Volume IV, Number 2, Fall 2008

"Pre-Linguistic Meaning: A Pragmatist Defense" by Don Morse

Don Morse is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Webster University in St. Louis. E-mail:

American thinkers tend to eschew abstractions. They like to give primacy to our concrete, everyday experience, and to make thought and language subservient to life. This tendency not only says something about the American character perhaps, but also underscores a highly important innovation of American Philosophy. If correct, it has profound affects for us all. It means that meaning resides primarily in direct encounters, not in mediated abstractions. The ultimate authority for what counts as meaningful would then exist in the local and specific rather than in the generalizing patterns of language, logic, or system. All claims to a privileged order of normative regulation, superior to what we find in our immediate experience, would have to be rejected.

These are the stakes in the question of whether or not there exists pre-linguistic meaning. On the one side are Classical American Pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey, who hold that actual encounters provide the basis for all meaning and normativity. The opposite position would be that meaning is mediated by something superior to life, something more organized and authoritative than what we directly experience, such as the abstract rules of language. It is a question of authority – of how much, or how little, we are willing to grant to human beings in their brute, given, and unassimilated encounters with reality.1

Of course, it may seem odd to think of language as a limiting form of abstraction. Language of all abstract forms seems to help us the most to understand the world around us and to express our emotions within it. Language seems to be our most essential tool for realizing ourselves. As Martin Heidegger reminds us, however, language can have a limiting affect upon us. Heidegger gives us a picture of the stifling nature of language with his concept of “idle talk,” in which we automatically speak as others speak and in such a way as to limit and “close-off” our own understanding of our “Being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 213). In such cases, language becomes our master, even when we use it, seemingly, to express our own thoughts. Jacques Derrida gives concrete meaning to such an idea when he writes that, “I only have one language, yet it is not mine“ (Derrida, 2). For Derrida, we necessarily use language to understand ourselves, but this language of ours has been given to us by another. As an Algerian Jew, for example, Derrida is made to speak only French. Derrida’s own words oppress him, because they are words and meanings that he must use but they are not really his. It is similar to the case of 1984 as discussed by Richard Rorty. Here Winston suffers a terrible form of “humiliation,” because his “particular structures of language and belief” are destroyed and replaced by structures imposed upon him by others (Rorty, 177-178). To cite another example from 1984, one not mentioned by Rorty but suggested to me by his insights about the novel, Winston sits listening to Syme, a passionate advocate for “newspeak,” and Winston

has a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking; it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck (Orwell, 48).

And, in fact, this is precisely the function of newspeak—of language that takes on its own life against the people—namely, to speak through them and eclipse their own unique experience as individual beings.

These cases show that all is not necessarily well with language. More specifically, although Rorty would disagree, insisting that “socialization…goes all the way down” (Rorty, 185), these cases suggests that there is something that we are that can be oppressed by language—that there is some original source of meaning that we possess that is wronged by the imposition of another’s use of words. Such, at any rate, is the classical American pragmatist—and specifically Jamesian—position, for which our own given experience in the world comes before all abstract form, even language, and serves as the primary locus of our meaning.

In this paper, I offer a defense of the Jamesian viewpoint. While I cannot pretend to resolve this immensely complex problem definitively, I will nonetheless try within the scope of this paper to give us some grounds for believing, with James, that we do possess meaning before language. This Jamesian position continues in our own time with more recent American philosophers such as Mark Johnson, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, Sean Gallagher, Richard Shusterman, and Crispin Sartwell (See Johnson, 1987; 2007; Sheets-Johnstone; Gallagher; Shusterman; Sartwell). My thesis in this paper is that these philosophers are correct. We must acknowledge the existence of meaningful experience that is prior to all language or even propositional form, and when we do so, I argue, this suggests the need to situate the authority for meaningfulness in our immediate encounter with reality rather than in any abstract system.

I will first explain James’s position in more detail. After this, I will defend the position both through the arguments of some contemporary Jamesians and through my own arguments. I will conclude the paper by suggesting how James’s position entails a significant change in how we should live, calling for us to live more directly in the face of reality than in the midst of cultural artifacts and abstractions.

