No abiding city

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Things take odd turns sometimes. After my Byzantine Epiphany I felt sure I was on the track of something, yet it proved elusive: after a lot of writing I felt I was still circling round it, unable to pin it down.

Then this morning I woke to the news that (with the General Election just over a week away) David Cameron was pledging, if re-elected, to pass a law that would prevent his government from raising the level of a range of taxes for the duration of the next parliament.

I have to say that this struck me at once as absurd, the notion of a government passing a law to prevent itself doing something: why go to all that trouble? why not just say, ‘we won’t do that’?

There’s the rub, of course – election promises are famously falser than dicers’ oaths; against that background, Mr Cameron feels the need to offer something stronger – no mere manifesto promise, but an actual law! – what could be a stronger guarantee than that?

There’s a paradox here, of course – because politicians’ promises are notoriously unreliable, Mr Cameron says he will pass a law to ensure that he will not go back on his word – and that’s a promise. The whole elaborate structure is built on the same uncertain foundation.

I am reminded of advice from a more reputable source, the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Again, you have heard how it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath…
But I say this to you, do not swear at all… all you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.’

You are no better than your word: if that is worth nothing, no amount of shoring-up will rectify the matter; and if it is good, what more do you need?

But there is something deeper here: the key, I think, to the very matter I had been trying to resolve.

Let us start with Mr Cameron’s utterance: it is perhaps best understood as a theatrical gesture. The actor on stage, conscious of the audience’s attention (and also of his distance from them, compared, say, to the huge close-up of the cinema screen) may feel the need to make a gesture which in everyday life would strike us as exaggerated and – well – theatrical. So Mr Cameron, in the feverish atmosphere of an election campaign, feels the need to outbid his opponents – ‘they say they’ll do something? well, I’ll pass a law that will make me do as I say!’

I have to say that even in context it sounds rather silly, but it would be even sillier outside it – so that is the first point, the importance of context to understanding.

The second is this business of making a law and the appearance it offers of transferring the responsibility from the person to something independent and objective – ‘don’t just take my word for it – it’ll be the law!’ It overlooks the fact that legislation is a convention that requires our consent to operate: the laws of the land are not like the laws of physics – they do not compel us in any way; we obey them through choice, not necessity.

(And of course the existence of a range of penalties and agencies of enforcement like the police and the courts are proof of this – you do not need any of that to make things obey the Law of Gravity; you only need threat and compulsion where there is the possibility that people might do otherwise)

These two things – the importance of context to meaning and the attempt to transfer responsibility from the person to something apparently objective and independent – chimed with what I had been struggling to express before.
I had been focusing on the effect that the introduction of writing has on language, and through that, on our whole way of seeing the world.

The gist of my argument was this: from time immemorial, we have had Speech, which is our version of something we observe throughout the animal kingdom – bird song, whale song, the noises of beasts. Then, relatively recently – between five and six thousand years ago – we invent something unique: Writing.

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At first it is used for relatively low-grade menial (indeed, prosaic) tasks, such as making lists and records; it is a good thousand years before anyone thinks to employ it for anything we might call ‘literature’. That should be no surprise: where Speech is natural and instinctive, the product of millions of years’ development, writing is awkward and cumbersome, a skill (along with reading) that must be learned, and one not everyone can master.

Speech has all the advantages that go with sound: it has rhythm, rhyme, musicality, pattern; Writing has none of these. But it does have one thing: where speech exists in time and is fleeting, ephemeral, Writing exists in space and has duration; it is objective; it exists in its own right, apart from any context or speaker.

My speech dies with me: when my voice is stilled, it is gone (though it may linger in the memory of others); but my written words will outlast not only me but a hundred generations – they could be around long after any trace or memory of their author is wholly erased.

Thus, from Speech we move to Language – by which I mean the complex thing that arises after Writing is invented. The important thing about Language is its dual nature, and the interaction and tension between its two forms, the written and the spoken. These are (as I discussed before) in many respects antithetical – where Speech is necessarily bound up with a speaker and so with a context – it is always part of some larger human activity – Writing stands on its own, apart from any context, independent of its author, with its own (apparently) objective existence.

(and the differences go deeper – where speech draws on a rich range of devices to overcome its ephemeral character and make itself memorable – rhyme, rhythm, vivid imagery etc – writing (though it can borrow all of them) has no need of any of these, having permanence; the problem it must overcome is lack of context – it cannot rely on what is going on round about to clarify its meaning; it must stand on its own two feet, and aim to be clear, concise, unambiguous, logical.)

What Mr Cameron’s absurd utterance brought home to me was the deceptive nature of Writing’s independence and objectivity, which is more apparent than real. Just as the law he holds out as having some objective, compelling force that is greater than his word is only so because we (as a society) agree to assign that power to it (in this connection, see my earlier post, ‘bounded by consent’) – and ultimately has no greater strength than the original word that promises it – so the objectivity and independence of the written word are not inherent properties but rather qualities we have conferred on it.

The independence and objectivity we assign to language is a kind of trick we play on ourselves, and it is bound up with the matter I discussed in my earlier posts (here, here and here) concerning the ‘carapace’ that we erect between ourselves and Reality – a carapace of ideas on which we confer the title ‘reality’ even though it is a construct of our own.

(It was interesting to realise that my philosophical hero Ludwiig Wittgenstein had made this journey before me: in his early work, e.g. the Tractatus, he is much concerned with his ‘picture theory’ of language, in which a proposition is seen as picturing reality, by having its elements related to one another in a way that corresponds to how the elements of the reality it pictures are related:
‘2.12 A picture is a model of reality.
2.13 In a picture objects have the elements of the picture corresponding to them.
2.14 In a picture the elements of the picture are the representatives of objects.

