Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reality, Ideality, Language

In his 1972 preface to The Gold of the Tigers, Borges reminds us that "a language is a tradition, a way of grasping reality, not an arbitrary assemblage of symbols" (The Book of Sand, Penguin, 1979, p. 98).

Language is, indeed, "a way of grasping reality". As Betrand Russell put it in his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "The essential business of language is to assert and deny facts." Of course, you have to agree with Wittgenstein in advance in order to interpret Borges's "grasping reality" as something as prosaic as "asserting facts". Borges and his readers would be forgiven for thinking that something "more" is going on, and a pangrammatical homology suggests itself to identify what this may be.

As knowledge is to power, the real is to the ideal. It is important to notice the role of "tradition" in Borges's sentence. It is, in the first place, not language, but a tradition that is defined as "a way of grasping reality". Traditions are also oriented by the ideal. Indeed, we might say that the ideal moves us by means of our traditions, just as we use them to grasp reality.

Concepts (Begriffe) constitute our hold on the real and emotions (Ergriffe) constitute the ideal's hold on us. Language allows us to assert facts because it embodies the long tradition of our attempt to grasp reality. It allows to us enjoin acts, however, because it is embedded, just as surely and for just as long, in our tradition of being enthralled by ideality. Language is both the logic of assertion and the passion of injunction.

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