When the president of the United States says we have to control expenditures and then advocates dramatic increases in the budget, I am perplexed.
When I am told the economy is in recovery, but according to recent reports the unemployment rate has ballooned to over 9 percent, I am confused. When I am told we must win the war against radical Islamic forces, but we will be withdrawing our troops from the Middle East, conundrums emerge.
This is not merely Orwellian double-speak, something else is at work. Words create a picture, but it’s a picture obscured by reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein spent his life trying to show how language can be useful in understanding the world, while still remaining inexact. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” he noted. We are presumably imprisoned by what we can say.
The mathematician Godel spoke of the “incompleteness theorem,” “a statement cannot be proved.” In other words there is a truth outside the limits of words and logic. A logical argument cannot prove its own axioms, and, as a consequence, logic itself must begin with an act of faith beyond logic.
What this suggests for those who are trying to make sense of the contradictions in the political world is that language is imprecise and truth is evasive. Invariably politicians use metaphor or word pictures to convey impressions. President Obama, during the course of his presidential campaign, relied on a tabula rasa in which his constituents could project onto his views anything they would like him to embrace.
It is instructive that the citizen searching for truth realizes at some point truth cannot be final. There is always a next truth. Frank Fukuyama may discuss “the end of history,” but history cannot have an end. Ultimately the sensible person tries to assemble an understanding of life through the thickets of specialized terminology, political propaganda, and conceptual coinage, searching for that active radiance, the moment of revelation.
Emerson noted that “consistency is the hobgoblin of fools;” however, inconsistency in the political realm leads inevitably to cynicism. What can you believe, what confidence can you have in leaders, when one action contradicts the next?
Politics by its very nature is the metaphorical on steroids. Impressions are what count. Facts give impression texture, but it is what lies beyond logic that enters our imagination. Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus characterized this well by noting “all that one may well call vast, strange, extraordinary magnificent, without thereby giving it a name because it is truly nameless.”
This space, this vast ocean of the unknown, kindled Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Bottom says, “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.”
There is much that we know without knowing it. And there is much we would wish to explain, without explication. Alas the world is confusing, but our politicians have an obligation to at least make the metaphor reach the outer reach of our imagination. There is something to be said for sound impressions.
Herbert London is president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book "Decline and Revival in Higher Education" (Transaction Publishers).
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