Linguistic Rationalization

14 October 2009



There is an insufficient appreciation of the extent to which the US and its characteristic institutions are relics of the Enlightenment. I have commented previously that US leaders no longer believe in the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this may be one of the reasons that the political legacy of the Enlightenment goes largely unrecognized. But the fact remains that the institutions of the US constitute the most systematic and successful attempt to put into practice the ideals of the Enlightenment, and this is one of the sources of American exceptionalism.

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

The smile of the Enlightenment: a self portrait of Maurice Quentin de La Tour

But no practice fully or absolutely embodies the theory of which it is an attempted realization, and so too the US and its institutions constitute an incomplete realization of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not exhausted by its political ideals, but also spawned ideals throughout social, economic, religious, and philosophical thought. The US has realized some, but not all, of the political ideals of the Enlightenment, but few of the other ideals of the Enlightenment found application in the institutions of the US, however important these ideals were in the lives of the founders.

We all know (or should know by now) that from the American perspective, the American Revolution was the first great political event of the Enlightenment, while from the European perspective the American Revolution was a sideshow while the French Revolution was the main event. Again, from the American Perspective the French Revolution was a glorious failure and an object lesson that ended in blood and suffering and eventually the tyranny of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon royal family. But France, whatever its political troubles, did make one lasting shift due to the Enlightenment, and that was its conversion to the metric system.


Again, as we all know, the US does not use the metric system. Specialists use it for special purposes, and people who work on Japanese and German cars have wrench sets available in metric sizes, but the mechanics have not thrown away their standard wrenches. The US is nearly isolated internationally in its failure to adopt the metric system. An odd exception along with the US is Burma.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

World map showing dates at which the metric system was adopted.

There is a sense in which the metric system is one of those great ideas of Enlightenment utopianism and universalism, like the idea of a universal language such as Esperanto (of which Carnap was an enthusiast, but of which Wittgenstein said, “Esperanto. The feeling of disgust we get if we utter an invented word with invented derivative syllables.”). What makes the metric system different from other pie-in-the-sky universalist fantasies is that it was actually adopted and is in use throughout most of the world today.

Europe once had almost as many weights and measures as there were cities and towns. Many of these weights and measures were brought to the Americas along with the languages and political traditions of the immigrating Europeans. The Constitution gave the US Congress the power to “fix the Standard of Weights and Measures” but the Congress did not carry out the kind of wholesale rationalization that was embodied in the metric system. The greatest experiment in the practical application of Enlightenment principles — the United States itself — was to do without the advantages of the Enlightenment’s system of weights and measures.

While in one sense the metric system is a utopian idea, it is also an idea with profound practical economic consequences. The standardization of weights and measures across political boundaries eases trade to a remarkable degree. It is the same logic that was behind the creation of the Euro, a common currency for the European Union (the standardization of currency). The gains that were derived from the standardization of weights and measures, however, did not come without a cost. Traditional weights and measures were central to the lives and the localities from which they emerged. These local systems of weights and measures were, until they were obliterated by the introduction of the metric system, a large part of local culture. With the metric system supplanting these traditional weights and measures, the traditional culture of which they were a part was dealt a decisive blow. This was not the kind of objection that men of the Enlightenment would have paused over, but with our experience of subsequent history it is the kind of thing that we think of today.

If the standardization of weights and measures had the profound effect that it had on commerce, imagine the economic gains that could be realized from the standardization of language. If one language came to dominate the world in the way that the metric system dominates the world today, there would be a great facilitation of commerce. But the very idea of embarking on a program to replace all the world’s languages with a single language — call it linguistic rationalization, if you like — not only sounds like a utopian fantasy, but in many quarters would be greeted with nothing less than horror. Anthropologists regularly inform us how many of the world’s languages are being lost, and with the loss of every language the world permanently loses part of its cultural heritage.

This is true. It is also true that the world lost a lot of its cultural heritage when the metric system supplanted local systems of weights and measures. It could be argued that while the cultural loss was permanent, or nearly permanent (there are probably records of former systems of measurement), we did not substantially lose cultural diversity as a result. It could also be argued that weights and measures are not as central to cultural life as is language, and that that is why weights and measures were relatively easily converted to the metric system.

Similar arguments, mutatis mutandis, could be made regarding language. A comprehensive program could be undertaken to document all the world’s remaining languages before they were extirpated from general use and replaced with a linguistic rationalization that would facilitate commerce to a remarkable degree. Suppose it could be shown that such a program would make the world wealthier to some definite degree — say it would account for an additional two percent of annual growth in the world economy in perpetuity — can you imagine anyone suggesting such a proposal?

We should consider counter-factual scenarios like this when we meditate on the legacy of the Enlightenment, which, from this perspective, becomes more complex, and therefore more interesting.

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