|Note: There may be a lot of Blackadder references as this blog continues|
"Language is the dress of thought" – Samuel Johnson
I came across this interesting quote the other day thanks to my daily work calendar. Initially I agreed with its premise, thought it made for a nice saying, and was prepared to go on with the rest of my day. With language as the dress of thought I imagined that good dress (language) would amount to good thought.
However upon reflecting on this I was a bit dismayed when I realised what the implications of this would be for me. I am not very good with my language (as evidenced I believe by that mash-up of a sentence), though if pressed I would like to be able to maintain that I am somewhat half decent with my thoughts. I can cobble together a cogent argument when the need arises, though perhaps not in as succinct a way as a more experienced rhetorician.
Luckily later in the day as I was reading the quote over again (and started writing the predecessor to this blog post); I began to interpret its meaning in a different light.
You see originally I was working under a false assumption so often enforced in our society; that those in better dress are better people. Or in this case, thought dressed with better language is better thought. However we can look at other examples, bereft of our preconceived prejudices against sloppy dress, or ‘good’ thought, and see an ancillary truth in this statement all the more clearer.
One can dress up an ugly person in appealing attire; much like one can dress up ugly thought in appealing language. The Nazi’s were experts at this, with the horrible atrocities of their regime being glossed over with terms such as ‘final solution’ or ‘special treatment’. Likewise one can see past the unsightly clothing of a person to see their true beauty, or see through ungainly language to hear the true beauty of one’spropositions.
So rather than taking the original quote as trying to make any value judgments about the dress, or the thought, I feel it makes a more simple distinction of the relationships between these concepts. It was only an error in my analysis that made me apply this maxim with any hierarchy in mind. Luckily however, I started to write up my thoughts on the subject, and soon began to see the chinks in my armour.
Language as the dress of thought is something we must be aware of. It can be a tool for making our thoughts more available to the public, or even more palpable to others (after all, a naked thought can be like a naked person; perhaps attractive, but also equally likely to be a bit shocking, if not outright confusing). Conversely we must be careful to look beyond the language and dress presented to us, and try to best judge things on their fundamental merits.
Oh and if you were wondering why at the beginning of this post I went with the Robbie Coltrane version of Samuel Johnson from Blackadder over a historical portrait of the man, this might answer your question: