L. P. Jacks

The usurpation of language

How can the Universe tell its own story save by making use of human speech; how convey its meanings to finite minds save by employing a thinker to declare them? So long as the story remains unspoken, unwritten, can we say it exists at all? Does not the significance of things become a story by the very process which ends in the movement of an intelligently guided pen over a sheet of paper, in the reading of printed types, in the utterance of recognised vocables; and until this process has been accomplished is not the “meaning” a mere promise or unrealized potency? Can we learn the history of the world, and of human life, otherwise than by reading, or hearing it spoken? How, then, can we receive it without the intermediation of a writer, a speaker?

If a story be defined in advance as the work of a tongue or pen, then it is plain that the story of the Universe cannot be told without the intervention of a human raconteur. But have we the right to enforce this definition? True, there is no story without form; but to treat language as the one and only form by which connected meaning can be expressed or conveyed is a preposterous assumption. Are there not many Arts which, though speechless, express their meanings with perfect adequacy, with satisfaction to the recipient, and serve at the same time as a medium of communication between soul and soul? Is not a drama a thing to be acted? Is speech, after all, any thing more than one of a vast number of arts by which dramatic meaning is expressed and intercourse carried on, and does it hold any prerogative or special excellence which entitles it to supersede all the others and absorb their functions into itself? Or, looking at the matter from another point of view, is not every man familiar with situations in his own life, when the needs of self-expression cannot be satisfied by saying any thing whatsoever times and occasions when, to make his fellows understand what he means, he must straight way do something, or be something, and perhaps hold his tongue the while? And can we deny that the same holds good of the Universe? May not the world also express its meanings by doing and being; or must it confine its self-expression to that solitary form of verbal reproduction which we recognise as inadequate enough even on the narrow field of our own lives?

Let us press the point a little further. There are types of experience, familiar to all men, about which none of us, save the foolish, want to talk. Enough if we meet the glance of an answering eye or feel the pressure of a friendly hand. There are objects, there are presences in the world, before which speech would be a profanation. There are crises in life which can be indicated only by the barest hint or by some distant suggestion, and which, if characterised at length, would lose their inmost significance in the process. Two lines of Wordsworth:

But she is in her grave, and, oh.
The difference to me!

are a more adequate expression of human grief than all the funeral sermons ever preached. Are not the richest and most significant experiences of man precisely those which are the least patient of verbal reproduction? A book, a treatise, a discourse, is the very thing that cannot contain them, that can contain at most their lower elements, their less significant aspects. Who shall transfer them to paper, write them in ink, utter them in words? And yet, though inexpressible thus, these things crave expression, for they are full of meaning and must be expressed. They have a language of their own. Art can utter some of them, and Nature, perhaps, can interpret them all. They borrow her tongues, speaking in the winds, singing in the voice of moving waters, looking down upon us in the cold shining of the stars. What they mean, we, too, can express; but we express it, not by speaking there and then, but by all that we become through their influence, by all that we are led to do, through their compelling, till life shall end.

When we adduce these vast conceptions of “life” and the “universe,” are we referring to that type of experience in which we can establish a perfect equation between speech and meaning; or, on the other hand, are these terms anything more than mere hints of an experience whose meaning can never be exhausted in verbal reproduction, mere pointers towards an object which speaks for ever in a tongue of its own, but is never to be adequately spoken of in ours?

Philosophy is not so high a thing, nor are philosophers hedged by a sanctity so awful, that we must needs forbear from trying them by the simple test, “What do you want?” Does Philosophy, then, want only a verbal reproduction of experience? Is the object merely to get life copied in language, the Universe photographed in concepts? William James has pointed out that nothing is to be gained from such an undertaking. For the original will always remain more significant and more interesting than the copy, and it is to the original, and not to the copy, that we shall always refer when we want to know what life is or what the world is. And since the originals are always there for reference, the copy will be useless—at best a play thing, at worst an encumbrance and a superfluity. This, therefore, can hardly be what the philosopher “wants.”

May we not assume that the true aim of the philosopher is something quite other than to furnish experience with a mounted photograph or a printed description of itself; that what he actually wants is to enlarge experience to extend its boundaries, to enrich its contents, to reinforce its energies, to deepen its value?

This being so and here we count on general consent how comes it to pass that such a work as the philosophers, namely, the enlargement of experience, should be needed in the world? Since the originals of experience are there for every man to consult, why should we want a philosopher to introduce them to us or us to them?

