The self is both made and explored with words

“The self is both made and explored with words; and the best for both are the words spoken in the dialogue of friendship.”
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self – The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 183.

In reading these pages, I was reminded by the abomination that is the word “paradigm”. Although I am largely sympathetic to the project of Charles Taylor in tracing the origins of self and identity, there is a certain something about it which annoys me. Thinking about it his pinpointing of pivotal moments in philosophy is the cause of this slight discomfort. In his own words I think his is the natural way of explaining, as against the more convoluted way which is less prone to be accepted in this scientistic bottom-up world. Sure, this way serves the purpose of bringing home the point that the way we see things naturalistically is neither eternal nor inescapable. Still it also exposes us to the risk of marking “paradigm shifts” showing side by side clear before’s and after’s and simultaneously expressing a strong valuation that such before’s are inferior and the corresponding after’s are superior. Thinking in “paradigm shifts” has led to the abominable results that we see all around us, marking in’s and out’s in the most uncharitable of ways.

The quote stresses, I think, not the discrete but the continuous; not the sudden but the emerging; not revolution but evolution. It connects the continuous evolution of language with its essence in friendship. The quote gets it all right. From that very first time that people pointed to the same thing in uttering or gesturing (hence thinking) the word “that”, the mechanism of development is a mechanism of co-operation (see P. Grice), a mechanism presupposing being charitable to understanding the other (D. Davidson) and best seen in one of Quine’s favorite metaphors of rebuilding the ship as we are sailing it:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”
Otto Neurath, from Wikipedia.

I have quoted 3 philosophers from the analytical tradition and one who was at the source of it. That’s not a coincidence. There is a sense in which what Charles Taylor wants to do is universal and naturalistic if that word is used properly and not just in the restricted way of (exact) scientism. Language and history run in parallel. The life blood of dialogue whether with history in a Gadamerian sense or with friends is the willingness to come to a correct interpretation and understanding of the other party. That is the kind of universal which Taylor – for instance in classing both Habermas and Rawls as somewhat on the wrong side of history – doesn’t really see. Maybe it is also why he did not pursue this type of analytical philosophy. It is anyway true that the atomism of selves he attacks is quite aligned with the atomistic views on language that are attacked by these holistic analytical thinkers.

Back to words.

If the mind is more and more made of words, there is a logic to the logic of mind becoming more and more a logic of language. That there is a logic to language is clear – about as clear as there also being a lot of art in language. In this sense, language is a lot like the physical world which has both energy and entropy. My conjecture is that there is such a thing as the stepping stone theory of language where the movement in building the ship is universal, but the specific motions in (re-)constructing it are in a certain way haphazard. The movement itself is fourfold (I named it quadrialectics) in pointing to the same thing, naming it, getting the name into an accepted common sense and using that basis to proceed to pointing to more complex things (much in the way Carnap attempted to build towards complex cultural concepts). The outcome is always provisional but the movement itself – its élan vital to speak in a Bergsonian way – is universal. The more the mind is made of words, the more this movement dominates the mind explaining why it becomes more and more important throughout history to understand this dynamics.

So the question is: can we find an ethics in seeing language as progress? I’m sure that: “Yes, we can!”, without marking differences of quality before and after a certain paradigm and without marking similar differences between in and out of a certain territory (or of a mode of thinking). The only before and after is the before and after language; specifically the before and after the word “That!”, as uttered or gestured. That sets in motion a new dynamic – the dynamic of culture – with its inescapable nature of respect for others as Levinas had it. As all dynamics it is a dynamic of progress but a progress that doesn’t mark differences but uses differences – as much an inherent good in culture as they are in biology, or physics – to make a difference in progressively adapting words to make for better minds. The word is indeed holy if and when that sentence is taken literally.

The challenge to all of this will be that it is all too ethereal. People are not just words. People have to eat, shit and make love. They are clearly tired of these flimsy fickle feeble-minded stories which promise everything but don’t deliver anything real. Nietzsche never is far away these days as he clearly marked a significant step in the progress by language. However, it is not because we have a knee-jerk reaction that there is a deeper point in our knee jerking. The fact is that this idea of language as progress can be (and is) brought home every day in the concept of friendship and that of love. Just look at the energy spent by parents in getting the kids to engage in talk; an energy which is typically repaid by these kids over a lifetime. In these capitalist times we may despair of lots of things but there’s no reason to despair of the amount of energy dedicated by people in trying to talk to other people; forming new ideas, exchanging enthusiasm on exploring subjects whether scientific, artsy or merely leisurely. It’s quite unthinkable that in any modern family or set of friends there is no intrinsic motivation in loving the other and trying to make the best life possible.

Sure, the mind may be made of words but the mind cannot be seen independently from the body – it is the way we are. Friendship and love are what connects the mind to the body and bring home the power of words into a life of emotions and desire. It’s simply not possible to think of a good life that is not also a life that cares about others and helping others to express themselves. Here I am not trying to make some close-knit argument for anything specific. Language is not a closely knit fabric allowing to cover insecurities – uncertainties – with a nice wooly blanket and this is the sense in which we, as modern people, have to give up comprehensiveness of our doctrines. We are obviously allowed – as Charles Taylor is – to believe we need to believe in something but we have come to this point where we once came as kids: that nothing is quite cut and dried, that impatience goes against the grain of love – that friendship is made first and foremost of patience in talking and trying to understand. We might dream of innocent times but we’re quite certain that such dreams when realized are just nightmares.

What this means is that for all that can be improved in Kant, Rawls and Habermas they’re basically right in establishing ethics as a matter of procedure, of institution and of form. This is not a lifeless suggestion made by severe and cold intellectualists, it is the rational consequence of the premise of love inherent in language and respect for any speaking being however different she is. It does not preclude people of a specific comprehensive filling out of the purpose of their life however personal that always has to be. It gives freedom as well as a complete autonomy for people to do whatever they take to be worthy of pursuit. Anything is truly worthy of pursuit if only it respects the procedure of respect for others. There is an overlapping consensus here which is important but it should not be taken as what gives sense or purpose because the latter we have to embody ourselves in our specific situations without procedural short-cuts. This is what art is trying to do: make love public. The overlapping consensus merely circumscribes the progressive insight of what it takes for people to pursue without compulsion whatever they think will be worth pursuing. In fact compulsion for others to pursue something you believe they should pursue is in clear violation of love and friendship as is any impatience to make something come about because you happen to believe – however good your reasons are – should come about (and you’re sick and tired of making others understand this). We need words and procedures to come off our soap boxes and to sop talking to others. If we talk with others we will get an automatic recompense in adding to the loosely knit fabric of language which is our true democracy as the universe of intelligent – language capable – beings is our true polis.


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