Johnson's Dictionary

The importance of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is not that it was one of the first or that he had some piquant definitions but that it took a very different approach to language than is generally taken by philosophers. Samuel Johnson does something very radical in his dictionary. He posits the idea that for any word, whether simple or complex, everyday or esoteric, there is another word or string of words that can be generated in English that is its equivalent in meaning. Johnson provides some forty thousand examples as proof of his proposition. That is a remarkable thing to claim about language. However much it expands, whatever new words are added to its vocabulary, there is some other set of words it can be mapped to. Why this is the case, Johnson does not explain. He was not that kind of thinker. But he was a student of language and so could invent or find, take your pick, these equivalences which made language not a closed system in that words could only refer to other words, but an open system, in that new words could always be meaningful because they could be referred to old words. This is a characteristic of language in general, that it expands in this way, and it is not a characteristic which holds for other systems of thought.

Consider, for example, geometric deduction, prized since ancient times as a way to reason about or to consider reality, that rather than language itself being the object of its study. In that case, to use the terms I have already introduced, there are two distinct categories of words. There are axioms and definitions, which are a class of words that remain undefined, and then there are a class of words which can be deduced from those basic words and take their meaning from either their specification of a more general definition or from their derivation. A scalene triangle is a kind of triangle and a triangle is a polyhedron with three lines but there is only a definition of a line as the shortest distance between two points, that definition begging the question of why that is so. Similarly, the opposite sides of an isosceles triangle are equal and it can be proven that they face equal angles, though whether one of these conditions is in some sense prior to the other is moot. This model of reasoning has, of course, become ubiquitous in the scientific world.

There is another way to reason about reality that involves a different principle about words, though whether it contradicts the geometric method is debatable. Critical thinking, as that was developed by Immanuel Kant, takes the view that there is also a set of exceptional words, such as causation, free will, and moral obligation, which are the fundamental words for describing the world and which are very difficult to define. So Kant gives multiple definitions of the categorical imperative, which is usually understood to mean one of its specifications, which is to treat everyone as an end in themselves rather than as a means to an end, but is also defined as… The point here is that Kant is reaching into language to find an equivalent but that there isn’t just one right answer or, perhaps, that all right answers are correct. How does he validate the truth of any of his answers? He refers to the experience to which these words refer. So we cannot imagine what it is like to be free, to be possessed of free will, if we do not carry around the concept of “ought” because ought is the word that refers to something that can be done even if it doesn’t have to be done either for practical reasons or because we are physically or psychologically incapable of doing it. It is not a matter of obligation that one saves one life by jumping out of a burning building but it is a matter of obligation that one try to save one’s life. This basing the meanings of words on experience is what Kant means when he regards his theory as critical: it is a reflection on how things really are, a criticism of reality rather than of literature, and so generates a set of words without which it would be impossible to proceed. This is the furniture of the metaphysical world. But most of the world is made up of ordinary language terms that describe events in the world, and so these special terms are hard come by as to definition even though they are ubiquitous in language itself. Every language has a notion of “ought”.

What makes Samuel Johnson so remarkable is that he is cutting off the discussion of language itself from the discussion of reality in general. Language has its own attributes and these are to be looked at freshly rather than for whether or not the rules of language are the same as the rules of reality. And so Johnson, as you will see, can be considered a founder of linguistics, or sociology (as we shall see in other essays in this series) or just literary studies.

The first thing we look for when reading a definition is that it seems to hit the mark, that it sums up in a few words the essence of the concept behind the word. This Johnson does repeatedly, as when he defines… But what might seem penetrating can also come across as stunted, which may be a result of the fact that dictionary definitions are the ones precisely not to be relied on if you want to understand a concept. Johnson was a great scholar and critic of literature, and so we would assume that he does a very good job in defining literary terms. His definition of “parody”, however, leaves much to be desired. He defines it as slightly changing words so as to give a different meaning to a literary piece, when what we mean by it today is to exaggerate the effects of a piece by altering it so that the new piece is making fun of the old, just as happens in a Sid Caesar or Carol Burnett sketch about a movie. Moreover, he has no room in his dictionary for “irony”, of which “parody” is a rather clumsy and simplified form. That may be the result of irony not as yet becoming a central notion of literary analysis as it would in the Nineteenth Century, and so this fact offers us a first lesson about language, which is that language is always changing, but it may also be the result of the fact that Johnson ios not very comfortable with ambivalence. He defines paradox as a thought which contradicts what is commonly believed rather than an internal contradiction that an argument cannot avoid and so provides food for thought. How does a paradox get resolved? Johnson is more concerned with whether words show themselves in keeping or not so with received opinion, as might be expected of the essential modern Conservative. So a second lesson about language is that a philosophical and political point of view is deeply embedded even in what seem to be ordinary definitions.

