Sunday, September 10, 2006

Organic Thinking

In the second chapter of The Primordial Metaphor, "The Underivedness of the Spoken Word: Phoné as an Element of Language," Ernesto Grassi breaths new life into Herder's Essay on the Origin of Language, with a little help from Johannes Müller's idea of a "specific energy of the senses," and some of the usual suspects like the Cratylus and various works of Aristotle. I might have been content to let Grassi resuscitate Herder, virtually bypassing the whole of structural linguistics, if only Grassi hadn't made use of the metaphor of the "organic." Grassi argues:

For the organic being, that is the being who manifests to himself his world through his organs, there is no sound which is not also a word, no flavor which does not correspond to a differentiated taste. Only the terrifying myth of technology, of what is mechanical can assert the aseptic nature of what manifests itself through the senses; that is, the abstract world proposed by rational thought.

The first sentence, the strong form of the argument that every sensation is already meaningful, is surely debatable, but not especially troublesome. The second sentence, however, does not follow. Inasmuch as the brain is an organ of the body, its relation to the (other) organs of feeling is surely organic, and its activities, including its proposals of abstract worlds, ought not be construed as alien to the working of the senses.

There is no one single organ of speech, not really; and consequently there is no one single organ of language, contrary to any assertions by linguists, semiologists or the like. On this matter perhaps I am largely in agreement with Grassi. However, it would be foolish to discard on that basis everything we have learned about the workings of the brain particularly with respect to language. The mechanistic description of language cannot of itself explain the origin of language or its meaning, but it does provide evidence of a remarkable similarity among all languages, even among those that have had no demonstrable historical connection during the Holocene epoch. Clearly the brain has characteristic ways of doing things, and its activity has left its mark on every human language. The brain is not the whole story of language, and a thinker would do well to be chary of totalizing myths, even those involving characters we know and love. But there it is.

Is there some structure of Being that would better explain the unity of the world's languages? Some structure of consciousness that is not the brain per se or the residue of its automatic functions? Or, following Grassi, some metaphorical praxis? Well, yes, I wouldn't say that Grassi isn't on to something. Kind of inchoate, but he's definitely on to something.

So then how would a truly organic thinking be described? How do we experience the integration of thoughts and feelings, abstraction and sensation? Or their disintegration? What's it really like to think? I don't think Grassi has all the answers, but I'll keep you posted.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 2:31 PM.


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