Freud, Hegel and Eddie Murphy (also, James Brown)
I often feel the English language — or pretty much any other human language — is singularly unequipped to deal with metaphysical concepts. This is one reason why philosophical writing is so opaque and convoluted. We are contorting a form of communication that arose primarily to say things like “Look! Food!” or “Attack!” or “Run away!” to represent extremely sophisticated concepts.
Consider this turgid quote from Hegel, for example (in translation from the German):
“It is only after profounder acquaintance with the other sciences that logic ceases to be for subjective spirit a merely abstract universal and reveals itself as the universal which embraces within itself the wealth of the particular – just as the same proverb, in the mouth of a youth who understands it quite well, does not possess the wide range of meaning which it has in the mind of a man with the experience of a lifetime behind him, for who, the meaning is expressed in all its power.” From The Science of Logic (1812)
If you pay reasonably close attention to the sentence above — yes, it is a single sentence — it does make sense (even if ripped out of context, as here). And I don’t doubt that Hegel meant to communicate something very important to him. In the words of Eddie Murphy when attempting to describe a James Brown lyric: “that s**t meant something to James.”
But my point is: our languages are just not designed for these concepts and that is at least one reason why philosophy is such a hard slog.
When I say “philosophy”, I include in its ambit a range of qualities, including various sensations that are remarkably difficult to capture in language. I read E.T.A. Hoffmann recently as part of a learning journey, and his works are shot through with intimations of the unexpected and creepy.
English is full of words to describe the unexpected and creepy — macabre, fantastic, ghastly, gruesome, morbid, and so on. In the case of Hoffmann, a descriptor often used to describe the ambience of his stories is “uncanny”. We don’t have to look far for the reason; Sigmund Freud devoted a famous essay in large part to an exploration of the idea that Hoffmann’s The Sandman evokes a feeling of being “unheimlich.”
The German word is difficult to translate and Freud spends much time exploring the etymology of the word and its equivalents in other tongues. “Uncanny” seems to be what has been settled upon, in English, to describe this feeling of the unexceptional becoming terrifying.
The point is: we know what this feeling is. We know it exists. But it appears incredibly difficult to pin down in textual form. The flaws lie in the inability of human language to capture much of the human condition (from philosophical concepts to fundamental human emotions).
I wonder if an answer, one day, is the creation of a new language that somehow allows for the articulation and manipulation of these concepts. It cannot be the language of logic, for that exists already and is equally insufficient. It is something else entirely, and perhaps we are like the residents of Flatland — it may be a dimension we can never access. In the meanwhile, we do the best we can.