James’s Position

According to William James, some philosophers are addicted to “intellectualism in the vicious sense” (James, 1996a, 218). Since they work so heavily in concepts, philosophers come to see the world only in conceptual terms. But, James insists, “conceptual knowledge is forever inadequate to the fullness of the reality to be known….The flux can never be superseded” (James, 1996b, 78-9). Philosophers are mistaken when they impute to reality their own experience of being saturated with conceptual life. In fact, our percepts go beyond our concepts. Everyday life, with its practical activities, and many non-verbal expressions and moods, presents the greater truth.

If we dissolve our concepts, as happens during everyday, unreflective activity, or during reveries, or even during more profound experiences (such as ecstasy, for example), we must admit the existence of a brute, given state of experience. Such a state can be indicted in various ways. James states that in such cases we “descend to a more profound and primitive level” (James, 2000, 281-2). In such cases, we are “rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence” (James, 2000, 280). James notes “the intense interest that life can assume when brought down to the non-thinking level, the level of pure sensorial perception (James, 2000, 282). Quoting another author, James poetically illuminates this experience: “I returned to this solitude as if to attend a festival” (James, 2000, 283).2 At this bare minimum level of awareness, without words or propositions, there is meaning that pervades our experience. During these occasions, we possess the “inner significance in what, until then, we had realized only in the dead external way.” This kind of moment “often comes over a person suddenly,” leading them to feel directly, for a time, the pure immediacy of their encounter with the world (James, 2000, 273-4). Moreover, this type of direct experience is deeply meaningful. “Whenever it is found,” James insists, “there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is ‘importance’ in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be (James, 2000, 269).” We not only have pure experiences, but they are meaningful; indeed, they are the root of all meaning, James holds.

But what is it, exactly, that such pure experience consists of? James answers the question by saying that pure experience consists of multiple “that’s,” of this here, or that there, elements of experience that are just what they appear to be, and are irreducible to other things. “The instant field of the present,” he says, “is always experience in its ‘pure’ state, plain unqualified actuality, a simple that, as yet undifferentiated into thing and thought, and only virtually classifiable as objective fact or as some one’s opinion about fact” (James, 1996c, 74). What is given is a unified whole, an experience which is not primarily mental, nor simply of things out there distinct from me, but of a total interfusion of body and world – an organic, whole experience not yet divided into subject and object.

But what goes on in this experience? And how can it be meaningful? In agreement with John Dewey, James will say that our experience always unfolds after the pattern of what Dewey calls “indeterminate” or “problematic” situations (Dewey, 1986, 3; 41-2). All of our pre-conceptual and pre-linguistic experiences occur in the following way, as Dewey explains in his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (Dewey, 1986, 105-122). We flow along smoothly, never fully reflective, or articulate, until we encounter a felt tension in our surroundings – we then try to identify the nature of the problem and to solve it, primarily by becoming reflective and thinking it through, especially with the help of language. What’s crucial here, however, is the idea that before we even know what the problem is, we feel some kind of tension. This felt quality to the experience is what is pre-linguistic, and meaningful. Uneasiness, discomfort, irritability, fear, boredom, but also resolution, comfort, ease – these are the basic contours of experience. We just feel them – feel them in the situation of which we are a part. Then we begin to reflect, and to reflect, always, about how to identify any problems we are experiencing and how to untangle them. In this, both Dewey and James agree. For James, too, like Dewey, explains that “these experiences of process, obstruction, striving, strain, or release” are “ultimate qualia” (James, 1996c, 167). And again: “sustaining, persevering, striving, paying with effort as we go, hanging on, and finally achieving our intention – this is action, this is effectuation in the only shape in which, by a pure-experience philosophy, the whereabouts of it anywhere can be discussed. Here is creation in its first intention” (James, 1996c, 183-4).

Pre-linguistic meaning is the meaning of life – of its individually felt struggles and achievements. It is meaningful in the way eating or walking or breathing or reaching and grabbing are meaningful. As in each of these cases, we have experiences that make some direct difference to us; we feel these experiences to be important or significant for us as such, prior to any linguistic categorization of what is happening.

Some Contemporary Jamesians

To help make sense of, and to defend, this Jamesian idea of pure meaningful experience before language or propositions, let us turn to the work of more recent American philosophers who are making similar claims. I have in mind here the work of both Crispin Sartwell and Mark Johnson, two very different philosophers who nonetheless both try to clarify and bolster something like James’s position in their own way.

