Philosophy and Language

Philosophy and Language

Conscious activity is saturated with language. However, the role of language is different in different activities. Some of them (the absolute majority) produce things that are immediately present in the culture and do not need any verbalization. In such activities, language is auxiliary and often optional, participating there along with any other instruments and tools. Still, there are reflexive activities that choose language for the material of their product. The cultural content of such products belongs to the sphere of social relations, reflecting all kinds of interaction between different subjects or the different levels of the subject. For example, some kinds of arts apparently produce nothing but texts (belles-lettres, oratory, elocution, recital, epistolary art, epitaphs etc.); law is commonly encoded in verbal formulas; language is used in most prescriptions and recipes; and, of course, nearly all science is language based.

As a reflexive activity, philosophy cannot avoid verbal expression. Yes, in many cases, it can well do without language, conveying various ideas by practical action, by example. However, such syncretic forms lack universality, being confined to a particular class of activities; a universal example would comprise the whole of one's life, including the trail of history and the possible imprints on the future.

Language provides a compact expression for many ideas that have already been established and refined in the culture. That is, it can play the role of a primary generalization, preparing further introduction of universals, shaping one's activity to the overall shape of the Universe. Obviously, the involvement of language becomes almost obligatory when it comes to temporal universality as well, to exchange of ideas between distant generations.

But philosophy can never be exhausted by mere words. It implies discourse as one of its levels, as a means of adapting the organization of the subject to a definite way of action, but the real content of philosophy is only expressible in terms of practical activity. That is, one can never give a complete exposure of a piece of philosophy in a number of texts, however long and complex. It does not much matter what the author of a text says; it is much more important what the text is intended for. That is why the analysis of the common language (or its formal derivatives) used to speak about some object area can only provide a preliminary guidance, a sense of the problem that would yet need further philosophical approach. In particular, studying the vocabulary of a philosopher rarely helps to elucidate his philosophical stand. This is especially so in respect to the Ancient authors, whose language we cannot grasp in full anyway. Therefore, translating philosophical texts from one language into another, we are free to select the appropriate wording with the target language, regardless of the original terminology. In philosophy, literal translations are apt to obscure the basic ideas rather than thoroughly reproduce them.

Any individual philosophy develops its own categories, explicitly or implicitly connecting them to each other in categorical schemes. Though philosophical categories may sometimes be associated with the words (or phrases) of a natural language, such verbal labels acquire specific connotations in the context of a particular philosophy and their meaning is to be derived from their place in the whole, rather than from the previous experience of the reader. Like a scientist, philosopher may introduce a category merely naming it in an arbitrary manner; the meaning of the term is to be unfolded later on. But universals are not like scientific notions in that they can never be exhaustively defined, and thus restricted to some particular domain; they are universally applicable. Treating philosophical categories and schemes as formal models is an essentially scientific approach, which can only produce a kind of science, but never philosophy. In this respect, philosophy resembles art: it will arbitrarily exploit language as its material, but true art begins where language ends.

To be on the safe side, the reader in philosophy should consider every individual text as if it were written in a foreign language. Some constructions of that language may resemble those of the reader's native dialect; this does not imply that they would mean the same. The true meaning of the word is yet to be guessed from the whole, including the cultural context. Quite probably, the text will violate the common norms of the reader's language; sometimes, this is an evident mistake of a foreigner revealing the author's poor education; in other cases, the unusual turn of speech is rather an (awkward) attempt to adapt the language to the needs of the author, to extend its expressive power. In any case, it is no use to ponder on the exact wording or phrasing, since it has little to do with philosophy thus expressed. The words (schemes, formulas) should be treated as mere hints, as an indication of the existence of something that the readers will have to discover on their own, in their individual ways.

Of course, one way or another, language will shape the author's thought and suggest ready-made solutions from a traditional repertory. Different nations develop different philosophies. It is in their interaction that true universality is gained. But, as a way to the universal view, language may come very helpful, since it refers to what has already been established in the culture and hence gained a touch of universality.

For example, the discovery of Aufhebung as a universal logical operation would be impossible for philosophers, whose native language does not contain an appropriate word. One could expect this idea to be first formulated in German (as "Aufhebung"), or in Russian (as "снятие"), or even in Ancient Greek (as "ἀναίρεσις"). In Roman languages, this would already require certain artificiality, since there are no direct analogs, or even acceptable loan translations from Greek. The English language is yet to invent an appropriate expression for the idea of Aufhebung; the existing translations from German are too flat to convey the many connotations of the original term. One could even observe, that English, with its "extravert" character, is not made for reflexive usage; it does much better in practical situations, demanding plain answers to frank questions. This might explain the generally "positivist" nature of English philosophy. However, English is productive enough to develop, when needed, new forms of expression more suited for discussing reflexive intricacies.

