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III The Origin of Language in Reflection and the Breaking of its Circuits

Overcoming the Age of Representation through Repetition

The Tradition of Self-Reflection and Modern Self-Forgetting

Humanities studies, as means of self-reflection, are an urgently needed antidote to the self-forgetting that plagues the modern age of representation sketched in Part II in its philosophical origins. The injunction “Know thyself” (yvd>0i oeavTov)—the oracle inscribed in the portico (pronaos) of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, according to Pausanias, and taken by Socrates as the motto for his activity of self-questioning—expresses the founding charter of the humanities. For Socrates, it entailed knowing that he knew nothing (Apology 20c-24e), and it resonates down through subsequent tradition as enjoining a knowledge of human limits and particularly of human mortality.

Stemming from another main root of this tradition, Ecclesiastes’s great paeon on time (“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” etc.) also recognizes the capability of mortals to envision their temporal limits and know their own vanity (“vanity of vanities; all is vanity”). The tantalizing phrase “he hath set the world [or eternity] in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (3:11) registers our negative capability of reflecting on our own ignorance vis-à-vis our origin and destiny. Thinking one’s own limit is thinking, at least potentially, also beyond oneself. From these classic touchstones, authentic self-reflection emerges as entailing not a focus on the self as object or “end-in-itself” (Zweck-an-sich in Kant’s moral vocabulary) so much as a meditative realization of one’s own limits to the end of letting the world beyond them—negatively, “eternity”—come into view.

The self, despite its contingency and transience, habitually measures all by itself and focuses everything through its own finite lenses. Only when the resulting distortion is dispelled by self-reflective insight into the relativity and ephemerality of the ego can reality begin to show itself as it is—or in its absoluteness. Self-reflection is, to this extent, self-relativization. Such reflection by the self on itself makes it emerge as no


Donald Phillip Verene, Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) offers a kindred interpretation centered in Socratic humanism.

longer the unremarked, invisible filter through which all else is reduced to just a figment of the self. The infinite cannot appear so long as everything is known only as reflected by the finite self.

This is why our infatuation with technology as a positive, objective projection of our self-empowerment undermines authentic self-awareness. Symptomatic of self-oblivion and blindness to our mortality, such infatuation comes with and from our forgetting of who we are as bodily and mortal beings. Genuine self-reflection takes place, instead, in and through language before language has devolved into just a tool—a type of machinery for manipulating the objective world. More originarily, language is a medium and mediation that enables us to reflect on our being in its fathomless totality, which exceeds objective definition. The same can be said of each of our sense modalities. As Blake admonished, “We are led to believe a lie / When we see with, not thro’ the eye” (“Auguries of Innocence”).

In the medium of language, as in a mirror, either we can see ourselves merely as objects, or we can see through this reflected image so as to contemplate what is not representable. Already in Purgatorio XXVII. 100-108, the mirrors of Leah and Rachel, designated as “specchio” and “miraglio” respectively, distinguish typologically between objective, workaday seeing and contemplative seeing through to the dimension in which all appears infinite. Miraglio’s derivation from Provençal mirahl recalls its connection with Troubadour poetry, where we have already discerned a self-reflective self-transcendence budding (section 5). Language thereby enables us to contemplate our temporal destiny to no longer exist as material bodies in this world—and to peer negatively beyond this limit. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is based on the “godlike” capability given us through “such large discourse” of “Looking before and after” (IViv.33-38).

Language enables us consciously to reflect on our possibly not existing—on death, and thereby on a world beyond and without us. It opens the negative dimension of the in-finite. Knowing one’s own ignorance, or ««knowing, is a way of glimpsing something infinite and whole (at least in our perception of it) that is inevitably missed in every articulated knowing of a definable object. For Nicholas of Cusa, as for Franz Rosenzweig, we “know” “God” precisely in knowing our insuperable ignorance of God. Awareness of reality as a whole begins for us only with this relatively undeceived form of self-reflective self-knowing. However, when conceptualized and verbalized, even such self-reflective knowing becomes ineluctably closed and reductive. Therefore, linguistic self-reflection must culminate by negating itself.


On our technological narcissism, compare Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), Chapter 4: “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.”

Poets sometimes intuit that only the pre-reflective consciousness of the animal can experience the Open without and before language. In Rilke’s eighth Duino Elegy, lack of language and of consciousness of death, opens the awareness of animals to “God” standing before them (“vor sich Gott”). Reality to them is infinite (“unendlich”) and open (“offen”). In the Paradiso, Dante employs self-reflexive means in order to approach a pre-reflexive consciousness. While he does so especially through the figure of the suckling infant, the canticle also abounds in animal images. They capture the spontaneity and immediate consciousness of the blessed and their beatitude, for example, in introducing Adam through the simile of an animal whose affect is directly manifest in the movement of the covering that conceals it (XXVI.97-102). Self-reflection, in Dante’s journey, ultimately dissolves itself and opens into immediate consciousness without reflection or difference: it becomes one with “God.” Selfreflection is thus paradoxically both the impediment to our consciousness of God and its indispensable means. We need it humanly in order to “transhumanize.”

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