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Language, that unthought of

Last Updated: 29 Apr 2021

In his inaugural lecture on general linguistics at the Collège de France on 26 October 2020, the linguist Luigi Rizzi observed that "language is a central component of human life. We live immersed in language. We use it to structure our thoughts, to communicate our thoughts, to interact with others, but also in games, in artistic creation. Its omnipresence, paradoxically, makes language difficult to approach as an object of scientific study. It is so inseparable from the major aspects of human life that we no longer see its remarkable properties. "

In Les mots et les choses Michel Foucault points out, even though language is at the basis of all things in life, thought and all scientific developments, that linguistics became in the nineteenth century one science among others, and language one scientific object among others (p. 307 ff), and to sum up, he says "this thought which has been speaking for millennia, without knowing what it is to speak or even that it speaks" (p. 317).

It must be said that in the 1950s, before language was reduced to an instrument of communication, the whole Western tradition was that there was the real world on the one hand and the mind on the other, and that the main function of language was to describe the real world as man saw it.

This is a fairly simple representation, so simple that it is still dominant today, with the added nuance that language is defined essentially as a tool for communication, without much thought being given to what communication is. Is it the exchange of information in the form of messages, with a sender with his or her A-language and a receiver, with his or her A- or B-language, and a black box between the two? This is how communication is schematized in theoretical works, particularly in linguistics.

One can understand that, seen from this angle, language and tongues, both all seen as a scientific object and as an ordinary object, are so unattractive.

Nor is it irrelevant to ask the question of what is meant by the real world.

The saying 'I only believe what I see' is absolutely dreadful. A saying that circulates a lot today under different avatars is also, "the truth is what I believe". Two antinomic speeches. But let's take a closer look.

For Descartes, reality is what is intelligible clear and distinct ideas, it is what is susceptible of exact knowledge. He does not deny the existence of the infinite, but the infinite is beyond what is intelligible.

This is not at all the opinion of Leibniz, who conceptually will make us take a prodigious leap forward.

On the one hand, the real world is such as we perceive it, but there are clear perceptions, a sort of first circle corresponding more or less to Descartes' definition, but there is also a world of small perceptions, which in modern terms would correspond to the world of the unconscious. He goes so far as to assert that the brain never ceases to function, i.e. to think, even in sleep.

But Leibniz goes much further. If he considers that humans are endowed with more or less the same capacity to perceive and think from what they perceive, it remains that they cannot have a complete view of the world and that they will always have their own point of view on it. But if each point of view must therefore be relativised, this does not mean that each point of view is without value, since humans, and more generally living beings, are endowed with systems of perception and intelligibility which are common and therefore universal, and which participate in the world order willed by God. Thus, the Leibnizian system of pre-established harmony gives the universal not the characteristic of what is common to everyone, but corresponds to unity in diversity or diversity in unity. The universal would thus be the sum of our singularities and not just what we think we have in common.

The concept of point of view, which will be found in Kant, in Saussure and in all the phenomenology, does not invalidate reality in any way, and Kant will give a new foundation to objectivity. What is objective is what is accepted as true by the community, which gives objectivity an intrinsic evolutivity, because there is always a gap between what is held to be true, common sense, as it were, and scientific truth.

The scientific paradox is precisely that scientific discovery always upsets common sense.

We are often mistaken when we use Nietzsche's quote "There are no facts. There are only interpretations" and we deduce that there is no reality and that all interpretations are equal. Nietzsche also writes: "What do we generally understand by a natural law? It is not known to us in itself but only by its effects, that is, by its relations to other natural laws which in turn are known to us only as a sum of relations." (Truth and untruthfulness in the extra-moral sense, p. 24). Reminding us that we do not have direct access to reality, Nietzsche is merely echoing Leibniz and Kant. Nor is he far from Gaston Bachelard when the latter explains that "a scientific experience is an experience that contradicts common experience." (The Formation of the Scientific Mind, p. 10).

Language is thus this invisible reality. Like the eye which does not see itself, the speaker does not know what speaking means.

