Language

Re-reading a chapter of Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ last night, the outline of a new understanding emerged from the complex conceptual haze of the ‘philosophy of language’.

Language is the means through which we transcend individual experience and share our lives, ideas and culture with others. So far so obvious – Stephen Hawking’s is a brilliant mind but without a twitch sensor and a computer voice he’d be lost to us, alone trapped in his own head.

McCabe, following Aquinas and Wittgenstein considers language as exclusively ‘public’. It exists outside and apart from the sense perceptions of people – it has to otherwise it would not work as a means of sharing understanding.

So while my ‘red’ might look and feel different to yours (although probably not that much) as soon as we name it, it ceases to be my ‘property’ and becomes a shared one. As McCabe points out, my sense perceptions are my own, but my words ‘belong’ to the English language and are public, shared and ‘intersubjective’ – i.e. most people would agree on what they mean, otherwise they wouldn’t work.

Why is this so important? Well as Aristotle said: ‘It us the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’.

Similarly it is the mark of an animal with language to be able to describe, contemplate and imagine actions, not simply to feel, jump and act. Without language there is no reflection, just action and reaction.

For Aristotle, Aquinas, Wittgenstein and McCabe, language is not just a fancy tail feather or ornament on human intellect – it is human intellect. Language is the difference between pure instinct and intelligence, communication and culture.

The penny has dropped for me – something I didn’t ‘get’ when I did philosophy at University. David Hume and others persuaded me that sensations come first and language just describes them. But I now reckon it’s the other way around – language marks off and frames sensations so we can contemplate them. Language is not just communicating, it’s everything.

Language also connects us across boundaries of space and time. Herbert McCabe lives on through his limpid, lively philosophical prose. Like Montaigne, you feel you know the man when you read what McCabe has written. Shrewd, perhaps a little stubborn, quick-witted, sharp – and for a monk, disarmingly worldly and funny.

As Aristotle said, we are we repeatedly do. Perhaps, also, we are what we repeatedly write – poetry, prose or philosophy.