrine that 'Reason' is the name of a sort of tool or implement with which we think and not simply a descriptive word for referring to one group of our intelligent activities.


In the first place he claimed to provide a proof. It was difficult to follow and therefore difficult to refute conclusively, but at least it purported to demonstrate that loyalty and obedience to the State were rational and indispensable to civilized human beings.


To urge this would be to give to logical analysis the wrong sort of testimonial. It can never prove or disprove the existence of anything, and this inability is not like the inability of an aged motor car to get over the Simplon Pass; it is like the inability of any motor car to write a poem or compose a symphony.


As long as one talks vaguely about psychological processes and developments one can use 'contradiction' and 'negation' as the names of queer causes without obviously talking nonsense,...


Or are they looking for something which it is nonsense to ask for at all? The fact that none of the answers put forward is of the slightest use suggests, though it does not prove, that the latter is the case. At any rate it is sobering and instructive in this connexion to reflect on the heroic but unsuccessful efforts of the philosophical radicals and their modern successors to produce simple, workable, and foolproof criteria of happiness, prosperity, and progress, and of modern moralists to achieve a usable criterion of goodness and obligation.


Of course if we start by saying 'I will accept nothing but a numerical statement or a logical deduction from agreed axioms as a satisfactory answer to my question' we are doomed to get into trouble fairly soon unless the world is much simpler and tidier than we have any reason to suppose that it is. That is just the fallacy of supposing that every difficulty can be replaced by a straightforward puzzle.


Obviously these are not questions of the same type, and getting puzzled about them is rather like getting puzzled as to what the extra thing is that you have bought when you buy not just a right-hand glove and a left-hand glove but a pair of gloves.


'It is important that all children should learn to read and write', "The preservation of human life is always important' are almost if not completely vacuous. They are attempts to generalize from true and correct statements like ' It is more important that English children to-day should learn to read and write than that they should learn to play the violin'. The generalizations fail because they leave out all reference to context, to degrees, and often even to persons. It therefore makes no sense to look for a universally applicable criterion of importance, and nothing but our addiction to the fallacy of absolute standards leads us to suppose that it does.


. . . like most dilemmas, is more alarming than dangerous.


Nevertheless the prevalence of the demand for 'objective' tests for the use of examiners and selection committees and the curious methods which are adopted in order to meet it show clearly the panic which the word 'subjectivism' is liable to start and the deplorable things people may do and advocate in order to escape from it.


Whether we decide to retain the phrase 'political philosophy' or not, a great deal needs to be done about the language in which discussions of political institutions are conducted.


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