Session One, part 3: Double Articulation in Human Languages

[continued from previous section, The Sphere of Language, of Session One]


Double Articulation of Human Languages


Today I will only be able to gesture in the direction of how and why our native language is at once so familiar to us and so alien, so unknown and unknowable. But let me begin by saying that for human beings to come to know, language is always-already” involved. Descartes, of course, tried to eliminate language and culture and the social world from the reality of the cogito – from the divine reality that is “the thinking ego.” Before him there had been Francis Bacon – do you perhaps remember Bacon’s Idols of the Tribe, the Theatre, and the Marketplace? They were to be banished from mental processes to be used by experimentalists in Bacon’s great instauration of the sciences.

This, by the way, is the theoretical underpinning of the Enlightenment notion that a rigid distinction between “objective” and “subjective” modes of knowing can be made. But in the twentieth century, Descartes’ bold and brilliant mathematician’s vision of pure mind didn’t stand up to scrutiny very well. But let me hasten to add that this doesn’t mean science’s theories of the natural world are “socially constructed.” There is a methodological reciprocity between the subject matter and the theorizing in every field, and the subject matter is a resisting substance. But methodology does take on a substantiality of its own, as a mediator between the knower and the known. Again, that which enables our knowing also shapes it. And how can we say that we know how much it impedes us as it is shaping us?

If language is always-already there for the thinking human mind, then that means profound limitations as well as powerful enablement are likely to always be part of human epistemology, no matter what it is we are attempting to come to know. Thinkers such as Hegel and Saussure and Derrida and Kristeva have theorized about this double-bind in compelling ways, but in ways that sometimes seem to disturb and scandalize North American English-speaking minds, who seem to take it for granted that human beings are almost entirely free and that scientific rationalism is the exclusive way of thinking evidentially. One of the most fascinating questions, if we were willing to view the disciplines in a more egalitarian fashion, would be to assess the real difference that using mathematics makes in terms of epistemology and truth claims, without totalizing that difference..  

Earlier Greek and Western Christian minds, however, took this state of affairs for granted – the profound limitations on our freedom and on our coming to know as conditioned human beings, and this only seemed to make the project of coming to know more compelling for them. It may be that Enlightenment modernity will prove to have been itself the great age of Western “logocentrism”; that the critique of “metaphysics” is related to the Modern mind’s struggle not with the earlier “metaphysical” West, but with itself and its own metaphysical closures.

And you’re sitting there thinking, “What on earth is she talking about?” But some day soon, all of this will be crystalline with lucidity for you. [laughter] At least I hope it will. I have to confess that I start this course every year in something of a state of terror….  I don’t see how I can possibly carry you through all of this, and in such a way as to leave you equipped to read theory on your own – and equipped to understand why you want to do so for the rest of your lives.

In fact one year I tried to quit, right before the poststructuralists! I was just too tired. I said let’s just review what we’ve done already. But my students wouldn’t let me stop, and somehow together we struggled on through. I remember one of those students knitting his brow with a gentle reproach and saying: “Professor Blumberg, we stuck with you through the Greeks and through everyone else in order to get to this point and you want to stop now?” [laughing] So you see what we’re up against…. 

Okay now, the most striking and important feature in the structure of every human language is that it is “double articulated.” This cannot be overemphasized. Ferdinand de Saussure, a great formalist thinker and (I would say) a great epistemologist in his own right, took this linguistic fact and ran with it, and he changed Continental European thought forever. And we’ll see, for example, that when we grasp the implications of what Saussure was theorizing, it will provide us with a powerful way into what Derrida’s life-work is all about (although it isn’t the only way in, by any means). So, then, what does it mean to say that a human language is double articulated? It means that a language is not a collection of simple signs.

By “simple signs,” I mean a situation where we have a number of unitary signs, each of which possesses a one-to-one reference to a certain signified meaning, and that is the end of the story. We see a set of simple signs in the flag-signals that ships employed in the old days to communicate with one another, or in the red, yellow, green of stop signs, for example.

Children isolated from a linguistic community could develop a collection of simple signs, and many domesticated animals possess a sizable vocabulary, with as many as 60 or 70 (or even more) “signs,” in this simple sense of hearing a particular “whole” sound-structure and getting a particular “whole” notion, such as “Walk?” or “No!” This would be a “single” articulation of meaning. In this manner, family pets recognize the names of family members and of course they know their own names. But what is unique to the kind of language that humans possess – and that any consciousness like a human consciousness would possess – is that it is drastically different and distinct from that kind of accumulation of simple 1-to-1 signs. Instead, it is a system of signs.

