Plain English

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the one’s we don’t know we don’t know.”
Donald Rumsfeld

The fact that Donald Rumsfeld’s words are probably the best description of Freud’s early stratified conception of the mental apparatus as composed of the systems ‘conscious’, ‘preconscious’ and ‘unconscious’, make me reluctant to find any amusement in the news that he has been awarded the Plain English Campaign’s ‘Foot in Mouth’ trophy for 2003.

The fact that Donald Rumsfeld is a very scary man makes me doubly reluctant.

The Plain English Campaign was set up in 1979 to combat official jargon, circumlocution and muddling information (source: John Ezard, The Independent 2 December 2003), which most people would agree is a worthy and important cause. Soldiers of my father’s generation recognised the psychological impact of official obfuscation in the fruity aphorism ‘b******t baffles brains’, and baffled brains are more docile and compliant in the face of establishment rules.

Languages of the elite are made difficult and obscure, surrounded by taboos and divorced from everyday language. They function to legitimate and maintain the status quo. Knowledge is not power but it can be used by the powerful. However the demand for ‘plain English’ and ‘clarity’ may offer a promise it cannot deliver.

Perhaps the patron saint of the Plain English campaign should be the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, Freud’s Viennese contemporary, eager to follow in the footsteps of the great Bertrand Russell and prove in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that language could offer a true picture of the world. For him, ‘atomic facts’ marched hand-in-glove with ‘elementary propositions’. He later described this optimistic view as ‘primitive’, and once he included the activity of human beings as a factor in his outlook, he saw that both language and the world were complex, elusive and ambiguous entities. The theory of ‘language games’ brought a whole new metaphorical arsenal to the philosophical battlefield.

Both Darwin and Freud would sympathise more with the late Wittgenstein than the early, though both retained a firm belief in the concept, and love, of ‘truth’. Of the historian Thomas Carlyle (“his views about slavery were revolting”), Darwin writes in his Autobiography:

“No one can doubt about his extraordinary power of drawing pictures of things and men – far more vivid, as it appears to me, than any drawn by Macauley. Whether his pictures of men were true ones is another question.” (p51)

‘Plain English’ can have its dangers too, the dangers of subliminal persuasion and suggestion that atrophy our thinking capacities just as much as the most bureaucratic gobbledygook. The implication is that there is something to be said for ‘unplain’ English, and once again Darwin does not disappoint. Of his own working methods he writes:

“I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.” (p72)

Freud would have sympathised with Darwin’s predicament. Famously fluent and elegant in his writing, Freud nevertheless struggles to find a language adequate to the messy, three dimensional and contradictory reality of the human world. Why did he never write in ‘plain English’ a full description of the Oedipus complex? Why do all his concepts seem to have more than one meaning? Why is he so insistent that even ‘basic concepts’ may not be “clear and sharply defined”? (see ‘Darwin’s Passion‘ for full quote).

Freud struggles with language and the relation between words and things. Things in the world are always more and less than the words which designate them; they always escape the net of language. Take these two passages from his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego:

“The nucleus of what we mean by love naturally consists in sexual love with sexual union as its aim. But we do not separate from this on the one hand, self-love, and on the other, love for parents and children, friendship and love for humanity in general, and also devotion to concrete objects and to abstract ideas…”

to be followed by:

“Psychoanalysis, then, gives these love instincts the name of sexual instincts, a priori and by reason of their origin….”

It is not ‘clarity’ which is at stake here but the ability to see complex relations of analogy and homology, metaphor and metonymy. At the same time the words are important to pin something down, to maintain a certain attitude in relation to the phenomenon:

“Anyone who considers sex as something mortifying and humiliating to human nature is at liberty to make use of the more genteel expressions ‘Eros’ and ‘erotic’. I might have done so myself from the first and thus have spared myself much opposition. But I did not want to, for I like to avoid concessions to faintheartedness. One can never tell where that road may lead one; one gives way first in words, and then little by little in substance too…” (p90-91)

In the best book ever written about Freud’s style, Patrick Mahony writes of Freud’s continual use of words like probably, certainly, likely, obvious, assume, evident, recognise, suspect, suppose etc, which indicate different and continually shifting ‘levels of certainty’. To one of his student-patients, Smiley Blanton, Freud said:

“In developing a new science one has to make its theories vague. You cannot make things clear-cut. But when you write the public demands that you make things definite, else they think that you do not know what you are saying.”

Struggling with ambiguity and the elusive nature of mental processes, Freud’s language embodies precisely what Darwin valued about his own imprecise and unplain English; the “compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence”.

Freud would no doubt have agreed that the struggle with language is an essential part of our practice.

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