Intellectual History as a Game of Password

tags: civilization, intellectual history

L.D. Burnett received her PhD in Humanities (History of Ideas) from the University of Texas at Dallas (2015). Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press.

The rules of Password are pretty simple. You divide up into teams with one two or more players on each team. One member of the team draws a card with a secret word or phrase, and they must describe the word—which could be noun, verb, or adjective—without using any part of the word or phrase being described.  If your team guesses the word while the egg-timer runs, you get a point. If after the end of your team’s turn the other team guesses the word, they get a point.

So, for example, if you drew the phrase “happy days,” you could say something like “they’re here again, and the skies are looking clear again.”  Or you could say, “A 1970s TV show with Fonzie and Richie.”  But you couldn’t say “jubilant days” and you couldn’t say “happy 24-hour-periods,” because both of those descriptions borrow a term from the term you’re definining.  That’s the big no-no, the key restriction of the game.

When I was learning Spanish, my third year teacher played a version of this game in class.  He called it “definiciones,” definitions.  The rules were pretty simple.  He would call on you, give you a vocabulary term, and ask you to define it in Spanish.  So, for example, if he gave you the term “anteojos,” meaning “glasses” (literally “before the eyes”), you couldn’t say “los lentes que se ponen ante los ojos para ver” (the lenses you put in front of the eyes to see). You had to use completely different terms than the ones given to you.  So you might have to say something like, “los lentes de vidrio que se ponen en frente de los organos de ver para mejorar la vista” (the glass lenses that you put in front of your organs of sight to improve your view).

Your definition might be super clumsy. It might be inaccurate.  It would definitely be periphrastic.  And that was precisely the point.  The crucial idiomatic skill this drill fostered was the abilty to describe something for which you did not know the word.  That’s a path to and a marker of real fluency in another language.

There’s another name for using part of the term you’re defining to define the term you’re defining:  begging the question.  It is so hard to avoid.

I am currently reading Anthony Pagden’s monograph, The Fall of natural man:  The American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology (Cambridge, 1982).  This is a work of intellectual history very much of the Cambridge school, paying close attention to the meaning of words within the context of their larger discursive milieu.  This kind of history focuses almost exclusively on formal propositional thought—theology, philosophy, law, and so forth.

Pagden’s work explores how sixteenth-century Spanish arguments over the nature of Indigenous people, drawing from and modifying the anthropological theories of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, ended up situating Indigenous Americans squarely among the larger family of mankind, but situating them as people whose potential for fully actualized life had not yet been realized and could only be developed as they adopted Christian ways of thought and living.  Crucially, though they may have been “men of nature,” they were not “natural slaves”—and drawing the difference between these two concepts, in order to reject the latter as it purportedly applied to Indigenous Americans, was a key contribution of the Salamanca school of Spanish thinkers.

Read entire article at U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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