thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #12

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This could really be the last thing I write on Real presences1 in particular, and even on George Steiner in general. I hope so.

Twelfth 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; #10; and #11.

Continued from last time:

Steiner doesn’t have just the Judaeo-Christian tradition in his sights:

In every other domain [ie in every domain other than that of death], the phenomenology of saying has been, since Sumer and the pre-Socratics, that of indispensable relation to the presence and otherness of being and of the world. Of that indispensability, the concept and reach of the Logos, in religion, in philosophy, in poetics, in the invocation and debating of the law, has been centrally representative. In our beginning, in an entirely rational, concrete sense, lies the word or, more exactly, the sentence. The inception of critical thought, of a philosophic anthropology, is contained in the archaic Greek definition of man as ‘a language animal’, as a being in whom the isolating privilege of speech (isolating in respect of the rest of organic nature) is definitional. It follows that history, where it is human history, is the history of meaning.

I have read this passage over and over again and I am still none the wiser what it means. I keep making the same mistake. I read the first sentence, and I think I sort of understand it. So I think if I read the second sentence it will clarify the first. But it doesn’t happen. With each sentence I get more and more lost and entangled, as I did in the hedge in Whispers of the gods #8.

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

I am aware of the tradition that ‘saying’ is somehow authenticated by the speaker’s intention, in a way that ‘writing’ isn’t. For example in this extract from the Wikipedia entry on Deconstruction:

Derrida argues that people have historically understood speech as the primary mode of language and understood writing as an inferior derivative of speech. Derrida argues that speech is historically equated with logos, meaning thought, and associated with the presence of the speaker to the listener. It is as if the speaker thinks out loud and the listener hears what the speaker is thinking and if there is any confusion then the speaker’s presence allows them to qualify the meaning of a previous statement.3

Is Steiner alluding to something like this? Certainly the ‘presence’ in the title Real presences seems to have something to do with the ‘speaker’s presence’ in the last sentence quoted above.

Steiner goes on:

Less often observed is the act, the tenor of trust which underlies, which literally underwrites the linguistic-discursive substance of our Western, HebraicAttic experience. Often unregarded, because so evidently resistant to formalization, is the core of trust within logic itself, where ‘logic’ is a Logos-derivative and construct.

Where is he going with this? Why restrict it to Western, Hebraic-Attic experience? Trust underlies language use full stop, not just Western, Hebraic-Attic language use. And that trust is between language user and language user – in implicit agreement to use shared meaning and reference.

This is far too simple for Steiner:

There would be no history as we know it, no religion, metaphysics, politics or aesthetics as we have lived them, without an initial act of trust, of confiding, more fundamental, more axiomatic by far than any ‘social contract’ or covenant with the postulate of the divine. This instauration of trust, this entrance of man into the city of man, is that between word and world. Only in the light of that confiding can there be a history of meaning which is, by exact counterpart, a meaning of history. … [T]he relationship between word and world, inner and outer, has been held ‘in trust’. … [I]t has been conceived of and existentially enacted as a relation of responsibility.

…To be responsible in respect of the primary motion of semantic trust is, in the full sense, to accept the obligation of response… It is to answer to and to answer for. Responsible response, answering answerability make of the process of understanding a moral act…

Until that mutation of values [ie the ‘fundamental break’ of the 1870s and after] Logos and cosmos met – though there were provocations to ‘slippage’, to radical inadequacy in their meeting. But via the roots and branchings of syntax… the word was held to be in a large measure of correspondence to the objects of its inference and designation. Truth, in so far as it was deemed accessible to the limited means of mortal supposition, was answerability to the meaning of the world.

This is fantasy, playing with words. It is also an anthropomorphic projection like the creation of the Olympian gods. People trust or do not trust each other. If most of the people most of the time did not trust each other there would be no social life, no civilisation. Arguably if most people most of the time had not trusted each other there may not even be any people as we know ourselves, because the likelihood is that we evolved as social beings. If we had not had, and had not been able to preserve and inherit, the preconditions of social life it is unlikely that we would have survived. One aspect of that trust is that as language users, most of us, most of the time, trust each other to use language with shared meaning and reference, so that we understand each other.

So what is this ‘covenant between word and object’ – this ‘presumption that… the raw material of existentiality has its analogue in the structure of narrative’? Words and objects are not the kind of entities which can trust each other – they cannot have covenants between themselves. The covenants are implicit between language users.

