Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Man is the Animal that Speaks

   (I do not care to contend that language is exclusive to human beings, nor do I want to argue for any particular physical form that a human being must take. I wish to use this particular definition of man from Aristotle as an experimental starting point.)

   Certainly there is communication in many diverse ways in the animal kingdom, and humans certainly have their own unique sort of communication, but if we treat speaking as something special to man, then it cannot simply mean any generic communication. A compelling suggestion I have encountered in the past involves poetry.  In class, Professor Michael Gelven would reply to claims that animals speak by asking: "Where is the animal Shakespeare?" While this suggestion is powerful, I wish to take a different route that may be able to provide a better basis for grappling with Gelven some time in the future.
   Briefly: speech reveals in a way that is only possible between 'human beings'. Allow this seeming assertion to stand as rather a starting point for exposition. This claim is grounded in how things (conceived broadly) are revealed to any individual human in a certain way (how we 'see' them). This claim involves how, in speech, this common way things are revealed is assumed as at least possible in all parties participating.
   Animals certainly see (visually speaking) things that we see, and whether or not they 'see' (broadly) them in the same way as we do is indeterminate. However, when we speak, or do not speak, to certain things, then we find out just what we think are possible for those them. Things that we speak with as if they are of a kind with ourselves I will term 'human beings'.
   (I do not wish to raise the question of how to 'identify a human being' here. Sometimes we may speak to an animal, e.g. a pet dog, as if they are 'human beings'. This is not taken to be a refutation of the above, but rather to extend the term 'human being' to those things at those times. However, usually we find large differences in our 'talks' with animals and inanimate objects. For example, we do not expect a reply; in fact, we would be quite shocked, scared or confused by a reply from the chair we just stubbed our toe on, or our pet goldfish in response to being fed.)
   In using the word 'revealing' as what grounds our speech, I mean to refer to the Greek word that we translate as 'truth': ἀλήθεια (alethia). (A-lethia is literally 'un-hiding', and is the privative of lethe (λήθη) which means 'oblivion'.) In speech, man sets about a different kind of revealing; a sort of indirect sharing of what is revealed. The one who encounters the speech as speech understands it in its character of revealing indirectly, even if what is revealed is unclear. Because things are directly revealed to each 'human being' in the same way (problematically), the same possibilities of speech's revealing are opened up between any 'human being'. In this way, humans speak in a way that uniquely identifies them as equals: equals in their access to what is revealed, through an indirect revealing.
   Truly - or I should say - it is revealed, or manifest to us that if we are equals with something else, the most important way is through our capacity to share the revealed (I do not mean revelation), and this is done through speech.
   From here, we can afford a moment to turn a glance back to Gelven's suggestion which I will put in the following manner: man is the animal with poetry. How should this be interpreted? Is it that 'poetry' is a better name for what I have called 'speaking'? Is this definition more fundamental than 'man is the animal that speaks'? What sort of thing does poetry reveal? Can we gleam anything in Gelven's knowing speech from the relationship of 'poetry' to its origin in Greek (ποιέω)?

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