Crispin Sartwell, in his book End of Story, argues that “ours is an era obsessed by language. Or it is better to say that ours is an academy obsessed by language” (Sartwell, 2). Conventional wisdom today holds that language is king. But, of course, there is more to our lives and our experiences than language, even for us academics. We also have our silences. Sartwell goes beyond Wittgenstein here and asserts not simply that what we cannot speak of, we must be silent about, but also that what we normally speak about, we should perhaps be more silent about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” he writes. “But it is, I think, also possible to pass over in silence much of which we could speak. Indeed, all of us pass over almost everything in silence; even the greatest chatterer can say only so much, thank god” (Sartwell, 3). To speak about our experiences, even those we can speak about, is, in a sense, to miss something fundamental about them. Their value, perhaps even their true meaning, lies simply in the having of them—in our silent appreciation of them, without the intervention of so many verbal descriptions. As Sartwell explains about our experience, it does not seem to be “teleological” in the way that language is—designed for a purpose or to achieve something. “Experience seems to be something that happens to us, and though one might always act for ends (though for the record I don’t think so), it seems odd to experience for ends” (Sartwell, 41). The point is clear: we do not experience for something. Experience in the end lacks “teleology,” a direction through narrative that always tries to achieve some purpose. Experience exists for its own sake, in its own felt, silent meanings.3

Moreover, experience goes above language; goes beyond what language can offer and is the place where unparalleled deep and rich meanings reside. Sartwell gives an example: “Think seriously for a moment,” he says, “about what you do and what you experience in a day. Better, think about the richness contained in a single glance. Then think, first, about the impoverished character of any human sign system with regard to the content of any glance: how far we are from being able to describe it, how far we are from wanting to, how far we are from needing to (Sartwell, 44). It seems difficult to refute – who among us would really exchange the rich meaning of a glance for what someone could say about it?

Presumably, gestures and movements have meaning even without language. James suggests, for example, that animals grasp their own meanings, and have a sense of what makes life significant, even though they cannot fully understand human beings and the intricacies of our activities (James, 2000, 267). Human activities like language and proposition making, it seems, are not required for meaning, or having a sense of the world about oneself. Animals possess enough awareness of meaning, it seems, to be able to interact with the world and to get by in it, so that language (and propositions) are obviously not a necessary part of having an experience with meaning.

* * *

In his new book, The Meaning of the Body, Mark Johnson claims that, before language, human beings create meanings through their bodies and the way their bodies interact with the world (Johnson, 2007, 10-11). He further argues that this “embodied meaning” alone accounts for our more sophisticated modes of reflection (Ibid., 10-11).

To help build his case, Johnson makes extensive reference to the experience of infants. He notes that, to be sure, we cannot experience directly what an infant experiences, but that nonetheless we now possess precise scientific procedures for measuring their responses to the world around them. Combined with a careful rendering of what they must be experiencing, given the scientific evidence, we can frame a definite conception of what is happening for them before language (Ibid., 34-5). And what goes on, he finds, is that a world of rich, pre-linguistic meanings is occurring, one that keeps functioning even as we become adults (Ibid., 33; 51).

The key to Johnson’s argument is the fact that babies must learn to possess meaning, that is, they do not originally possess meanings of any kind (and not, therefore, propositional or linguistic meaning), but they are able to create meanings nonetheless. Johnson states the point in this way:

Now, babies are not proposition-crunchers. They do not lie in their cribs combining subjects and predicates into propositions by which they understand the world. They do not stare around thinking “Mom’s lips are really red today,” “my bottle weighs 12 ounces,” or “Oh my! I’ve misplaced my pacifier.” And yet, babies are learning how to grasp the meaning of things, people, and events! The world is becoming meaningful to them, even though they lack language and are not engaged in full-blown conceptual, not to mention propositional, thinking. If there is meaning here, then we need to figure out what this kind of meaning consists in and how it relates to conceptual/propositional meaning. My thesis is that this immanent, pre-conceptual, and non-propositional meaning is the basis for all forms of meaning (Ibid., 33-4).

