Personal Knowledge: Language as a WOK

Personal Knowledge: Language as a Way of Knowing:

“Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself.”—Wittgenstein

“Language is the house of Being. In its home humans dwell.”—Heidegger “Letter on Humanism”

“‘En arche ‘en ‘o Logos” (“In the beginning was the Word”)—John 1:1

“…we ourselves no longer have the power to trust that the word is the essential foundation of all relations to beings as such.”—Heidegger: “Aristotle’s Physics” 

Language is probably the most important theme of 20th century philosophy and will be of the philosophy that moves into the 21st century. Why this has come to be the case will be the outline of these writings on language as a WOK.

The very essence of what we are as human beings, our ontology, our being-in-the-world is contained in our language and in our relation to and understanding of language. To understand language is to contrast instruction with teaching; and to do so is to recognize that the teaching in TOK is to be characterized as “useless” and it must be “useless” in order to allow true learning and teaching to happen.  To reflect on the issue of “uselessness” and “usefulness” is to connect these seemingly  irrelevant themes to the status of education in our modern technological age and what we think education is today.  In order to begin this reflection, we must think upon language and rethink language.

The rethinking of language takes place from and within the rethinking of technology. The relation between technology and language is crucial for a rethinking of language in our modern technological age. It is therefore necessary to talk about the technological language, which defines “a language that is technologically determined by what is most peculiar to technology,” that is, by framing (or “positioning” or enframing). It is imperative that we ask what is language and in what special way it remains exposed to the dictates of technology. Such imperatives to our thinking about language are only met in the rethinking of the current conception of language that we might characterize in the following way:

Personal/Shared Knowledge Background:

Today we think speech is: (1) a faculty, an activity and achievement of humans. It is: (2) the operation of the instruments for communication and hearing. Speech is: (3) the expression and communication of emotions accompanied by thoughts (dispositions) in the service of “information”. Speech is: (4) a representing and portraying (picturing, the making of pictures) of the real and unreal.

The traditional metaphysical connection of subject “the things” + predicate “the qualities of the things”, the categories, between language and thinking that we have seen in our discussions of Reason as a Way of Knowing defines language in terms of thinking. Thinking is the human activity of representing objects in this view, and thus language has been seen as a means for conveying information about objects. “In-form-ation” results from our providing a “form” in order to “inform” regarding what we call “data”. This is what we call “classification”, a providing of definitions or the limits and horizons of things. Traditional metaphysics places thinking as “reason” (reason, “logic” which has its root in “logos”) as the determining factor (the “-ation” or “atia” in Greek,  “that which is responsible for”) in the relation between language and thinking. Reason provides the “form” so that the data (the content) can be structured so that it may “inform”. This is shown in our current conception of language as an “instrument of expression” in the “service of thinking”. The common view believes that thought uses language merely as its “medium” or a means of expression. Thought is seen as logic, reason in this view.

We assume that language is a tool used by human beings to communicate information. We think that the same fact can be expressed in many different languages. We think a competent speaker is in control of language and can use it efficiently to convey data to his/her audience. In the quest for efficiency in communication, we have devised artificial languages that give us more control over language. Symbolic logic, computer programming languages, and the technical languages of the sciences are set up as systems in which each sign can be interpreted in only one way. Each sign points clearly to what it represents so that the sign itself becomes completely unobtrusive. The perfect language in this view is a technique for perfect representation.

Martin Heidegger

There are two major schools of thought on language as a WOK: the “structuralist” or “analytical” school which has been described up to now, and the “continental” school. The “continental” school’s foremost representative is Martin Heidegger: “Language is the house of being. In its home humans dwell” is a quote that captures Heidegger’s understanding of language. But what does the quote mean? How is language a “house” and how through its use does it create a “home”?

