Led astray by leading words

Words not only reflect our values, they to some extent shape them. This is Peggy Rosenthal's premise. ''Unless we make (a) deliberate effort to watch how our words are working,'' she writes, ''we'll be worked on by them and manipulated by their meanings unawares.'' (Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us, New York: Oxford University Press. 295 pp. $17.95.) Her attention centers on four main groupings of words - words that she sees as particularly manipulative, yet so ingrained in contemporary usage that we seldom stop to think where they've come from or what they've come to mean.

The central terms in each of these groupings are: self, development, relative , and relationship. These very common words convey some of the most fundamental themes in 20th-century Western culture. They permeate psychology, sociology, and education. Miss Rosenthal dissects these words, often tracing their genealogies back a century and more. But most of all, she zeroes in on their implications in the popular culture of our day.

Take ''self,'' with its sidekicks ''feeling'' and ''personal.'' These words, she says, are portrayed as bellwethers of a value system turned inward on the fulfillment of personal desires. After quoting psychologist Willard Gaylin, author of ''Feelings: Our Vital Signs,'' Rosenthal comments: ''To perceive 'all goodness' in the realm of feelings, and to 'measure and value our lives' in 'the balance of small passions of daily existence,' is to deny the operation of any moral realm apart from the emotional realm.''

The words clustered around ''development,'' including ''growth'' and ''evolution,'' came to the fore, originally, with Darwin's revolution in biology. Rosenthal laments the popularization of these words in such areas as ''Adult Development.'' Evolution or development may have the status of natural law in biology, she observes, but that aura of authority takes on a sinister aspect when the subject shifts to individual growth. If change is necessary to development, as many ''pop'' psychologists affirm, then, says Rosenthal, ''We are likely . . . to become restless: to seek change, as both a means to and a sign of our growth.'' Again, the implication is moral laxity, sparse standards by which to judge whether change is good or bad.

This theme of moral flabbiness becomes particularly sharp in the chapters on ''relative.'' Einstein's theories canonized relativity in the specialized, even narrow, realm of physics. Others, Rosenthal notes, attempted to broaden it into a universal law governing everything from subatomic particles to daily behavior.

She takes studied aim at the pervasive phrase ''it's all relative.'' People mouth that phrase, she says, ''without giving a thought to what they're saying, yet with the confidence that they're saying something true.'' Yet the phrase itself carries what seems to her a glaring logical fallacy: that the relativity of all things is itself an absolute. She notes the fervor with which moral relativism tries to convert tolerance, opinion, consensus, and experience into virtual ''absolutes.'' The inevitable result of this ''absolutely relative'' position, she argues, is the emasculation of judgment and a retreat to more logically secure ground.

The book's final section, on ''relation,'' swings from an examination of wholism and Gestalt theory to a biting indictment of systems analysis. The latter, she argues, is often an attempt to take the human beings - or at least their decisionmaking abilities - out of human environments. ''In counting on systems to give us 'total control,' we're in danger of giving up the (admittedly) partial but still special control we already have.''

As one reads Rosenthal's analysis of these ''leading'' words and their place in current thinking, the question keeps returning: Is her basic premise true? Are the words we use capable of shaping, even dictating, our values?

Weighing these questions, two things come to mind. First, that it's tempting to impute more independent power to words, per se, than they can really ever have. (And one sometimes wonders if Miss Rosenthal doesn't go a little too far in her descriptions of how we're bullied by language.) Second, that it's not words but the beliefs and assumptions behind them that shape human beings. In this regard, Rosenthal is clearly aware that the same word can have quite different implications depending on the speakers' beliefs.

Rosenthal's central concern is that the particular words analyzed here can convey an outlook that works against sound moral vision. She views the four word families discussed above as woven together in the fabric of what she terms ''the dominant ideology of 20th century Western thought'' - secular humanism.

Miss Rosenthal speaks of ''a strict and heavily value-laden opposition: between human reason, seen as positive and unlimited in its potential, on one side and divine revelation, seen as negative and even nonexistent, on the other.'' This she sees as the battle line drawn by the ''structure of secular humanist thought'' - a structure mortared by the words analyzed in ''Words and Values.''

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