The Significance of Language for World Construction


When Heidegger says that language is the house of being, what does he mean? Perhaps the best way to look at such a statement in terms of what Charles Taylor calls a “constitutive” theory of language, as opposed to an instrumental theory. On the instrumental view, language is seen purely as a tool for communication which can be more or less “added” onto existing cognitive architecture without necessarily changing the way in which the animal perceives or understands the earth. In contrast, the constitutive view claims that the possession of complex language fundamentally changes the way in which an animal approaches the earth, in effect, generating a new dimension of significance above and beyond brute functional instrumentality. In other words, a constitutive view sees language as providing the cognitive scaffolding for world construction. Living in a world is different from coping on the earth. To illustrate the difference between “having” a world and not having a world, let us examine the phenomenon of social bonding.

When interacting with other members of the troop, a worldless animal will react appropriately in terms of dominance and submission, “understanding” perfectly the way in which some responses towards members of the troop are appropriate and others are not. For the worldless animal, there is a normative dimension for behavior in response to certain objects, but the “depth” of the interaction bottoms out purely in terms of whether or not the response is appropriate according to largely unconscious standards and mores driven through evolutionary development. In contrast, linguistic animals operate with highly refined cognitive skills which worldless instrumentality simply does not afford. Two examples are perceptual interpretation (perceiving events in terms of higher-order dimensions of intelligibility) and socially complex emotional responses (love not lust, anxiety not fear, etc.). A worlded animal can look at an event of social bonding and explicitly understand the situation as a display of love, with all its implied content. This perceptual judgement brings with it a higher-order normative dimension such that the interpretative gloss is not only explicitly understood in terms of possible sets of articulations (“They are so happy together”, “That love won’t last”), but also, in terms of a narrative. Narrative allows for a perception of the social bonding event in terms of a story (“I wonder how they met”, “They must be new lovers”, “What a charming old couple”, etc.). Moreover, such narratives are structured in terms of certain metaphorical dimensions (“Love Is a Journey”, “Love Is a Rose”, etc.) which are possible only in virtue of linguistic discourse.

With narrative comes the possibility of higher-order perceptual interpretation filtered in terms of possible articulations structured in accordance with a logical space of reasons. If we see two people wearing a tuxedo and a wedding dress, there is a limited number of rational narratives in which to fit that event into a cohesive story according to public background knowledge. While the ultimate result of a worlded perception and worldless perception is the same (the execution of appropriate behavior in response to stimuli), there is a semantic-perceptual depth for worlded animals that simply isn’t available for nonlinguistic creatures. Through the use and understanding of explicit language, humans are able to go above and beyond normal animal communication e.g. a cry indicating a danger. For humans, language provides more than just the possibility of communication, but rather, the possibility of interpretative perception filtered in terms of explicit object recognition (“I can see that that couple is in love“), semantic depth (love implies a range of emotional responses which are richer in content than mere affection, fear, aversion, etc.), and explicit narrative formation (“That couple must be getting married because they are all dressed up”).

Moreover, with language comes the possibility of self-interpretation in light of partially expressed articulations structured by social narratives. While the worldless animal’s self-understanding bottoms out in terms of unconscious dispositions for behavior in light of appropriate social norms and evolutionary instinct, the worlded animal’s self-understanding is rich in virtue of being an understanding of self qua self, that is, in terms of personality, having a name, being a moral agent, etc. In other words, because a human child is more or less taught to understand and interpret itself in terms of being an individual self (at least in Western countries), the self-understanding engendered through social discourse allows for genuine subjectivity qua subjectivity. For example, if the child is good at sports, language provides a possible set of articulations which can be internalized by the child in accordance with its self-interpretation (“I am a good sports player”, “I want to  be an athlete when I grow up”). If we reflect closely on these normative dimensions, we can see an enormously complex web of social language games being played in accordance with possible sets of self-interpretations structured by historical and cultural development. The most obvious example is of course religion and the possibility of self-interpretation as a child of God or as a member of a Christian community. Such a self-interpretation structures human life from the ground up, affecting almost all dimensions of personal experience. Without language, self-interpretation is impossible.

Accordingly, I hope this post has demonstrated the significance of language for world construction.


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Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology

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