Looking at Johnson’s definitions of “comedy” and “tragedy” is even more challenging to the idea that definitions get to the essence of the matter. They are carefully given parallel formulations, as is only fitting for the two great categories of drama. “Comedy” is defined as “a dramatic representation of some of the lighter faults of mankind” and “tragedy” is defined as “a dramatic representation of a serious action”. Very neatly put and much to the point in its concision and even more so as to what it leaves out as unnecessary to the definition and so a claim on being profound definitions. First of all, this definition of comedy easily opens up into a treatise on how comedy represents people as if they are less than they really are, while tragedy reflects people as being significant even if they are also flawed. The two definitions also include within themselves that nothing of any great moment will happen in a comedy, while something of consequence will happen in a tragedy. So the definitions are concise and they are also minimalist in that what people might think necessarily happens in one or the other does not have to be but is rather an add-on of a particular time and place. So Shakespearean comedies end with the pairing off of couples but that does not have to be, Restoration comedies dealing with how couples carry on when within the marriage state, and Shakespearean tragedies, also quite familiar to Johnson, ending with people and families being killed off, but that also does not have to be so long as matters of serious moment are concerned, and so “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” are tragedies even though people don’t die in them, but the characters merely awaken to and have their lives destroyed spiritually by what they have been through. Tragedies matter while comedies give a sense that live rolls on its merry way.

But is Johnson being too limited, offering up a treatise in a phrase when what is needed is a treatise? Such a document would deal with whether tragic flaws are necessary, and whether comedies bring out the best in people while tragedies bring out their worst, never mind whether the people are successful or not, and that raises the question of whether any plot can be turned into either a tragedy or a comedy, depending on how you play it. Richard III can be played for laughs, so why not Hamlet? He is, after all, a bit of a fop and sometimes plays the fool and he kills Polonius for no good reason at all. Maybe he was out of control because he was mad or maybe he imagines Denmark as a Grand Guignol where everybody enjoys the horror, Polonius already have been dismissed as a busybody know it all and so not to be felt sorry for. So it is not surprising that teachers advise their students to stay away from dictionary definitions because they are not trustworthy, much too pat, though I am reminded of some sterling ones that stay with you, as when “metaphysics” is defined as “the study of what it is to be” or Kantian philosophy as an application of Aristotelian metaphysics to the modern world. These are things to ponder that say more than they say, and maybe that is the characteristic of definitions: they allude to much by saying little. But that is to give a definition to the art of definition.

Turn to Johnson’s consideration of philosophical words. He does not give a definition of either “cause” or “because”, those very standard and stable words in English. That may be because he regards such words as so simple or axiomatic, as he suggests in the Preface to his dictionary, that they are beyond definition, which is not a violation of his basic quest to find equivalences because these words belong in a separate category, technical philosophical words best treated within their own disciplines rather than in the realms of linguistic usage.

Johnson does, however, define a great number of words that have to do with the passions even though they might well be considered as part of a philosophical vocabulary because they were of such interest to David Hume and Adam Smith. So we might surmise that Johnson dealt with philosophical words only when he felt comfortable with them. Johnson has an interesting way of attacking such words. He defines passion as “any effect caused by external agency”, which is saying quite a lot in a few words because it suggests that reason is the only internal agency, and that passion is defined by its consequence rather than its experience, which is to evade what the psychological tradition beginning with Hume wanted to do, which is to distinguish the passions from one another, take each one on its own merits, never mind the question of whether it is caused or not. What Johnson then does is to provide several examples of passion as different senses of the word each of which can be garnered from literature, the specification of which passion is being invoked left to context. So many of the ordinary passions, such as anger, zeal and love, become included as examples of the word “passion”.

In his definitions of the passions, Johnson is providing a rule of linguistic usage that supplants the principle of philosophical inquiry. It is always possible to substitute the general for the particular and visa versa. People understand it when you allude to a passion as passion or allude to passion in general as a stand-in or euphemism for a particular passion as when people might say, nowadays, that he has a passion for her when what is clearly meant is that he has sexual cravings for her. So what dictionaries supply are rules of how language works and that is perhaps a more important contribution than just providing terse definitions.

Here is another rule of language usage that can be inferred from the way Johnson makes his definitions. The first definition of “father” is “he from whom a son or daughter is begotten.” The second and third definitions of the term are “first ancestor” and “an old man”. So the same word has a literal meaning and a metaphorical one, and which is meant is decided by context. Similarly, “mother” is defined parallel to “man” as “she from whom a son or daughter is born” but has secondary definition as “that which has produced anything”, and so fathers are associated with their station while mothers are associated with their fecundity. In general, words can mean what they are literally or they can serve as metaphors and the two kinds of meanings get exchanged as part of common usage.

