While reading Stephen Coughlin’s seminal and all-important Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad, I frequently encountered quotations the author used to stress his many points that in terms of defending this country from Islamic incursions, or, rather, failing to defend it, the language of the defenders has been corrupted and rendered meaningless. The quotations came from Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (Mißbrauch der Sprache, Machtmißbrauch), first published in 1974. The quotations were so intriguing that I ordered the book, which is actually a 54-page pamphlet featuring two essays by Pieper, “Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power,” and “Knowledge and Freedom.” Coughlin remarked that Pieper’s book “underlies much in what I do.”
Josef Pieper (1904-1997) was a German philosopher and a key figure in the Thomist revival. In his teens, he was initially drawn to the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, but after being recommended a work by Aquinas, Commentary to the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, he became a lifelong devotee to Aquinas. Ignatius Press’s Insight reveals that:
Pieper went to the University of Münster in 1923, and later on he went to Berlin. The plan of his first book – which he ultimately submitted to the university in order to obtain his doctorate in philosophy – was born during a lecture on Goethe and Thomas Aquinas, given by Msgr. Romano Guardini at the Jugendburg Rothenfels on the Main in 1924; the lecture was entitled "About Classical Spirit." Pieper's first book, Die Wirklichkeit und das Gute (Reality and the Good; contained in Living the Truth [Ignatius Press, 1989]) based on St. Thomas' works, tries to show that the good is nothing else but what is in accordance with the reality of things.
Apparently, in 1939 or 1940, Pieper joined (or was threatened with conscription into) the German army. Where and in what capacity he served is not mentioned in any standard biographical information I have been able to locate. Much of what Pieper wanted to write or speak about – and could, privately – was not publishable in Nazi Germany. Nazism purported to have all the “official answers” to “social problems,” and a Catholic author’s thoughts on the subject were not welcome, except perhaps from the pulpit of a church that hove to the Nazi Party line. Pieper’s writings were well known in Germany at the time and already viewed with glowering circumspection by Nazi authorities.
During the first year of World War II, he brought out only a little biography of his hero, St. Thomas Aquinas, titled Guide to Thomas Aquinas.
Pieper joined the army and during the time he was in service a volume of the Summa Theologica or the Quaestiones Disputatae always accompanied him, and in the course of these years he succeeded in putting together two breviary-like collections of short sentences, chosen from the whole work of the Angelic Doctor, but they were not published until the end of World War II. One of these "breviaries," the more philosophical one, was published both in England and the United States under the title, The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas.
Given Piper’s overall philosophy, one can only assume that he was what we would call a “conscientious objector” vis-à-vis the grip Nazism had on Germany and Hitler’s war plans. But being a dissident in Nazi Germany usually earned one time in a concentration camp or a death sentence. Or dissidents on religious grounds would be assigned “mule team” duties as non-combatants, or put in the medical corps. For a vivid dramatization of the conundrum see Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The German Catholic Church’s record on that subject is nothing less than disgraceful.
One non-standard biographical reference, in the periodical Theological Studies, contains a brief account, by Jon Vickery, “Searching for Josef Pieper,” of Pieper’s time and activities in the German army. How he served is described on page 632; he acted as a military psychologist screening candidates for the Luftwaffe.
Reading that account, which I can only treat as an apologia, leads me to conclude that Pieper, who voted against the Nazi Party in March 1933 (p. 626), was subsequently faced with the same grave moral dilemma as others were faced with in attempting to survive the iron reign of the political correctness of Nazism. One might easily conclude he committed the same error that American Christian and Jewish clerics commit today by participating in dialogue with Muslim clerics in an attempt to reach some kind of workable rapprochement between their religious principles and Islam’s. Instead, Pieper appears to have tried to reconcile Thomist Catholicism with Nazi ideology. I discuss this important section of Coughlin’s book, “Interfaith Outreach,” in “Interfaith Bridges to Islam” on Rule of Reason. Vickery’s article is available here; readers should peruse it and judge for themselves.
However, Coughlin remarked to me on January 9th:
“I would not put him in the same category as those who do interfaith. That would be the Catholic thinkers of his time who actively sought inclusion with the Nazis. From more than one source, he was clearly denied positions in the universities owing to the positions he took against the Nazis and Nazism. The interfaith crowd today, shills for the other side.
He had to eat, he did not want to be conscripted, he provided intellectualized responses to direct questions from Nazis to get a low level position in a roving medical induction unit; a hallmark that he was seen as a dissident. Sometimes openly, sometimes in the coded language of Thomistic philosophy, as was the case with his responses to Nazis when directly questioned, his writings always opposed Nazism.”
For what it’s worth, I think Pieper’s experiences in Nazi Germany contributed in no small way to his later, postwar thesis about the corruption of language as a stepping stone to political power, and the temptation to construct pseudorealities to endure the demands of ideological conformance, that is, to live to fight another day.
Discussing how the proper approach to understanding Islamic jihad has been rendered off limits to those charged with winning the “War on Terror,” Coughlin, for example, underscored his point with a quotation from Pieper:
Today, analysis that meets professional evidentiary standards is deemed inappropriate for use inside national security and law enforcement spaces. At the Department of Defense, its use is dismissed as “inflammatory” and even more alarmingly, condemned as harming the war effort. As shown in his classic work on ideological subversion, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, philosopher Josef Pieper was keenly aware of the role that the manipulation of language plays in such activities. [p. 350]
The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape….It does contain violence, albeit in latent form….This lesson, in a nutshell, says: the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word, indeed, finds in it the fertile soil in which to hide and grow and get ready, so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of public abuse of language…. [Catastrophic, 32, Pieper]
Coughlin frequently calls pseudorealities the imaginary scenarios devised by our “defenders” that evade identifying Islam’s Sharia law as the driving force behind not only violent jihad but by the dawah element of the concerted subversion of our efforts to combat terrorism. After all, the official policy is that we're not at war with Islam. George W. Bush said so, and so has Barack Obama. The term comes from Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Pieper writes:
I spoke of public discourse becoming “detached from the notions of truth and reality.” This brief characterization may still be too mild; it does not yet express the full measure of devastation breeding within the sophistic corruption of the word. It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits nosily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion. Consequently, one may be entirely knowledgeable about a thousand details and nevertheless, because of ignorance regarding the core of the matter, remain without basic insight….
