The Enlightenment Against Reason: Two Cases

Plato presents his teacher, Socrates, as the foremost expert on love and the most erotic of all men, on the grounds that Eros is at base the longing for immortality, thus defining a natural hierarchy of human fulfillments, at the peak of which resides the search for eternal truths, i.e., philosophy. Aristotle, taking the cosmic view, explains the relationship between the world of inexhaustible motion and the metaphysical stratum of unchanging beings as a nexus of lover (the moved) and beloved (the mover). The human intellect, he argues, requires this relationship between a desiring potency and a desired actuality to enliven and sustain its essential activity, thinking.

Modern philosophy, by contrast, with the brief exception of its great critic, Nietzsche, has exactly nothing of importance to say about Eros, and in fact largely ignores the phenomenon altogether. Eros, the soul’s directedness beyond time and matter, is essentially irrelevant to the modern project. This, incidentally, is why the only modern “thinker” (though far from being a philosopher) whose name is normally associated with this subject, Freud, was a boring reductionist about the erotic. Freud’s theory of the erotic could be exciting only to a world that had never learned of, let alone experienced, the spiritual adventure Socrates called the “erotic ascent.”

Enlightenment, among its many great errors, devalues and dismisses those elements of experience which resist easy exposure, which is to say those which naturally hide in conditions of excessive light — the shy and tentative impulses, if you will. But without these, as the ancients taught, human life loses its secret essence — and in losing that essence sacrifices beauty, poetry, and the search for being.

I teach a graduate course on the history of the philosophy of language. The second half of the course is devoted to a close reading of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages. Why Rousseau, of all people, one might ask — the progenitor of the major dark turn in late modernity towards sentimentality, romanticism, collectivism, historicism? The simplest answer for my seemingly uncharacteristic choice is that for all the disagreements I have with Rousseau, even regarding the nature of language, he has one important contribution to make on the positive side of the ledger, which is his rejection of modern empiricist theories of language. 

Nothing exemplifies the absurd disregard for human nature — the essential idealism, to speak paradoxically — typical of early modern thought than the explicit assault, by both Hobbes and Locke, on figurative speech. Both men define figurative language as inherently undesirable, even immoral — an “abuse of speech,” as they call it — on the grounds that non-literal speech, being inherently false, is therefore harmful to intellectual clarity and the communication of truth. 

To be clear, my objection to modern philosophy’s dismissal of figurative language is not that it would deny mankind a harmless pleasure, or a sort of useful ornament of speech. It is not, in other words, that the figurative is a beneficial “addition” to language, like a spice enlivening bland dishes. On the contrary, my objection is that without the figurative, there can be no language.

Language, like all temporal things, is developmental, and the primary means of its development is the repurposing of existing words (with their accepted meanings) to represent new thoughts or ways of thinking. This process, the expansion of speech to represent expanded intellectual horizons, is intrinsically and irreducibly figurative. There is no rational way to represent new or unexpected meaning in a form that may be communicated to others, except through new and unexpected applications of existing words. That Hobbes and Locke, the two great modern theorists of human nature, take pains to deny the intellectual value of figurative speech, demonstrates how far removed from actual human experience — from the soul — the modern project really was. These thinkers literally could not understand themselves — they could not, to emphasize the point, stand under their own experience, as one holding a burdensome weight over his head to demonstrate his strength to control it. 

Rousseau’s great achievement in his Essay on the Origin of Languages is enlightened, if you will, by his deliberately challenging assertion, declared in the very title of Chapter Three, that the first language, the original primitive human speech, would have to have been figurative. In other words, not only is figurative usage the lifeblood of the growth of language, but in fact figurative usage must have preceded literal usage as early man’s first foray into vocal communication.

Modernity’s “scientific” rejection of the figurative displays a fundamental detachment from the basic requirements of a genuinely human civilization that may be understood as both a product and a source of rational communication.

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