Human languages are so drastically different even though they do construct a level of structure on which there are signs or “words” that do refer to “meanings.” But neither the words nor the meanings are unitary. Instead, they are opened up and also constituted by deeper differential patterns. As soon as you look closely at the units on the level of the word (or on any other level of structure, including that of the units of meaning) there are always other levels of structure altogether, composing it. Both the single word and the single meaning to which it refers turn out to be unitary only in a profoundly constituted sense, always-already supported and distinguished by internal formal oppositions and patterns. There are no “innocent” words. Every seemingly “simple” meaning carries within it a powerful freight of deep-structure history

So human languages are double articulated, and that means that the articulation of linguistic meaning is always happening on more than one level at once, even though we are primarily attending to one level at a given moment. Let’s say, for instance, that the word or “signifier” is the spoken English word “cat,” and that it refers to a “signified” or a linguistic meaning of “cat” – now this is very imprecise terminology, but this is only the first day of the course! The spoken word C+A+T is an arrangement of smaller constituent units, the speech sounds or phonemes. The individual English phonemes go together in a certain formally constrained sequence to make the spoken word “cat.” [/kaet/]. So we may have 200,000 to a million words in a given language, but they are being constituted out of 40-60 phonemes or speech sounds. And while these phonemes do not have their own meanings – they aren’t signifiers with a 1 to 1 relationship with a signified meaning yet they do make a difference in the meaning, by distinguishing “cat” from “cot” or “pat” or “cad,” for example. They have a formal relationship to the meaning.

So right away we see that instead of having a spoken “word” as a simple homogeneous and discrete whole connected with a simple homogeneous and discrete meaning, we have instead words that are themselves being articulated simultaneously on other levels of linguistic structuring that are deeper or more tacit – in order for the primary functional level to mean what it means. And the same is going to prove true on the level of the meanings. To recognize or “have” a word, we must be cognizant in some manner not only of the word’s own level of signifying-structure, but of multiple other levels, with their own contrastive patternings.

Then, when we look more closely in turn at the phonemes, we find that they aren’t unitary either. They are likewise constituted on a deeper and even more tacit level, the level of the “distinctive features.” These are the so-called “aspects” or “features” of sound that go together in little bundles to constitute the units called the phonemes, and to keep them distinct from one another. So even a humble formal feature such as as the friction that produces an affricated stop consonant has a formal relationship to the meaning. Furthermore, affrication nay be a distinctive feature in one language and disregarded altogether in another language. Now this is a wonderful illustration, by the way, of what the great physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi was talking about in his theory of “tacit knowledge.” (See Personal Knowledge, perhaps the most neglected piece of thought-work written in English in the 20th century.) 

And right here, if we were to press the issue of the formal constitution of these distinctive features, as we will be doing quite soon (when we turn to Saussure), we would be getting very close to Derrida’s “trace,” which is not a positive unit at all but a “difference,” and we would be getting very close to the constant ongoing perceptual force or process towards which Derrida gestures towards with his coined term differance. All linguistic knowing is enabled or held together by such differences and by the process of differance, which both constitute stable meaning and at the same time open language and meaning to the (redemptive) processes of change. I believe that the same principle is likely true of all human knowing, as I will try to show in later sessions.

Now quite likely the significance of double articulation is not going to dawn on you right away, but it is colossal. You’ll need the whole quarter to assimilate all the ramifications, if indeed we ever manage to think through all of them. (And it took me a lot longer than that. So you are lucky to have me. To speed up the process.) In a semiotic system, such as a language (but it could also be a signifying structure of any kind, such as a disciplinary methodology or kinship codes or political systems or etiquette or fashion) double articulation is always-already going on. As members of a speech community, tacit patterns are shaping the linguistically forged meanings or “ideas” that populate our minds, the structured meanings that enable us to think in such a way as to be able to convey what we think, and even to think and convey new meanings and ideas. As I’ve suggested, this double (and triple and quadrupal) articulation is a double-edged sword.

