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The Inevitability of Appropriation

I spent my childhood watching my father struggle to make himself understood. It was not that he was handicapped in a fundamental way, but rather that he recognized that most people were terribly imprecise in their use of words. To ensure that he was able to describe precisely his methods of software design, he invented his own notation and terminology. In the end, he spoke a foreign language.

Of course, that also brought a certain power. In working with him years later, his resistance to my innovation was to assert that I hadn’t spent enough time sitting at his feet to really understand what he was doing.

Although I shared his concerns regarding imprecision in the use of words, I had no intention of following in his footsteps. Most of the creative intellectual energy of my twenties was devoted to an attempt to facilitate moral discourse by reclaiming terms of common usage. That thinking eventually surfaced back in 2005 at my first web site. There I laid out definitions for ‘love’, ‘power’ and ‘maturity’ (among others). The goal was to ensure that the use of such terms was based in clearly defined and shared expectations for the behavior of the speaker. Having faith in love and good will, I believed that the power accruing to subscribers to the philosophy would eventually manifest in the spread of its wisdom to the rest of society.

This work of reclamation was incredibly difficult. It was inspired, growing up in the ’70s, by my sense that the world was teetering on the brink of destruction, along with the shocking realization that when offering “I love you” most people actually meant “I feel good when I am around you. Let me bind you to me with this token.” In other words “I love myself.”

The corruption of the link between meaning and behavior is philosophical appropriation. In normal usage, appropriation is defined as:

the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission (Oxford)

In this case, we are concerned with manipulation of the consensus regarding the meaning of words to convince others that they should contribute to our benefit. The “owner” in this case is society as a whole. The “taking” is of resources meant to preserve the common good.

A topical manifestation of the struggle against philosophical appropriation is in the debate in the Democratic Party over the legitimacy of claims to a “progressive” agenda. A thorough exploration of the ambiguity in the usage of the term is offered at the Electric Agora. The nuances of the analysis rapidly evaporated into a deep cognitive dissonance as I thought back to the explanation offered in my childhood that progressives believe that “all boats rise with the tide.” This simple precept was the engine of the post-WWII Veterans Acts, the wealth generated by and for the American middle class in the ’50s and ’60s, and the Civil Rights movement. It also informs equally the choices of the partisans across the Sanders/Clinton divide – although they might dispute it.

Philosphical appropriation is driven by two forces. The first, suggested above, is simple hypocrisy. The second is more difficult to resist: it is the divergence between the original meaning of a term of social and political discourse and the mechanisms of its implementation. In religion, an early schism evolved from just such a critique. The Donatists, perceiving that priests were sometimes sinners, rejected the legitimacy of “sacraments” as administered by the Catholic Church. St. Augustine’s rebuttal was that the purpose of the Church was to reform and heal, which meant admission of sinners among the laity, and inevitably sinners among the priesthood. Augustine was concerned with the purpose of the Church as commissioned by Jesus of Nazareth; the Donatists were concerned consumers of its services.

Of course, neither the Church nor the Donatists disputed the value of the sacraments. Rather, both sides laid claim to legitimacy based upon the mechanisms of their transmission: the Church based upon the authority of Christ’s commission, which (at least in theory) established a gateway to grace that no priest could corrupt; the Donatists based upon the immediacy of Christ’s presence in the person of the administering saint. Obviously, the experience and forms of sacramental administration were different in the two societies. Eventually, those practical differences led to differences in their understanding of what was and was not a sacrament.

This is also apparent in the disputatious claims to the term “progressive.” The discussion at the Electric Agora focuses on the tension between inclusion and diversity, both  considered touch stones of the progressive program. Among some, this leads to claims of hypocrisy: how can you maintain diversity while attempting to homogenize opportunity?

Obviously, we’d like to see unity and respect in the dialog between people of good will. This seems like an ideal place for philosophical intervention.

One approach in this program of intervention is to seek to elucidate the meaning of terms in use. In both cases under discussion, unfortunately, this leads to a fracturing of meanings, with philosophical tolerance allowing legitimacy to be claimed by both sides, creating opportunities for hypocrites to profit from the divide.

The other approach is to successively refine the principle behind the term, and to elucidate the connection between that principle and implementation. This serves both to conserve and strengthen the consensus so essential to constructive social engagement, while simultaneously defending the community against hypocrites.

I find it interesting to relate this back to the original split between idealism and empiricism. The empiricist Aristotle thought that observation of the qualities of things would allow us to group them into categories. Plato, conversely, held that only in ideas could firm meaning be established, and so concrete instances in the world must be derived from ideas. The success of science leads us in the modern era to prefer the empirical approach. In sociology and politics, however, it is the ideas in our minds that determine the subject of study – which is the aggregate behavior of citizens. Here it seems that idealism – the defense of the meaning of words – is the more powerful approach. Implicitly, it is the approach that I offer to philosophers seeking to mediate political and social discourse. First defend the coherence of the statement of principle. Only then turn your attention to the practical issues of implementation.

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