Johnson makes his argument even clearer when he writes: “If babies aren’t little proposition-processing machines, and if they still manage to be learning what various objects, persons, and occurrences mean, then we must formulate a theory of meaning that is not predicated on the proposition as the basic unit of meaning” (Ibid., 34).

In turning, then, to the experience of babies, Johnson uncovers the following facts. Contemporary infant research, he says, demonstrates that babies “must master three major kinds of…tasks if they are to function successfully” (Ibid., 35). These tasks are “communication” (or interacting with others), “object perception and manipulation” (or learning about their world through using objects), and “bodily motion” (or movement in order to learn) (Ibid., 36). Johnson notes that

These ways of learning the meaning of the world all involve the body – its perceptual capacities, motor functions, posture, expressions, and ability to experience emotions and desires. Such capacities are at once bodily, affective, and social. They do not require language in any full-blown sense, and yet they are the very means for making meaning and for encountering anything that can be understood and made sense of (Ibid., 36).

It is through embodied experience, prior to language, that the baby develops and comes to possess meanings.

A baby is able to understand a human face, and to interact with it in order to gain even greater understanding. Johnson notes that if you lean down to pick up a baby, you “instinctively” position your face at the same level of the baby’s. The baby looks back at you, and what scientists call “mutual gaze” is established. This is a “primordial intersubjective connection” (Ibid., 37). Such “facial alignment” has to occur a certain way–according to Johnson, studies show that humans can recognize faces, but only if they are facing each other directly at the same “fact-to-face” angle, such as we “instinctively” try to achieve when we handle a baby (Ibid., 37).

Citing several scientific studies, Johnson shows that, after establishing mutual gaze, the baby at this point possesses the power of “joint visual attention,” that is, it is able to “follow the direction of another’s gaze and recognize the target of the other person’s attention.” To use Johnson’s example, a father makes “eye contact with” the baby, and then gets the baby to look at the same toy he is looking at (Ibid., 37).

According to Johnson, the baby also has the capacity to imitate us, or to possess what is called “mimetic bodily relations” (Ibid., 38). “Even those [infants] less than an hour old” can “imitate the adult gestures of tongue protrusion, mouth openings, lip protrusion, and finger movement” (Ibid., 38). As Johnson notes, “the babies typically “practiced” these gestures…until they eventually matched those of the adult they were observing” (Ibid., 38).

Johnson rightly concludes, citing the work of cognitive scientists Meltzoff and Moore, that babies must possess complex “schemas” – even before they have language – that “unify” their vision and movement. Only in this way can babies and adults interact in the way they do, namely with the ability to see your behavior visually and then to enact it themselves through their own motion (Ibid., 38).

Johnson cites further studies that show that when you see a hand do something, the part of your brain for doing that thing is also activated (Ibid., 39-40). Human beings possess, Johnson says, an inherent connection to others, an ability to be connected naturally with other human beings (Ibid., 38-9). Moreover, “at this primordial level of connection with others, our so-called “knowledge” of them and of their “minds” is not primarily inferential. Instead, it is directly grasped” (Ibid., 39).

Johnson sums up these findings by saying that we possess “a primordial form of…shared meaning” (Ibid., 38). This form ensures that “We share some aspect of our joint world, even without speech or reflective thought” (Ibid., 38). Babies connect with adults instinctively and begin to adopt the meanings of the adults right away, to gain a sense of the world about them and what is going on within it. They learn meanings prior to any linguistic or propositional form, solely through their bodily interactions with things. And for Johnson, the processes by which this occurs do not simply disappear when we become adults. The same processes are at work within “our more refined, abstractive modes of understanding and thinking” (Ibid., 51).