We want philosophers, among other reasons, because the world is full of false philosophy. The way of experience is beset on every hand by a multitude of verbal judgments, of empty phrases, of word-copies, which pass themselves off as the real thing, which pretend to do duty for concrete fact and, by force of their number and importunity, capture our attention and cause the true originals to be overlooked. If it is true that philosophy must perforce fight its battles with words, is it not equally true that words are the weapons against which it must everywhere contend? The philosopher bent on the enlargement of experience perceives at once that his work cannot be done, cannot even be commenced, until he has cleared away the heaps of verbal detritus under which the bedrocks of experience lie buried. And when that is done, what more remains to do? Enough that philosophy lays bare the ultimate fact and leaves it to speak for itself. But what a labour is this, and how little need the thinker fear that his task will soon be exhausted and his occupation gone! For the crusts of rubbish are very thick, hard-beaten by the traffic of ages. And when at last the solid rock is reached, a sandstorm from the desert or a flood from the mountains may cover it again in an hour. Hence the thinker who has cleared his object must labour on to keep it clear. For the human mind loves the bondage of words and is apt, when freed from one form of their tyranny, to set up another more oppressive than the last.

The highest function of philosophy is to enforce the attitude of meditation and therewithal restrain the excessive volubility of the tongue. To us it seems that the reflective thinker wins his greatest victories when by what he says he compels us to recognise the relative insignificance of anything he can say. His task is not to capture Reality, but to free it from captivity. For there are some things about which men disagree only because they have chosen to discuss them. The same yesterday, today, and forever, they break out into a thousand differences the instant men try to say what they are. The originals of experience, the last objects of thought, are all of this kind. Enough that the thinker has brought them and us face to face. With them the thinker can do no more than to lift the veils in which language has shrouded them, that they may stand, not as suitors for explanation but as self-explained; to free them from all that “which the intellect perceives as if constituting their essence,” and then leave them, not in the dark, but fully illuminated and illuminating by their own inward light.

Thus, in dealing with the last facts, the words best suited to the thinkers employment are the words which call least attention to themselves, inviting us not to look at them but to look through them, disarming our criticism by their allusiveness, and claiming no prominence in the total effect upon our minds. Among words of this class it is difficult to make a choice, and we could often be as well content with one as with another.

Philosophy resembles poetry in being an art for enforcing meditation, for driving the mind inwards until it sinks into its Object. Those who attempt the contrary, who would bring the Object into thought, who would reveal it by explaining it, are obviously working in a circle. For, unless the Object were in thought to begin with, we should never so much as know that there is an object. Hence there is no relevance in the criticism that such and such a philosopher fails to explain any concrete object or event unless you are sure that he means to explain them.* Things and events explain themselves, and the business of thought is to brush aside

Note:* So far as the terms they [Plato and Spinoza] employ are unam biguous…. they do not sufficiently explain any single concrete object or event.” Professor R. B. Perry, Hibbert Journal, April 1910, p. 622.

the verbal and conceptual impediments which prevent them from doing so. Start with the notion that it is you who explain the Object, and not the Object that explains itself, and you are bound to end in explaining it away. It ceases to exist, its place being taken by a parcel of concepts, a string of symbols, a form of words, and you find yourself contemplating, not the thing, but your theory of the thing. The Kantian Theory of Knowledge is of this kind. It sets out to explain the object, and ends by the admission that the only real object is what it cannot explain, viz. the ” thing-in-itself.” Is not this inevitable? Get the thing out of itself, get it into your explanation, and obviously it ceases to be the thing at all; it becomes your theory of the thing, which you, in desperation, make to do duty for its original.

Surely this attempt to make the thing intelligible by getting it out-of-itself, into an explanation, would never be undertaken were we not the victims of long-engrained habits of verbal slavery. We have confused the unsayable-by-us with the inexplicable-in-itself, and drawn the Agnostics conclusion that things about which we can say nothing, can say nothing about themselves. It is only on that absurd assumption that any object can be classed as unknowable, or thrust beyond the boundaries of intelligent intercourse. Were we to reflect more deeply, we might discover that the true reason of our being able to say nothing about this or that object is that it tells its own story so completely as to leave us nothing to say, explains itself so adequately as to leave our powers of explanation with nothing to do. For that particular purpose the thing-in-itself does not want us (non indiget]; it can get on very well without us, perhaps better than with us. But philosophy will find all the occupation it desires in saving us from the engrained vice of our minds in making concepts and their verbal equivalents do duty for the real originals to which they refer.

