Session One, part 2: The Sphere of Language

The Sphere of Language

First of all, then, let’s take a look at the sphere of Language and at some of its own intrinsic mystery. We may as well start with the issue of arche, or origin. Much of my training has been in linguistics, and I wonder if you are aware that the origin of human language is not only unknown, but also exceedingly difficult – in some ways seemingly im-possible – to theorize?

Whenever we have an actual human language, such as Sanskrit or Inuit or English, any human language, it is always-already an extraordinarily complex system that is being passed down from generation to generation by the members of its linguistic community.

Now back when linguistics was being established as a formal field of study in the 19th century – and was of course being shaped by the great Victorian-era myth of inevitable  “progress” (the “historicist” mythos of the nineteenth century) – linguists naturally assumed that they would discover “primitive” languages as well as the “advanced” ones. Can you guess whose languages were expected to prove to be the “advanced” languages? But surprisingly enough, it didn’t turn out this way, because in the 20th century, linguistic fieldwork demonstrated that every human language we have record of is structurally exceedingly complex and is adapted in highly sophisticated ways to the needs of its linguistic community.

As it turned out, the 20th century was going to be like this for every field of study. In other word, highly disconcerting. [laughing] In physics, with the development of electro-magnetism in the later 19th-century, scientists assumed that the great edifice of Newtonian physics was almost complete, except for a couple of minor anomalies. But then came Einstein’s papers in 1905, and then in the next few decades quantum mechanics, and then more recently still cosmology, and complexity and chaos theory. It is hard to imagine a greater paradigm shift than the one that occurred during the twentieth century in physics, from the steady-state, deterministic universe of classical Newtonian science to the probabilistic universe of the new physics, exploding from a singular point of origin and exhibiting an irrepressible tendency to exploit every opportunity for higher-order complexity.

Similarly, in linguistics with Saussure and Trubetskoy, and in psychology with gestalt (not to mention Freud), and in anthropology, in the visual arts, in music, and so on, in discipline after discipline, revolutions occurred throughout the century whereby new methods brought about brilliant re-interpretations of their fields, and the subject matters forced the new methodologies, in a mutually reciprocal interaction.

Now let me stop briefly to remind you that when I say “modernity,” I am not referring to the past ten years. [laughter] I don’t mean the space of your lifetimes either, or the past century, obviously. No, I mean by modernity the Modern West, that historical period with its classical scientific worldview that was beginning in the 17th century and was fully established during the Newtonian Enlightenment in the 18th century.

Lesslie Newbigin has called the Enlightenment “the conversion experience of the modern West,” which is a very good description of how deeply the West repudiated its pre-modern past and how ardently Westerners wanted to believe that with the “clockwork” universe of Newtonian physics, and the rise of the seemingly free and autonomous Cartesian ego or Self, we were arriving at the pinnacle of human history and had in our grasp an infallible means for knowing, once and for all, “the way things really are,” in the most global possible sense of those terms. What we didn’t know yet, the scientific method would show us in the near future, but certainly we now possessed for the first time in human history the capacity to arrive at “absolute” and “universal” truths through Reason, a reason that was taken to be self-evident to the objective mind and utterly divorced from the particularities of culture, history, or personal formation. Everything in Western thought and culture was resorted in terms of the brand new opposition between “objective” scientific knowing and mere “subjectivity.”

Now it is ironic, and I think very sad, that in spite of the profound critique of Enlightenment assumptions – especially these epistemological assumptions – within every Western academic discipline during the twentieth century, nevertheless, with respect to how humans come to know, we are still living in that older Newtonian thought-world, especially here in English-speaking North America. We still tend to assume there is one way of thinking “rationally,” and one way of establishing “true facts” [laughing], and that one way is of course the “scientific” way.

Unfortunately, the people who believe this the most include the religious fundamentalists who are pressing for “creation science,” and who read even profound creation poems as scientific textbooks, because they assume if it isn’t scientifically valid, then it cannot be true in any sense that matters. This assumption is found abundantly in the arguments of militants on both sides of the current conflict raised by the Intelligent Design movement.

