If I ever get my hands on a working time-machine, the first thing I shall do is organize a public debate between C. S. Lewis and Steven Pinker. Not (Im sure they would both protest) that it would be an especially momentous encounter compared to what you could do with a time-machine. If all goes well, rest assured I will also talk to Shakespeare and Virgil and Homer and the author of Beowulf, document the Polynesian conquest of the Pacific and the first people in the Americas and Australia, film mammoths and indricotheres and dinosaurs in their natural habitat, witness the origin of life, and all that other guff. But the Lewis-Pinker debate will serve as a proof of concept.
Why those two in particular? Because they are so different and yet so similar. Both are fascinated by language, and by what it reveals about the mind. It seemed a little too good to be true, a few years ago, when a manuscript was discovered containing Lewiss opening contribution to a planned collaborative work with J. R. R. Tolkien, to be entitled Language and Human Nature. Sadly, Seven magazine, which I gather printed the fragment, hasnt uploaded it to the web. It was never completed because Tolkien was as bad at finishing things as I am, and also he was bogged down in The Lord of the Rings at the time the project began. But that tantalizing title could be the subtitle for most of Pinkers popular works. On language, Pinker and Lewis nearly always agree. Both dismiss nitpicky purism about correct grammar, to start with.
Having said that the unliterary reader attends to the words too little to make anything like a full use of them, I must notice that there is another sort of reader who attends to them far too much and in the wrong way. I am thinking of what I call Style-mongers. On taking up a book, these people concentrate on what they call its style or its English. They judge this neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules. Their reading is a perpetual witch-hunt for Americanisms, Gallicisms, split infinitives, and sentences that end with a preposition. They do not inquire whether the Americanism or Gallicism in question increases or impoverishes the expressiveness of our language. It is nothing to them that the best English speakers and writers have been ending sentences with prepositions for over a thousand years... They judge the instrument by anything rather than its power to do the work it was made for... criticize the lens after looking at it rather than looking through it. It was often said that the law about literary obscenity operated almost exclusively against particular words... The Stylemongers criteria, though for a different reason, are as wide of the mark as those of the law, and in the same way. If the mass of the people are unliterary, he is antiliterary. He creates in the minds of the unliterary (who have often suffered under him at school) a hatred of the word style and a profound distrust of every book that is said to be well written. And if style meant what the Stylemonger values, this hatred and distrust would be right.
There is a kind of writer who makes issues of usage impossible to ignore. These writers are incurious about the logic and history of the English language and the ways in which it has been used by its exemplary stylists. They have a tin ear for its nuances of meaning and emphasis. Too lazy to crack open a dictionary, they are led by gut feeling and intuition rather than attention to careful scholarship. For these writers, language is not a vehicle for clarity and grace but a way to signal their membership in a social clique.
Who are these writers? You might think Im referring to Twittering teenagers or Facebooking freshmen. But the writers I have in mind are the purists also known as sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nitpickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and the Gotcha! Gang. In their zeal to purify usage and safeguard the language, they have made it difficult to think clearly about felicity in expression and have muddied the task of explaining the art of writing.
Much of the sixth chapter of Pinkers The Sense of Style deals with the purists objections to the fact that language changes over time. Lewis took careful notes on how the meanings of words changed from one century to another: he published a few of them under the title Studies in Words. It turns out there were language purists in the seventeenth century, too.
It is in the second half of the seventeenth century that we find the most abundant and amusing evidences of the words drift towards its dangerous sense; amusing because they consist almost entirely of disclaimers. Everyone starts telling us what the word does not mean; a sure proof that it is beginning to mean just that.
The word in question is wit, and what it was beginning to mean was clever humour, as opposed to wisdom or intelligence. The term dangerous sense, sometimes shortened to d.s., is Lewiss coinage for the primary present-day meaning of a word dangerous because liable to mislead a modern reader as to what an ancient author really intended by it. The clearest example I can think of post-dates Lewis. I remember studying James Joyces Dubliners in English class at high school; a male character, having rejected a womans romantic overtures, turns to reading Nietzsches The Gay Science, and my teacher had to warn us all that in Joyces time that didnt imply what it sure as heck looked like it implied.
Studies in Words is a unique book, by the way. There are plenty of books that trace changes in the sounds of words through time, but Studies in Words is the only one Ive ever met that traces changes in their meanings, nuance by nuance. Thus kindly once meant natural; sad once meant full; wit once meant genius; villain was originally the opposite of frank; and so on. But Lewis only looks at ten strands of semantic change, taking a whole chapter for each one. I say strands rather than words because Lewis freely hops between one word and another when he finds them being used as synonyms or translations of each other. I presume, since the book began as a practical exercise for his lifes study of literature, that he had a whole lot more which he didnt publish. I dearly wish his work could have been extended.
Not that Lewis ignored the sounds of words by any means. His close attention to what Pinker calls phonaesthetics is another point of common ground between the two.