The conception of language as a mere means of exchange of information undergoes an extreme transformation in our modern technological age that is expressed in the definition of language as “information”. The analytic school of thought on language offers a prime example of a “metaphysical-technological explanation” of language stemming from the “calculative frame of mind.” This view believes that thinking and speaking are “exhausted by theoretical and natural-scientific representation and statements,” and that they “refer to objects and only to objects.” Language, as a tool of “scientific-technological knowing”–which “must establish its theme (thesis, theory) in advance as a calculable, causally explicable framework”– is “only an instrument that we employ to manipulate objects.” We refer to this as an algorithm: the world is looked upon as a calculable, causal framework that gives us a problem that must be solved.

Think of this in terms of our computers and our other tools of “information technology”, particularly the speed reading technologies and applications that are becoming available: the principle of reason must establish the “frame” or “position” in advance so that data can be controlled through calculation in order to inform. This frame transform the manner in which things are approached.

Heidegger notes the influence and understanding of language by analytic philosophy in our modern technological age in the following way:

Of late, the scientific and philosophical investigation of languages is aiming more resolutely at the production of what is called “metalanguage.” Analytic philosophy, which is set on producing this super-language, is quite consistent when it considers itself metalinguistics. That sounds like metaphysics -not only sounds like it, it is metaphysics. Metalinguistics is the thoroughgoing technicalization of all languages into the sole operative instrument of interplanetary information. Metalanguage and sputnik, metalinguistics and rocketry are the Same.

Heidegger is speaking this in the late 1950s, but the connection to today’s information technology illustrates the truth of his statement. Given the logical bent of analytical philosophy, the modern mathematical and symbolic logic or “Logistik” is metaphysics. Logistics was for Heidegger the “unbroken rule of metaphysics” establishing itself everywhere; and modern epistemology (theories of knowledge) acquire a “decisive position of dominance.”  It was a matter of grave concern for Heidegger to see that logistics was being considered everywhere “the only possible form of strict philosophy” on the grounds that its procedures and results are deemed productive for what he called “the construction of the technological universe.” (Have a look at the etymological roots of “logistics” on This must be thought about in relation to what we understand as “artificial intelligence” of AI: how does or will our understanding of what reason and language are determine the nature of what is called “artificial intelligence” and of the machines that will use it?

Heidegger’s negative characterizations of logistics abound: It is a “logical degeneration” of traditional categorical logic of Aristotle, and its development is a sign of the “decay of philosophy,” an indication of its “dissolution” and “completion.” At another point, Heidegger states: “Technique is the metaphysic of the age.”

Language and Concepts:

How does language determine what we call our “key concepts”, the manner in which we are to approach our personal and shared knowledge? If we think about what we call “dead” languages for a moment, we will notice that they are called “dead” because they are no longer subject to changes in meaning. Any “living” language will have changes in meaning and interpretation according to the historical time in which it occurs. As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”

Our modern attempts to fixate language into an unambiguous tool for communicating information and representing beings/things illustrates our desire to fulfill the revealing of truth as representation, to follow the correspondence theory of truth and the principle of reason. There is “truth” (according to Heidegger), but how we understand what this truth is is relative to the historical situation in which it occurs; it is not a “subjective” truth, but a communal truth: that is, it is not based on personal knowledge but is the knowledge that we all share. In our current situation, this is the global “revealing” through technology and this revealing drives us to realize the “global village” or “internationalism”. The “system” which results from the “framing” that is the technological requires no individual thinker or thinking. In science, time and place are not important and scientists from disparate locations can carry out their work with the certainty that their “accounts” will be correct when properly following the method established within the framing. This is because the language which they use is fixated.

If Heidegger is correct, the same fact cannot be expressed in many different languages because beings and “information” present themselves differently according to different cultural contexts. The quest for a universal, unambiguous language can only succeed in creating stillborn languages. These languages are locked into a particular interpretation of the world and the things in it (representational revealing) and are incapable of responding creatively to new experiences. Artificial languages (and one might say artificial intelligence since it will be based on these languages) are not more “objective” than natural languages—they are just narrower and more rigid because their goal is certainty and efficiency.

Language cannot be merely a tool that we use because we can control it: we owe our own Human Being to language. Language is fundamental to the revelation of the world; it is an essential part of what enables us to be someone, to be a human being and notice things in the world in the first place. Language has the power to reveal our world and transform our existence. But the lucid and creative moments are few both in individuals and in societies; the rest is inauthentic and derivative. Everyday “idle talk” is a pale, dull reflection of “creative meanings” that are first revealed and achieved in poetry.

