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Thoughts on Language

by D.R. Khashaba

Glancing through my Scrapbook, I found that I had at one time collected in one place a number of my jottings on language. I offer them here for what they are worth.

1. Language is not merely speech, not merely communication; the brutes are capable of these. When we speak of language as a cultural property of humankind, we refer to a system of symbols in which a human being's world is reflected so as to constitute a universe in its own right. It is in this universe that humans have their specifically human being.

2. I speak. My lips, my tongue, my vocal chords move. In their movements they strictly obey physical laws. But what initiates, maintains and directs the movement? It is a meaning that flickers in my mind. Whatever physical basis the thought may have, what in fact brings my speech into being — into existence in the actual, physical world — is a meaning creatively formed by a synthesis of sentiments, ideas, desires, memories — things that can never be explained in terms of the givennesses of the physical world or reduced ultimately to such givennesses.

3. The sentence is the creative realization of the initial situation in ideal form. To speak of any necessary identity or similarity or correspondence between the sentence and the initial situation ('fact', givenness, experience) is to express this creative relationship in a metaphor. Hence, what is "common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact", as Russell says in explaining Wittgenstein's theory,[1] "cannot... be itself in turn said in language", because in truth we do not have two things on our hands but a creative progress comprising a single whole. There is no question of a 'Third Man', of an infinite regress.

4. Why should a sentence have to mean something quite definite? Only for certain purposes — for practical purposes and for the purposes of science which is a special case of practical purpose — is that requisite. For other purposes — for the purposes of poetry and philosophy for instance — it is more important that the sentence should serve as a framework capable of assimilating a wide range of experiences and infusing them with significance. This is as important for the life of intelligence as is exact and accurate information; it is a distinct function of the mind. It is because modern thinkers have been judging philosophy by the criteria of science that they have been so unjust to philosophy and so far-removed from understanding its true nature.

5. Even for the purposes of day to day business, language cannot and should not be precise. A precise language would serve a very limited number of situations with exceeding accuracy and would leave all the rest utterly ineffable. The vagueness of everyday language is a necessary condition of its unlimited applicability, of its practical utility.

6. A 'logically perfect language' is necessary for science and is helpful for certain ancillary philosophical disciplines, but is not required by philosophy proper. Since a 'logically perfect language' is an unrealized and unrealizable ideal, science, in the strictest and fullest sense, must always remain an unrealized ideal.

7. Bertrand Russell says, "The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts."[2] But surely this is only one function of language, and not the most important at that. The essential function of language, which is one with the essential function of thought, is creative — it is to give realization to intelligence in new meanings.

8. When the Positivists discovered that our metaphysics were a product of our language, they thought that they had finally demolished all metaphysics. They did not observe that all of our thinking, including all of our practical thinking and all of our scientific thinking, is equally a product of our language. All thinking is interpretation and our metaphysics are our most comprehensive interpretations of our world. To throw all metaphysics overboard is to accept to live on a sub-human level, to accept to live within the confines of the here and now: the infinitude (or near-infinitude) of the physical cosmos would avail us nothing, for it is an infinitude that comprehends us and not an infinitude that we comprehend. And to have a metaphysical orientation without being aware of its roots and principles necessarily entails taking the metaphysical allegory too seriously and that is tantamount to living in a Hades of delusion.

9. To understand our language is to understand our mind; to understand our mind is to understand ourselves; to understand ourselves is to understand reality. Language is the realization of the world on the plane of ideas. The classical philosophers knew this; they did not have to state it explicitly since it was self-evident to them. Analytical philosophers created the fiction of a language that is rational and intelligible without being rooted in reality.

10. When a person who is deprived of the power of speech relates behaviourally to other persons, s/he can have a rich emotional life. (I believe that the 'lower' animals too can and do enjoy such a life.) But s/he remains cut off from that peculiar universe in which humans have their distinctive life as a rational beings, except in so far as the person in question can find substitute symbols that give her/him access to the world of conceptual thought. (So, a deaf and dumb individual is not necessarily 'deprived of the power of speech' in the sense intended here.)

