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Contradictions and language

September 4, 2011

The experience of life is beset with contradiction, even paradoxes. To say this is banal yet it touches the deepest parts of human experience. Such contradictions can be a source of internal conflict and unhappiness. We can refer to this fact of our lives with folk truths and clichés or we can explore it using analytic philosophy and the demanding languages of mathematical and philosophical logic.

I have often thought that there is a contradiction at the very heart of our existence in that we are all, whilst living, also dying. We exist in a continuous state of permanent contradiction: our state is one of living and dying at the same time. Some of my more analytical philosophical friends have dismissed this way of describing things as trivial or confused, so it was of interest to me to learn this week, in his obituary, of what the artist Roman Opalka has said: we are ‘at the same time alive and in the face of death…The problem is that we are and are about not to be.’

But above all, what the fact of such contradictions mean for me is that there is no way to express the most important aspects of experience in language. There is a fundamental conflict between life as it is experienced – some might call it the ‘qualia’ of being – and any linguistic attempt to express that experience. Whatever sentence we use to express what we want to say, when we talk metaphysics and the most important aspects of our being, it is never quite right. There is always another possible qualification. There are always further attempts necessary to add context, knock down possible counter arguments, give more examples and colour. Geoffrey Lloyd reminds me that this is close to the classical position of the sceptics: the principle of equipollence says that for every positive view, an equally powerful negative view of the same matter can be proposed.

However this was for the Greeks, this has the effect on me that I am often in a state of dissatisfaction. My instinct, in so far as I wish to apperceive ‘reality’, is to remain silent so that this reality and my experience of it can be properly conjoined; yet of course, in daily life one is constantly driven to try to express oneself in language. In my case, this has the rather contradictory result that I often end up speaking too much: I seek constantly the extra phrase, the perfect qualifying sentence which will finally encapsulate what I  really want to say. The oddness is that I continue to seek the way to say it, though I am in full possession of the knowledge that I cannot. This is the strange state of affairs that humans find themselves in: language is all they have to really say what they mean, yet it cannot access that meaning when it comes to anything other than the banal.

My friend Peter Gibson expresses something like this – insofar as I understand it – as a difference between propositions and sentences. Propositions are thoughts as they form in the mind, before they are rendered as language. Propositions, therefore, lead sentences chronologically. I would say, in this description, that sentences can never quite capture propositions either; the propositions may appear vaguer (for what is vagueness other than something to do with ambiguity in language?) but they are, in fact, closer to the reality, the state of affairs, one is struggling to express.

The joy and power of art is that it speaks directly of these most important aspects of experience, without fear of contradiction. Where what we would usually call language fails, art can succeed because the way it speaks does not brook contradiction – at least not so long as one desists from talking about the art or one’s experience of it. The direct apperception of the painting, the dance and, above all, the music does bring with it something of the qualia of existence one seeks before one attempts to describe the experience in language. Although poetry is, of course, conveyed in language, it too works by succeeding to convey more than is in its sentences. Successful poetry is language which somehow (one is tempted to say miraculously) conveys ideas beyond the reach of language.

We are stuck with language, but it can never quite touch the sides when it comes to trying to express our most profound sense of being, our contact with reality, even what we might call our metaphysics. We need language for our daily affairs and our human relations but it breaks as much as it joins. Despite the contradictions that language brings and its inability to bridge the gap between what is important to our internal worlds and what needs to be done in our external worlds, we are stuck with it. One might say, to parody Churchill: ‘Language is the worst way to express oneself, except for all those other forms that have been tried.’ We cannot avoid language and we must do our best to use it honestly and to express our thoughts. We all need to take time out from language, however, to rest for a while in what really counts.


From → Personal, Philosophy

  1. philosophyideas permalink

    This is too pessimistic. To say, as you seem to, that language always fails, while something like music or dance has a real chance of ‘succeeding’, seems wrong. Language sometimes succeeds completely. At the very least ‘pass the salt’ succeeds if the salt arrives. And ‘I love you’ can’t go much better than suddenly learning that it is reciprocated (even if we have to add, like Prince Charles, ‘whatever “love” means’). I don’t think of non-verbal activities as somehow doing the job better, but as simply indulging in a parallel inexpressible activity rather well. The beauty of taking part in dancing, sport or music is precisely that they don’t aspire to express anything at all, but just to ‘be’. If you actually want to express what is going on around here, then I really think language is rather good, and some people have been incredibly effective at it. If I try to imagine how the Archangel Gabriel might express him/herself, I can’t conceive of anything better than whatever the best philosophers, essayists, novelists and (even) journalists have managed.

    • Peter, thanks for this response. I am not at all denying the utility of language in, say, helping us to pass the correct condiments down the table. Or even, perhaps, in helping us to express vaguely some things we think we all (or ALMOST all – Prince Charles apart) recognise. But these are not the things one means when one speaks about a direct perception of reality, a kind of methaphysical contact with what is most real – one might want to say what is most important. Of course words fail one here – that is the point. At the risk of opening up large cans of philosophical worms, I think this is what Wittgenstein means when he tries to distinguish between saying and showing. Music, poetry and the like show us things that nothing can say. And on certain days of the week (perhaps the days we value most) I want to say with Wittgenstein that the arts (but also silence) show us the more important things.

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