Posted by: gcarkner | October 2, 2014

The Leverage of Language in Late Modernity

Leverage Your Language; Empower Your Life

Language and text is a key focus of attention in late modernity. Students in the arts, humanities and social sciences think much in terms of language, sign, signifier, and signified. We envy the great poets and prophets who possess acute skill in word craft, the storyteller who can enthrall. Many university writers long to capture that brilliant articulate grasp of things, to enhance the capacity of their grammar, rhetoric, and story telling skill. Scholarship require that we express ourselves in the language of our discipline, that we are able to drill down into the language of a text. Language is power in university, commerce and society at large. Immigrants quickly realize that they are quite vulnerable without competence in the language of their new country; in Quebec or Belgium many have to master two new languages. We are homo linguisticus; language is essential to our very human and cultural survival.

Academics collect millions of words, analyze them, compare them, translate and decipher them. Libraries brim with millions of books, journals and periodicals, electronic articles. The final dissertation in one’s PhD needs to be very carefully written; editing the final draft can take many hours and weeks, even months. We make a ‘close reading of the text’ in order to have credibility in our analytical work. There is language or semiotics also in DNA within a cell—3.5 billion base pairs code for life. But academics also deconstruct or dethrone the language of those whose perspective they oppose, or a previous regnant philosophical regime they hope to depose. Or we can actually trivialize language by reducing it to mere games that get played at English seminars or colloquiums—this can become a form of clever nihilism. Words, signs and symbols are major currency of universities in all fields. If one transfers fields, a whole new vocabulary has to be mastered. Philosophers and lawyers are very fond of language, logic and grammar; wording is critical in a merger contract or a peace agreement.

Much ink has been spilt in recent years on the role of discourse as a source of the self. Identity is deeply embedded in language; we all have a vital relationship with our mother tongue where we first found meaning in the world. We cannot escape language from our earliest days on planet earth; it is our existential lifeblood. We breathe air and we speak words to engage and make sense of world. We are involved in the wonderful art of articulation (making the tacit more explicit), finding the words that resonate with reality as we know it at the time. This is an urgent task. It is the process whereby the aspects of the world are identified, clarified and made accessible, so that they can empower us. This is where the hermeneutic way of seeing described earlier is vital. The individual self emerges amidst an ongoing culture-shaping conversation in some specific life-world. We interpret text; sometime the text interprets us; we self-interpret constantly (A. Thiselton, 1995).

Crystal Downing (2006) shows the importance of language in interpreting the postmodern self. There is a dialectic two-way phenomenon between self and language. Self is neither totally transcendent of language (modernist tendency) nor a mere product or effect of language (postmodern tendency). Things are much richer and more complex and imaginative. As sociologist Peter Berger points out, there is a sense in which humans make the world (culture) and the world (culture) in turn shapes them and their descendants (Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality). We both inherit and contribute to our language world.

If we are wise, we try to pick up the theme and the tone of such conversation, to get as quickly as possible into what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called the all-important language game. The alternative is a painful and frightening alienation and marginalization; we cannot engage the political without good language or we will be shouting into the wind. Linguistic autism is no fun; it is a terror, as we discover when we move from one discipline to another: e.g. mathematics to sociology, biology to theology. Perhaps it is more common than we think to become speechless, especially when we step outside the confines of our discipline. To misunderstand language, to be unable to communicate, is to be alone, unable to engage the world, quite vulnerable to exploitation. We map or come to understand our reality through language and it continually changes and develops with changing contexts.

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 signifier from signified, separation of word from world? One writer just stopped writing entirely for a year; the blank page was a sign of this disconnect between word and world. The blank page was the great writer’s statement on reality; for him, it was nothingness (absence). Why write at all if it is mere words about words, sentences within sentences, going nowhere? Does language point not beyond itself? Otherwise how can it avoid self-implosion and cynicism: dissolution? Wheaton College English Professor Roger Lundin (1993, Culture of Interpretation) effectively describes this condition where language is reified and the self is repressed and demoted to its victim. There are times and circumstances when language can become a cage. We also get some truly brilliant insight on the self and language from philosopher Calvin Schrag in the Self After Postmodernity (1997).

