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Epistemological challenges: Language

Global Strategies Project

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1. Emancipation from particular languages

A philosopher of language, Antonio de Nicolas, has studied the limitations of single languages as a vehicle for complex, action-oriented, human-centred meaning. His use of "language" corresponds to "answer" as used here. For him one of the most widespread misleading misconceptions is the implied existence or possibility of one universally adequate language (1978, p. 190).

Given this point of departure de Nicolas explores the problem of the variety, interrelation and mutual exclusivity of rational thought systems, particularly of Western origin. To obtain perspective on the problem, he analyzes the philosophical languages embodied in the Rig Vedic hymns to which much oriental philosophy can trace its origins. These clarify the problem of responding to a multiplicity of perspectives which, even when understood, each on their terms, do not themselves offer any reconciliation of the multiplicity of "answers" which they constitute. Any synthesis of them is unable to "provide the antithetical perspectives essential to freedom" (1978, p. 66).

De Nicolas points out that reconciliation is not a question of compromise between opposing views, since each such compromise is an "amputation" of a portion of "one's own flesh". What is then significant in the prevalence of Western-style compromise "is not that a questionable compromise is being carried out; but rather....that a new human orientation has been demanded, or been imposed through power, on all humans; in fact, a single perspective has been imposed or demanded on all humans." (1978, p. 68).

Any form of reconciliation between answers has to contend, not only with saving the multiplicity of perspectives, but with the fact that these perspectives have become embodied in psycho-social structures (1978, p. 67). The "songs" characteristically sung in the expression of each answer engender the "bodies" through which we function in society and determine our images of ourselves. But "if thought is the ground of man, then it follows that thought is radically man's body. The limits of his body being again the same limits of the thought that grounds it." (1978, p. 82). In this sense, as explored by Geoffrey Vickers (1970), the proponents of any answer are trapped by the bodily image they engender (1980). Getting out of such traps calls for continuing attention to the decision process, whereby they are engendered:

"If the plight of man is grounded neither in language nor in the mirror (thought) but, rather, in man's decision to reduce himself to a universalized form of thought by grounding himself on it, then the emancipation of man will be in radicalizing himself on his decisions rather than on his images. But in order to do so man needs other men and the ability to discover them at their origin - at the radical level of their decisions and not just their images or ours, for this is man's own origin and, ultimately, his own flesh, though this might demand of every man a constant sacrifice of images - the ability to liberate himself from the prison of his mirrors - and to acknowledge a human reality which, though the source of multiple images, can neither be reduced nor identified with any of them. The other is my own possibilities and, in realizing these possibilities, I actualize my right to innovation and continuity." (1978, p. 3).

2. Modelling language relationships by sound

The distinguishing "linguistic" and epistemological feature of the Rg Veda hymns is the manner in which they are grounded in sound and demand a selection amongst alternative musical patterns. Since the number of tonal systems is infinite, the selection of a finite number of them by the singer/musician at the moment of execution, not only closes him within a certain limitation or determination (eg just tuning, equal temperament) but, more radically, it forces him to constantly face the internal incompatibility of any such systems, the tones of every conceivable system must constantly face and submit to a radical sacrifice to permit others to emerge (1978, p. 12).

"Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be aware that we are dealing with a language where tonal andarithmetical relations establish the epistemological invariances. Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context dependency; any tone can have any possible relation to other tones, and the shift from one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which the singer himself embodies. Any perspective (tone) must be "sacrificed" for a new one to come into being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining continuity, and the "world" is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song". (1978, p. 57).

Recalling Klapp's (1978) concern with alternation between opening and closing, each necessary choice is a closure to alternatives, but each such choice can be sacrificed through the movement which must open to other possibilities if development is to continue.

"Rg Vedic man, like his Greek counterparts, knew himself to be the organizer of the scale, and he cherished the multitude of possibilities open to him too much to freeze himself into one dogmatic posture. His language keeps alive the 'open-ness' to alternatives, yet it avoids entrapment in anarchy. It also resolves the fixity of theory by setting the body of man historically moving through the freedom of musical spaces, viewpoint transpositions, reciprocities, pluralism, and finally, an absolute radical sacrifice of all theory as a fixed invariant" (1978, p. 57).

Of great interest is the manner in which the sets of categories, necessary to order the perceptual world, are developed and related, highlighting both the potential dynamics for harmony and discord between them. This possibility is entirely lacking in the present fashion for "pragmatically objective" elaboration of sets of categories (1984). The consequences of basing work on sets of 2,3 or more categories has not been recognized, despite obvious conflictual implications of a 2-element set (whatever the content) when reflected in a 2-division organization, for example (1978). And yet, the process whereby such sets are defined, determines how whole psycho-social systems are fragmented for analysis, comprehension, and communication.

In a musically grounded language, the basic whole is the octave. That tones recur cyclically at every doubling or halving of frequency is the basic miracle of music. But the octave refuses to be subdivided into subordinate cycles by integer ratios. "It is a blunt arithmetical fact that the higher powers of 3 and 5 which define such subordinate intervals in music never agree with higher powers of 2 which define octave cycles. It is man's yearning for this impossible agreement which introduced a hierarchy of values into the number field". (1978, p. 56).

This dilemma with all that it signifies for music, philosophy and social organization has been explored by Ernest McClain (1978). The present day equivalent is the problem of how different sets of concepts, with differing numbers of categories, can nest together to encompass the societal whole without creating a degree of qualitatively unacceptable discord in use - namely a "gap" or "error" between reality as envisaged (or desired) and as perceived through the chosen pattern of categories. This gap provokes demands for an alternative in which the gap is at least diminished. (The process of reducing the gap is itself encoded in the Rg Veda according to McClain's analysis (1978).