A word needs to be very careful about the phonetic company it keeps. The old meaning of obnoxious has been almost destroyed by the combined influence of objectionable and noxious, and that of deprecate by depreciate, and that of turgid by turbid.
Its more likely that phonaesthesia grows outward from a nucleus of similar words that have coalesced for any number of reasons. Some may be products of sound symbolism. Others may be fossils of a morphological rule that was active in an earlier period of the language, or in a language from which the words were borrowed. And some might arise by sheer chance, thrown together in phonological space because the sound pattern of a language allows only so many combinations of vowels. But once these words find themselves rubbing shoulders, they can attract or spawn new members owing to the associative nature of human memory, in which like attracts like.
Still another is their philosophy of style in writing.
Among the lowbrows themselves I find that the distinction is often based on style. When the plain man confesses that the books he delights in are not real Literature he will often, if pressed, explain this by saying that they havent got style or style and all that... He thinks of it not as the linguistic means by which the writer produces whatever results he desires but as a sort of extra an uncovenanted pedantry tacked on to the book proper, to gratify some specifically literary or critical taste which has nothing to do with the ordinary pleasures of the imagination. It is for him a meaningless addition which, by a convention, gives access to a higher rank like the letters Esq. after a mans name on an envelope... When we say that the descriptions of country in [H. Rider Haggards] She are marred by their deficiency of style, we do not mean (as the ignorant suppose) that they are good as descriptions but lacking in some abstractly literary and undescriptive grace which might have been superadded; we mean that they are imperfect descriptions; and we call their imperfection stylistic because it is due not to faults in the authors conception but to his careless or insensitive language. A better choice of epithets, and those distant mountains would have stood out sharper on the horizon; a well-chosen metaphor, and the whole picture, now dimly discerned through seas of wasteful words, would have printed itself for ever on the inner eye; a nobler rhythm, and the sense of space and movement would have been given us, not left, as it now is, for us to infer.
Spoken conversation is instinctive because social interaction is instinctive: we speak to those with whom we are on speaking terms. When we engage our conversational partners, we have an inkling of what they know and what they might be interested in learning, and as we chat with them, we monitor their eyes, their face, and their posture. If they need clarification, or cannot swallow an assertion, or have something to add, they can break into the conversation or follow up in turn.
We enjoy none of this give-and-take when we cast our bread upon the waters by sending a written missive out into the world. The recipients are invisible and inscrutable, and we have to get through to them without knowing much about them or seeing their reactions. At the time that we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretence. We have to visualize ourselves in some kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy, and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.
The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which youre pretending to communicate... The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the readers gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity.
In a couple of places Lewis anticipates the work of later scholars whom Pinker cites. In The Screwtape Letters he casually ascribes the appeal of jokes to sudden perception of incongruity, which is half of the analysis by Arthur Koestler that Pinker makes much of in How the Mind Works the other half being that the incongruity must resolve itself by placing someone in an undignified position. And his essay Bluspels and Flalansferes (Selected Literary Essays pp. 251265) would have made almost as good a foundation for Pinkers chapter on metaphor in The Stuff of Thought as the work of George Lakoff actually does. The odd-looking title supposes that a couple of metaphors have been shortened down to single words through frequent use: blue spectacles, whereby Lewis imagines himself explaining Immanuel Kants philosophy of human knowledge to a student, and Flatlanders sphere, whereby he imagines a mathematician explaining four-dimensional geometry to him. Lewiss point, like Lakoffs, is that all our abstract words began as metaphors, and like Lakoff he suggests that all our abstract thought is ultimately metaphorical.
Lewis and Pinker also converge in their estimation of the value of fiction. Lewis believes it has tremendous mind-enhancing power provided it is pursued for its own sake rather than, for instance, its mind-enhancing power:
The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level in other words, not to discount perspective would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows...
[Literature] admits us to experiences other than our own. They are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, interest us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say How true!) or the abnormal (and we say How strange!); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic, the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all... The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly I would learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.
Pinker suggests that this power has wrought immense good in human history, notably in what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution of the eighteenth century, when torture suddenly ceased to be considered a legitimate form of public entertainment:
In his book The Expanding Circle, the philosopher Peter Singer has argued that over the course of history, people have enlarged the range of beings whose interests they value as they value their own. An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy.
Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone elses thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that persons vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that persons mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions...
Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment, and by the end of the century almost a hundred new novels were published in England and France every year. And unlike earlier epics which recounted the exploits of heroes, aristocrats, or saints, the novels brought to life the aspirations and losses of ordinary people.
Lynn Hunt points out that the heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel. In this genre the story unfolds in a characters own words, exposing the characters thoughts and feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: Samuel Richardsons Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseaus Julie, or the New Héloïse (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common...
Hunt suggests a causal chain: reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other peoples shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.
And both, despite their shared belief in the power of language, also believe that it has limits. It cannot precisely describe things in space, for instance:
We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own proper powers and limitations. (They are, for instance, all but impotent when it comes to describing even the simplest machines. Who could, in words, explain what a screw, or a pair of scissors, is like?).
