Language Theft and the Enclosure of the Commons (1)

This is the first in a series of posts.

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Were we to demand a general language that everyone understood equally, we would end up with totally flattened language, one that no longer said anything at all.     

                                                                                            —Martin Heidegger*

Speech is not a tool, it is itself—in its phonation as in its phrasing, its syntax, its prosody—the thrust or drive of “meaning.” Meaning is not added to or assumed by the facts, it is their arrival, it is their coming. In short, it is the fact of the fact, the thrust and pulsation that bring into the world and that thereby make a “world,” which is to say, a space for the circulation of meaning.

                                                                                    —Jean-Luc Nancy**

Language has a tendency to flatten itself out through circulation, in which process words gradually lose their power to speak—and in speaking, to let what is be seen.

Such flattening derives from the currency of language in its functioning as a universal means for the exchange of information. Words, through their usage in everyday interchanges, continually passed back and from one person to another, wear down the same way common coins passed from hand to hand do, till they eventually have to be replaced. Such wearing-down occurs with any tool, any implement. In fact, the more useful a tool may be, the more often it will actually be used, and accordingly the more quickly it will wear out, finally becoming useless and needing to be replaced.

That process of wearing down through repeated usage occurs not only to tools or implements as such—that is, to things that have been specifically produced for use, such as hammers, chisels, knives, or shovels. It also occurs to anything that is not itself a tool, but can nevertheless be used as though it were one. It can occur to all sorts of things that are not themselves tools, whether it be a stone, a leaf, a human being, or any other thing not produced for the very purpose of being used.

There may be nothing especially wrong with using what is no tool for some purpose when no tool designed for that same purpose is available, or if the non-tool can accomplish the purpose better than any tool presently available. However, the fact of being used as one might use a tool does not make what is not a tool (a tool being, by definition, something produced for some purpose or range of purposes) into one.

Furthermore, to treat what is not a tool but has been used for one as though it were nothing but a tool is to overlook, disregard, or disrespect what has been so used.  Kant’s second formulation of what he cogently argues to be the one and only truly categorical moral imperative is that one should never treat humanity, whether in the person of oneself or in the person of another, as a means only (for example, as no more than a means for attaining sexual gratification), but always also as an end in itself (to stay with the same example, never only with lust, but always also with love).

If we are to address anything as what it is in itself, we must address whatever is not a tool—or other thing (such as a machine or a computer or a system for the accumulation of financial profits) designed and produced for achieving some purpose or range of purposes—in terms that truly pertain to its own being or nature, and not in terms of its possible use. That is so for rocks as well as for human beings. A rock as such is not a tool for driving nails, though a given rock might well serve someone for just such a purpose if no hammer is handy. Similarly, a human being is not a means for gratifying sexual desires, even though human beings can be and regularly are used for just that purpose.

The same applies to words.

However useful words may be, and even if words were to prove indispensable—as the only (or at least the best) available means—for achieving some indispensible purpose or range of purposes, words are not tools. As items within a system of signs, words are the means most commonly and universally used for such purposes as communication, whether of wishes and desires or of bits of information. The fact that words are so often so used, however, does not mean that that is what words themselves, as words, are.

As Jean-Luc Nancy says in the second quotation at the beginning of this post, speech is no tool. Nor are the words that belong to it. Both speech and the words that belong to it are something else altogether. And when they become worn down and worn out by being used as though they were mere tools, means to something else—such as the conveying of information—they cannot just be replaced, as tools themselves can be. Words that have been stripped of their power to name what is, have no replacements.

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To be continued.


* Martin Heidegger, Zollikoner Seminare (Gesamtausgabe, volume 89; Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2018), page 787.


** Jean-Luc Nancy, “Narrative, Narration, Recitative,” an essay available in Nancy, Expectations: Philosophy, Literature, translated by Robert Bononno (Fordham University Press, 2018).