thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #10

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I desperately wanted this to be my last post on Real presences1 in particular and George Steiner in general. Reading Real presences has been driving me mad and has put me off wanting to read anything by George Steiner ever again.

Tenth in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence2 and Real presences

See also Whispers of the gods #1; #2#3; #4; #5; #6; #7; #8; and #9.

I’ve covered the first section (A SECONDARY CITY) in far too much detail, and it only just lays a few foundations for his argument. The next section (THE BROKEN CONTRACT) starts by focusing on something akin to philosophy of language. Every page has at least two or three assertions which either don’t make any sense to me or, if I think I do understand them, I don’t agree with.

But the last thing I want to do is start a point-by-point counter-argument, as that really could be the last thing I do. I don’t know if it was deliberate or just ironic that A SECONDARY CITY devoted so many words to three examples of endless chains of interpretation but endlessness is what I have begun to associate with Real presences and I have to engineer a controlled stop.

I must try to pass over the pages of idiosyncratic if not dubious assertion. But I can’t resist one little quote. Double negatives tend to obscure rather than clarify, so not infrequently I have to remind myself to avoid them. Behold, from Real presences:

Writing, also, offers what comes very near to being a disproof of the impossibility of the unending:…

Marquis de Sade

Marquis de Sade

Isn’t that a triple negative? As it happens the rest of the sentence is no clearer:

…in the libido scribendi of Sade’s prose, punctuation marks are nothing more than a pause for breath, scornfully conceded, in a language act which aims to exhaust, to exploit devouringly, the entirety of the sensory sets, series and combinations latent in imagining.

While we’re on the subject of negativity:

[T]he unboundedness of discursive potentiality has its negative side. The unarrested infinity of conceivable propositions and statements entails the logic of nullity and of nihilism. In so far as they are language, this is to say intelligibly spoken or written, all affirmations, all ‘proofs’ of the existence or non-existence of God are unbarred to negation. In the city of words, equal legitimacy attaches to the conviction that the predication of God’s existentiality lies at the source of human speech and constitutes its final dignitas; and to the view of the logical positivists that such predication has the same status as nonsense rhymes.

Steiner seems to have moved from the uncharacteristically plain English of ‘Anything can be said and, in consequence, written about anything’ (which could well be true) to the quite false conclusion that anything that is said is equally true – for what else can ‘legitimate’ mean in this context?

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

He does something similar when he talks about aesthetic language:

Because semantic means are unconstrained, anything can be said or written about any other semantic act, about any other construct or form of expressive signification. There is unbounded licence of possible statement about each and every text, painting, statue, piece of music and, in natural consequence, on each and every secondary or tertiary comment or explication arising from them. Even as nothing in our physiological equipment or in the lexicon and rules of speech prevents us from uttering the irreparable and the untrue, so there is no conceivable arrest, no internal or external prohibition – except in the wholly contingent sense of censorship or taboo – on the enunciation of any aesthetic proposition.

That Balzac could pronounce the novels of Ann Radcliffe to be superior to those of Stendhal…, that Tolstoy could proclaim King Lear to be “beneath serious criticism”, that Nietzsche could judge Bizet to be a finer musician than Wagner, …are wholly legitimate products of the uncircumscribed nature of the semantic field and of the unmapped variousness of the human psyche.

[I]nasmuch as the generation and communicative verbalization of all interpretations and value-judgements are of the order of language, all elucidation and criticism of literature, music and the arts must operate within the undecidability of unbounded sign-systems. Aesthetic perception knows no Archimedean point outside discourse. The root of all talk is talk.

Talk can neither be verified or falsified in any rigorous sense. This is the open secret which hermeneutics and aesthetics, from Aristotle to Croce, have laboured to exorcize or to conceal from themselves and their clients…

Please forgive the long quotation. But I wanted to illustrate how this avalanche of polysyllabic erudition still doesn’t hide what seems a very simple blunder.

Yes it is possible to say anything about anything. ‘The chain of signs is infinite’: happy to agree. It may also be that aesthetic statements cannot be verified or falsified, cannot be true or false. But if aesthetic statements cannot be verified or falsified, it is not because they are texts about texts, part of that infinite chain of signs.

Some examples:

(i) This sentence is six words long.

(ii) This sentence is five words long.

(iii) Sentence (i) is six words long.

(iv) Sentence (i) is five words long.

(v) Sentence (iii) is true.

(vi) Sentence (iii) is false.

Sentences (i) and (ii) are both ‘texts’ and ‘meta-texts’ as they are about themselves. Sentence (i) is true and sentence (ii) is false.

Sentence (iii) is a meta-text as it is about sentence (i). It is true. Sentence (iv) is also a meta-text about sentence (i), but it is false.

Sentence (v) is a ‘meta-meta-text’ – as it is about sentence (iii) which is itself a meta-text – and it is true. Sentence (vi) is also a meta-meta-text about meta-text (iii), and it is false.

We know sentences (i), (iii) and (v) are true because they can be verified – by counting the words in sentence (i). The same counting is what falsifies sentences (ii), (iv) and (vi).

I have deliberately chosen apparently ‘frivolous’ examples to highlight the flaw in Steiner’s assertion. Aesthetic judgments and literary interpretations may be impossible to verify or falsify but, if so, it is not because they are texts about texts. If there is a reason, the reason is something else.

It is not as if this is a minor thread in Real presences. The fallacy is going from ‘x is true of A’ and ‘y is true of A’ to ‘x is true of A because y is true of A’.