A game of inches is an expression that has been applied to baseball, football, golf, and sex. But it really applies to any activity that involves moving in space, where a missed step or turn can be a matter of life or death. Assessing the layout of the world and guiding a body through it are staggeringly complex engineering tasks, as we see by the absence of dishwashers that can empty themselves or vacuum cleaners that can climb stairs. But our sensorimotor systems accomplish these feats with ease, together with riding bicycles, threading needles, sinking basketballs, and playing hopscotch. In form, in moving, how express and admirable! said Hamlet about man.
Yet when it comes to the language of space, we dont seem quite so express and admirable. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words because a verbal description can leave people stymied in their attempts to form a mental image of the scene.
Both are convinced that there is a solid, fixed thing called human nature that is one thing and not another, that cannot be uprooted through language alone. Both find modernism in art, which stems from a denial of human nature, bewildering and ugly. (Pinker extends this opinion to postmodernism, which Lewis did not live to see.)
I do not think that any previous age produced work which was, in its own time, as shatteringly and bewilderingly new as that of the Cubists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and Picasso has been in ours. And I am quite sure that this is true of the art I love best, that is, of poetry... To say that all new poetry was once as difficult as ours is false; to say that any was is an equivocation. Some earlier poetry was difficult, but not in the same way. Alexandrian poetry was difficult because it presupposed a learned reader; as you became learned you found the answers to the puzzles. Skaldic poetry was unintelligible if you did not know the kenningar, but intelligible if you did. And this is the real point all Alexandrian men of letters and all skalds would have agreed about the answers. I believe the same to be true of the dark conceits in Donne: there was one correct interpretation of each and Donne could have told it to you. Of course you might misunderstand what Wordsworth was up to in Lyrical Ballads; but everyone understood what he said. I do not see in any of these the slightest parallel to the state of affairs disclosed by a recent symposium on Mr [T. S.] Eliots Cooking Egg. Here we find seven adults (two of them Cambridge men) whose lives have been specially devoted to the study of poetry discussing a very short poem which has been before the world for thirty-odd years; and there is not the slightest agreement among them as to what, in any sense of the word, it means... In the whole history of the West, from Homer I might almost say from the Epic of Gilgamesh there has been no bend or break in the development of poetry comparable to this.
Modernism certainly proceeded as if human nature had changed [as Virginia Woolf claimed it had in or around 1910]. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depiction gave way to freakish distortions of shape and colour and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and in the $200,000 painting featured in the recent comedy Art, a blank white canvas. In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and causal sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose. In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favour of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window (or would have if the windows could have been opened), and buildings were machines for living made of industrial materials in boxy shapes. Modernist architecture culminated both in the glass-and-steel towers of multinational corporations and in the dreary high-rises of American housing projects, postwar British council flats, and Soviet apartment blocks.
And one particular quirk of human nature, glimpsed through language, is the only subject Pinker ever actually cites Lewis on, in a chapter of The Stuff of Thought especially devoted to it:
As C. S. Lewis put it, As soon as you deal with [sex] explicitly, you are forced to choose between the language of the nursery, the gutter, and the anatomy class.
But looking up Pinkers reference I find this is a second-hand citation. Its not from either of Lewiss treatments of the matter in question that Ive been able to track down an essay on D. H. Lawrence titled Four-Letter Words, and a Spectator article called Prudery and Philology. He did also once write a short piece published as Sex in Literature, which I have not managed to snag a copy of in print or online; that may be Pinkers source. Or it may have been a paraphrase of the Spectator article, which it approximates closely in content if not in exact wording. Lewis begins by querying why descriptions of the human body should be less acceptable than depictions of it, and suggests an experimental method to settle the question:
Sit down and draw your nude. When you have finished it, take your pen and attempt the written description. Before you have finished you will be faced with a problem which simply did not exist while you were working at the picture. When you come to those parts of the body which are not usually mentioned, you will have to make a choice of vocabulary. And you will find that you have only four alternatives: a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word. You will not find any ordinary, neutral word, comparable to hand or nose. And this is going to be very troublesome. Whichever of the four words you choose is going to give a particular tone to your composition; willy-nilly you must produce baby-talk, or Wardour Street, or coarseness, or technical jargon. And each of these will force you to imply a particular attitude (which is not what you intended to imply) towards your material. The words will force you to write as if you thought it either childish, or quaint, or contemptible, or of purely scientific interest. In fact, mere description is impossible. Language forces you to an implicit comment.
