James Madison on the Inadequateness of Language

Bruce Nielson Mormon 13 Comments

I deeply apologize for having three posts nearly in a row, but while doing research for my “Offenders for a Word” series, I came across this incredible quote from the Federalist Papers but couldn’t realistically include it in my posting. So I wanted to post it separately because it’s so good.

Besides the obscurity arising from the complexity of objects, and the imperfection of the human faculties, the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other adds a fresh embarrassment. The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them. But no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas. Hence it must happen that however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered. And this unavoidable inaccuracy must be greater or less, according to the complexity and novelty of the objects defined. When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.

Here, then, are three sources of vague and incorrect definitions: indistinctness of the object, imperfection of the organ of conception, inadequateness of the vehicle of ideas. Any one of these must produce a certain degree of obscurity. (link)

James Madison

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Comments 13

  1. Post
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    Perspicuity: clearness or lucidity, as of a statement. —Synonyms 1. clarity, plainness, intelligibility.

    Kinda ironic, isn’t it? 😉

    But I still love this quote. It’s just awesome.

  2. Thinking about Mike Tea’s response to your other post, I think this is a helpful recap of the problem.

    indistinctness of the object – To say that any religion has a clearly defined perspective of what or who God is would be gross oversimplification.
    imperfection of the organ of conception – we’re not smart enough to grasp the true concept of God.
    inadequateness of the vehicle of ideas – language fails us when we try.

    I have often wondered on this last one at the scriptures that say someone witnessed things that could not be written. There’s a potential double meaning in that: 1) they were commanded not to share what they saw due to its sacredness, or 2) they are incapable of expressing what they saw given the limits of language.

  3. Ray, I’ve always gone both routes on that one–that as things are inexpressible by language that it is largely because they are sacred enough in character that we have not developed language to deal with them.

    It may seem circular, but if they were not so sacred, and were indeed more vulgar (meaning in this instance common or less rare, or better known), then language would have developed to express them, and they would not be inexpressible. Speaking from a socio-linguistic psychological perspective, of course.

  4. “Hawkgrrrl, I’ve always read “things that could not be written” as meaning inexpressible.”

    Now I’m having Kantian flashbacks. Have there been posts talking about Mormons and the sublime? Catholics seem to have the corner on sublimity; what place does the concept have in Mormon theology, one that focuses so often on the physicality, the experiential, the artifactual.

  5. “Sadly this quote also reveals that we have regressed in the complexity and exactness of our language.”

    All languages change. You can be as precise as you want to this day, you just have to use different words. Unfortunately, within a generation, what you thought exact will likely no longer be so due to natural changes in the language. (Witness the change of the definition of the word “perfect” over the last 200 years.)

  6. Post
    Author

    in·ad·e·qua·cy
    1. Also, in·ad·e·quate·ness the state or condition of being inadequate; insufficiency.

  7. SteveS – “what place does the concept have in Mormon theology, one that focuses so often on the physicality, the experiential, the artifactual.” Sounds like great post fodder. Not sure I’m the one to tackle it, but that’s a good one.

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