The Riddle of the Self
MAN AND HIS THOUGHT
The time has now come to bring language in the ordinary sense of the word-as a system of sound signalling in the process of people’s practical collective activities – into the foreground of the history of consciousness. I have kept it in the wings up to now not because it arose and developed after human relations had taken shape in the process of labour and the means of the language of real life providing for human intercourse had exhausted their communicative functions. This was not what happened. The historical development of the spoken language proceeded, as it was bound to proceed, in step with the development of the collective process of labour, exerting a massive influence on the organisation of social relations and the formation of man’s inner world.
The study of language has yielded a fairly orderly picture of the claims made on any symbol system. Language is a system of symbols that are arbitrary in the sense that their material nature does not express the content of the information they carry. Even a system of traffic signs will serve us as an example. What are its characteristic features? First of all, it consists of a certain number of symbols. The symbols are chosen quite arbitrarily or rather without any direct relation to the tasks the system has to perform. The lights of the signal can be in different positions or their Red, Amber and Green can be changed for other colours. The simple fact that an automatic traffic signal can be replaced by a traffic policeman tells us that the actual material of the symbol does not affect its meaning.
The second no less important feature of a symbol system is the use of symbols in accordance with certain definite rules. It could not perform its function of communication and guidance without them. All three lights are rendered useless if they all go on at once. Contradictory signals from the traffic policeman and the traffic light would lead to the same result, if it were not for the rule that any signal by a policeman cancels the signal of the traffic light.
And here we discover that the actual meaning of the symbol is determined by its use, by its rule-governed relation to other symbols of the system. Only the order in which the lights go on in relation to the conditions on the road gives Red, Green and Amber their respective meanings. Of course some road signs do bear a resemblance to certain phenomena or objects, but the person unfamiliar with the highway code would scarcely be able to guess, for instance, the meaning of a wavy line on a red-bordered triangle.
The symbols themselves without the system have no meaning. And the meaning of the system exists not only in the system but also for the system. It is a function of the symbol in the given system. And since human language is a symbol system, all the above-mentioned principles apply to it.
But wait a minute, the reader may retort. What you are saying implies that the meanings of words exist only within and for a linguistic system, that they are determined not by the objective world but by the rules of grammar, or, in other words, that they are purely arbitrary and subjective and do not reflect the world as it is.
To be sure, the assertion that language is an ordinary symbol system does seem to put us in rather a difficult position. Symbols have to be arbitrary and their material should not be associated with the message they are supposed to convey. All right, then, that is understood. Words, their phonetic envelopes cannot, in fact, claim to reproduce any of the objective attributes of things or objects. It is equally certain that the use of the media of linguistic intercourse is regulated by certain rules. Violation of the rules robs the linguistic symbols of their meaning. The rules themselves are not arbitrary and cannot be broken without detriment to the meaning of the idea that is to be conveyed. On the contrary, a person often feels the objective power of language: the demands that its rules make on speech unexpectedly distort the meaning of what is said if a sentence is constructed carelessly or hurriedly. “That’s not what I meant to say!” the speaker hastens to correct himself. The linguistic form, organised according to certain rules produces an unwanted meaning.
A linguistic symbol becomes a meaningful word only in a linguistic system with all its specific rules and principles. Such objections as “but you will understand what I mean if I simply say ‘table’ or ‘cat’” are based on a misunderstanding. The person who does not know English will not understand anything from these words. A whole system of language is implied in even one word. The sound combination “cat” does not fall on a clean slate of consciousness, but on soil that is constantly in readiness for perception – a functioning system of linguistic relations and associations. We are simply not aware of our readiness, of how the whole linguistic system at our disposal swings into action and determines the meaning of the signal. The driver who brakes suddenly when the traffic lights go red does not give a thought to the fact that the whole objective traffic system is responsible for his understanding. What would his reaction be if a red light in exactly the same shape suddenly went on on his bench or in his office? Surprise, complete bewilderment. And he would probably never think of traffic lights or the highway code, because the situation would be so different. So the whole system of symbols called language participates in the understanding of one word.
When we speak, write or read, our attention is concentrated on our aim, on the logic of thought, on its content, on the answers we receive, on semantic associations and so on, and we are seldom, if ever, aware of the work of our mental “muscles”. The material side of language – physical movements involving the articulatory apparatus and so on – becomes an inwardly experienced mental state but is rarely conscious. But at the same time the organism’s reaction to the meanings of linguistic symbols must also become an inner mental state. This is the only explanation for the fact that the one thing to emerge from our automatic speech movements is our attitude to the basic message spoken. Everything would be quite clear if the sound, the phonetic envelope of the word itself meant something to us, if its material structure carried its meaning.
