Lesson 25 The Purpose of Language

  Were we to ask people around us what is the use of language, there is no doubt that the most common reply would be: « to communicate! »  In the highly media influenced world in which we live, the purpose of language is above all communication.  This word, communication, is repeated as if it were a magical one: we live in the time of new communication technologies, of free speech and on-going discourse.  From there to consider language as one means among others is but a step.


At a time other than our own we would not have obtained the same reply.  In a traditional society language carries an aura of holiness, it is the site of revelation of what is, what is beyond the ordinary world of mortals in which communication takes place.  An educated Greek in ancient Greece would consider the purpose of language to be that of thinking.  An Indian who transmits the word of the Veda to his son sees language as the holy place of manifestation of the Absolute.  The language of the Veda is not a “means” of communication between people.  The Indian distinguishes between the secular language of communication and the original Vedic language, Sanskrit, which literally means “perfect”.

 Is communication really the highest vocation of language?  Is not empirical language language at its most worn, common and at the same time delinquent?  Ought we not to raise language above its usual function in order to restore it to its true value?   So, what is the use of language?


A.  Language for the purpose of communication.

 In what sense is it true that language is a tool for communication?   As soon as you have a social situation there must be a means for individuals to relate, and hence a means of communication.  Animals too dispose of a signalling system which responds to the need of circulating information, at least in order to share duties.  Language and society go together.  This is a commonplace.  Yet human language is not based upon the nature of signals.  Signals are only there to trigger behaviour.  Language too is an instrument of information, but in a more intelligent way because its object is meaning derived from the use of signs and not just the manipulation of signals.   We need not only to express ourselves, which we can do in other ways, through our gait, our gestures and so on, but above all to communicate and we communicate with others in other to convey meaning.

 Who says communication says a) sharing, a relation that is established, a common ground where many people come together, but also b) what is common in the usual meaning of commonplace, trivial; finally communication in the human sense of language (and not in the physical sense of communicating vessels) is the sharing by many subjects in such a way that a situation of mutual understanding arises, one that never suffers from a lack of reciprocity.  To communicate is to do much more than get information.  To get information means to get a piece of knowledge; information is received and it is more or less understood and assimilated.  Communication supposes not only the fact that information is given but also to have integrated it to such an extent that we become able to comment upon it, discuss it, and hand back an intelligent opinion to our interlocutor.  Communication gives rise to a living exchange of points of view.  It implicitly supposes dialog, but it is not just the sort of dialog that you can only construe if you are two people; the word communicate calls for a larger number that can extend beyond two to three, ten or hundred.  If two people dialogue, several people communicate.

 As long as there is communication everybody gains intellectually because they can access to a point of view other than his own, and are able to extend it and complete it.  Not only this, but communication is not just an intellectual process.  It is above all a relation at the level of feeling.  Communication supposes unity.  When we communicate we do not just share ideas, we also share feelings and emotions, we share a common presence.  To communicate is to be together, to be united.  The enrichment derived from communication is not just one of the intellect, it also feeds the heart.  It realises the precious sense of being able to be together, and not just to be among other people.  The purpose of communication is also the warmth of a relation between humans.   Behind the need to communicate we find the need to relate.  In Rousseau’s words, if in the state of nature we could, as advantageously organised animals, have been content with natural signs, in the social state we need language.  We need a means to dialogue with our fellow man.  “As soon as one man was recognised by another as a sentient being, thinking and similar to himself, the desire or need to share his own thoughts and feelings made him look for the means.”  My fellow man is the one with whom I can identify through pity, compassion and it is also one I can envy, love and hate.  This is what makes Rousseau consider that language was first at the service of the passions.  These are moral needs (desires) that communication carries through language and not just mere physical reactions (needs).  Language is by necessity there at the start to oppose, to tear us apart and to gather us together. 

 However this is a difficult question.  We have seen that expression is more than communication.  What is the exact role of language in communication?  It assumes the role of mediator in the relation of a mind that thinks to another mind that listens, understands and responds.  The mediator is provided by the common language.  Language is not the sole means of expressing subjectivity, since this one is already radiating through the presence of the individual body, but language becomes indispensable from the moment when thought wants to communicate itself through ideas.  A glance or a gesture does not suffice to express a thought with precision.  This requires a language that is capable of this precision, of rigour, and it is here that we need speech and the exchange of words.  A thought cannot dialogue with clarity with another thought unless they have a common language.  And a language is there already and enables the communication of thoughts.

