Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Practicality and Subjectivity of Language: (why Derrida was right, and why I’m happy about it)

Over the past few years, I’ve taught a lesson, slightly varied, on the subjective nature of language. Before the rambunctious youth enter the classroom, I write on the whiteboard: “I told you I didn’t take your money.” As the children file in, they notice the sentence; some ask questions, which I don’t answer. As the bell rings, I tell the students to look at the sentence on the board, and answer this question: What was the sentence/question, stated by a different second person, that spurred this response? In other words, why did our speaker say, “I told you I didn’t take your money”?

The students tend to stare at me blankly, not really understanding the point of the exercise. I prompt them to take out a pen and answer the questions in writing. They are confused because they find the statement innocuously clear. What they don’t understand is that their reading of the statement is actually only a single interpretation of at least five; but their minds take the first interpretation as the sole version.

The first few answers are usually like this: “Did you take the money?” or “Did you say you didn’t take the money?” These seem like obvious answers. Both of these could very well be proceeded by: “I told you I didn’t take your money.” I then inform these students that they unconsciously emphasized a word in the original sentence. They read the sentence as follows: a) “I told you I didn’t take your money,” as if the speaker is annoyed at having to repeat himself. I then proceed to underline a different word in the sentence, so it reads now: b) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This reading of the sentence has a different meaning altogether, as if the speaker is implying that he took a different person’s money: the implication is that money was taken.

We continue the process, and by this time the students themselves start emphasizing different words out loud. They usually get boisterously excited, as if they are discovering their own intellectual prowess. Here are other ways of viewing the sentence: c) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This sentence implies that the speaker has taken something of the second person, just not his money. d) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This implies that the speaker may have told someone else a different story. e) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This implies that the speaker hasn’t taken the money, but that he probably knows the person who has.

The moral of the lesson: The same sentence can mean five (at least) very different things. Some of the readings contradict one another, while others simply emphasize different things. I’ve used this lesson for two different purposes: 1) To show the importance of tone in reading. We need to recognize the general tone of a writer or character, as well as the context of the words, if we want to truly understand the meaning of a text. 2) To show how performance can and does affect the written word: a Shakespeare actor can play the character Iago different ways, perhaps contradicting a different interpretation, by simply choosing a specific tone of voice.

As I completed this lesson a few weeks ago, and my students paraded out of my room (already forgetting anything I ever taught) my mind drifted to the ideas of Derrida. The infamous linguist deconstructionist explored and explained the meaningless of language. I thought of my sentence, still in blue marker on my board. Here was what seemed to be a simple eight-word sentence: it’s clarity seemed obvious. However, it could mean at least five different things; and without anything but the words themselves, how is one to know to prefer one interpretation to another? I imagined Derrida in his legendary public debate, who approached the podium after his opponent presented his argument, and simply crowed like a bird. He said something to the effect of: “My words have as much meaning as my crowing, so what’s the point?” Then he stepped down from the podium, and left the room.

I thought of Derrida, the legend, and my sentence: How poor of a conduit of meaning is language! Even without shades of meaning, variations of connotations, and obscure grammar issues, I cannot write an eight-word sentence that really means one thing! But then I thought of Derrida’s words after the crowing. I understand them. I know how they apply to the situation.

As much as linguistic deconstructionists want to show the meaningless of language, it still retains its practical use. True, language is not objectively true, for it is not objective. Truth does not reside in language; instead, language does its best to act as a mouthpiece for truth. It is a means by which we can come to and learn truth – to communicate and debate truth. But like every tool, it has its limits. Not all truth can be expressed linguistically; and even the truth that we can express linguistically is not expressed in its fullness or entirety in words.

Far from making me depressed, this realization gives me peace. There are a few reasons for this. First, I think a certain amount of philosophic problems we deal with are simply linguistic problems, for reality and Truth necessarily cannot be broken down into the same categories as language is. For example, the Trinity. To simply say the God is three in one – that He is three Persons in one God – doesn’t make much linguistic sense. A secularist without Faith may validly call this nonsense. But Christians recognize that the reality and Truth of the Trinity resides outside of the statement “three in one.” The statement, while subjective and limited, points us to an important Truth: God does not exist alone. Even this linguistic construction does not capture the reality of it, for that is impossible.

