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May 31 2013 6 31 /05 /May /2013 19:58

I was musing over a letter from a friend recently, and was struck by how frequently the writer used what are currently termed "scare quotes". It's a bad misnomer, if only because the meaning of the use of the quotation marks may be quite other than specified by that frequently-used characterization of them. If we are to have a commonly used term, I'd prefer something that signifies simply that the quotes are used for a purpose other than direct quotation of something already said or written. I'd prefer something like "flagged" words or phrases, since the purpose is simply to draw attention to them as having a meaning beyond the simple verbal form itself.

 

Still, I don't intend this post as commentary on nomenclature. I want to draw attention, rather, to the manner in which verbal forms themselves, and indeed the assumptions contained in the grammatical system in which they are used, can contain (knowingly or unknowingly) meanings beyond the purely literal. We are all at least theoretically familiar with the way in which a word is said by its speaker can convey subtle (and not so subtle!) implications that exceed (or indeed contradict) the literal meaning of the words used. Sarcasm, irony, denigration, scorn and a variety of other meanings can be conveyed by tone of voice, rhythm of expression, and so on. We are less familiar, I suspect, with the equivalences of those meanings that are feasibly communicated in writing, where it is we ourselves who in our minds provide the equivalences of tone of voice and expression.  Professional writers undoubtedly would be more knowledgeable about such ploys than most of the rest of us, but similarly, poets could be considered as even being technically aware of the subtleties of sound, rhythm and grammatical cadence.

 

The major point I want to make, though, is that both words themselves, and the grammatical structures that contain them, constitute a structure of meaning. I've commented on this briefly in previous posts, but the further realization that has just reached me (Think of the assumptions contained in that grammatical form!) is that every system devised to accomodate and communicate meaning can be seen as assuming effability. As I've previously argued, language itself encourages the belief that all knowledge is potentially accessible of translation into words or other symbols (like numbers, for example).

 

This can be described, I believe, as belief in a form of utopia: that is, that there conceivably exists an effable form for every possible meaning. I think this is both a profound error, and a widely disseminated one––in spite of our almost universal personal experience of being unable to find adequate verbal forms for what we feel.

 

I am putting this so trenchantly because the attachment to a particular systematic structure of verbal communication may mean that one's personal continuity of belief, that is, one's identity, depends upon it. This phenomenon, and its consequences, are lucidly discussed by Susanne K.Langer in the first chapter of her (now almost legendary) book Philosophy in a New Key. The utopian "country" (!) in which one lives, and with which one associates one's own identity, can be defended (unknowingly) as fiercely as if it were an actual place. H.G Wells dramatized this beautifully in his short story "The Country of the Blind".

 

Do try to find a copy of Langer's book if you get the chance. That first chapter is just the top of the iceberg!

 

John.

 


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