 However communication using language as mediator can fail to succeed, become an abuse of language and forget its value.  Is it the fault of language if men cannot really communicate?  Do we owe communication to language?  Communication can turn into mere information.  Today teaching is primarily informational.  It transmits knowledge.  The pupil does not have much of a role to play, nor the student or the teacher.  Teaching continues to be centred on giving out information.  Believing that out-of-school means of communication would be better is an illusion. The transformation of communication into information can be seen in the work of television and radio.  Both listener and viewer are passive, and it is this passivity that must be overcome in order to install a reciprocity that would allow effective communication.  The mass media are primarily information.  Only when they allow conscious, intentional sharing can they facilitate communication.

 Communication may also easily degenerate into polemics.  It is enough that we lose sight of what it at stakes, namely truth, that the discussion revolves around the person and that communication becomes a dispute, an altercation in which language plays no other part than as fuel to abuse.  The most elementary form of violence is verbal.  It is enough that respect for the other person is overlooked, that all speakers are not given an equal time to voice their opinion for communication to collapse.  Language is the first weapon of violence, it is the most adequate instrument to divide, oppose, reject, spread doubt and misunderstandings.

 Communication may also suffer from the levelling effect of what is public.  When communication is addressed to everybody this often implies that one simplifies complex issues, popularises to excess and flattens what a deeper dialogue would be able to bring out.  This is a reproach often addressed to modern means of communication, that they all too often reduce the essential to the trivial or the elementary.  Michel Henry used to say that the media corrupt every matter they touch upon.  Whatever is grand, beautiful, elevated easily sinks into banality and irrelevance as soon as it is shown on television.  Given this, can one really pretend that the new means of communication have enabled us to make much progress?  It would be nice to think that with the new and so powerful means of communication men will communicate more.  Yet new means of communication do not alter the essence of communication, nor do they change what is being communicated.  Only the means change.  It is just as possible to utter idiocies or banalities on the internet as in ordinary conversation.  A communication on a forum or by e-mail is not more a conversation than one between friends.  Being far apart, not being present in the flesh does not favour communication.  Language remains what it has always been.  It continues to be an essential mediator, and an ambivalent mediator.  What has changed with the appearance of the news means is an exponential multiplication of contacts.  It is a little as if collective consciousness weaved tighter and tighter relations, while before communication was mostly intra-cultural.  Yet the risk posed to communication is to be victim of the ambiguity of language, of connecting people to whom the same words do not mean the same thing, and this gives rise to mutual misunderstandings.  If communication is not grounded in a clear understanding, a true culture and mutual sincerity, this may lead to confusion.   The encounter of minds that is all the beauty of communication is one at the level of shared meaning, which means much more than just stirring words.  



B.  Language for the purpose of power.



The idea of language as an instrument leads to the idea of language as a means to manipulate its object to some end or other.  Indeed.  Language can be used as a means to pressurize, to dominate and to manipulate.  As soon as we posit an end to be reached via language: sell a product, gain the consent of public opinion, convince another of the soundness of one’s beliefs or choice etc… then we recognise that language must be a efficient means of persuasion.


