Sense and Nonsense: Giving Things Their Proper Name

Flannery O’Connor said that “poetry is the proper naming of the things of God.” Genesis is a book full of “naming.” Adam names the animals. In Hebrew, a relation of identity exists between a name and the being it names. In a real way, we only “possess” something when we name it, when we call it what it is. No doubt any given thing, while not itself changing, can be given a hundred different names in as many different languages. But far from lessening our dependence on names, this multiplicity of names increases it. To name things properly is what we are about. We want to call what is exactly what it is, in whatever language we speak, so that we might deal with it, admire it, perhaps avoid it.

A failure to name evil as evil, furthermore, is itself a great evil. Modern society is filled with improperly named things, improperly identified wrongs. If we do not call things by their right names, we will not easily see what they are. We will call something by the wrong name. When we so misname things, we fail to consider their true being. We deal with them as if they were something other than what they are. We begin to live in a world of illusion. Indeed, we may want to live in illusion because we do not want to face what is.

Many disturbing reports have come out of Canada of late. The “hate crimes” phenomenon there makes it impossible to call many things by their proper moral names. The state uses language to change principle. The accurate names of things are driven underground. We must leave out the ethical connotation of words. “Pro-choice” obscures the object of this choice. It hides from our attention the killing of a child in its earliest stages. If we say homosexuality is “wrong,” we are said to be guilty of a “hate crime,” even if it is wrong. Wrongs have become “rights.” “Rights” are not defined by what things are but by what we enforce in public.

In his treatise On Interpretation, Aristotle writes, “Spoken words are symbols of mental experience and written words are symbols of spoken words. Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experience, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images.” No more powerful argument for the unity of the human race has ever been written.

Leon Kass writes in The Beginning of Wisdom:

Human naming, while it does not create the world, creates a linguistic world, a second world of names, that (partially and interestedly) mirrors the first world, of creatures…. Human beings not only practice speech, they create it. Names are the first human inventions: although they point to the things named, they have a certain independence from them. Names (and other words) and the ideas they represent constitute a mental human world that is necessarily separated from the world it means to describe.

Unless we are careful, the world of names can substitute for the world of things. This is why Aquinas thought that we should reflect back on our images or phantasms to the words, then to the things that stand at the origins of both.

“Poetry is the proper naming of the things of God.” Speech itself is the correct naming of things. Illusion is the naming of the “slight independence” of words over the real thing.

The English language is the richest in terms of the total number of words available to it—more than 650,000. All languages seek to describe the same things, have words for the same things. Their words make it possible to name accurately the things of God, none of which was created by our words but in the Word.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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