It is only after prolonged, and often painful, self-examination that any of us can realise the extent to which our minds are in bondage to words, to phrases, to formulae. We are the children of an age which spends the best energies of its life in the discussion of life, in an atmosphere of deferred fulfillment, continually postponing the act of living to the work of mentally preparing to live. Preoccupied with these preparations, we become skeptical as to all that lies beyond; and if for a moment we pass the boundary which separates the area of discussion from the fact discussed, our minds become troubled and amazed, and we conclude, strangely enough, that we are in a land of moonshine and of dreams. There are philosophies which may be not unjustly described as systems of everlasting preparation, and it is only when we begin to ask, as we must do in the long- run, “What is it all for?” that we awake to the discovery that we are living in an artificial world. Many are the shocks to our amour propre, great are the sacrifices of vested interests in the realms of thought, before any of us can arrive at the point of candidly confessing his true condition. Our minds have gone a-whoring after their own inventions, and naturally the admission is one which it costs some effort to make, and which we desire to put off to the latest possible moment. And even when the admission is made, our difficulties have only begun. Habituated so long to the close and sickly atmosphere of an invented world, and accustomed only to face such storms as the tongue can raise, we are apt to suffer great distress at the first taste of the air of heaven, at the first shock of the blast. We want to go back to our docile abstractions things which had no rights of their own and suffered us to handle them, to arrange them, to combine them at will. We hanker after the flesh-pots of Egypt and the pleasant smell of the onion and the garlic. What matters it that in the world of our invention there is not, and never can be, any room for God, Freedom, or Immortality? Yonder, at all events, we knew where we were, and were masters of the situation. But these desert spaces bewilder us; these wild winds make us afraid!

There can be no doubt that much skepticism has its roots in nothing deeper than an exaggerated estimate of the functions of speech. We begin by equating the speech-universe with the fact-universe, and when an alleged fact is offered us which cannot be fitted without excess or defect into the forms of language, we promptly dismiss it as nothing to the purpose. Capacity to reproduce itself in words becomes the test of reality, and the work of thought degenerates into a mere effort to find some verbal form in which facts shall repeat themselves, things re-appear, and experience be had over again. Inability on our part to effect these reproductions is taken as indicating some fatal defect in that which it is sought to reproduce.

But there are some truths, as Plato reminds us, in contemplating which the mind is radiant with intelligence, but which are no sooner described in speech than we ” fall into the twilight of becoming and perishing and have opinion only, and go blinking about, and are first of one opinion and then of another.” Indeed, that any concrete fact (or event) should be put into language, so that the language shall contain the fact, whether by description or explanation, is a manifest absurdity.

The fact “in words” is one thing: the fact is another. The first can never be made to do duty for the second; can never replace it; can never play the part of its alter ego. From confusing the two things the fact and the fact-in-words we are bound to go blinking about and be first of one opinion and then of another. For every fact can be “put into” a number of different verbal forms according to the different points of view from which we approach it and the varying purposes we entertain regarding it. Among the various forms thus provided we can never be certain which contains the fact; we wander from one to the other crying ” Lo here, lo there “; we take up arms now in favour of this, now in favour of that; and end by the discovery that the fact escapes from them all. Observing, moreover, that among the descriptions to which a thing lends itself some are the flat contradictory of others that we can describe it in terms of “being” or “not being” at our pleasure we straightway jump to the conclusion that the thing itself is contradictory. The object before us which was perfectly self- consistent till thought essayed to place it on the tongue, now with a strange perversity seems to be equally patient whether we make it say “I am” or “I am not.” This indicates, we then think, that the object is unreal, imaginary, or fraudulent.

The whole trouble arises from our not perceiving that the thing we have been handling all along is not the fact, but the fact-put-into-words, the contradictions we ascribe to it arising solely from the opposite points of view from which we approach it, and from our using it for purposes which cannot be simultaneously fulfilled. Broadly speaking, so far as we have any purpose in regard to an object it can always be made to say of itself “I am,” and so far as we have no purpose it can always be made to say “I am not.” Again, if our purpose is A and not B, the thing can always be made to say “I am A and not B “; but if our purpose is B and not A, the thing will answer ” I am B and not A.” In all this we are in constant danger of confusing what we make the thing say with what the thing says of itself, this latter being always expressed in a form which is unique and for which therefore no equivalent translation or alter ego can be found in human speech. It is the familiar confusion between a theory of knowledge and a theory of being.