But, I wanted to say, something far more discouraging is readily conceivable as well: the place of authentic reality is taken over by a fictitious reality; my perception is indeed still directed toward an object, but now it is a pseudoreality, deceptively appearing as being real, so much so that it becomes almost impossible any more to discern the truth. [pp. 33-34]
Coughlin relates all through Catastrophic Failure how threat analyses can be fabricated to include “a thousand details” about individual terrorists, specific terrorist groups, timelines, methods, likely or favorite targets, and so on, yet wind up addicted to a kind of ghostly hologram that reflects neither the truth or the reality of a threat. Why? Because the threat analysts are not permitted, or are stridently discouraged from, attributing violent jihad to Islam and Sharia. It’s a “religion,” and the U.S. doesn’t wage war against any religion, even though it’s been demonstrated countless times over decades that Islam is more a political ideology than it is a religion.
While I like the fact that Pieper is pro-reality and anti-sophistry and has pointed out the dangers and evils of pseudorealities, I do have some reservations about his presentation of the value of language. Perhaps the fault lies in the translation.
First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identity it for someone, of course – and this points to the second aspect in question, the interpersonal character of human speech.
These two aspects of the word and of all language, though distinct, are nevertheless not separated. The one does not exist without the other. At first, we may well presume that such and such is simply a factual reality, and that all we want is to understand this reality, and, of course, describe it. Right: describe it – but to whom? The other person is already in the picture; what happens here is already communication. In the very attempt to know reality, there already is present the aim of communication….
Indeed, we can talk only about reality, nothing else. Of course, there is always the possibility of lying, of falsifying it! It is one of my favorite questions in tests, posed many times and not always answered to my satisfaction. (pp. 15-16)
In short, what is considered “real” is all in our heads, not “out there” independent of our consciousness. Pieper’s chief concern is the “interpersonal” communication of reality between men. But before the communication must come an individual acceptance that what he perceives is the “actual reality.” Novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand had not a few words on the subject. In her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, she wrote:
There is an element of grim irony in the emergence of Linguistic Analysis on the philosophical scene. The assault on man’s conceptual faculty has been accelerating since Kant, widening the breach between man’s mind and reality. The cognitive function of concepts was undercut by a series of grotesque devices—such, for instance, as the “analytic-synthetic” dichotomy which, by a route of tortuous circumlocutions and equivocations, leads to the dogma that a “necessarily” true proposition cannot be factual, and a factual proposition cannot be “necessarily” true. The crass skepticism and epistemological cynicism of Kant’s influence have been seeping from the universities to the arts, the sciences, the industries, the legislatures, saturating our culture, decomposing language and thought.
If ever there was a need for a Herculean philosophical effort to clean up the Kantian stables—particularly, to redeem language by establishing objective criteria of meaning and definition, which average men could not attempt—the time was now. As if sensing that need, Linguistic Analysis came on the scene for the avowed purpose of “clarifying” language—and proceeded to declare that the meaning of concepts is determined in the minds of average men, and that the job of philosophers consists of observing and reporting on how people use words.
Pieper indeed does report on how people use words. Perhaps he should be called a Linguistic Analyst. Rand, on the subject of language itself, continued:
In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts. This is the function performed by language. Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind.(Italics mine)
Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication, as is usually assumed. Communication is merely the consequence, not the cause or the primary purpose of concept-formation—a crucial consequence, of invaluable importance to men, but still only a consequence. Cognition precedes communication ; the necessary pre-condition of communication is that one have something to communicate. (This is true even of communication among animals, or of communication by grunts and growls among inarticulate men, let alone of communication by means of so complex and exacting a tool as language.) The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale; this means: to keep order in man’s mind and enable him to think. (Italics mine)
In short, cognition must come first, before what is recognized can be communicated.
I discuss the destruction of language in “The Ghouls of Grammatical Egalitarianism” from October 2013, and in “Euphemisms: The Euthanasia of Words” from September 2014.
Under the Heading, “The Aggrandisement of Mediocrity,” in Usage and Abusage, originally published in 1947, the late Eric Partridge noted:
Since the war of 1939-1945, and partly because of it, there has arisen a Do-It-Yourself cult, affecting not only the practicalities of life but also its embellishments and enhancements and consolations: music and the arts, literature and the drama, all show an undermining by the levelling process. Those for whom ‘anything goes’ have yet to learn that ultimately, for them, nothing goes….
No wonder mediocrity flourishes in literature and, indeed, at all levels of writing, for its only vehicle, language, has been slowed down by the slow-minded and the sluggish-hearted, by the dull and the indifferent. Anyone who believes in civilization must find it difficult to approve, and impossible to abet, one of the surest means of destroying it. To degrade language is finally to degrade civilization.
Language has been degraded by politically correct speech, grammatical egalitarians, government education departments, schools, and, not surprisingly, by the Modern Language Association (MLA).
Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, by Josef Pieper. Ignatius Press, (1992), (trans. Lothar Krauth, Kosel-Verlag, Munich 1974). San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. 54 pp.