Does language itself construct reality? Does it just play with us? We wonder at times. Things can get a bit complex and confusing. This is where we think we have lost the center of it all, the connection with a core ‘reality’. Distinguished sociologist James Davison Hunter (2010) writes prophetically about the daunting problem of dissolution in late modernity:

The modern world, by its very nature, questions if not negates the trust that connects human discourse and the “reality” of the world. In its mildest expressions, it questions the adequacy of language to make the world intelligible. In its more aggressive expressions, however, it fosters a doubt that what is said has anything to do with what exists “out there”…. The problem is this: when the objectified and shared meaning of words are undermined, when we no longer have confidence that words signify what we thought they signified, then it is possible to impute any meaning to words one desires. And if words can mean anything, then they have no intrinsic meaning or at least no possibility of a common meaning. They only mean what we say they mean…. None make any sense outside their own specific discourse…. In a culture in which the covenant between signified and signifier, word and world is broken, words are emptied of meaning. The forces of dissolution, then, lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, what is good…. The only thing left to connect words to the world are will and power—that is a will to power rooted in desires and judgments that have no justification but are their own measure of moral worth and significance. (J.D. Hunter, 2010, pp. 205-6)

This is indeed a challenging situation. How does language actually work constructively, productively and faithfully? Is it possible to recover logos (presence), a grounding to language? What is the healthy and ‘proper’ relationship between self and language? This is critical for a student’s identity formation because our language (especially our mother tongue and that of our discipline) is deeply involved in shaping us morally, spiritually and intellectually. We often do not realize this process is happening until we leave the cocoon of our undergrad environment, our first intense language context. Language is heavily implicated in culture-making and world-making, and self-constitution. The gift of language allows us to actually shape and make culture, as well as critique cultural corruption (Andy Crouch, 2008). 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 or understood. Hermeneutics philosopher Anthony Thiselton (1995) agrees. Language and interpretation are both vitally important.

Charles Taylor offers some expertise in philosophy of language (1989, p. 35-41). He writes that: “To study persons is to study beings who only exist in, or are partly constituted by a certain language”. He is also sensitive to two different uses of language, two linguistic cultures:

  1. Expressivist-Constitutive uses of language (Herder, Hamann, Humboldt, Gadamer) In this culture, we recognize that metaphysics cannot be done by abstracting from language, but by turning to it. It recognizes the mystery that surrounds language. Truth does not look for the conditions by which language refers to reality; instead truth is manifest through music, art, facial expressions, liturgy, the aesthetic. Sentences are much too limiting to be the primary vehicles bearing the weight of truth. This tradition draws on a more Augustinian understanding of language. Everything is a sign. Charles Taylor places the later Wittgenstein in the expressivist-constitutive tradition, avoiding an instrumentalization of language as the basis for truth. He actually changes traditions mid-career. This is part of the hermeneutical approach to seeing the world. We tend to see this use of language in European Continental philosophy. Jens Zimmermann has a good grasp of this tradition (The Passionate Intellect 2006; Incarnational Humanism 2012a). We find it operative in cultural studies.
  2. Designative uses of language (Hobbes to Locke to Condillac) In this culture, we trap the pursuit of wisdom within language and confine it to immanence, where language and its relationship to truth are reduced to pointing. It is a more flattened view. Language primarily designates objects in the world. The object is observed but not participated in.  One assumes a use of language based on quantitative judgments that are non-subject dependent. This tradition contributes to a mechanistic universe leaving it disenchanted. It is committed to the primacy of epistemology (evidence and justified belief). It is not oriented to universals or essences, but is more empirical in its appraoch. We tend to find this use in the hard sciences and where ideological scientism applied to other disciplines. We see this use more in Anglo-American or Analytical philosophy.

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Taylor goes on to highlight the communitarian aspects of language within the expressive-constitutive-hermeneutical usage.

The question ‘who?’ places someone as an interlocutor in a society of interlocutors (conversation partners)…. 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…. Because language is never private, it serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors…to put things in public space. The constitutive dimension of language provides the medium through which some of our most important concerns, the characteristically human concerns, can impinge on us all. This makes possible judgments and standards. (C. Taylor, 1989, pp. 28, 35 & 239).

