Monthly Archives: December 2018

Wakese 1: On the quintessential extraction of language

The style [of FW] is exploded blarney. (Wm Irwin Thompson)1

As cited in Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce, Stefan Zweig recalled a conversation in which Joyce said:

I’d like a language that is above all languages…2

Joyce may have had in mind that he wanted to write in a language which would be elevated “above all languages”, like a god above the world. For he continued his observation: “a language to which all will do service”. But if he played with the sense of an elevated language in the phrase “above all” —  perhaps referencing the logos tradition for which “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” — he also and mainly wanted to write in a language which was “above all languages” in the sense of being a language which was somehow also, and fundamentally, plural languages

I’d like a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service.

He imagined a language that would first of all be “languages” as expressing what it was that enabled any language — to be language. Hence, as he further continued the passage:

I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.3

The key problem here lay in the word ‘a’.  Against this, the language and tradition Joyce imagined would “above all”, first of all, be the essence of languages and traditions, plural.

Beckett put the point in reference to Work in Progress as follows:

This writing that you find so obscure is a quintessential extraction of language…4

The goal in Finnegans Wake was to write in a language which would expose the roots of all language(s), just as PIE (proto Indo-European) exposes the roots of its daughter languages from India to Ireland. Such a language would be made, dreamed up, as Volapük and Esperanto were, but it would not be rule-governed in their manner of transparently forming a kind of linguistic crystal palace. Instead it would be idiosyncratically particular and limitlessly associative in order to demonstrate the idiosyncratic particularity and limitless associativity of any and all language — which are somehow combined with a power to communicate.

It is just this combination of ineradicable particularity with communication that is the quintessence of language.

Thompson went on in his essay to opine that:

It is dubious whether [Joyce’s] symbolist technique compensates for the symbolic inadequacies of the work. The difficulty is that most of the references are not to experience (and therefore capable of exciting imaginative participation in the mind of the reader); they are [references] to other parts of the book, or to Joyce’s life.5

When an infant first learns to speak, or when humans first spoke, ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, what “experience” could elicit “imaginative participation in the mind” of the speaker? What could be present at all other than the inexplicable self-reference of the speaker, of the speaker’s language and, indeed, of the hearer’s understanding? And yet — language speaks. 

In this early essay,6 Thompson seems to have confused grad school hermeneutics with language.7 But these are far from the same thing. Language, all language, is somehow deeper than the idiosyncratic particularity, limitless associativity and ineluctable self-reference that characterize it. Unlimited in its outward and inward expansiveness, inevitably particular as regards the speaker, the hearer and the words between them, language yet communicates at such a deep level that it can be learned. Its communication can be communicated — even to babes in arms and to the rudest of rude savages, like you and me.

  1.  W. I. Thompson, ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, Sewanee Review, 72:1, 1964, 81.
  2.  Quoted in Thompson, ibid, 73, from Ellmann, 1959, 410. Joyce’s ambition to express himself in “a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service” was anticipated, somewhat, in a letter Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy on February 3, 1801: “what my heart within me burns to do, that is, to concentre my free mind to the affinities of the feelings with words and ideas under the title of ‘Concerning Poetry, and the nature of the Pleasures derived from it’. I have faith that I do understand the subject, and I am sure that if I write what I ought to do on it, the work would supersede all the books of metaphysics, and all the books of morals too.” I.A. Richards discussed this letter in Coleridge on Imagination, a book that was published in the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge to study with Richards in the Cambridge English school.
  3. Such constriction would be ‘anal-phabetic’ without, however, being ‘an-alphabetic’.
  4. ‘Dante…Bruno. Vico…Joyce’, in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, 1929.
  5. ‘The Language of Finnegans Wake‘, 86.
  6. Thompson’s essay appeared in The Sewanee Review in 1964, twenty years after McLuhan began publishing essays there in 1944.
  7. Thompson was studying at Cornell at this time.  He obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. there in 1964 and 1966.

Bohm on times

In March 1984 a conference was held at the Claremont Center for Process Studies on ‘Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time’. David Bohm’s reply to the papers of John Cobb and David Griffin treated time as times as follows:

