Is Language Mysterious?

Is Language Mysterious? May 27, 2013

Yes, answers Charles Taylor ( Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays , 50-1). But how?

Taylor suggests there are three facets to mystery: (1) It refers to something we cannot explain; (2) it refers to something that we cannot explain that also is “something of great depth and moment”; and (3), since “mystery” etymologically refers also to “the process of initiation, in which secrets are revealed,” a mystery is something we cannot understand so long as we take “a disengaged stance” to it, something that must be explored by immersion.

Language, he argues, is mysterious in all three senses: “It seems to me (1) that we haven’t a clue how these capacities of mimesis, narrative, and then descriptive speech emerged out of earlier life-forms and only a very incomplete grasp of how they relate to each other. Then (2) that there are few matters which touch more profoundly on what it is to be a human being. We are in sum the ‘zoon echon logon’ of which Aristotle speaks, but giving ‘logos’ its fuller sense englobing both speech and reason. And then, to the extent that articulating to disclose is crucial to language, it is the very realm where (3) holds, where we have to engage with things (works of art, modes of human life, our relation to God) in a stance of openness and potential neologism, in order to articulate what they’re about.”

Saying it’s not mysterious “is like saying that Atlas isn’t strong, or Aphrodite isn’t beautiful. It sounds weird.”

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