Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Language as Imitative, Intersubjective Communication, Pt. 3: Phenomenology and the Intersubjective Harmonization of Language

In Part 1 and Part 2, we looked at a number of critical assumptions concerning language as an objective, coded, reference language. These assumptions lead to the elitist idea that there is a kind of ideal language (as though in world of Plato’s Forms) that all derivative ways of speaking should be referenced and judged. The basic assumption is that we need some common language (i.e. “le bon français”) in order to communicate properly, but as we saw, we can and do communicate in ways outside of symbolic language (for example, through paintings, dancing chanting, etc.) with human and non-human animals. This form of communication between species is hard to understand if we assume the necessity of an ideal language modeled like a reference book. Fortunately, language doesn’t work this way for us and for all living things. We are able to communicate and speak with others because like our language, “our nature is intersubjective: we constitute each other just as we constitute our conversations. If I assume otherwise, I will never hear you.” (1.) (p. 4)
Equally important to communication is mimicry. As children and even as adults, in facing the Other we mimic and imitate the Other. For Levinas, recognizing humanity and the ethics that goes with it requires recognizing the face or visage of the Other, but we can go one step farther, because the ability to have a face is only possible intersubjectively, only possible if the Other mirrors me and I mirror the Other as a Faced Other. There are a number of problems it would seem with mimicry, because, as Steeves writes:

Mimicry is often thought to be mindless. To ape or to parrot something is to
repeat without thought or intention. But mimicry is not the highest form of
flattery; it is the basis of logos itself. Simple mimicry is deemed mindless by philosophers of mind, because animals, zombies, and guys in Chinese Rooms are assumed to be simply repeating without understanding. This analytic model of language based on the Turing Test gets language wrong.
Phenomenology of Conversation and Shared Linguistic Convergences
Analytic philosophers like most people misdiscribe language as an objective thing. Society through education often presents language as bringing together of guiding rules, vocabulary, and grammar. But language doesn’t happen this way. We don’t speak like robots or like grammar books.
Phenomenology (or the careful description of our experiences) gets closer to the mark about the happening of speech and language. We perceive objects immediately, according to phenomenology, as wholes (not parts that I subsequently addition up to a whole tree). This means that when I see a tree, I don’t just see its front (or its sense data, if you wish); I see it as an entire tree; I’m aperceiving what is unseen. Equally, in language I perceive words immediately as words (not as noises or sounds that I latercodify in my head as the words of my language) or better yet, I perceive the meaning of words immediately as meaning (and not after a long process of transferring and upgrading data to its meaningful form). This immediacy of the meaning of words implies that when you or say a word, a whole nexus of connective meaning comes with it.
This phenomenological account of language goes further. As Steeves writes:
“We most want to converse with the Other, not read her diary. We want to toss
out a query and hear the response. The response we want is one that makes sense
of us, one that sounds similar to—harmonizes with—what was just said…it is
conversation that best proves the Other’s humanity. And in conversation,
we—together—are the author of the dialogue. Merleau-Ponty reminds us that ideas
can arise in conversation that are neither yours nor mind, but rather ours. But
this is true, in fact, of all dialogue, even that which does not seem to author
new ideas: the result is always an intersubjective, aesthetic, joint
accomplishment. We create conversation.” (p. 4) This is the key idea that the analytic, cognitive conception of language misses: conversations are a shared creation of us. Language as such becomes something entirely shared and intersubjective. The very idea of an objective language becomes absurd, because it is impossible to imagine ever experiencing language outside of this communal happening. Even writing aims at pulling together something that is shared. Ultimately the best writing is that which presents something novel or something we hadn’t noticed before about our shared world of shared biology, perceptions and words.
I would even go one step beyond to claim that language has no sense or meaning outside of these shared conversive happenings or conversations. As such, even if we want to establish an official language with rules, grammar and vocabulary, something will always be missing, namely the dynamic happening of intersubjective meaning.
Analytic philosophers and proud speakers of French or any other language often try to preserve their language through establishing and teaching an official version of their language. In this way, education aims at creating students who follow the rules, vocabulary and ways of speaking as they are written in the class manuals. For them, language exists in a book of rules stating what is right and wrong and by which we can judge correct and incorrect usage of the language, but in fact language never exists simply in a book nor in rules; it exists in a collective, dialogical and comparative happening.
We speak like our parents and like our linguistic communities. As children we mimicked, and as adults we are still mimicking, only now we claim to be creative. In fact, our creativity in language is tied to a continued mimicking that strains existentially to express something else, something more. This is much like how Merleau-Ponty once tried to express creativity: the straining with repeated language tools to go farther.
Often defenders of an official language with clearly defined rules claim that without a grammar or a dictionary or an established standard language we would be unable to judge correct and incorrect language. But these people fail to realize that people, even young people, inherently feel—have learned collectively and objectively to feel—what is right and wrong in expressed language without any need to evoke these established demarcations of proper and improper language. When someone says, “Yesterday I will go to the store,” we immediately feel that something is not right. The sentence doesn’t harmonize with our shared history of the usage of the English language. This is because in the past we have grown accustomed to say either “Tomorrow I will go to the store” or “Yesterday I went to the store.”
These language judgments don’t require any grammatical rules or established definitions to understand that something isn’t right, something isn’t harmonizing; all you need to do is compare. Comparison is in my opinion the heart of how we judge proper and improper usage of our own language. By talking with other people, we come to speak like everyone else. By reading books as a child and as a young adult we learn how other speakers of our native language can use language to express in written language different things, emotions and ideas about life and the world. These past embodiments of ourselves as fellow language beings in different contexts teach us how we ourselves can embody ourselves in words and concepts. This doesn’t require a grammar; it just requires repeated comparisons and personal mimicry. These varying sources become our guides for judgment and our inspirations for future expressions.
While grammatical rules do seem to make determining right and wrong in a language easier, they also present the false idea that language is something objective with definite rules. We would do better to embrace a more open conception of our language communities.
Some of my friends in commenting on my take of a pluralistic conception of French language saw a rather relativistic or even anarchist understanding of language, such that we will be unable to understand one another. If we want to, we will always be able to understand each as long as we take the time and the effort to listen and learn. Eliminating an official grammar and an official vocabulary doesn’t mean language loses all sense and meaning as well as the capacity to judge the correctness of language use. Language will always have sense and meaning collectively and intersubjectively, as it always has in the past.
My open conception of a pluralistic conception of the French language left undefined by a reifying grammar still means that judgments of correctness can, should and must be made. The difference is that instead of judging language from an arbitrary, elitist, grammarian conception of a unique, closed language, judgments and understandings should be made in an open and patient space of shared and comparative conversations across and through differing ways of seeing and saying things. Language comes to be in shared conversation. Language judgments should come to be through a shared comparison and, eventual, harmonization.

For further clarifications of communication, check out part 4 on Communication as Multimodal, Sensorial Production and Perception.

(1.) Steeves, H. Peter. “Monkey See,” The Things Themselves: Phenomenology and the Return to the Everyday. Albany : Sate University of New York Press, 2006.