In fact, there may be any number of these substitution rules whereby one kind of meaning gets exchanged for another kind of meaning rather than all meanings being on the same level, the same kind of thing. For example, Johnson has no definition for the word “breast”, for which he could provide an functional definition, as when he defines “brain” as “a collection of vessels and organs in the head from which sense and motion arise” but he does provide a definition for “bubby” as a breast. So we have two substitutions at work here. First, a word can mean its function and, second, a word can mean what it means in slang. Yet another substitution takes place in the definition of “brogue”, which is both a kind of shoe and a cant word for a corrupt dialect, all insult to the Irish, I suppose, fully intended. The application of the word to a different situation is given its own separate definition, though I would not hold Johnson very close to whether he provides separate definitions or multiple meanings. It may just be simpler for him to have sometimes listed a number of definitions for a word under a single listing, as he did with passion and as he also did with “faction”, another term that meant a great deal and was the source of much controversy on both sides of the Atlantic at the time he wrote the dictionary.

The thing to which Johnson’s Dictionary is to be compared is Diderot’s encyclopedia. There seems to be a similar ambition on both sides of the English Channel to undertake some grand compendium of knowledge to show just how far mankind has come but, even more important, to make some sense of it, to ask where do we stand now, how can we encompass what we have found out. The encyclopedia is, of course, a much more ambitious undertaking and employed many great minds, and covered everything from agriculture to political philosophy, while Johnson was interested only in language, about which Johnson knew a good deal by himself, and while working with only a handful of assistants. But that is not the most significant difference between the two enterprises. D’Alembert, in his introduction to the Encyclopedia, spends considerable time explaining how this is a systematic compendium of knowledge based on an empiricist philosophy (rather than the idealist philosophy which Spinoza, the founder of liberal thought, considered the basis of enlightenment.) D’Alembert also emphasizes the way the crafts and the sciences are on a continuum, and tries to enlist Newton in that cause. And so the Encyclopedists see themselves very much as scientists and so they give off the same optimistic and definitive tone that would be taken up a half century later by the French Positivists, who were also pledged to empiricism as the basis for a comprehensive social science and also thought that the craftsmen and the professionals, rather than the aristocrats, were the backbone of society. The Encyclopedists were scientist in that they presented what they said as findings that could stand on their own aside from those who had created these writings. The words and formulas counted, the discoverers of these truths at some time to be abandoned, as is the case with physics, where Newton’s Laws are more important than Newton or what led him to his observations. Newton gave us the name for these laws, but his personality is not in them-- or, at any rate, not to be taken into account in judging their validity.

That is very different from what Johnson does, which we might call scholarship rather than science, however logical his reasoning may be, because he takes a text and comments on it by making use of history, word sense, and other knowledge of which he is aware so as to craft a personal vision of the world. We usually think of this taking place with a large unit like a play or a novel, the scholar having enough experience and study of enough of these so as to form an adequate opinion of the text, to judge it on its qualities as well as to explicate it, and so out of his experience craft an independent view of his subject matter, his thoughts and opinions what he has to offer to the world, not some formula which stands outside himself. That is true of other great scholars. I have in mind such people as Jacques Barzun and Peter Brown, who were and are prodigious in their learning and scrupulous in the details of their scholarship and offer an insight into the world of intellectual history which is objective but surely their own, even if some scholars, such as Peter Gay may have exercised poorer judgment in falling in with a version of Freudianism so as to justify their increasingly conservative point of view.

Johnson, for his part, is treating every word as a complete even if short text and so his dictionary is a compendium of forty thousand texts, each one examined for its individual value and adding up to a very general vision of how the world works. Johnson is, for example, carrying out the project of scholarship when he defines passion as an effect caused by an external agency. This very unromantic notion, contrary to all that came after it, is that the passions are external to us while reason, which is all that is left if the passions are eliminated, is inside us because it motivates us, when what Kant and philosophers before him would say is that reason is an objective standard and so outside of us. Much to ponder in what is, after all, just a phrase. But what can be said is that it is Johnson’s take on the matter, somewhat defensible, rather than a finding to add to the stock of findings and interrelationships that is the stuff of science. And so here, as in so many other ways, Johnson is not to be thought of as an English extension of the Enlightenment. He is, rather, creating a path of his own and establishes, along with Burke, a modern kind of Conservatism that is open to religion and fealty to the state without being inhumane or simply obtuse.