For example, studies by Daniel Stern suggest that babies possess what are called “vitality affects” (Ibid., 43-5). In Johnson’s words, “vitality effects are not the classic emotions like far, anger, surprise, and joy. Rather, they are the patterns of flow and development of our experience” (Ibid., 43). Stern had shown how babies respond differently to pacifiers with “nubs” and those without them. There is a different quality to each experience (Ibid., 42-3). And, of course, this never changes. Even when we are doing math, or formal logic, or listening to music, or drawing, there is a quality to these activities, a “flow” to them, and a rhythm of their meaning, which we naturally understand and can respond to, even without language, just as there is for infants with pacifiers (Ibid., 44-45). “Adults,” as Johnson says, “are big babies” (Ibid., 33). “When we grow up, we do not shed these embodied meanings to our bodily ways of meaning-making. Instead, we appropriate and recruit them in what we might think of as our more refined, abstractive modes of understanding and thinking” (Ibid., 51). For these forms of meaning making, grounded in the body, precede and make possible all forms of meaning that we possess. Humans are embodied creatures, and their meaning comes from their embodiment, their pure experience of being engaged in the world.

Objections and Replies

It is now time to consider some objections to the Jamesian position. The first objection is that, in fact, we must always describe our experience in language if we are to give any meaning to it. Thus, for example, when James says that pure experience exists, he is using words to do so. Any reference he makes to pure experience is already linguistic. Hence, there is no experience pure and simple, but only our characterizations of it through language.

The problem with this objection, however, is that it conflates the term “pure experience” with that to which it refers. The term, as used by James, is not simply an attempt to capture in words what is beyond words. It is a term that James has designed to get us to have the experience ourselves, then to reflect upon it, and note that its qualities did seem to be as James described (James 1996a, 290).

Of course, one might follow this injunction to have the experience but not have it. But then, as Dewey said to Bertrand Russell, “the hose led to water is not forced to drink” (Dewey, 1988, 31). The term pure experience is not a descriptive term so much as an indicator, a pointer to the experience itself. To appreciate its truth, one must at the very least be charitable and consider whether one has had such experiences oneself.

We do not need to merely charitable, however. We can also follow Mark Johnson’s philosophy and say as well that the position is confirmed by cognitive science of the day, e.g., infant studies. Unless you are prepared to dismiss the specific scientific studies that Johnson cites, or to challenge their significance in some detail, you must allow that non-propositional and non-linguistic meanings do exist.

A second objection might be that, though there might be pure experiences, prior to all language, yet these experiences themselves nonetheless always take propositional form. One can always re-state the experience in the S is P format, and this will capture most fundamentally what is going on in the experience, even though the person having the experience might not initially recognize this.

But the S is P format cannot be fundamental, for as Peirce showed in another context, we actually make an inference from P to S, attributing a predicate to a subject, when we form a proposition or judgment, so that the inference is more fundamental than the proposition itself (Murphey, 21;56). James himself would go further and insist that thought, when it comes, always arrives after the fact, after an initial perception or experience (James, 1996b, 108). It arrives, we might say, as a way to try to respond to the perception, a way that can be mistaken, as when we attribute the wrong thought to the experience and we are in error. This possibility of the error of our thought suggests that the experience comes first. Moreover, as we have seen in the case with infant studies, their meaningful experiences do not seem to fit the form of a proposition. As Mark Johnson has show, they are not little “proposition-crunchers,” and yet they are forming meanings about themselves and the world even as babies (Johnson, 2007, 33).

A third objection could be that, granted that we have pure experiences, nonetheless we do not need to assume that they are meaningful. Instinctive experiences could exist, for example, in some kind of pure state, but the instinct itself would have no meaning until it became linguistic or propositional. We would not want to say, for example, that a cockroach has meaningful experiences, although we may grant that it has some kinds of experiences.4

A response to this objection would be to say that the pure experiences we have, though instinctive, are also meaningful. When the baby reads the face of the adult, for example, and imitates its gestures, it is experiencing meaning – it is learning about its world, it is communicating with another being, it is grasping the sense of things, such as its own body, the bodies of others, and its own relation to the world. We have a prejudice against instincts as if they were merely mechanical and brute. But we are live creatures, interacting with the world around us and, insofar as we do so, we are actively engaged, exploratory, and alive. And to be alive is to be rich with meanings, not a mere passive machine. Dewey long ago demonstrated the insufficiencies of the stimulus-response model of behavior, according to which instincts are mechanical and meaningless, and showed that they are alive and full of the drama of the living creature’s own active strivings (Dewey, 1972, 96-109).

A fourth objection is that, although there are pure experiences, nonetheless these are only very primitive experiences. Most worthwhile meanings come from language.

