On private language and the genesis of “the literature”

I do not wish to dispute the widely accepted view that a private language is impossible. But the ground of this impossibility has need of being named. That is what this post does.

It’s immediate ground is the notion that the primary purpose of a language is communication between subjects. This presupposes, first, a conception of the human being as a subject. The meaning of this presupposition is that the human being is the subiectum, that being in whom all other beings (i.e. one’s “field of experience”) are grounded. As most fully exemplified in the metaphysics of Leibniz, the subject stands to these other beings as their formal cause: the subject is the being in whom the world is as it is; the human qua subject has the world “in mind” – never fully, but always from a particular “point of view.” The task of understanding being thus becomes a process of collating particular viewpoints; while the orientation of the person on this way of thinking becomes one of openness towards others: the apex of truth is to be found in intersubjective harmony.

This intersubjective harmony is, everywhere, obviously, not yet realized. In accordance with this, the task of thinking must become not primarily contemplative, but practical – to bring this harmony of minds, conceived as being in its fullness, into being. First philosophy is, as Comte understood it, sociology. Only in the light of this happening is metaphysics, as the perfected recognition of beings in their unity, possible.

But there is a tension here. Ex hypothesi, the mode of being of these viewpoints is inaccessible to those who do not directly occupy it. No one has access to the “ideas” of others. This much is taken as axiomatic. So in the process of realizing the telos of this unity, the mode of being of the viewpoints materially composing it must be transformed from their intrinsic, inaccessible form to an extrinsic one: it must be concretized. Teleologically, this unity, perfected and laid bare, made flesh for all the world to see, is what specialists of all fields of learning call, glibly and unknowingly, the literature.

In the midst of this, the aim of concretizing one’s own viewpoint becomes increasingly obligatory: in an obvious case, it is used as a requirement for earning tenure. Contributing to the literature is referred to, in a quasi-religious euphemism, as “participating in the great conversation.”

Within this understanding, talk of a language whose principle or end is something other than communication is regarded as impossible, because blasphemous. Communication is simply the name for the immanent actualization of the literature, now metaphysically taken as a name for that being of beings which, since Hegel, has been thought of as nothing less than the self-realization of a god.

I do not claim any of this is what Wittgenstein had in mind when formulating his argument against the possibility of a private language. But then again, the attempt to reconstitute “what exactly Wittgenstein meant” is part and parcel of the method of metaphysics laid bare here, and constitutes an ignoratio elenchus with respect to the genuine matter of what the argument calls us to think.

Human speech is not, in the first place, communication, but invocation. This is not to draw a dichotomy between the two, place this dichotomy on a timeline and suggest that there was a first utterance simultaneously invocative and non-communicative in character. Instead, it is to suggest that the essence of communication is not itself something communicative.

To say is to call forth what is said – to “call it to mind.” The unity of the word – logos – comes from the unity of a gathering – legein – that governs its manifestations in both the exalted form of a Byzantine Liturgy and in the debased and common form of pulling up a web page.

The relation of what is said to a mind to a person, however, is not that of a content located in some faculty located inside a person, like a set of Russian dolls. To bring some matter to mind is nothing other than to bring it to minding – to bring it before one’s attention, to attend to it. And what is called to mind is not a “thought” conceived as a hermeneutical tool for grasping bare particulars, but the being of those particulars themselves – ousia as morphe as idea.

To say, to sing, to hymn – these are the primordial ways of calling to mind. The love of wisdom begins not in conversation, but in wonder. This is what the literature screams against in its constant demand for the sacrifices of production. And it is mindfulness of this ancient verity that will reduce it to silence.

I believed. Therefore I spoke.

About my posts

Different genres of writing have different advantages relative to each other. Another way of saying this is that every genre of writing is inherently constricting. There is nothing wrong with this. In order for one kind of writing to be this kind rather than that, it must conform to certain norms regarding style, length, and even content whereby it is distinguished from other genres. Concomitantly, this means that certain matters may be more apt for certain genres of writing than others. For instance, citation-heavy work finds a better home in an academic article than a news column, even when it is treating some subject matter common to both media.

Today, the primary genre for philosophical writing is the journal article. Characteristic features of the article include its length (usually no more than 5000-7000 words), its breadth (relatively small – an article, characteristically, attempts to answer some small, manageable question that gets incorporated into a body of knowledge often oriented by some larger question or questions), and its need to be dialectically engaged with relevant and recent literature on the topic the article purports to treat.

It should be obvious that different genres lie relatively close or far from different dangers. The essay style dominant through early modernity, for instance, could easily lead to non-rigorous, superficial treatments of meaningful topics. And no one can seriously doubt that the concentration of philosophy in the form of the journal article has given inordinate attention to micro-problems (and occasionally even to pseudo-problems); that the proliferation of secondary literature on has obfuscated some topics more than it has clarified them; that length requirements have muzzled attempts to answer larger questions. If the philosophical canon consisted solely in the kind of philosophy written today, Plato’s Dialogues would be too aloof, Kant’s Critiques would be too long, Nietzsche’s aphorisms would be too baseless, and Rousseau’s essays would be too rhetorically bloated. Perhaps the only body of work that would remain intact would be the scholastic literature stretching from the 13th to the 17th century.

The posts of this page are just that – posts. This means, obviously, that they are not journal articles (you may access my articles on the my papers page of this site). Part of my aim in publishing them here has been to give voice to certain ways of doing philosophy that are very difficult, if not impossible, to do within the medium of the journal article. If what you see here is less polished than what you will find in an article, it is often more raw. If it is less connected to the literature, it is often more accessible to those who have no need for a literature. If its questions are occasionally too wide, no one will doubt that those questions are genuinely philosophical ones. My style will often rely more on personal experience and pithy observations than would be justified in a journal format. But this is just to recognize that such things have a place in philosophy, while still ceding to the article its place.

Lastly, many of the questions encountered in one way or another in these posts seek to shed light on the meta-theoretical structures governing the practice of philosophy today. What exactly, for instance, is referred to by the phrase “the literature”? What do the use of citation networks suggest about the way philosophical research is evaluated? What does it mean to characterize philosophy as a kind of “research” in the first place? For obvious reasons, these kinds of questions have no real place within the traditional media of the contemporary philosophical landscape.

That having been said, I hope that you enjoy what you find here. More importantly, I hope that it spurs you on to pay love and heed to that wisdom, forgetful though we are of it, in whose service we have been enlisted.