We call Rhetoric the art of speaking well in order to obtain by certain ends by the means of speech.   The rhetor is the man who knows how to utilise all the resources of language in order to try to bend the will of his listener and get out of him what he wants.  Whatever stems from the sole magic of discourse creates only persuasion and not true conviction.  One never retains anything precise from a very rhetorical discourse, one does not find therein the conviction of arguments solidly following from one another, but only opinions.  Conversely, in order to be convinced of the correctness of a point of view, we do not need many words, but clear true speech founded on reasons.  Gorgias, facing Socrates, is inexhaustible; he is the man of eloquence, the man of wit shining in society.  He is brilliant and he knows the power Rhetoric gives him.  To him Plato contrasts a Socrates who is wilfully clumsy, yet sharp in his questioning.  Socrates does not make many long speeches but deals out question upon question like so many blows.  There are two ways to use language:  one is that of the fine talker, the sophist, who cultivates the art of speech, the other that of the philosopher who cultivates the art of thinking.  Between the two it is essentially a matter of choosing between  language as a tool to manipulate others or, leaving speech to unfold, language as a path to truth.  When one sees language as a path to truth one uses words more sparingly.  A careful use of language makes thinking more economical to avoid error.  Using language to seduce, persuade or make oneself obeyed implies that one neglects humility in face of truth in favour of the arrogance conferred by one’s power on others that language makes possible.  Fine talk is therefore not only ambiguous, but also deceptive.  A crafty turn of phrase, figures of style, puns, all this has an effect, yet the effect is delusive.  It enables one to abuse of language in order to make it say anything one wants.  Effects allow one to enthral, while saving the appearances, including that of rigorous thinking!  Hence it is possible for shiny speeches, generously sprinkled with “thus” and “consequently”, to contain sophisms that we may not be able to detect, engulfed as we are in the torrent of words.


In the Apology of Socrates, right from the start, there is a warning.  Socrates announces that he does not have the intention to have his wife and children come to court in order to move the judges (using pathos to persuade).  He says that his own discourses are made without art, using simple words, yet they follow his customary method of dialogue.  He confesses he is dumbfounded by the portrait made of him: “I almost forgot whom I am, their speeches were so persuasive.”  Following this he takes care, speaking only the exact truth, to show the contradictions of his accusers, and to do this he uses only of the power of reason to convince the judges of his innocence.  The difference between a philosophical speech and a sophistic one is therefore quite clear:


Sophistic language

Philosophical language

Lie or truth


Command men

Dialogue with men



Irrational pathos


Addresses feelings

Addresses intelligence

Aims at a practical result

Looks only for what in speech actually is, enlightened knowledge




We would need to patiently strip the method of experts in communication skills, the art of advertising, journalistic commentaries, and all that in order to understand the tricks of “fine talk” in the post-modern world.  How could we see clearly in the ocean of words in which we have been thrown?  Are we not sometimes victims of sophisms, artful yet deceptive speech?


There is no doubt that there exists a rhetoric of the media that uses the shock effect of pictures to spare the listener the trouble of thinking.  As Edgar Morin says, we are living in a world of over-information that makes us dwell inside a cloud of unknowledge.  There is political rhetoric, a tool of the exercise of power, by means of which the politician learns how to impose his points of view, and make them triumph in the arena of public debate.  Political rhetoric is aimed at the citizen or at the assembly of citizens.  Included in the syllabus of schools of political science is Rhetoric, in which it has a key role.  The politician must be able to talk about everything and make a speech even on matters on which he is not particularly competent.  There is a commercial rhetoric which is the art and manner in which to address the consumer to persuade him to buy what one is offering him.  Marketing is the method to reach this goal, a method which makes a wide use of rhetoric, from the smooth talker at the market stand showing off his bottle-openers to television commercials.  An important maxim of marketing goes: “A good salesman could sell anything”!   His clever rhetoric makes him just as able to sell encyclopaedias, cars, washing powder, bras as to sell bombs or drugs!  His area of competence is talking, not that of which he talks.  There exists a religious rhetoric, that of incensed sermons by the priest in the cathedra who exhorts the believer.  In the US one even puts on religious shows around preachers.  The charisma of certain religious men indubitably gives them authority, yet this authority is primarily that of powerful and persuasive speech. 


More precisely:  there is rhetoric game of the mind when the ego wants to exert its ability to manipulate others.  Other forms of rhetoric are the passionate, eloquent one of idealistic enthusiasm.  He who “speaks well”, he who is articulate, he too is a fine talker in a very specific sense.  The “fine talker” is the one who is skilful; he knows how to subjugate and retain the attention of those who are listening to him, he also knows how to be a comedian and bedazzle with his performance.  The fine talker masters rhetoric, he is an orator aware of his power and even of the charm he may exert when speaking.  His skill gives him power.  To speak well therefore means several things: it is to be articulate, but also to know how to cleverly persuade, how to convince, seduce with words and thereby steer others.  To know how to express oneself well does in general give one power over others or gives power as such.  The ability of language as a tool to dominate must not be underestimated, as they enable the exercise of power.  Wherever men are subjected to some authority there is a corresponding use of language to persuade, give orders, dictate, command.  It involves the rhetoric of power.


Beware though that this does not mean that one must be suspicious of any elegant discourse.  Truth does not exclude beautiful expression, or the use of metaphors.  What matters is the motivations of the speaker.



C.  Language for the purpose of thinking.




We must not mix up language in its essence with its instrumental use, either as a tool of communication, or as a tool of domination.  Language is not a tool in the same way as a spade is a tool to dig the ground.  When speaking of an instrument one opposes man and Nature.  The spade, the arrow, the hammer are tools because they are used in fabrication.  Language however is not a tool to fabricate an object and cannot be contrasted with Nature.  It is in the nature of man, without man having fabricated it; rather than being an instrument of communication we had better think of it as the locus in which man’s thinking is exercised.  This is what we should call the logical vocation of language. 


Let us be careful therefore with what is implicit in the ordinary sense of language as an instrument.  To say that language is an instrument implies that there is a distance between language and its user such that the subject may use language as one tool among others.  But what is this thinking outside language?  Do we not experience our relation to language differently?  We spontaneously dwell inside language, as a fish dwells in water, and this since the dawn of our culture.  We cannot draw a line between ourselves as subjects using language and a language that would be a mere tool.  To view language as an instrument would mean that thinking could exist without this “means” of expression that is language.  This is not absurd, but would require to be clarified with great precision.  Finally, holding that language is an instrument would mean that it is a means and not an end, in the sense that expression could find its completion in it without it being necessary to move beyond it.  This too is not self-evident.  Are these presuppositions judicious?  What if language were not only an instrument?



In a way one could say that if language can be said to be useful to something, then its use is to think.  The verb thinking then refers to the act of thinking moulding itself on words, thinking that reasons inside language, in order to find and speak itself.  In this case it is no longer thinking in the sense of modes of consciousness crossing my mind, and neither is some thinking in general, but Thinking in the sense of reflection, the privilege of man as a thinking being.  To say that language is used to think is to say that its vocation is fulfilled in its expression as reasoning Reason.  Rational thinking supposes a form of verbalisation, even when it is a dialogue of the soul with itself.  Thinking supposes logic and logic brings us back to the logos.  In this sense, it is Philosophy that would do the greatest justice to language in its most elevated vocation.  If the stir of thoughts, meaning here immediate consciousness, is not yet true Thinking, it is because we have to pay particular attention to the act of Thinking.  One could almost say that it is Philosophy’s profession to do so.   The intellectual does this by commitment.  The scientist by rigour and method.  The scholar by care and memory.  To say that language is made to think is to say that reason can construct with language, know with language, create with language.  This requires work of a particular kind.  Language helps accomplishing thinking when thinking becomes self-aware, when thinking becomes intelligent as it comes into contact with words and that its sole object is no longer action but truth.  In our introduction to Philosophy, what else are we doing? We learn to conduct our thinking in a logical and consistent manner.


The vocation of language is knowledge, whether this takes the systematic form of a science, or the more flexible form of the development of a philosophy.  Yet in both cases, language adopts a rational form and structures itself as concept.  As long as thinking has not formulated itself in concepts, it has not yet structured within itself anything meriting the name of transmissible knowledge.  Language is not knowledge, yet the mind needs language to express knowledge.  There is in the seeing of the intelligence a power which cannot be reduced to the mere stirring of words.  Language enables the expression of thinking by giving it a form that from the beginning makes it universal.  To reason with words is already being invited to get out of the bubble of our intimacy.  To enter into language by the door of thinking is an invitation to go beyond the limits of personal thinking. 