The purpose of this little philosophical diversion is simply to meant that language is not only a representation of reality, but that reality is created in language when language itself does not create reality.

It is clear that Leibniz is one of the first to have grasped the problem of the diversity of languages. Without abandoning the hypothesis of monogenesis, he gave up the idea of an Adamic language that would say everything about man in favour of the idea that languages carry their own creativity. And his interest in languages, which never stopped growing throughout his life, makes it possible to see in him, not a founder of linguistics, but at least a precursor of comparative historical linguistics.
A generation later, through different ways, the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico explained the diversity of languages by the diversity of historical experiences. This is not a question of trivial nature.
Let us reread the explanation given by Jürgen Trabant1 : "The civil world, that of which we can have science, that is to say assured knowledge, because we have made it ourselves, thus consists of two orders of things: the material organisation of the world, the "coltura" which makes possible political organisation in a narrow sense, and the intellectual organisation which is a linguistic or let us say rather semiotic or "sématological" organisation. Man is the one who works and thinks, who works with others and thinks with others, who therefore speaks. The mondo civile is not only the political organisation, but always also language or sign.

The two things always go together: man does not only create a political organisation as such, he always designates it, he creates at the same time signs to think-speak this political organisation. "

But thinking about the diversity of languages, from the explicit perspective of multiplicity within the unity of human language, is undoubtedly the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Not only did he study a multiplicity of languages, but he theorised the genesis, the diversification, the splitting, the development, the decline and the disappearance of languages. Beyond the physical elements of climate, geography, weather, population mixtures, there is history and political events.

We live in a permanent language bath in which our behaviour is determined.

It is enough to pay attention to this fact for a whole day to understand the significance of this kind of statement.

Let's take a very small example: the french word of laïcité. It is impossible to understand if you have not assimilated 800 years of French and European history in one way or another.

You cannot get rid of it without destroying 800 years of history in the memory of humanity. To see it as a slogan, or worse as an act of war, is the most perfect expression of infinite barbarity, both internal and external. Talking about laicity is a noble and essential activity.

This means very clearly that language is simply existential.

It is therefore surprising that language is so absent from thought such as it is lived.

We don't say 'of modern thought' because language is, on the contrary, extremely present in a certain modern or rather postmodern thought which separates it from reality and ultimately disqualifies it.

To borrow journalistic language, we say that language has completely got off the radar and we will give some painful illustrations of this.

Certainly, there are signs that something is wrong. First, there are the appeals of the Unesco concerning the accelerated disappearance of rare languages which, if we fail to save them, we would at least like to preserve the descriptions in order to fill museums and maintain a few research laboratories. There is also the belated interest in regional languages which, as far as the general public is concerned, is part of a criticism of modernist globalisation rather than a reflection on the meaning of language. Apart from these very subtle signs, it is a desert.

Here are some very simple ways of measuring the linguistic desert that inhabits our contemporaries.

In a famous book published in 1971, Future Shock, by Alvin Tofler, 601 pages, the question of language is mentioned only once to deal with the acceleration of vocabulary renewal. Half a century later, one can read with interest Futur, Notre avenir de A à Z by Antoine Buéno (Flammarion, 674 p.). One will be surprised not to find even a word on language in the chapter on education.

Other examples of this linguistic nothingness of the present time. Take a general culture book, the kind of little manual that you use at the last minute for the competitive examination you are about to take, which I will not mention. 48 cards, the "language" card is in 25th position between "intellectual" and "liberalism", a question of alphabetical order. Take another: 115 cards, 3 on the brain, 1 on Nebuchadnezzar, none on language and tongue.

Is language a blind spot in contemporary thought?

One more example to convince us of this. From September 2003 to March 2004, a major national debate on Education was organised at the request of the President of the Republic and the government. The comments made during these six months were reproduced in a book entitled Les Français et leur École - Le Miroir du débat. It cannot be said that language is totally absent from this 575-page book, where on page 57, in relation to the definition of the common base, there is a consideration full of common sense: 'The command of language of language above all - If we stick to knowledge, we find two subjects in the first place, French and mathematics, followed by English and history. Very often, the discussion is limited to French alone, as in this secondary school in the Saint-Germain-en-Laye district, where there is concern that "most pupils leaving primary school do not master the French language", and then regret that "new subjects taught (computer science) reduce the hours of fundamental subjects like French". This reflects a strong concern about the lack of mastery of the language.

