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Sin and Significance

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

by Walker Percy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 335 pp., $8.95

Abstract theories about the human mind bear an uneasy relation to our common hope of understanding ourselves. The systematic study of language currently arouses wide and intense interest partly because language, with its central place in human life, seems to promise so much for the understanding of human nature. Yet most of the recent flood of scientific and philosophical research on language aims to advance understanding in ways that cannot be expected to change our lives. While this does not make the results unimportant or uninteresting, it is likely to disappoint the spiritually ambitious.

Walker Percy expresses such disappointment in The Message in the Bottle, a very loose collection of essays on language and alienation, two-thirds of which were written before the appearance of his first novel. The Moviegoer, in 1961. Percy was then an MD living in Louisiana, an autodidact in linguistics and philosophy, troubled by the opacity of contemporary life. The Moviegoer was followed by The Last Gentleman (1966) and Love in the Ruins (1971). In all three novels we find historically dislocated, highly civilized Southerners whose gentility and desire for salvation cut them off from experience and the sense of their own reality.

The Moviegoer remains Percy’s purest and most exact description of that malady of extreme detachment from perception and action which allows the victim to make contact with reality only when he is first dislodged, with greater or less violence, from his accustomed perch. A few of the essays in his new book, “The Loss of the Creature,” “The Man on the Train,” “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” attempt to analyze the same malady of alienation, but they lack the wit and imagination that make even Percy’s last two novels readable, in spite of their pretensions.

Most of his new book, however, is about language, which Percy believes is the key to understanding both how people are attached to the world and how they come unstuck from it and from themselves. He suggests in the introductory essay that an investigation of the nature of language will yield a theory of man more satisfactory than the nontheory left us by the decline of religion and the expansion of the natural sciences. Moreover, he believes that such understanding will allow us to explain and perhaps even to alleviate the displacements of modern life and their alarming and unhappy consequences, which he believes are largely due to man’s lack of a spiritually satisfying conception of himself and of his relation to the world. Apart from this rather dubious explanation of recent history, Percy’s Christianity is kept in the background. His aim is not to convert his readers but to argue that something is missing from contemporary views of language and the language-using mind. The missing element, in his view, is an account of what language is, what actually happens when a person uses a word and means something by it.

It is not clear how such an account will enable modern man to escape his sense of homelessness and to stop engaging in mass murder. Percy’s idea of how it might do so is roughly this: if people are understood merely as organisms reacting to their environment, it makes no sense to ascribe to them inalienable rights, freedom, dignity, and individual value (although he does not tell us why). In his view, a close look at language will reveal that men cannot be understood merely as organisms reacting to their environment. But nothing follows from this, because Percy’s picture of language is not elaborated with the fullness and clarity that would allow us to trace its social or moral implications. Even if, as he suggests, there is something mysterious and irreducible in the human link between word and thing, more argument is needed to show that whatever it is can provide a new metaphysical basis for ethics and a sense of our place in the world.

Connections of the kind Percy wants to make are always suspect. It may be thought, for example, that if man is really a machine, it does not make sense to assign him moral worth. But why isn’t it plausible to conclude that if men are machines, some machines (those that are men) have moral worth? If, on the other hand, ethics is nonsense, it is probably nonsense even if people have souls. Nevertheless Percy is right to stress, as others have done, that language shows with special clarity that certain explanations of how people function are too simple. A better theory is desirable, even if it does not restore meaning to our lives.

Percy concentrates on the famous example of Helen Keller’s discovery, at the age of eight, that a certain sign spelled into her hand by her teacher Miss Sullivan was the name of water. What, he asks, did Helen Keller realize? What happened? What is the relation between a person, a sign, and a thing, by which the person means the thing by the sign? Percy has studied the work of behaviorists, semanticists, and transformational grammarians without finding an answer to this question, so now he wants to provide the sketch of an answer of his own, which is most fully presented in the book’s final chapter (the only one not previously published).

But in spite of his genuine instinct for raising important questions, Percy is unaware of much of the work pertinent to their solution; he doesn’t seem to understand half of what he has read, and contributes very little to what has already been written. “I make no apologies for being an amateur in such matters,” he says, “since the one thing that has been clear to me from the beginning is that language is too important to be left to linguisticians” (p. 10). As might be expected from this remark, the book has no usable documentation. There are countless quotations, identified only by the name of the author in parentheses, without a page number or title. The bibliography doesn’t help: it includes six titles by Chomsky, who is quoted often; C.S. Peirce, another favorite, is partly and sweepingly represented by the eight-volume Collected Papers. Evidently Percy does not want his book to be seriously examined, and his publisher has been too lazy to impose any editorial standards. Still, this book is worth examining for the confusions it reveals about the study of language and about what can be expected from it.

