Transcending Language: The Rule of Evocation
It is the goal of this essay to challenge the belief that one never transcends language that all one knows, indeed all one can meaningfully experience, is defined within language. My challenge lies not in words, but in the use of words to evoke what is beyond language and to invite a lived experience of it. It is rooted in the belief that this use of language is not only possible, but primary.
My challenge must reside in this use of language rather than in language itself because language itself can be viewed as a closed system. One can look at language totally in isolation from its use to evoke what is beyond language. From this viewpoint nothing is seen but a series of internally related and defined signs. If one also accepts the idea that all uses of language are defined by the internal rules of language, it then seems quite natural to also believe there is nothing, or nothing one can use language to point to, beyond language.
I am not the only person to challenge the language-trapped position. Erazim Kohak eloquently points to what I mean by the evocative use of language in The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature when he says that:
Furthermore, the belief that evocation is primary is an old one. Indeed, George Steiner in Real Presences refers to:
More recently, M. C. Dillon, in the conclusion to his critique of one variety of the language-trapped position (aptly entitled Semiological Reductionism: A Critique of the Deconstructionist Movement in Postmodern Thought) raises the issue of moral responsibility and says:
Most recently, Eugene Kelly, in a section of his book Structure and Diversity: Studies in the Phenomenological Philosophy of Max Scheler (4) defending Scheler's approach to other minds (with its claim that we have direct access to others minds), notes that:
If one is to see that the evocative use of language is not only possible but primary, however, one must radically revise and even reverse the understanding of language and its functions from that derived from a study of language as a self-sufficient set of internally defined signs. One must see that the "rules" of the evocative use of language are radically different from the "rules" internal to language.
First of all, under the rule of evocation no matter how elegant the system of signs may be (or how fascinating its deep rules or the weave of interpretation (6) ), that system of signs (and those rules and/or weave) are radically incomplete until we use them to evoke what is beyond language. Achievement is now defined not by the internal rules or weave of language, or by what language communally "constitutes," but only by the success we have in using language to get another person to experience what one has experienced beyond language.
Another key reversal is in the understanding of where meaning ultimately comes from. If what is beyond language is primary, meaning is not ultimately defined internal to language. As Kohak puts it at another point in The Embers and the Stars:
Again, Dillon also gives testimony to this as he develops the "prima facie difference between poppies, syringes, automobiles, human bodies, and so forth and the signifiers that designate and refer to them," saying:
To accept the rule of evocation as primary, one must see that meaning ultimately resides in the transcendent. It is very hard for language-trapped thinkers to accept this, for their position reverses what is primary and what is secondary. Rather than looking beyond language for meaning, they look to language. For the language-trapped thinker, what we see through language can only be seen in language. Richard Rorty, in his introduction to the Consequences of Pragmatism: (Essays: 1972-1980), quotes Wittgenstein, Sellars, Quine, Davidson, Peirce, Derrida, Gadamer, Foucault and Heidegger as representatives of a chorus of such language-trapped voices, and then says:
Note how, despite the fact that Rorty here speaks of the attempt to ground language being grounded in something that transcends it, he speaks of grounding in terms of what goes on within language. For Rorty, "grounding" occurs when language "expresses" something or is "adequate" to it.
Yet under the rule of evocation this is neither primary or necessary. Language need not "express" what transcends language, it must simply evoke the transcendent, it must simply lead us to experience it. When it does so, and only then, is language "adequate." This is because under the rule of evocation language is not, to use the title of one of Rorty's earlier works, the "mirror of nature." (10) Language is not the mirror which Rorty rejects, it is a window.
The difference between a mirror and a window is instructive. When one looks in a mirror, what one sees is not something seen directly, but a reflection, a re-presentation of it. When one looks through a window you see the thing directly. Unfortunately, the language-trapped thinkers can not look through the window. They must insist that language in some way "expresses" whatever is "re-presented." Language must in some way "capture" within itself whatever it refers to. Language must in some way "resemble" and "correspond" to what is represented. It is then a relatively simple task to raise serious questions about this quite indirect, disconnected, and reversed "grounding."
Once one accepts the possibility of the primacy of evocation, however, one sees that language need not in any way resemble what it is pointing to, any more than a finger resembles what it points to. Language need not capture within itself anything of what it is pointing to, nor need it "express" what is "re-presented." Indeed, although representation is a common and, if not radically misunderstood, useful technique used in evocation, some of the most powerful forms of evocation deliberately forswear any simple use of resemblance or representation, and sometimes even deliberately break the internal "rules" (or conventions) internal to language precisely to evoke what can never be "put into words" (think, for example, of "negative definitions" of God, etc.)
