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I have become convinced that language touches nothing but itself, that it never reaches beyond itself. But this is not the bad news that a lover of tradition or of Permanent Things might take it to be…

I was recently asked to respond to the question, “What are the limits of language?”[1] That I was asked to address this question in an academic setting seems to imply that “the limits of language” are somehow mysterious.

But in at least one sense, the limits of language are not at all mysterious, or so it seems to me. I contend that language is limited precisely to itself. It does not somehow “hook onto” the world, but only to itself. Language is limited to language. I will try in what follows to give you a general sense of what I mean by this, and why I think it is important.

I will begin with a quotation from a thinker whom I believe has some insight into this matter: “[A] philosopher leads himself into foolish difficulties and more foolish dogmas if he assumes that words have fixed meanings to which single facts of nature must correspond.”

If you have read some other things that I have written, perhaps it is not surprising that I would begin with a quotation like that. I am known for keeping company with “postmodern theory,” so perhaps I have picked up on the pernicious tendency to detach language from the world, buying into the claim that “there is nothing outside the text.” Think of the unspeakable semantic carnage! With no fixed meaning, there is no fixed truth, nothing fixed—nothing even fixable, in fact—rendering us unable really to SAY anything, and thus issuing a license to say ANYTHING.

But my quotation is not from Boudrillard or Foucault or Derrida. It is from an essay originally published in 1924 by George Santayana.[2] You may recognize that name from the original title of Russell Kirk’s book, The Conservative Mind from Burke to Santayana (later updated with Eliot as the terminus). One does not expect someone identified as conservative by Kirk to write: “The articulation of language… can never be the articulation of things.”[3] This does sound rather like awful postmodern nonsense, does it not? But consider what Santayana writes with a bit more context:

The articulation of language…can never be the articulation of things…. [i]t helps to summarize, classify, and analyze man’s contact with the world, reducing things to human perspectives on a human scale. Nor can language preserve the scope or movement even of thought, since it marks only certain terms or termini—boundary stones like statues at the end of vistas—on which attention is sharply arrested; the approach, the atmosphere, and the setting remain unnamed. A word cannot be adequate if it has a meaning at all: only whistling is adequate. Significant speech is a lasso thrown into the air, lucky if it catches some living thing by a leg or by a horn. It would be idle as well as ungrateful to quarrel with words when one must use them; but in venturing upon a long discourse it may be prudent to notice the degree to which some important term abbreviates the facts it stands for, or puts them under an alien category…. (ES p 138[4])

“Ah [you might think], now we see what Blum is up to! He begins with a postmodern-sounding bit, but if he is following Santayana, his take on our topic must be quite straightforward! He knows, as do many conservatives, that there is so much more in heaven and earth than what is dreamed of… or rather, stated, in language. There are indeed limits to language, but those limits do not prevent language from reaching, however tentatively, beyond itself to touch the world, and hopefully sometimes to touch it aright. The fool is the one who expects language to touch ALL of the world, or to touch aright ALL that it touches here below. It is always wise to remind us, of course. But having been duly reminded, now let us get back to our project of at least trying to touch the world with language, a project that postmodern thinking by implication prevents.”

But that is not my message. I really do embrace, and recommend to you, the supposedly postmodern rejection that it is this touching that we must hope for. The point is not that language fails to touch ALL of the world, or that its touch is incomplete or flawed, or that its touch is always destined at every point to be only partial. I have become convinced that language touches nothing but itself. Language never reaches beyond itself. In that way, I am inclined even to hold back from Santayana’s allusion to a lasso. But his point about no fixed meanings corresponding to single facts in nature seems stronger, more radical than the lasso metaphor suggests, and I think that the trajectory of his thought is toward what I claim here. Language never really captures and holds anything that is not also language.

This sounds like very bad news to many of us. Allow me to make it even worse for a moment.

Language also pretends to be something that it is not. In addition to not embracing or even touching things, it also folds in upon itself, trying to be a closed and finalized system, sufficient unto itself. But it does not even manage to do THAT. It remains open, unfinished, and constantly changing. It pretends to be what Hegel and others in his wake called a totality, containing all and lacking nothing. In actuality, as Jacques Derrida especially has urged us to see, the texts we make with it carry within them tensions that, if pursued toward an expected finality and closure, will crack and groan loudly under the weight of our expectations. They act like they are well-constructed, but they are always hiding within them a de-construction. The word “deconstruction” stubbornly suggests a thing that a postmodern theorist does to a text, but that was not what Derrida meant by it (pace a fair number of those who have presented themselves as drawing from his work). A deconstruction is something that is there in a text, and I am increasingly inclined to think that the “de” in “deconstruction” should be pronounced like “day,” so that we are reminded of a decrescendo in a piece of music.

