Word meanings and the left

We shouldn’t be so squeamish about terms originally developed, adapted or appropriated by religious minds as they sought to explain external reality and human experience. Granting religion defacto monopoly rights over words like spirit, effectively allowing them to turn appropriation into expropriation, is another matter.

 

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James Brown was the Godfather of Soul.

 

 
Word meanings and the left

By TomG

The following thoughts on word meanings originated from a written or online comment contained in communication between old comrades some twenty years ago. I transcribed my response, filing it away on the cloud, many years later but the issues raised remain pertinent, hence this post. The disagreement was over a discomfort or ambivalence with the word ‘spirit’, and no, we were not talking about a stiff drink.

I have forgotten the precise gripe that this word raised – it will have had something to do with religious or idealist connotations – but I have not forgotten my irritation with the gripe and my liking of the word’s ambiguity, containing as it did the germ of all its definitions, idealist or materialist, secular or religious. Contradictions aplenty. And contradictions, how they emerge and relate to one another in their development, is supposed to be something we are both in favour of and up to speed with.

Two things in particular struck me about this:

1. What words mean, how we understand and use them, is developmental. Spirit, always about human vitality, human essence, be that defined idealistically or materialistically, was first thought of by the ancient Greeks to be about the breath. Not a bad stab at it given the constraints they operated under and not devoid of contradiction either. Was spirit extrinsic or intrinsic? did it come from within or without? delivered to us or created by us? As we know it then came to be predominantly associated with, indeed exclusively appropriated, by religion in its uses and interpretations. Since the scientific revolution of the 17thC and the Enlightenment of the 18thC, the tide has turned and by the 20thC non religious uses and interpretations were becoming common and predominant, liberated from the religious constraints spirit had suffered under.

2. The other thing is its identification with consciousness, about what is vital, quintessential, in people. So, what is consciousness? This is certainly something that, historically, has been seen to involve not just cognition, but notions of soul, spirit and heart. Use of the word ‘heart’ has been long liberated, and we probably have Harvey’s work in the 17thC on circulation of blood to thank for this. We all can and do, use ‘heart’ figuratively, without any angst or confusion. The same applies to ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ although for reasons I have only recently bothered to think about these continue to cause squeamishness among some radical circles. Recent advances in the neurosciences have added substantial weight to the materialist view advanced by Feuerbach in the 1830’s and it’s about time that the radical cum revolutionary left caught up. “The spirit develops together with the body, with the sense. …whence the skull, whence the brain, thence also the spirit; whence an organ, thence also its functioning. The spirit is in the head.”

We shouldn’t be so squeamish about terms originally developed, adapted or appropriated by religious minds as they sought to explain external reality and human experience. Granting religion defacto monopoly rights over words like spirit, effectively allowing them to turn appropriation into expropriation, is another matter. Given that we have no problems about expropriation in other areas, we should have no qualms about re-expropriating here. (By the way, Shakespeare was a master at appropriating novel and common vernacular and his is a good example to follow). The word ‘fuck’ is a prime example and I don’t know anyone who is without sin, and happily so, in using it freely. Indeed it has now become respectable (almost) and we hear it uttered on radio and TV shows daily. Adapting language, actually developing language, is something people have been doing forever and we shouldn’t be shy about it.
Soul and faith are two words that carry heavy religious baggage, soul denoting the seat of our corporeal self and faith denoting acceptance, in the absence of any evidence, of God’s divine providence. How else could God move in mysterious ways, I say unto you?

But in the real, material world, populated by the proverbial common man or woman and in particular by the common adolescent or young adult, word use and adaptation reflects the dynamism we associate with the modern world, with modernity itself. And the old, original (if that’s what they were) religious meanings? Seriously, they’re terminal and on life support and I see little point in radicals – genuine or even pseudo – playing a role in keeping the life support switched on. Let me give three examples of what I’m talking about:

1. “Today’s music ain’t got no soul; give me that old time rock and roll.” belts out Bob Seeger and it’s pretty clear that he’s not referring to what the God botherers mean.

2. And what about Rubber Soul, courtesy of The Beatles? Try as I may I fail to detect God’s ineffable presence.

3. Faith’s principle meaning is now confidence or trust in a person or thing. While this is somewhat ambiguous, containing as it does contradiction, we identify with that aspect that reflects social being and scientific understanding. It is on this basis that we can say that we have faith in the masses (don’t we?), in the general direction of historical development, in scientific method, and that among the numerous ‘revolutionary’ grouplets or sects there will be a higher percentage of killjoys than among the general population etc

As mentioned above the meaning of words change and new ones invented, language being subject to similar developmental pressure and opportunities that are at play generally. The left’s distancing itself of words like spirit has not stopped this; it has only stopped our engagement with it and, more tellingly, with the throb of life associated with it. ‘Out there’, among the throng of real life inhabited by the working classes that we purportedly identify with, people engage with this process, be they conscious of this or not. It’s what gives etymologists a job.

We do not need to be etymologists of course but we can certainly take a leaf out of their book and be open to, and engage with, the ongoing process of how word usage and meaning changes. This is happening anyway and will continue to do so whether or not we engage with it ourselves. I just think it’d be a good idea for us to be conscious of and open to this process. While not a big deal in itself (no, we don’t have to lose sleep on where words may be heading) it is symptomatic of something that we should be losing sleep over: do we move with the times, consciously, trying to effect speed and direction, or do we stay behind the pack, whining about the packs backwardness and kidding ourselves that our position is actually in front?

2 thoughts on “Word meanings and the left

  1. Good stuff. But the pseudo left’s squeamishness about “spirit” and “soul” is arises not just from the linguistic conservatism that goes with general conservatism but from their spiritlessnes and soulessness.

    BTW Marx wrote the first German translation of Aristotle on The Soul – “De Anima”

    The undead lack animation.

    Like

  2. Touche Arthur, let’s cut to the chase – spiritless and soulless sounds about right. And I think we can chuck in spineless too.

    Like

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