A good illustration may be found in current discussions about the nature of the will. Put the will into words and it will seem to break out at once into inconsistent duplicates of itself. We can reproduce the will with equal ease under two contradictory verbal forms. We can make it speak in the language of Necessity; and we can also make it speak in the language of Freedom. In both cases we are handling the will as an object to be studied; but a moment s reflection should convince us that in so handling it we have got hold of something which is not the will at all. The will is very much more, and other than an object-to-be studied. What it is we can find out only by willing and in willing. For when acts of will come up for study they are already done; that is, the will-element, which is the process of getting them done while yet undone, has, so to speak, gone out of them; they have become mere empty simulacra of themselves. These empty simulacra are all that the intellect can lay hold of; and all its characterisations of “free,” “deter mined,” and so forth apply in consequence, not to the will, but to post-mortem copies or records of what the will has done. Here the intellect is always too late to apprehend the fact, and must perforce content itself with the simulacrum or fact-in-words. About this fact-in-words contrary statements may be made according as we approach it from different points of view and for different purposes. If our purpose is scientific there is nothing for it but to use the categories of science, and these will not allow us to regard acts of the will as anything but determined; the idea of scientifically studying that which has no determinate character being, of course, absurd. If, on the other hand, our purpose be to get something done which is as yet undone, we are bound to describe the will as free; since the purpose to get it done would be vain were the will already determined to do it or to leave it undone. But neither of these descriptions will express the will. This can be done by self-conscious action and by that alone in other words, by willing. Accept a verbal interpretation in place of this, treat the will simply and solely as an object-to-be-studied, and that object inevitably becomes a mystery and a contradiction; and little by little we drift into the skeptical conclusion that the will is nothing.

Another illustration, which if fully discussed would lead us further afield than we intend to travel, is to be found in the perennial problem of Permanence and Change, the One and the Many. Philosophy has been called the search for the Permanent amid the changing. With this account of philosophy there is no need to quarrel. But having accepted it, a distinction remains to be observed, a distinction of capital importance, which we are in constant danger of forgetting. It is one thing to find the Permanent; it is another thing to find a form of words in which the Permanent shall stand permanently expressed. It is one thing to experience something fixed and changeless; it is another thing to fix this something by a changeless definition. The first may be possible, while the second remains impossible for ever. It may be said that de facto no permanence has been displayed by any verbal reproduction of the Permanent that has been attempted up to date. This is as much as to say that the Permanent has never been reproduced; and we are prone to think that from the nature of the case it never can be. For a copy which proves itself transient as all verbal copies must ultimately do; a copy, that is, which duplicates all the characters of the Permanent except its permanence is not a reproduction at all. Are we, then, to condemn the Permanent as unreal because the verbal copies of it turn out to be transient? Some thinkers have done so; but only because they have failed to draw the distinction noted above that it is one thing to discover fixity in experience, and quite another thing to confer fixity in experience by a form of words. The former, we repeat, may succeed; the latter must always fail. But the failure of this must never be taken as involving the failure of that.

Suppose, however, that some thinker, undeterred by this distinction, sets out not only to discover the Permanent, but to deliver it, when found, under the form of a verbal expression to his fellow-men, so that they for all time may share with him in the benefit of his discovery. What condition may we lay down in advance as indispensable for the success of his under taking? He is going to catch the Permanent in a formula, a definition, an expression, which shall fix its identity beyond the risk of cavil and save us hence forth from the danger of confusing it with the changing. Plainly the outstanding condition of his success is that he shall find a perfectly unambiguous formula. If the attempted reproduction is going to change its meaning, if it is liable to read differently, to convey various impressions to the minds of different men or different ages, then the formula itself will fall over the line into the ranks of those changing things from confusion with which it was to deliver us. To succeed only in presenting a changing expression of the changeless, an ambiguous reproduction of the unambiguous, is to fail altogether. Certainly you can fix nothing in a fluctuating medium. And since the medium here employed is language, it is an absolutely indispensable condition that our thinker shall find for his purpose some language, or fragment of language, altogether exempt from change.

This we say, and say confidently, cannot be done.