The word quaint in the third-last sentence of that excerpt is a deliberate pun on Lewiss part sneaky, nerdy, and grubby all at once. For his essay on Lawrence (Selected Literary Essays pp. 169174), Lewis researched four-letter words and their usage in Middle English, Latin, and Greek. Consistently, he found, explicit language appears in contexts either of farce or of bitter abuse. The essay helpfully lists the words in question, though Lewis is a little coy about glossing them and I have had to do some digging of my own. In Middle English, we have
- queynte, quoniam, and bele chose: vagina
- coillons: testicles
- swiven: to have sex with
- and good old ers / ars, fart, and pisse
- cunnus: vagina, or, metonymically, a prostitute
- glubo: literally to husk corn or strip bark from a branch; to masturbate someone (Lewis quotes Catullus vicious snarl about his ex-girlfriend who glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes, without translating it the best-known translation renders it milking the cocks of mighty Remus sons)
- verpa: Lewis gives no gloss, but it has been used as the Linnaean name for a genus of fungus, and one look should give you the idea
- and the now-familiar volva / vulva and penis
- βδέω (bdéō): to break wind
- βινέω (binéō): to have sex with, literally to enter the online dictionaries tell me that female subjects use the passive voice
- πέος (péos): penis
- στύομαι (stúomai): to have an erection
- τιτθίον (titthíon): breast
- χέζω (chézō): to defecate
Since Lewiss time things have changed a little. The once-technical terms vagina and penis have entered the vernacular, and for now, at least, they are the nearest thing to neutral words for their referents that we have. (Not for long, perhaps; penis is already earthy enough to be material for the high-school classroom game where the winner is the last and loudest person to say it without getting detention.) Even here there are Stylemongers anxious to flaunt their superior knowledge. Let me here lay yet another pedantic myth to rest. It is true that, as a technical anatomical term, the vagina does not include the vulva. But as technical anatomical terms the arm likewise excludes the forearm, and the leg excludes the thigh, and not even anatomists use the words that way in ordinary speech. As an everyday word, vagina refers to the internal and external structures put together, just like (say) mouth does, or ear.
Lewis doesnt say, but my research suggests that swiven, glubo, and βινέω are all transitive, confirming Pinkers theory about taboo sex verbs they belong to the one-person-exploits-another mental model of sex, not the two-people-enjoy-a-pleasurable-experience-together model. On the latter, Latin poets are much more circumspect than modern novelists. I recall a poem where Ovid describes his beloveds naked body in detail, and their embraces and kisses, but then skips over the main action with the phrase ceterum quis nescit who doesnt know the rest? And Ovid is renowned for being sensual and explicit.
Lewis clearly has a point. Regardless of whether its ethical to excite your readers sexual desire, and I think Lewis and Pinker would be sharply divided on that point (I would stand with Pinker), its notoriously difficult to do without making them snicker and breaking the spell. Every awful sex scene youve ever read, every time youve cringed at the phrase throbbing member, illustrates the point. (Mind you, I forgave all the throbbing members Id ever read the day I made the mistake of picking up a 1960s pulp novel from the bargain trolley at a second-hand bookstore in South Dunedin, and opened it to the sentence He unzipped his flies and shook out Mr Wobbly.) Conversely, if you want to make a rape scene gritty and brutal, all you need to do is describe the action in plain language without cutting away. That must be why, as Lewis says, people just didnt write taboo words in erotic contexts before D. H. Lawrence. Brackets in the following excerpt are my best guesses at translations.
You must find passages I have not yet found one myself where four-letter words are used seriously, neither with belly-laughter nor snarls of hatred, in seriously erotic elegy or lyric; where they are used seductively or at least sympathetically. The nearest thing to such an instance within my own reading comes in Old French, and I believe that it makes for me rather than against me. In the Roman de la Rose Jean de Meung uses the word coilles [bollocks]. He puts it into the mouth of Reason herself. The Lover reproves Reason for her bad mannersMavez coilles nomees,Reason, quite unabashed, says that her Father made these things de ses propres mains [with his own hands] in Paradise and she is determined to speak of them senz mettre gloses [without using glosses]. Here we admittedly have a four-letter word used seriously and with approval. But we notice two facts. First, such usage was not normal; that is why the Lover is shocked. And secondly, Jean de Meung in this passage is not writing love-poetry but philosophical poetry about love. He is indeed putting forward, or making Reason put forward, exactly the case so often argued by the defenders of Lawrence. He is saying that these things ought not to be a subject either of shame or of ridicule. Reason defies (and thus gives evidence for) traditional linguistic behaviour. When Jean de Meung ceases to be a doctrinaire and becomes once more an erotic poet we shall hear no more about coilles. The poem ends with the deflowering of the heroine. But it is all told allegorically and even a fairly intelligent reader might not know what was happening.
Que ne sunt bien renomees,
En bouche a cortaise pucele.
[You have named bollocks to me, which are not well named in the mouth of a polite girl.]
