Nature, language and law

I’ve spent much of my working life as an editor immersed in the world of law – legal journals, books, court judgments, law reports and the myriad other literary effusions of a world that balks at any linguistic ornamentation that might inadvertently obfuscate rather than elucidate. (This blog, incidentally, borrows its working title, The English Reports, from a collection of reports of judgments of the English Courts reported between the Middle Ages and the mid-19th Century). Many legal editors would gladly concur with 16th century English jurist William Fulbecke, who declared, in a moment of spectacular understatement, that “the books of law … are not pleasant to read, the words or terms are harsh and obscure, dull, and coldly prosaic, the style no whit delightful.”

And yet, however clinical and rationalistic it aspires to be, legal language, like any language, is steeped in images. Of the metaphors that pervade its everyday idiom, particularly any part thereof pertaining to the world of business and commerce, it is fascinating how so many seem to draw on the forces of the natural world, and perhaps above all, how many have an aquatic resonance.

We speak for instance of “keeping one’s head above water”, or being “deep in debt”; of liquidity, pools of resources, and the ebb and flow of the economic cycle. Remaining solvent requires good cash-flow and a steady flow of work. A company is floated; revenue pours in. We speak of a reservoir of capital, a buoyant market, infusions of capital, sinking funds, money being “siphoned off” or “pumped in”. A business drowns in debt, becomes insolvent, enters liquidation; wealth “trickles down”.

We speak of bailing out, going belly-up, pouring money down the drain, going under, shipwrecked companies foundering on the rocks. A firm is offered a lifeboat; a lender pulls the plug. Under a wave of debt a business files for bankruptcy, and we demand that those at the helm be held to account when a country sails into insolvency. ‘Currency’ itself (currere: to run) has a watery resonance, in its associations with currents, as do “affluent” and “flush” (fluere: to flow), both of which convey a sense of flow. Conversely, an account may be frozen, and freezing orders imposed; floating charges crystallise into fixed charges, blocked accounts impede the movement of funds. Stopping a flow is linked to the metaphor of drying out: funds dry up; revenue sources run dry.

These associations with fluidity and porosity and the images at play within them seem a long way from the clinical and rationalistic world of the legal profession. This is, after all, a world traditionally suspicious of image, metaphor, and anything else outside the Cartesian worldview, and yet the language it uses to make sense of itself is imbued with these images that convey subtle understandings, the sensate nature of its expressions enlivening our responsiveness to and understanding of the things they denote.

Cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature”. Imagery and metaphor “govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” The psychologist James Hillman likewise considered the metaphorical image our “first unlearned language, which provides the poetic basis of mind, making possible communication between all people and all things”. The image, in other words, provides a way of understanding which is not purely conceptual, but which enables connections to be made between ideas and their archetypal roots.

The further we delve into these metaphors, the more we come to appreciate how a residual connection to our roots in the natural world manifests itself through everyday language, the prosaicism of the realm of commerce, and the laws that govern it, mirrored by the dynamism of those very forces, those very laws, devalued and rejected in mankind’s quest to assert its mastery of, and separation from the rest of nature. Through language, these forces reveal themselves in the unconscious: a primordial substrate, quietly shaping our everyday ways of thinking and being. Ironically, taking up Lakoff and Johnson’s point, this very rebellion of the archaic against the Cartesian order plays a crucial role in maintaining the strength, structure, and integrity of that order.