Language as Representation:


Where does the understanding of language as representation come from? As the “doctrine of the logos” in Aristotle is interpreted as assertion or statement, logic is the doctrine of thinking and the science of statement (or the making of statements—propositions, the creation of “pictures”), that is, logic (the principle of reason) provides the authoritative interpretations of thinking and speaking that rule throughout the technological. More specifically, logistics has as its basis the modern interpretation of the statement or assertion as the “connection of representations” (the correspondence and coherence theories of truth).  It is in this sense that Heidegger regards it as another manifestation of the “unchecked power of modern thinking” itself.  Heidegger depicts the connections between logic and modern technology in very dramatic tones:

Without the legein (the saying) of [Western] logic, modern man would have to make do without his automobile. There would be no airplanes, no turbines, no Atomic Energy Commission. Without the logos, of logic, the world would look different.

The general form of modern metaphysical thinking is thus a “scientific-technological manner of thinking.” This thinking, this world-picture, threatens to “spread to all realms” thereby magnifying the “deceptive appearance which makes all thinking and speaking seem objectifying.” This thinking and speaking finds its full realization in algebraic calculation. It is this form of objectifying thinking that strives to “represent everything henceforth only technologically-scientifically as an object of possible control and manipulation.” With it, language itself takes a corresponding form: it becomes “deformed into an instrument of reportage and calculable information”. However, while the form that language takes is thus instrumental, in such a form of thinking, language itself exerts its own influence insofar as it is “treated like a manipulable object to which our manner of thinking must conform.” Language itself allows itself to be treated in such a way. Language and reason as WOKs are, in the end, inseparable. They allow themselves to create our box, what we call our “mindset”.

The traditional metaphysical manner of thinking in our age is a “one-track thinking,” (in Heidegger’s words) and this ‘one track’ can be understood and associated with technology.  It is a “one-sided thinking” that tends towards a “one-sided uniform view” in which “[everything] is leveled to one level,” and “[our] minds hold views on all and everything, and view all things in the same way.” Our manner of thinking is the box.  (*A link can be made to the uniformity of our understanding of number and its correspondence to Newton’s view of the uniformity of matter in the AOKs Mathematics and Natural Sciences.)

There is a kind of language that, as the expression of this form of thinking, is itself one-tracked and one-sided. One “symptom” of the growing power of the technological form of thinking is in our increased use of designations consisting of abbreviations of words or combinations of their initials. Our text messaging and our love of acronyms is a technological form of language in the sense that these herald the ordering in which everything is reduced to the univocity of concepts and precise specifications. This reduction and ordering also leads us to view all activities we engage in to be leveled to one level: the student who is asked to create a work of art either in words or other media, sees their activity as nothing more than their being in a shopping mall or at a supermarket. The activity ceases to have any priority in importance. In this view, “speed reading” will come to flourish since we cannot learn from texts anything other than “information” and this learning must be done as “efficiently” as possible.

Such interpretations are the “technological”; they are a given only “insofar as technology is itself understood as a means and everything is conceived only according to this respect (technology understood as “tools”).” If our way of thinking is one that values only that which is immediately useful, then language is only conceived and appreciated from this perspective of its usefulness for us. More importantly, this suggests it is the essence of technology as framing that somehow determines the “transformation of language into mere information.” We refer to this framing  of information as “the box” that inhibits our thinking.

If the essence of modern technology is framing, then there is also a “language of framing.” (See the unit on Technology as a WOK for an understanding of the concept of “framing”).

[All] ordering finds itself channeled into calculative thinking and therefore speaks the language of framing. Speaking is challenged to correspond in every respect to framing in which all present beings can be commandeered. –Heidegger

It is within framing (the “form”, the “position”), then, that “speaking turns into information.”

Computer_thumbWe can look at the computer as one manner in which modern technology controls the mode and the world of language as such.  We can infer that the computer is one crucial way in which this language of framing speaks.