In the Spectator article, Lewis draws roughly the conclusion you might expect from a middle-aged Christian conservative in the 1950s that profanity ought not to be printed. (He doesnt think it should be illegal, just unacceptable in practice.) But he argues the point from the opposite direction to what youd think:
For of course to remove all prudery is to remove one area of vivid sensibility, to expunge a human feeling. There are quite enough etiolated, inert, neutral words knocking about already; do we want to increase their number? A strict moralist might possibly argue that the old human reticence about some of our bodily functions has bred such mystery and prurience... that it cannot be abolished too soon. But would the strict moralist be right? Has nothing good come out of it? It is the parent of three-quarters of the worlds jokes. Remove the standard of decency in the written word, and one of two results must follow. Either you can never laugh again at most of Aristophanes, Chaucer or Rabelais, the joke having partly depended on the fact that what is mentioned is unmentionable; or, horrid thought, the oral fableau as we have all heard it in taproom (not by any means always vile or prurient, but often full of true humour and traditional art) will be replaced and killed by written, professional fableaux; just as the parlour games we played for ourselves fifty years ago are now played for us by professionals on the air. The smoking-room story is, I grant, the last and least of the folk-arts. But it is the only one we have left. Should not writers be willing to preserve it at the cost of a slight restraint on their own vocabulary?
Again he is echoed by Pinker, who in The Stuff of Thought gives arguments both for and against the use of swearing.
Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and its worth considering how often one really wants ones audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listeners attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener, and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. Its all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English lexicon. A journalist who, in writing about the cruelty of an East German Stasi guard, can do no better than to call him a fucker needs to get a good thesaurus...
These are some of the reasons to think twice about giving carte blanche to swearing. But there is another reason. If an overuse of taboo words, whether by design or laziness, blunts their emotional edge, it will have deprived us of a linguistic instrument that we sometimes sorely need...
When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, metre, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy imprecations himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, You taught me language, and my profit ont is, I know how to curse.
Nor do the parallels between Lewis and Pinker stop at language. Both are fascinated by the psychological phenomenon of self-deception. Lewis explored it repeatedly and at length in his fiction: it is the underlying theme of The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and at least a major secondary theme in That Hideous Strength, the Narnia series, and Till We Have Faces. Here the devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on how to stir up strife within a household:
In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face. To keep up this game you and Glubose [the patients mothers personal tempter] must see to it that each of these two fools has a sort of double standard. Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mothers utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper. Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express intention of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.
Pinker, for his part, devotes large sections of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature to it.
[Social psychologist Roy] Baumeister and his collaborators Arlene Stillwell and Sara Wotman... asked people to describe one incident in which someone angered, and one incident in which they angered someone... Both perpetrators and victims recounted plenty of lies, broken promises, violated rules and obligations, betrayed secrets, unfair acts, and conflicts over money.
But that was all that the perpetrators and victims agreed on. The psychologists pored over the narratives and coded features such as the time span of the events, the culpability of each side, the perpetrators motive, and the aftermath of the harm. If one were to weave composite narratives out of their tallies, they might look something like this:The Perpetrators Narrative: The story begins with the harmful act. At the time I had good reasons for doing it. Perhaps I was responding to an immediate provocation. Or I was just reacting to the situation in a way that any reasonable person would. I had a perfect right to do what I did, and its unfair to blame me for it. The harm was minor, and easily repaired, and I apologized. Its time to get over it, put it behind us, let bygones be bygones....Something in human psychology distorts our interpretation and memory of harmful events.
The Victims Narrative: The story begins long before the harmful act, which was just the latest incident in a long history of mistreatment. The perpetrators actions were incoherent, senseless, incomprehensible. Either that or he was an abnormal sadist, motivated only by a desire to see me suffer, though I was completely innocent. The harm he did is grievous and irreparable, with effects that will last forever. None of us should ever forget it.
And both agree on a fundamental point of moral philosophy.
...I believe that the primary moral principles on which all others depend are rationally perceived. We just see that there is no reason why my neighbours happiness should be sacrificed to my own, as we just see that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another. If we cannot prove either axiom, that is not because they are irrational but because they are self-evident and all proofs depend on them. Their intrinsic reasonableness shines by its own light. It is because all morality is based on such self-evident principles that we say to a man, when we would recall him to right conduct, Be reasonable.
...the assumptions of self-interest and sociality combine with reason to lay out a morality in which nonviolence is a goal... as soon as one side prevails on the other not to injure him, he has no choice but to commit himself not to injure the other side either. As soon as he says, Its bad for you to hurt me, hes committed to Its bad for me to hurt you, since logic cannot tell the difference between me and you. (After all, their meaning switches with every turn in the conversation.)... So as soon as you try to persuade someone to avoid harming you by appealing to reasons why he shouldnt, youre sucked into a commitment to the avoidance of harm as a general goal. And to the extent that you pride yourself on the quality of your reason, work to apply it far and wide, and use it to persuade others, you will be forced to deploy that reason in pursuit of universal interests, including an avoidance of violence.
What do all these similarities mean? Id like to imagine that Lewis and Pinker have simply reached the same conclusions independently. That would increase our confidence that the conclusions were correct. Unfortunately for that idea, despite their very different backgrounds, its clear the two both think the same way in some regards, which makes it more likely than random chance that they might separately come up with the same wrong answer. Both sprinkle their writings liberally with illustrative quotes, though Pinker is more careful about explaining who hes quoting and why. Lewis correctly diagnosed excessive quotation as his own worst writerly habit he often repeats phrases he considers apt without giving sources or explanations or even translations (many are in Latin, Greek, Middle English, or other languages).