When we expect to capture (“by a leg or a horn”) a Center (with a capital “C”), it seems that the Center does not hold. Language does not hold either things or the world, and it does not even really hold itself. But I am also convinced that this is not the bad news that a lover of tradition or of Permanent Things might take it to be.

A prominent stream of the Western intellectual tradition has assumed that meaning must always be understood ultimately as relying on some sort of foundational or primordial ostension. That is, if I am doing anything meaningful—and using language seems a good candidate for a paradigmatic meaningful doing—then what I am doing is, in the final analysis, pointing. A word, for this stream of thought, is something that points. What it points to is its meaning. A word is like a name, and the meaning of the word is a thing that the word names, which is to say a thing that it points to. It is assumed that what it means “to point” either is straightforward and unproblematic, or can be made so, at least in principle.

For this view, pointing is basic. The thing that is pointed to, if it is present, is pointed to unambiguously. The need for the thing to be present to ensure the elimination of ambiguity, implies that pointing to things that are not present may be fraught with ambiguity, but that is not really a big problem. Of course, it is ambiguous if I use a word to point to something that is not here. We can deal with that. As long as we understand that the ultimate test of the pointing would be to make the thing present, the ambiguity introduced by absence and distance is a practical problem, not a theoretical problem.

“To make the thing present.” A key element here is an ideal of presence. It is the same general notion of presence that one finds in pictures of mind and human knowing painted by both Rene Descartes and John Locke. An ideal of presence to the mind in an absolute and unmediated sense, which was Descartes’ ideal, is what blinded him to his own use of language, which by its very nature embodied a sort of otherness that is, if it is anything, a stubborn denial of presence. When I say that language does not touch the world, I mean that language is, and always remains, other than whatever it is that language is about. “The world” (here meaning what Derrida called “the other of language”) is never simply present to, or in, or with, or under language.

“But, Blum, surely we do point to things in the world all the time! Would you have us believe otherwise?”

No. I emphatically agree. We point all the time. We even point, in a rich and vital sense, with language. But here is the rub (or perhaps the lack of a rub?): Pointing is a complicated, contextually-constituted thing. You know what I am pointing at, not simply because the line implied by my finger includes the thing I am pointing at, but because my pointing gesture is necessarily situated within a complicated meaningful matrix that extends outward in both space and time, implicating my body and its senses and your body and its senses without touching either, setting up an unfolding trajectory of indication that is a complex hanging together of meaning, a Gestalt. If it were not so, and I pointed at a can of Coca-Cola, you would not know if I were pointing at the aluminum that the can is made of, at the red and white coloring, at the printing on the can, at the liquid inside, or at some combination of these, to say nothing of stranger possibilities, such as the complex object “the-can-insofar-as-it-sits-on-this-table-at-this-time-etc.” Now, this is almost never a problem in “real life.” But that is so not because my pointing is unambiguous, but because you are attuned to the whole context in which it takes place. That context includes language, and it is crucial that it includes language, but not because language, or indeed any other element of the context, touches (is immediately present to) any other element.

What I have just said is worked out in detail, and with much greater philosophical skill than I possess, by such thinkers as Hegel, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein, and it is more presupposed than actually argued by Derrida. What I hope that you can glimpse in my inadequate rehearsal here is why I do not think that something like pointing can be at the basis of an account of language.

Language is systemic, and it does the amazing work that it does precisely by being open to itself, and by remaining other than whatever it is about. That is the good news to be found here, where we expected bad news. It is precisely because language does not have to touch anything that it can be about anything! That brings us to what may have been the real question to begin with: What are the limits of what language can do—or, more properly speaking, to what we can do with it? If I am right, then once we are clear on the limits of language (in my sense), we can see that this is precisely what makes language apparently limitless (in this other sense).

Is there anything that is “beyond” language? Hearing (without context) that “there is nothing outside the text”,[5] we think that Derrida must hold that only language exists, or that we are somehow “stuck in language.”[6]

Is there nothing beyond language?