Friedrich Hölderlin

Friedrich Hölderlin

Here is another trick:

One word can cripple a human relation, can do dirt on hope. The knives of saying cut deepest. Yet the identical instrument, lexical, syntactic, semantic, is that of revelation, of ecstasy, of the wonder of understanding that is communion. Reciprocally, speech that can articulate the ethics of Socrates, the parables of Christ, the master-building of being in Shakespeare or Hölderlin, can, by exactly the same virtue of unconstrained potentiality, blueprint and legislate the death camps and chronicle the torture chamber. The mountebank’s virtuosity with words of a Hitler is anti-matter, it realizes a counter-Logos which conceptualizes and then enacts the deconstruction of the humane.

Or as the King James Bible says far more concisely and poetically:

… for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust3

Steiner is trying to make out that is something unique about the ‘unconstrained potentiality’ of language which can feed his thesis about language and meaning. But it won’t wash. Socrates, Jesus and Hitler breathed the same air, they all ate bread. They used the same human faculty of will-power. The heat energy which stops generations of humans from freezing to death every winter is the same heat energy which incinerated the victims of Auschwitz. Steiner seems to get so carried away by the unconstrained potentiality of all the thousands of words he knows that he ends up saying far less than he thinks he says.

I’m now going to make a big jump. To get to the point where I can say goodbye to Steiner I need to ignore another twenty-odd pages of Steinerspeak. It will have to be next time. And I really hope next time is the last time.


1 George Steiner, Real presences, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

2 George Steiner, Language and silence, London, 1967.

3 Bible (King James Version), Matthew 5:45.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

24 December 2009 at 6:43 pm

6 Responses

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  1. […] a response to one of my own posts, Terry asked me what I thought about this huge […]

  2. Chris – Two nights ago I watched a BBC programme presented by a professor here at Cambridge university on Chaos theory. I didn’t expect to learn much new because I thought I was acquainted with the basic tenets. But I was absolutely gob-smacked by the implications. Along with fractals, it extends Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from the quantum level to the full scope of macro level systems. The programme ended with the conclusion that even when systems are totally determined, and even when we can describe them with complete mathematical clarity, we cannot predict how they will evolve in the long run.

    I’ve written a couple of folksy posts on TheOtherI, but I would be interested to know if you have a take on the subject. It seems to me it has two implications. First, it extends uncertainty to practical realities of the human condition (like weather and stock market predictions) and makes this uncertainty intrinsically insurmountable. The future is quite simply unpredictable. This, I think, puts limits on the scope of validating scientific theories.

    But possibly even more interesting is the conclusion that chaos (or what looks like chaos to the human eye) is the fundamental partner of increasing levels of organization. The emergence of this organization does not require the direction of an outside or higher intelligence. It arises from an intrinsic characteristic of chaos without pre-planning or intentional purpose.

    Lovely, isn’t it? I have no desire whatsoever to ruin such breath-taking mysterious beauty by putting it under the boot of a Being from Above or of Intelligent Design.

    This whole idea may not catch your imagination as it does mine, so once again, please do not feel that I expect you, out of courtesy, to dredge up some comments on these thoughts if you are immersed in something you find more compelling.

    But thank you for listening. That in itself makes you a treasure.

    Terry Sissons

    17 January 2010 at 4:55 pm

    • Thanks Terry – I saw the program was on but missed it alas.

      I’m afraid I’m very ignorant about Chaos Theory but I do find it fascinating. I remember reading somewhere recently (can’t remember where) that there was some connection with irrational numbers (??) and I remember feeling it suddenly made a tiny bit of sense to me.

      I am not quite Steiner-free yet but there is a ghostly glow shaped like the end of a tunnel.


      Chris Lawrence

      17 January 2010 at 7:35 pm

  3. I was just about to post a comment about validation – eg the validation of science vs religion vs the arts vs private experience – and got waylaid reading your latest Steiner post. Above all I found myself laughing at your sheer exasperation. And in admiration of your tenacity. I must admit there is no way my patience would have lasted so long.

    Along the way, though, I did get a partial answer to the question I was going to pose to you: how do you validate the arts? how do we validate a conclusion that Beethoven is great music? or Da Vinci a great painter, or Auden a great poet? I think you might say that perhaps we can’t?

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this question as a result of our earlier discussion about mystery and “love is enough” etc. and I suspect I might have a slightly different take. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

    In the meantime, may you be at peace with Steiner!

    Terry Sissons

    5 January 2010 at 7:27 pm

    • Phew, thanks again.

      That’s a huge question. The fact that I find the contribution a ‘polymath’ like Steiner makes rather unhelpful on balance doesn’t mean I’m particularly close to a positive answer.

      I shall ponder…

      Chris Lawrence

      13 January 2010 at 11:36 pm

      • Chris,

        Thank you for your last comment. Sometimes it’s amazing how much communication “Phew” contains.

        I am very much looking forward to your thoughts on the question. I have been pondering it myself and have some idea of what direction I think I am going in. The reason I have asked you in particular for your thoughts is that although we so often seem to end up in more or less the same place, we begin from such different starting points. Which makes the way you get there particularly enlightening for me.

        Do not let my eagerness, however, put pressure on you to hurry. If nothing else, I do know what it’s like to have other demands besides those of my favourite blogs.

        Terry Sissons

        15 January 2010 at 6:26 pm

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