Still, the divide between them is real. At other times Pinker reminds me of Lewis, or vice versa, by saying the exact opposite of what the other one would have said. Pinker is first and foremost a scientist; Lewis held science and the scientific outlook in deep suspicion. Pinker is a post-Freudian psychologist; in Lewiss works psychology means Freudianism. Pinker frequently avails himself of economic concepts when they help explain things; Lewis distrusted economics even more than science. Pinkers outlook is grounded in Darwinian natural selection; Lewis, quite innocent of what Darwinism actually entails, confused it repeatedly with the progress-through-conquest ideal of the nineteenth century in which, mind you, he is hardly alone, and he did helpfully note some pre-Origin of Species expressions of that ideal in Keats Hyperion and Wagners Ring cycle. Pinker would see Lewiss prescription for science in The Abolition of Man for the nonsense it is:
The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the [moral sense] of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the inly known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct.
Whats nonsense about that, I hear some of you ask? Its nonsense because scientific explanation must be explaining away, in Lewiss sense, or it explains nothing. Science does not seek to explain the unknown in terms of the known, as he implies, but to explain the complex in terms of the simple. Lewis has here committed the cardinal error of confusing simple with familiar. The simplest things we know of, subatomic particles, are brain-bendingly unfamiliar. Science will of course end up linking unknown phenomena to known ones, but only by going down to the components and logic structures which they share in common and coming back up again.
Politically Lewis was a conservative and Pinker is a liberal, a difference exacerbated by the generation gap and the fact that todays liberal ideals are yesterdays radical ones. Lewis lived through both World Wars and died in 1963, aged a week short of 65 (on the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley); so he saw only the beginning of the extraordinary Long Peace that has reigned ever since in Europe and the developed world. He can be excused a bit of scepticism as to its permanence.
The ideal embodied in Launcelot is escapism in a sense never dreamed of by those who use that word: it offers the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable. There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.
Whats Launcelot got to do with anything? Lewis opens this 1940 essay with a description of the mediaeval chivalric ideal:
The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.
Launcelot is the literary character who best embodies this union of the two opposing ideals of sternness and meekness. It may be difficult to unite them, Lewis says, but it is critically necessary.
When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. The ancient history of the Near East is like that. Hardy barbarians swarm down from their highlands and obliterate a civilization. Then they become civilized themselves and go soft. Then a new wave of barbarians comes down and obliterates them. Then the cycle begins over again. Modern machinery will not change this cycle; it will only enable the same thing to happen on a larger scale. Indeed, nothing much else can ever happen if the stern and the meek fall into two mutually exclusive classes. And never forget that this is their natural condition.
From which youd almost be fooled into thinking the knights Lewis praises commit violent acts only to defend the innocent. His examples are not purely literary:
To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this sternness there is much meekness; from all I hear, the young pilots in the RAF (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model.
But even the modest young knights of the RAF firebombed the civilians of Dresden when Britain wanted revenge. And the stern side of Arthurian chivalry turns out to have been plain butchery.
The actual content of the tales of mediaeval chivalry, which were set in the 6th century and written between the 11th and the 13th, was not the stuff of a typical Broadway musical. The mediaevalist Richard Kaeuper tallied the number of acts of extreme violence, the 13th-century Lancelot, and on average found one every four pages.
Elsewhere particularly in his childrens fiction Lewis uses the word honour to encapsulate the chivalric ideal. This word is something of a punching-bag for Pinker throughout Better Angels. Far from being a brake on violence, it proves to be one of its major causes.
A credible deterrence policy can remove a competitors incentive to invade for gain, since the cost imposed on him by retaliation would cancel out the anticipated spoils. And it removes his incentive to invade from fear... because of your reduced incentive to strike first, since deterrence reduces the need for preemption. The key to the deterrence policy, though, is the credibility of the threat that you will retaliate... Only if you are committed to disprove any suspicion of weakness, to avenge all trespasses and settle all scores, will your policy of deterrence be credible. Thus we have an explanation of the incentive to invade for trifles... Each side must react to any nonviolent sign of disrespect with a violent demonstration of mettle, whereupon one act of violence can lead to another in an endless cycle of retaliation.
Lewis an extreme example of Pinkers observation (in The Blank Slate) that the political Right holds a Tragic Vision of human nature. (Im a counterexample to the corresponding hypothesis that the Left works from a Utopian Vision.) Heres Lewis in another Spectator article, this time from 1943.
A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that theyre not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that theyre not true without looking further than myself. I dont deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.
Pinker holds a similar opinion of Rousseau, insisting that the flaws in human nature go to the root. He would agree that no-one can be trusted with absolute power. But he would join me in repudiating the idea that anybody merits slavery; I dont think I need to hunt out a reference to assert that. He quotes the American Founding Father James Madison approvingly: If men were angels, no government would be necessary. Lewiss position is the exact opposite: if men were angels, no limits on government would be necessary. He compares democracy and legal equality to medicine potentially toxic, desirable only when there are wrongs to remedy. Among the design features he perceives in human nature is a natural longing to be ruled by kings, for which his evidence is a tone argument.
