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Language and Public Discussion*

I want to use this entry as a way of thinking about and using language in public discussion.

Philosophers, social thinkers, and cognitive scientists of various kinds have long argued hotly about the origin and nature of language.  But “ultimate” questions about language need not be answered conclusively in order to describe the kinds of language (or ways of using language) that might be most useful in particular contexts.  The context that interests us at IF is public discussion or, more specifically, public discussion of  selected areas of concern, contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing them, and their possible practical consequences.

Whether for psychological motives or because they are bent on advocating a particular policy, some citizens’ desire to “win” will express itself as an attempt to exercise control over language.  Other citizens will equate precision with clear thinking, forgetting that the aim of exploration and developmental discussion is not precision, but the multiplication and clarification of possibilities.  Still others, concerned above all with achieving some form of consensus, will forego true exploration and development as long as they are satisfied that those present are in agreement about how to express themselves.

By contrast, IF’s  general approach to language is to maintain a certain distance or caution about language: by guarding against the impulse to “get it right,” by being aware of its obvious and potential limitations, and by remembering that while language may be an “end in itself” in other contexts, in public discussion it is not.  In short, we believe that language should serve public discussion, rather than the reverse.

Language and Exploration.  Because it involves a broadening process of multiplying avenues of inquiry the conceptual work of exploration—whether of an area of concern, contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing it, or their possible practical consequences—is particularly vulnerable to linguistic narrowing.  The process of exploration can easily fall into any of several enticing linguistic traps, all of which undermine the essentially conceptual work of exploration.  The two most common both have to do with an overblown concern with “getting the words right.”  Some citizens, spurred by a desire to “win,” may insist on certain phrases or terms.  Others, motivated by the altruistic aim of striving to achieve exactness, sometimes attempt to impose more precision on a discussion than it can—or should—bear.

To avoid these traps and allow exploration to proceed most usefully, a certain ambiguity in language can be tolerable, perhaps even desirable.  “Positive” ambiguity can help:

  • prevent arguments over terms, definitions, or constructions (participants can understand concepts in their “own” language without needing to defend it)
  • keep conceptual possibilities and their accumulating meanings open to discussion until ready for external communication to those not party to the group discussing them
  • encourage thinking beyond the boundaries that language creates or imposes (conceptual possibilities may develop before language becomes available to describe them aptly or fully)
  • prevent false consensus, i.e. consensus based on agreement on terms rather than convergence on concepts
  • encourage awareness of the need for exploration as a prelude to selections, exclusions, and the further development and testing of possible answers.

Using language, with its general rules, is useful for reflecting reality but too often is used to define reality in positive or rigid terms, despite the unavoidability of future change.  Public discussion cannot of course do without words.  Yet words necessarily channel and narrow discussion because all words result from choices to represent or construct something in one way rather than others.  Nevertheless, participants—especially with the help of an able facilitator—can resist this narrowing process to some degree, primarily by allowing conceptual questions and their answers to be referred to by preliminary descriptions rather than labels or definitions.  Using groups of words (“descriptions”) narrows thinking less than single words or definitions.  Thinking of descriptions as preliminary or tentative keeps them more open still.

The more that citizens discuss concepts without trying to define them, the more will concepts have a chance to infuse the language that is ultimately used to describe them, and the less the danger that language, with all of its prior conceptual baggage, will overly circumscribe them, either directly (through narrowing participants’ thinking) or indirectly (by diverting them into arguments about terminology and construction).

During exploration, it is important to remember that as individuals, and perhaps even more as interacting citizens, we often find ourselves in the position of groping toward the new, of being able to grasp something only partially or inchoately.  In such situations, we very often think or feel or “know” something before we can “put a name on it.”

Language and Development. Because exploration and development are interactive, but different, sorts of tasks the language apropos to the development of possible questions during public discussion of an area of concern and of possible answers during public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities will tend to be both similar to and different from that which is most useful during the exploratory phase of these types of public discussion.

During the initial phases of development, the nuances of possible questions and possible answers are fleshed out.  This remains a conceptual rather than linguistic process that, for the reasons given in the previous section, can be seriously limited by a concern over definitional exactness.  As they are developed, conceptual questions and conceptual answers should be allowed and encouraged to take on a life of their own, with new meanings added to (or subtracted from) the old and variations being selected or excluded as the discussion unfolds.  This process involves clarification—but still in a conceptual sense.  Sometimes the result will be a simplification of the original concept(s), sometimes a further constructive organization into a more complex whole.

If development—whether of possible questions or possible answers—moves on to the task of improving their coherence, however, language may begin to play a more significant role.  Still, this role will not be determinative since practical coherence, while perhaps aided by the avoidance of linguistic contradiction, is not the same as linguistic rigor or logical rigor, although it may bear a close resemblance to them.

Should participants in public discussion converge on a number of contrasting conceptual possibilities they may wish to communicate them to other citizens and/or policy-makers or test them for possible practical consequences.  The latter task, especially, will depend on a degree of linguistic exactness or directness that would be out of place during exploration and the early stages of development.  To be communicated effectively to others, contrasting conceptual possibilities should be expressed coherently and accessibly.  Ambiguities that can be an asset during exploration and the initial stages of development should be translated into terms that most citizens will find useful.  Even greater linguistic exactness is needed for testing, for reasons that are described in the next section.

Language and Testing. When public discussion aims at testing conceptual possibilities for their possible practical consequences, the language in which possibilities are expressed should be more precise—in the sense of being simpler or more direct or more minimal—than will prove useful to either conceptual exploration or even the latter phase of development.  This is because testing is more helpful if it starts from a relatively “fixed” starting point—i.e., if all can see what is being tested.

The consequences that are explored by participants during testing are the practical consequences of a particular conceptual possibility.  But while any conceptual possibility might be expressed in any number of ways, any test of a possibility can only be performed on a single one of its expressions at a time.  The results of testing are thus likely to be more useful to other citizens when it is relatively clear to them just what was being tested, even if it is understood that what was being tested is only one formulation of the conceptual possibility among perhaps many.


* For more extensive discussion of this topic, see essay A-6 at: