thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #11

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This one and the next one really will be the last things I write on Real presences1 and perhaps also on George Steiner in general. They must be. Please?

Eleventh 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; #9; and #10.

What I am hoping to do is use where I’ve got to in Real presences as a springboard to go off in a direction which I can then postpone to when I feel like. I might just be able to get away with it.

You see, Steiner seems to take seriously a particular approach to language and meaning, which he then thinks his own view about theological presuppositions is the only antidote to. Or, as the publisher’s blurb on the back of my copy of Real presences has it:

George Steiner… passionately argues that a transcendent reality grounds all genuine art and human communication.

I do not agree with his passionate argument. Nor am I convinced it is our only alternative. He brings in a number of arguments about language and meaning which he seems to take as sound. They do not seem sound to me, so this is the point I want to steer to. I can then perhaps hop across to another set of stepping stones and wave goodbye to the ‘astounding intelligence and compelling rhetoric’, the ‘epigrammatic wit’ and ‘incisive probe’ [Anthony C Yu, Journal of Religion] of this ‘dazzling rhetorician’ [John Carey, London Sunday Times]. That would be nice.

Steiner starts with a very big claim. Although

[f]undamental breaks in the history of human perception are very rare… [w]e are… at present within a transformative, metamorphic process which began… in Western Europe and Russia during the 1870s.

This leads to what he calls a ‘commonplace’:

The dissemination of literacy from the ancient Mediterranean world determined not only the experienced and recorded intelligibility of our historical postulate of self and society. It generates, it informs, our religions, mythologies, philosophic inquiries, our literatures and our arts. …Our laws, our social relations, are inseparable from verbalization and from functions of value intimately inwoven in discourse and syntax. …Ours have been, above all else, civilizations and communities of the word; sentences found and inhabit our cities.

Termite nest (Tanzania)

Termite nest (Tanzania)

With language like this you need to be careful what your rhythmic nodding (off) might lead you to agree to. That ‘above all else’ – is it true? Is it just a rhetorical flourish or will careless assent trip me up later? Our civilisations and communities could also be ‘above all else’ civilisations and communities of surplus wealth or ‘above all else’ civilisations and communities founded on trust or reciprocal altruism. And what of ‘civilizations and communities’ itself? The two terms are not synonymous. Arguably all civilisations are communities but not all communities are civilisations. A termites’ nest is arguably a ‘community’ but not a ‘civilisation’.

This could be important depending on where the argument is going, because we could end up conflating what is intrinsic with what is accidental. It could for example be intrinsic to Homo sapiens to live in communities, just as it is intrinsic to wolves to hunt in packs and for caterpillars to metamorphose into butterflies.

I chose these examples deliberately so as to expose possible assumptions about ‘choice’ and its implications. It would be bizarre to claim that a caterpillar ‘chooses’ to become a butterfly. But does a wolf ‘choose’ to hunt in a pack or not? Just because hunting in a pack is ‘behaviour’ rather than a process of physiological and anatomical change does that make it any less intrinsic to being a wolf than metamorphosis is to the cabbage white?

Now look at the social life of Homo sapiens. It is just about true to say an individual human being can ‘choose’ whether or not to live in a community. But this should not dupe us into thinking that social life was a collective or aggregate ‘choice’ made by a set of ‘pre-social’ people who happened to be in the same place at the same time. It is more likely that humans evolved as social beings – as have many other primate (and non-primate) species – than that they evolved as non-social humans and then ‘decided’ to become social beings. So it is quite likely that many generations of communal Homo sapiens lived and died before the first individual realised he or she had any choice in the matter.

By the same token it is also likely that generations of Homo sapiens lived and died as communal language-users before the implications of this first dawned on any of them.

So we should be careful with statements like:

Ours have been, above all else, civilizations and communities of the word; sentences found and inhabit our cities.

Human ‘communities’ (mostly small hunter-gatherer groups) have been around for at least a couple of hundred thousand years. The first human ‘civilizations’ did not appear until at least 10,000 years ago. There is no evidence to suggest that human language only began with the advent of civilisation, and there is every reason to think that humans possessed and used language long before there was any civilisation.

Yes language – ‘sentences’ – were important in the establishment of settled communities, but so were food storage technology and agricultural skills and opportunities. If anything was the supreme catalyst for the transition to ‘civilisation’ it was agriculture, not language.

Steiner’s ‘commonplace’ continues:

In the Western sphere, the conceptualization of God was at the outset and during its history in action that of a speech-act, of a grammatical absolute manifest in the tautologies of God’s self-definition.

Russian icon: Moses and the burning bush

Russian icon: Moses and the burning bush

OK, so for example we have Moses and the burning bush:

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. 3

But this is only authoritative if you want it to be – if you give it authority. I can wake up one morning and invent a concept which defines itself: X has three legs, green stripes and defines itself as X, with three legs and green stripes. Yes I know I said I could wake up one morning and invent the concept of X, but it does not have to be an attribute of X that it is invented by me. Perhaps I was mistaken. I could have said I woke up with the thought of X in my head. Perhaps I had been dreaming of X.

Or I came across the concept of X in an ancient Middle-Eastern story about a man who heard a voice coming from a burning bush. The voice said the owner of the voice had three legs, green stripes and defined itself.

The point I am trying to make is that there is nothing magical about the concept or attribute of self-definition. Just because something defines itself doesn’t mean it can call a universe into existence or impose a binding ethical code on some or all of its population.

I am not, I hasten to add, claiming Steiner is suggesting otherwise, because he hasn’t explicitly mentioned any familiar God-type super-powers in this context. But he does continue with an apparent non sequitur:

Only death is outside discourse, and that, ‘strictly non-speaking’, is its meaning so far as its meaning is accessible to us. It is solely in reference to death that the great ante-chamber of liturgical, theological, metaphysical and poetic simile or metaphor – that of ‘return’, ‘resurrection’, ‘salvation’, ‘last sleep’ – leads nowhere (which does not signify that the journey is in vain).

I cannot see the link between the idea of a God which defines itself and the idea that the only thing that cannot be spoken of is death. (This is what I take ‘Only death is outside discourse’ to mean. Any other ideas?) It is not obviously true that death is the only thing that cannot be spoken of, and it certainly does not follow from the concept of an entity which defines itself – or even from the existence of an entity which defines itself.

So there are two distinct things here, neither of which I accept. One is the link between the concept of a God which defines itself and the idea that there is nothing (except death) that cannot be spoken of. The other is that there is anything special about death, in this context.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there is the idea of the God who does naming:

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

…And God called the firmament Heaven.

…And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas…4

Sistine Chapel: Creation of Eve

Sistine Chapel: Creation of Eve

God then creates Adam, who does some more naming:

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;

And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.5

But so what? Even if you accept as true that God named a whole lot of things, and then delegated the job to Adam, nothing follows about what can or cannot be spoken of.

Last bit next 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), Exodus 3:13-15.

4 Bible (King James Version), Genesis 1:5-10.

5 Bible (King James Version), Genesis 2:19-23.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

24 January 2010 at 8:08 pm

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