Posted by: gcarkner | October 28, 2012

Language: Friend or Enemy?

Language: a Necessary and Sometimes Confusing Human Capacity

Language and text is the thing; those of us in the arts and humanities think much in terms of language. We all envy great poets who possess great skill in word craft. Language is power in university and in society. Many long to capture that articulate grasp of things, to enhance the capacity of their grammar, rhetoric, and story telling. In academia, we make a close reading of the text in order to have credibility in our work and to be taken seriously. But academics also deconstruct the language of those they oppose, or a previous philosophical regime. Can we give credit to the place and power of language without reducing all reality to a ‘linguistic universe’?  We ultimately cannot escape being homo linguisticus.

Much time and credit is given in a postmodern outlook to discourse as the source of the self and not enough is said of other factors that define our identity; the self is deeply embedded in language. We cannot escape language from our earliest days on planet earth; it is our existential lifeblood. The individual self emerges amidst an ongoing culture shaping conversation in some specific context; if we are wise, we try to pick up the theme and the tone of the conversation and enter the conversation, to get into what Ludwig Wittgenstein called the language game as quickly as possible. What great conversations are we missing out on as we hyper-specialize in our discipline?

To misunderstand language is to be marginalized. Sometimes, however, there may be too much emphasis on language as an end in itself, as the ultimate thing, the final reality. How can we avoid the gnosticism of settling only for the intra-linguistic, which leaves language disconnected to anything outside it–separation of sign and signified. In my early reading for my PhD, I noted that one postmodern writer just stopped writing entirely for a year; the blank page was a sign of this disconnection/disengagement between word and world. Why write at all if it is mere words about words? Does language not point beyond itself?

Wheaton English professor Roger Lundin (Culture of Interpretation) is effective in describing this gnosticism where language is reified and the self is repressed and demoted to its victim. Does language invent reality and just play with us? We wonder at times. The cultural mindset of early modernity involves a different type of gnosticism, a dualism of mind (Descartes’ cogito ergo sum) which is disconnected from body and the particulars of nature; the individual attempts to define self independently of community and history, to become a universal human. I think, therefore I am. This artificial transcendent, disengaged self can pose a problem, even a crisis of identity today.

How does language actually work for us productively and faithfully? What is the healthy and proper relationship between self and language? This is critical for the graduate student’s identity formation because our language in deeply involved in shaping us morally, spiritually and intellectually. Language is implicated in making world; the gift of language allows us to actually shape and make culture. It is definitely not an easy question to answer, but we want to claim that the dynamics of self and language are much richer and more complex than sometimes claimed.

Many authors affirm the importance and uniqueness of language for the human animal (Mortimer Adler, Intellect: Mind Over Matter, p. 126-139; and Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 35-41; Craig Gay, Dialogue, Catalogue and Monologue: personal, impersonal and depersonalizing Ways to use words). Adler believes that we can translate most concepts into any language. Taylor writes:“To study persons is to study beings who only exist in, or are partly constituted by a certain language”.

He highlights the communitarian aspects of language use: “The question ‘who?’ places someone as an interlocutor in a society of interlocutors (conversation partners)” (Sources, p. 28).

A language only exists and is maintained within a linguistic community. Therefore a self is only a self among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it…. I define who I am by defining where I speak from, in the family tree, in social space, in the geography of social statuses and functions, in my intimate relations to the ones I love, and also crucially in the space of moral and spiritual orientation within which my most important defining relations are lived out” (Sources, p.35).

In academia, we are so much better positioned if we are in the right community of good interlocutors, the cutting edge school of thought and dialogue. It is urgent that we seek out good and wise conversation wherever we can find it. Wear out the doorstep of the wise, the prescient, the prophetic. It can often be found outside our discipline or in interdisciplinary lectures. Good conversation about important things is worth its weight in gold. It does enhance the creativity of our own specialty as well as put in touch with the larger conversations of our world, our culture.

Our conversation with the ancients, the Greeks, the biblical authors or other historical figures is a great privilege and even a great necessity for our identity. We late moderns did not arrive from another planet; we have a history on this one. We could be starving ourselves for good interlocutors. Notre Dame Historian Brad Gregory notes: “We cannot understand the character of contemporary realities until and unless we see how they have been shaped and are still being shaped by the distant past.” These people who offer us a linguistic and cultural heritage improve and enrich our language. The good in their contribution to the human story can be carried forward like a banner in good faith.

Academia is to some extent a dialectic, a dialogue and debate with the grands pensées of history. Anthony Thiselton affirms that speech has a role in defining this relationality. My fellow interlocutors are also crucial to my ongoing grasp of self-understanding and self-discovery; it doesn’t mean that I always have to agree with them, but they make me more human, add more depth and dimensionality to my existence. To leave all interlocution communities is to attempt to leap out of the human condition and completely reinvent my self. Dangerous indeed. Linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, famous for the coinage of the term language games, argues strongly against the possibility of a private language. He would strongly challenge us to learn the various language games that flourish today—a good word for interdisciplinary study. One of the great opportunities of graduate school is to enrich our linguistic grasp of reality within and beyond our discipline. UBC’s Graduate & Faculty Christian Forum is not a bad place to start to broaden our current assembly of interlocutors. Dr Jens Zimmerman speaking to the forum in February 27 2013 will definitely broaden the linguistic base for the language of “humanism”.

Gord Carkner

GFCF Committee:

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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