There's No Such Thing as Language

Language isn't — except as an abstraction. Merleau-Ponty says, somewhere, something like this: "There's only language when it's failed" — that is, only when we're alienated from the words we say, hear, read, and write can we look at language and say what's that?

To say there is language is to assume there is this thing — this tool set, this system — that exists outside of us, something we can look at, examine, study. It has words and rules.

But what are we using to study this language? Do we step outside of language in order to examine it? What exactly does that look like?

Now, certainly a surgeon uses his hands to examine hands. What's wrong with that? Well, the analogy doesn't hold (like most analogies, it assumes sameness when there is always, necessarily, difference). The proper analogy would be: the surgeon using his hands to study his hands. And that is quite tricky.

No, there is no such thing per as language. There is the idea of language which may or may not be beautiful and productive. But there is no such thing as language. There is, alas, rhetoric.

Language suggests that there are words which are arbitrary sounds and marks that designate meaning; when we put them together, we make sense (if we follow the rules). 

But a word is not first and foremost a meaning that accumulates emotions and connotations. Rather, a word is all the ways it can go; it is always already affective and, yes, argumentative. A word is a perspective and its utterance, the staking of a position. The example I always use is moon and la lune: one argues for cycles, the other for light. Do they, in fact, designate the same thing? (What would the same thing be?)

Argument is not something added to words, to language. It is argumentative, perspectival, from the get go. The basic unit of meaning is not the word; it's the trope — a turn, an inflection. Words are inclination; they are swerves, clinamen (pace Lucretius). Words are not neutral bearers of meaning, innocently designating objects and ideas. They are ways of shaping the world. 

"Abortion" suggests the stopping of something in process, presumably a birth or gestation; call it a "renaissance" and it means something else entirely — the rebirth of a woman's menstrual cycle. All words are arguments, ways of shaping the world: they cast the the conceptual, social, and practical map of relations. They define and coerce the social, political structure of society.

To begin with rhetoric rather than with language is to begin with argument and to understand that everything we say has effects and affects: saying always does something. Our words construct, rearrange, jam the world. The sense certain words make is not the only sense possible; the tenor and timbre of the dictionary is not the neutral voice of meaning speaking from outside the fray of life. Dictionaries are argumentative, too (pace Lohren Green). (Arguments needs not be combative but they are always political in that they stake a position.)

To begin with rhetoric is to see the world differently — to see difference everywhere, all the time. Rather than there being a foundational sense and then the ways we inflect or adorn that sense, the sophist sees inclination, swerve, perspective in every utterance. Suddenly, the world brims with vitality — all these swerves! All these differences! 

The way of the sophist is glorious.


drwatson said...

This is the one place I found a common ground with post-analytic philosophy. Donald Davidson says the same thing - I have a great professor who I've mentioned who is really into that dude. But both he and M.P and Heidegger, I'd argue, just don't believe in language as a structure, that weird thing that structuralists believe in.

TomG said...

It would seem the word is more metaphorical, staking out an
attribute or element with the "emotions and connotations"
multiplying from there. But the denotation seems clear enough.
I know where to go to acquaint myself with this thing, and
perhaps come up with a new metaphor. And would the addition
of a new metaphor to the long list of previous metaphors be
argumentative? Or just part of understanding the thing more

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Tom: First, thanks for commenting. The denotation, I think, may be "clear" but it is still a perspective, an argument. Take the example in the essay: moon vs. la lune. Do they denote the same thing? One looks up in the sky and sees cycles; the other, light. Both words, then, are already metaphors. All words are always and already metaphors.

I'd argue that we should not just celebrate this but amplify it, extend it, proliferate it: a word is all the ways it can go. Good writers invent new possibilities for words, extending what's possible with them which, in turn, opens up possibilities of thought and being.

TomG said...

Thanks for responding. I've really enjoyed discovering your lectures, and I'm in the process of listening to the podcasts and tracking down some of your references.

I find the proliferation of connotations (or interpretations), as intoxicating as it may be, a bit suspect, though. Philosophers have a strange way of counting that goes: 1, 2, 3? infinity! Cezanne managing to come up with 2 really good apples, to me, is more like it. There may be 3, but an infinity?

Daniel Coffeen said...

A most fair critique. And, I must admit, I am guilty of said offense.

But, in this case, the argument is this: a word is as it goes. And its going is perpetual, finding itself in the mouths and hands of new people all the time, its extension is infinite. This infinity is bound, of course: one word cannot become any word. But, as is the way of the differential equation, a word has an infinite trajectory, even if that trajectory varies very little.

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