Walker Percy Wednesday 170


The longer we think about it, the more mysterious the simplest act of naming becomes. It is, we begin to realize, quite without precedent in all of natural history as we know it. But so, you might reply, is the emergence of the eye without precedent, so is sexual reproduction without precedent. These are nevertheless the same kinds of events which have gone before. We can to a degree understand biological phenomena in the same terms in which we understand physical phenomena, as a series of events and energy exchanges, with each event arising from and being conditioned by a previous event. This is not to say that biology can be reduced to physical terms but only that we can make a good deal of sense of it as a series of events and energy exchanges.

But naming is generically different. It stands apart from everything else that we know about the universe. The collision of two galaxies and the salivation of Pavlov’s dog, different as they are, are far more alike than either is like the simplest act of naming. Naming stands at a far greater distance from Pavlov’s dog than the latter does from a galactic collision.

Just what is the act of denotation? What took place when the first man uttered a mouthy little sound and the second man understood it, not as a sign to be responded to, but as “meaning” something they beheld in common? The first creature who did this is almost by minimal empirical definition the first man. What happened is of all things on earth the one thing we should know best. It is the one thing we do most; it is the warp and woof of the fabric of our consciousness. And yet it is extremely difficult to look at instead of through and even more difficult to express once it is grasped.

Naming is unique in natural history because for the first time a being in the universe stands apart from the universe and affirms some other being to be what it is. In this act, for the first time in the history of the universe, “is” is spoken. What does this mean? If something important has happened, why can’t we talk about it as we talk about everything else, in the familiar language of spacetime events? The trouble is that we are face to face with a phenomenon which we can’t express by our ordinary phenomenal language. Yet we are obliged to deal with it; it happens, and we cannot dismiss it as a “semantical relation.” We sense, moreover, that this phenomenon has the most radical consequences for our thinking about man. To refuse to deal with it because it is troublesome would be fatal. It is as if an astronomer developed a theory of planetary motion and said that his theory holds true of planets A, B, C, and D but that planet E is an exception. It makes zigzags instead of ellipses. Planet E is a scandal to good astronomy; therefore we disqualify planet E as failing to live up to the best standards of bodies in motion. This is roughly the attitude of some modern semanticists and semioticists toward the act of naming. If the relation of symbol to thing symbolized be considered as anything other than a sign calling forth a response, then this relation is “wrong.” Say whatever you like about a pencil, Korzybski used to say, but never say it is a pencil. The word is not the thing, said Chase; you can’t eat the word oyster. According to some semanticists, the advent of symbolization is a major calamity in the history of the human race. Their predicament is not without its comic aspects. Here are scientists occupied with a subject matter of which they, the scientists, disapprove. For the sad fact is that we shall continue to say “This is a pencil” rather than “This object I shall refer to in the future by the sound pencil.” By the semanticists’ own testimony we are face to face with an extraordinary phenomenon-even though it be “wrong.” But if, instead of deploring this act of naming as a calamity, we try to see it for what it is, what can we discover? When I name an unknown thing or hear the name from you, a remarkable thing happens. In some sense or other, the thing is said to “be” its name or symbol. The semanticists are right: this round thing is certainly not the word ball. Yet unless it becomes, in some sense or other, the word ball in our consciousness, we will never know the ball! Cassirer’s thesis was that everything we know we know through symbolic media, whether words, pictures, formulae, or theories. As Mrs. Langer put it, symbols are the vehicles of meaning.

The transformation of word into thing in our consciousness can be seen in the phenomenon of false onomatopoeia. The words limber, flat, furry, fuzzy, round, yellow, sharp sound like the things they signify, not because the actual sounds resemble the thing or quality, but because the sound has been transformed in our consciousness to “become” the thing signified. If you don’t believe this, try repeating one of these words several dozen times: All at once it will lose its magic guise as symbol and become the poor drab vocable it really is.

