José Ortega y Gasset
In this third part of his landmark essay, Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset discusses the limitations of language, which is characterized as much by what it cannot say as by what it can. These limitations on the expressible differ between languages, a fact that poses a great challenge for translation, but which also underlines its importance in the greatest human endeavour of all: to fully understand what it is to be human.
Once the storm aroused my last remarks had calmed, I could continue in this way:
“I understand your indignation very well. The assertion that speech is an illusory endeavour and a utopian act has all the air of a paradox, and paradoxes are always irritating, especially to the French. Perhaps the course of this conversation has brought us to a point where we need to clarify why the French spirit is such an enemy of paradox. But you will acknowledge that it is not always within our power to avoid it. When we try to rectify a very basic opinion that seems utterly erroneous to us, our words will inevitably be marked by a certain paradoxical insolence. Who knows, who knows whether the intellectual, by inexorable prescription and against his own will, has not been commissioned to point out paradox in this world! If anyone had taken on the task of clarifying, once and for all, why the intellectual exists, why he has been here all these years, and had furnished us with some simple data on how the most ancient thinkers understood their mission – for example, the philosophers of ancient Greece, or the first prophets of Israel – my suspicion might prove to be something obvious and trivial. After all, doxa means public opinion, and it seems unreasonable that there would need to be a class of people whose specific duty is to state their opinion if that opinion is to coincide with that of the public. Would this not be a superfetation, or, as we say in Spanish (a language made more by mule drivers than chamberlains), a saddle over a saddle? Doesn’t it seem more likely that the intellectual exists to take a contrary position against public opinion, against the doxa, by revealing and sustaining, in the face of the common view, the true opinion, the paradoxa? It could well be that the intellectual’s mission is essentially an unpopular one.
“Consider these suggestions as nothing more than my defence against your irritation, but let me say in passing that in making them I believe I am touching on matters that are of great importance, and yet, shockingly, unexplored. And let me also state for the record that you are all responsible for this new digression for having risen up against me.
“And the fact is that my assertion, despite its paradoxical physiognomy, is something quite simple and obvious. We tend to understand ‘speech’ to mean the exercise of an activity through which we manage to make our thinking known to our neighbours. Speech is, of course, many other things besides this, but all of those things suppose or imply this primary function of speech. For example, by speaking we attempt to persuade another, to influence him, sometimes to deceive him. A lie is speech that hides our true thoughts. But it is obvious that a lie would be impossible if the primary and normal act of speech were not sincere. Counterfeit money circulates with the support of real money. Ultimately, deceit is but a humble parasite of innocence.
“Let us say, then, that when a person begins to speak, he does so because he believes that he is going to be able to say what he thinks. Well, this is illusory. Language is not up to such a task. It says a little more or less, a part of what we think, and it raises an insurmountable wall against the transmission of the rest. It serves well enough for mathematical statements and calculations, although the language of physics is already beginning to be equivocal or insufficient. But as the conversation turns to more important matters than these, more human, more “real”, its imprecision, its clumsiness and its confusion increase. Lulled by the inveterate preconception that through speech we understand each other, we talk and listen in such good faith that we end up misunderstanding one another much more than we would if we held our tongues and attempted to guess one another’s thoughts. Moreover, as our thoughts are largely dependent on language (although I refuse to believe that this dependence is, as is often sustained, absolute), thinking is really talking to oneself and, consequently, misunderstanding oneself and running a great risk of becoming utterly confused.”
“Aren’t you exaggerating a bit?” asked Mr. Z in an ironic tone.
