*Posted by Kirk Spencer
In my failed attempts to comprehend the “Linguistic Turn” in philosophy, I remember a recurring thought/image that held me captive. I could not escape it. Here it is: Philosophers are making the turn toward language theory in a desperate attempt to safely cross the wide road of philosophical realism. And this raised an even more vexing philosophical problem: Why did the philosopher cross the road!? If you’ve seen the animated movie Rango (2011), you might have recognized the distinctly theological answer to this age old philosophical question about “crossing roads.” The armadillo/chicken/philosopher is trying to cross the road to get to the “other side.” Like crossing Tennyson’s bar, the “other side” is presented as a kind of purgatory/heaven—a place of enlightenment where philosophical problems are not answered, so much as they are extinguished. Or to borrow from Wittgenstein: We trade our disguised human non-sense (philosophy) for something that is patent divine non-sense (faith.) Or to borrow Tennyson’s words: When we do see our Pilot face to face, (or appropriately enough, as I just mistyped it, “fact to fact”) we use our hands to stop the philosophical accusations coming out of our mouths, and our last words only prophesy of our impending silence. But until then, we continue to try and know the unknowable or speak the ineffable; because we may find in trying that we catch a glimpse of the wonderful divine non-sense on the “other side.”
The First Turning: Einstein, Space-Time and Wittgenstein
At the time when mankind began to write, objects were seen as passive. However, the space surrounding objects possessed an active motive force. In this context, it was common to see words as mystical things that tapped into this motive space to conjure such mysterious phenomena as meaning and thought. When words were captured in writing, it is almost as if this continuous matrix of active space was illustrated in the text itself. withnowordspacingorpunctuationwordsfirstappearembeddedinavastcrowdofletters bumpingshouldersandrubbingelbows Appropriately enough these texts were written primarily to be read publically to a similar crowd of hearers.
By the time of Isaac Newton, things had changed. Objects were believed to possess a motive force within, such as gravity. These internal forces mysteriously moved things through passive empty space. All the spirits/gods had been evicted from the firmament and objects had been (object)ified into a mass of obedient billiard balls. During this time, or just before, word spacing and punctuation became popular. Out of the older mass crowd of letters, individual words began to appear. These segregated texts of individualized words, such as we find on this page, would not be read primarily to crowds, but rather, as you are now, as an individual alone in silence to themselves. Words once individualized, were seen as only labels for concepts and when laid out in sequence they signify and recall concepts as things—things which have a real separate existence.
From this point of reference, for philosophy to cross the road of realism, the linguistic turn would be a U-turn of sorts; for in our current Einsteinian linguistic universe, matter is once again passive and Space & Time are an active unity—spacetime. Passive matter bends spacetime which produces action. In linguistic terms, words and concepts are not separate, but form an active linguistic unity fashioned out of learned behavior while playing language “games.” The repetitive firing of neurons have etches neural grooves throughout our gray-matter and fused object and subject, signifier and signified, with the gravitas to prompt a response—to curve linguistic spacetime (or in this case the pervasive matrix of “wordconcept.”) When we speak/write we bend this linguistic unity to cause action and communication. Now words are more than labels. As in the pagan past, they are avatars of sorts. Just as space and time cannot exist separately, so words and concepts do not exist in isolation. Naming something is not passive labeling but naming actually allows the concept to exist. So, after the linguistic turn, as we wordsmiths hammer out our words, we are participating in a game which warps linguistic spacetime. And along the surface of this curvature, our thoughts move—and maybe, social realities too.
All this linguistic turning is making me dizzy. But I did notice some things we think we know but are, at least at present, as Job might say: “too wonderful that we do not know.” And if we ever did understand them they just might extinguish our philosophies. They go by these labels—“Time” and “Word.” The Bible tells us that God spoke words in time and things exist. (Now we have four unknown wonderful things—God, Time, Word and Existence.) In the beginning of both Genesis and John we see the same mob of mysteries (with John adding at least two others—Life and Light). So here is the possible glimpse to the other side of the road. God brought space, time and matter into existence with words and divided them with names. If we too can bring concepts into existence with words and divide them with names, then we are a reflection of our Creator. And while the “things too wonderful” still remain too wonderful for us, as both natural linguists (speakers) and philosophers (concept makers), we enjoy the consolation and convalescence to be found in our language games—and maybe more than that. Who knows, with enough language therapy, even if our philosophies are extinguished in the ineffable, we may, in the process, make it safely to the other side of the road. Or in Einsteinian terms—linguistic spacetime could become so curved and bent by the divine Word that, for a moment, it opens a wormhole for such a worm as I to crawl across the road safely into the presence of God on the “other side.”
Where do all the minnows go
When summer drinks the ditches dry
And a small boy, from the dead grass grows
There before the dark culvert’s mouth
Swallowed in concrete night
Rotten sulfur, moldering gas
Black pools fringed in fungus
Mirroring me, hovering above
Passing through this earthly well
This circular world’s wet sewer smell
Echoing darkness, darkness gives back
Gives back each sound, with sound hold
Hands to hold tight rough slippery walls
Walking bent double with eye’s wide stare
Wiggling to the light, through hollow air
To a wormhole birth on the other side
That is, the other side of the road