But most linguists regard the link between sound and meaning as unmotivated, accidental, and in a sense arbitrary. For those who believe that a word is the name of a thing, and that the meaning of a word is a thing that has been understood in a certain way, such a solution to the question of the link between sign and meaning is natural enough. A word is a symbol of a thing, its accidental but socially established name. So far so good. We join the nominalists in saying that the nature of the sound cannot in principle repeat, reflect the diversity of qualities in the thing that we are capable of conceiving. The connection between sound and meaning is totally unmotivated and cannot be motivated. Here the law of the symbol system comes into operation. To fulfil its semantic function the symbol must be unlike the thing whose meaning it represents. In Capital Marx wrote:
“The name of a thing is something distinct from the qualities of that thing. I know nothing of a man, by knowing that his name is Jacob.”
The animal organism’s sensitive reaction to materialised, objectified meaning is quite understandable. The “Situational intellect” of the higher animals is a clear example of how keenly their organisms sense the thing’s biological purpose. The reaction of the human organism to the social meaning of a thing, object, and so on, also evokes no surprise because this meaning has been put there by human hands and become its material structure. Here too the mastery of an object is also mastery of its meaning. But what do we get out of mastering the symbol-word whose material structure means nothing to us?
Someone will probably object that “accidental” symbol bearing no resemblance to the object is firmly connected by a physiological mechanism of temporary neural link with – with what? Some say, with the object. We would say, with the meaning of the object revealed in the process of people’s material activity. But neither explanation makes matters any easier. If we are talking about the direct link between the symbol and the object there can in psychological terms be only an association between name and external appearance. We have already demonstrated that this hypothesis is untenable from the scientific point of view. As regards the link between the symbol and the meaning of the object, the position is even more difficult. A temporary nerve connection, as a physiological process, can link only various forms of physiological activity of the organism. The movement of the speech organs required for articulation of the word “axe” may, by association with the repeated action of felling, evoke a certain sense of muscle fatigue. At first glance, this example seems to explain something, but only at first glance.
The majority of words in our language tell us about objects, processes and phenomena whose meanings could not in principle be comprehended by any movements on the part of the individual, but have been revealed in the social process of abstract logical (i.e., linguistic) analysis and can have no other motor “representatives” in the human body apart from certain habits of the speech organs. So it works out that understanding of the meaning of a symbol comes about when by one movement of the articulatory organs we evoke the necessary consequent movement of the speech organs. Indeed, the only means by which something can be explained to a grown-up person is by explaining it in words. A certain physiological movement of the speech organs evokes by association yet another movement and a word is articulated. One word explains another; it also explains the purpose of an object that is unfamiliar to us. And in this movement the actual meanings of things must be also mastered, assimilated along with the specific features of the acoustic waves. The sound itself must possess meaning, otherwise the real life of language simply cannot be explained. In which case there would appear to be no alternative but to refuse to acknowledge that the link between the sound, the phonetic envelope of the word and its meaning is unmotivated and accidental. The sound of a word, the acoustic air waves must be firmly linked with its meaning, just as structure and practical purpose are linked in an instrument or an object of labour.
But can the phonetic envelope of a word be closely connected with its meaning? Let us turn to modern linguistics for advice. Arguing that the attributes of a phonetic system cannot be extended to the structure of language, V. A. Zvegintsev stresses that, as distinct from a symbol, “the phonetic envelope of a word is inseparable from its semantic content...” This a point that is of exceptional importance to us.
The phonetic envelope of a word is inseparable from its semantic content. But one must beware of understanding the content of a word as the object or thing itself, or the relation of things – in short, the phenomena of objective reality that are apparently designated by the symbol-word. The content of a word is its meaning, its function in any given linguistic structure, that is, its lexical meaning. The lexical meaning is very closely connected with the sound, the phonetic envelope, and within the framework of the given linguistic system such a connection is perfectly well motivated.
