A friend sends me a link to an article in the Scientific American, entitled 'An Unethical Ethicist?' I try to read through the intricate morality tale, but all I can think about is the word, ethicist. Why does it stick in my craw?
The word's suffix groups it with physicist, geneticist, classicist, historicist, lyricist, publicist—the OED lists 133 in total, but the others are either compounds or much more obscure. This group, however, is illusory: or rather, it consists of two meaningful groups—those words that derive from nouns and adjectives in –ic, and those that derive from nouns in –ics. Thus: lyric, public, historic, on one side, and physics, genetics, classics, and ethics on the other. Here it will be worth quoting the OED at length, on –ic and –ics:
In English, such words of this class as were in use before 1500 had the singular form, and were usually written, after French, –ique, –ike, as arsmetike, magike, musike, logike (–ique), retorique, mathematique (–ike, –ik), mechanique, economique, ethyque (–ik); this form is retained in arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric (though logics has also been used). But, from the 15th c., forms in –ics (–iques) occur as names of treatises; and in the second half of the 16th c. this form is found applied to the subject-matter of such treatises, in mathematics, economics, etc. From 1600 onward, this has been the accepted form with names of sciences, as acoustics, conics, dynamics, ethics, linguistics, metaphysics, optics, statics, or matters of practice, as æsthetics, athletics, economics, georgics, gymnastics, politics, tactics.The formation of agent-nouns in –ic is predictable: arithmetic, logic, magic, music and rhetoric all have agents in –ician (although we also have rhetor, straight from the Greek). But –ics is unpredictable. Mathematics has –ician. Economics has not economicist but economist. Linguistics, likewise, has linguist, although curiously, the OED offers linguistician ('One who is versed in linguistics') as opposed to linguist ('One who is skilled in the use of languages', 'A student of language; a philologist', but not a student of linguistics). Athletics has athlete, and gymnastics gymnast. Georgics, of course, has nothing.
But hold on a moment; let's look at these groupings. Are we really to say that 'æsthetics, athletics, economics, georgics, gymnastics, politics, tactics' go together as 'matters of practice', as opposed to 'sciences'? Surely aesthetics and politics sit neatly next to ethics, just as economics fits next to linguistics. The streamlining of categories is beginning to look like a mess.
Still worse when we examine types of agents themselves. The politician is the man who practices politics, while the politicist—there are citations old and new in the OED—is the man who studies it. But the aesthetician, like the aestheticist, is the man who studies aesthetics; the practicer is the aesthete, which in turn goes formally with athlete. Metaphysics has been studied both by metaphysicians and, less recently, by metaphysicists. The criteria for –icist as against –ician appears bound neither to form nor to function. Rules collapse.
Before I began thinking about this in detail, ethicist stuck in my craw because its suffix seemed to give it a legitimacy as a technical discipline, like physicist and geneticist. But the whole point about ethics, to me, is that it is utterly lacking such an apparatus, despite the efforts of generations. To say 'I'm a physicist' is to identify not just your profession, but your body of knowledge—your scientia. But to say 'I'm an ethicist' is to identify only a profession: your body of knowledge can be no different to that of another. The very notion of an ethicist seemed, and I think still seems, incoherent to me: at best he could be reduced to a policy-maker, a jurist, a counsellor, or a bloviator. Hence the Wiki list of ethicists is really just a list of thinkers, or even more blandly, of people.
If we consult the OED on ethicist, we are in for a surprise. The first thing it says is '= ETHICIAN'. Indeed, ethician is attested earlier, from 1889, whereas ethicist appears only in 1891. French, by way of comparison, seems more comfortable with éthicien than with éthiciste, although the Trésor lists neither. Ethician seemed to fit better with aesthetician and metaphysician. We all have our ethics, our aesthetics and our metaphysics; none has validity as an objective scientia. And so one wants the morphology to reflect the conceptual agreement: one wants a stricter distinction between –icist and –ician.
But, damn it, there are mathematicians, physicians, technicians and all the rest. Language betrays me. It always does.