For of all the media of expression employed by man (and let us never forget that they are many) none are so unstable, none so quick to change their meaning, as words. Even sculpture, architecture, painting, in their noblest works, speak differently under different conditions; but these arts are relatively immortal compared with speech. Words which are the spears of one age may be the pruning-hooks of the next; phrases which are the ploughshares of the Greek may be the swords of the Goth. Nor are the words of science, of philosophy, exempt. Just as no modern audience can ever receive from a performance of the Antigone the same impression it made in Athens, so there is no man living to-day who can read Plato with the eyes and mind of Aristotle. And as it is, so it will be. A thousand years hence the works of Darwin, the theories of Kelvin, will be seen in another light, connected with another experience, evaluated on another scale, taken up and transformed in the relationships of a larger whole. Even the truths of mathematics enter the flux. Standards of universality in one age, august things to which philosophers take off their caps, they become in another mere pragmatic expedients with none so poor to do them reverence. Every meaning conveyed by words is relative to the total experience into which it falls; it changes, therefore, with every change of the world. The laws of motion, the truths of the multiplication table, fall ultimately, though more slowly, under the same fate as the maxims of politics or the canons of literary taste; they change their values with every new purpose for which they are used. It is indeed surprising, and yet richly instructive, to observe the extraordinary modifications of meaning which pass over the most carefully framed scientific definitions, through some slight shifting of the point of view, or through a change in the atmosphere into which they are introduced, or even in the tone of voice with which they are spoken. Indeed we may conclude, not without reason, that of all the works of man s self-expression and again let us remember they are of many kinds his word-utterances are precisely those which fall most completely and soonest under the law of change. And yet it is by means of these ephemeral, winged things that some of us would reproduce Permanence, copy the unchanging, fix the secret of life. To those, therefore, whose object is not merely to find something permanent in the Universe, but to say something permanent about the Universe and most of us have confused the two aims to all such may we not say that their labour is utterly vain?

One has only to contemplate for a moment any possible characterisation of the Permanent and its instability becomes immediately apparent. Let us call it, for example, “the Good.” Not only is the meaning of this term unfixed, not only does it vary with every change in the moral atmosphere; it may be said to even forbid us to think of fixity. For the good is that which becomes better. The good which has arrived at the end of its resources, which cannot transform itself into a better, is the good-for-nothing; in other words, the bad. A more inadequate term to reproduce the Permanent could not be found. What this definition intends is probably the converse statement that the Good is permanent, that its gains are gains for all time; but this is a very different thing from the definition “the Permanent is the Good.”

That the Permanent can be expressed in a large variety of verbal forms as A, as B, as C should merely serve to remind us that it cannot be verbally expressed at all. For if it were expressed in any one of them it would not need the others. By exhibiting a group of such forms we indicate, not the permanence of the Object, but its change, its instability under any one form, its tendency to seek expression in another. “Implicit” and “explicit” do not help us; they merely point to varying degrees in which given attributes appear in other words, to “change.” The more we add to and vary our devices for exhibiting the Change less, the more surely we defeat ourselves by making it plain that the object of discourse is changing under our very hands.

Here, perhaps, we may appeal for light to the critics of the Fine Arts. The various arts, they tell us, differ in the degree of adequacy with which they severally render the “permanent” or universal interests, emotions, aspirations of humanity. Architecture is here more successful than Sculpture, Sculpture than Painting, Painting than Music. Regarding speech, then, as only one among the arts of expression employed by man, what place does it occupy as a vehicle for the conveyance of this particular aspect of the world or life? Can we hesitate to place it very low perhaps the lowest of all? As between a Greek temple, on the one hand, and a Platonic Dialogue on the other, which leaves the soul in fuller possession of, in nearer contact with, the thing that changes not? As arts of expressing the changeless, which is the more adequate to its object? The temple may be in ruins, but, even so, it speaks of Permanence with a directness of appeal which no verbal dialectic, however carefully framed, can even approach. Among the arts of expression one is suited to this purpose, another to that. It is hard to express movement in stone or rest in music. It is harder still to express permanence in speech.

But speech itself has many varieties, and some may be less adequate than others. Prose and Poetry have different functions in this respect; and their respective values as vehicles of expression vary according to the point of view from which the object is approached. If we are considering an object as something to be used for a given purpose, the prose of a scientific definition will express the thing s nature, in that respect, to our perfect satisfaction. But if we would approach the thing as what it is in its wholeness, seeking its permanent values, attending to its reality and disregarding its uses, then the poet is a better guide. Wordsworth does not “define” the mountains nor analyse them; but it is from him and not from the geologist that we learn most deeply what the mountains are. To the man who would mine the mountains for gold Wordsworth says nothing, science says everything. It is true we cannot turn this statement round. Though science makes no use for poetry, poetry is enriched by science. Poetry “takes up” the scientific vision and re-expresses its truths, but always in forms which compel us to look beyond them to the total object which is telling its own story and standing in its own rights. In this the poet and the philosopher are one. Using language as the lever, they lift thought above the levels where words perplex and retard its flight, and leave it, at last, standing face to face with the object which reveals itself.

