Saturday, February 21, 2015

Language and Being

There are things that have their being in (or through) language, and that have no other being than their being in (or through) language. There are also things that have a being in language (or a being in a language), leaving open the question of whether they have a being not in language (or a being not in a language).
      Questions therefore to be considered include: Do all things have their being in language? Does language in and of itself constitute the being of things? Can the being of things always be reduced to being in language? Is being in language the only possible mode of being? Is there a mode of being interior to language, as well as a mode of being exterior to language? Is there a mode of being that transcends language?
      Language may be instrumental to the being of things. Indeed, the meaning of the term “being” may only be definable in terms of, or by means of, language.
      Can it rightly be said that to be is to be in language? If so, then the answer to Hamlet’s question, “to be, or not to be?” may depend on whether language is or is not.
      Language may be a ground of being of things. Some things simply are because they are in language, i.e. because we can think linguistically, write, or speak about them.
      Beings may communicate through many kinds of natural and artificial languages, including word languages, sign languages, sound languages, symbolic languages, and numerical languages.
      To translate something from one language into another may be to transform its being in language.
      Walter Benjamin (1916) says that the linguistic being of things is their being in language, and that language is a medium by which the mental being of things can be communicated. (His definition of language does not explicitly include language as a medium by which the physical or spiritual being of things can be communicated.) He argues that mental being is identical with linguistic being only insofar as it communicates, or is capable of communicating, itself.1 Mental being is linguistic only insofar as it is in language or is capable of linguistically expressing itself.    
      If being is always in language, then our understanding of being may depend on our understanding of language (and its syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and sociocultural dimensions). Our understanding of being may also depend on our familiarity with, and our knowledge of, the rules of language. Our understanding of things may be our understanding of them in or through language. Indeed, language may be necessary in order for us to think, speak, or communicate about them.
      Martin Heidegger (1927) describes discourse as constitutive of the existence of Dasein (being-there), and as the articulation of the intelligibility of being-in-the–world. He says, “The attuned intelligibility of being-in-the-world is expressed as discourse,” and “The way in which discourse gets expressed is language.”2
      Heidegger also raises the interesting question, “What kind of being does language have if there are “dead” languages?”3
      Is language prior to being or is being prior to language? Is the being of things a condition of the possibility of language, or is the being of language a condition of the possibility of the being of things?
      If language is the being of things, then a philosophy of being may require a philosophy of language.
      To formulate a theory of being may be to formulate a theory of language, and to formulate a theory of language may be to formulate a theory of being.
      If language is the being of things, then the embodiment of language may also be the embodiment of the being of things. If language is grounded in bodily experience, then so may be the being of things.
      If the being of things is always a “being thus” or a "being so" or a "being here" or a "being there" or a “being now” or a “being then," then so may be the being of language.
      Hans-Georg Gadamer (1960) describes language as a medium of hermeneutical experience, and as the medium of our understanding of the world. Everything we experience is conditioned by the linguistic nature of interpretation. Language is therefore a horizon of hermeneutic ontology. The horizons of language are also the horizons of our interpretation of the world. The world has its being for us in language, and language has its being for us in its representation of the world.4
      Jacques Derrida (1974) explains that the play of difference between written being and being written is also the play of difference between absence and presence, insofar as the metaphysics of presence conceptualizes written being as a kind of absence (of the writer for the reader), and being written as a kind of presence. To privilege presence over absence, and thus to ignore their interdependence, may be to try to evade a basic question of philosophy, the question of being (“what is, or is not?”).5


1Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” in Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996) p. 63.
2Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 151.
3Ibid., p 155.
4Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 401.
5Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Charkravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 18-19.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


