Language as disproportionate to our concepts.

Most linguistic philosophy treats of subjects that I have no interest in, or at least they treat them in a way that doesn’t interest me, so I don’t have much to say about it one way or another. But I’ve had to study a fair bit of it, at least enough to get some standard accounts of what it sees itself as doing. Explanations of it like this are common:

Indeed, having language is so crucial to our ability to frame the sophisticated thoughts that appear essential to language-use and understanding, that many doubt whether mind is ‘prior’ to language in any interesting sense

[Linguistic philosophy is] The philosophical method of taking language, rather than what the language ostensibly concerns, as the primary datum. Rather than studying numbers, or space and time, or the mind, the philosopher distinctively studies the language of mathematics, or physics, or psychology.

The founder of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, held that definitions of concepts cannot exist independently from differences between words, or, to put it differently, that a concept of something cannot exist without being named.

If this is what linguistic philosophy is, it is false, dehumanizing, and contrary to experience. For the moment, I’m only interested in the above quotations. If you disagree, defend the quotes.

Philosophy should study the most fundamental things. But our experience of the most fundamental things is almost invariably an experience that cannot be put into words. The events that we mark out our life by are frequently ineffable. The impediment is not our skill with words: Shakespeare and Dostoevsky can make us feel things and capture the sense of certain emotions and mental states, but these words are not commensurate to the experience of love, or grief, or anxiety, or disappointment. Even the previous string of words is not proportionate to the experience, which is why we would need to say more than the word “grief” to explain grief, even while we know that no amount of words will ever explain it. But to say that there is no meaningful sense of mind prior to language, or that there is no experience without a word, or that it is a primary datum, is to insist that language will always be proportionate to thought. But our basic experience of fundamental things is their ineffability and of their superabundance over language. There is a reason why it is a cliché to say “there are no words for it”. This does not mean that philosophy studies grief, or our first kiss or the experience of leading troops into combat (all of which are simply ineffable). I am arguing that there experiences show that language is not proportionate to the reality we experience of the world, and that it is a basic fact of being human to recognize this.

The reason for this lack of proportion between language and experience- or language and our concepts, is that language is a work of human practical intelligence that is commensurate to a given language group; whereas the soul, which is actual in our concepts and experience, is a work of the divine essence and is commensurate to the whole physical universe directly and to being as such though this. Our concepts and experiences are similitudes generated and begotten in us by the universe; and our soul stands face to face with the universe and is symmetrical with it. But our language is made, not begotten, and it stands face to face with a given language group, limited in history and place, and is symmetrical with this.

Language is, perhaps, the greatest human artifact (I can’t think of a more significant one).  It is a universal in causando (a true equivocal cause), and a principle of thought. But it remains an artifact, and art will never be commensurate with nature.

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