Language and experience

The reason that Joyce considered Vico’s new science so important for his own linguistic probes, was that Vico was the first to point out that a total history of human culture and sensibility is embedded in the changing structural forms of language. (McLuhan to Robert Leuver, Jul 30, 1969, Letters 384; also, Medium and the Light 89)

McLuhan took it, along with a long tradition, that language is what distinguishes human beings from other beings. It followed that if we want to know what human being is, we must learn what language is. But if language and human experience were interrelated from the start (“the first stage of apprehension is already poetic” as McLuhan wrote Pound, Letters 229), the analysis of experience as an analogous mode of investigation to linguistic analysis lay close at hand.

Now the exercise of language may be analyzed as presupposing choices among available ‘contesting’ sounds and grammatical markers.  But these ‘choices’ are, of course, neither conscious, in the main, nor situated in normal time and space.  When we speak, these choices have always already been made.

McLuhan studied human experience in a comparable way:

it is impossible that there could ever be a scientific concept that is not embedded in the vernacular tongue of the scientist, and that has not been embedded there for many centuries. You cannot conceive a form of scientific hypothesis which is not part of your own language, implicit in that language. All the mathematics in the world are externalizations of certain linguistic patterns. What the poets were saying — now more widely appreciated — was that the language itself embodies the greatest body of scientific intuition possible. The proportionalities in things, and between things and our senses, and so embodied in language itself, are inexhaustible. The particular technology of a time releases some of that inexhaustible store of analogical intuition and experience which IS language. So television releases within language a whole body of resources which has been bound up there for centuries. But this does not depend upon concepts. It has to do with sensibility and observation — analogical perception, right in the structure of language itself.1

  1. Communications and the Word of God’, Address at St. Michael’s College, August 1959, 
    in the Medium and the Light, 33-44.