Within academia, we are much better positioned if we are in the right community of good, wise and witty interlocutors, the cutting edge school of thought and dialogue in our field. “Where is that degree, those ideas, from?” a colleague may ask. Of course, we cannot all be in or from top ranked schools, but we are willing to cross oceans and continents to find this conversation with the right people, especially for a PhD or Postdoc. It offers us a better language game. It is urgent that we seek out good and wise conversation wherever we can find it, in order to get the most out of our educational experience. We should become aware of the linguistic movers and shakers, even if we disagree with them, because they become the markers against which we identify our position on a subject. Who is shaping the language and ethos of your discipline? We should frequent the doorstep of the wise, the prescient, the prophetic, the people of deep insight and character, the leader in the field. In graduate school, we want to be more in charge of how we are shaped; we search for excellence in mentorship. The right conversation is worth its weight in gold. Choose your interlocutors wisely!

The language community is both intensive and extensive. Our conversation with the ancients, the Greeks, Romans, the biblical authors, other great minds, moral exemplars, early church fathers or other historical figures is a great privilege and even a great necessity for our identity. It increases our language capacity. We late moderns did not arrive from another planet fully formed; we have a cultural and linguistic history. Let us not forget that fact. The conversation we are often having began centuries ago. If we become too narrow in our interests, we could be starving ourselves of good interlocutors. Notre Dame Early Modern European 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.” He covers major changes that have occurred over five hundred years in the West in his 2012 tome The Unintended Reformation. Brad is an extremely good conversation partner for this reason. Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute of Dialogue on Science and Religion is also a prime interlocutor on the history and philosophy of science and the play of faith in science. These people who offer us a linguistic and cultural heritage, improve and enrich our language base and our thinking pool. They challenge our narrowness and our myopia of mind. The contribution of this type of intellectual to the human story can be carried forward in trust like a priceless cultural resource.

Indeed we stand on the shoulders of giants. Linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argues strongly against the possibility of a private language. Hermeneutics shows us that a game has been in progress when we arrived on the scene and that we are entering a discourse, a conversation already in play. He would strongly challenge today’s students to learn the various language games that flourish—a good word for interdisciplinary study or liberal arts education as a foundation to any discipline. At least we should understand the philosophical history of our subject. One of the great opportunities of graduate school is to enrich our linguistic grasp of reality, to become aware of the different voices impacting culture, both within and beyond our discipline. This involves a keen listening ear. One might be surprised that a mentor in Mechanical Engineering could also have a PhD in Fine Arts or Philosophy.

Academia is to some extent a dialectic, a dialogue and debate with the grands pensées (great minds) of the past and present. Hermeneutics specialist Anthony Thiselton from University of Nottingham 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 does not 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 myself. It is most dangerous indeed.

Now more than ever, we need to include the global conversation partners such as Al Gore (2013, The Future: six drivers of global change). To be educated in today’s world, means getting involved in this dialogue and these global concerns as well, in order to grapple with our larger context and the problems that are to be solved, not just in the sciences. It can be quite surprising to see how common, and how different, are the concerns from various countries and continents. International students have a distinct advantage here. We can learn from differences of world and different ideological perspectives. Graduate students, especially PhD students, increasingly are expected to become global citizens; they are encouraged to choose their conversation partners wisely, and continually seek out good mentors on the journey. This is why we are constantly trolling for good resource people and recommending reading to graduate students; it builds their soul, their self-identity and their world perspective. It is essential to their future leadership.

There is an important case study in the importance of language in world-making (perception-shaping). In the CBC Series called The Myth of the Secular, David Cayley and his guests open up for re-examination the Western language of the secular. It is rooted in the grand discourse of Charles Taylor in his prize-winning tome A Secular Age. James K.A. Smith (2014) has done an excellent job of providing an introduction to this grand treatise—how to read Taylor, and in turn read culture. This excellent series shows the value of high-minded, circumspect interlocutors. A good example is British intellectual John Milbank who claims that we have to adopt either religion or nihiilsim, that a secular humanism doesn’t hold water. Science was never designed to be a worldview. These great thinkers don’t buy the traditional thesis of secularization (based on flattened, one-dimensional, ideological secularism) that involves the subtraction theory of religion: i.e. as science grows, religion disappears. We have discussed this in the opening essay. Today religion is flourishing throughout the world. Charles Taylor is aware of the transcendent condition of our having a grasp on our own language, especially as we explore the expressive-poetic tradition of language. We often discover this phenomenon in dialogue (C. Taylor, 1989, p. 37), when pushed to the wall by colleagues who disagree with our personal convictions or reasoning. Language is so embedded in our identity that we have a hard time transcending it without dialogue with others of a different worldview. We must celebrate what other language games and metaphors, figures of speech, can illuminate. Language articulates a way of seeing, a posture, an outlook. It is never free from many assumptions or metaphysics. It can also be quite political even in the sciences.

