The Abuse of Words

l’abus des mots & l’ignorance de leur vraie signification est … un labyrinthe où les plus grands génies se sont quelques fois égalés.
Claude Adrien Helvétius 

One of the most remarkable, daring and entertaining books of the seventeenth century is Adriaan Koerbagh’s Een bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd sonder verdriet (A garden of all kinds of loveliness without sorrow), which was published in 1668. The Bloemhof is an explanatory dictionary containing thousands of loanwords, specifically written in Dutch to enlighten the common people, who as Koerbagh argued, were all too often deceived by clergymen, doctors and lawyers. The author challenged the elementary doctrines of Christendom, flatly denying the creatio ex nihilo, the trinity, the divine nature of Christ, the deluge (“geographically impossible”), stating that everything there is exists in nature and that there is nothing outside nature. Koerbagh liked to employ humor to underpin his arguments, mocking the writers (sic) of the bible who apparently believed that all creatures on earth could fit in a small boat of 21 metres. Instead, the bible is just a book like any other, and comparable to folk tales like the Reynard cycle, containing some interesting observations, though most of it is plain nonsense. The bible would soon have fallen into oblivion, if it had not been for the institutionalised churches, which defended it aggressively.

Of course, Koerbagh “struck at the very roots of established Christianity”, as Michiel Wielema rightly observes.[1] It is worth noting, however, that Koerbagh chose to present his views in a dictionary rather than in a philosophical treatise. It would seem that Koerbagh regarded words as the ultimate source of many of the fierce theological disputes and subsequent bloodshed. But words were also the very key to change society. Accordingly the Bloemhof did not only have the “outward shape of a dictionary[2]: it wás a dictionary.

The French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius expressed similar views in his essay De l’esprit, published some 90 years later in 1758. Unlike some other radical thinkers, Helvetius was a man of considerable wealth with friends in high places, protected, as he believed, by his connections with the court. After publishing De l’esprit, however, he found out that even a man of his social standing could not escape from the censores librorum. His materialistic treatise on the mind dismissed the idea of absolute truth, replacing Christian morality by a utilitarian ethics. Not surprisingly, the work caused a huge outcry: it was condemned by church and state alike.

Large chapters of De l’esprit are devoted to the importance of education as the key to moral behavior. One of the most interesting chapters, though, is devoted to “the abuse of words”. Many problems in philosophy, if not all, derive from a misunderstanding of words, Helvétius argues. For centuries metaphysics has merely been a science of words, not a science of things. Many geniuses have lost themselves in a labyrinth of words, while the failure to grasp their true meaning has led to countless theological feuds and needless waste of blood.

Helvetius compares language with an algebraic calculation: at one point certain errors creep in, after which the calculation is continued from step to step to arrive at a ridiculous outcome. To remedy this, the initial error must be found. Unfortunately, only few are capable of this task and even fewer willing to undertake this work. Moreover, “l’interêt des homes puissant s’oppose à cette verification”. In Helvétius’ view, then, comprehensible and clearly defined language are strong instruments to threaten the powers that be. Both Koerbagh and Helvétius readily employed these instruments to spread their radical views for a more secular society.

[1] Michiel Wielema, The March of the Libertines (Hilversum 2004), p. 84.
[2] Idem, p. 85.
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