An episode from an essay by Daniil Granin will help to explain this point. A writer in the Altai Mountains learns about a process for utilising the antlers of mountain deer. He talks to the workers involved and notes the apt professional expressions they use. The room where they dry the antlers, for example, is a “vetrovaya” (literally “wind-room”); its walls are like Venetian blinds, allowing the wind free play from all sides. Something united the ideas of wind and building in one word and Granin writes: “Only labour, work, in which the essence of things is revealed, in which a word is shaped and polished by everyday necessity, only labour could find just the right name, create a new word perfectly akin and comprehensible to language.”
Well said! It is profoundly and philosophically true that the essence of a thing is revealed precisely in the process of acquiring practical mastery over it, and that words are “shaped by everyday necessity.” But another fact is also noted with subtle precision. The word “Yetrovaya” actually does unite wind and building (the adjectival ending suggests the idea of “room” as in many other words built on the same pattern) in a way that is immediately understandable.
Now we should find the thinking of the linguist easier to follow. V. A. Zvegintsev writes: “A word’s phonetic envelope is built not out of arbitrary sounds but from the sounds of a definite language that form its phonological system and are therefore in a certain relationship to each other and to other structural elements of the language. They carry a firmly established functional meaning, thanks to which the Russian “t” and the German “t” or the German “a” and the Russian “a”, even if they are articulated in exactly the same way, cannot be regarded as identical phonemes ... This peculiarity of phonemes, often interpreted as their discriminatory function, cannot fail to influence the formation in each specific language of words with a definite sound pattern. Moreover, we must take into account the fact that the word’s phonetic envelope is not a monolithic or homogeneous formation for us. We can identify in it the various sound units which we define as separate components of a word (root, base, ending, etc.), and which at least in part (prefix, suffix, inflection) have a strictly conditioned phonetic form. And this determines from a new angle the dependence between the phonetic envelope of a word and its lexical meaning since, depending on the character of this meaning (its belonging to the noun or verb categories) the word may acquire as inflexions, prefixes, or suffixes (in inflected and agglutinative language) strictly conditioned sound units.
“Compare such examples as the Russian motovstvo (squandering), motovstvom (by squandering), and motat', (to squander continuously) and motanut (squander once). And correspondingly in Uzbek: kitob-lar-ingiz-da (in your books), and daftar-lar-ingiz-da (in your notebooks), and so on.” Noting that this applies not only to derivatives, but also to their roots, V. A. Zvegintsev continues: “It is worth recalling what B. Delbruck wrote on this point: ‘It seems to me that as a result of the studies made to date the basic proposition has been established that concepts slowly and with difficulty develop together with the sounds of words and with their help, and are not formed in man independently of language and only then clothed in a verbal envelope. Further research by linguists and especially psychologists, far from shaking this proposition, has tended to fortify it.”
So once again we are compelled to answer yes and no. No, we say, the phonetic envelope does not reflect, does not “copy” the actual attributes of the object. If we try to avoid treating language as an integral whole and correlate the sound of a word directly with the attributes of the object we find they have nothing in common. So the name is arbitrarily, accidentally, unmotivatedly linked with what it names. On the other hand, we also say, yes, the meaning of the word is always in its external, phonetic envelope, is inseparably linked with it, and certain sounds in a given language always perform a certain lexical function. The whole point is that the lexical function of the sound is not the direct reflection of the object. For simplicity’s sake we shall follow Zvegintsev’s example and, leaving aside the question of roots (the question is similarly solved, but too complex to be taken as an illustration), illustrate our point with a suffix or prefix. Take the prefix “pri”. It obviously plays an auxiliary role in the language and only acquires a meaning of its own in combination with the root of a word. Or take the suffix “oehk”. Although both “pri” and “oehk” have a lexical meaning that is peculiar to them as sound combinations, they become related to reality, to objects and thereby become understandable only in connection with a word, in connection with the operating structure of the language.
In the orderly, necessary connections entered into by the sounds of language, this or that combination of sounds lives with the support of the whole phonetic and lexical structure of the language. One can understand each separate word only by an instantaneous and unapparent recreation of the whole system of sounds in the language and their auxiliary functions. Even when we seem to be relating the word directly to the object, the word does not so much designate the object as express its practically realised essence through the whole system of the language. It is not the word-name but the structure of the language that preserves the whole system of human practical actions with objects, actions in which objects speak for themselves, with their own voices. It is the structure of the language that reproduces the structure of the actual life of society.