“To compute”, obviously, means to calculate. With the construction of artificial intelligence, calculating, thinking and translating machines, speed reading applications, the computer is made possible insofar as its activities take place in the element of language. The term “computer” should not be taken as merely talking about calculators and computers. Machine technology itself is “the most visible outgrowth of the essence of modern technology” (Heidegger) and that ours is the age of the machine (and the Age of Information) is due to the fact that it is the technological age, and not vice versa.  More importantly, framing (the form) itself is not anything technological in the sense of mechanical parts and their assembly. In TOK we wish to explore our “key concepts” and language within a “knowledge framework”. Thus, the language of framing cannot itself be reduced to anything technological in this narrow sense. The computer intrudes by regulating and adjusting through its hardware and software and their functions how we can and do use language. Think of our smart phones and other assemblages that are linked to our computers and the manner of their linkages and how they assemble information and how this information must be assembled if it is to be communicated.

If there is a transformation of language in the computer that speaks the language of framing, then the question is what is the essence of language itself that it allows for its transformation into a technological language, into information? The essence of language is defined from the essence of language: It is a Saying that shows, in the sense of letting-appear. The possibility of a technological language lies here, for it is itself a Saying-Showing that is limited to the mere making of signs for the communication of information. Let us now examine some of the historical background for this development of language.

Historical Background of Language as Representation:

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

St. Augustine in his autobiography Confessions gives us the common understanding of how language comes about:

When they [my elders] named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.  Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something.  Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires. (Augustine, Confessions, I. 8)

Here, Augustine speaks of language as “signs”.  They are a “pointing out”, a “directing of the gaze or glance” and from them, the thing that is pointed out comes to stand for us as what it is in the saying so given and becomes “grasped” or “captured” by us. But notice that in Augustine’s description there are a number of steps involved in the “grasping” of the thing that is “pointed out”. First there is the pointing, then there is the bodily movement, then there is the sound uttered, then there is the notice of the “disposition” made when the sound is uttered, and all of this occurs within a social context; there is the “dialogue”. From this follows the “grammatical” structure of language, “the placing of the signs in their proper places in various sentences” which allows one to “express their own desires”.

Augustine is speaking of language as “representational”: the picture created is a word or a sign that stands for or represents a thing by virtue of that word or sign’s meaning. Each word means just one thing, and it does so by virtue of a meaning that we can think of or understand.  Language is, then, the communication of meanings from one person to another in the package of a sign: to communicate with you, I “frame” my intended meaning within the appropriate sign, and then give you the sign in speech or writing, whereupon you “decode” (interpret) it again, supplying the meaning for the sign I have given from within the same frame.  To speak language, then, is to imbue dead signs with life, to breathe air into the otherwise mute forms of signs.  Language is thought of as the breath of life animating lifeless form; language is the soul of meaning infusing and animating the bodies of signs.   Hence Aristotle discusses language as the “showing” of the soul’s “dispositions”:

Now, whatever it is [that transpires] in the creation of sound by the voice is a showing of whatever dispositions there may be in the soul, and the written is a showing of the sounds of the voice.  Hence, just as writing is not identical among all [human beings], so too the sounds of the voice are not identical.  However, that of which these [sounds and writing] are in the first place a showing are among all [human beings] the identical dispositions of the soul; and the matters of which these [dispositions] form approximating presentations (pictures) are likewise identical. 

Aristotle construes language as a kind of showing (in pictures), but taken in the view of the history of Western metaphysics that we have outlined in our writing on “Reason as a Way of Knowing”, Aristotle’s pictures imply that language is a mere instrument (tool) for the expression of inner intentions or thoughts (dispositions).  Within the tradition of Western thinking, this picture will imply that the relationship between signs and the thoughts they express is purely arbitrary, or to use the term favored by logical positivist philosophers, “conventional”; language is a system of arbitrary correlations (conventions) of signs to common meanings. Notice, though, that Aristotle insists that the “dispositions” themselves are the identical common meanings.

