CEP Essay

The Significance of Language Reconsidered,
or first steps toward a
Christian literary theory(-practice),

which might be called:

Christian Existential Phenomenology


[May, 1993]

Written as a follow-up essay to the author's "Deconstruction and the `Text' of Christianity" as published in the Winter, 1992 issue of The Crucible (UNC-Chapel Hill), this essay readdresses the main critical points at stake there concerning the relationship between Deconstruction and Christianity, while striving to respond to some of the more pertinent criticisms that were voiced in reply to it. Among its considerations are the following subjects: the "absence" of "Truth" in light of deconstructive language theory; the Christian faith as a "process/practice/event" not limited to the constraints of language; and the paradoxical nature of science as a paradigm unable to "grasp" itself. Lastly, it presents Walker Percy's theory of language for consideration alongside the devaluation of language implicit in deconstructive theory, as well as for the implications the "uniqueness" of language raises about mankind's.

The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common....
Ralph W. Emerson

Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact....
Thomas Mann

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility....
T.S. Eliot

It is in the gift of speech...that all reality has come to man....
Jacques Lacan

THE RESPONSES TO my article "Deconstruction and the `Text' of Christianity" (The Crucible, Winter, 1992) have been both numerous and varying and have given me the opportunity to define and refine my ideas on the subjects further. Such is the worthy aim of scholastic debate. My hope is that the readers of my essay have found similar benefit from the discussion of the topics as well, gaining new perception into both deconstruction and Christianity alike as hermeneutics.[1]

Toward furthering this interest, there are a few clarifications and distinctions that I wish to offer at this point. Briefly, I would like to outline these here in the desire that they will help others-those both critical of and supportive of my article-to achieve further understanding into what I have attempted to express. From there, I then wish to turn to a further consideration of language itself.

Among the fundamental questions for which we will seek answers below, and which the reader should be able to answer by the end of this essay, are these: what is language? how is it unique? what are its limits? and what is its role in consciousness and knowing? Attention to such elemental questions as these is fully necessary before any literary/language theory (or epistemology) can be structured, for their answers form the roots of all human thought, the basis of all philosophical or scientific understanding.

This latter, in the particular, we will explore by examining quantum mechanics for the implications its suggests about the nature of scientific knowledge. Similarly, we will explore the sub-structural dynamic of human consciousness in terms of its (meta-)physical workings, and its inextricable role in science. Both avenues of consideration, I hope, will lead the reader to an appreciation for the philosophical dimensions implicit in any field of human knowledge.

Having gained an appreciation for the intricacy and complexity of these and other questions and subjects, we will also speculate upon the (larger) existential questions: what is this "organism" that constructs "texts"? what does it "mean" that we can "question" and "know," even as we can both communicate and share that "questioning" and "knowing"? and what strategy, given the limitations of these processes as we explore them, may best serve mankind in its endless search for "knowledge" and for "meaning"? We begin our inquiry by considering deconstruction, which is somewhat placing the cart before the horse, but from there we will trace our way back to the source out of which it and all theory springs.[2]

Deconstruction and the Absence of "Truth"

First, I wish to point out that, though making certain general criticisms about deconstruction as a mode of literary interpretation itself, my earlier article seeks foremost to address its abuse: what I call the "deconstructive mindset"[3] and the resultant problem of the "deconstructive fallacy" that I identify. Simply put, the deconstructive mindset (as defined in my earlier essay) is characterized by the notion that "because language fails, `Truth' fails too." By "Truth" I mean, of course, the existence of a metaphysical reality that, without fault, bears universal relevance to all of mankind in all of its many particularities-past, present, and future. In many ways, it has been with the pursuit of this that the entire tradition of Western philosophy and metaphysics has been concerned ever since Aristotle and Plato, if not before.