2.1511 That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.

2.223 In order to tell whether a picture is true or false we must compare it with reality.’

This model takes for granted the objective nature of language: it is the words, the proposition, that is true or false, and that is established by comparison with the world; we do not seem to play much part.

However, in his later work, Wittgenstein moves to a different position: he now speaks of ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’; it is only as part of a language game or a form of life – i.e. some human activity – that words have meaning; and indeed, as a general rule, the meaning of a word is its use in the language. He emphatically rejects the idea of a ‘private language’ in which our thinking is done before being translated into words: all that is available to us is the unwieldy, untidy agglomeration that is Language, a public thing that everyone shares and shapes but no-one controls or commands – despite the best efforts of organisations such as L’Academie Francaise)

As is typical of Wittgenstein, this modest-seeming manoeuvre effectively demolishes an edifice of thought that has stood for millennia: its implications are profounder than might at first appear.

If we go back to Plato and his fellow Greeks, we find a horror of mutability (‘change and decay in all around I see’, as the hymn has it) and a yearning for Truth to be something fixed and immutable – hence Plato’s world of Ideas, the unchanging reality that can be apprehended only by the intellect and lies beyond the veil of Appearance which so beguiles our poor, deluded senses.

Language – the complex thing that arises after the invention of the written form – is central to establishing this Platonic world, whose influence has lasted down to the present day, in particular its elevation of the intellect over the senses and its separation of Appearance and Reality.

The quality of Language on which all this hinges is the illusion it gives of being something that exists in its own right: words have meanings and can be used to describe the world; if only we tidied up language, rid it of its anomalies, used it more carefully and logically – freed it from the abusage of everyday speech – made it, in a word, more literate, truer to its written form – then we would be able to express the Truth accurately and without ambiguity, and permanently.

This is the edifice that Wittgenstein shows to be no more than a castle in the air: if meaning exists only in context, as part of some human activity, then all meaning is provisional; nothing is fixed (an idea I have discussed before). Language can never be tidied up and purified, cleansed of its faults, because language is ultimately derived from Speech, which is a living, dynamic thing, constantly changing with the forms of life of those who speak it, and the new ‘language games’ they invent.

The truth of what I have just said is by no means universally accepted; indeed, we have made some pretty determined attempts to contradict it: the first was the use of Latin as a scholarly language after it had ceased to be a living tongue (having transmuted, in the course of time, into the various romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian). Latin was the vehicle of academic discourse from the foundation of the first European universities in the eleventh century down to the time of Newton and beyond, a span of some five centuries; it remains the official language of the Roman Catholic church (although mass in the vernacular was introduced with the refoms of Vatican 2 in the early sixties, the Latin mass was not ‘banned’ as popularly supposed – only a specific form, the Tridentine rite, was discontinued; mass is still said in Latin to this day in various places).

It is no surprise to find that the Church – very much bound to the notion of an unchanging Truth – should be one of the last bastions of a purely literate language. In the academic and particularly the scientific world, the role formerly played by Latin has to a large extent been taken over by English, and ‘Academic English’ as a form is diverging from the living language, which in turn is diversifying (with the disappearance of the British Empire and the emergence of former colonies as countries in their own right) in much the same way as Latin transformed into various tongues after Rome fell.

I am sure that there are many today who will view my assertion that all meaning is necessarily provisional with the same horror that the Greeks contemplated the mutability of things, but I think if you consider it steadily, you will see that it is both liberating and refreshing.

In my previous piece I began by talking about the perils of building in stone – namely, that what you make will outlive its capacity to be understood, because although it does not change, the people considering it do. I think this happens all the time with ideas, and especially the ‘big’ ideas, about ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ – because they are important, we try to fix them for all time, but we overlook the fact that they are the product of a particular time, expressed in the language of that time, and that succeeding generations will see and understand things differently.

Of course the change of outlook and the decay of understanding is never sudden and can be delayed, and that is exactly what written texts do: they give a particular version of something an authority and a form that can last for generations, and which may block any development for a long time.

(That, broadly, is what happened with Scholasticism: the influx (via the Islamic world) of ancient Greek learning – chiefly Aristotle – into mediaeval Europe provided a huge intellectual stimulus initially, as great minds like Thomas Aquinas came to terms with it and assimilated it into the thinking of the day; but so comprehensive did it seem that there was no impulse to move beyond it, so that it began to ossify – the object of university study became to master Aristotle’s works, and the ‘argument from authority’ came into vogue – to settle any dispute it sufficed to quote what Aristotle (often called  simply ‘The Philosopher’) said on the matter – there was no going beyond that. This situation lasted till the Renaissance shook things up once more )

So am I, then, making a straightforward pitch for Relativism and denying the possibility of an Absolute Truth?

Not quite. Rather, this is an argument for ineffability, the idea that ‘Great Truths’ cannot be expressed in words. It is not so much that language is not equal to the job (but might be improved till it was), rather that the greatness of these ‘Great Truths’ (that label is of course inadequate) is such that it necessarily exceeds our ability to comprehend them, so limiting our capacity to express them; though poetry can get closer than prose:

‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

and Art in general – music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry – offers a more fruitful approach than philosophy – not to success, but a more rewarding kind of failure; or, as Mr Eliot so aptly expresses it,

‘but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

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