L for language


«…language , in one who talks, does not translate a mature thought but rather accomplishes it». Maurice Merleau-Ponty

            It is well known that for a good part of the 20th century language was a key theme in what is often called “analytical philosophy”, as perhaps best symbolized in the figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Less well known is the fact that language is often a key theme in what is known as “continental philosophy”, particularly in existentialism and phenomenology. This division has by now been somewhat overcome: a contemporary philosopher such as Claude Romano is extremely attentive to both these traditions (see particularly, Au cœur de la raison, la phénoménologie).

            The purpose of this brief contribution is to comment on just one aspect of the theme of language in the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The aspect in question concerns the relationship between thinking and talking/writing. In everyday spontaneous conversation and discussion we tend to speak of thinking and talking as two separate, consecutive activities. While preparing a lecture, for instance, I may understand myself as first walking around the garden thinking and then going to my office and writing down what I have been thinking. Merleau-Ponty strongly denounces this understanding of language as quite simplistic and even illusory. According to this author, thinking occurs only in and through the act of talking (albeit to oneself)/ writing. So I do not first have an idea (thinking) and then express it in speech (talking/writing), rather the thought comes into being in and through the talking. For him, linguistic expression (oral or written, internal or external) just is the coming into being of meaning.

If all this is true it surely has some importance for ethics and moral theology. We might, for instance, profitably think of these disciplines as activities in which we talk to ourselves (and to each other) about the way we talk to ourselves (and to each other) about what is good and bad, right and wrong. More concretely still, we might think of a thesis not as a text in which I publish my accomplished thoughts but rather as a text in and through which these thoughts come to be.

p. Martin McKeever, CSsR

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