Everything (besides language) is beyond language!

Can language point to what is beyond it?

This is precisely what language does!

But we should not expect such pointing to happen in a way that absolves itself of any context (which is what I think some people mean when they pine for “absolute truth”).

I am inclined, in this light, to see God’s action in response to the tower project at Babel much more as a blessing than as a curse.

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[1] This essay is expanded from a presentation on this topic at a Liberal Arts Friday Forum at Hillsdale College on March 3, 2017.

[2]George Santayana, “Some Meanings of the Word ‘Is’,” in The Essential Santayana: Selected Writings (Indiana University Press, 2009), p. 148.

[3]Op. cit., p. 138.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Corrected Edition, tr. G. Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 [orig. 1974]), p. 158. In case you didn’t know, the French is “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” which is better translated as “there is no outside-text.” In other words, when dealing with the text, there is no point at which you have been brought into the presence of what the text is about, thus being absolved of the ambiguities of context that make reference possible.

[6] Derrida: “I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite…. Every week I receive critical commentaries and studies on deconstruction which operate on the assumption that what they call ‘poststructuralism’ amounts to saying that there is nothing beyond language, that we are submerged in words – and other stupidities of that sort.” This is from an interview with Richard Kearney, originally published in 1984. See Kearney, Debates in Continental Philosophy: Conversations with Contemporary Thinkers (Fordham University Press, 2004), p. 154.

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4 replies to this post
  1. A fascinating insight on the old debate about the actual relationship between language and truth. Traditionalists must deal with your point that ideas leftists use (misuse?) can still be true. I’m still grappling with the last sentence of your article — it’s both enlightening and puzzling. After I digest this a while, I’ll have to re-read and ponder it more.

  2. Quite an entertaining essay. Language is the voice of the Spirit, the animating breath from God that He breathed into his human creatures created physical body; the life force for the human creature’s, mind/soul, to be able to communicate with it’s creator, God, and to be able to animate the human’s created material body.
    And, then came the rest of the story…

  3. Dr. Blum,

    A little like the Emperor’s New Clothes- I suppose the first real question is whether or not God exists- whether or not one is a supernaturalist or a naturalist, then whether or not language is man-made, (and therefore as un-mysterious and meaningless as you attempt to meaningfully and mysteriously suggest) or God given, such as the perfectly spoken Word of God we call the Logos, intending to point to Jesus Christ.

    It seems in your coke can example you make clear that you intend to separate substance from accident and pin the confusion, not on your errors, but on a context that tells us more than our words can (or about the can).

    What do you say to one who believes words are incarnations of ideas and ideas of concepts and concepts of real things in the real world? About the act of knowing as a communication of formal substance where the knower becomes the known by populating the mind with real concepts? Or of Voegelin’s assertion that indeed words are not perfect gifts from God, nor are they purely man made conventions but symbols. born out of man’s participation in this mysterious gift of language which is a spiritual and intellectual activity? “No, that is not real, my words claiming nothing is real are real and language has no such power except for the power of my words to demonstrate there is no such explanatory power in words”? You are sawing the linguistic branch upon which you sit off the tree of language Dr. Blum

    You seem to espouse a kind of Cartesian dualism separating the body and soul of words that amounts to little more than the license to abuse speech.

    Yes imaginative conservatives “pine for absolute truth” a thing you seem to claim is absolutely impossible concerning the nature of language. You put forward a clever set of contradictions but by your own standard they ought not to be taken seriously as pointing to any kind of truth, for they do not, and this is not dependent on whether or not language points only to itself, but by the true nature of what your words truly point to- the musings of one confused by post-modernity and the contradictions with conservatism (or at least feigned conservatism assuming that word points to something beyond itself).

    Still an enjoyable essay if one appreciates the kind of cadaver left to us by the likes of Derrida upon which we may “discover the anatomy of confusion.”

    • Thank you for your reply. What you seem to be saying primarily is that, if one insists on assuming certain things about language that I am questioning, then one will conclude that I am wrong. That is true. Beyond that, you seem to imply that theism in general and Christian belief in particular require the assumptions about language that I am questioning. I am convinced that this is NOT true, but a comment thread is not the place to develop that at any length. I hope you will at least note that your characterization of my essay as claiming that language does not refer, or that “nothing is real” (?!) are just mistaken.

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