To continue on our discussion of identity formation, we suggest that a return to transcendence is central to the recovery of language from its flatness and the recovery of one’s identity as George Steiner (Real Presences, 1991) notes. Unlike Nietzsche and Foucault, who produce a literature of aesthetic escape from the self, transcendence of the self in Charles Taylor’s relationship to the good offers a different model. It helps us escape identification with any one particular voice in the conversation, making us more sophisticated dialogue partners. It means that we are able to step beyond our own place and to understand ourselves and the Other as playing a part in the whole, to see ourselves from the perspective of the whole. This allows for the development of ‘common space’. We can be involved in communicative action (Jurgen Habermas). As Taylor puts it, “Some of the most crucial human fulfillments are not possible even in principle for a sole human being…. Our sense of good and sense of self are deeply interwoven and they connect with the way we are agents who share a language with other agents” (C. Taylor, 1989, pp. 40, 41). We know how good this feels when we genuinely commune and connect with others, when there is a resonance with other minds, even while we debate them.

Taylor notes that the contemporary quest for meaning, identity or fullness can be met by building something into one’s life, some pattern of higher action or excellence, a connection with the good. This is a path out of nihilism. It can be met by connecting one’s life with some greater reality or story, or both (Ibid. p. 46). Ultimately for the believer in agape love, one’s conversation with God and his saints brings into play this transcendence of identity, this larger horizon of meaning. Here one is using language in a very fruitful and positive way, a richer even a healing way, tapping into a special life-giving heritage, which gives perspective on the struggles of the present. It gives life, significance and energy to our story to tap into a larger narrative. Strong transcendence (Calvin Schrag 1997) means we are becoming more, better persons, not just different. We are reaching higher, nobler aspirations so to speak.

Identity formation is also about using language to self-interpret, to articulate, discover and define self. We must constantly answer the question, ‘Who am I and what do I stand for and what am I able to contribute?’ There is an important implication of the sociality of the self that is forwarded by Taylor (Ibid. p. 34). Contrary to the traditional view in behaviourist social science, the self is not an object or substance in the usually understood sense. We are not selves in the way we are organisms and we don’t have selves in the way we have livers and lungs. As Taylor points out, it is a fundamentally misguided question to ask what a person is in abstraction from his or her self-interpretation. This dynamic self-interpretation is worked out in community through a language conversation and a story, a commitment to the good and the common good. It helps an individual know where they stand, and how they are accepted as a valid articulation of various identity questions and orientation within society. These identity questions are vital to everyone, not just an ethnic minority. We remember a caption in a graduation yearbook from Queen’s University that said, “It takes many walks with a friend along the lake before you can figure out who you are.” Reflecting on one’s life in a natural context and with a good friend gives critical perspective on who we are.

With this richer text understanding the broader richness of language and identity, there emerges a fullness of self within a social space, a self that is conscious of a narrative and a history. This is extremely hopeful for late moderns, full of prospects for personal growth and a meaningful calling. Our next move beyond nihilism is to grapple with the recovery of the language of incarnational humanism, an ancient tradition that informs the present with tremendous cultural dynamics (Jens Zimmermann, 2012a, and 2012b). This will involve a theological-philosophical-anthropological discussion to cap our dialogue on the Escape from Nihilism. It will flesh out some of the suggested anthropological adjustments we have hinted at thus far, and continue to push towards fullness of being and consciousness. There is also something beautiful emerging here as we awake from our slumber; it makes the spine tingle and returns us to a sense of wonder.

~Gordon E. Carkner PhD Philosophical Theology

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