Reflections on Language and Thought

If a man just can’t stand metaphors and wishes to ban figurative language from the marketplace of ideas, one should approach that man’s own words and thoughts — especially his best and most interesting ones — as having been conceived and expressed under the peculiar misapprehension that his own metaphors (including and especially his most extraordinary ones) were literal statements. Paradoxically, some of the greatest minds of the modern age were utterly oblivious to the essential nature of ideas as such, and in particular of original and revolutionary ideas. The fatal theoretical blindness of modern scientific materialism: A failure to understand what language is.

Philosophic language is an invitation to the antechamber of a thought. Those few who accept the invitation will finally, of necessity, be left alone in that antechamber to fend for themselves.

All translation necessitates a significant degree of fudging: settling for slightly inadequate but “close enough” ways to say what may be impossible to say precisely in the target language; making one’s best educated guess as to the exact connotation or implication of an idiomatic or newly-coined expression from the source material; approximating the rhythm or tonality of the original tongue in the very different cadences native to the language of translation; trying to resist to urge to lean too far in the direction of interpolating new thoughts of our own into our presentation.

But all speech and writing are in effect forms of translation. We would do well to remind ourselves of this daily, and particularly when we set about “explaining” our thoughts to others — or even to ourselves, we pacing monologists.

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