Thus, as my essay argued, to deny the possibility of "Truth" so defined because of the "failure" of language[4] is to make a grave error, for it is to affirm that, because we cannot perceive something, cannot capture, represent, or apprehend it through the mechanisms of language, it does not exist. Thus it is that I sought to expose the "deconstructive fallacy": that possible higher metaphysical realities are necessarily limited to the constraints of language and human knowledge. And as I suggested, this fallacy finds its ground in the belief that the "only `truth' is that there is no `truth,'" because "truth," as a "signifier," like all of language, is understood to be arbitrary in nature, to lack any self-contained "presence" outside of the "endless play of signification" found within the larger system of language.[5]

Whether consciously embraced or not, the belief that truth is limited to language is often an implicit assumption within secular post-modern consciousness.[6] And because of the ways in which it has called attention to the imperfections of language, deconstruction readily could be construed as having provided yet another affirmation of the seemingly random "play" and arbitrary nature of the (perceived) universe. The irony (and contradiction) of the deconstructive fallacy, though, is that the idea itself is a notion bred of and trapped within language, caught within the hermeneutic circle of the speaker/thinker.[7] Furthermore, this belief represents closure, everything but what the scholar (or scientist) should be pursuing as a practice in his or her trek toward greater, ever more encompassing understanding.[8]

The deconstructionist, therefore, I believe, should consider carefully what he or she means when saying "there is no Logos"[9]: do they mean to imply that 1) there is no centered "presence" in language that securely determines or fixes its meaning for the interpreter; or 2) there is no "center"-spiritual, metaphysical, or otherwise-to the universe (i.e., the presence of a divine creator)? As I and others argue, the latter does not necessarily follow the former.[10]

The further danger of such a "truth" as that of the deconstructive mindset, though, is that this attitude all too freely allows one to introduce-with permissive, unchecked self-indulgence-any and all forms of personal ideology into the currents of literary interpretation. Indeed, the appropriation of deconstructive methodologies for ideological need and gain is a major problem facing many modes of modern literary interpretation, situations in which the text's "meaning" is reconstructed and selectively determined by the critic to suit the ideological interests of the interpreter.[11] But this problem is another whole issue, to be addressed elsewhere.[12]

However, in terms of our concerns, we can distinguish that it is one thing to recognize the "fluid" nature of language, and quite another to seek to "subvert" as a regular practice, especially when done in a selective manner to exclude oneself. For at this point deconstruction, as a mode of critical thinking, shifts recklessly close to becoming an ideology, with the practitioner conformed to the "deconstructive mindset." The deconstructive sword must be understood to cut all ways, and not only for the benefit of the wielder.

Thus, in contrast to the generalized failure of "truth" as understood by the "deconstructive mindset"-a stance which might be understood as a kind of philosophical "aphasia"- then, the point of my earlier essay stood to address the possibility of a higher reality as Christian thought strives to define, and to follow with some of the implications for "meaning" that the Christian faith offers when one uses it as a hermeneutic for human existence, as an epistemological context to approach Being and the phenomenon of human consciousness. This leads us to my next point.

Faith, Language, and "Other"

One criticism of my earlier essay accurately called to my attention that Christianity has, at times, been used unjustly as a force oppressive of others, as instances from both the distant past and the near present will attest to. This critique is well taken, and in future references I thus substitute the notion of "Christian faith" for the more generic term "Christianity." This idea, I believe, represents the attitude that I seek to advocate, that of attempting to place Christ at the center of one's being. Christian faith might thus be described as the striving to see "other" through the eyes of Christ.

Strictly defined, though, "to see `other' through the eyes of Christ" means that we seek to promote Godliness in others, to act in such a way as to foster their spiritual growth so that they too can become one who is "Christ-like," that is, one who follows the example Christ left for us through his deeds and his teachings. This mode of being, of course, is no small endeavor and realistically can only be striven for, never fully attained. What is important, however, is that the individual makes this "leap of faith" and begins the journey back to God, chooses to affirm Possibility over Impossibility in light of the limitations of human comprehension and human uncertainty.[13]

Nevertheless, as for the abuses with which we are concerned, these must be recognized as the "misreadings" of the Gospel that they are, actions and beliefs based on interpretations that reveal more about a "deforming" interpreter than the text being interpreted. Properly understood, then, these are the "failures" of the people who sought to embody the Christian faith, rather than the Christian faith itself.

