Can you understand this sentence?

“The associates are known to each other solely as seekers of substantive satisfactions obtainable only in their responses to one another’s conditional offers of satisfactions or threatened results to provide, or to assist in providing, a sought-for satisfaction; and they are related in terms of their power to seek or to make such offers or to threaten or resist such refusals, and perhaps also in the recognition and use of such instruments (e.g. money), practices (e.g. promises) or maxims (caveat emptor) as they may have devised to promote the effective use of their power.”

If you can, you’re a better man than I am, even if you’re a woman. And I must admit to shameful pride: I hate it when others can understand things I can’t.

I have an exaggerated (some will say misplaced) trust in my mental acuity. As part of it, I believe I can get my mind around anything conceived by another mind, provided it’s in an area I know something about, even if it’s not that much.

Such areas include history, political science, theology, linguistics, various branches of philosophy, law – that sort of thing. Humanities, in a word.

Mention something like quantum mechanics and watch my eyes glass over. It takes a secondary school textbook to take me out of my depth, and I only refrain from saying ‘primary school’ out of the same foolish pride.

But my ability to understand things I mentioned is decent, though it isn’t innate. Over a lamentably long lifetime I’ve trained myself to read, comprehend and occasionally even to write books on such subjects.

Thankfully, most of such books I’ve read, and all I’ve written, are in English. There’s indeed much to be grateful for, because English is marvellously suited to communicating complex thoughts in simple sentences.

Anyone who has tried to read, say, Hegel, Fichte or Kant will confirm that not all languages are like that. The Germans don’t seem to mind convoluted thought and involuted style. Their minds must work that way, God bless them.

The English mind doesn’t (and neither, by adoption and co-option, does mine). That’s why that mind has produced over millennia the best possible language, this side of Latin, for putting complex thoughts simply – or at least as simply as possible.

English has by far the largest vocabulary of all European languages, three times as large as in Russian, for example. That often enables a writer to find one precise word to communicate something that in other languages may take a dozen. Try saying ‘privacy’ in a single Russian or French word and you’ll know what I mean.

Also, English revolves around the verb, which gives it the dynamism other languages lack. The Germans tuck their verbs to the end of sentences, the French surround them with swarms of parasites, and the Russians often dispense with them altogether.

Partly because of its reliance on verbs, English is less welcoming than other languages to strings of subordinate clauses. These prefer nominal antecedents, fleeing from verbs the way demons flee from the cross. English will at times be kind enough to accept one or two, but it’ll turn most away (one wishes our immigration services practised the same approach).

English also encourages, nay demands, concision. It’ll grudgingly accept a longish sentence, provided it’s easy to read. But it’ll indignantly reject tangled-up jumbles like the quoted 94-word monster.

For all these reasons English is a precious gift to a writer on the subjects I mentioned earlier. But the gift is reciprocal. English doesn’t just give; it also demands.

It creates not only battalions of lucid and precise writers but also armies of readers who expect lucid and precise writing. I’m one such, and I abhor complicated prose as much as I welcome the complex kind.

I try – how successfully isn’t for me to judge – to compliment the reader by believing he can grasp any of my thoughts, and to reward him by making it as easy as the thought allows. This is a simple courtesy and, as with all simple courtesies, also a duty.

This brings me back to the quoted sentence. It comes from the book On History, which has adorned my bookshelves ever since Michael Oakeshott published it in 1983. Once a year or so I embark on the obstacle race of reading it, only to stumble each time over yet another hurdle.

Occasionally I can backtrack once or twice, inhale deeply, take a longer run-up and clear the verbal obstacle. Often I can’t.

It has taken me 33 years to wade through two-thirds of On History, which is the point where the quoted sentence stopped me dead this time.

Yes, I know that the late LSE professor is beautiful, a conservative philosopher and generally one of the PLUs (People Like Us). But, nil nisi bonum and all that, he was rude.

He refused to pay me the courtesy of making his prose understandable. So I don’t see why I should pay him the courtesy of reading what sounds like an inept translation from bad German.

Oh, I suppose one must keep trying. I must overcome my natural suspicion that involuted writing is there to camouflage convoluted thought. We are, after all, talking about one of the LSE’s finest, a conservative oasis in a desert of Fabian tosh.

But please help me over this hurdle so I can get on with it. What does the damn sentence mean?

10 thoughts on “Can you understand this sentence?”

  1. Some context would probably help…

    Associates of what? and what manner of satisfactions are being transacted?

    But you’re right – a sentence like that is a sign the writer wasn’t quite sure wht he meant and his editor threw up his hands.

  2. Damned if I know! But I will have a stab at:

    These people operate on the principle of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.

    They can offer the pleasure of a scratched itch, or they can (threaten to) leave you with the torment.

  3. “English has by far the largest vocabulary of all European languages, three times as large as in Russian, for example.”

    The “richest” literature of any language also. English literature not confined to the “English”.

    Authors from a variety of nations all with different perspectives writing in the language. American, English, Australian, Canadian, South African. And persons also such as Joseph Conrad to which English was a second-language.

    English literature as not confined to the English.

  4. Is he from the same school as Jacques Derrida,“To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.” or try “Surviving – that is the other name of a mourning whose possibility is never to be awaited.” Reading these guys is like wading waist deep through mud!

  5. “It comes from the book On History, which has adorned my bookshelves ever since Michael Oakeshott published it in 1983.”

    OK. An Englishman then. I had thought maybe a translation from something written by a Frenchman. Then the sentence would make perfect sense, but only to another Frenchman.

  6. One German who seemed to mind the convoluted thought and involuted style of other Germans was Schopenhauer, likening the Hegelian and Fichtean discourses to the ‘mad ravings heard in lunatic asylums’.

      1. I don’t think it’s so much that atheists write better as that language is better suited to explain empirical and sensual realities than religious and metaphysical ones, which tend to be indescribable in words and beyond it’s reach. As for Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, I don’t think they would have much regard for the notable atheists of our day, especially of the Dawkins’ kind….

  7. I wasn’t being entirely serious. There have been brilliant writers on metaphysical and religious subjects both in English and other languages. For example, Chesterton, Lewis and Belloc could write rings around any atheist, Plato was a sublime metaphysical writer in Greek, Soloviov and Rozanov in Russian, such modern Thomists as Gilson and Suarez in Romance languages
    . Dawkins is actually a lucid writer; his problem is that he’s not very bright and extremely ideological.

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