the notion of an implicate order underlying [chronological] time is suggested by modern quantum mechanical field theory in several ways. In particular, the quantum mechanical behavior of the gravitational potential implies that neither the distinction between past and future nor that between cause and effect can be maintained unambiguously at distances as short as 10-33. So presumably there would be no objection to introducing “timelessness” at such short distances, since these may represent the shortest possible actual occasions. (…) Because of this, it is possible to establish a relationship between time and the timeless. (…) In this new approach, one no longer implies that the ordinary level of experience has no fundamental kind of significance, nor does one imply that the timeless or the eternal is the only basic reality. Rather, what is crucial is the relationship between the two. (In religious terms, this would be the relationship between what has been called the “secular” and what has been called the “sacred”.) The quantum theory as seen through the implicate order has given an important clue here, in that such a relationship is possible because [diachronic or chronological] explicate structures are seen to have [synchronic or ‘allatonce’] implicate counterparts. 
In establishing such a relationship, it is clear that eternity or the timeless should not be considered as [purely] absolute. Rather, one may think in terms of what may be called “relative eternity.” For example, a moment may have the quality of eternity and yet not cover the whole of reality in full detail. For example, it has been said that Mozart was able to perceive the whole of a composition in such a moment, which was then unfolded in time [first in its detailed composition and then in its performance] in all its detail. The proposal is that a similar relationship between time and the timeless may be universal and that we may see it in many areas of experience. Such a relationship may then be the very essence of what is to be meant by freedom and creativity.1


  1.  Physics and the Ultimate Significance of Time, ed David R Griffin, 1986, 174-175. For the implication of freedom and creativity with times see Bohm on percept and concept.

Heisenberg on possibility

In his 1958 lecture, ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’,1 Heisenberg traces the quantum physics doctrine of probability waves back to Aristotle:

the essence of matter [concerns] (…) the Greek philosophers’ old question of how it is possible to reduce to simple principles the motley and manifold phenomena surrounding matter and thus make [those phenomena]2 intelligible.3

the work of Bohr, [Hans] Kramers and [John Clarke] Slater contained the decisive concept, that the laws of nature determine not the occurrence of an event, but the probability that an event will take place, and that the probability must be related to a wave field that obeys a mathematically formulable wave equation.
This was a decisive step away from classical physics; basically a concept that played an important part in Aristotle’s philosophy was used. The probability waves of Bohr, Kramers and Slater can be interpreted as a quantitative formulation of the concept of “possibility” in Aristotle’s philosophy, Greek dynamis (potentia in the later Latin version).4 The concept that events are not determined in a peremptory manner, but that the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea or the image — this concept plays a decisive role in Aristotle’s philosophy. In modern quantum theory this concept takes on a new form; it is formulated quantitatively as probability and subjected to mathematically expressible laws of nature. The laws of nature formulated in mathematical terms no longer determine the phenomena themselves, but the possibility of happening, the probability that something will happen. (16-17)

  1. Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962, 9-28.
  2. Translation: ‘them’.
  3. The circularity implicated in this passage is highly important to note. The Aristotelian tradition maintained that the answer to the question, ‘how it is possible to reduce to simple principles the motley and manifold phenomena surrounding matter and thus make them intelligible’, was to appeal to the range of possibilities underlying those phenomena. But how is it possible to access possibilities without already having done so? without having activated that possibility from the range of available possibilities that first gives access to that range?
  4. The translation reads: “interpreted as a quantitative formulation of the concept of dynamis, “possibility”, or in the later Latin version, potentia, in Aristotle’s philosophy.”

Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’

In his PhD thesis from the early 1940’s, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, McLuhan formulated the notion of “an ancient quarrel” which had played out in European cultural history over the two millennia between classical Athens and the end of the Elizabethan era. This ‘quarrel’ was depicted as arising between the three disciplines of the trivium: rhetoric, grammar and dialectic. In his paper from 1945, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, McLuhan then extended this description over the succeeding 400 years into our own time.

McLuhan’s three ‘trivial’ types1 were isomorphic with materialism (rhetoric), idealism (dialectic) and the interplay of these two (grammar). And like materialism and idealism, McLuhan’s forms were treated as fundamental types of reality — as ontologies.

Werner Heisenberg described a similar “ancient quarrel” which had been reborn in contemporary quantum physics:2

our purpose [in quantum physics] today is to solve problems that have faced humanity for a very long time [such] that the theoretical work of our era is related to the efforts undertaken by mankind3 thousands of years ago. (9)

It is remarkable that this old question of materialism and idealism [and of “a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea”]4 has again been raised in a very definite form by modern atomic physics and particularly by the quantum theory. (12)

the possibility or “tendency” for an event to take place has a kind of reality — a certain intermediate layer of reality, halfway between the massive reality of matter and the intellectual reality of the idea (16)

the science of nature does not deal with nature itself but in fact with the science of nature as mankind thinks and describes itThis does not introduce an element of subjectivity into natural science. We do not by any means pretend that occurrences in the universe depend on our observations, but we point out that natural science stands between nature and mankind (20)

