Modality

“The ineluctable modality of the visible,” Stephen Dedalus thinks to himself early in James Joyce’s Ulysses, as he walks along the beach and ponders snippets of classical and German philosophy.

In the novel, this moment of private philosophizing is supposed to portray the introverted, over-scholarly mind of a lonely and confused young man. But the lofty word modality and its echoes of intellectual greatness seem to have captivated the 20th-century imagination almost from the instant Ulysses found its way into print.

The word belongs, and is probably highly useful, in lectures on philosophy or (more recently) the clinical professions. But in the last few decades, MODALITY has been gaining steam in political, civic, and philanthropic circles, as a pretentious stand-in for “method.” This use, some say, was made fashionable in the 1970s by then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was exceedingly fond of it. (“The new word that is constantly being heard here is MODALITIES,” The New Yorker reported from the Paris peace talks in 1970.) Now it’s common to find papers on all sorts of topics where MODALITIES are the order of the day — including one on employment policy, for example, in which a section begins, “The program pursues its goals through two primary modalities.”

Why that author didn’t write “we do our work in two ways” is puzzling. The simpler wording would not only have been easier to read and understand, but it would have directed our attention toward the work, rather than sending us scurrying to the dictionary to make sense of MODALITIES. (Actually, the dictionary wouldn’t help much. The word has so many meanings that this is the best The Oxford English Dictionary could do for a concise definition: “Those aspects of a thing which relate to its mode, or manner or state of being, as distinct from its substance or identity.”)

Why would a foundation have written that it seeks an “expansion in the modalities of shelter and housing”? Why not just say “more kinds of shelter and housing,” or “more ways of providing” it, and then save your meaty vocabulary for the description of the new approach to housing, whatever it is? Why would a civil rights organization explain that it does not limit its work “solely to the modality of litigation”? It could have written “solely to litigation” and left out the superfluous MODALITIES altogether.

The worst effect of these solemn phrases is to draw our attention to the authors’ thought processes and their complex approach to the “modes” of their trade, rather than to whatever argument they are trying to make. It’s as if the writer is subtly saying: “Yes, OK, our work is important, and we’re going to tell you about it in a minute, but first let us make a really important point: The elegant way we analyze our field — the sophisticated categories into which we sort our interests, and the fancy names we give the categories — now there is something truly marvelous!”

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