The “language” of objects, things and practical actions, the “language of real life”, which brings people together and guides their efforts to attain a common goal, has objectified the purpose of every object in its structure, in its “substance”. Only the person who acts practically, who first in movement, in the life-activity of his organism, copies the substantial properties of a thing and, secondly, organises his behaviour accordingly, coordinates it with the actions of other people and together with them uses the object for its proper purpose can really understand this “objective meaning”, understand why this or that social object is needed. This is the first and extremely important aspect of the complex objective reality that we call society and that the individual is obliged to assimilate (even if at first it only presents itself to him as articles of household use). The second (no less important) aspect of material social being is the complex of sound (and other) signalling media by which people communicate.
Language confronts us as an objective reality that each of us must assimilate through movement of his speech organs and purposeful practical action performed together with other people. So by assimilating in living forms of intercourse the phonetic structure of the given language the individual assimilates also the modes of intercourse imparting universal meaning to its elements, while at the same time constantly correlating his actions with the communicative function of words, with the actions of other people, and with the objects of their actions. It remains for us to explain why we understand this or that sound of a word or part of a word as something intrinsic not in the sound itself but in the phenomena of the objective world. Now we have only a little way to go. But this is the most important part of our journey.
Yes, we can allow that the sound combination “ochk” has its own inherent function in the language – affectionate diminutive. And I assimilate that function as I assimilate the sound. But my affection is evoked not by the combination of sounds, but by an objectively existing person of whom I am fond. When I am talking about something I am not merely aware of the need to link a word that has one sound with a word that has another sound. In fact, I do not think about the functions of the sounds in the language at all. I think about things, objects. Can the lexical meaning of a sound combination be at the same time the meaning of the object itself existing outside me?
Here I must warn the reader against an extremely widespread error. The warning may come as something of a digression from the answer to the question I have just posed, but it is quite justified from the standpoint of methodology, if not of method.
The warning is that it is quite impossible to answer our question if we repeat Bertrand Russell’s error, even unconsciously. The personal and the impersonal in human cognition and consciousness must not be separated and opposed. Can we, following Russell, regard a symbol system regulating human intercourse as a social system? We now know that if the question is put in that way the answer may be both yes and no. If we give preference to only one answer, namely the one chosen by Russell – language is a purely social phenomenon – then we are faced with a series of insoluble problems.
Analysis of the integral laws of a language system may create the impression that the question of how the individual understands the meanings of words has been solved. It may appear that the main thing, our Something – meaning and how it is formed – has been found. But meaning must mean something for someone. If it is the linguistic system, social in origin and essence, that creates the meanings of its symbols, the individual is not a part of the system, he merely uses the readymade meanings of words. But how does he understand them? – that’s the question. When formally analysed, language hangs in the air, as it were, is deprived of its roots and becomes an independent object of research; the individual, whose tongue makes language a living thing, is pushed into the background and forgotten.
Everybody realises, of course, that language is used by individuals. But language itself, so the argument runs, comes to him ready-made, with all the lexical meanings of words. He has only to take it and use it as a ready-made commodity. The owner of the commodity does not create its value. He only buys and sells the commodity. So it would appear that in order to understand what value is, one should first of all study how commodities are exchanged. And this is when an impression is created that is very difficult to dispel, the impression that the commodity itself contains its own value. The roots of commodity fetishism were revealed by the author of Capital. Marx showed that behind the relations between commodities lie the relations between people and that it is man himself by his labour who creates value. A similar, linguistic fetishism arises when the relative independence of language is absolutised.
If we put a period after the expression, “A linguistic system itself determines the meanings of its symbols,” the people who use that language will appear to us as “buyers”, “sellers” and “consumers” of the “value” of the symbols, while the “value” itself (the meaning of the symbols) turns out to be the natural result of word exchange. People receive directly “from the language” ready-made thoughts and treat each other affectionately as and when the language demands the use of the suffix “oehk”. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but one that clearly underlines the philosophical conclusion to be drawn from theory that falls under the spell of “linguistic fetishism”.
One can scarcely accept the notion of the unity of word and thought in which thought is regarded simply as a function of language, expressing nothing but the laws of the given symbol system. The fact is that the meanings of words play the leading role in the building of sentences. If we study language as an independently existing symbol system in which the meanings of the symbols are determined by the rules for their use in the system, we are compelled either to totally ignore the above fact or seek its explanation in something beyond the given symbol system. When we are dealing with artificial languages, the answer is quite simple: the system is always based on the language of everyday life. Linguistic thinking does the rest, defines the rules, selects the symbols and attaches to each a specific meaning. The very existence of such a structure is founded on our ability to think, as is the category of “meaning”. The function of the symbol in an artificial language becomes a meaning only for the person who is equipped to understand it.