Of course, this may be true, although it is difficult to judge which is more worthwhile, a poem or eating. Even so, granting that it is true, it does not follow that language somehow separates itself off from pure experience. What follows, instead, is that linguistic meaning is embodied; it is our pure experiences that are capable of such wonders as linguistic meaning – experiences that always remain at the basis of linguistic meanings and serve as their source. The position I am defending in no way implies that we do not need language, or that we do not benefit from language. The only point I am insisting upon is that there are reasons for believing, with James, that language is embodied, that it is always grounded upon and functions in relation to our pure experiences. Of course, we use language, and its use has immeasurable value for us. Yet language grows out of our pure experiences, which already possess meaning, and it functions in relation to these experiences. This is the claim I am making.

A final objection might come from the likes of Hegel, who insists that all experience is mediated (Hegel, 17) in some way and, moreover, that to be human is to be more at home in thought (Hegel, 15), in reflective mediation, than American philosophers will allow. There would then be something inhuman, indeed something monstrous, in their insisting that we must sink below the human – that we must become animals, mere bodies – in order to appreciate the true nature of our experience.

Here we arrive at the nub of the issue. Many people simply will not allow that we are animals through and through.5 The thought is too scary for them, and so they cling to some spiritual resource beyond our bodies, called “the mind” or “thought,” in which we can feel more at home. Pragmatists, on the other hand, are willing to admit that we are animals. The full force of evolutionary science, moreover, would seem to be on their side. According to what we know from science, we exist as bodies, not spirits. We are lived bodies acting in the world, and our primary experience, pragmatists like James will add, must then consist of our undergoing the various patterns of our embodiment – patterns of tension and release, smooth sailing and then disruption, and so on (James, 1996c, 167). We encounter the meanings of life directly in our lived animal state, in our actions in the world, without having to wait upon meanings from more abstract, ordered systems like language.

Experience and Language

If pure experience, already imbued with meaning, is what primarily exists for us, then the question of its relation to language becomes an important one. We possess language, clearly. If we are to deny that language is required to gain meaning from our experiences, what role then does language play in human meaning?

Here I would like to stress that pure experiences include our interaction with others. As we saw in the case with babies interacting with adults, there is meaning of a purely experiential kind that occurs across and between different human beings. I am not postulating a form of individualism here. Pure experience’s meanings can be social no less than individual. Facial expressions, postures, embraces, sounds, glances, and gestures all convey a direct, experiential meaning between people. The meaning in these cases exists in the “in between” of these activities. The pragmatist view is entirely compatible with – and even emphasizes – the social constitution of selves in pure experience.

It holds, further, that language is simply one more form embodied, dialogical meaning that occurs in experience. Language is one more, albeit very complicated, form of shared, experiential interaction (See Dewey, 1981, 132-160; see also Koopman, 694-727). On the pragmatist view that I am defending, language serves a function within our experiences: it helps us to name things and to act more effectively with respect to them. But this abstractive function, in which it seems to take us away for a time form immediate experience, is secondary rather than primary. It does not exist before pure experience, providing rules and formulas for the necessary emergence of meaning in experience. Rather, language emerges from out of pure experiences, as one mode of pure, experiential interaction, functioning to serve the needs (and help resolve the problems) of our pure experience, whether these needs are individual or social, through enriched communication.

Examples of the experiential basis of meaning are numerous. James takes “a radical standing by experience,” and notes that “in radical empiricism there is no bedding,” in other words, that there is no higher function than experience needed to hold its parts together (James, 1996c, 52; 86). Cassirer argues that cultural meanings arise out of the very conditions prepared for by life (Cassirer, 13). Mark Johnson spends a great deal of time in other works showing that metaphors are grounded in our bodily experience, as are all of our abstract powers of mind (Johnson, 1987). In terms of even the most abstract meanings that language and thought make available to us, namely, mathematics, Lakoff and Nunez argue that it, too, comes from our pure, embodied experience (Lakoff and Nunez). As each of these authors show, experience comes first; language and thought are derivative and dependent.

