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.


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