Mystics and Hubristics


Continuing from: the Stupidest Idea

Certain people believe (or purport to believe) that all thought is in language, that being itself is in language, that "language is the house of being," that nothing escapes language, that "there is nothing outside the text," that, in principle at least, everything is expressible, or at least that everything that is important is expressible and that if anything else remains, we may discard it as irrelevant.  We can call these people "Hubristics."

Then, certain other people make language into a kind of villain, and believe not only that the most important truths are ultimately inexpressible, but that one shouldn't try - that attempting to express the inexpressible can only have a corrupting influence, that all representation is corruption, that we should "embrace the silence," that only a pure, unmediated experience is genuinely authentic.  Some go so far as to take a vow of silence.  We can call these people "Mystics."

Both of these camps undoubtedly have their strengths, and their own kind of wisdom, which is worth exploring and respecting.  But both are incomplete, and for the same reason, for they both make the same mistake.

Both the Mystics and the Hubristics regard language fundamentally as a given, static totality.  (Some of them have the decency to come by this honestly, expressly conceiving of language "synchronically".)  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.  Nothing changes as much as language.  Language is constantly shifting, transforming, expanding, condensing, sliding in all directions. What is inexpressible in language at one time and place may suddenly or gradually become expressible.  (Is the reverse true? Are there things that formerly were expressible that become inexpressible?)  What both camps fail to see is themselves - their own agency (don't we all).  What they miss is that they, themselves, are creating language, whether they realize it or not, and they have the power to create language differently.

Wittgenstein has both Mystic and Hubristic tendencies, and he makes both Mystic and Hubristic errors.  Indeed, he makes perhaps the greatest possible error on this subject when he says, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must pass over in silence."  This sentence can be taken at least two ways - Mystically, and Hubristically - depending upon one's mood (and the underlying mood of this sentence may be, at least in part, inexpressible...).

In any case, precisely the opposite is true.  Those things that are currently inexpressible are the very things that call to us, more than anything else, to be expressed.  If that means we must come up with new names, new words, even a new grammar, then so be it.

A great artist makes art about that which cannot be expressed in words.  A great writer does this with words.


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