Universities at their best are places where reading, writing, speaking, and (hopefully) listening are carried out at the highest level. The core activity here is sharing words with other people. We share words—written, verbal, and non-verbal—to meet other minds, to learn and share experiences for the sake of mutual betterment. So, as teachers and students return to campus, I thought it might be fun to take a moment to reflect on WORDS, with a little inspiration from Vincent Ostrom, F. A. Hayek, and Stephen King.
Vincent Ostrom, maybe more than any other 20th century political economist, emphasized the fact that language is a powerful tool. When we name what we experience by assigning words to objects and relationships, we generate “shared communities of understanding.”(The Meaning of Deocracies and the Sahred Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response To Tocqueville’s Challenge, p. 153) These words and the understanding they enable are how people share what they learn with others, including across generations. Through words, our experiences benefit others. I interpret this as similar to Hayek’s claim from Constitution of Liberty that “civilization begins where the individual can benefit from more knowledge than he can himself acquire, and is able to cope with his ignorance by using knowledge which he does not possess.” Words—along with markets, culture, and law/rules of conduct—form the extended orders that make society possible.
In Stephen King’s On Writing—an intellectual memoir from a true master of words—he equates successful writing with being able to pull off the near-supernatural act of telepathy. Language is a vehicle through which we are able to either send or receive mental images that otherwise would remain electrical impulses with nowhere to go, trapped inside our own minds. He gives the following example of “telepathy in action”:
“Look, here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit, with a pink nose and pink rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral eight. Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do.”
The quote doesn’t give the chapter full justice, so I definitely recommend reading the whole thing, especially if you have an interest in writing as a craft. He goes on to explain that we might imagine very different details, but nearly everybody comes away with the same understanding about what is important about the description: the blue number eight on the rabbit’s back. This is the puzzle, the unexpected element that makes the information new and unites our attention around an idea. What I take from this is that there’s something about finding the right way to say something—precise but only to the point of usefulness, thorough yet focused, with some understanding of what the reader is bringing to the table—that makes it possible to get a message across in the way it was intended. That makes it possible for two minds to meet.
King’s conclusion is that “You must not come lightly to the blank page.” To write is to transmit ideas to other people’s minds. That’s a serious responsibility that can be carried out well or poorly, put to good use or ill. I can think of no reason why the same admonition should not apply to lectures, conversations, and video presentations.
Vincent Ostrom built on this idea. For Ostrom, language is created through the process of continued communication, and the language that is created then enters back into every aspect of our lives: “The learning, use, and alteration of language articulations is constitutional in character, applicable to the constitutive character of human personality, to patterns of human association, and to the aggregate structure of the conventions of language usage… the way languages are associated with institutions, goods, cultures, and personality, attributes means that we find languages permeating all aspects of human existence” (p. 171-2).
In other words, by embarking on the academic’s quest to use words better, we are all taking on a particularly important constitutive role. Global markets are made up by millions of buyers and sellers scattered around the world. Languages are made up of millions of people talking, reading, writing, listening, and—to borrow King’s analogy—making telepathic connections with each other in an attempt to connect words to better ideas, and better ideas to better lives. It might be an abstract quest but it’s noble one. Getting it right can make the world better, getting it wrong can make the world worse.
There are several dozen morals about the importance of the endeavor, of sticking to one’s principles, of mastering the fundamentals, etc. that can be drawn from this, and I don’t really want to moralize or pontificate more than I already have. So I’ll just end by saying that if you’re still reading, it was nice to meet your mind for a moment. I hope we’ll meet again soon.
Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.
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