It is important to note here that Plato wrote “dialogues”; Aristotle wrote treatises. If one reads Plato’s dialogues in the same manner as one reads an Aristotelian treatise, one will fail to understand the dialogue. This reading of Plato in the same manner that we read Aristotle is one of the fates that have befallen us within the English-speaking community. British and American thinkers of previous generations read Plato as if they were reading a treatise of Aristotle.

The traditional picture of language found in Augustine, Aristotle, and the logical positivists, also has deep connections with the metaphysics of “subjectivity” (Descartes, Kant) that we have discussed in our understanding of “Reason as a Way of Knowing”.  In this traditional picture, the sign stands for an object (subjectum), but it is also the sign for a concept or image in the speaker’s mind (the frame).  The concept, or mental image, is a representation in the speaker’s mind or brain.  Even though we can exchange signs in communication, we can never be sure, in the traditional picture, that we are successful in communicating the mental representations, concepts, or images that go with them (the predicates).  The connection between a particular sign and the mental image that it evokes is the connection (or lack thereof) between something public and communicable, and something essentially private and incommunicable. Mathematics as “symbolic language” or “signs” overcomes this sense of arbitrariness in the public realm and is one of the reasons for its dominance in the realm of what can be called “knowledge”.

How can we rethink language and meaning, outside the traditional picture, in a way that reveals its essence as a showing (aletheia), rather than portraying it as a conventional correlation of signs to meanings, a mere instrument for the expression and communication of thoughts and dispositions?  To rethink the essence of language, we must attempt to “bring language as language to language.”  But how is this to be done?

To recapitulate: in the traditional view, language turns out to be “the eternally self-repeating labor of spirit to make articulated sound capable of being an expression of thought.” Language is what humans do to make sound able to express thought: it is the infusion of articulated sound with the spirit of meaning or intention.  It is an action. This way of “bringing language to language,” this labor of the spirit, the infusing of sound with meaning, has been the intellectual development of mankind.  But because it construes language as a human doing, as a labor of soul upon body, this traditional way of thinking of language remains trapped within the metaphysics of our age and fails to reveal the essence of language. According to Heidegger: “[this] way to language goes in the direction of man, passing though language on its way to something else: the demonstration and depiction of the intellectual development of the human race.” Heidegger continues:

“However, the essence of language conceived in terms of such a view does not of itself show language in its essence: it does not show the way in which language essentially unfolds as language; that is, the way it comes to stand; that is, the way it remains gathered in what it grants itself on its own as language.”

To determine what language is, we need to determine what pertains to language as language.

We list what pertains to language in order to understand what is essential to language, what is at the root of everything that happens in, and through, language.  One of the things that pertains to language as language is the speaker.  “To speech belong the speakers.”   In speaking, we presence things; we make present the objects of our concern and our common interest by “pointing them out”.

“In speech, the speakers have their presencing.  Where to?  Presencing to the wherewithal (purpose) of their speech, to that by which they linger (the “things” that are present-at-hand), that which in any given situation already matters to them.  Which is to say, their fellow human beings and the things, each in its own way; everything that makes a thing a thing and everything that sets the tone for our relations with our fellows.  All this is referred to, always and everywhere, sometimes in one way, at other times in another.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language”).

What else belongs to the essence of language?  We can run through the things that belong to language – the speaker, what is spoken, also the unspoken – but we do not thereby think their unity.  Their unity, the unity of the essence of language, remains hidden to us. What we are saying here becomes obvious, though hardly pondered in its full scope, when we indicate the following.  To speak to one another means to say something to one another; it implies a mutual showing of something, each person in turn devoting himself or herself to what is shown.  To speak with one another means that together we say something about something, showing one another the sorts of things that are suggested by what is addressed in our discussion, showing one another what the addressed allows to radiate of itself.” To speak, then, is not to talk to someone else; it is to participate in the “saying” (logos) that is a showing.

