A Rose By Any Other Name

The first half of The Bard’s quote is an adage I use frequently – in thousands of posts over two decades. The point of Juliet’s words lies in the second half. Umberto Eco wrote a whole philosophical novel riffing on it.

“A rose by any other name …
… would smell as sweet.”

One word – one name for a thing – is as good as another once you’re experiencing the real thing.

I’ve written at length on “Identity Politics”, that naming things for “tribal” reasons – even unconscious ones – is an unhealthy aspect of discourse (even scientific discourse – climate change anyone?) and one good reason some words are controlled for Political Correctness in some contexts. But it’s important to understand how that’s different from language fascism, prescribing and proscribing word-use in general – banning and demanding, through expectation and reaction if not by formal ruling. Rules are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools anyway.

In fact this issue is a technical ontological error that infects epistemology. We refer to individuals (people and things) using the names of their classes all the time. But it’s at our peril if we use that class naming to suggest identity and/or definition of the individual. In a world where linguistic symbols confer massive advantage to promulgating information – as opposed to the individual contact of “knowing biblically” – we have little choice but to use words or other portable metaphorical representations of them. Catch-22 – We must use them but beware their limitations in becoming too attached to them individually.

I often defend Wittgenstein from those who take too narrow and reductive a view of his early phase Tractatus work. Inferring that he believed the logical positive objectivity of his austere aphorisms with their neat logical joins of thus and therefore somehow described all that could be said about the world. Kinda – “I’ve completed the job, if you want more, go whistle!” It was simply all that could be said with that world view. His later work showed he understood the need to make the altogether more mystical linguistic turn.

I felt that same defensive emotion this morning, reading Giles Fraser posting his memories of Mary Midgley who died a couple of days ago. (I’ve also defended Midgley who despite her sharp and subtle understanding wasn’t quite up to the “banter” of mediated conference dialogue when I last saw her.) Anyway, fascinating because I’ve come to treat Giles as a professional contrarian who’s wheeled out, or dives in, to every public moral debate, without ever appearing to hold a single intelligible view IMHO. To the point I’ve given up attempting any dialogue. Imagine my surprise to find he not only benefitted from Mary Midgley in his philosophical (and theological and pastoral) education but that he seems to genuinely appreciate the fact. Touching. Hope for the old polemicist yet.

His only black mark was that having appreciated the philosophical subtlety of Midgley, he simply dismissed Wittgenstein as the opposite archetype – standing for reductive objectivity – whereas, he absolutely detested and ridiculed the school that adopted him.

Words matter not because of which words – in which disembodied logical and grammatical order – but because of “how we” use them in the problem-solving game we (universal constructors) call life.

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[Post Note: Holding Stub – Part of a dialogue with David Harding on choice of words, but coincidentally also relevant to his post of Sophistry. I’m defending Rhetoric, more than Sophistry. The former is necessary – see above – the latter is deliberately mis-leading, even if Machiavellian intent is overall positive. All more evidence for “the Wittgensteinian word game.]


Also published on Medium.

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