Ψάχνοντας παλιά χαρτιά και σημειώματα (στην πραγματικότητα: χάνοντας τον χρόνο μου, ένεκα η θερινή ραστώνη), έπεσα πάνω σε ένα μισοτελειωμένο κείμενο για τα όρια της γλώσσας ως συστήματος σήμανσης. Αν θυμάμαι καλά, το προόριζα για προπόζαλ, για να διεκδικήσω τάχαμου μια βαρβάτην υποτροφία περιωπής. Τελικά ούτε το προπόζαλ ολοκλήρωσα ούτε βέβαια την υποτροφία τόλμησα να διεκδικήσω. Σκέφτηκα πάντως ότι δεν θα ήταν κακή ιδέα να βάλω το κειμενάκι εδωνανά, τάλε κουάλε και χωρίς αλλαγές, μπας και τσιμπήσει κανένας γλωσσολόγος της προκοπής (ο Σραόσα, ας πούμε) και μου πει αν αυτή η καταφανώς αφελέστατη δοκιμή δοκιμίου έχει ελπίδες να εξελιχτεί σε τίποτα βιώσιμο ή αν πρέπει να στραφώ σε πιο παραγωγικές δραστηριότητες (ψάρεμα, ποδήλατο, κολύμπι).
Να μην ξεχάσω: στα αγγλικά το πρωτόγραψα το ρημάδι, και βαριέμαι τώρα να το μεταφράσω. Εδώ που τα λέμε όμως δεν πολυέχω ενοχές για την παρασπονδία μου (και την προδοσία των εθνικών ιδεωδών), διότι εσχάτως διαπίστωσα ότι οι μαζόχες που με διαβάζουν είναι μπόλικοι, οπότε μάλλον θα την αντέξουν τη δοκιμασία. Άντε, κουράγιο και καλή ανάγνωση — λέμε τώρα…
A (VERY PARTIAL) OVERVIEW OF AN AGE-OLD PROBLEM
The aim of this proposal is to explore three problematic aspects of language: the relation between language and metaphysics (sections 1.1-1.2); the degree of correspondence between language as an abstract collectivity and language as individual speech acts (sections 2.1-2.2); and the limitations of language as a semiosic system that lacks verifiability and resists the attribution of authoritative meaning (sections 3.1-3.2). Discussion of these questions will entail brief and selective overviews of previous approaches to them, from Xenophanes and Heraclitus to Saussure and Wittgenstein. While the symbiosis of so different thinkers in my argument is not meant to compromise their qualitative differences, it does imply an attempt to explore whether their approaches may be considered as parts of a single continuum.
1.1 Languages, qua semiosic systems, provide sets of signs that claim fully to reflect our perception of the world. Different languages reflect different taxonomies of what is perceived as the world, but in all cases our language is coterminous with our world – ‘our’ world consisting of those aspects of our experience that are singled out to provide the basis for our taxonomies. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein  5.6); what is not the case cannot be conceived or spoken of (cf. Parmenides 28 B 2.7 Diels-Kranz: “you cannot know what is not”); and what can be talked of and thought of must necessarily exist (Parmenides 28 B 6 Diels-Kranz). At the same time, much as language is a semiosic ‘rendering’ of the world, the world is also an effect of language: for Aristotle, the predicates of Being are “the many ways in which Being is said” (Metaphysics 1003a33; cf. Eco  20-24); and in Parmenides the predicates attributed to Being by ignorant mortals are ‘words’ (cf. ὀνόμασται, B 8.38 Diels-Kranz), while Non-Being is “nameless”, ἀνώνυμον (B 8.17 Diels-Kranz).