Unfortunately, however, language is a form of experiential interaction that has the ability to become solidified and authoritative. Its abstractions and expressions can become problematic. A potent example of the oppressive function of language comes from the contemporary Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Agamben reminds us of the situationist critique, according to which we no longer live directly in the presence of reality but only through the lens of capitalist ideology. On this view, we live in “spectacular” reality, a mediated system of images that stands in for our actual encounters with the real. The mediated system consists of capitalist thoughts, words, and pictures, which uniformly and repeatedly tell us that we are only producers and consumers and that such a conception of us is normal and unproblematic. The spectacle dominates our thoughts and words, which we ourselves employ to understand the world, to the extent that no other conception of things is possible (Agamben, 79-83).

Agamben underscores the fact that that it is precisely language that exists as the oppressive force in the spectacle. We live, for Agamben, in a world “separated and organized by the media, in which the forms of the State and the economy are interwoven” (Ibid., 79). This means that,

the mercantile economy attains the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over all social life. After having falsified all of production, it can now manipulate collective perception and take control of social memory and social communication, transforming them into a single spectacular commodity, where everything can be called into question except the spectacle itself, which , as such, says nothing but “What appears is good, what is good appear” (Ibid., 79-80).

With its consolidated power over the media, the spectacle is able to control the very means of our own self-understanding as a society, prohibiting the slightest doubt in its self-presentation as a good thing. This means, in effect, that language is the very nature of the problem – the way that we use and understand language today. “It is clear that the spectacle is language,” Agamben writes, “the very communicativity or linguistic being of humans” (Ibid., 80). We must come to understand, says Agamben, that “capitalism…was directed not only toward the expropriation of productive activity, but also and principally toward the alienation of language itself, of the very linguistic and communicative nature of humans” (Ibid., 80). What the spectacle really consists in is the manipulation of our linguistic practices themselves, our very possibility of communication, because capitalism dominates our interactions. The words and images we use to understand one another and ourselves are not our own. They are the vehicle of the master, or let us say of the very social system that oppresses us, even as we utilize this system to “be ourselves.” This system adopts our language, our ability to communicate, by making us speak in its name, by its own laws of oppression. “In the spectacle our own linguistic nature comes back to us inverted” (Ibid., 80).

Agamben’s position may be exaggerated. Yet it contains a deep truth nonetheless: language is not always our ally. Its descriptions of things, even its very structure and grammar, can compel us to believe in entities that may not, strictly speaking, exist. Thus Nietzsche says: “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar” (Nietzsche, 48). Reality for him exists as process, while the grammatical structure of language, with its subjects and predicates, nonetheless commits us to the false belief in substances (in stable subjects that can have various predicates applied to them). Language also compels us too readily, perhaps, to accept the words of others – as when the logic of society, with its all of its problems, speaks through us, and we unconsciously recreate its problems in this way.

We have seen reasons in this essay, however, for holding fast to a lived, experiential resource underneath language. Against the postmodern leveling of all meaning to surfaces like language, many pragmatists would agree with Richard Shusterman that we should admit the existence of something “beneath interpretation,” namely “non-interpretational experience, activity, and understanding” (Shusterman, 117).


We can now draw some conclusions. The first conclusion is that there does seem to be some evidence for the view I have maintained in this essay. William James, John Dewey, Crispin Sartwell, and Mark Johnson have each given us some interesting arguments for the primacy of experience. Given their insights, we do seem to possess meanings in our brute encounters with reality, which then serve as the basis for our later abstract systems. The second conclusion is it that, if this is so, then we must rethink the nature of meaning, as the pragmatists suggest. No longer can we see it as tied to overly intellectualized abstractions, such as the proposition or the sentence, abstractions that come from academia, from those who focus on language and concepts. Rather, we must see human meaning as concrete and specific, as pertaining to experiences actually undergone. What follows from this, thirdly, is the vindication of the individual’s raw encounter with reality. It is, after all, the locus of meaning, if what our authors have said so far is correct. There is an authority in terms of meaningfulness here that we cannot reduce away. As James puts it: “I must leave life to teach the lesson” (James, 1996a, 292). Life speaks for itself, as it were; it has its own undeniable presence and authority, superseding the life of abstractions. We do employ language in life, to be sure, but it is secondary; it is dependent upon our actual embodied experience and its needs. The fourth and last conclusion to draw is that there exists in the Jamesian position, therefore, a kind of political injunction. If pure experiences are primary, then there seems to be something wrong in allowing ourselves to succumb to language, or to generalized form of any kind, and reducing ourselves to an alien and unfamiliar version of who we are.