We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a mans reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be debunked; but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut; whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.
This we can contrast with Pinkers thoroughly unspiritual account of why people defer to leaders.
Fighting every contest to the bitter end is a poor strategy for an animal, because chances are its adversary has evolved to do the same thing. A fight is costly to the loser, because it will be injured or dead and hence worse off than if it had relinquished the prize from the start. It also can be costly to the victor, because he may sustain injuries in the course of victory. Both parties would have done better if they had assessed who was likely to win beforehand and if the underdog simply conceded...
When many animals in a group spar or size one another up in a round-robin, the outcome is a pecking order, which correlates with the probability that each animal would win an all-out duel...
Humans dont have rigid pecking orders, but in all societies people recognise a kind of dominance hierarchy, particularly among men. High-ranking men are deferred to, have a greater voice in group decisions, usually have a greater share of the groups resources, and always have more wives, more lovers, and more affairs with other mens wives...
Status is the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to. The assets may include beauty, irreplaceable talent or expertise, the ear and trust of powerful people, and especially wealth. Status-worthy assets tend to be fungible. Wealth can bring connections and vice versa. Beauty can be parlayed into wealth (through gifts or marriage), can attract the attention of important people, or can draw more suitors than the beautiful one can handle. Asset-holders, then, are not just seen as holders of their assets. They exude an aura or charisma that makes people want to be in their graces. Its always handy to have people want to be in your graces, so status itself is worth craving. But there are only so many hours in the day and sycophants must choose whom to fawn over, so status is a limited resource. If A has more, B must have less, and they must compete.
Pinkers takedown of monarchy in particular (The Better Angels of Our Nature p. 233) is hilariously cynical, but, alas, just a little too long to quote here without shredding it. On another occasion Lewis clarified who is supposed to rule whom:
I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen... patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government.
Yes, he said husband over wife. Lewis was a thoroughgoing misogynist until brought to heel by Joy Davidman late in life, and even then he clung to his idea of the masculine and feminine as embodiments of the spiritual hierarchy of the universe. He does not have the excuse of being normal for his time, not even for his own social milieu, as a comparison with his friend, colleague, and fellow mid-century conservative Christian J. R. R. Tolkien quickly shows. Pinker, on the other hand well, hes not quite as feminist as I am, in that I fret about a few things that dont bother him, but one of the major conclusions of The Better Angels of Our Nature is that feminism is a major force for peace.
Lewiss authoritarian political philosophy is directly connected to the single most glaring point of difference between him and Pinker:
The difference between the two views might be expressed by saying that Naturalism gives us a democratic, Supernaturalism a monarchical, picture of reality. The Naturalist thinks that the privilege of being on its own resides in the total mass of things, just as in a democracy sovereignty resides in the whole mass of the people. The Supernaturalist thinks that this privilege belongs to some things or (more probably) One Thing and not to others just as, in a real monarchy, the king has sovereignty and the people have not. And just as, in a democracy, all people are equal, so for the Naturalist one thing or event is as good as another, in the sense that they are all equally dependent on the total system of things. Indeed each of them is only the way in which the total character of that system exhibits itself at a particular point in space and time. The Supernaturalist, on the other hand, believes that the one original or self-existent thing is on a different level from, and more important than, all other things.
At this point a suspicion may occur that Supernaturalism first arose from reading into the universe the structure of monarchical societies. But then of course it may with equal reason be suspected that Naturalism has arisen from reading into it the structure of modern democracies. The two suspicions thus cancel out and give us no help in deciding which theory is more likely to be true. They do indeed remind us that Supernaturalism is the characteristic philosophy of a monarchical age and Naturalism of a democratic, in the sense that Supernaturalism, even if false, would have been believed by the great mass of unthinking people four hundred years ago, just as Naturalism, even if false, will be believed by the great mass of unthinking people today.
Note the disparaging references to the great mass of unthinking people, another worryingly recognisable returning motif in Lewiss writing. Lewis defends supernaturalism on the basis that, without it, the concept of rationality doesnt make sense:
All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning. If the feeling of certainty which we express by words like must be and therefore and since is a real perception of how things outside our own minds really must be, well and good. But if this certainty is merely a feeling in our own minds and not a genuine insight into realities beyond them if it merely represents the way our minds happen to work then we can have no knowledge. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true.
It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound a proof that there are no such things as proofs which is nonsense.
Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor [J. B. S.] Haldane: If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.
Lewis, of course, never used or saw or (as far as I can tell) even heard of such a thing as a computer. Nor did he read Alan Turing, who might have given him pause. Pinker gives a partial answer to his misgivings in The Language Instinct:
It took Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician and philosopher, to make the idea of a mental representation scientifically respectable. Turing described a hypothetical machine that could be said to engage in reasoning. In fact this simple device, named a Turing Machine in his honour, is powerful enough to solve any problem that any computer, past, present, or future, can solve.