The objection will perhaps be raised that what has been said about language destroys its value as a medium of communication between mind and mind, and leaves every man without the means of escaping from his private consciousness and tapping the resources of his neighbours. Such a view, therefore, carries its own condemnation.

To this it may be answered that whoever defines language as a medium of communication between mind and mind makes a statement than which no better could be found for illustrating the inadequacy of words to express any fact of the self-conscious life. For the statement implies that something is now passing from you to me let us say, ideas; that between us a medium is interposed, namely, audible or written words; that only by passing through this medium does that which was an idea in you become the same idea in me. Need one do more than say simply that all this is the crudest of metaphors which, if literally construed, wholly misrepresents what is taking place?

Again: assuming a Reality which can explain itself to everybody, would this Reality become less interesting or important in the event of our being totally unable to explain it to one another? Is the value of a fact to be measured by the degree in which it offers itself as a theme of human eloquence, submits to the limitations of language, and suffers itself to be bandied about from mind to mind? Are things no good until we begin to talk about them?

And, lastly, would not all we mean by “communication between mind and mind” be provided for if we suppose that common knowledge comes about, not from our explaining things to one another, but from things explaining themselves in the same terms to us all? Accepting the object as its own interpreter, as its own “medium of communication,” do we not begin to understand what is utterly dark on any other view, how it comes to pass that the resulting knowledge is a common possession?

Here, once more, our best witnesses are the poets. Poetry is the true lingua franca of the world. Far more richly than prose it stores up the record of human experience; it is the strongest link between the ages. It is no paradox that in poetry there is less ambiguity than in prose, and far more of what all races and ages have, and know, in common. Shakespeare, after all, is more intelligible than Bacon. Our minds “communicate” with Greece more richly through the verse of Homer than through the wisdom of Socrates. For the poet takes us straight into the presence of things. Not by explanation, but by indication; not by exhausting its qualities, but by suggesting its value he gives us the object, raising it from the mire where it lies trodden by the concepts of the understanding, freeing it from the entanglements of all that “the intellect perceives as if constituting its essence.” Thus exhibited, the object itself becomes the meeting-ground of the ages, a centre where millions of minds can enter together into possession of the common secret. It is true that language is here the instrument with which the fetters of language are broken. Words are the shifting detritus of the ages; and as glass is made out of the sand, so the poet makes windows for the soul out of the very substance by which it has been blinded and oppressed. In all great poetry there is a kind of “kenosis ” of the under standing, a self-emptying of the tongue. Here language points away from itself to something greater than itself. “Lo,” it seems to say, “there cometh one after me the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.”

We thus return to our first position, that the work of philosophy is to enforce the attitude of meditation. Reflective thought ends in the discovery that we do not experience any object until, like the poet, we “fade away” with it into the silent forest, far from the strife of tongues. Thus philosophy ends in the wonder with which it began. But wonder is no name for a calf-like astonishment at the ways of the world. It is the state of a mind which prefers to attend rather than to speak; which listens, and listens with great and ever- changing emotions, to the deep voice of the world. There is no nescience in wonder; at the same time there is no loquacity. Wonder reads all languages, though it is eager to speak in none. It reads the language of Art by which many things are said which the tongue cannot say; it reads the truths which require whole personalities to express them and cannot be rendered by anything less; it reads all words that have been made flesh; it reads the actions by which alone the truths of morality can be made articulate; it reads the fact-language of the Universe. Wonder is also a patient student of philosophy, but looks narrowly between the lines and weighs the things that are left unsaid. But with all this acquisitiveness it remains to the end the most silent of all the children of the gods. For it has discovered that speech is insufficient to utter the last things; and this troubles it not, because the last things may be heard speaking for themselves. At last, after long delay the wondering soul gives form to that which is stirring within it and produces its works art and song and mighty deeds.

If a man were to inquire of Nature the reason of her creative activity, and if she were willing to give ear and answer, she would say Ask me not, but understand in silence even as I am silent and am not wont to speak.*

Note:* Plotinus. Motto prefixed to Bergson’s Time and Experience (English translation) by my lamented friend F. L. Pogson.


MLA Citation

Jacks, L. P.. “The usurpation of language.” 1910. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 28 Mar 2007. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/jacks/usurpation_of_language/>.

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