Saturday, October 07, 2017


"Words don't matter." I heard Karl Popper make this shocking statement in a class in London in 1964. In all likelihood, he was reacting against the current philosophical fashion in Oxford and Cambridge for "ordinary language." I suppose that Popper's remark was deliberately provocative, a little like the Zen master who instructed that if one meets Buddha on the path, one should kill him. 
At any rate, the observation chimes oddly with Popper's own quest for precision in language, all the more remarkable as English was his second tongue. 
When in the 1970s I and a group of scholarly friends realized that there was an intellectual component, a necessary one, in gay liberation. We sought to look into the history of words. In those days words were implements of our degradation, whether learned (e.g. perversion, degenerate), or demotic (faggot, fairy). The need to deglamorize these tokens of pejoration led to an effort to trace their history, as I attempted in my sketchy early book, Homolexis. 
There was always the solution, somewhat deceiving I think, to introduce neologisms. Today we are faced with an array of such terms, ranging from the cis- prefix to intersectionality. In time these gargoyles will fade, but the renovation of language continues apace - not always to our advantage. Hence the importance of studying the classics, because they preserve tried and true ways of putting matters, ways that should not be forgotten.


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