Thursday, September 15, 2011

thoughts and words

I have a prevailing dissatisfaction with Western philosophy: its obsession with words. In a basic way, philosophy is how we grapple with meaning - with how and why there is meaning, with how and why we could be said to create or constitute meaning, with the meaning of experience, and so on. Overwhelmingly, the tradition of Western philosophy has discussed meaning in terms of words. Semantics, grammar, syntax, logic, even metaphysics and epistemology, and in some circles even ethics and politics, have been boiled down to words.

I have nothing against words. I like words a lot. But I am suspicious that when meaning is construed in terms of words, that there may be something significant left out. Let me give you a f'rinstance. In an article about Eugen Fink's text referred to as the Sixth Cartesian Meditation, which Fink meant to extend the analysis in Husserl's Cartesian Meditations, Ronald Bruzina says this:

From the beginning philosophy has been an affair of the word. Putting insight into language and working out reasons in speech have always been of the very act of rational thinking. And even though this is frequently done in the stillness of solitary reflection, nevertheless that it be done in words at all has always meant that it be in principle accessible to someone else, needing only the appropriate practical conditions to make the accessibility actual. So it is that from the beginning what philosophers have thought, and therefore said in words, others have heard and discussed-and sometimes discussed with that thinker; so that thinking itself and its wording have long been taken to be also a matter of dialogue.

So, according to Bruzina, whatever "insight" is, apparently, putting it into "words" (whatever "words" are) has been the first impulse of philosophy "from the beginning." Now, first of all, let's be clear that "words" include things like "numbers," because "words" doesn't mean words, it means symbolic or abstract representations of concepts. It means Saussure-like signs. "32" is as much a word as "contingency," and a complex mathematical function is as much a sentence as "All men by nature desire to know." There is simply a near-universal consensus in Western thought that meaning is what language does, or seeks to, capture.

My shortie Maurice Merleau-Ponty repeatedly quotes Husserl's Cartesian Meditations to this effect. In the English translation of the French translation of Husserl's German (there's a point to my doing this, which I shall not go into here), Merleau-Ponty tells us: "It is the experience… still mute which we are concerned with leading to the pure expression of its own meaning" (The Visible and the Invisible, 129) - that is, the problem is to figure out how to translate the mute into words.

I have always, always, resisted this impulse. I have never been that impressed with words, even though I do like them a lot, and I have never been impressed with the human monopoly on meaning implied by this view. I never read a poem that could express the poetry of ice skating or the particular kind of flying one can experience playing tennis or riding a bicycle very fast. I think this philosophical echolalia leads us to imagine that only that which we can or have translated is within the purview of philosophy or has the status of "meaningful experience."

When philosophy, as a verbal enterprise, begins to talk about bodies and embodiment, about suffering and pain, about joy and pleasure, about the sensuous, it tends to translate, to violate, to vitiate, or to poetize, and in all these ways loses its love of wisdom to its dalliance with words. I'm not saying I'm better than that. I'm also hoping this isn't a point where I'll ultimately have to invoke Wittgenstein and say that of this I should say nothing. Because it's not meaningless, because there are things to say about it, to invoke and to indicate it.


Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

Just what in the hell do you think you're talking about?

Doc Nagel said...

Obviously, I have no idea.