Second, as much as I love language, I am glad that reality, truth, and beauty cannot be captured by it. I tell my students that poetry uses indirect language – metaphors, similes, imagery, etc. – because certain things and experiences, and often the greatest and most powerful of these, cannot be captured by language; and the closest we can come to capturing the reality of these things is through indirect language. For example, the simple metaphor “my anger is a volcano” is more apt to convey my experiential reality than a direct explanation of what is occurring in my brain when I am very angry. But the point is that even the metaphor can’t truly explain the experience of being extremely angry. And although this may have made me sad in the past, I am somehow very pleased that the reality of my experience, and the reality of God and the world around me, cannot be fully explained by the finite words of the English language – or any language for that matter.


  1. Very interesting, sir! I like the idea of words as metaphors, and I do think it important to remember that reality exists outside of words and utterances. I don't know exactly what Derrida was going for in his crowing, but I guess I think the idea of language having embedded meaning is not opposed to the beauty of God. Our communication may be misinterpretable, but it is fairly magnificent in that it allows us to communicate, and therefore offers yet another means of love. So if Derrida meant "crowing is meaningless, just like all words" I disagree. If he meant, "words are convention, and crowing can convey meaning just as words can" then I agree. The shades of meaning conveyed in tone, emphasis, dialect, etc are fantastic! And the more one knows the other person, the more readily one understands the other person's "logos." Language is a beautiful sign of the transcendent truth of persons. [Don't really know where I'm going here, basically, I think our metaphors are often reliable means of connecting to God etc]

  2. I really like your point that our knowledge of one another helps us interpret and understand each other’s speech and language. Knowledge of a person allows one to recognize tone and connotations. Even though communication via language is not the end-all-be-all – and I for one am glad of that – it becomes a clearer conduit of meaning and relationship the more intimate we are with one another.

    Also, I think Aquinas wrote a lot about our metaphors for God and how, although they are inadequate, they do teach of something of his Nature and Goodness. I’m not sure I’ve read this, but I at least learned it in a class on Aquinas. Speaking of which, I desire to read through the Summa at some point in the nearish future – even though I will finish it (if I ever do) most probably in the not-so-nearish future.

  3. PS: In terms of Derrida, (and I'm sure I'm oversimplifying to the point of destruction here), I think he meant that since there is no inherent meaning in language, and since ONE sentence can mean contradictory things, it is not really a conduit of meaning at all. If X can imply both Y and -Y, then X has no real meaning. Of course, this implies that there is no inherent objective meaning in reality outside of language; because, if there is, then language can point us to that reality, even if it can't explain it perfectly.

    Deconstructionists, at least on the literary level, look to find contradictory meanings in texts; and their point it that the text holds no meaning in and of itself. Well, I'm fine with that, and that's because I think the meaning lies OUTSIDE of the text, and the text is there simply to point us in the direction of that meaning. Once there, language proves inadequate, or perhaps even meaningless; however, it is language that got us there.

    As I wrote that last paragraph, I was rather pleased with myself, only to realize that I stole generously, nearly unconsciously, from both Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein. Schopenhauer used the analogy of a ladder that must be thrown away after it is used; Witt. used this analogy to describe language: as if it is meaningless once it gets us to where it can; but language was the means that got us there. Beautifully, his wonderful book (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) ends with this sentence: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Taking Witt. very differently than he intended, I imagine this as seeing the Face of God.

  4. No! I am aggrieved that you are not only saying something nice about Derrida, but you are positively asserting he is correct about something. By all means praise Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer, but may Derrida's writings be used as rags for sopping up the drool of wealthy white heterosexual octegenarian multimillionaires in a nursing home in the Hamptons.