Contemporary empiricism, which has taken the form of “logical empiricism” and studies the methodology and logical principles of the structure of scientific knowledge (“language of science”), was forced to consider the question of what the language of science is based on. Rudolf Carnap, a leading exponent of this school of philosophy, wrote of the “primary” language determining the principles on which the language of science is built as being the everyday thing language. “Once we have accepted the thing language with its framework for things, we can raise and answer internal questions, e. g., ‘Is there a white piece of paper on my desk?’, ‘Did King Arthur actually live?’ ‘Are unicorns and centaurs real or merely imaginary?’, and the like. These questions are to be answered by empirical investigations. Results of observations are evaluated according to certain rules as confirming or disconfirming evidence for possible answers ... The concept of reality occurring in these internal questions is an empirical, scientific, non-metaphysical concept. To recognise something as a real thing or event means to succeed in incorporating it into the system of things at a particular space-time position so that it fits together with the other things recognised as real, according to the rules of the framework.
“From these questions we must distinguish the external question of the reality of the thing world itself. In contrast to the former questions, this question is raised neither by the man in the street nor by scientists, but only by philosophers. Realists give an affirmative answer, subjective idealists a negative one, and the controversy goes on for centuries without ever being solved. And it cannot be solved because it is framed in the wrong way. To be real in the scientific sense means to be an element of the system; hence this concept cannot be meaningfully applied to the system itself.” Consequently the thing language is just another symbol system. To be a scientist (or simply a clear-thinking person and not a philosopher) means solving certain problems with the help of such a language and not going beyond its framework, in which case it proves effective for most ordinary purposes. And in principle the thing language is no better and no worse than any other symbol system.
But why exactly should it be the basis for the construction of the framework of a scientific language? For Carnap it had become obvious that the original conception of logical empiricism (neo-positivism) of so-called empirical data, understood as the elementary, subjective states of the individual in the process of sensuous contact with reality and supposedly forming the foundation of all constructions of science, yielded nothing new in comparison with the classical empiricism of subjective idealism. The whole magnificent super-structure of scientific knowledge built on the principle of the logical reducibility of the statements of scientific language to the empirically given, the sensuously perceived, was robbed of all objective value because knowledge could not escape from subjective experiences, could not be correlated with anything but our own sensations. Carnap saw that all the contradictions of the old empiricism had been inherited by the new, and that the epistemological conclusions drawn from the new theory had not moved a single step forward from Berkeley, Mach and other subjective idealists of the past. And it is to solve the insoluble, to escape from the impasse of solipsism that Carnap abandons the rotten foundation of individual sense perceptions acquired by experience and introduces the so-called “thing language”.
But the thing language suffers the same fate as any other symbol system in being faced with the question of the principles on which the symbols and the rules of constructing the framework are selected. The thing language, that is, our statements about what we experience as facts of immediate perception, can be selected and constructed only by someone or some people who already know how to select, compare, think, that is to say, someone who already possesses a symbol system with meaningful symbols enabling him to choose and judge. Perhaps the language of objectively existing things is such a primary language? But from Carnap’s standpoint, we should then be going outside the accepted system and be talking about purely metaphysical, unscientific, philosophical matters. The only thing left is the “language” of our sensation and “Berkeleian repetition”. No other way out presents itself. So the opposing of the social to the individual, on the one hand, makes language into an impersonal construction that we learn to use as something external to ourselves, as an auxiliary, and, on the other, reduces knowledge and the ability to understand the meaning of language to the purely individual sensuous experience that we have in common with the animals. This is the result of repeating Russell’s mistake.
But how are we to deal with our question? Why do we think not with the meanings of the symbols in a given system but, as it were, with the things themselves, objects, phenomena, stripped of their flesh and represented only by their pure essence?
I think we must return once again to the way in which people master the practical purposes of the objects and instruments of labour. So far we have stressed only one side. By mastering any action with an object, its material structure, the individual learns its purpose, its aim and essence. Is that so? In principle, yes. But in the practical use of things the individual’s sense organs master only their external attributes. But the socio-practical purpose of a thing (and this alone expresses its essence) is mastered in special collective (although simultaneously individual) action that brings people together as a social group. Under the pressure of the labour social situation (and of the construction of the instruments and the objects of labour) the behaviour of each participant becomes purposeful, and the stereotype nature of their behaviour, the habits, skills of their social labour establishes not the external appearance but the essence of the object that is inseparably connected with it, its objective meaning for practice.