Granted there have been many philosophies of language, ‘theories of meaning’. So it is quite possible that people might have assumed the relationship between words and the things, thoughts, actions, feelings, qualities and so on which words are used to refer to and describe is something other than what it is. That relationship may be extremely difficult to define – perhaps even impossible. But we have no justification in describing that relationship as a ‘covenant’, as something which can be ‘broken’. To do so is to introduce mystification.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Steiner tries to back this up with references to Genesis; and to Plato, Descartes and Hegel. But these only demonstrate the common assumption that there is a relationship between words and what words refer to, not that the relationship is a covenant.

He brings in sceptical traditions:

A fully consequent scepticism will make of language a primarily internalized, conventional shadow-system whose autistic rules and figurations have nothing verifiable to do with what is ‘out there’…

But… until the crisis of the meaning of meaning which began in the late nineteenth century, even the most stringent scepticism, even the most subversive of anti-rhetorics, remained committed to language. It knew itself to be ‘in trust’ to language… [It did] not question its own right, its own capacity, to put its case in the form of articulate, grammatically organized propositions.

We have come to the crunch at last:

It is my belief that this contract is broken for the first time, in any thorough and consequent sense, in European, Central European and Russian culture and speculative consciousness during the decades from the 1870s to the 1930s. It is the break of this covenant between word and world which constitutes one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history and which defines modernity itself.

But we must bring this down to earth. No contract or covenant has been broken. The most we can say is that we can no longer take the relationship ‘between word and world’ for granted. But in Steiner’s world we have a major phase of history giving way to another one:

…[T]he first, which extended from the beginnings of recorded history and propositional utterance (in the pre-Socratics) to the later nineteenth century, is that of the Logos, of the saying of being. The second phase is that which comes after.

In moral, philosophical, psychological, aesthetic, cerebral, intellectual, sociological and political terms we now come ‘after the Word’. (Yes it is possible to read too much Hegel, and certainly too much Heidegger.)

Steiner doubts if we can confidently

determine the deep-lying forces which brought on the crisis of the word… [but we can] identify some of the actual moments and pronouncements, some of the attitudes and texts and works of art, at which, in which, the crisis became a fact of awareness.

Édouard Manet: Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé

Édouard Manet: Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé

The first declarations are in

Mallarmé’s disjunction of language from external reference and in Rimbaud’s deconstruction of the first person singular.

He then claims that these two language acts (or meta-language acts, or language meta-acts…?) by two nineteenth-century French poets

splinter the foundations of the Hebraic-Hellenic-Cartesian edifice in which the ratio and psychology of the Western communicative tradition had lodged. Compared to this fragmentation, even the political revolutions and great wars in modern European history are, I would venture, of the surface.

I kid you not – this is verbatim.

I will restrict myself to the Mallarmé example, because it is enough.

The word rose, says Steiner, does not have a stem or a leaf. It has no thorns. It has no colour or scent. It is

a wholly arbitrary phonetic marker, an empty sign.

Nothing in its sound, or written shape, or etymological history, or grammar corresponds to

what we believe or imagine to be the object of its purely conventional reference. Of that object ‘in itself’, of its ‘true’ existence or essence, we can, as Kant has taught us, know strictly nothing. A fortiori, the word rose cannot instruct us.

Steiner seems once again to be confusing two very different things. One is the fact that, whether it is a sound or a pattern on paper, a word like ‘rose’ is different from a brightly coloured flower with thorns. The other is the issue in the philosophy of perception as to whether a rose as we experience it (or our experience of the rose) is the same as the rose which actually exists, the ‘rose in itself’; or whether the ‘rose in itself’ somehow causes or gives rise to our experience of the rose. There is a link between the two in that, assuming there is a distinction between the rose as it really is (rose as noumenon, Kant’s ‘thing in itself’ [Ding an sich]) and our experience of the rose (rose as phenomenon, object of the senses), one can then ask whether the word ‘rose’ refers to the noumenon or the phenomenon or both. But the two issues are not the same.

Let us get closer to Mallarmé’s ‘ontologically critical step’:

To ascribe to words a correspondence to ‘things out there’, to see and use them as somehow representational of ‘reality’ in the world, is not only a vulgar illusion. It makes of language a lie. To use the word rose as if it was, in any way, like what we conceive to be some botanical phenomenon, to ask of any word that it stands in lieu of, as a surrogate for, the perfectly inaccessible ‘truths’ of substance, is to abuse and demean it.