When we ask such questions as "What is time?" or “What is being?” or “What is the relation between mind and matter?” what kinds of presuppositions are we making?
      Are we already presupposing the answers we hope to provide to such questions? Are we presupposing that there are indeed answers to such questions? Are we presupposing that such questions can be explored metaphysically, analytically, empirically, or scientifically?
      When we ask such questions as “Is lying always wrong?” or "Is there life after death?" or “Is there such a thing as a ‘good war’?” are we presupposing, first of all, that it is indeed possible to ask such questions? That is to say, are we presupposing that such questions make sense or have meaning? Are we presupposing our own ability to articulate and meaningfully investigate such questions? Are we presupposing that such questions have not already been answered?
      When we ask such questions as "What is fairness?" or “What is justice?” or "How can fairness and justice best be achieved in society?" are we also presupposing the existence of counter-questions to such questions? Are we presupposing the existence of counter-answers to whatever answers we might try to provide?
       And when we ask such questions as “What is the relation between language and thought?” or "Is there a language of thought?" or ”Are the limits of language the same as the limits of thought?” what might be our motives for asking such questions? Do we suppose that we may actually be able to answer such questions? Do we actually want answers or are we more concerned with the questioning itself? Are the questions themselves more important to us than being able to find the answers?
     Are we also presupposing that the questions we are asking are the right ones or are better than other questions we might ask?
      When we ask such questions as “Is predestination compatible with free will?” or “Why does God allow evil to exist?” or “Is faith compatible with reason?” are we already presupposing that such questions are relevant to our own situation at this particular time or moment in history? Are we presupposing that such questions have not already been asked by other individuals or have not already been examined by individuals better qualified than ourselves to fully evaluate them?
      And what kinds of presuppositions are we making by describing such questions as "philosophical questions"? What is it precisely that makes such questions "philosophical"? Are we perhaps unfairly presupposing what philosophy is and what kinds of questions it should be concerned with?
      Are we also presupposing that there is someone other than ourselves to whom our questions may be addressed? Are we presupposing that there is someone other than ourselves to whom, or for whom, our questions may have some relevance or meaning? Someone willing to listen to the answers we are trying to provide? Someone who has not already fully explored and investigated the questions we are asking? Someone who may in fact be able to provide her own answers to those questions?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Schelling's On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge

F.W.J. Schelling’s “Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge” (Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie oder Über das Unbedingte im menschlichen Wissen, 1795) is a philosophical essay that he wrote while he was a 19-year-old student at the Tübinger Stift, a Protestant seminary in the city of Tübingen. Some of the philosophers with whom he is concerned in the essay, as he begins to formulate his own brand of philosophical idealism, include Kant, Spinoza, and the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819).
      Schelling’s basic objection to the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) is that the unconditional in human knowledge can only be found in the absolute I, the identity of the subjective and objective, and not in the subjective or objective I. We cannot therefore properly say, “I think, therefore I am” or “I am, because I think,” as if “I” were a thinking subject and the act of thinking proves that “I am,” or as if “I” were an object that receives its existence from the fact that it is thinking. We can only properly say, “I think, I am,” where “I” is the absolute I, which is the unconditional in human knowledge and the original ground (Urgrund) of all reality.1
      For Schelling, the absolute I is neither a subject conditioned by an object nor an object conditioned by a subject. Furthermore, it is neither an absolute subject nor an absolute object. Indeed, it does not belong to the sphere of subjects or sphere of objects at all.
      The existence of the absolute I cannot be proved objectively, because the absolute I can never become an object. To prove objectively that the absolute I exists would be to demonstrate conditions of its existence; but there are no such conditions.2 Indeed, the absolute I cannot be said to “exist” at all, because existence implies the presence of conditions. The absolute I simply is; its being is absolute and unconditional.3
      Two contrasting positions regarding the content of human knowledge are those of “dogmatism,” which posits a not-I (an objective reality) as antecedent to any I, and “criticism,” which posits an I (a subjective reality) as antecedent to any not-I.5 But neither of these positions leads us to the unconditional, real, and ultimate ground of reality of human knowledge. The chain of knowledge is conditioned throughout by the absolute I.
      While “transcendent realism” is a positing of a not-I (a world of objects) as independent of an I (an empirical subject), “transcendent idealism” denies that the I is an empirical subject and that there is anything empirical about the I at all.
      The absolute I is not a thing-in-itself, because it can never become a thing and can never be made subject to conditions of existence. The thing-in-itself is an absolute not-I posited as antecedent to, or independent of, every I.4
      The essence of the absolute I is freedom, says Schelling, because the absolute I posits itself freely and absolutely. But this freedom is neither subjective nor objective. It is an absolute freedom that is present to the absolute I alone.6


1F.W.J. Schelling, “Of the I as the Principle of Philosophy or On the Unconditional in Human Knowledge,” in The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796), translated by Fritz Marti (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1980), p. 75
2Ibid., p. 75.
3Ibid., p. 105.
4Ibid., p. 79.
5Ibid., p. 77.
6Ibid., p. 84.