Normality and Quine

Is language merely a tool for us to arrive at a consensus?

For Quine, language is, in a special way, inherently social. Its meaning can only be understood in its use and with other people. There is no private meaning. Language just communicates and normalizes. This is similar to Habermas’ idea that when you are engaging in a discourse, you have to follow certain validity claims. But in all this—it is not that their analysis is completely wrong—I find that some existential dimension in language, what Heidegger would call the ontological, or what we can call the “special feeling”, the “special importance” we find in language, is missing. It is true that language can bond and homologize. But doesn’t it, more importantly, generate misunderstanding?

It is of course obvious that language does this. We often say more than we’ve intended, or intend to say more than we do. We may hear what others did not mean, or miss what others are really trying to communicate. Language shrouds an abyss of subjectivity. This is terrifying—for it means that we can never understand anyone else. But it is exhilarating too, because lying within the other that I confront in speech is an infinity of possibilities.

That is, language reveals the overflowing beneath the other’s face, their facade. It reveals the hypercube behind our 3-D shadows of a person. Language is a dialectic of understanding and misunderstanding. And in this way, it is beautiful. For one can never totalize, never schematize, an other’s speech, but only be in awe at how much more is brimming out of it.

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