The general question of the nature of meaning that interests Percy, and that he says everyone overlooks, has been the main topic of the philosophy of language for decades,1 though it has not been approached in the way he assumes it should be, namely by seeking the essence of meaning in a single utterance. How does the word “water” have a meaning? Sometimes the meaning of an expression can be given by a verbal definition, but this works only if it leads ultimately to expressions that are understood in themselves. I can define “hollandaise sauce” as “a creamy sauce of butter, egg yolks, and lemon or vinegar,” and “creamy” as “rich in cream or resembling cream,” but how can I define the word “resembling”? At some point in every chain of definitions a more direct understanding must be reached.

What is it to understand an expression directly? One answer is that the expression is associated with an idea, a mental object that carries the meaning. But the same problem arises about the meaning of such an idea and its relation to things in the world: what is it for anything in my head—a sound, a sign, an image—to mean water, that stuff out there? And, to take a less immediate example, what enables me, by saying “Parmenides had brown eyes,” to make a statement that is true or false about the appearance of someone who has been dead for centuries, about whom I know almost nothing, and of whom any image I have is pure fantasy? The problem cannot be solved by pushing it back into the mind.

According to some analytic philosophers, Wittgenstein being the most prominent among them, to understand the relation of language to the world one must examine the shared responses and shared activities, some natural and some conventional, that enable people to use a common language. The community of language users that creates the conditions for meaning is not limited to the present: to refer to Parmenides by uttering his name, I must be connected not only with my linguistic contemporaries but with his, through a complex process of historical transmission.2

In using a general term like “water” a speaker relies on the fact that he shares or can use the general capacity of human beings to identify specimens of that substance. The sense of what he says does not reside in his individual act of naming alone. He is employing a general term which applies to all water everywhere, not just to the specimen before him.

The problem is to explain how the particular sound he utters contains that general meaning. One might think that the generality of the word “water” depends on our formulating a rule for its correct application in all cases. But if the rule could be stated, its statement would be just another particular set of sounds, added to the first. The rule itself, the generality of the word, cannot reside in any sound, or in a mental act going on behind the sound. It requires rather that speakers of the language usually be able to reach agreement in their use of the word—in applying it. withholding it, or remaining in doubt whether it applies. (Sometimes they do this effortlessly, but not always). The power of this general, natural capacity of human beings to agree in the way they apply a term and in their judgments of similarity is such that a speaker does not lose his connection with the term’s general meaning on occasions when he misapplies it. That is why he can say or believe falsely that something is water, and still mean water.

This applies even to a secret code. Someone who gives a private meaning to an expression, even if he tells no one else, intends the expression to have a sense. That sense extends beyond his particular applications of the expression, for it contains general conditions or a general rule, whose independence of any particular application depends on the possibility of agreement among different speakers on whether the rule has been followed or not. There can be a private rule, but it must be the private idea of a rule that could be public. 3

Mass nouns like “water” and proper names are limited parts of language, and not the most complex in their relation to life and human activity. But even here it should be plain that there is no hope of understanding how the word “water” means water by concentrating on an individual act of speech and asking “What happens?” The answer cannot be extracted from the particular event, even if it is Helen Keller’s first word. It is contained in a relation of that event to something much larger, the complex shared responses of human beings which present them with a common world—and which allow their words to have consistent connections with the circumstances in which they are used. These patterns of shared response are what Wittgenstein called “forms of life.”

Percy’s failure to see the character of the problem is due to his confusion about what it would be to understand the operation of language. On the one hand, in the chapter “Symbol, Consciousness, and Intersubjectivity,” he emphasizes the interpersonal character of language. And he repeatedly declares that objective scientific description of “space-time events” leaves out the essence of language and other human activities. On the other hand what he has to offer in its place is an equally external view. He proposes to look at man and language as if he were a visitor from Mars.

Only a Martian can see man as he is, because man is too close to himself and his vision too fragmented. As a nonpsychologist, a nonanthropologist, a nontheologian, a nonethologist—as in fact nothing more than a novelist—I qualify through my ignorance as a terrestrial Martian. [Page 11]

But the workings of human language cannot be understood from the perspective of a Martian. Only a creature sufficiently like us in structure, perception, and function could share the forms of life with which our words are connected and from which they get their meaning. The understanding of linguistic meaning comes not from external observation but from learning the language, from using its expressions consistently in situations where they apply—situations of the language user himself. To believe that a Martian could understand the workings of human language better than we can and that the best way to achieve understanding is to become like a Martian is, in extreme form, to elevate scientific objectivity and detachment into a universal method. But such detachment is not equally suited to all subject matter. A Martian scientist might make faster progress with human biology and medicine than we can, but he could understand our language only to the extent that he could enter and practice it, and he could not do that if he were too unlike us, no matter how superior.4

Percy’s call for an alternative to the scientific ideal of physics in understanding certain aspects of human life is therefore not radical enough, for the Martian he impersonates is just an inflated version of the scientific external observer, with special powers of vision. Those powers will not enable him to see into the human mind, for the true view of the human mind has to include the view we ourselves have.