To sum up my claim. In the evocative use of language I do not "re-cognize" something in the language. I cognize it directly because someone was skilled enough to use language to evoke my experience of it. In the evocative use of language, the language used need not in any way within itself express, reproduce, re-present, or capture what it evokes. It need simply evoke it. And such an evocation is not a re-presentation in language of what is evoked. It is a presentation of the thing itself.
A simple example may help to show this. I was brought to an understanding of the nature of a triangle through the evocative use of language. I came to know a triangle, not a "re-presentation" of a triangle. I did not look at the crudely drawn "lines" on a blackboard and listen to the words of my teacher to see the essential features of a triangle in those crudely drawn lines or those words. I used those lines and words to see the triangle itself, and seeing the triangle itself I saw the essential features of a triangle. Indeed, only after I saw the triangle itself could I go back and notice the crudeness of the blackboard re-presentation of it. This is not to endorse any metaphysical theory accounting for the "reality" or "ideality" of the triangle I experienced. It is simply to distinguish between my experience of the triangle itself, and any language (words, lines, gestures) I experienced to get to that triangle.
Yet why is it so hard to see the primacy of evocation? One reason is that one uses language for purposes other than evoking what is beyond language. For example, even if the use of language to evoke the transcendent is the primary use of language, after we have experienced the transcendent, we often wish to save directions on how we got to it in a way that will be easily accessible to as many people as possible. (What you are reading or hearing is an example of this use of language.) This is to use language as a depository.
Kohak, for one, creatively contrasts the use of language to evoke what is beyond language with the use of language as a depository. When one uses language as a depository the immediate goal is not to evoke experience, but to encode information in the most durable and easily accessible form possible. In such a use the internal rules of a language do come to the fore. If one does not effectively encode the information one wishes to save, one runs the risk that the message will become garbled (and if you are not there in person you will not be able to detect and correct the now mis-direction.) Thus, one quite rightly turns attention from evocation to the mechanics of the language one must use for such encoding. The immediate task of sharing direct access to a transcendent is replaced with a concern to find the most fool-proof method of transmitting data.
Thus, when one uses language as a depository the main concern must be with finding what can be "put into words." This is shown nicely in Kohak's examples of the computer to store and share information. In contrast to the communication achievable through evocation:
Such encoding and transfer of information is immensely useful but dangerous. For one thing, there is the ever-present temptation to only do what the machinery allows (necessary when the machinery is a computer, but not when it is language). More importantly, as Kohak points out, if this or any other secondary use of language becomes the prime model of the use of language, the results can be quite disastrous. As he puts it:
Indeed, even when one is focused on encoding data, one must never forget that ultimately what is so encoded ought, eventually, to again take life when it is used not for storage but to evoke an experience beyond itself when once again it invites us to transcend language.
If one believes in the primacy of the evocative use of language there is still much work to be done. Simply seeing there is something beyond language is not enough. When one moves beyond simple seeing to knowing, one must make claims and test such claims. If truth ultimately resides beyond language, one must ultimately find ways of testing claims to knowledge that lie not within language, but within the lived experiences of that which transcends language. The first step, and one many thinkers can no longer make, is to accep the invitation to look not at language, but through it. This essay is meant as an invitation to do so.
(1) Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 641.
(2) George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991) p. 89.
(3) M. C. Dillon, Semiological Reductionism: A Critique of the Deconstructionist Movement in Postmodern Thought (Albany: State University of New York, 1995), p. 166.
(4) Eugene Kelly, Structure and Diversity: Studies in the Phenomenological Philosophy of Max Scheler (Dordrecht / Boston /London: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1997), pp. 247. (This book is Volume 141 in the Phaenomenologia Series.)
(5) Ibid., p. 146.
(6) There are important debates between "structuralists" and "deconstructors" over the nature of the internally-defined "rules" of language (for example, over whether the rules of language are fixed and immutable or not) Yet no matter what position you take in such a debate, seeking, for example, a priori deep rules or arguing that there are no fixed rules but rather an endless weave of interpretation, you are still working within the confines of language. Even the position developed by John Stewart that language does not represent a separate world, though it rejects the semiotic approach to representation in ways that parallel my criticism, still stays within the trap of language. Stewart argues that language is a collaborative process of communal constitute, and although he does transcend the "symbol model," he does not transcend language. (See John Stewart, Language as Articulate Contact: Toward a Post Semiotic Philosophy of Communication [Albany: S.U.N.Y. Press, 1995], pp. xiv+303 and John Stewart, ed., Beyond the Symbol Model: Reflections on the Representational Nature of Language [Albany: S.U.N.Y. Press, 1996], pp. 343.)
(7) Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars, p. 54.
(8) M. C. Dillon, Semiological Reduction, p. 166.
(9) Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism: (Essays: 1972-1980) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. xix-xx.
(10) Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979).
(11) Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars, p. 65.
(12) Ibid., pp. 65-66.