The Crisis Columnist B.F. Smith was in Washington from Atherton, California, with her daughter Whitney, once a student at Georgetown University, where I teach. They were visiting their Pentagon-stationed son/brother. Knowing Smith’s almost infallible instinct for precise language (her daughter is not far behind), I asked her, “What is the most common verb appearing on term papers?” She was on target. “To feel,” she replied without the slightest doubt. “Right,” I replied, duly impressed.
On term papers I circle in black or red pencil wherever my students use any form of the verb “to feel” when they clearly mean “to think,” “to hold,” “to argue,” or “to decide.” Sometimes I can return a short paper with 20 or 30 encircled “feels.” Bewildered students later wonder: Why so many marked words? They are genuinely puzzled. Obviously something must be wrong with Schall’s vocabulary—which is not wholly impossible, to be sure.
It is not just that the students themselves “feel,” but everyone they write about likewise “feels.” The main intellectual activity that many students experience these days is that they “feel.” The greats of philosophy, politics, and history also mainly “feel” in the essays my students write. Georgetown’s most famous graduate may have contributed to this scourge by going about the country telling us how much he “feels our pain.” Actually, I think, that is the one thing we cannot, in precise language, do—we cannot “feel” someone else’s pain.
We can have compassion, perhaps, but even that noble word is almost completely devaluated when it becomes, as it so often does nowadays, a tool to subjectivize objective reality. We have so much compassion for the doer of wrong deeds that the deeds themselves lose their objective standing. We feel so much of the pains of others that what was wrong in the actions of others disappears. The result is that those who insist on the primacy of objective order look like insensitive bigots for not “feeling the pain:’
After a few corrected papers, in any case, I know what Augustine felt, what Macchiavelli felt, what Hegel felt, and what, Lord save us, Aristotle felt. The word sometimes appears in a proper sense—to wit: “When Alexander the Great sat on a tack, he felt a considerable pain.” “Nero was livid; he felt anger.” If we use the verb “to feel” when we mean “to think” or its equivalents, however, we imply that we have no articulate reasoning behind our position. If someone feels sick, I cannot argue with him. But if someone feels that God does not exist, or that euthanasia, including euthanasia of me, is all right, there is little I can do about it unless we can somehow reestablish the connection between our thoughts and the appropriate feelings that ought to go with truth and reality.
No doubt the most incisive modern analysis of this intellectual disease is found in the early pages of C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1947). The first symptoms unsurprisingly appeared in a grammar school English class. Lewis is bitingly amusing in his analysis. The students, he tells us, were given the example of two tourists. One called a waterfall “sublime,” and the other called it “pretty.” The poet Coleridge had said that the first usage was correct, the second disgusting. Two English professors analyzing this situation explained, on the contrary, that when the first tourist called the waterfall “sublime,” he was not referring to anything about the actual waterfall, but only to how he felt about the waterfall. He could know nothing about the waterfall itself and thus erroneously called it sublime.
Lewis pointed out that such solipsistic analysis of language is wholly mistaken. To follow such reasoning to its logical conclusion, were someone to say, “You are contemptible,” he would mean merely, “I have contemptible feelings.” The statement would have nothing to do with the other man, contemptible or not. Thus, it really is the waterfall itself that is “sublime,” not our feelings about it; our feelings are reverential but not themselves sublime.
How to conclude? The use of the verb “to feel” in place of “to think” signifies a refusal to make a judgment about things, to state the truth about things. If you “feel” something is wrong or right, there is nothing I can say about your feelings, except that they seem odd if they have no basis in fact that can be tested and argued about. The verb “to feel,” when used in place off “to think,” is the infallible sign of philosophic relativism. In this sense, “to feel” means precisely not “to think.”