Glen T. Martin

Professor of Philosophy, Radford University

(March 4, 2007)

            Language is fundamental to our being as humans.  It is also one of the great mysteries of human existence.  Language has been studied intensely by contemporary linguistics, philosophy, and science, and our knowledge concerning its structures, functions, and meanings steadily increases.  Yet because language is so directly connected with the mystery of what it means to be a human being, there are depths to language that go beyond what can be discovered through the study of language. 

            Language appears integral to our emergence from the womb of nature, although its origins are a subject of significant debate (Greenspan and Shanker, 2004).   Yet the realization of our true mature potential as human beings may be inhibited by what Ludwig Wittgenstein terms “our entanglement, all unknowing, in the net of language” (1978: 462).  To use the evolutionary schemata offered by Jean Gebser (1953), human beings have emerged into our present condition of self-awareness through developmental periods from the Archaic to the Magical to the Mythical to the Mental.  During our present age (the Mental), “perspectival” linguistic constructs such as the “I” and the “Other” have led to war and social chaos to the extent that our very existence on this planet is threatened.  It may well be, as Wittgenstein puts it (1982: 113), that we are “deeply embedded in…grammatical confusions” that prevent our ascent to what Gebser calls the Integral age in which we live from a more holistic, “a-perspectival” awareness—at peace with one another and our precious planet Earth.

            The Study of Language.   Language has been the subject of study since the time of Aristotle in the fourth century BCE.   In his De Interpretatione, Aristotle offered a theory of language in which he argued that “spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words” (1941: 40).  Aristotle assumes here that language is a system of symbols used by human minds to know and describe the world and to form social bonds through mutual linguistic interaction.  This “common sense” view of language has been seriously challenged.  Human languages are indeed systems of communication in which information encoded in auditory or visual signs is transmitted between persons.  However, some twentieth-century thinkers have also linked language with the deep mysteries of what it means to be human.

            As with Aristotle, the philosophies of the ancient and medieval worlds continued to focus primarily on metaphysics as the attempt to understand what is ultimately real, often assuming that language functions as a tool of reasoning through which thinkers could describe reality.  With the birth of the modern world during the Renaissance, the primary focus of philosophy shifted to epistemology, the study of the foundations and limits of knowledge.  Again, it was often assumed that language was a fundamental instrument in this enterprise.  It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the great “linguistic turn” occurred in which philosophers, linguists, and scientists began to focus on language in its own right. This movement could be said to represent a tremendous increase in our awareness of the significance of language in human life.  

            In the light of the work of such great twentieth-century philosophers of language as Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Jürgen Habermas, we might characterize the general history of Western thought as a development from the ancient optimism that we could understand the being of the world through the medium of language to the modern concern to establish the grounds of knowledge using the instrument of language to the twentieth-century realization that one cannot fully address the issues of being (including our human being) or knowledge until we have understood the nature, functioning, and limits of language itself. 

            More than this, thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger have questioned whether it makes any sense to distinguish the being of the world from language.  The world appears to us within language.  Language encompasses the world, so to speak.  We are like fish in the ocean of language.  Is it possible for a fish to stand apart from the medium in which it is immersed and comprehend this objectively?  And what is the relation of language to the silence from which language emerges—the silence of God?

            Language and the Depths of the World.  In direct contradiction to the common assumptions about the nature of language expressed by Aristotle, Wittgenstein denies that we have meaningful access to any independent world beyond language:  “Do not believe that you have the concept of color within you because you look at a colored object – however you look” (1967: 332).  “What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.” (1978: 40)   Since our access to the world, even through our five senses, is necessarily conditioned by language, we do not have an awareness of the world (whether of colors or anything else) independently of language.  Aristotle’s assumption that language is merely a system of symbols carrying information through which we describe and communicate about a world existing independently of ourselves is here fundamentally called into question.  It is no accident that the work of Wittgenstein has been linked with the śūnyatā (fullness-emptiness) of Buddhism (Gudmunsen, 1977).

            Heidegger similarly approached language as encompassing our humanity and as a source of possible illumination concerning the depths of our human situation.  Rather than “listen” to language, and the depths of our situation that can be revealed through this openness, human beings continue their quest for domination that may also spell their destruction:  “It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature.  In the meantime, to be sure, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words.  Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact, language remains the master of man.  Perhaps it is before all else man’s subversion of this relation of dominance that drives his nature into alienation” (1971a: 146).

            Language can speak to us with respect to the depths of the world and our fundamental humanity, Heidegger says, only if we can experience its relationship to silence (1971b: 131).  But our modern world has inundated us with the trivial noise of irresponsibly used language to the point where we no longer even comprehend silence, leading us into “alienation” from our deeper humanity.  In this regard, Max Picard writes: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.  The invention of printing, technics, compulsory education—nothing has so altered man as this lack of relationship to silence…. Man who has lost silence has not merely lost one human quality, but his whole structure has been changed thereby” (1952: 221).

            Values and Our Species-Being.  The study of language through the work of Jürgen Habermas and others has led to a new understanding of the relation between language, human autonomy, responsibility, values, and our common humanity.  Habermas’ lifelong work reveals that the instrumental and technical uses of language in the service of economics, technics, manipulation, and domination have obscured another depth dimension to language that can be discovered through the careful analysis of the presuppositions of communicative speech.  Communicative speech (as opposed to instrumental or technical forms of speech) is revealed as the fundamental core of language, without which language would not be possible and upon which instrumental uses of language are dependent (1998).

            Language actualizes in us the foundations of moral responsibility and provides the criteria for moral action.   Early in his career Habermas wrote: “The human interest in autonomy and responsibility is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori.  What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language.  Through its structure, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us.  Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus” (1971: 314).  Through communicative dialogue we become fully human.  Through communicative interaction we develop moral autonomy and responsibility that point counter-factually to a universal human community on the Earth structured according to equality, justice, and democratic principles (1996; 2001).  Our common humanity is inseparable from the common linguistic dimension within which we are immersed.

            I hope this brief essay has been sufficient to indicate something of the significance of the philosophical and scientific study of language in our contemporary world.   Habermas sees language as that which “raises us out of nature,” for it is the source of our moral freedom and responsibility to one another.  In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein exclaims: “Man has to awaken to wonder—and so do peoples.  Science is a way of sending him to sleep again” (1980: 5).  And philosophers Lawrence J. Hatab and William Brenner conclude that: “Heidegger and Wittgenstein share a sense of the irreducible mystery surrounding language—a mystery disclosed in the ultimately unsatisfying character of all explanations and definitions in language” (1983: 32-33).


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