— Richard M. Weaver American scholar 1910 - 1963
“Relativism and the Use of Language,” pp. 124-126.
Language is Sermonic (1970)
Context: One type of critic today tends to attack language as a means of communication on this very ground — the ground that words are conventional in their meaning and are therefore falsifying. The point of the criticism is that a convention is something abstracted and, therefore, untrue, a generalized sign of the thing itself, which we use because we are unable or unwilling to render the thing in itself in its fullness. A word in this conception is nothing but a stereotype, and “stereotype” is here an expression of disparagement, because it is felt that “typing” anything that is real distorts the thing by presenting it in something less than its full individuality and concreteness. Let us suppose that I make reference to a tree standing in my yard. The term “tree” does not designate the object with any degree of particularity. It does not tell whether the tree is young or old, low or tall, an oak, pine, or maple. The term is, therefore, merely a utility symbol, which I employ in communicating because in my laziness or incompetence I cannot find a fuller and more individualizing way of expressing this tree. If I were really communicating, the argument goes, I would reject the falsifying stereotype and produce something more nearly like the picture of the tree. But if the analysis I have offered earlier is correct, these critics are beginning at the wrong end. They are assuming that individual real objects are carriers of meaning, that the meaning is found in them as redness is found in an apple, and that it ought to be expressed with the main object of fidelity to the particular. What they overlook is that meaning does not exist in this sense, that it is something that we create for purposes of cognition and communication, and that the ideal construct has the virtue of its ideality. Hence it appears that they misconceive the function of the word as conventional sign or “typifier.” For if it is true that the word conveys something less than the fullness of the thing signified, it is also true that it conveys something more. A word in this role is a generalization. the value of a generalization is that while it leaves out the specific feature that are of the individual or of the moment, it expresses features that are general to a class and may be lacking or imperfect in the single instance.