The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Monday, February 21, 2011

Linguist Roy Harris on history II: the inexactness of language

Still am reading for duty right now more than pleasure….

Another quotation in Roy Harris’ book, The Linguistics of History:

Only in the individual does language receive its ultimate determinacy.  Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbor does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language.  Thus all understanding is always at the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence  (Humboldt, On Language, Cambridge U. Press, 1988 [1836], 63)

Harris says of this quote: 

Here we see one of the most penetrating of post-Renaissance thinkers about language struggling against the traditional assumptions of the Western Language myth (NOTE: one would need to read Harris here to do justice to his understanding of this myth).  The passage I have quoted deserves in itself a chapter of explication and probably a whole book, to say nothing of the work from which it comes, which is the Introduction to Humboldt’s posthumously published Uber die Kawi-Spache auf der Insel Jawa....(185, 186)

Elsewhere in his book, Harris says that, “Do we know what we are talking about?”, a question of linguistic epistemology, is the fundamental question of philosophy (47) (this, he says, is what Plato saw and tried to answer with his doctrine of the forms, 48).  Undoubtedly related to this are his questions like the following, which are especially important for the historian: “How do I know that my words actually mean what I think I am saying?”, “How can I be sure that my words mean what someone else takes them to mean?”, and “How do I know that my words state what is really the case?”(8).  

It seems clear to me that Harris deserves credit here for making questions such as these explicit – it really would be good and salutary for more historians (and others) to reflect here!  But at the same time, for Harris, these questions are asked not with the intention of offering modern historians a minor course correction, but rather to help throw the supposedly venerable institution of which they are a part of into doubt.  In other words, these questions are meant to assist as show-stoppers en route to paving the way for Harris’ own intellectual program, i.e. integrational linguistics.

 What does this look like?  Here is a taste: 

 ...the question... arises for Humboldt as to whether history is the same for any two individuals whose understanding of the past is based on the readings of texts... An integrationist would go further.  The determinacy, if there is any, has to be sought at the level of the particular communication situation. (186)

Thoughts about this?

No comments:

Post a Comment