Additionally, the further criticism was made that I myself do nothing less than present a "theory" of Christianity in opposition to the theory of deconstruction I critique in my article. To this I can only respond that indeed I do present a model, or a "theory," of Christian faith, toward the chief end, however, of making the suggestion that, in the world view of Christians, Christ serves as the Logos, as the supreme example of human conduct, the ground of Being.

Thus through this and other suggestions did I wish to reinvigorate the reader's definition of what Christian faith actually entails, as the active, disciplined decision that it is as an attempt to place Christ at the center of one's thoughts and self, while seeking to embody his love as a "practice."[14]

Consequently, I argued that the Christian faith is something that must be understood as a dynamic process, one that reaches its highest expression in activity. And my further conviction is that, when it comes to the actual "practices" of the Christian faith-in terms of worship, prayer, and service to others-any rendering of these as solely understood from the vantage point of language will be inadequate as a representation of them.

This understanding is for the precise reason that, to the extent that these "events" are the Christian faith itself, they can only be realized experientially, as progressive activities involving the total human personality.[15] Furthermore, if approached only descriptively or theoretically, they then lose their dynamic, progressive quality, to become mere abstractions in the mind of the dismissive examiner, and not individual "acts" of faith by the individual, of participation with and in the divine.

Science, Quantum Mechanics, (Un-)Consciousness, and the Assertory Event

As for the issues I raise about science in my essay, the chief concern is this[16]: in a technologically-advanced age when science and scientists are often deemed to be infallible pillars of transcendence and objectivity, the recognition should be made that science is not without limitations; that is, science only gives primacy to the existence of the empirical, and not the meta-emperical-the metaphysical. We will soon consider the problematic nature of this assumption about science as transcendent further, as well as the intrinsic "metaphysical" paradox inherent to science itself.

But also did I wish to call into question the problem of abstracting knowledge to the level of the general, a problem that is not limited to scientists alone, but any theoretician. For as I argued while drawing from Walker Percy's ideas, to the degree that an individual only thinks in generalized terms, he or she misses the chance of seeing the actual individual person/event/thing that is before them.[17] For from such an "objectifying" stance as this, we risk the danger of translating what is dynamic into a mode of stasis, of converting "subject" into "object" (in perception) according to the particular criteria of our given frame of reference.[18]

For example, in regards to science, the continued problems that physicists have in trying to come to terms with the particulars of quantum mechanics-that branch of physics concerned with the fundamental (sub-atomic) composition of the universe-is only one instance of the limitations of human apprehension toward what is a dynamic reality not necessarily "object" to our formulations. Moreover, the new physics further has challenged the notion that it is possible, even for scientists, to construe reality "objectively" without somehow changing it in the process of measuring or interpreting it. For, speaking on a general level, findings demonstrate that we cannot fully eliminate our own "participation" in the picture we attempt to construct.[19]

Indeed, the unique problems that quantum mechanics presents are especially significant considering that physics, as one of the "hard" sciences, traditionally has been understood to be one of the purest sciences, that is, the freest from human distortions or deformations. What it demonstrates, though, is that notions of "intentionality" must be seen to come into play as a significant part of the "objective" research of even physicists.[20]

For our more immediate purposes, though, human consciousness is a more pertinent, "tangible" example of such a dynamic that is not so easily reduced to the criteria of science, to "objectification" (in perception). How does one "measure" the richness and complexity of human Thinking-Reasoning-Interpreting-Synthesizing-Believing-Knowing-in short, human consciousness-without somehow limiting or reducing it, (for example, to a readout from an EEG, MRI, or PET scan, etc.)? Is the "brain" more than the sum of its parts?[21] Is the "mind" more than that which is physical?[22] Or if not, where might what has been called the "soul" dwell?

Few scientists can agree on an answer to these questions, though many would like to effectively negate the first two, and hence the last question.[23] Be the answer as it may, let us instead-leaving these questions in tension (as being beyond our own present concerns, if not means)-turn our attention toward the paradoxical nature of scientific inquiry itself, to see how this might reflect on such questions, if not upon the empiricistic conclusions some scientists suggest to be true.