11. Language does not 'reflect' our conceptions. Our conceptions are born embodied in language; they come into being as an organic unit — body and soul, meaning and utterance — whole and inseparable. All of this is not metaphor except in so far as all language is metaphor and all thought is mythopoesis. A 'thought' prior to embodiment in language is an event on an arational plane of being. It only takes its rise in the mind as language. We cannot properly speak of an unexpressed thought. (Of course our definition of the term 'language' has to be broad enough.)

12. Bergson had to be French and to be writing in French. The French mentality — it seems — when wishing to distinguish different nuances of meaning resorts to the creation of so many distinct words, each standing for a definite nuance of meaning. At least that is the ideal. Not so English. English solves the problem by creating a series of words representing overlapping gradations of nuance, so that for the expression of a particular nuance of meaning either of two terms of the series may have an equal claim. No English thinker would have thought of regarding mental operations as consisting of static moments. (Hume did, but then, Hume was not English!) This of course does not invalidate Bergson's reasoning which boils down to saying that in so far as thought abstracts from the totality of reality it necessarily falsifies reality, and this is perfectly valid.

13. A poet creates true universes of his own, in the strictest sense of every single word. But a poet who believes that he is creating worlds on the same plane as the world he lives his daily life in, is insane. If he thinks that his creations are of the same metaphysical status relatively to himself as the world of daily life also relatively to himself, then he is the victim of a delusion; since the worlds he creates are his game, while in the world on which he rests his feet he is himself part of the game.

14. Common speech is the proper language for philosophy — or at least comes nearer to being so than the language of logical analysis — because the complexities of common speech bring into being realities that are lost sight of in logical analysis, just as the common properties of water are lost sight of to the chemist reducing water to hydrogen and oxygen.

15. Socrates examined critically our common statements, but he did not substitute anything abstruse for them. He sought to arrive at understanding through those selfsame common statements, by establishing the original forms they sought to express.

16. All of this of course does not preclude the need for remedying the obvious faults and ambiguities of everyday language and even for the creation of special languages for special purposes such as for specialized sciences and the practical skills, including the specialized disciplines related to philosophical study.

17. The ability of a little child to use language never ceases to astound me. Here is a field for study that is, literally, inexhaustible. A child does not acquire a stock of ready-made sentences in the same way as s/he acquires a stock of ready-made words. Once s/he learns a sentence-pattern s/he goes on to use it freely. Nothing shows the creativity of the human mind and the true character of all creativity more clearly than this capacity in a little child.

18. A little child can draw correct inferences and construct valid arguments. A language that does not yet have a word for 'logic', gives utterance to logical structures and arguments, because the matrix out of which it grew is an embodiment of intelligent Reality: all language is internally logical because it is the creative outcome of an intelligent, and therefore rational, Reality.

19. A highly developed language with a rich literature actually creates subtle nuances of thought and special shades of feeling. Every language constitutes a specific spiritual world. People with different languages live in different spiritual worlds, some cruder, some more refined.

20. No linguistic expression can ever have the precision of a mathematical formula. A linguistic expression is always qualified and determined by its context. A mathematical formula has a seeming independence and completeness because it is abstract, lifeless. It is an artificial whole. Common speech, in as much as it is living, has its roots in the living whole that sustains it, and ultimately in the Whole. Because it is part of a whole that necessarily transcends it, it can never disclose all of its meaning, can never be complete. It must always hint and reach out towards what it can never reach. The more of life and of reality an expression has — a cry of anguish, a song of joy, an inspired lyric, a profound philosophic thought — the more hazy it must always be and remain.


1. Bertrand Russell in his Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. Guinness, 1961, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. x.

2. Bertrand Russell, op. cit, p. x

© D. R. Khashaba 2003

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