The Linguistic Construction of Reality

Craig Gay (The Way of the (Modern) World) lucidly traces a line of development from Descartes’ separation of the human subject from the world of objects, through the Cartesian and Newtonian effort to reduce science to mathematics, to the triumph of technical manipulation. At the end point, the object-world outside us exists only as raw materials for our projects, and is no longer seen as a world to be received with thanks, and loved as God’s world and God’s revelation.

Toward the end of his discussion, Gay says: “perhaps the most telling indicator of the radically anthropocentric drift of modern technological self-understanding is the disconnection of language itself from nature. Language is no longer held to correspond to nature, but is instead believed to be constitive of it. Indeed, an increasing number of contemporary theorists suggest that we can actually change the nature of reality by speaking it differently. The emphasis upon the absolutely creative use of words has been extended to the point that it has all but shattered the connection between language and the world.”

Quoting George Steiner to the effect that the “covenant between word and world” has been breached, Gay adds that this doesn’t begin, as Steiner suggests, with the 19th century, but “was clearly anticipated in the relation to nature disclosed by early modern scientific theory and eventually by modern technological practice. The plausibility of contemporary theories which stress our ability to construct and/or deconstruct ourselves through the use of language may thus be said to rest upon the foundation of modern science and technology.”

This is a clever turn of argument if it can be sustained: The supposedly anti-modern theorists of postmodernity are simply repeating the basic moves that established modern science. That argument might be sustainable, but I’m not entirely satisfied with Gay’s analysis here.

First, I doubt that any contemporary theorist would formulate his own position as the unqualified claim that “we can actually change the nature of reality simply by speaking it differently.” Nor is it clear what Gay means by an “absolutely creative use of words.”

Put those questions to the side. What is the continuity that Gay sees between early modern science and contemporary theory? On the surface, the continuity is “anthropocentrism,” now radicalized so that human beings not only manipulate reality but create it. This shatters the covenant of word and world because words no longer have to conform to the edges of reality but are understood to be capable of making reality. I agree with Gay about the anthropocentrism of both modern science and postmodern theory.

But is it true in any sense that language is constitutive of reality? At least in certain cases, it would seem so. Consider a cultural/technological product such as a hammer. Hammers don’t exist in nature (though we can use a stone for hammering purposes), so they are not ready-made waiting for a human label. Naming the hammer is not simply assigning a label to correspond to something in nature; naming the hammer was one moment in the invention of the hammer.

The covenant between the word “hammer” and the object is a human covenant, socially constructed from both ends, since both the object and the consensus to call it a “hammer” are human inventions. (Gay, following Steiner, appears to assume that there is only one kind of covenant between word and world – a covenant by which words correspond to nature. Perhaps there are other sorts of covenants.)

What is the hammer? We could say that the hammer is a cut and sanded piece of wood attached to a piece of metal with one end pressed flat and the other end shaped into a claw. Someone who made these observations, but knew nothing about the use of a hammer, could hardly be said to know what the hammer is. Knowing what a hammer is requires some knowledge of its cultural utility.

Now, suppose a strange, and very specific, virus suddenly infected the whole of the human race. This virus infected the brain and destroyed those cells, and only those cells, that contain the memory of the word “hammer” and the normal uses of hammers. Tomorrow, everyone goes to his tool box looking for a screwdriver and finds these strange objects with wooden handles and flat-and-claw-sided metal heads. If no one knew the use or name of hammers, would it still be a hammer – or would it be a curious artefact suitable for a museum display?

Then someone, having found this strange implement in his toolbox, decided that it would be suitable for knitting, and was able to knit industrial sized blankets from leather strips using the hammer. He starts calling it a “knitting club,” and soon everyone else is using the objects-formerly-known-as-hammers for knitting and calling them “knitting clubs.”

Has the thing changed? In one sense, of course not: It’s got the same chemical and physical makeup, the same shape and size and all.

But in another sense, it has changed: It’s no longer a hammer. It’s a knitting club. One might object that everyone is simply misusing and mislabeling hammers. But it became a knitting club in the same way it became a hammer in the first place – by someone finding a use and affixing a label. Unless one is willing to say it was never really a hammer, then it seems we have to concede it’s something else now.

Now, the main source of my dissatisfaction with Gay’s argument: It seems that the main grounds for denying that language is, in at least the sense described, constitutive of reality, is on the basis of a strong subject-object separation. That is, the hammer out there is and remains what it is regardless of what I call it or how I use it; its reality is entirely a matter of his observable features, its scientifically and mathematically describable characteristics. Human naming and use have no role whatever in making the hammer a hammer.

Here I am over here, separated from the hammer, and no matter what I call it or how I use it, the hammer remains objectively what it is. This seems to me to perpetuate the Cartesian, and scientific, separation of subject and object that Gay elsewhere very insightfully attacks.

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  • Dan Glover

    Hi Peter, Perhaps Gay’s contention is not so much about humanity’s labeling of the tools/contrivances/machines that it creates for its own use out of nature and which may take on differing uses as we rename them (or we rename them as they become used for different things), but rather humanity’s renaming of nature itself; of that which it finds as it is. For example, where humanity once saw a forest of oak, maple and pine tress it now sees potential lumber, where it once saw a mountain it now sees a large coal deposit, where it once saw a swift and broad river it now sees a potential dam site/energy source, where it once saw a magnificent view it now sees a back-drop for a selfie. Also, if you apply Gay’s argument-of renaming nature as having a reconstitutive effect-to the area of human sexuality (where once there were man and woman or male and female, there are now many different ‘genders’ based upon human will/renaming), would that change your reading of Gay’s argument?