A rose by any other name

A rose by any other name

Excuse me? Who is claiming that the relationship between the word ‘rose’ and any actual rose, or roses in general, is based on any similarity between the word and the thing? This will be true of a very few examples, like ‘word’ and perhaps ‘sign’, but not generally.

Steiner goes on:

That which endows the word rose, that arbitrary assemblage of two vowels and two consonants, with its sole legitimacy and life force is, states Mallarmé, “l’absence de toute rose”. Unless I am mistaken, we stand here at the precise source of philosophic and aesthetic modernity, at the breakpoint with the Logos-order as Western thought and feeling had known it since, at the least, the tautology spoken from the Burning Bush.

More playing with words. As far as I know a fair translation is ‘the absence of any rose’. (In passing: the only readers this ‘polyglot’ seems to care about are those who happen to know the same set of European languages he himself is at home with.) So what gives the word ‘rose’ the ability to do what it does, and be used the way it is, is the absence of any rose? And why not the absence of any cow, or the absence of any fork-lift truck? Of course there isn’t necessarily anything like a real rose, or part of a rose, or a shape of a rose, or a trace of a rose, anywhere around the place when someone says or writes or reads or thinks the word ‘rose’. But this will also be true of zillions of other objects, movements, actions, qualities etc in the universe. Why should Mallarmé single out the absence of any rose to be significant, rather than the absence of any cow? The answer is trivial and obvious: Mallarmé knows what a rose is and he knows what a cow is. And this revelation is the ‘precise source of philosophic and aesthetic modernity, at the breakpoint with the Logos-order’?

Pull the other one, George. Which he obligingly does:

…A Logos-order entails… a central supposition of ‘real presence’. Mallarmé’s repudiation of the covenant of reference, and his insistence that non-reference constitutes the true genius and purity of language, entail a central supposition of ‘real absence’. …Between the four arbitrary signs which make up … the verbal or graphic object rose, within the syntactic rules of the particular language-game in which this object has relational legitimacy (it relates to other verbal and graphic markers) and the putative flower, there is now a gap which is, strictly considered, infinite. The truth of the word is the absence of the world.

This is ‘Mallarmé’s finding’,

…that what words refer to are other words, that any speech-act in reference to experience is always ‘a saying in other words’…

Because his words seem to say something, they might seem to say something profound and disturbing. But they don’t really say much that is actually true and sound. We use the word ‘rose’ to refer to roses. That doesn’t mean we stupidly assume some physical continuity or contiguity between the word ‘rose’ and any rose which exists, used to exist, will exist, does not exist, did not exist, will not exist, or may or may not exist. To realise there is no continuity or contiguity does not imply there must be a ‘gap’, of either finite or infinite dimension.

It is simply not true to generalise that ‘what words refer to are other words’. We know what it means for a word to refer to other words. Words like ‘sentence’, ‘clause’ and ‘verb’ refer to other words. Words like ‘rose’, ‘cow’ and ‘truck’ do not. The word ‘cow’ does not refer to a phrase like ‘large domesticated ungulate farmed for milk and beef’ but it may in certain circumstances be replaced by it.

There is little point considering whether Steiner’s thesis about ‘real presences’ is a sound response or corrective to any modernist crisis of ‘real absence’, because this idea of ‘real absence’ seems a completely confused non-problem. Theory of meaning is a tricky philosophical area but Steiner stirs it into a quagmire.


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

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

3 Wikipedia entry on Deconstruction, retrieved 23 January 2010.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


3 Responses

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    As Eve stumbled out under the arch of the Garden
    she looked back, to see no seraph in molten armor
    but a climbing rose knotted round and round the tree,
    its single enormous bloom the mask of judgment.

    When Adam had scattered the sharp seeds of their name
    they shouldered up through the turf, crested and speared,
    while she watched. Rose. Rose. And there were dragons
    nodding their heads of morning-colored fire in answer.

    After the two ate the fruit, the roses would not speak.
    Thorns and leaves hunched; the great intricate faces
    furled themselves. Even their bees were silent. Only
    their fragrance hung in the air, smoke of memory.

    Now, as she turned toward the bare ridges and arroyos
    of time, Eve spoke the name once, without expectancy.
    Rose. The dust in front of her scuffed, vein-knotted feet
    stayed motionless. The thin grass whispered no word.

    But as she fell silent, white petals began to peel back
    at the top of her spine, above the medulla’s deep calyx.
    Rose-color diffused through her eyelids, her lungs, her sex.
    And the thorns wound like writing round her bones.

