The Purpose of Language

February 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, both encounter the issue of language while constructing a concept of the state of nature and the origin of human society, a favorite mental exercise of seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers such as themselves. The two agree that language elevates – or, perhaps more appropriately in regards to Rousseau, separates – man from beast, and facilitates man’s departure from the state of nature. Their differing notions regarding the state of nature and those of civil society in turn reflect their divergent judgments of the value and consequences of language. Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan, describes the natural state of man to be in constant conflict and misery, that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is call war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man…wherein men live [in] continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 84). One premise behind Thomas Hobbes’ notion of the state of nature is the right of nature, “which writers commonly call jus naturale…the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature” (Hobbes, 86). According to Hobbes, this jus naturale will cause the generation of a commonwealth “to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another” (Hobbes, 114). The commonwealth is created by a covenant “when a multitude of men do agree…every one, with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all” (Hobbes 115). Only then can man live in peace. Interestingly, Hobbes’ discussion of language precedes his discussion of the state of nature in Leviathan. In Chapter 4 of Book I, a chapter entitled “Of Speech,” Hobbes defines speech as “consisting of names or appellations, and their connexion” (Hobbes, 20), and cites the four main uses of speech: firstly, “to transfer our mental discourse into verbal,” secondly, “to show to other that knowledge which we have attained,” thirdly, “to make known to others our wills, and purposes, that we may have the mutual help of one another,” and lastly, “by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament” (Hobbes, 21). According to Hobbes, speech was first given to humanity by God, who “instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight,” thus first establishing “names and their connexion.” For these reasons, Hobbes extols speech as “the most noble and profitable invention of all other…without which, there had been amongst men, neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves” (Hobbes, 20). With communication comes the possibility of mutual understanding among men, and thus only with speech can men leave the state of nature. Besides the critical capacity for communication that language provides, Hobbes also proposes a more debatable function of language in his ideal commonwealth. According to Hobbes, truth and falsity consists in either affirming or denying the connection between two names, and thus, “where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood” (Hobbes, 23). Furthermore, he questions the entire foundation of knowledge and philosophy. Hobbes argues that we cannot rely upon nature to reveal true reality because the only way we can experience the world is through our senses, so “though the nature of that we conceive, be the same; yet the diversity of our reception of it, in respect of different constitutions of the body, and prejudices of opinion, gives every thing a tincture of our different passions” (Hobbes, 27). Instead, Hobbes suggests the establishment of first definitions by the sovereign, upon which all members of society must agree. All conclusions that ensue follow from logical syllogisms based upon these first principles. Thus, Hobbes provides a deductive grounding for knowledge, much like in geometry, which Hobbes praises as “the only science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind” (Hobbes, 23) where everyone has accepted certain definitions and basic principles, after which geometric truths logically follow. When philosophical reasoning is thus reduced to mathematics, all truths and knowledge derived from these accepted first definitions become irrefutable, in the same way geometric proofs are irrefutable. In this manner, Hobbes boldly bases the entire nature of truth and epistemology upon language, a human construct. Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets forth in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality an exhaustive diatribe against modern society and the entire history of human progress. He begins by describing the state of man before his entrance into society, a conception commonly regarded as diametrically opposed to that of Hobbes. According to Rousseau, the “savage man” is in an idyllic, peaceful state, produced in part by his ignorance and simplicity of mind. Rousseau argues that since the savage man is naturally unsociable and since there are unlimited natural resources, the savage man largely remains solitary and has very little contact with others, thus very little chance of conflict, much opposed to Hobbes’ idea to the perpetual state of war in nature. Furthermore, Rousseau believes that two natural laws, which existed prior to reason, govern the interaction between humans in the state of nature: self-preservation and pity. The first we are already familiar with, but the second suggests a softer view of human nature than that of Hobbes’. Rousseau describes pity as “a natural repugnance to seeing any sentient being, especially our fellow man, perish or suffer” (Rousseau, 35). Pity, which moderates self-preservation, “contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire species…takes the place of laws, mores, and virtue” (Rousseau 55). Thus, the