My limited meditation work has produced some noteworthy insights into the nature of thinking, regarded here as a psychological function. I am becoming more acutely conscious, for instance, of conceptual thinking as a particular kind of cognitive function—one that I can turn on and turn off. My awareness of the volitional power I have over this instrument or function has been enhanced, of course, by my ‘stepping back’ and observing subtle changes and shifts in psychic activity, as they spontaneously occur.
From one angle I am able to regard the words and concepts (that I employ when I am thinking) as nomina—labels or signifiers that stand for various non-verbal phenomena (internal and external). These psychic contents (objects of sensory perception, affects, bodily sensations, intuitions, memories, etc.) are more basic and more essential than the nomina (the actual words and concepts) that automatically clothe and convey them. In this process of formulating my pre-verbal and pre-conceptual perceptions and inner contents in words and concepts, I am drawing, of course, from the resources of my native language, which is collective, and not personally designed or created by me. To be sure, these resources are rich and ample. If fully exploited and developed by the energetic, judicious employer of the English language, along with the conceptual inheritance readily available for our acquisition, these resources afford even the subtlest and most inventive thinker more than (s)he could ever need in the way of ‘clothing’ (or mental vestments and vessels).
This shared or collective character of the words and concepts (that we imbibe cum lacte as essential elements of our linguistic-cultural inheritance) is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the fact that English speakers are in general agreement concerning the meanings (rough or precise, as the case may be) of these words and concepts makes it possible for all ‘newcomers’ to understand others and to be understood, as soon as they have acquired rudimentary command of the language. On the other hand, since the general level of accuracy, depth, and resonant quality of these terms and concepts is largely—nay, decisively—determined by the cognitive, imaginative, and moral norms of the society as a whole, if these norms are relatively low and crude, these deficiencies will inevitably be reflected in the verbal and conceptual materials in currency at any given time.
There are many today who complain of a widespread corruption and debasement of language and the concepts we presently depend upon for thinking. Such critics contend that our words and concepts are being cheapened by the leveling agencies within the crude, mass culture that is inwardly driven by the will to make things as comfortable, convenient, and pleasant as possible for the greatest number of (rather poorly educated, semi-literate) people. This is certainly not the first time in human history that hedonism, ease, personal safety, and material well-being have been unashamedly held up as norms or goals for a society. But surely something will suffer neglect within a culture that prizes comfort, sensual pleasures, cheap conveniences, mass entertainment, and technological gadgetry over the very different sorts of values and pursuits to which other cultures and eras have consecrated their best energies and deployed their best talents.
If we want to get a rough idea of just how far today’s verbal and conceptual standards have fallen from those of earlier times, we only need to pick up a popular novel from the late 18th or the 19th century—one, say, by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens—and compare the prose to that of a popular novel today, one by John Grisham or Stephen King. Shakespeare, Plato, and the Bible—which were staples for pretty much all educated persons until quite recently—are practically unintelligible to college students today. The unfamiliar syntax, the luxuriant vocabulary, the allusive and multi-layered meanings packed into metaphors and parables that were readily grasped by our cognitively more sophisticated (because more thoroughly literate) forebears are simply beyond the patience and the easy reach of today’s graduate of ‘Tier-One’ universities. Their ‘sophistication,’ such as it is, lies elsewhere.
If the general standards of literacy (along with the degree of precision, depth, and complexity of verbal/conceptual expression maintained by the educated segment of society) have sunk to an all-time low in our own era, it is worth noting that even under the most favorable cultural and educational conditions, there is always someone whining and wailing about the slackness and carelessness of ordinary language as a medium for the best thoughts and sentiments. We know how Socrates made a virtual career out of testing, challenging, and (when allowed to) amending the Athenian know-it-alls’ (mis-) use of such important terms as ‘truth,’ ‘justice,’ ‘goodness,’ ‘beauty,’ and ‘knowledge.’ And Socrates’ lonely campaign to bring greater exactitude, clarity, and richness to philosophical and moral discourse was conducted during one of the high water marks in Western cultural history—another being the Renaissance. At the time that Shakespeare was writing and producing the plays that many of us have so much trouble reading and understanding—while even ‘groundlings’ or uneducated riff-raff enthusiastically filled the Globe Theater after the more hoity-toity audience members were seated—Francis Bacon wrote the following passage:
The Idols of the Market-place are the most troublesome (impediments to the mind) of all; these are idols that have crept into the understanding through the alliance of words and names. For while men believe their reason governs words, in fact, words turn back and reflect their power upon the understanding, and so render philosophy and science sophistical and inactive. For words are usually applied according to common comprehension (italics mine), and divide things along lines most suited to common understanding. When someone of sharper understanding or more diligence in observation wishes to shift those lines, so as to move them closer to Nature, words shout him down. (Novum Organon, sect. 59)
Unsurprisingly, the kinds of knowledge deemed important by the majority of educated persons within a society, or culture, will reflect the principal aims and interests of that society as a whole. The trajectory-setting, educated elite of past societies have been chiefly concerned with—sometimes even pathologically obsessed with—very different aims, values, and ‘ways of life.’ For the Spartans, the early Romans, and the Prussians, military valor and honor were of paramount importance. For the ancient Jews, Medieval Christians, and many modern-day Muslims, religious piety and ‘righteousness before God’ constitute the chief aim of life. For the Renaissance Florentines and Venetians, Victorian Englishmen and most North Americans today, the accumulation of wealth and personal power appear to be of supreme importance.
Unremarkably, the ‘intellectual capital’ of an era tends to be concentrated among those generally respected thinkers who embody and help to advance the prevalent, generally embraced values of the time. In other words, if the intellect may be likened to a searchlight, the lion’s share of a society’s disposable light will be turned in the direction of dominant collective interests and desires. A genuinely balanced deployment of a society’s disposable light would presumably provide the best safeguard against a perilously one-sided state of affairs that thwarts and fails to nourish the attainment of human wholeness among its choicest specimens. But if it is in fact true that the light generally follows rather than leads the collective will (as that will is expressed in its principal preoccupations and aims), then we are faced with something of a conundrum.
Before the modern era, before the extension and expansion of political and legal rights to formerly ‘powerless’ or disenfranchised persons, and before the explosion of human population as consequence of medical and technological developments—societies, entire cultures, were shaped, governed, and perpetuated by a relatively tiny elite of educated persons. Because of this generally aristocratic—and often autocratic—arrangement, serious changes in a few minds at the top could occasionally lead to a major redirection of social or collective energies. Because political and cultural power—all the power—was concentrated in a few hands, a few persons could make a colossal difference, for good or ill, in a way that seems almost inconceivable today. The simple reason for this is that the stable base—the sheer inertia of the multitudes—makes such sudden and radical change well-nigh impracticable. Despite the free access to all sorts of news and information, it is more difficult than ever to bring about significant cultural enrichment on a large scale. This is a complex issue and there are many avenues of approach to it, but perhaps a good place to begin is from the angle of quantitative differences between modern and pre-modern societies. In their different ways, René Guenon and John Lukacs—two rather distinct thinkers—argue that quantity, in the modern era, has thoroughly diluted—if it has not altogether eclipsed—quality.
 But, alas, ‘clothes do not always proclaim, or make, the man’—at least not in this case (and not even in France, where those of the best deconstructionist rank and postmodern station are of a most select and generous, chief in that).