In some debates, however, the issue is considered to be distorted by the national assessment (CE2/6e), which focuses solely on French and mathematics. Doesn't the institution itself distinguish two 'noble' disciplines at the expense of others? This supremacy is denounced: "The wider the field of study, the more likely children are to adapt (to the world that will be theirs in ten years). It is therefore necessary to preserve all subjects, and not to focus on French and mathematics" (public schools in the Cholet district). "

It is clear from this single extract from the book devoted to language that there is a great deal of indeterminacy that will be found in the educational policy pursued from the 1960s to the present day.

During this entire period, during which it was mainly a question of adapting education to the imperatives of the economy and the globalisation, and this was done by governments of both the left and the right wings, the practice of repeating a year, which was highly developed in France in particular, from primary school onwards, was gradually abandoned. So whole generations of pupils went into the sixth form without the linguistic fundamentals that would enable them to progress in other subjects, the idea being that they still had time to acquire them. And these pupils then failed in special education sections until they reached the age limit of compulsory schooling, with no serious hope of entering the world of work. It was Jack Lang who, from 2000 onwards, sought to reverse the trend by organising early support to correct the disastrous language deficit of the pupils leaving primary school. This policy was not pursued and is now being taken up by Jean-Michel Blanquer through the splitting in two of classes in priority areas. But we cannot take back the hundreds of thousands of children who have been sacrificed (between 150,000 and 200,000 children per year for 40 years, that's between 6 and 8 million children lost or almost) by pure ignorance of the language fact. Of course, the decrees for the start of the new school year and the curricula have always stressed the primary importance of language. But as this 'primordial importance' was apparently not understood by decision-makers or by society as a whole, the consequences of what 'primordial importance' means were not drawn.

This degeneration of language that can be seen in this example has important consequences for social behaviour.

It is quite easy to understand that the victims of the practices we have just mentioned are of course the most vulnerable populations, and it is not necessary to look very far into the most recent news to measure the serious consequences.

Of course, the linguistic aspects are not the only ones involved, but they are undeniable and are all the more serious as they are not known.

Do not think that we are making a central issue of the "beautiful language", the privilege of "cultured" people. It is rather the question of using the right language.

Daily life is full of illustrations of this problem.

In the midst of the pandemic, the question of vaccination arises. Reports are circulating that people vaccinated with Astrazeneca have suffered from very specific thrombosis and that some have died. The headlines include phrases such as "but these cases are still rare", "but the risk is minimal", "the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the drawbacks", "it's better to be vaccinated anyway", "more lives saved than deaths". Searching inside the articles, one ends up extracting three figures which, at the time of writing this article, are no longer accurate: worldwide, there have been 16 reported cases, including 4 deaths, out of 34 million people vaccinated. Obviously, disseminating information in this form could not fail to provoke a vast movement of mistrust in the population. This is a typical example of the lack of language skills at various levels of the communication chain, which, to avoid offending anyone, we will refer to as communicators. If the said communicators had had any idea of the notions of probability or risk, which seem to be part of a minimal general culture, they would have used other expressions than these vague formulations which had only a distant relationship with reality. Measuring the disaster, after a few weeks, some scientists ended up explaining that the risk of dying from being vaccinated with Astrazeneca was no greater than that of leaving home to cross the street or take a car: a risk of between 1 in 100,000 and 1 in 1 million.

In such a context, how can we prevent resurgences of magical thinking, invoking the wrath of the gods, that is to say the most primitive forms of human thought.

1Jürgen Trabant, « La science de la langue que parle l’histoire idéale éternelle », Noesis [Online], 8 | 2005, Online since 30 March 2006, connection on 24 April 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/noesis/137