Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Etienne Gilson's Linguistics and Philosophy

[Here's a review I wrote of this book at Amazon...]

I'm glad I own this book, for a number of reasons. First, because the translation, by John Lyons, was commissioned by Fhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifr. Stanley Jaki (who also prompted Mr. Lyons to translate Gilson's _D'Aristote a Darwin et retour_ in 1984, another book I'm thrilled to have got my hands on), and because Fr. Jaki is one of my intellectual heroes, _Linguistics and Philosophy_ (LP) has a mildly sentimental value for me.

Second, the translation itself is excellent, providing key insights into the complex use of "language" in Gilson's French (i.e., shifting between parole, langue and langage).

Third, as with all of Gilson's books, it's a pleasure to read and you learn a lot without consciously realizing you're "learning." Although he notes no one writes like they talk, and vice versa (and this asymmetry for a philosophical reason, namely, that written language [langue ècrite] is the signum signi, the third-order sign of speech [parole], which is a second-order signification of intellectually grasped ideas, a first-order process), reading Gilson is a bit like having a nice conversation with a really smart guy. It's a deep read but not hard.

I was pleasantly surprised to find LP is an excellent but curiously neglected companion to Foucault's _Le mots et les choses_ (The Order of Things); LP was published, in 1969, only a few years after Foucault's book and deals with exactly those topics: mots et choses (words and things). (In a similar postmodern parallel, Gilson, in some endnotes, references Derrida's 1967 _De la grammatologie_, but before Derrida was a pomo celebrity, and therefore before he had to be taken seriously as a matter of academic style, which makes Gilson's comments all the funnier: basically, Gilson says, while he'd like to appreciate Derrida's arguments, he finds the writing itself mostly incomprehensible and uncompelling... but maybe he is missing something.)

Gilson's key thesis in LP is that meaning is not decomposable into purely linguistic elements. Meaning is, then, one of the "philosophical constants of language." Meaning is always complex, integral, and vastly richer than the significatory power of any basic word or term. This insight goes a long way in humbling the goals of both positivism, which saw its rightful decline in the 20th century, and its newest attempt at renaissance, robotic computational programming (à la _The Matrix_, ~"I don't see meaning; I just see code.") Words, written and spoken, are physical -- but meaning, language, is inescapably metaphysical. Every word grasps a universal and therefore the only way to avoid metaphysics is to avoid speech altogether. (This point, what I call the "adequacy of means", or "Jakian adequacy", is taken by Fr. Jaki to great lengths, in many directions, in his enchiridion philosophicum, _Means to Message_.) Because meaning, a properly intellectual possession, cannot be reduced to a sub-intellectual level of signification and therefore cannot be constituted in a non-intellectual, "intraphysical" mode of being, neither can material signs (i.e., basic code) be built up into metaphysical meaning (i.e., conscious intellection). Programming "up into" consciousness, then, presumes what it can only deny in the very act making an intelligible claim, namely, that meaning is reducible, convertible, to basic codes/algorithms. And, as Gilson points out, while animal language would present some difficulties, ultimately surmountable, to a Christian philosopher, it would not trouble a philosopher as such, since finding language in animals would only amount to finding something, meaning, that we already grasp linguistically, intellectually, metaphysically. By analogy, finding life on Mars would not add anything to a biological analysis, much less a philosophical grasp, of "life itself" (bios kata noumenon).

Although LP should be taken seriously in any cognitive-science debate, it is by no means a treatise on or even explicitly against artificial intelligence. Along the way, Gilson explores poetry, logophilia, the ardor of writing, and many other things properly enjoyable for any lover of language. As for a linguist proper, Gilson makes the point that the only thing that keeps linguistics from being fully scientific is its object of study: because linguistics requires using language, it is inextricable from the formation and propagation of language, and therefore must analyze itself, in a Gödelian spiral of reflexivity, to be rigorously analytical. Language cannot be grasped scientifically, nailed down empirically, which is why it always points toward metaphysics. Gilson makes much the same point about biology in his _D'Aristote a Darwin_, namely, that the only thing biology cannot study is life itself. These two books should be read together, not the least because they offer hope and inspiration to lowly philosophers that they can in fact say something credible and interesting without being academic experts in every field. Gilson was neither a biologist nor a linguist, so he frequently admits his tentative argumentation in matters of fact, yet he has made important contributions to the dialogue between philosophy, linguistics and biology. Indeed, for philosophical pep-talks, few can be beat by Gilson's seventh chapter, "The Seventh Letter," about Plato's advice to young philosophers.

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