state of nature was harmonious, even if crude and primitive. In fact, man in Rousseau’s state of nature differs not much from animals. However, the faculties unique to man are sufficient to propel him out of the state of nature. First, whereas animals act upon instinct, man acts upon choice. Man’s ability to choose makes him less susceptible to nature than other animals might be. More importantly, Rousseau attributes to man the faculty of self-perfection, the ability to adapt, to change according to his environment. He argues that it is precisely this perfectibility in man that is the source of his downfall from the state of nature. One aspect of man’s perfectibility is his development of language. Here Rousseau points out an apparent paradox regarding the origin of language: “for if men needed speech in order to learn to think, they had a still greater need for knowing how to think in order to discover the art of speaking” (Rousseau, 49). Instead of addressing this issue, however, Rousseau adds upon it another paradox: the vocal articulations of things must be arrived at by “unanimous consent” but language is needed to voice consent, thus “speech appears to have been necessary to establish the use of speech” (Rousseau, 50). Whatever the origins were, Rousseau argues that language was necessary in order to develop abstract reasoning and that “general ideas can be introduced into the mind only with the aid of words” (Rousseau, 50). Rousseau offers the simple example of the tree: without language, man cannot conceive the general idea of a tree, he can only picture a particular tree, with a certain height, color, etc. Abstract or complex ideas, then, only transpire when man gives names to them. Natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, induced man to associate more and more with each other, and language was further developed. Man made tools and built huts, enabling the concept of the family. Eventually, as man became more social, natural pity was replaced with amour propre: “People grew accustomed to gather in front of their huts…song and dance…became the amusement or rather the occupation of idle men and women… Each on began to look at the others and to want to be looked at himself, and public esteem had a value” (Rousseau 64). With the construction of dwellings, the beginnings of agriculture, which Rousseau argues is only possible with human communication, and the beginnings of interdependence, the notion of property evolved and natural equality disappeared. Part Two of Rousseau’s Discourse begins: “the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society” (Rousseau, 60). Both the physical act of uttering the words this is mine and also the abstract idea of possession are possible only with language. Property and the division of labor made men morally unequal, and the wealthy and powerful, wanting to protect their property, devised “specious reasons to lead [the weak] to their goal” (Rousseau, 69) With the pretense of mutual protection, the powerful instituted “rules of justice and peace to which all will be obliged to conform” which merely enforce the inequality, and “such was…the origin of society and laws, which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, established forever the law of property and of inequality, changed adroit usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the entire human race to labor, servitude and misery” (Rousseau, 70). Hobbes and Rousseau both to some degree advance the idea that language constructs reality. For Hobbes, truth itself is an artificial, human construct based only on language. His all-powerful sovereign who decides upon definitions and first principles, acts only to eliminate dissension, and his judgments, though arbitrary, cannot be disputed. This absolute power of the sovereign to decide how people should think and what they should know is comparable to fascism. However, Hobbes believes that fear of the sovereign is much preferable to mutual fear of each other, and that anything is better than the state of nature. For Rousseau, language also has the ability to construct reality. According to him, only with knowledge of words like “love,” “jealousy,” and “possession” can these concepts come into being, and therefore reality as we have it is limited and dependant upon the names and words we have come up with thus far, an idea that’s quite hard to grasp or believe. Hobbes and Rousseau both explore the dichotomy of nature and culture, and both identify language as a key element of culture. Their notions of language, however, depend on their conception of the state of nature. For Hobbes, the state of nature is the state of perpetual war and misery, thus language brings about the possibility of accord and contract, critical in establishing the commonwealth. Also critical to Hobbes’ philosophy is the role that language plays in the foundation of knowledge. The people in establishing a commonwealth agree to accept the first definitions set forth by the sovereign, and in doing so, the entire basis of knowledge and reasoning is mathematically grounded, leaving no room for dispute. Hobbes thus eliminates civil dissent and ensures peace in his commonwealth. Rousseau believes the state of nature to be preferable to civil society, and that it is language, technology, and social institutions that corrupt man and bring him down from his natural, innocent state into the realm of inequality and injustice. Thus, the evaluation of language by the two philosophers are based upon their judgment of its consequences in relation to the state of nature; for Hobbes language elevates man above the violent state of nature, while for Rousseau language brings man down from the peaceful state of nature.

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