“… the assertion that you are in falsehood and I am in truth, is the most cruel thing one man can say to another …” – Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, XV.
Philosophers have to cconvey their thought (or, their insights, as I prefer to put it) in language, and language is, notoriously, a blunt tool. The more philosophers seek to sharpen that tool by creating special terminologies; the more finely defining and redefining their terms; the more artificial and unlifelike their language becomes; the more removed they find themselves from the core of the original inspiration they meant to convey; the more untrue to the throbbing heart of the living experience they intended to convey. And the predicament does not end there. With the multiplication of terminologies and the refinement of distinctions, the controversies and misunderstandings between different thinkers become more and more confounded. For we delude ourselves if we think that the ‘scholastic quibbling with words’ is behind us; it is as much with us today as it ever was.
The inherent fluidity of language has always been to me an indomitable challenge. In Let Us Philosophize I found myself obliged to include a “Note on Terminology” to prepare the reader for the shock of my special usage, or rather usages, of the particularly troublesome words ‘knowledge’ and ‘reality’. I began the Note with the words, “If my contentions concerning the nature of philosophical thinking have any validity, then it would follow that philosophical terminology can never attain absolute uniformity.” Somewhere in that book I wrote: “Words are treacherous. Words, creatures of the mind, jump at every opportunity to lord it over the mind. There is not a single word that one may use unguardedly. Every word holds out a snare, and one must beware of falling into the snares of words. The mind must constantly assert its mastery over words by re-thinking, re-creating all its terms, all its formulations. Otherwise it soon finds itself a slave to the creatures it created to sing its hymns of glory.”
A word has to be understood – and can only be understood – in its proper universe of discourse. An original thinker’s language will inevitably be peculiar to that thinker, being the embodiment of a unique universe of discourse, and can only be understood in a sympathetically imaginative assimilation of that special universe of discourse.
I am currently reading Schleiermacher’s On Religion (in the English translation of Richard Crouter, CUP, 1988, 1996: I believe this does not negate the relevance of the following remarks). Schleiermacher finds the seat, the ground, of religion (for me, spirituality) in sense and intuition. In my own writings I shy away from the term ‘intuition’ because it has become encumbered with many conflicting constructions. What Schleiermacher means by sense and intuition corresponds to what I mean by understanding. On the other hand, for Schleiermacher understanding is the death of sense and intuition, and hence of true religion. In my usage that would be not understanding but knowledge as opposed to understanding. Thus going by the letter, Schleiermacher’s position seems to be radically opposed to mine, but in truth I find Schleiermacher’s outlook completely harmonious with my own. The discrepancy in terminology is partly contingent and could with some effort be made less glaring if I were to re-write my own text using Schleiermacher’s terminology. But that would not eradicate the basic peculiarity inherent in each writer’s language. Indeed, if I were to dress my thought in Schleiermacher’s or Kant’s or Whitehead’s language (to name only thinkers with whom I have much affinity), that would be more confusing than helpful, because it would blur the specificity of my concepts and thus falsify my special meaning.
Socrates in his trial asks his judges to bear with him if he spoke in his accustomed manner as they would excuse a foreigner who spoke in his native tongue and dialect. As with eveything in Plato, we can find here multiple layers of meaning beneath the surface. If we are to understand a thinker – indeed if we are to understand any of our fellow human beings even on the humdrum level of everyday life – we have, in generous open-mindedness, to allow them to speak not merely their own language but indeed their own ‘dialect’, their peculiar jargon. Else we shut ourselves to the truer communion of soul with soul that is akin to the understanding a mother drinks from the eyes of her baby. Alas! Most of the time in reading a philosopher we deny ourselves this deeper understanding and are content with collecting the empty husks of dead words.
Aristotle’s thought moves in a totally different universe of discourse from that of Plato’s. A Platonist finds it difficult to identify with Aristotle’s outlook, and the reverse is equally true. But that does not justify either a Platonist or an Aristotelist in thinking the other wrong. Either philosopher (any original philosopher for that matter) presents a panoramic landscape of reality which, to the extent that it has intrinsic coherence, enjoys its own rationality and reveals its proper truth. I as a Platonist have repeatedly spoken harshly of Aristotle, but only when considering Aristotle’s negative and unsympathetic evaluations of Plato’s positions.