Both sides are deeply conditioned by nineteenth-century scientism, illustrating the way that we are imprinted most deeply by the conditioning factors we most strenuously attempt to oppose, as we see in terms of everyone’s life-long attempt not to grow up to be their parents. [laughing] We saw it in the first wave of the women’s movement, and we see it in the tragic efforts of religious persons and scientists to push back against the harmful dogmatisms they perceive on the other side. There is plenty of dogmatism to go around, but reactionary efforts only re-entrench certain dualistic deep structures that belong to classical modernity. This is precisely the double bind so beautifully explicated for us by contemporary theory. I believe these advances in understanding cultural deep structures ought to lead us all toward epistemological humility.

But I fear that you might think I am speaking against science (or against Christianity) in ways I do not mean to do, so let me leave these larger historical considerations to later sessions in which we can deal in detail with the transitions from medieval to modern epistemology, and from modern to postmodern. Let me just say that the discipline of literary theory – with its long historical overview of Western history – provides a powerful way to achieve fresh critical distance and some invigorating perspectives on our own cultural positioning, situated as we are in the transition from a deeply engrained late modernity to an equivocally emerging postmodernity.

Right now, it seems to me that to be liberally educated particularly requires that we bite the bullet epistemologically, and learn “not to patronize the past, and to see the present as itself a period.” We are living in an utterly fascinating moment in human history, and it helps to consider it in a larger historical perspective. Our moment possesses the greatest and keenest repertoire of ways of knowing, and the strongest mandates to think humbly and respectfully, in the history of the West, and yet many of us see in our times only a loss of certainties and a hopeless relativism, while others forge ahead with the same old classical Western confidence in its own totalizing claims.

Actually, though, you could learn all about the methodological critiques of old-school scientific objectivism within any one of the academic disciplines, including any of the sciences, except that you aren’t usually let in on this secret until you’re in graduate school! [laughing bitterly] And then, you learn only about the revolutions in your own narrowly specialized fields, so it’s very easy to miss the big picture. That’s a crying shame, I think, because it hides the most difficult questions from high school and undergraduate students, and we cannot afford to patronize the human beings we are attempting to teach.

Education did not arise in the West to serve the needs of societies for technically trained professionals. It arose to address the most basic existential questions. As individuals, to address these questions we need disciplined ways of knowing. To address these On a political level, in terms of civic discussion and the common good, to address these questions we need everybody in on the conversation, whether they are like us or not, and whether they are educated like us or not. By watering down the complexities of our unique moment in history, and by failing to arouse an appreciation of how radical and exciting the disciplines of advanced thought now are, students end up equipped to seek a livelihood, but not inspired, by and large, by the project of learning to think (and to act as citizens in the civic arena) both more humbly and more powerfully than we could do during the classically modern centuries.

On university campuses, teachers cannot push back effectively against the economic forces of production and consumption because of the stultifying elitism of late-modern educational institutions, where only narrowly specialized academic professionals (and the few students who are going to become them) are credited with the ability, interest, and calling to live the life of the mind. (And even then, narrowly specialized academic professionals are supported only so long as they confine the vitality of their minds within their narrow specialization, and don’t attempt to step out of their disciplines to bring their thinking to bear on a wider community.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I know and respect the efforts of my colleagues across the disciplines, but I still think we are all constrained and stymied in teaching the next generation by our fundamentally hierarchical and elitist late-modern theories of education. And because of the way we think of thought as occurring in the narrow specializations, we do not know how to address the difficult questions of interdisciplinary conversation or the equally difficult questions of entering the public sphere, though we pay lip service to them with a frustrated sincerity. But I think you’ll see what I’m talking about much better after we’ve spent some time with earlier Western educational theory, within which the question of a literary way of knowing was first asked.