Failing to see this, and with no alternative to the external form of understanding he is trying to replace, Percy finds a mystery at the center of language. That may be why he thinks he has made room for a heretofore ignored self at the crucial juncture between word and object. As he conceives it, however, such an entity is just a spiritual plug for the gap in our scientific understanding: it may respond to Percy’s religious yearnings but it does not introduce a new form of explanation. This is evident in the simple-minded anatomical model for a physical basis of meaning that Percy offers at the end of the book. The physiological model of naming, he says, must consist of a triadic structure including thick interconnections between the auditory and visual cortexes (for audible names and visible things), and a mysterious “coupler” at the third corner, who joins names to things and subjects to predicates. Just what this is, says Percy, “an ‘I,’ a ‘self,’ or some neurophysiological correlate thereof, I could not begin to say” (p. 327). But he suggests that the cortical “base” of the triadic structure may be located in the angular gyrus, at Brodmann areas 39 and 40.

This calls to mind the fantasy of a neuroanatomical key to universal happiness and the salvation of society in Love in the Ruins. Unable to comprehend language by conventional physiology, Percy can get on farther than to invent a mythical physiology instead. That is because he is searching for a Martian understanding of the human mind.

These issues are far removed from the formal work on linguistic structure that occupies most linguists. Percy objects to Chomsky’s separation of the study of syntax from the study of meaning, and offers a crackpot view of his own to combine them, according to which the “coupling” of two things by the mysterious “coupler” of his triadic model is the key to naming, referring, asserting, and understanding. (It is incapable, I might add, of accounting for any of the sentences in his book.) There is considerable controversy at present over the extent to which syntax can be described without reference to meaning. Chomsky has tried to construe the grammar of a natural language as an uninterpreted formal system whose structure can be comprehended apart from its application. Evidently syntax is to a considerable extent independent of semantics; otherwise it would not be possible to compose nonsense rhymes which are perfectly grammatical though meaningless, or to understand perfectly the meaning of many ungrammatical sentences. But the degree to which the two will be distinct in a developed theory of language remains unsettled.5

It is foolish to object to Chomsky’s effort to pursue the formal study of syntax as far as it can be pursued in isolation from formal semantics (the relations among the meanings of expressions within a language), let alone from the theory of reference (how words are attached to the world) or a general philosophical theory of what language is. The results of such formal studies may not have the cosmic significance they are sometimes thought to have, but that should not disappoint anyone unless, like Percy, he has exaggerated expectations of linguistic theory.

Such expectations seem perennially attractive, however, expressing as they do a broad scientific optimism. Perhaps the appeal of linguistic theory for Percy and other amateurs derives from the hope that here science must give us an understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world to replace the lost anthropocentrism of Western religions. There may be something to Percy’s claim that a modern form of disorientation is caused by the swallowing up of the familiar human world by a centerless, objective world disclosed by physical science. Since we are parts of this objective world it swallows us too, with the apparent consequence that the less specifically human our view of ourselves is, the more scientifically accurate it will be (as is true of our knowledge of water or light). This contrasts uncomfortably with the type of religious conception that puts the stamp of objectivity on a human view of the world by asserting that man is created in the image of God, who sees things as they really are.

It has become clear that, in many respects, to apprehend reality we must escape ourselves. But this yields a dilemma when applied to the understanding of ourselves. If we are part of a natural reality that has no human center, scientific understanding of ourselves seems to require that we abandon the full complexity of a human viewpoint, losing ourselves in the process. What remains therefore fails to satisfy that appetite for personal self-understanding which is as much a part of human life as the appetite for impersonal apprehension of objective reality. Because the study of language seems to feed both of these needs and to demand both approaches, it is continually seductive and the focus of expectations that are bound to be disappointed.

Percy is right to wish for an expanded understanding of language, but what is required is a view of how language is used by those who use it—a view from within the community of speakers—and not a spiritualizing of the subject. The working of language shows that our grasp of the world depends on relations with others like ourselves. Our homelessness may not be diminished by this discovery, but at least it dissolves in the homelessness of the species.

  1. 1

    Basic works are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Macmillan, 1953); J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Harvard University Press, 1962); H.P. Grice, “Meaning,” Philosophical Review, 1957; Saul Kripke, “Naming and Necessity” in Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman (eds.), Semantics of Natural Language (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1972). Although Percy mentions Wittgenstein once, he seems unaware of his views.

  2. 2

    Cf. Kripke, op. cit., pp. 278-303.

  3. 3

    Cf. Philosophical Investigations, secs. 258-270.

  4. 4

    Cf. Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 223: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

  5. 5

    For discussion of the controversy, see John Searle, “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” NYR, June 29, 1972, and Barbara Hall Partee, “Linguistic Metatheory,” in William Orr Dingwall (ed.), A Survey of Linguistic Science (University of Maryland, 1971); both reprinted in Gilbert Harman (ed.), On Noam Chomsky: Critical Essays (Doubleday, 1974).

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