If in analysing the question of people’s mastering the practical objective purpose of a thing we stand by the same principles of investigation as in the above argument on the mastering of the meaning of a word, there is still no answer to the question: how does a person master the essence of a thing if in the motion of his sense organs he reproduces only its external appearance? Sensuous-practical activity is not only sensuous. At the same time it is also practical, social activity. And only as an indissoluble unity of the sensuous and the practical, the individual and the social does the mastery of the purpose of an object become the personal mental state of an individual, his personal operations with a given object.
Now we can return to language. The lexical meaning of a word is always learned and used by the individual only in the process of learning and using its material, sound envelope. This is why in a language system the meaning of a word is inseparable from its sound and motivated by it. Using the sound of a word means pursuing a certain aim with the help of the given word, the given combination of sounds, together with other people. Only in purposeful social action does the use of the sound as a symbol give it a definite meaning connected with the action and its aim. So even now when we study the language of a people the sound envelopes of its words, learned without relation to their functions of bringing people together for this or that action mean nothing to us.
Everything that people have done billions of times with a given thing, everything that it could give people in their actions, has become the assimilated flesh and blood of the word – its sound, its ability to combine organically with other words of the given language. The social function of a word is thus objectified in its sound. And it is now the sound that determines its linguistic function, that is, its function of guiding relations between people and people’s relations to things.
This is why the sound combination appears in the language and is related to its whole structure in such a way as to bring to the fore the purposeful relation between people, that is, what they are using the object for. And vice versa. The linguistic framework of quite natural rules of the interaction of words regulating and determining the behaviour and actions of individuals in the objective world according to the objective essence of the objects themselves endows every word, every sound combination with the function of a symbol indicating the necessity or possibility of this or that action with a given object-sound combination becomes an object, whose objective, social meaning consists ill organising people’s actions ill the way demanded by the essence of things themselves.
So the linguistic lexical meaning of a word is in the final analysis the social purpose of its sound envelope, its social function, that for the sake of which the word is uttered – its indication of the goal, character and necessity of a certain action. In the simplest, early forms of language the meaning of this or that sound combination consisted in guiding and regulating practical actions directly related to objects. Today a word may tell us not only to use the essences of things directly, but also to perform actions that are not directly connected with the world of objects. it may tell us to solve a problem in our heads, that is, to operate only with words themselves, to regard them as external facts, to analyse the objective logic of their relationship, in short, to perform actions with words that are dictated by their meanings. In this context a word evokes not a behavioural action of the organism, but another word.
So having merely glanced at an object and seen in it a familiar word, we are able through its lexical meaning (and thus through the whole social system of the language) to recall instantly the actual purpose of the object, its objective essence, what it is useful for, what it represents, and so on.
We relate to the world with knowledge of the purposes, of the objective functions of its objects because each of us has a fluent command of the language of society and is constantly relating the linguistic, lexical meanings of words to his own actions. And the lexical meaning itself does not exist except as a call to purposeful action (whether as an action with things or words). But it is not in formal operations with the sound combinations of a language but in constantly relating them to the world of our, and not only our feelings, ideas and actions that their lexical functions are revealed and exist. It is only in abstract analysis of the “exchange” of words one for another that this lexical function appears to be a purely linguistic thing existing in and for the language. But the real life of language is primarily in collective real life, in people’s actions, aspirations, behaviour. In reality the “value” (meaning) of a word’s sound envelope is created in the concrete social use of it by an individual, in the concrete “labour” (with or without quotation marks) of individuals that is needed for the achievement of a certain social goal.
Here is the answer, then, to the question of which language determines the linguistic framework of the thing language. It is the language of socially necessary actions mastered by people in their work together and comprising various sound combinations calling for action and indicating the need to use certain skills. So the language of a people is not merely a symbol system. Besides symbol-words it encompasses also the objective purposes of things, reflected in collective, practical actions and our notions, representations of such actions. The individual’s concrete social activity determines the “consumer value” of words, that is, their meaning, aim and purpose. A word’s “consumer value” (that for the sake of which it is uttered) is realised in the process of speech (internal or external). But the meaning of a word in general, its place in the social language, its “barter value” is revealed by its relation to another word. Man’s social and uniquely individual life is part of the system of language and language itself is constantly a most essential part of human existence.