One is reminded again of Amamben’s philosophy. Agamben insists on the existence of “whatever singularities” as the radically specific nature of what we are (Agamben, 29; 43; 67-9), and he holds that language can cover over and oppress our original presence to ourselves in being. “The risk here is that the word – that is, the non-latency and the revelation of something (anything whatsoever) – be separated from what it reveals and acquire an autonomous consistency” (Ibid., 81). The risk is that language will dominate us, covering over our own specific nature. In seeking to recover our singularity from the autonomous function of language, Agamben rejects all forms of abstraction foisted upon us. This entails, for him, a kind of anarchism, as the reader of The Coming Community is continually made to feel, because when we throw off the abstractions, we are called upon simply to be ourselves, and to do whatever befits our singular nature. Indeed, Agamben even says that “the only ethical experience…is the experience of being (one’s own) potentiality, of being (one’s own) possibility” (Ibid., 44).6 Throughout the book, he emphasizes that what we must most ardently affirm is being ourselves without domination by language. As Agamben puts it, “whatever singularity…wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging” (Ibid., 87).

Something similar, though less extreme, follows from Classical American Pragmatism. The focus on pre-linguistic meaning frees up our experience from its dependence upon pre-arranged, programmed, determined systems of meaning. It teaches us to attend more fully to the pattern of life underneath – the tensions and resolutions that frame our immediate encounters with reality. The pragmatists, to be sure, would say this entails a form of democracy, not anarchism. I confess I have reservations about Agamben’s politics, because I think whatever singularities are compatible with authentic forms of social control. It seems clear, in any case, that several important thinkers have shown us that there are grounds for acknowledging pure experience; and that if we do acknowledge it, this means that the experience of life – lived and felt before language – will take on primacy for us. We will then find ourselves at home in our own life, and accept no false substitutes for it in the form of words and narratives borrowed from others.

Here, at any rate, with a single idea, we have a good deal of American Philosophy in germ: the self-sufficiency of the actual. American Philosophers like James and Dewey are encouraging us to acknowledge the primacy of each actual experience, just as we live it, prior to its complete assimilation into abstract categories. “Action,” as Dewey reminds us, “is always specific, concrete, individualized, unique” (Dewey, 1982, 175). This belief in the irreplaceable meaning of each action and experience is equivalent to a belief in the legitimacy of each person to count as meaningful, to be represented, or, in grander terms, for each person to be permitted to form a part of what reality itself becomes, without oppressive external control. A belief in pre-linguistic meaning is a belief in democracy.7 I have tried in this paper to give some reasons for thinking that this belief is not ill founded.


1 Richard Rorty is a special case, in that he holds that we can create our own selves through language. For the purposes of this essay, however, I will primarily consider (and defend) the Classical Pragmatist response to these issues involving language. (Rorty, 12-13). For an excellent account of pre-linguistic meaning that also draws on James and Dewey, and to which I am indebted for helping me to think about pragmatism in relation to language, see the work of Mark Johnson, especially (Johnson, 2007).

2 The author in question is W. H. Hudson, “Idle Days in Patagonin,” as quoted by Lotze, in “Microcosmus, English Translation, Vol. II, 240,” as cited by James (James, 2000, 282).

3 Apparently, Sartwell diverges from the pragmatist conception at this point, since he holds that these silent meanings exist for their own sake, whereas the pragmatist would assign them an instrumental function. Such a view would be mistaken, however, since pragmatists fully believe in the existence of “consummatory experiences,” as Dewey calls them, in which experience achieves “a fulfillment that reaches to the depths of our being.” See (Dewey, 1987, 23).

4 I am indebted to Marion Zohar for this important objection.

5 James saw clearly that it was our desire to distance ourselves from animals that led people to inflate the significance of their powers of abstraction. (See James, 1996b, 53-54).

6 Agamben is clear, however, that he does not mean to say that this experience is purely subjective.

7 As James sums up the results of his philosophy, the world he envisions is “more like a federal republic than an empire or a kingdom. However much be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity” (James, 1996a, 321-322).

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