This paradox becomes apparent when we consider Percy's insightful question: what does it "mean" that the propositions that the scientist asserts-and which are the very (sub)stance on which he grounds his practice-are not themselves "object" to the criteria of his methodology? As the trained M.D. Percy clarifies, this problem exists precisely because the "functional method of the sciences cannot construe the assertory act of language"; that is to say, asserted "meaning" (e.g., a scientist's asserted conclusions or ideas concerning a body of data) is not subject to measurement as a "causal space-time event," even though it is accepted as being as real as those phenomena that can be functionally construed (e.g., the behavior of the scientist asserting his conclusions).[24]

Put in other words, Percy reminds us that, for all its ability to grasp, peer into, and fathom the very depths of the universe and the human body, the scientific method nonetheless cannot be used to explain itself. In short, scientific assertions are not subject to "measurement" as the assertions of "meaning" that they are. Consequently, the scientific method, for all its beauty and elegance, cannot be said to encompass its own nature.[25]

Thus, objective-explanatory-causal science (which is certainly a valuable mode of inquiry/logic) must again be recognized as a mode of explanation, as a way of knowing, that is not without its problematic limitations. Moreover, this revelation is particularly relevant when it comes to exploring the nature of mankind.

Mankind, Language, and the Universe

To illustrate the complex nature of mankind, let us consider the issue of language further. When it comes to studying the phenomenon of human communication, very unique considerations must be made, as we shall soon see.

In contrast, then, to the kind of "devaluation" of language that deconstructive theory offers, as well as the kind of "quantified" empirical descriptions of mankind that science often produces, let us consider Percy's further observations about language and its role in the identity of mankind. These observations recognize its extraordinary and "unprecedented character." Percy's vantage point on language itself is unique, though, and we need consider it first before demonstrating the findings of his perspective.

Percy understands that in order to treat the phenomenon of language with appropriate justice and scope, we need to begin by choosing a context that is broad enough. He himself does this just so when he chooses that of the physical universe, what might be termed the "universal context." (His perspective, moreover, as will be demonstrated, is one that is at once both philosophical and empirical [scientific]). But even after looking to such an encompassing setting, a problem still remains.

As the novelist/linguist/philosopher Percy explains, the problem is one of looking "at" rather than "through" language, for it is language that allows us the ability to conceive of "language."[26] Once considered, though, from an extra-linguistic vantage point-to whatever extent we are actually able to do this[27]-as a singular phenomenon alongside other phenomena, the actual significance of mankind's capacity to represent on a symbolic level comes into better view.

What Percy reminds us throughout his writings on symbolization is that, as a "triadic" phenomenon, language is fundamentally different from all other interactions found in the Cosmos, which are merely "dyadic" in nature.[28] Consequently, we can understand of language that, as a phenomenon in the universe, there is no other equivalent interaction (as far as we know) quite like mankind's fascination and obsession with it as the "symbol-mongering" organisms we are.[29] What specifically, however, is it that language enables us to do?

In simplest terms, language is a means of representation, the unique ability to translate experience into thought as embodied by symbols, or signs. In Percy's terms, though, what language specifically creates for human beings is a "world" (Welt), which forms (within) the mind. This "world" stands in contrast to the idea "environment" (Umwelt), the realm of our and other organisms' physical/biological existence. The human organisms' possession of such a "world," however, has radical implications, for the human experience is as a result generically different from the experience of all other organisms, which can be described as merely existing in an "environment," with little or no recognition of this "existing."[30]

To define it in other terms, then, the "world," is that understanding and consciousness alone unique to the human species that is segmented by and composed of (symbolic) language. In contrast to other organisms, then, at its most fundamental level language gives us the ability to re-present our (biological) experience in the "environment" and to (re-)create it in our minds. Such "triadic" orientation is no small feat itself. But the consequences of this capacity do not stop here. This "world," in turn, allows for "intersubjectivity," or shared understanding, to occur between human organisms.[31]