As human beings, then, we don’t have simple, isolated, discrete ideas in our minds, even though it seems to us that we do. Rather, we have forged and constituted ideas, ideas that are “always-already” articulated for us on hidden levels of functional patterning and conditioned perceptions. (Do you see what this Derridean catch-phrase means? That by the time we have come to be, as observer/perceivers, this conditioning has aready been laid in and is constituting us as the perceivers we are? Therefore, it is necessarily-already?) 

Double articulation means that there are habitual and powerful patternings going on when we are not paying conscious attention to them, and that these other simultaneous articulations of language are precisely what give language such a pervasive shaping effect on what we perceive, both on what we perceive in the linguistic flow of sound and on what we perceive in the world around us. The world around us, after all, is divided up since early childhood into the shared linguistic categories of meaning of our linguistic system; and later in our ways of knowing.

So does it “make a difference” if we use the word “man” to serve as our generic word to indicate human beings, thereby formally placing the word “woman” under the more general category of “man”? The women’s movement has made us aware of a few of the deeper tacit patterns underlying English usage. But for a profound theorist of language like Julia Kristeva, a change to “inclusive” language remains relatively superficial, and the deep structures of modern English and European languages remain irremediably patriarchal. This is why, as a strategic teaching tactic, she employs “man” and “he” exclusively in her own discourses.

Furthermore, this situation of being conditioned by our languages is only intensified, it seems to me, as we enter the specialized worlds and the technical languages of our advanced disciplines, because as we attain precision and depth in these discourses, we also tend to use the deeper tacit assumptions of our way of knowing as our general means of approaching life and even for approaching entirely different ways of knowing. This is how sight is always also blindness (and that doesn’t mean it isn’t still sight). Derrida’s conclusion: there is no way “out” of this dilemma. But we can awaken perhaps to a strenuous labor to work  more “play” into our determinations and employ a more radical willingness to listen harder to “otherness,” even though if it is other, we are not conditioned to handle it, and therefore it must always appear to us “in the form of monstrosity “

Now there are some incredibly important epistemological implications in this Saussurean adventure into how languages and other sign-systems condition human perceptions. Today I can only say this. What we perceive when we listen to our language (with our linguistically conditioned consciousness) is not on the one hand a “material” or “physical” or “empirical” flow of sound. Nor is it an “immaterial” or “ideal” mental patterning. And how we are perceiving it is neither empirical nor mentalistic, strictly speaking. What we perceive – ideas and words and speech sounds and syntactical patterns and all the other linguistic paradigms and patternings, smoothing functioning to guide our consciousness in its interpretation of what is meant – all these formal elements are rooted in a material base (the flow of speech sound) and also rooted in a lengthy past process of observation over time directed at structures gradually found to be inhering in that base, the two elements of material and form being always-already and inextricably blended together.

Ever since Descartes separated the human mind from the natural world, in the Anglo-Saxon world we have had the debate between the empiricists or positivists who say we can claim to have “knowledge” only of what is the physical, quantifiable, inert stuff of material reality, and the rational idealists who contend that ultimate reality is formal and mathematical and that matter is finally an illusion. Now that’s an impasse. But it’s a high-modern impasse. We aren’t in that impasse anymore, thank God. We can take a fresh and liberating look at science and all the other ways of knowing, and be both more respectful and more cogent about each of them. But the way, I mention Descartes rather than Plato because if Plato opposed Ideas to the temporal-empirical flow, he did not oppose the human mind to nature. These are very different deep structures, as we will see.

So, in order to think theory in various eras, we must take seriously their own semiotic systems: their understandings of language, including the nature of disciplinary discourse, and their most basic understandings of how human beings come to know. These will determine what they think can be claimed as “known,” and how, and with what degree of determinacy, in each case . First of all, of course, we’ll be hearing from the Greeks who initiated Western thought and education, and will resoundingly instruct us that as human being we can come to know only through the formal ways of knowing.

Furthermore, the Greeks believe that every way of knowing is a magnificent opportunity that didn’t have to be there for us to begin with. What is remarkable to them is not that, as human beings, we aren’t talking about an absolute or finalized kind of knowing, but rather that we can genuinely come to know at all, and that we can keep on seeking a more mature knowledge, and above all that we can participate through our ways of knowing in the Really Real. Classical Greek philosophy is always political, and to be transfigured into wiser and freer persons by the arts and sciences is all that they thought the commonwealth could ever count on, for any real hope for a better future. (It’s a slender hope, as they were well aware, but that never stopped them.) This brings us very close to the classical Greek thought-world, which will be our topic in Session Two.

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