So let me return to mystery of origin in the sphere of language. The mystery is this: without a language community already in place, children could not become language-users. A linguistic system as we know it is not invented ex nihilo by a group of human beings; it is received, as a seamless whole cloth, from a previous generation of human beings shaped by it in turn. There simply aren’t any “primitive” or “rudimentary” languages out there, for us to examine for clues about origin.

Humans do invent “languages” that come into existence at a definite point in human history: the language of symbolic logic, for instance, in the analytic (or Anglo-American) tradition of philosophy. Or we have developed the various other, truly stupendous, formal “languages” that constitute the disciplines of mathematics. But these languages are, first of all, developed by human beings who always-already possess the communicative abilities conferred by natural language, and, secondly, these “invented” languages are not structured the way natural human languages are. They aim at fixing signification in unchanging patterns – “for every A, A is always equal to A” – and working out what develops from refining and manipulating various families of such patterns. And so, bravo for Euclidean geometry, calculus, and the theory of infinite sets.

A natural language, on the other hand, is structured so that every single formal constituent of it can and does change, but within an over-determined system of very complex formal relationships, so that the stability of deep and powerful formal continuities over time is not lost. It is of the nature of any human language, therefore, that in order to retain a signification or “meaning,” that signification must be reformulated again and again in fresh or retooled terms, just as when anything is to be translated from one language into another, it must be formulated afresh in whatever terms might be available in the new language.

And how we are to accomplish these renewals of meaning can never be given in advance. Most of all, if we repeat the same verbal formulas, without laboring with all our hearts and minds to renew their meanings within new and changing contexts, they may come to have little meaning at all, or more likely, they will come to represent the very opposite of their original meaning. This is the irreducible paradox of the human word, and it applies to any message put into human language. Never forget this paradox, okay? It underlies the profound paradox of the letter and the spirit. It is also part of the paradox of Law and Grace. And it is ever the paradox of the old covenant and the new, which is a paradox (and a promise) already in the Jewish scriptures, long before it becomes a Christian paradox. 

Well, it’s pretty obvious that given the complex functional systemicity of human language, we are going to have to work very hard to understand how human language could ever come into being in the first place, although work is of course being done on this, assiduously, as I speak. Personally, I have always been mesmerized by this ambiguity in the origin of language, ever since I first began to read about it in linguistics textbooks during my own days at university. That was back in the late Sixties, when campuses across the nation were boiling over with intellectual ferment, and on every cross-walk of my campus there were preachers exhorting us to heed their messages – what a great time to be alive, and a college student!

At the University of Washington, there were Black Panthers, and SDS, and Campus Crusade for Christ, and anti-war protesters, and “Jesus freaks” who had migrated up from California, and many, many others. I had grown up in a university professor’s family, a family of academics and intellectuals, and my parents were agnostics, to their credit very thoughtful and honest agnostics. Within the first 18 months away at college, I read lots and lots of medieval and Renaissance literature and philosophy and history, and I joined the ACLU, and I went forward at a Crusade and become a Christian. [laughing]

So naturally, as you can imagine, I was somewhat bemused when every linguistics textbook I picked up would explain, on the one hand, how mysterious and unknown the origins of language are, and would then proceed to state that “the only thing we know for sure” is that it did not come into existence “by divine fiat.” [laughing] Now as inexperienced as I was in epistemology back then, I dimly sensed that something was out of whack there, if only a certain emergence of picque.

What you Generation X-ers and Y-ers have to realize is that back when I was in school, there was such a deeply entrenched bias, such an animus against theism in late-modern education that teachers and scholars could move easily from their own disciplinary way of knowing, with its own appropriate methodologies and validity-testing, to making huge metaphysical claims about the absence of God from the cosmos, without the slightest sign of a bad conscience. Well, actually, the vehemence of the attack was a symptom of bad conscience, I suppose. With us human beings, it’s always the same story, the “eternal return” of the repressed. Who escapes this?

