Language twists to see itself
> If the answer could be given, the answer would consist in a transformation of thinking, not in a propositional statement about a matter at stake.
When wondering what it would be proper to write of, it seems best to begin at the beginning—that is, with language itself. One difficulty in this route is that the thread of understanding takes its own path and, while having covered much ground here, has yet to uncover all in its full measure. Yet still perhaps enough lies in the light to provide a useful outline of the territory before us; or so I hope to over the next several articles.
Of course, even taking this as our point of departure, we have here few straight lines; it is not as simple as following a trail, though the nature of language itself requires as much. There is at the outset an immediate differentce, then, between language as an activity of the understanding and language as a topic to which we turn our eye. Our efforts are intended—or rather, they require—that we bend language back upon itself. This entails something of an awkward posture, though by straining we can still hope to glimpse at least a little.
Another point to be clarified early is the end of this enterprise. We do not think it possible to define language, rather our aim is to see something of its hidden structure. This can be compared to the eponymous ‘figure in the carpet’ of Henry James’ story:
It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books, will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it.
Taking in particular the latter half of this description, we might note that language can never be defined except as a corpus of activity—never with the certainty of a proposition, only as glimpsed in the actuality of it as activity.
Here it is appropriate to take up another invaluable quote, this time from Ludwig Klages:
Actuality is experienced, but truth is thought that is based upon experience. That which we contemplate conceptually is not actuality; but the conceptual dimension can aid us in our efforts to comprehend that actuality.
This might be seen as the other side of the coin from that expressed in Henry James’ metaphor—or rather, in my use of it here, for truly it contains multitudes. While language may be bent back upon itself, and thereby aid in our comprehension, it can never provide as simple an answer as some might hope. To paraphrase Heidegger, the ‘answer’ to the ‘question’ posed by language would take the form of neither proposition nor paragraph—rather it would entail a shift in our perspective, a new way of seeing.
To illustrate this we might take up an apparently tangential example from the natural sciences: the wave-particle duality of light. Here we find that:
… we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them full explains the phenomenon of light, but together they do.
While to some this may seem an insufferable paradox—taking Klages’ words to heart, it is perfectly within the order of things. These ‘pictures of reality’ are just that, as a portrait does not contain my face so neither picture contains the actuality of light—as a Buddhist might put it, we see that they are empty.
Man's deficiency in specific dispositions for reactive behavior vis-a-vis reality—that is, his poverty of instincts—is the starting point for the central anthropological question as to how this creature is able to exist in spite of his lack of fixed biological dispositions. The answer can be reduced to the formula: by not dealing with this reality directly. The human relation to reality is indirect, circumstantial, delayed, selective, and above all “metaphorical.”
A short series on fundamentals, metaphors and many-sidedness: