The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)

Signifiers

Disinterested

Wilfred M. McClay

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 1)

I rise to embrace that most unpopular of causes: linguistic prescriptivism. Unpopular in every sense, for it asserts that the vox populi should not be the ultimate authority to which every knee should bow and every tongue confess in matters of diction and grammar. Instead, it takes the unfashionable view that standards of usage exist, and exist to be observed and enforced, not merely for propriety’s sake but for the sake of elegance, precision, and clarity. Stubborn blue-nosed grammarian types, such as your average heroic copyeditor, rise each morning, put on their armor, buckle their scabbards, and sally forth into a relentless and often losing battle to defend the ramparts of civilization, policing the distinction between that and which, or between and among, or shall and will, and a great many other such problem spots. They are always busy, for the legions of mischief are almost as extensive as language itself. The ever-proliferating confusions related to pronoun gender and number—“If a criminal is sufficiently versatile, can they do the work of two?”—are almost as bewildering as the general societal confusion they signify. Which of course is just what language is supposed to do, in the view of the anti-prescriptivists: Language is to be a mirror rather than a lamp, to invoke M.H. Abrams’s classic distinction between literature that merely reflects the world and literature that seeks to illuminate it. Language in this understanding is life’s obedient servant rather than its guide and preceptor.

Certainly there is truth in this. It would be absurd, not to say futile, to argue that languages and words should never change. But there is also a great deal to be said for the idea of language as a lamp, an instrument for the promulgation of ideas and ideals, one that does not merely take its bearings from the things it seeks to illuminate, but in fact reverses that set of relations, and brings its light to bear on a world that badly needs its guidance. Old words in old books convey meanings that we are often much the poorer for having lost, and much the richer for having worked to recover. When the language of the Bible or the prayer books is revised to be brought into conformity with present-day usage, what is lost is not easily expressed, since it was precisely the discarded older words that were needed to express it. When the Episcopal Church revised the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, a portion of the wording of the liturgy was changed from “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty [to give thanks to God]” to the saccharine and upbeat “It is right, and a good and joyful thing.” This change did far more than make the wording more familiar, if unduly prosaic. By eliminating unfamiliar words that one might have to struggle to understand, it closed off access to unfamiliar meanings that one might need to struggle to appropriate. For instance, what does it mean to have a “bounden duty” to something larger than oneself—and when and why did it cease to be “meet” to acknowledge that duty?

So it is often true that translation is betrayal, and no less so when the translation takes place within the same language, because words are so rarely interchangeable. In addition, a word may remain superficially unchanged but manage, over time, to lose its meaning, like the salt that loses its savor. My favorite example of this, one that drives me to distraction, is the almost complete loss to our discourse of the word disinterested, which is now generally used to mean “uninterested,” even by highly educated and fluent individuals. To point out that this is an error in usage is to draw anti-prescriptivist fire and scorn, and mark oneself as a petty and pedantic twit.

But hold on, because there are some high stakes here. Disinterestedness in its original acceptation was a powerful, even visionary word, which meant something very different from boredom or world-weariness. To be “disinterested” was to approach a conflict or dispute with the fair-minded neutrality of one who took the larger view, and had no vested interest in the outcome. The Progressive reformers of a century ago, such as Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and Theodore Roosevelt, all believed in the possibility of a new science of politics, and a form of democratic governance that would be grounded in the truths of this science, enabling its practitioners to be disinterested leaders making disinterested decisions—meaning that they would be capable of standing above the collision of “interests” that made democratic politics such a disappointing melee, and could instead discern and pursue something called “the public interest,” and could make the pursuit of that common interest a reality. In short, a statesman was “disinterested” who had the temperament, the intellectual wherewithal, and the probity to put the common good ahead of any particular good.

The Progressive vision of disinterestedness was both naive and smug, unresponsive to the full range of genuine democratic sentiments, and doomed to be dashed against the rocks of human nature’s incorrigibly self-interested propensity. But there is no denying its high-mindedness, its aspiration to be a lamp rather than a mirror, a source of moral elevation rather than a license to ignore the larger good. What does it mean that we have entirely lost the use of this once powerful word in anything resembling its former sense? Does that mean that we have lost a way of imagining and expressing what it would be like to govern with the common good foremost in our minds?

It might. But that is all the more reason to keep alive a sense of the original meaning of disinterestedness—just as it is worth keeping alive what it means to have a “bounden duty.” When you think about it, there may be a connection between these two undertakings.

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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