Words in Fin de siècle Vienna

Schorske loves words. He uses fifty cent words, French words, and German words with aplomb. He appears to know what those words mean. But does anyone really know what a word means? I am particularly interested in the words: liberal, democratic, laissez faire, rational, emotional (psychological).

A bit about a theory of meaning. Words get assigned meanings by people using them, which implies that meanings of words vary over time, geography, ethnicity, and social class.

Why not just look the meaning of a word up in a dictionary? The problem with that idea is that entries in a dictionary are just theories of what a word means. Lexicographers start with examples of the contexts a word occurs in and then hypothesize a paraphrase that should work in those same contexts. If other lexicographers (typically from the same educated social class) agree that substituting the paraphrase for the word in its contexts produces the same meaning for the whole text, then the hypothesis is accepted and entered into the dictionary. The best dictionaries show examples of usage for a word. But these examples of usage are typically texts only. (Illustrated dictionaries also show diagrams and pictures.) What is missing is the context the world supplies to our senses and what we supply in our thoughts and emotions.

Now let us take a look at some examples from Fin de siècle.

“Finally, laissez faire would break the arbitrary rule of privilege in the economic sphere and make merit, rather than privilege or charity, the basis of economic reward. In all these aspects of their program, the Austro-liberals knew themselves to be combatting the socially superior and the historically anterior”

“If the common people could not yet be trusted, since they did not always understand, the spread of rational culture would one day provide the prerequisite for a broadly democratic order. Popular power would increase only as a function of rational responsibility. Austrian society failed to respect these liberal coordinates of order and progress. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the program which the liberals had devised against the upper classes occasioned the explosion of the lower. The liberals succeeded in releasing the political energies of the masses, but against themselves rather than against their ancient foes.”

Laissez faire, devised [by liberals] to free the economy from the fetters of the past, called forth the Marxist revolutionaries of the future.”

“Its great intellectual innovators—in music and philosophy, in economics and architecture, and, of course, in psychoanalysis—all broke, more or less deliberately, their ties to the historical outlook central to the nineteenth-century liberal culture in which they had been reared.” We are so used to intellectuals generally being liberals that the above quote is surprising.

“Now a mood of pessimism—sometimes of impotence, sometimes of rigid defensiveness, sometimes of surrender—settled over an intelligentsia that, whether centrist or radical, liberal or Marxist, had for several decades been united in social optimism.” This sounds more like the liberals we know.

“The principles and programs which made up the liberal creed were designed to supersede systematically those of ‘the feudals,’ as the aristocrats were pejoratively called. Constitutional monarchy would replace aristocratic absolutism; parliamentary centralism, aristocratic federalism. Science would replace religion. Those of German nationality would serve as tutor and teacher to bring up the subject peoples, rather than keep them ignorant bondsmen as the feudals had done. Thus nationality itself would ultimately serve as a principle of popular cohesion in a multinational state.”

“The liberals themselves felt the socialists’ affiliation to their culture across the issues that divided them. Liberals could condemn Social Democrats for their utopianism, for their absurd demands for a welfare state before “the most primitive prerequisites” of political enlightenment had yet been created.”

The liberalism of late 19th century Austria embodied a rationalist ideal and regarded the masses as being in need of education to become intelligent participants in a democracy. We will see below that George Lakoff recognized the large emotional component of political decisions by citizens of a democracy.

Now let us compare examples from George Lakoff in his book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. (In 2015 Neil had us reading various books by Lakoff.) Moral Politics has 500 occurrences of ‘liberal’ that we can compare to Fin de siecle Vienna. Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Second Edition . University of Chicago Press.

The following use of ‘liberal’ is recognizable as the same meaning occurring in Fin de siècle. “I define ‘classical theoretical liberalism’ as the view, which has a long history, that individuals are, or should be, free, autonomous rational actors, each pursuing their own self-interest. On this account, many conservatives and libertarians are classical theoretical liberals.” Lakoff acknowledges here Schorske’s liberal in Fin de siècle and the change in the meaning of the word.

The following quote at the very least broadens the meaning of ‘liberal’ to describe parenting styles. “The conservative/liberal division is ultimately a division between strictness and nurturance as ideals at all levels—from the family to morality to religion and, ultimately, to politics.” The best indicator, Lakoff says, of whether you are conservative or liberal is when your baby cries at night, do you pick him/her up. Lakoff is a cognitive scientist focusing on meanings of words and a theory of the difference in conservative and liberal thinking, while Schorske is an historian focusing on the describing historical events and artifacts. So, the meanings of words depend on academic discipline.

“Conservatives argue that social safety nets are immoral because they work against self-discipline and responsibility. Liberals argue that tax cuts for the wealthy are immoral because they help people who don’t need help and don’t help people who do need help.”

This notion of liberal is not laissez faire, which Schorske uses to characterize liberal in Austria. When we think of laissez faire today, we think of the Libertarian Party. Not our notion of liberal.

“Modern theoretical liberalism, on the other hand, arises primarily from the work of philosopher John Rawls… Rawls sought to modify classic liberalism to include social issues, such as poverty, health, and education.”

“He proposed the following social-contract theory of a just society (presented here in a much oversimplified fashion) to be added on to the classical view of the autonomous rational actor: 1. The Veil of Ignorance: The social contract must be drawn up as if no one knew where they were going to fit into society. 2. The result is that justice is seen as fairness. After all, if you don’t know where you are going to fit into a society, you will want that society to be fair. If you were to wind up as low man on the totem pole, you would want that not to be so bad a position to be in. 3. An individual’s choices of ends, values, and conceptions of the good are subjective expressions of preference. This makes them literal, rankable, and subject to mathematical theories of preference, utility, decision-making, etc. 4. Accepting this political view does not commit one to any particular moral view. 5. This view is universal and independent of particular cultures and subcultures.” Rawls is criticized by modern liberals, because he left out the role of community. I would wager that we might find other points to disagree with Rawls on, as liberals. (Sorry, I apologize in advance to anyone in our club who does not identify as liberal.)

“All of this discussion is theoretical, rather than empirical, in nature. It is an attempt to characterize what liberalism should be, rather than what contemporary political liberalism is.”

“What I call ‘political liberalism,’ on the other hand, characterizes the cluster of political positions supported by people called ‘liberals’ in our everyday political discourse: support for social programs; environmentalism; public education; equal rights for women, gays, and ethnic minorities; affirmative action; the pro-choice position on abortion; and so on. When I speak of ‘liberalism’ in this book, I will be speaking of political liberalism, not theoretical liberalism.” Written as a true linguist, for whom use trumps proscription.

Personally, I am not sure there is such a thing as theoretical liberalism. What Lakoff is calling theoretical liberalism is we have read about in Fin de siècle Vienna. That liberalism was based on a rationalist tradition, i.e., a theoretical model of man, but had practical political consequences, as Schorske amply demonstrates.

In summary, we have to ask ourselves what we mean whenever we use the word ‘liberal’ and the other words we associate with it: democratic, laissez faire, rational, emotional or psychological. Do we really know what we mean? Perhaps every time we use those words in a context of text and action we are changing their meaning, if ever so slightly. One of Noam Chomsky’s key points about language (in his career as a linguist) was that we are frequently uttering and writing sentences that we have never heard or read before.

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