    Adam Cornford

    from *Decision Forest*, 1997

    Adam Cornford

    5 March 2013 at 1:20 am

  2. a couple of notes on your post:

    It is an ancient understanding that writing is inferior to speaking, that the written serves the spoken and not the other way around. The ancient understanding, in addition, was that writing systems were an attack on the soul and specifically against men by fallen angels:

    From the Book of Enoch chapter 68: ( )

    “The name of the fourth is Penemue: he discovered to the children of men bitterness and sweetness;10And pointed out to them every secret of their wisdom.

    11He taught men to understand writing, and the use of ink and paper.

    12Therefore numerous have been those who have gone astray from every period of the world, even to this day.13For men were not born for this, thus with pen and with ink to confirm their faith;
    14Since they were not created, except that, like the angels, they might remain righteous and pure.
    15Nor would death, which destroys everything, have effected them;16But by this their knowledge they perish, and by this also its power consumes them.”

    Having gained the knowledge of good and evil from the tree by theft,( and died spiritually as a result as no longer being one with God, thus the term “fallen”… ) that knowledge grew in them to manufacture and multiply death, part of which was the need for a writing system at all.

    You don’t need a system of writing for a speech that creates the effect of what you said. The Logos is Creating Speech and is God Himself as Word/ Jesus Christ.

    The whole ‘meaning of meaning’ search is the result of being exclusively confined in a speech that cannot create anything ..a different speech than God actually Is. That non-creating quality of non-creating speech seems to provide a stability of being and a safety of being in the midst of others who speak that same speech. But it is a double edged sword: becuase it is also the mind of fallen men as a spirit, it seems to prohibit any other speech existing. Non-creating speech denies God exists as Word/Creating as the default/constant state of its own existence. So it seems that no new creation can go on at all, thus limited resources are the supposed rule and thus a fight for survival over those resources as the default state of man. I.E. The common sense of the non-creating speech itself mandates warfare and violence.

    We now live in an age when all the understanding of value and properties of the intrinsic qualities of objects around us, to include other human beings, has been lost because in non-creating speech all you have is one word arbitrarily defining another and violence to maintain a forced definition.

    That situation would in end in simple extermination of man as their best honesty and final solution to all problems.

    In Christ, part of the salvation accomplished by the Incarnation of the Word of God/Logos is deliverance out of non-creating speech and its results on the soul and spirit. On hearing Creating Speech, we are, as God has Said, born again/anew. God solves the problem philosophers try to articulate when you take an in-depth look at language itself.

    The problem with philosophy, as with a purely secular science, is that you seek to forbid an understanding of God and God’s truth in what you seek, as a dogma, to establish as a god-less, god-free problem to arrive at a god-less god-free solution. You are in non-creating speech, at all times subject to the norms of thought and protectionism of non-creating speech for itself.

    But even the writing as God as Word is powerful in a way writing non-creating speech cannot be.

    John 5:45-47 Think not that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one who accuses you, Moses, on whom ye trust; for if ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me. But if ye do not believe his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

    As an illusion of the non-creating quality of the non-creating speech, you seem to have free will. Even though it can be demonstrated to you in words that you do not, even though you can have doubts that you do have free will, you can’t stop forgetting you don’t. No matter how much you may think you are not free, the speech in you always takes over and you will find yourself . after just having understood you don’t have free will, arguing in favor of free will with passion. The non-creating speech itself cannot permit you to keep seeing that something exists outside its power and common sense.

    And especially in philosophy, you have to pre-define language to be non-interfering with the will and be non-living to even be said to ‘do’ philosophy at all as an honest pursuit.

    So in the end, philosophy is actually metaphysics being done in those who cannot hear Jesus Christ.

    I’m speaking of physical reality here, not metaphors only because Christ is speaking through me and indicating the intrinsic value of what he is saying as both creating understanding and growing the fruits of it. Watch carefully the exact vocabulary of your reply: unless God gives grace, it will only be an apology for non-creating itself and mystery within it as an attempt to disguise its own ignorance and inability to create anything or help you.

    These things are well understood and plain and have been from the beginning.

    1John 4:4-6 *Ye* are of God, children, and have overcome them, because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. *They* are of the world; for this reason they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. *We* are of God; he that knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.


    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen


    30 January 2010 at 8:00 pm

    • Thank you for your contribution. Unfortunately I understand very little of it.

      Chris Lawrence

      30 January 2010 at 8:22 pm

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