Language intuition is very important. It can suggest a preliminary direction of development, or reveal tendencies that are implicitly present in the culture, without being commonly noticed. A philosopher will listen to this inner voice to avoid abstract manipulation with superficial observations. Reflecting upon speech commonalities, one becomes aware of the inner organization of the culture. Considering the evolution of language, we discover the general trends of cultural development. Language suggests what should be incorporated in philosophy and provides the necessary means. On the contrary, when language resists the introduction of a new idea, this might indicate that the culture is not yet ready to assimilate it.

But language can also hinder insight. The words of the natural language are too burdened with numerous connotations and neither word can adequately express a universal idea. One has to employ the same word both as a common expression and as a reference to a philosophical category, and it not always possible to tell one usage from another.

Since no philosophical category can be adequately expressed in words, there can be no special philosophical language, like scientific terminology. While certain words are more likely to refer to philosophical categories than the others, the reader must be careful enough to avoid confusing words with ideas they partially convey. The boundary between formal and informal word usage can be rather fuzzy. On the other hand, philosophy can never remain formal, this is contrary to the very idea of universality. A philosopher will widely employ figurative and metaphorical language more resembling belles-lettres than science.

Unfortunately some philosophers understand this freedom in a too extensive manner and produce poorly comprehensible texts pretending to some profundity beyond the common sense. But lack of clarity will always mean lack of philosophy; the author thus attempts to disguise either insufficient reflection or primitive manipulation. Healthy philosophizing has nothing to do with the demonstration of erudition, abusive referencing, self-admiration, startling or stylish turns. Wit is the opposite of wisdom. An occasional joke or metaphor can spice up a lengthy explanation, but too much spice will make the dish uneatable. Philosophy is to express complex things in a simple way and thus reveal their hidden complexity.

Philosophers may discuss whatever as long as they like, but all that philosophizing is nothing but auxiliary preliminaries, the scaffolding erected to facilitate construction. As soon as the building is over, the traces of the construction process must be removed. Philosophy is essentially practical, and it begins with the first practical act. Of course, the universal reflexivity will eventually bring the practice of philosophizing to critical examination and comprehension. But this does not mean reduction to any limited and restrictive formalities.

Language, by its nature, is the universal mechanism of activity transfer. One person would pass an interrupted activity to another, who would make some contribution and then pass the activity to yet another person. In any way, communication can only exist in the context of a certain hierarchy of activities. Abstract discussions are pointless and devoid any sense. They can produce an impression of intensive development, deep thought, or public incentive, while remaining mere tossing words, and their devaluation.

Similarly, in economy, a product is normally intended to be immediately consumed and thus involved in the next cycle of production. When, instead, the product is merchandized and passed from one holder to another as an article of trade, it will lose some part of its consumption value, with an increase in the price. Inflation is an inherent property (an attribute) of the market economy leading it from one crisis to another. Any trade is therefore undermining the normal development of production and wasting the available resources. Elimination of the market would make economy much more efficient, provided there are as universal means of product exchange.

However, market speculation is not entirely fruitless. In fact, it is a very special kind of production; namely, it produces capitalism. A part of the common product is thus used to produce and maintain the system of social relations based on and allowing for the exploitation of one person by another. Similarly, professional philosophizing is often directed to establishing a certain social order rather than the growth of wisdom. Thus, demonstrating erudition and spilling witticisms, one not only tries to raise one's social status and self-appraisal, but also persuades the reader to stop thinking too much on issues that some social circles would like to present as insignificant; being too comprehensive and systematic would often impose the official standard to the detriment of the other possible views; adopting an ostentatiously impersonal style, one will probably try to hide an offensive social position.

Nevertheless, even such biased philosophizing contributes in philosophical search for universal integrity, and it would not have appeared without an objective necessity. As long as we keep in mind the demand of considering the same thing in all the possible contexts, the partial and imperfect nature of individual philosophies cannot do much harm. It is in the complementarity of the numerous ways of expression that true universality can only be born. Let different philosophers speak different languages, this will only train our ability of interpretation and assimilation. Let the same philosopher apparently change his views during his life, advocating in his old age what he violently opposed in his youth; this will probably provide the necessary contrast for comprehending the fundamental trends in cultural development. Let us do what we can, and let the others do what we cannot.

[Philosophy] [Unism]