Why do we understand the meaning and purpose of words? It is impossible to reply to this question in abstraction from the purely intimate, personal motivation of sensuous-practical action. But it is equally impossible to understand the personal, intimate motives of purposeful actions without answering the question of why we understand the meaning and purpose of words. Surely, we have not been trapped in a vicious circle? No, only the person who thinks entirely in terms of opposites without being able to see their unity will fail to notice the dialectical unity that lies beyond the difference between the individual and social moments in the life of language.
It is impossible to live in society and be free of society if only because literally every move a person makes is connected with objects created by society, with objects whose very structure organises and guides human actions. And almost every human movement is communicative,geared to the purposeful behaviour of other people. Stereotype life patterns are formed in people from birth by other people, by society. And they are formed in such a way that needs, desires, urges are always mediated by objects and concerted, collective actions. Even the satisfaction of natural needs (the need for food, say) is organised as a social action, the ritual of which involves objects created by society and therefore becomes possible only on the basis of the social division of labour in the process of the production of food and the instruments required for eating: plates, spoons, forks, chairs, tables, and so on.
From earliest childhood people have to discover the purpose of things and understand the dictates of situation through the actions of other people, or to be more exact in interaction with other people directed towards a certain goal. Moreover we come to realise that success in such interaction is achieved with the aid of certain sound combinations.
So precisely intercourse, with its object “language”, mediates man’s relation to the objects of his life-activity and forms the foundation whose development shapes (perfects) both the capacity for goal-setting and, which is basically the same thing, the ability to see creatively in nature that which nature itself is not capable of but which does not contradict its possibilities. The slow and gradual development of the forms of intercourse and activity led to the division of the objective means of intercourse and activity into relatively independent systems of means of intercourse and a base “system” (arsenal) directed upon nature. (Moreover, both systems retained their communicative functions. Marx emphasised more than once that people’s mode of action is at the same time the means by which they interact).
But at the very “beginning” the means of activity and intercourse objectifying people’s mode of interaction included both actions and supplementary gestures and shouts. The latter arose through the bringing into play of the articultory organs developed by the cries of wild animals. Admittedly, for this to happen the species-specific sound “signals” had to be restricted (although even today a person may literally bowl with pain, scream in terror, and so on, but even these atavistic modes of sound signalling about mental states have changed immensely, no matter how far away on the periphery of speech they may be). The sonic aids to the “language of real life” that developed in people’s joint activity undertook communicative functions. Even today, when they are no longer aids but component elements of the organic language system, that is when language has become a special, relatively independent system of means of intercourse, integrally preserving all the historically arising forms and modes of human intercourse, they form part of the integral relation of the objectified means of human intercourse. Language does not exist as language outside living, objective-sensuous intercourse between individuals. Even if a language has retained some generally significant means of establishing its “elements”, or, to put it more simply, if some texts have been preserved that were written in this language (even decoded, that is, translated into a modern language) we still call it a dead language. A language can live only when all the means of people’s objective activity, all the historically evolved objects of culture become in it and through it means of living intercourse between people and the individual’s internal communion with himself.
Language is an organ of human life-activity. No, that is not a slip of the tongue. I said life-activity because outside the historically shaped forms of intercourse a person cannot remain physically alive (the rare exceptions, when children were fostered by animals, only confirm the rule) and, secondly, the goal-setting function of language (linguistic thinking) provides man with the main inner motive (impulse) of all his actions.
Language is indeed an organ or, which is the same time, a part of an organic whole, of active human intercourse developing in time. The part is determined by the whole which creates the organs that are lacking for complete, full-blooded concrete historical realisation of the whole. Language develops along with the development of the whole wealth of human activity and intercourse. So language cannot be opposed (correlated, etc.) is something independent either of human culture in general or of any of its subdivisions. The culture of developing humanity in the specific forms of the culture of this or that people is fully expressed in the language of the given people, as in its own living mirror. Only when we abstract from the life of language and single out its objective signal-symbol substance for purposes of professional analysis are we concerned with language as a separate object and quite often, when doing so, we try to find the answer to the question: why does a word mean something? But it means nothing outside the “language of real life” outside the developing forms of living, active human intercourse.
The real life of language is, in fact, the real life of the individual in his constant communication with others and himself. Otherwise language is dead, it is only material, and its various states are a tape recording heard by no one.
Contents | Language and Consciousness