But as I’ve mentioned, hard scientific rationalism had become a metaphysical belief-structure in the modern West, and as such a belief-system, it suffered from the same arrogance that religion has often so rightly been accused of. Both have identified their own methodological propensities with the only “rational” discourse and the only true “knowledge.” So let’s not ever forget that in the age of Newton, it seemed that science was giving us the final, timelessly true paradigm, which was going to apply from then on at every point (in absolute time and space) and for all the rest of human history. Then, science itself taught us how naïve that was. The laws of Newtonian physics proved not to be absolute and universal in the senses enlightened Westerners took for granted, but neither have they proved baseless or inefficacious.

I hope that the main thing we have learned from the new physics, and from all the other paradigm changes in the past century, is that no paradigm is likely to be final, because how can it get everything into the picture? And even if it thought it had, one profound new insight might force a radical re-arrangement of the whole. At the same time, no paradigm that has nourished human beings is without some insight. The medieval “Ptolemaic world picture” and the modern “Newtonian clockwork universe” were both paradigms that reflected brilliant thought and laborious synthesis at their stages of history, and provided deep meaning as well as supporting cruel blindnesses to the human beings formed by them.

But at the same time, to acknowledge the developmental nature of all ways of knowing  and the striking differences in the kinds of truth-claims they are designed to make is not epistemological relativism. It is epistemological humility, and there is a very great difference. Postmodern humility ought never to forget or disesteem the rigorous methodologies that operate within the disciplines and to honor them – all of them.

One of the saving miracles for me of our current postmodern moment is that we Westerners have at length begun to distinguish thoughtfully between “scientism” and genuine science. The wars of science and religion – at least in their oppositional deep structures of thought –  belong to the outlook of high modernity. So let’s think it through and catch up with postmodern advances in thought and leave those bitter conflicts behind us. The hundred years of critique of modernity offers us the hard-won opportunity to think much more rigorously – and accordingly more responsibly and humbly – than we were able to do before, on both sides of the old wars of science and religion. The future belongs to thoughtful and difficult integrations, if we are willing to choose those pilgrimages of the human mind into the unknown.

Our entire course will be an immersion in a longer view of the history of Western thought, in most of which (both before and after modernity) “reason” has not been inherently opposed non-scientific ways of knowing or to theism, because reason was treated more pluralistically than that. We will also be examining the profound and originary relationship between the academic ways of knowing and the profound human sense of the sacred.

We can’t help but do so, can we, when our first literary theorists, Plato and Aristotle, invented the vision of “the arts and sciences,” right there in Plato’s school in fourth-century Athens, where Aristotle was his most brilliant student. Yet both Aristotle and Plato believed that the contemplative life was the highest and fullest and most profoundly transfigurative function of the human mind, and that the arts and sciences both take us toward that consummation and are not the same thing. Plato’s vision of the Ideal place where “the Good shines like the Sun” will echo down through the centuries…. 

In any case, with regard to the origin of language, we can certainly now say, from the vantage points of the disciplines of linguistics and the cognitive sciences, that a critical change in the nature of consciousness had to have been involved. So language tells us something about the mysterious nature of the kind of consciousness we humans possess, and we will return to this often. Now if you want to ponder that change of consciousness in philosophical terms, I would direct you to the master-slave parables of Hegel. But you might wish to finish this course first! [laughing]

So let’s leave behind this mystery of the arche of language, and turn back to the intrinsic structure of language and the enigmatic way in which language inheres in human consciousness, both enabling our minds and limiting them simultaneously. Here we find an otherness in the very heart of language that cannot ever be elucidated. This is why, for example, Julia Kristeva’s book on language is so rightly titled, Language: The Unknown. Therefore, because literary theory must inevitably deal with language theory, we will be looking at the “unknown-ness” of language all quarter long, and we will very soon be going to Saussure’s theory of sign-systems for some intellectual tools we are going to need, even in reading the Greeks. Or especially in reading the Greeks, because they are such powerfully formalistic thinkers.

Please continue to part 3, Double Articulation of Languages

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