This “showing”, according to Heidegger, is older and more essential than the definition of language as a system of signs.  “What unfolds essentially in language is saying as pointing.  Its showing does not culminate in a system of signs.  Rather, all signs arise from a showing in whose realm and for whose purposes they can be signs.”  This showing (aletheia) is not simply something that we do, but a self-showing of that which shows (a revealing of what we are as human beings), a manifesting in which language itself speaks.  When we think of language as this self-showing, we can begin to understand it as something to which we ourselves belong and with which we ourselves may come into a more or less direct relationship:

“If speech as listening to language lets itself be told the saying, such letting can be given only insofar – and so near – as our own essence is granted entry into the saying.  We hear it only because we belong to it.  However, the saying grants those who belong to it their listening to language and hence their speech.  Such granting comes-to-stand in the saying; it lets us attain the capacity of speech.  What unfolds essentially in language depends on the saying that grants in this way.”  (Heidegger “The Way to Language”).

When we think language essentially, as a self-manifesting showing that points, we are well on the way to bringing language as language to language.  We experience language, then, as a possibility or a granting, an essence that allows manifestation (aletheia), rather than as something we do, make, or control. Thus, language as the saying (legein, logos) holds its own in the realm of truth. Think of this from your own experiences of when you are in a country in which you have no knowledge of the language. How does the experience of language show itself?

In a world in which language and speaking has become the mere exchange of information,

“the framing…sets upon human beings – that is, challenges them – to order everything that comes to presence into a technical inventory (standing reserve, resources or “disposable”), [and] unfolds essentially after the manner of appropriation (a “grasping” and an “owning”); at the same time, it distorts appropriation, inasmuch as all ordering sees itself committed to calculative thinking and so speaks the language of framing.  Speech is challenged to correspond to the ubiquitous orderability of what is present.  Speech, when posed in this fashion, becomes information.” (Heidegger “The Way to Language).

TOKQuestionAll that remains of language in information is “the abstract form of writing that is transcribed into the formulae of a logic calculus” whose clarity “ensures the possibility of a secure and rapid communication” (our text messaging and our public discourse as media bytes). The principles transforming language are technological-calculative. It is from the technological possibilities of the computer that the instruction (command) is set out as to how language can and shall still be language. Such instruction (command) spells out the absolute and overriding need for the clarity of signs and their sequences; the algorithm dominates. The fact that the computer’s structure conforms to linguistic tasks such as translating (i.e. whether the command/instruction is in Chinese or English does not matter) does not mean that the reverse holds true. For these commands are “in advance and fundamentally bound up” with the computer. With the “inexorability of the limitless reign” of technology, the insatiable technological demand for a technological language, its power increases to the point that the technological language comes to threaten the very essence of language as Saying-Showing. It is “the severest and most menacing attack on what is peculiar to language,” for language is “atrophied” into the mere transmission of signals according to Heidegger.

Weiner Norbert
Norbert Weiner

Moreover, when information (in the form of command) is held as highest form of language on account of its univocity, certainty and speed, then, we have a “corresponding conception” of the human being and of human life. Norbert Wiener, a founder of Cybernetics, said that language “is not an exclusive attribute of man but is one he may share to a certain degree with the machines he has constructed.”  This view is itself possible only when we presuppose that language is merely a means of information. This understanding of language as information represents, at the same time, a “threat to the human being’s ownmost essence.” (Heidegger) The fact that language is interpreted and used as an instrument has lead us into believing that we are the masters of the computer, but the truth of the matter might well be that the computer takes language into its management and masters the essence of the human being creating a fundamental change in human ontology (human being-there-in-the-world).

These assessments of the metaphysical-technological interpretation and form of language are indisputably critical. Why? What is at stake? Why should this be important for us?

The gripping, mastering effect technological language has over our very essence (ontology) makes “the step back out of metaphysics difficult.” (Heidegger) Language itself “denies us its essence” and instead “surrenders itself” to us as our “instrument of domination over beings.” (Heidegger) It is extremely difficult for us in the modern age to even understand a non-instrumental concept of language. The interpretation and form of “language as information” and of “information as language” is, in this sense, a circle determined by language and in language, within “the web of language.” (Heidegger) Hence, Heidegger has referred to language as “the danger of all dangers” that “necessarily conceals in itself a continual danger for itself.”  In fact, “we are the stakes” in the “dangerous game and gamble” that the essence of language plays with us.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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