As for deconstructionist claims about language, however, whether this "understanding" is (im-)perfect is beside the point. That the reader is considering the various "tacks" of our thinking up until this point, either agreeing or disagreeing with them, is testimony alone to the existence of intersubjectivity; and when considered in the larger cosmological context of what Percy presents, this ability is visible anew as the extraordinary event that it is: we are so immersed in language, it is so "everyday" and commonplace to us, that we easily lose any sense of the miraculous wonder of its nature![32] Moreover, understood as the very capacity to represent "meaning" and share it intersubjectively, human symbolization must be understood to be nothing less than a metaphysical event itself, as the means by which assertory exchange is created and made possible.[33]

Consequently, as Percy points out, the difference between man, as a "namer," and other signal-using organisms is not merely quantitative but qualitative.34 In all its symbolic and syntactical complexity, human language, as a means of "processing" the environment (Percy also uses the term "celebrating" it), categorically places mankind in a different sphere in relationship to other organisms, one which goes beyond mere physical or biological difference.[35]

No matter in what ways, then, that the scientist attempts to demonstrate how mankind is not unique apart from its environment (as many Neo-Darwinists and behaviorists are wont to do), the asserter can never escape the inalienable uniqueness of his own symbol-using consciousness, in fact the very thing that allows him to formulate such ideas.[36]

Thus finally, once considered in a larger light, human language must be recognized as the utterly distinctive means of "knowing" and of "interpreting" that it is, despite its inadequacies (and its glories).[37] Through his brilliant analysis of the indispensable role that language plays in mankind's station in the cosmos,[38] Percy steers us toward the need for other ontological modes of inquiry beside current scientific theories when it comes to assessing the nature of mankind, for additional modes are fully necessary before any "minimal" conceptualization of its status as an "organism" can be obtained.[39]

The First Step into the Unknown (of Being)

Having considered, then, both the limitations of human "knowing" and its "extraordinary character" in the form of symbolic language, we are brought finally to the larger interpretive question: given our inability ever to achieve comprehensive understanding of the nature of Being, whichever dimension we consider and whatever our mode of inquiry, with what option are we left?

Christian teaching, I believe, has part of the key, namely that it advocates "humility" in the face of "Other." By adopting this value we can more fully be open to the "horizon" of possibilities being offered to us, be open to learning rather than confined to our own imposition upon what it is we consider. Moreover, such an attitude ultimately will expand the boundaries of knowledge in the favor of greater knowing, even in the face of (perceived) "contradiction." It is this precise wisdom that Eliot suggests in one of this essay's prefatory quotes, and which Emerson himself displays in his own statement. These ideals are well worth considering when approaching the phenomenon of language (in its many manifestations) and what it suggests about mankind.

Thus perhaps the most important lesson that we may need to learn in the endless quest for understanding is to suspend what we "know" in light of what is not known, the Unknown[40]: by this might we then be open to Being and our place in it, the very Being in the face of which our feeble thoughts will ever fall but "absently," and yet also, in the very same instant, wondrously. Heidegger offers as the "basic question of metaphysics" that of, "Why is there any being at all and not rather Nothing?"[41] To this we must add the question: Why is there for Heidegger (mankind) any ability at all to question and not rather none? And again, more importantly, what does this ability "mean"? Only quest(ion)ing along such lines will lead us, I believe, to the heart of modern mankind's (literary and philosophical) crisis of "meaning..."

To conclude, though I myself have in some ways overlooked the particular of deconstruction in my representation of it (as only we all can do in most any matter), my sincere hope is that-of those who encountered my article who have not yet opened themselves to the Christian faith-some may have been able to see faith in Christ in a new, more meaningful and personally relevant light, if not to recognize that "faith" quite possibly might fill the void where language fails.

* * * * *

I am thankful to the following persons: Donavan Hall (Physics), William Ryder (English), and John May (English) of LSU for thoughtful criticism and suggestions about this essay.

GO TO: Christian Existential Phenomenology, An Initial Outline