“Perhaps, perhaps… but in any case it would be merely a medicinal and compensatory exaggeration. In 1922 there was a session at the Philosophical Society of Paris dedicated to debating the issue of progress in language. Among the participants, together with the philosophers of the Seine, were the great scholars of the French school of linguistics, which is in a way, at least as a school, the most illustrious in the world. Well, while reading an abstract of the discussion, I came upon a few statements of Meillet that left me dumbfounded – from Meillet, the greatest scholar in contemporary linguistics – “Every language,” he said, “expresses whatever is necessary for the society of which it is the organ … With any phonetics, with any grammar, anything can be expressed.” Don’t you think, with all due respect to the memory of Meillet, that there is in these words an evident exaggeration? How has Meillet come to the truth of such an absolute determination? It would not be in his capacity as a linguist. As a linguist he knows only about the languages of peoples, not their thoughts, and his dogma suggests he has measured the latter against the former and has found that they coincide, in which case it is a given that any language cannot only formulate any thought, but that all can do it with the same facility and immediacy. The Basque language may be as perfect as Meillet could hope for, but the fact is that it forgot to include in its vocabulary a sign to designate God, and it was necessary to resort to one that actually meant “lord of the heights”: Jaungoikua. Since lordly authority vanished centuries ago, Jaungoikua today refers directly to God, but we have to place ourselves in an age when one was compelled to think of God as a political, worldly authority, to think of God as a civil governor or something like that. What this case reveals to us is precisely that, lacking a name for God, it was extremely hard for the Basques to think about God: this is why they took so long to convert to Christianity, and the word Jaungoikua points to the fact that police intervention was necessary to put the very idea of divinity into their heads. Thus, our language not only poses difficulties for the expression of certain thoughts, but even hinders the reception of others; it paralyzes our intelligence in certain directions.
“I will not attempt right now to go into the truly fundamental questions (and the most thought-provoking!) aroused by this vast phenomenon that is language. In my opinion, these questions have not yet even been glimpsed at, precisely because we have been blinded to them by the perpetual error concealed in the idea that speech serves to express our thoughts.”
“What error are you referring to? I don’t really understand,” asked the art historian.
“That statement can mean two radically different things: that when we speak we attempt to express our ideas or intimate states, but we achieve it only partly; or that speech achieves this purpose fully. As you can all see, the two utopianisms we came upon before in our discussion of translation reappear here. And they will appear this way in every human endeavour, according to the general hypothesis that I invited you to test out, that every human activity is utopian. Only this principle can open our eyes to the fundamental questions of language. Because if we effectively cure ourselves of the belief that speech actually expresses all that we think, we will recognize what is actually and very obviously happening to us all the time. To wit: that when speaking or writing we refrain constantly from saying many things, because language doesn’t allow us to say them. Ah, but then the effectiveness of talking is not only to speak, to express ourselves, but, at the same time, it is inevitably to refrain from speaking, to keep mum, to be silent! The phenomenon could not be more common or unquestionable. Remember what happens to you when you have to speak in a foreign language. How tragic! It is what I am feeling now when I speak in French: the tragedy of having to omit four-fifths of what occurs to me, because those four-fifths of my Spanish thoughts cannot be said well in French, in spite of the fact that the two languages are so close. Well, don’t imagine that the same thing doesn’t happen, albeit to a lesser extent, when we think in our own language: only our contrary preconception prevents us from noticing it. In so saying I find myself in the terrible situation of provoking a second storm much more serious than the first. Indeed, everything I have said must necessarily be summed up in a formula that openly flaunts its insolent biceps of paradox. The formula is this: that the amazing reality that is language cannot be fully understood unless we begin by acknowledging that speech is composed above all of silences.
A person incapable of refraining from saying many things would be incapable of speech. And each language is a different equation between statements and silences. Every tongue silences some things to be able to say others. Because otherwise everything would be inexpressible. Hence the enormous difficulty of translation, in which one tries to say in a language precisely that which that language tends to silence. But, at the same time, this hints at the potentially wondrous enterprise that translating may entail: the revelation of the mutual secrets that languages and eras keep reciprocally and which contribute so much to their dispersion and hostility; in short, a bold endeavour to integrate humankind. Because, as Goethe said: ‘Only through all humankind can humanity be lived fully.’”
Translated by Martin Boyd