He goes on to demonstrate how a hypothetical Turing machine, given the sentences Socrates is a man and Every man is mortal, might generate the deduction Socrates is mortal. I imagine that Lewis would respond that the sentences wouldnt mean anything to the computer, whatever they might mean to human readers; that you could program it to conclude that Socrates is not mortal and it would be none the wiser. Like many others, Lewis was stymied by what philosophers have dubbed the Hard Problem of Consciousness. How can a collection of insensate objects ever be about anything? But it really is stretching a bit far to answer it with the doctrine of the Ghost in the Machine.
Until recently the intuitive concept of the soul served us pretty well. Living people had souls, which come into existence at the moment of conception and leave their bodies when they die. Animals, plants, and inanimate objects do not have souls at all. But science is showing that what we call the soul the locus of sentience, reason, and will consists of the information-processing activity of the brain, an organ governed by the laws of biology.
Lewis has an ingeniously sophistical answer ready:
We can admit, and even insist, that rational thinking can be shown to be conditioned in its exercise by a natural object (the brain). It is temporarily impaired by alcohol or a blow on the head. It wanes as the brain decays and vanishes when the brain ceases to function. In the same way the moral outlook of a community can be shown to be closely connected with its history, geographical environment, economic structure, and so forth... All this, far from presenting us with a difficulty, is exactly what we should expect.
The rational and moral element in each human mind is a point of force from the Supernatural working its way into Nature, exploiting at each point those conditions which Nature offers, repulsed where the conditions are hopeless and impeded when they are unfavourable. A mans rational thinking is just so much of his share in eternal reason as the state of his brain allows to become operative: it represents, so to speak, the bargain struck or the frontier fixed between Reason and Nature at that particular point. A nations moral outlook is just so much of its share in eternal Moral Wisdom as its history, economics etc., lets through. In the same way the voice of the Announcer is just so much of a human voice as the receiving set lets through. Of course it varies with the state of the receiving set, and deteriorates as the set wears out and vanishes altogether if I throw a brick at it. It is conditioned by the apparatus but not originated by it. If it were if we knew that there was no human being at the microphone we should not attend to the news... you can always ignore Supernature and treat the phenomena purely from the Natural side; just as a man studying on a map the boundaries of Cornwall and Devonshire can always say, What you call a bulge in Devonshire is really a dent in Cornwall. And in a sense you cant refute him. What we call a bulge in Devonshire always is a dent in Cornwall. What we call rational thought always involves a state of the brain, in the long run a relation of atoms. But Devonshire is nonetheless something more than where Cornwall ends, and Reason is something more than cerebral biochemistry.
Never mind that Lewiss positive evidence for his Devonshire and his Announcer is precisely zero, that hes no more shown how a supernatural system can give rise to consciousness, knowledge, or meaning than his opponents have shown how a natural one can. Lewis is a little subtler than most supernaturalists, but his argument is ultimately the same as theirs Im right, dont ask questions.
I am not trying to prove [universal moralitys] validity by the argument from common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it.
If the value of our reasoning is in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning. If... a proof that there are no proofs is nonsensical, so is a proof that there are proofs. Reason is our starting point. If by treating it as a mere phenomenon you put yourself outside it, there is then no way, except by begging the question, of getting inside again.
Pinker also admits defeat on the Hard Problem and related ones, but at least he admits that he is admitting defeat:
But there is something peculiarly holistic and everywhere-at-once and nowhere-at-all and all-at-the-same-time about the problems of philosophy. Sentience is not a combination of brain events or computational states: how a red-sensitive neuron gives rise to the subjective feel of redness is not a whit less mysterious than how the whole brain gives rise to the entire stream of consciousness. The I is not a combination of body parts or brain states or bits of information, but a unity of selfness over time, a single locus that is nowhere in particular. Free will is not a causal chain of events and states, by definition. Although the combinatorial aspect of meaning has been worked out (how words or ideas combine into the meanings of sentences or propositions), the core of meaning the simple act of referring to something remains a puzzle, because it stands strangely apart from any causal connection between the thing referred to and the person referring. Knowledge, too, throws up the paradox that knowers are acquainted with things that have never impinged upon them. Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with.
Personally I seriously doubt that consciousness and meaning need prove tougher conceptual nuts to crack than (say) quantum physics, which remains impermeable to intuition but not to mathematics. Be that as it may, the parallel between supernaturalist metaphysics and monarchic politics continues to hold. In a democratic constitution the whys and wherefores of governance and law are laid out explicitly for anyone to examine; no authority and no institution is veiled in compulsory reverence. In a naturalist metaphysic there are some questions we havent yet answered, but none that we are forbidden to ask. Supernaturalism and monarchy are abdications respectively of our intellectual and civic responsibilities.
So, much as I appreciate Lewiss perspective on literature should a time-traveller ever get them together for that debate, my moneys on Pinker all the way.