Journal of English Philology
Ed. by Kornexl, Lucia / Lenker, Ursula / Middeke, Martin / Rippl, Gabriele / Stein, Daniel Thomas
CiteScore 2018: 0.22
SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.130
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.336
In humanist discourse, language was very much perceived as a double-edged tool. On the one hand, it was emphatically praised as the basis of all disciplines and the foundation of civilised society, on the other, the humanists' emphasis on the social function of language also drew their attention to the inherent dangers of its use. This article explores some of the main assumptions underlying this essential ambiguity within humanist theories on language. Starting from Rudolph Agricola's reconception of dialectics as an art of discourse, whose aim is to convey knowledge through communication instead of providing a true but abstract description of the world, special attention is then paid to Juan Luis Vives, who (in the wake of Thomas More and Erasmus) introduced the concept of common usage as a central norm into his philosophy of language. It guarantees the creative flexibility and historical adaptability of language on the one hand, and prevents it from exceeding the limits of communicability on the other. However, the increased emphasis on communicability instead of abstract truth also led to a greater awareness of possible misuse. Thus a considerable body of literature was concerned with cautioning its readers about language as essentially janus-faced, elusive and ungovernable. Writings such as Erasmus' tract Lingua may shed new light on a work like Thomas More's History of Richard III, in which the dark pessimism and elusiveness can neither be explained by reading the text as political mythmaking nor as moralistic black-and-white painting. The article thus concludes with a reading of More's text as a kind of anti-Utopia, whose central point it was to hightlight the strictures of a society whose well-being depends entirely on the use (and misuse) of language.