Posted by: gcarkner | February 16, 2019

Can Language Set Us Free

Language and the Road to Freedom

Sometimes our language is quite restrictive; it can really nail us down. It is hard to see beyond the picture of the world that has taken us captive and the language that articulates that picture. But fresh language and new interlocutors can free us from the grip of too narrow a perspective on life and ‘reality’. Perhaps we academics need to collaborate more on language, to expand our imagination whatever our discipline. We have been impressed with engineering and science faculty who have done a second PhD in Fine Arts or Humanities. These were some of the most innovative academic program developers at University of Waterloo; they pioneered communal learning in Systems Design Engineering. Can new language set us free into new levels of genius and creativity? We think so. This is also the benefit of interdisciplinary studies at UBC. We should see language as a kind of wealth to steward. To close ourselves off, to implode into a minimalist or reductionist language game, is to be in denial of this common human possession, this larger linguistic horizon.

In the CBC Series The Myth of the Secular, David Cayley and his guests open up for re-examination the language of the secular. It is an excellent series. They don’t buy the traditional thesis of secularization (flattened one-dimensional secularism) that involves the subtraction of religion as science enters the picture in a bigger way. Today religion is flourishing throughout the world. Charles Taylor, the featured philosopher in the series, suggests reflection on 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 in dialogue (Sources of the Self, p. 37), when pushed to the wall by colleagues who disagree with our personal convictions. It can be irritating but at the same time freeing and life giving. Language is so embedded in our identity that we have a hard time transcending it without dialogue with others of a different worldview or academic field. Celebrate what other language games and metaphors, figures of speech, can illuminate for you. Celebrate how they can show you ways to transcend the narrowness of the academic speak within your discipline. Tap into that vital, broader conversation.

A return to transcendence is central to the recovery of one’s identity as George Steiner (Real Presences) notes. Unlike Nietzsche and Foucault, who produce a literature of escape from the self, transcending 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. We escape the trap of language games that are confining. It means that we are able to step beyond our own place, to understand ourselves and the Other as playing a part in the whole, to see ourselves from the perspective of the larger whole. It is humbling but good for us. This allows for the development of ‘common space’. 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” (Sources of the Self, 40, 41; Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart). We know how good this feels when we genuinely commune with others, and learn from each other through genuine, creative dialogue. Charles Taylor notes that: “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.” He opens up these issues in more profound detail in his most recent book, The Language Animal.

Taylor notes that the contemporary quest for meaning or fullness can be met by building something into one’s life, some pattern of higher action or excellence, a good; or it can be met by connecting one’s life with some greater reality or story, or both (Sources of the Self, 46). Ultimately, for the believer, our conversation with God and his saints brings us into play with this transcendence of identity. We can make a transcendent turn into shalom or wholeness, or agape love (Romans 5: 1-5). Here one is using language in a very fruitful and positive way, even a healing way, tapping into a larger, richer heritage. We need more words, more concepts, not less.

We suggest that the liberated self together with other selves, operating under the grace of God, discovers such transcendence, and captures this sub-regent responsibility to constitute language (up to a point)—to name things and make culture, a creative task. We notice thereby more of a dialectic two-way phenomenon between self and language. Self is neither totally transcendent of language (modern tendency) nor a mere product or effect of language (postmodern tendency). Things are much richer in real life, 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). Language is a crucial factor in this shaping process, but so is the strong agency of a healthy self. Just recently I was talking with a PhD student nearing graduation who remarked that it feels really good when you eventually hammer the language into the robust and proper shape—representing years of research, reflection and struggle. She has experienced this process of culture- and knowledge-making firsthand. You are literally a new person when you get through all those hoops and have that all-important final conversation with your examining interlocutors (the thesis defence), including mentors who have believed in you for five and six years sometimes.

Can language set us free? Eugene Peterson is a master word craftsman, a scholar-poet-theologian. Here’s what he says about language that can set you free:

“Christian followers of Jesus have an urgent mandate to care for language—spoken, heard, written—as a means by which God reveals himself to us, by which we express the truth and allegiance of our lives, and by which we give witness to the Word made flesh…. Contemporary language has been dessicated by the fashions of the academic world (reductive rationalism) and the frenzy of industrial and economic greed (reductive pragmatism). The consequence is that much of the talk in our time has become, well, just talk—not much theological content to it, not much personal relationship involved, no spirit, no Holy Spirit…. We need a feel for vocabulary and syntax that is able to detect and delete disembodied ideas, language that fails to engage personal participation. We need a thorough grounding in the robustness of biblical story and grammar that insists on vital articulated speech (not just the employment of words) for the health of the body and mind and soul…. Words don’t just sit there, like bumps on a log. They have agency. Scott Cairns, reflecting on his work as a poet working with words in the context of a believing community reading the Scriptures, says that we “are attending not only to a past (an event to which the words refer), but are attending to a present and a presence (which the words articulate into proximity for their apprehension)… leaning into that articulate presence, participating in its energies, and thereby participating in the creation of meaning, with which we help to shape the future.”

~Dr. Gordon E. Carkner
Excerpt from The Great Escape from Nihilism, Part 2, Chapter 7. “Recovering the Power of Word Amidst the Language Games”
See also Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (2016) for a brilliant study of language and discourse.

Dennis Danielson will attempt to recover language that sets free in the area of moral discourse on March 13 at UBC.

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