No Such Thing as Language

We should realize that we have abandoned not only the ordinary notion of a language, but we have erased the boundary between knowing a language and knowing our way around the world generally. For there are no rules for arriving at passing theories that work. . . . There is no more chance of regularizing, or teaching, this process than there is of regularizing or teaching the process of creating new theories to cope with new data — for that is what this process involves.

There is no such thing as language, not if a language is anything like what philosophers, at least, have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned or mastered. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language users master and then apply to cases . . . We should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions.

— Donald Davidson, from “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”

Gloomy Passivity

A young man has hoped for a happy or useful or glorious life. If the man he has become looks upon these miscarried attempts of his adolescence with disillusioned indifference, there they are, forever frozen in the dead past. When an effort fails, one declares bitterly that he has lost time and wasted his powers. The failure condemns that whole part of ourselves which we had engaged in the effort. It was to escape this dilemma that the Stoics preached indifference. We could indeed assert our freedom against all constraint if we agreed to renounce the particularity of our projects. If a door refuses to open, let us accept not opening it and there we are free. But by doing that one manages only to save an abstract notion of freedom. It is emptied of all content and all truth. The power of man ceases to be limited because it is annulled. It is the particularity of the project which determines the limitation of the power, but it is also what gives the project its content and permits it to be set up. There are people who are filled with such horror at the idea of a defeat that they keep themselves from ever doing anything. But no one would dream of considering this gloomy passivity as the triumph of freedom.

— Simone de Beauvoir, from The Ethics of Ambiguity

Contra “Rule Seventeen: Omit Needless Words!”

Brevity is a great virtue [. . .] yet it may be overestimated. The reader’s mind must be permitted to eddy around the subject. . . . [Yes, brevity is a virtue,] but we must not make a fetish of it. . . . Must one never say great big dog because great equals big? Nay, it is a mark of man’s overflowing vitality and sheer joy in emphasis to say great big dog.

— Edwin Herbert Lewis

[Courtesy of The Boston Globe]

Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.

Referring to the end of Latin civilization, I represented artistic culture as a type of secretion welling up within a people, at first indicating a plethora, an abundance of health, but later congealing, solidifying, forming a hard membrane preventing direct contact between spirit and nature, creating an appearance of vitality which disguises the decline of life within, like a casing in which the spirit languishes, wilts and finally dies. Pushing these thoughts to their natural conclusion, I made the assertion that Culture, which is born of life, ends up killing it.

Historians accused me of overgeneralization. Others criticized my methods. And those who complemented me were the ones who had understood me the least.

— André Gide, The Immoralist

Now, it is enough just to die

Blood pools in the temples; reddened rocks
soaked in slaughter. Age is no help:
no shame in hastening an old man’s dying day
nor in cutting off a babe on the brink of life.
For what crime could these young deserve death?
Now, it is enough just to die. Bloodlust carries them away:
a man shows himself weak if he inquires about guilt.
Many die to stack the numbers; a bloody winner
snatches a head severed from unknown neck, ashamed
to walk empty handed. . . .

— Lucan (2.103-13), translated by Braund and Hooley

Glimmer of a myriad lost sensations

It was a fine day, I felt well rested, not at all weak. I was happy, or rather in high spirits. The air was calm and warm, but I took my shawl anyway, so that I might ask someone to carry it and thereby strike up a new acquaintance. I have mentioned that the park adjoins our terrace, so I got there in no time. I walked into its shade with a sense of rapture. The air was luminous. The cassias, which flower long before they come into leaf, gave off a sweet scent — or perhaps it emanated from everywhere, that light, unfamiliar smell which seemed to enter into me by all my senses and filled me with a feeling of exaltation. I was breathing more easily, walking with a lighter step. I did have to sit down on the first bench, but I was more intoxicated, more dazzled than tired. I looked around. The shadows were light and fleeting; they didn’t fall on the ground, they barely skimmed it. O light! I listened. What could I hear? Nothing, everything; every sound amused me. I remember a shrub whose bark, from a distance, seemed to have such a strange texture that I had to get up to go over and feel it. My touch was a caress, it filled me with rapture. I remember . . . was this finally the morning when I was to be reborn?

I had forgotten I was alone; I sat there, waiting for nothing, oblivious of the time. Until that day, it seemed to me, I had felt so little and thought so much, and I was astonished to find that my sensations were becoming as strong as my thoughts. I say ‘it seemed to me’, for from the depths of my early childhood the glimmer of a myriad lost sensations was re-emerging. With my new-found awareness of my own senses I was able to recognize them, albeit tentatively. Yes, as my senses awoke, they rediscovered a whole history, reconstructed a whole past life. They were alive! Alive! They had never ceased to live but throughout my years of study had led a secret, latent existence.

I met no one that day, and I was glad of it. I took out of my pocket a small edition of Homer which I hadn’t opened since I had left Marseille, reread three lines of the Odyssey, learned them by heart, then, finding enough to nourish me in their rhythm, savoured them at my leisure. I shut the book and sat there trembling, more alive than I thought possible, my spirit drowsy with happiness . . .

– André Gide, The Immoralist