This modem notion of the symbolic character of our awareness turns out to have a very old history, however. The Scholastics, who incidentally had a far more adequate theory of symbolic meaning in some respects than modern semioticists, used to say that man does not have a direct knowledge of essences as do the angels but only an indirect knowledge, a knowledge mediated by symbols. John of St. Thomas observed that symbols come to contain within themselves the thing symbolized in alio esse, in another mode of existence.

But what has this symbolic process got to do with the “is” I mentioned earlier, with the unprecedented affirmation of existence? We know that the little copula “is” is a very late comer in the evolution of languages. Many languages contain no form of the verb “to be. “Certainly the most primitive sentence, a pointing at a particular thing and a naming, does not contain the copula. Nevertheless it is a pairing, an apposing of word and thing, an act the very essence of which is an “is-saying,” an affirming of the thing to be what it is for both of us. Once we have grasped the nature of symbolization, we may begin to see its significance for our view of man’s place in the world. I am assuming that we share, to begin with, an empirical-realistic view of the world, that we believe that there are such things as rocks, planets, trees, dogs, which can be at least partially known and partially explained by science, and that man takes his place somewhere in the scheme. The faculty of language, however, confers upon man a very peculiar position in this scheme-and not at all the position we establish in viewing him as a “higher organism.”

The significance of language may be approached in the following way. In our ordinary theoretical view of the world, we see it as a process, a dynamic succession of energy states. There are subatomic particles and atoms and molecules in motion; there are gaseous bodies expanding or contracting; there are inorganic elements in chemical interaction; there are organisms in contact with an environment, responding and adapting accordingly; there are animals responding to each other by means of sign behavior.

This state of affairs we may think of as a number of terms in interaction, each with all the others. Each being is in the world, acting upon the world and itself being acted upon by the world. But when a man appears and names a thing, when he says this is water and water is cool, something unprecedented takes place. What the third term, man, does is not merely enter into interaction with the others-though he does this too-but stand apart from two of the terms and say that one “is” the other. The two things which he pairs or identifies are the word he speaks or hears and the thing he sees before him.

This is not only an unprecedented happening; it is also, as the semanticists have noted, scandalous. A is clearly not B. But were it not for this cosmic blunder, man would not be man; he would never be capable of folly and he would never be capable of truth. Unless he says that A is B, he will never know A or B; he will only respond to them. A bee is not as foolish as man, but it also cannot tell the truth. All it can do is respond to its environment.

What are the consequences for our thinking about man? There are a great many consequences, epistemological, existential, religious, psychiatric. There is space here to mention only one, the effect it has on our minimal concept of man. I do not mean our concept of his origin and his destiny, which is, of course, the province of religion. I mean, rather, our working concept, as our minimal working concept of water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.

An awareness of the nature of language must have the greatest possible consequences for our minimal concept of man. For one thing it must reveal the ordinary secular concept of man held in the West as not merely inadequate but quite simply mistaken. I do not refer to the Christian idea of man as a composite of body and soul, a belief which is professed by some and given lip service by many but which can hardly be said to be a working assumption of secular learning. We see man-when I say we, I mean 95 per cent of those who attend American high schools and universities-as the highest of the organisms: He stands erect, he apposes thumb and forefinger, his language is far more complex than that of the most advanced Cebus azarae. But the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. Man is a higher organism, standing in direct continuity with rocks, soil, fungi, protozoa, and mammals.

This happens not to be true, however, and in a way it is unfortunate. I say unfortunate because it means the shattering of the old dream of the Enlightenment-that an objective-explanatory-causal science can discover and set forth all the knowledge of which man is capable. The dream is drawing to a close. The existentialists have taught us that what man is cannot be grasped by the sciences of man. The case is rather that man’s science is one of the things that man does, a mode of existence. Another mode is speech. Man is not merely a higher organism responding to and controlling his environment. He is, in Heidegger’s words, that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.

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