1.2 If our language is coextensive with our world, then by no means can it provide an ‘outside view’ of it: no matter how far semiosis advances, it is bound to remain within the limits of our world, whose enlargement has to be strictly commensurate with the advancement of semiosis. Thus, while language may be coterminous with our world, our world is not necessarily coterminous with everything that is the case. It is possible that there exists something that cannot be expressed in language: “this is shown, it is the mystical element” (Wittgenstein  6.522). Language has to be impotent in the case of metaphysics (“the meaning of the world must be outside the world”, Wittgenstein  6.41) and, as a result, no metaphysical question can ever be asked, and no such answer can ever be given (Wittgenstein  6.5-6.53; cf. 6.421). What is unfathomable must also be unutterable: “of what we cannot speak, of that we must keep silence” (Wittgenstein  7). Already Neoplatonism proclaimed the ineffability of Divinity; in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite the Godhead is typically inconceivable and inexpressible; in the succinct formulation of Pseudo-Dionysius’ commentator, Maximus the Confessor, “God is impossible to think of, but even more impossible to speak of” (Patrologia Graeca 4.200C Migne).
2.1 Another limitation inherent in language is that it must necessarily remain only a potentiality. For language exists in a twofold manner: in absentia, in its abstract, systemic aspect as common possession of a language community (what de Saussure termed langue); and in presentia, i.e. in its manifestations in the individual speech acts of individual speakers (what de Saussure termed parole). Thus, langue is a collective entity, and as such it is accessible to all speakers; however, it also extends beyond the mere sum of the individual paroles, which are but fragmentary realizations of langue. As a result, langue, albeit partially realized in individual paroles, remains perpetually a potentiality that can never be realized to the full.
2.2 The langue/parole dichotomy was, in some respects, anticipated by Heraclitus. Heraclitean Logos is conducive to “wisdom” (σοφία, 22 B 50 Diels-Kranz), and what is wise (σοφόν) is “set apart from all” (πάντων κεχωρισμένον, B 108 Diels-Kranz). At the same time, however, Logos is “common”, or “shared” (ξυνός): “although the logos is shared (ξυνός), most people live as though their thinking (φρόνησις) were a private (ἰδίαν) possession” (B 2 Diels-Kranz). This idea occurs again and again in Heraclitus (B 113 Diels-Kranz: “Thinking [τὸ φρονέειν] is shared [ξυνόν] by all”; B 116 Diels-Kranz: “It belongs to all men to know themselves and to think well [σωφρονέειν]”). Logos is ‘shared’, insofar as every single individual has, potentially, her share of it ― in other words, insofar as she can have (partial) access to the inexhaustible common repository that is the Logos. On the other hand, Logos is also ‘set apart’ in that no single individual can have full access to it: it is a transcendental entity that lies beyond the cognitive capacity of single individuals.
3.1 Finally, the third and perhaps most important limitation of language is that it lacks verifiability. Because of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign (a notion developed by de Saussure but already present in Aristotle), there is no means of verifying that the relation between signans and signatum is stable and invariable in each individual’s use of language. The problem was put in epistemological terms as early as the 6th century BCE by Xenophanes (21 B 34 Diels-Kranz): clear and certain truth (τὸ σαφές) is unattainable, for even if one has succeeded in speaking of what is the case (τετελεσμένον εἰπών), one has no certain criterion against which to check one’s opinion (δόκος). A textbook example illustrating the non-verifiability of language is the use of terms designating colour: some speakers distinguish between ‘scarlet’, ‘crimson’, ‘carmine’, ‘maroon’ etc., while others find such distinctions over-subtle and prefer to subsume all these shades under ‘red’; however, even speakers of the first group do not always assign exactly the same meaning to the same colour-shades. This difference in language usage evinces a difference in taxonomy, and reveals a disconcerting fluidity in the use of language even among members of the same language community.
3.2 This fluidity is, of course, a core element in the celebrated notion of différance introduced by Jacques Derrida. Linguistic signs have no inherent, authoritative meaning; rather, they are defined only in contradistinction from other signs. Thus, no text can be assigned a definitive meaning, because its constituent signs, far from being carriers of autonomous meaning, must needs be referred (or deferred) to other signs, and these in turn to other, in a never-ending negotiation of meaning. Linguistic signs are not entities but relations, and as such they are in a constant interplay with each other, which makes for innumerable possible readings of any given text.
Axelos K., 1962. Héraclite et la philosophie. La première saisie de l’être en devenir de la totalité. Paris.