Part 3: Universal language

22 04 2010

In order to gain insight into the opaque texture of Doctrine of the Similar I will read it from the perspective of On Language as Such and on the language of the people, Benjamin’s early writing on language. I do not have an English translation of the text, so I will use the original German version and translate quotes myself.

I consider On language and such … one of the most important texts about the philosophy of language, even though you will not find it in most introductions on this topic. Benjamin’s philosophy of language is certainly an outlier in the field of language theory. It has some points of contact with established theories of language, but in its consequence the position Benjamin claims is one of total opposition. In my opinion the mainstream theory of language (as established by Saussure) does not do any justice to the mystery of language and this is precisely the point where Benjamin has his value.

The philosophy of language developed in On language and such… proposes language as a universal being, language is a flow of communication that runs through the whole universe and thereby connects everything together. The universe is a universe because language binds it together. On language and such… has a huge range of different topics that are all worth discussing. I will spent some time going through them step by step and I attempt to link these topics to Doctrine of the Similar.

The first topic I want to discuss in the universal concept of language:

Das Dasein der Sprache erstreckt sich aber nicht nur über alle Gebiete menschlicher Geistesäußerung, der in irgendeinem Sinn immer Sprache innewohnt, sondern es erstreckt sich auf schlechthin alles. Es gibt kein Geschehen oder Ding weder in der belebten noch in der unbelebten Natur, das nicht in gewisser Weise an der Sprache teilhätte, denn es ist jedem wesentlich, seinen geistigen Inhalt mitzuteilen.

Benjamin claims here that the being of language (das Dasein der Sprache) does not only range over all human expressions but ranges over plainly everything. He writes that there is no event or thing neither in the enlivened nor in the unenlivened nature (weder in ther belebten noch in der unbelebten Natur) that does not in some way participate in language, as it lies in the very essence of every being to express its spiritual being. (I will discuss this spiritual being in one of my next posts, if anyone knows the common English translation of das geistige Wesen, please let me know.)

Language is everywhere, everything expresses itself in the medium of language, how can such a concept of language have any value? Don’t we need a very clear and handy definition of language if we want to work with a concept of language? But must a theory have a function, must philosophy be useful? I think the strength of Benjamin’s philosophy of language lies in its universalism. If we think of language in an ordinary way we think of humans using words either in saying them or in writing them and most theories of language deal with exactly this. Language becomes in this regard a tool people use to express their thoughts and feelings to other people. But how about gestures? And how about art? They also express something but not in words. And how about a stone?

What I find so fascinating and genius about the universal concept of language is that it suspends all the fringe problems theories of language usually deal with.

And just consider the elegant solution this universal conception of language has in regard of  epistemology: How can we be aware of the world around us, how can we recognize anything? Because everything communicates with us in the first place, all things talk to us, show themselves in the medium of language. We can recognize the world around us because everything is integrated into language as such. Of course, this expresses a paradisiacal state of being – and as you know, we have been kicked out a while ago. (I’ll come back to that later.)

So what does this have to do with Doctrine of the Similar. Is Doctrine not dealing with the Similar primarily? I guess we have to do a brave jump ahead here and assume the following: Doctrine of the Similar is an alternative version of On language as such… it expresses the same philosophy (and in doing so opens new horizons). In this regard we should conclude that Language as such in the early writing on language has been translated into the Similar in the late writing on language.  This has a lot of theoretical implications, I am aware of it, and of course Language as such and the Similar are not identical – but they equate.  I claim that this is the key to understand Doctrine of the Similar.