Language and Truth (Part II)
By Dennis McInerny
The movement which was known as the Higher Criticism represented a particularly serious—perhaps we should say, the most serious—attack on language, understood as the bearer of truth, because the movement had the temerity to call into question the integrity of the Bible. Knowing as we do by our faith that the author of the Bible is no other than God Himself, it would be no exaggeration to say that the whole approach of the movement amounted to an elaborate exercise in something very much like blasphemy.
If modern intellectuals saw fit to show contempt for a divine author, it is little wonder that, over the course of time, human authors, and the language in which they expressed their ideas, became the objects of an even more thoroughgoing contempt. And that is precisely what is happening today on a rather large scale. The name to be given to the contemporary general attack upon the integrity of language is Deconstruction. And Deconstruction can be taken for a more polite way of saying “destruction.”
Deconstruction, which has been aptly described by Father Stanley Jaki as “the latest fad in intellectual self-extermination,” is for the most part the brainchild of academic intellectuals. Deconstruction is a narrow, self-serving, and crudely reductionistic form of critical analysis which is applied to many disciplines, but which to date has been operating principally within the field of literature, with that field having suffered much damage as a result. A poignant account of the havoc wreaked by Deconstruction within contemporary literary studies is provided us by Professor R.V. Young, in his book At War With the Word, which I highly recommend.
The main thrust of the destructive activity which is the heart of Deconstruction is directed against the authority of the author, and, more broadly, against the very purpose of language as the bearer of objective meaning and truth. Traditionally, the critic approached a book and its author in an attitude of respectful deference. He came to them first and foremost as a simple appreciator. The critic saw his task as the discernment, and then the explication, of the meaning the author intended to convey through the book he had written. The meaning the critic sought was objective, incorporated within the language of the text.
The Deconstructionist critic turns this traditional understanding of literary criticism topsy-turvy. The authoritative status of the author is cavalierly disregarded, and the meaning which the author may have intended to convey in his book is now seen as something of only incidental interest. Under the new dispensation created by Deconstruction, it is the critic of the book, not its author, who is to tell us what it really means. And the book itself, the literary text, effectively loses its status as a conveyor of objective truth. It becomes malleable clay in the ever active hands of the Deconstructionist critic, who gratuitously transforms it into a means for furthering his heavily ideological agenda.
If Deconstruction were no more than the latest in-house diversionary amusement of academic intellectuals, there would be no good reason for being especially concerned about it. But it is considerably more than that. Two points are worth considering here. First, academic intellectuals have an immense albeit indirect influence upon society at large, for they have before them daily, in the form of the captive audience which is their students, the next generation of a society’s leaders. Second, Deconstruction is not simply a new methodology for doing literary criticism; it is a methodology which is inspired and driven by a philosophy which has become essentially nihilistic.
Deconstruction is one of the most recent, and particularly virulent, strains of philosophical idealism. Philosophical idealism is a philosophy which, as its name suggests, puts more value on ideas in the mind than on the things in the world of which ideas are the representations. In other words, it is basically subjective in its orientation and commitments, in contrast to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is pronouncedly objective in every respect. For St. Thomas, and for Scholastic philosophy in general, the thing in the world always takes precedence over the idea in the mind. Ideas are most certainly important, but as the means by which we come to know things, and not as ends in themselves.
The principal problem with any kind of philosophical idealism is to be found in its rooted subjectivism. If ideas take precedence over things, it follows necessarily that the subjective order, represented by the individual entertaining the ideas, is going to take precedence over the objective order. And what follows upon subjectivism, as surely as night follows day, is relativism, for ideas are intensely personal, and if I count ideas as more important than things, then my ideas become the standard for truth. And the same is the case with you, if you are committed to philosophical idealism. With a situation like this, the objective status of truth is quickly lost sight of. Truth becomes relative to this or that person. Such relativism, if it becomes pervasive in any society, can never become a permanent state of affairs. Either the society recovers its sanity, and returns to health by recognizing the objective status of truth, or the society slowly but surely lapses into nihilism.
Not all forms of philosophical idealism necessarily descend into nihilism, but this is what has happened to Deconstruction. It is at war with the word, in Professor Young’s telling phrase, because it rightly sees the word—i.e., language in general—as the bearer of truth, and it is the enemy of truth.
Deconstruction represents an abdication of the most serious responsibility of any genuine literary scholar: the dedicated attempt to understand the workings of the mind of another human person, as expressed in a text written by that person—certainly one of the most challenging tasks any of us can take on, requiring much patience and perception. The Deconstructionist critic opts for the easy way out. He does not have to strain to determine the objective meaning embodied in a text, because he is bent on making a text mean only what he wants it to mean. The point is not to grasp the written thought of others, but to impose one’s own thought upon what others have written. There are a variety of ways we can insult our fellow human beings, past and present, but this has to stand as among the more devious, and cowardly.
The damage which has been done, and continues to be done, by the phenomenon called Deconstruction is considerable. What should be our response to this? A young man once came to an old sage, complaining about the manifold abuses of language that abounded in the society in which they lived, and asked what he could do about it. He was expecting to receive from the sage an elaborate response to his question. The sage simply told him, “Speak the truth.” “Is that all?” the young man said. “That is everything,” the sage responded.
This article originally appeared in the October 2004 North American District Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our newsletter by mail free, please visit our subscription page.