A. N. Whitehead says, “The dogmas of religion are the attempts to formulate in precise terms the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. In exactly the same way the dogmas of physical science are the attempts to formulate in precise terms the truths disclosed in the sense-perception of mankind” (Religion in the Making, II.ii). In this plain, simple, straightforward explanation of the nature of both religious and scientific dogma Whitehead was not introducing a novel discovery or an abstruse theory, but was affirming something that should have long been part of the intellectual furniture of every civilized human being. Sadly, even today neither the adherents of religious creeds nor those engaged in scientific activity have yet absorbed this simple truth. (Every time I am compelled to use the word ‘truth’ I shudder at the layers upon layers of conflicting meanings and presuppositions hidden under its deceptive transparency.) Religions assume that their fictions report objective actualities and scientisits vainly seek to instal their fictions in place of the actual things they faintly shadow. Scientists and theologians alike endue their words with a sanctity and a finality they are not entitled to assume. They fail to realize that the only reality we know is the reality of the creative mind that produces both the religious metaphor and the scientific abstraction.
Let me seek an illustration in another quarter. Personally I am not comfortable with the current use of the terms ‘dualism’ and ‘monism’. Today monism is equated with materialism or physicalism, while any affirmation of spiritual reality is described as dualism. To me dualism indicates something like the dualism of Descartes who sorted out all reality into two distinct and completely separate substances, or like the dualism implied in the widely accepted and to my mind quite erroneous interpretation of Plato’s so-called ‘Theory of Forms’. When Spinoza revived the integral unity of mind and body in the one ultimate Substance, I would call that monism rather than dualism. In the same way, Socrates’ radical distinction between the intelligible and the sensible which emphasizes and brings into prominence the reality of the intelligible realm is, in my view, consistent with true monism, since, at any rate in my interpretation, the sensible has no reality except under the forms of intelligence, and the intelligible has no actuality except in some perceived instance. — I say all this not to dispute or criticize or seek to reverse the current usage of the terms monism and dualism, but to further illustrate my contention that philosophical terms should always only be understood in the context of the system of thought, of the universe of discourse, of the individual philospher using the terms.
Why are analytical philosophers continually at each other’s throats? It is because they cannot rid themselves of the delusion that words have fixed, inalienable, meanings, and that consequently they are speaking the same language. No two persons ever speak the same language. Except for purely abstract tokens drained of all content, every word has for each individual user associations, nuances, reverberations distinct from those it has for any other user. Albert Einstein has somewhere said, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are uncertain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” I interpret this as meaning that only purely abstract equations can be precise and formally true. Any statement with some content, with some relation to actuality, is necessarily ambiguous.
Whitehead, one of the most penetrating minds of the first half of the twentieth century, when expressing the profoundest thoughts on ultimate principles, writes as obscurely as Heraclitus. In illustration let me quote a paragraph taken at random from Reilgion in the Making:
“The actual world, the world of experiencing and of thinking, and of physical activity, is a community of many diverse entities; and these entities contribute to, or derogate from, the common value of the total community. At the same time, these actual entities are, for themselves, their own value, individual and separable. They add to the common stock and yet they suffer alone. The world is a scene of solitariness in community.” (p.88.)
The statement has the darkness of the deep. Why is this so? It is because he is trying to give expression to insights of the highest generality in original terms. We can only glimpse the meaning underlying such an expression if we enter into sympathetic communion with the whole web of ideas constituting his special universe of discourse.
Cratylus and Antisthenes in olden times, the early Wittgenstein in modern times, divined the truth that to use language is to falsify reality. The three of them were similarly nonplussed. They lacked the audacity of creative intelligence. The dilemma is real but there is a way out for them that dare defy the impossible. We, being imperfect, can only speak half-truths; but if we acknowledge our half-truths to be nothing but half-truths, they cease to be falsehoods: they become strivings towards the truth.
Someone might ask, “What’s the upshot of your argument?” In the first place, I would not call it an argument, but an appeal. An appeal for more generosity in dealing with the thought of anyone who seeks to give expression to a point of view. Plato in his dialogues repeatedly draws attention to the difference between genuine discussion aiming at understanding and disputation whose sole purpose is victory in debate. Unfortunately, most philosophical controversy is more akin to the latter. To enrich our philosophical understanding, we need less of critical acumen and more of sympathetic insight.