It is not the case that numbers or ratios control movement, but it is the case that movement may be ordered according to certain ratios. Conceptual movement, and developmental in general, takes place through the elaboration of constellations of categories in which each category is context and structure dependent (A J N Judge, 1984).

Opposite or reciprocal possibilities can be perceived as equally relevant, whether co-present or succeeding each other. "Any perspective remains just one out of a group of equally valid perspectives...but no song has so universal an appeal that it terminates the invention of new ones...the function of anylanguage is to make clear its own dependence on, and reference to, other linguistic systems." (Antonio de Nicolas, 1978, p. 63.4)

"In a language ruled by the criteria of sound, perspectives, the change of perspectives and vision, stand for what musicologists call "modulation". Modulation in music is the ability to change keys within a composition. To focus within this language, and by its criteria, is primarily the activity of being able to run the scale backwards and forwards, up and down, with these sudden shifts in perspectives. Through this ability, the singer, the body, the song and the perspectives become an inseparable whole. In this language, transcendence is precisely the ability to perform the song, without any theoretical construct impeding its movement a priori, or determining the result of following such movement a priori. Nor can any theoretical compromise substitute for the discovery of the movement of "modulation" itself in history. The human body would then be asked to lose the memory of its origins; a task the human body refuses to do by its constant return to crisis." (p. 192).

3. Complementary languages

Given the context described in the previous note, it is not surprising that the Rg Veda requires four languages, rather than one, in order to convey the contrasting natures of its meaning. De Nicolas, following Husserl, describes such languages as intentionality-structures. "The intentionality-structure of a particular question, then, determines or prefigures the kind of answer it will receive." (1978, p. 79). The four languages, with their multiple perspectives, function as four spaces of discourse within which human action takes place, and from which any given statement in the text gains meaning. The languages show the human situation within disparate linguistic contexts embodying different ways of viewing the world. (1978, p. 9). The four languages may be described as follows:

  • Language of non-existence: Provides the modality of being in a world, either of possibilities to be discovered, or of stagnant dogmatic attitudes. It is the field condition out of which all differentiation in human experience emerges. It is the continuing context for choice. In this world there is always the tendency to lift one explanatory set to the level of an internal image as a guide for action. It then functions as a suppressed premise or fundamental myth, and is hardly ever made explicit (1978, p. 924). When the originating potential of this world is not recognized, man is deprived of the possibility of returning existentially to his origins and those of others by the dogmatic reduction of multiplicity to the "song" of one theoretical voice. In de Nicolas words the tragedy of human and social development in this world is that "We have cried for and praised many Saviours, but have lost our own act of creation and the power to revive it". (1978, p. 73)
  • Language of existence: Provides the modality of acting in a world of truth to be built, formed or established, as the discontinuous results of innovation. This world is one of continuity and discontinuity, multiplication and division, with a pluralism of perspectives generated from a common field admitting many alternative structures and autonomous images. In this world man is challenged by the possibility of embodying any perspective, of being bodily "at home" within any structure or autonomous space (with which his body then shares its dimensions). This world is characterized by forces experienced either as constraining, enclosing and destructive, or as liberating and growth-enhancing. The root of contemporary man's crisis in terms of this world lies in the reduction of these multiple aspects of man to the names of objects with which he is confronted and to which he then has no effective originating relationship.
  • Language of images and sacrifice: Provides the modality of acting in a world through regathering the images of the dismembered sensorium (the multiplicity of worlds of existence) by sacrificing their multiple and exclusive ontologies. In contrast to the centrifugal language of existence, the images are grouped and regrouped, creating and erasing boundaries, in a centripetal process converging on a unique configuration of forces in a final "efficient-moment" of sacrifice which reveals the underlying "common body of the norm", the efficient centre of creativeaction, or "embodied-vision". The image of sacrifice stands therefore for an activity of eternal return to the radical originating power through which the multiplicity of perspectives is engendered. It is the efficient centre of the discontinuities of space of perception and time, or the link between efficient acts and discontinuous acts. It is not a renunciation of action, but rather a renunciation of the limits of perspectives which interpretations attach to the structured subject-object sensorium. (1978, pp.139154)

    Sacrifice is the necessary response to the ills of polycentricity with their many consequences for the fragmentation of the body of man. No idea of the body, whether monocentric or polycentric (validly chosen as styles of expression), is prior to man and therefore prior to this embodiment. (1978, p.141). Fundamental to the problem of human development is that "any identification of man with a theory of "man" obscures the fact that any and all theories of man about "man" are made of the radical dismemberment of man himself, and distract him from engaging in his only original and primal activity: the sacrificing of all theories about himself so that he may recreate himself as man". (1978, p.70)

    It is for this reason that Rg Vedic man does not accept any way of understanding man's role other than as an original and continuous sacrifice (an activity rather than a theory)". (1978, p.70)

  • Language of embodied-vision: Provides the modality of having gone through, and being in, a world which remains continuously because it comprehends the totality of the cultural movement on which it is grounded (C A Hooker, 1974, p.74). It is the embodiment of choosers in movement. Rationality is not then based on "the narrow logic of appeal to premises and conclusion, but rather, on an appeal to a community of listeners capable of understanding and changing, or re-directing the movement of their song". (de Nicolas, 1978, p.154). The vision becomes an objective norm, not as the result of a dogmatically imposed constraint on action, but rather as the embodiment of the norm as discovered in a community of plural activities, decisions and descriptions. (p.154). Within such a context "we find ourselves facing moving webs, moving structures; each structure a rhythm through which a body-world appears, revealing a background of living beings together with the glory and terrors of their life". (p.122)

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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