It seems to me fascinating to think that there is today a struggle in the most diverse countries of the world and with the most powerful means5 at the disposal of modern technology to solve together problems posed two and a half millennia ago by the Greek philosophers (27-28)

  1. See McLuhan’s ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953).
  2. The cited passages are all from ‘Die Plancksche Entdeckung und die philosophischen Probleme der Atomphysik’, lecture from the 13th conference of the Rencontres Internationales de Genève, September 4, 1958. Translation in On Modern Physics, 1962 as ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’.
  3. ‘Man’ in the translation of Heisenberg’s essay has been changed to ‘mankind’ throughout.
  4. See the next passage from p 16.
  5. Plato was clear in his depiction of the gigantomachia (Sophist 246-249) that the unending struggle of gigantic first principles in their gigantic differences with one another is the most gigantic of all disputes.

Ontology and physics

Machiavelli stands at the gate of the modern age, divorcing technique from social purpose. (The Mechanical Bride, 87)

The interrelation (or ratio) of ontology and physics may be imagined along a spectrum with the two as the extreme poles at its ends.  On one extreme, only ontology and no physics; at the other, only physics and no ontology. Along the spectrum between the two extremes towards its midpoint, the ratio of the two would represent decreasing exclusive emphasis until, at the midpoint, the two would be equally weighted. 

Between the extreme ontology end of the spectrum and its middle, the ratio between ontology and physics would always be weighted to ontology but, as the midpoint were approached, with decreasing relative importance accorded to ontology and increasing relative importance to physics . The physics side would exhibit the same configuration in reverse, with the ratio between the two always weighted to physics but tending to balance with ontology towards the middle of the spectrum.

Historically, it would seem that most societies have located themselves close to the ontology end of the range. Although it is probably impossible to have no inkling of physics (since a practical understanding of it is implicated in tasks like cooking), the overwhelming majority of societies have not attempted to develop a knowledge of physics independent of such practical activities and of their cultural tradition. In the history of mankind, the dominance of ontology over physics  has been by far the usual case.

Only in what is styled as ‘western civilization’ has the notion of a physics that would be independent of ontology taken root (from the seed of the ‘Greek miracle’) and then developed chiefly after Copernicus (1473–1543) and, not incidentally, his close contemporary, Luther (1483–1546). Copernicus himself (like many of his relatives) took orders in the church and may have been a priest (so the relative weight of ontology was preserved in his family and person).

With Galileo (1564-1642), a century later, and Newton (1642–1726)1, a century after that, the mutual implication of ontology and physics remained as something desirable, but not such that ontology was allowed to influence research in physics. Far rather, especially to be seen in Newton’s alchemy and religious writings, the hope was to develop or uncover a new formulation of ontology, using an analogous sort of scientific investigation to that of physics. Only gradually in the following two centuries did the notion arise that ontology was nothing but a hindrance to the proper discipline of science. What is called ‘the death of God’ is the sociological fact that all the tasks of life, and especially science, come to be practised with the explicit rejection of even the possibility of ontological input.

Now in the 21st century, this sociological and methodological fact appears to have led into a cul de sac. Problems at the individual and social level, exacerbated by discoveries in science, threaten to overwhelm civilization and even the biosphere itself.  And even in science, it may be that problems particularly in quantum physics cannot be solved absent a renewed consideration of ontology (dual genitive!).

Kurt Riezler (in Physics and Reality) and David Bohm with Basil Hiley (especially in The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory) have raised this possibility explicitly.  While their particular suggestions must of course be subject to rigorous testing, the idea that physics may be informed by ontology has a number of appeals.

In the first place, if humans were to have the possibility of ontological knowledge, physics (like any area of human life) could only gain by including input from it in its work. Werner Heisenberg has put the point as follows: “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles [= ontological principles] that allow a valuable insight into present problems”.2 

Secondly, and more importantly, if physics can genuinely (ie, demonstrably) be aided or even guided by ontology, this would constitute a new way to formulate ontology and, therefore, a new way to understand the relation of human beings to it. The bubble of nihilism would be popped. If Riezler (1882-1955), McLuhan (1911-1980) and Bohm (1917-1993) were correct, such a scientific formulation of ontology may represent the one way out of the potentially fatal problems in which the planet is currently ensnared.

  1. These are the old style dates of Newton’s birth and death. In the new style, 1643-1727.
  2. ‘Planck’s discovery and the philosophical problems of atomic physics’, 1958, in On Modern Physics, 1962, p 9. For further discussion see Heisenberg on ‘an ancient quarrel’ and Heisenberg on possibility. The translation of Heisenberg’s remarks has been slightly altered from “the physicist, too, can observe certain governing principles (= ontological principles) that allow him a valuable insight into his own present problems.”