D.  Language for the purpose of revelation.



We might believe that we have said all there is to say about language once we say it is used to think.  And yet.  There is the thinking of the mind, and perhaps too a thinking beyond the mind.  Language gives us much more than a means of communication and power.  It also possesses aesthetic qualities developed by Literature and Poetry, because it allows one to express oneself not just through concepts but also through imagery.  “Fine talk” is not just talking in view of this or that result.  It may also signify to express oneself well, to express oneself beautifully, to express Beauty.  We are not offered to choose merely between: speaking well in view of something (pleasing people, winning the elections, selling) and thinking well (in order not to be deceived by false opinion, in order to reason like a philosopher, be consistent in one’s behaviour, rigorous in Mathematics, to argue well on topics like History and Geography…).  Language as such is an invitation to Poetry, the language of the heart as well as that of reason.  This sensitive side to language is also what enables it to express or give us the presentiment of Beauty.  Rather than being trivial and public, because action oriented, language can also be poetic.  The poet and the writer give us the experience of a higher value of language through restoring to it its metaphorical function, its inner music, its ability to delight the heart and address imagination.  It is sometimes said that ordinary language “uses” words in a trivial fashion, while poetic “use” is different, but this is wrong.  One should turn this statement on its head: Speech is originally poetic.  It is empirical language that uses language in a trivial way, turning it into a mere tool.  Speech’s poetic investment is not just one use among others, but a return to the Source from whence flows the whole meaning of language.


We have arrived at the threshold of Heidegger’s ultimate thoughts in On the Way to Language.  Speech is poetic in its essence only because it is always and right from the start in the care of Being.  To speak, in the highest sense, is neither to chat nor to communicate; it is to say what is, to reveal the meaning of what, in the silence of Being, can be given a verbal expression.  Language is able to reflect in speech the value of Truth, because it originally pertains to Being as its most intimate power of revelation.   Endowed with speech, we are taken to the sphere of the sense of that which is, and this is why the understanding of the meaning of existence is a higher vocation of speech than mere communication.  It is not for nothing that philosophers have seen in language above all that which should speak the Truth.  And it is in this sense that language is not something one uses for this or that, but something that finds an end in itself.  Truth, in knowledge, is its own reward.  It is not supposed to be useful for anything, or even to give some scholarly satisfaction, or any form of consolation.  Truth is that which connects you to Being, without the passage through any form of usefulness.  It is solely on the foundation of the relation (wrong or authentic) to what is that our utilitarian pragmatism, our ambitions, our will to power are construed.  Truth or falsity in our connection to Being governs everything else.


What Heidegger rediscovers is that there is in Poetry a mystery of Speech that the logic of reason fails to reach, a mystery that finds its fulfilment once we are able to listen.  To become able to listen means to enter in communication with the silence inherent in words, the silence that makes words themselves carried.  “Any true listening withholds its own speaking.  Because listening stands back, belonging exclusively to the resonance of silence”.  Heidegger discovers that there is an art of listening to Poetic Speech that is hemeneutics, the art of interprÉtation.  He applies this method when reading poems by J. Trakl and Novalis.  And it is exactly this type of reading that gives their whole depth to very ancient texts like the Indian Upanishads or the Rig Ved.  This is what enables one to understand the philosophical poetry of the pre-socratic.


If speech reveals the sensible[1], this is because what we are comes to be reflected in language.  Our speech resembles us, it is as superficial, frivolous, avid, false, stupid, narrow, insensitive as we are ourselves.  Or it can be as innocent, lucid, honest, strong and at the same time intelligent, sensitive, deep and delicate; this is what we are when our life is at its truest.  The proposed dilemma between a language that is “used” to “think” or to “talk” is not at all for nothing. What is at stake in our relationship to language is in the end our own understanding of the essence of Life.  Whence this approach by Stephen Jourdain, that may seem a little strange at first, when he says that he is doing meta-poetry instead of Metaphysics.


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Has language only a utilitarian function?  Does the value of Language consist in ensuring that communication is efficient?  It is not because language begins in communication that its highest purpose must therefore be to be a tool for communication.  Language’s essential vocation is not “usefulness”.  It is more than a means of expression, communication, or domination.  The mercantile care we put in considering language only as communication is the sign that our investment in Speech is very poor.  Yet this point of view is wholly consistent with our times: it is what the gay chatter, the humour, the gossip and derision of the media.  Speech has nothing more to say that would be deep and essential, and rÊtreats into puns, that is a play with words. Yet these words are themselves revelatory and not for a single instant have they been mere tools with which one can do whatever one fancies.


[1] Here « sensible » should be understood in opposition to « intelligible », the visible as opposed to the ideal or Idea in the Platonic sense.



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