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  • Writer's pictureStephen Scheidell


For a first post back after a hiatus from publishing, I want to rewrite an "introduction," in a double sense. This post will introduce readers both to Wordplay and to me. That is, I want to say what Wordplay will be by way of an autobiography of how the site came to be.

I studied philosophy in undergrad before moving into theology for graduate school, so I didn't become an "editor" through the usual means of majoring in English Literature or English Composition. Nevertheless, both programs revolved around text, requiring an ability to not just read but analyze sentence structures, paragraph structures, and argument structures. So I became adept at both producing these and recognizing flaws in them, enough so that peers and even some mentors would ask me to review and critique their writings. Thus I began devolving from a person into an editor.

A fascination with philosophy of language began with an independent study course on Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. In a passing remark, he writes, "In discourse [the social nature of being human] becomes 'explicitly' shared; that is to say, it is already, but it is unshared as something that has not been taken hold of and appropriated" (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson [New York: Harper & Row, 1962; reprint: New York: Harper Perennial, 2008], 205. Italics original).

Shortly after this he characterizes discourse more specifically as beginning not with information but with an act of listening. Although, much to my dismay, he by and large departs from saying much on this social—perhaps implicitly ethical—activity. But that's where my mind went, and it's been gone ever since.

Thus I became locked into this way of thinking about language: not in terms of the information conveyed but in terms of an ethical act taking place. (Even studying theology, I sought to explicate the ethics implied in the acts of reading a sacred text together and worshipping together.)

Obviously, discourse can be examined as an information system, but it's not just information. Consider this: when I go on social media, for example, I can do different things. I can encourage friends, I can berate people I don't like, I can post articles from questionable sources that clearly wrote without verifying anything, I can share a meme to virtue signal about a social or political issue I want to look like I care about. All of these are different acts that can be assessed as moral or immoral.

Ethicists have talked about social practice as a means of instilling virtues. And philosophers of language have turned to talk about language as a social practice, whether in terms of pragmatics or language-games, (hence "wordplay"). But I haven't found much specifically on an idea that to learn a language is to learn an ethic.

What I mean by this is that I think discourse entails a moral act. That is, discourse requires that speaker/writer and audience treat each other as competent and rational enough to understand the sounds or visuals as language use.

On this understanding of discourse, then, there's a kind of internal contradiction in berating or insulting someone. For me to berate someone, I have to assume the person is competent enough to grasp what I mean when I hurl insults. Obviously, I can make insults about things without expecting them to understand, but I can't make insults to someone without thereby treating the person as competent. This is why I always take an insult as a compliment.

So Wordplay will serve, for the most part, as a way for me to continue thinking about, by writing about, the ethics of language. Although a selfish reason perhaps, language is meant to be shared, so it makes sense also to share these words about words.

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