    Starting out by recognizing a sentence can have more than one meaning, and ending up by concluding that a sentence must not have any meaning at all, is just self-contradictory.

    Read John Searle's denunciation of Derrida and all his empty works and promises
    . (You have to scroll down the page a little.)

    One highlight is Searle quoting Foucault calling Derrida an obscurantist terrorist.

    I agree with everything you said about language's ambiguity, but don't give Derrida credit for anything.

  5. I apologize for seeming in any way to give credit to Derrida. That was never my intention. I never intended to make Derrida seem anything but the pompous incomprehensible Frenchie that he is. The only part he played in my account and minor revelation is the silly story of his crowing. The title of the post was more of a “grabber” than anything.

    I would like to explore one of your sentences, on a serious note: “Starting out by recognizing a sentence can have more than one meaning, and ending up by concluding that a sentence must not have any meaning at all, is just self-contradictory.” But isn’t that the point? I don’t intend my response to be a deliberate Derridaen obfuscation; I actually mean it. Let me try to explain (something Derrida never did.)

    If the sentence I used before can mean five things, which one does it really mean? Well, none. And if it has five meanings, how can the sentence be a source of communication, especially if at least two of the alternate meanings are contradictory? The point is that there is no objective meaning to the sentence; there is no REAL meaning.

    Or here’s a different way of saying the same thing: (I think I said this in an earlier response.) If X can mean both Y and –Y at the same time, does X have meaning? Well, it can have subjective meaning, but no objective. Isn’t the first law of logic that both Y and –Y cannot both be true? Therefore, X is not logical; therefore, language is not logical. It’s an incomplete mode of communicating truth that lies outside of language; however, its incompleteness doesn’t make it unpractical, and its subjectivity doesn’t mean it can’t point to the objective.

    By the way, fantastic article by Searle. I had to do enough with deconstruction in grad school to loath most of the prominent figures of the movement. My response to them is similar to most of the literary theories: It is prompted by genuine questions and legitimate evidence; it makes good points. Nevertheless, the “theory” (if you can call it that) it builds up around a few respectable observations is complete and utter nonsense.

    For example, Marxist literary criticism begins by recognizing that the creation, production, and interpretation of “texts” are affected by our material and economic situations. Although this is true, what proceeds from this premise under the title of Marxist literary criticism is nonsense, incomplete, or just not valuable on any level.

    I may have heard deconstruction referred to as “nonsensical intellectual masturbation.”

  6. All is forgiven.

    You say REAL meaning, but I think by REAL you mean appropriate. The sentence *really* does mean five different things, but you don't know which meaning you *should* use. The appropriate meaning is determined by what C.S. Lewis calls "the insulating power of context" in Studies in Words(which I'm reading now btw and it's lots of fun; after that, I'll go after some Waugh).

    REAL meaning makes me think "Maud'Dib is a killing word", which would totally make you chuckle if you were ever discerning enough to read Dune.

    Finally, I'm to lazy to embed this link, but the following is a pretty hilarious article on the corruption of religious studies by Marxist/literary theory:

    Best word in the article? gender-fuck! I will provide "the insulating power of context":

    The practices of gender-fuck, so much on display in lesbian and gay subcultures, might seem to challenge the hegemony of the sex-gender system. In displacing the purportedly “natural” symmetry of biological sex and social gender, practices of self-stylization, such as butch-femme, S/M, or cross-dressing, lay open gender as masquerade. A feminist-informed, queerly placed interrogation is offered here of the representational matrices within which the stabilizing terms of gender may be opened up and over turned. Drawing on recent work in gay and lesbian critical cultural studies, I attempt to outline the possibilities of sexual and desiderative alterities. And here the resort to the plural “alterities” is meant to resist the reificationist impostures of gender and sexual dualisms. It is also intended to suggest the instabilities of desire, the potential pleasures and dangers of moving beyond the number two.

    You just can't make that stuff up. I also love "moving beyond the number two" - sexually or scatologically, I wonder?