Posts Tagged ‘Language’

Berger quote: The Issue of Language Again

“If the first metaphor was animal, it was because the essential relation between man and animal was metaphoric” (Berger 7). I found this quote to be interesting because it seems to be an underlying problem of almost all the more persuasive essays or stories we have read. Emerson first hinted that our language is based in the natural world, comprised of earthly symbol and thus our culture is an earthly culture only people have turned their eye away from it, and have forgotten it. However, the issue of relativity or relate-ability becomes compromised. Writers want to distinguish what is animal and man only through language based on what was symbolically an animal.

So, here again we see another advent of language and its affront or dislocation to the natural world. Berger, while claiming the origin of language derives from the emotional necessity to emote, he also concedes that the desire for origin whether it be symbolic or biotic, is an endless and inexhaustible quest that seems to only be able define what comes after, an exceptional observation and also a difficult concession if he believes what he thinks the origin of language is. His assumption is practical and approachable, but inevitably, it is and always will be half full of doubt. Also, with language culture follows, which is consummately symbolic. I’m not sure whether Berger considers that animals also display culture. Culture is not something unique to humans. Anthropologists have studied and demonstrated that lions, chimpanzees other primates among the wild and domestic have displayed their own forms of what can be considered culture.

However, our culture is differentiated by animal culture in the existence of symbol, which Berger declares is irreducible from language. But, if human language is comprised of animalistic metaphor, how do we then define what Garrard describes as the “insuperable line” or use it in a practical manner? If animalism is inextricably linked to our cognition, our way of thinking, can there really be a legitimate way of expressing our differing qualities between man and animal? For example, Garrard states, “the skeptical attack on sentimental views of animals risks making it impossible to describe animal behavior at all. The problem therefore is to distinguish between kinds of anthropomorphism, which is often a very practical matter” (Garrard 138). He then goes on to quote Berger, referencing the duality of animal observing human. Through Berger, this idea of distinguishing anthropomorphism easily becomes very difficult, after all isn’t our syntax comprised of animal metaphor. Hasn’t everything said been based on the metaphor of animal?


Berger, John. About Looking. InternationalCH./Art: Why Look at Animals? p. 3-28. Pub. Vintage Sept 1991

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Difficult Quote

“But this origin of all words that convey a spiritual import, so conspicuous a fact in the history of language, is our least debt to nature. It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture” (Emerson 136).

After reading this quote a few times, I realized that I did not understand Ralph Waldo Emerson description of language. Yes, it is evident that languages are useful tools for human beings. Through language we are able to communicate our ideas, rationalize and express our feelings and concerns.  Despite the fact that there are thousands of different types of languages and dialects, they all have a similar characteristic; language is not simply a representation of an item but the items themselves are symbolic. We should not focus solely on the definition of the words we see, study, or write. Nature in itself is symbolic because it appeals to our senses and our spirit.  Our mind on the other hand is very complex and therefore when we do see “Nature” we see something deeper than what the object is.

Emerson‘s definition of language reminds me of Plato’s Theory of forms. According to Plato, two worlds exist, the visible world and the intelligible world. In the visible world, we see an object and have a name for it. However, in the intelligible world, we already have the simplest concept of the object. For example, if we see a painting, one might say it is beautiful. However, in the intelligible world we know that the painting is beautiful because we already have a concept of beauty. Similarly, Emerson explains that language tries to capture the concept of what we perceive. Our English language is so basic that when we try to translate words, the meanings are lost. That is why in the English language we use metaphors to relate an object to an idea. Emerson says “a firm man is a rock” (137). A man is not literally a rock. However, connotative speaking the man’s character is so grounded that he is compared to a rock.

Emerson’s Struggle with Language and Culture

Because Emerson revoked his own ministry, one could assume that he wholly rejected the Judeo-Christian theory of wilderness as evil or dangerous. Emerson would oppose much of Garrard’s Old World wilderness, possibly even the idea of the religious hermit using nature as a safeguard or the pastoral escape from an urban city, because still implies an anthropocentric idea and nature takes a back seat (Garrard 60). Thoreau went into the woods to reflect on how to enable his own harmony with nature, not on the trivialities of human adversity. But Emerson does not quite go as far as John Muir’s pantheism (Garrard 68). However, we must acknowledge that he did suffer the same conflict Muir had, which was that he was enabled to see the beauty of nature more vastly and physically through science.

Also, Transcendentalism was a product of a schism that began when theologians along with lay scholars began to reconsider religion as permanent, going so far as to say it was a product of humanity. Emerson was very clear about what he perceived the current views of both religion and ethics did to nature, “They both put nature under foot” and later, “Culture inverts the vulgar views of nature” (Emerson 54-55). He is addressing their current state and country, which was devoutly Jacksonian. A man was a man if he owned land, commerce and industry were nearly as important as piety. “Agriculture becomes both the cause and the symptom of an alienation from the earth that monotheistic religion and modern science then completed” (Garrard 60). In America, both of these are ideals that are seen as positives back then, not negative. The state and county was then very Anglo and very Protestant, things Transcendentalism moved away from. Movement being a key word, as both Protestantism and the Aristocracy depended on the status quo to keep order and power.

Emerson, then, rejected not only the Judeo-Christian belief that nature is at its very basest an affront to humanity, but also its subordinate. However, in his struggle with language his doctrine, being both super-generalist and altogether universal, he contradicts himself or his theories overlap and cut themselves off. Yet he doesn’t totally sever himself from religion, although we must be careful not to interpret his ecclesiastical vernacular as strictly operating on the same symbolic basis as his contemporaries might have been used to. He unequivocally considers nature as feminine, and at times seems to equate Native Americans to children, albeit, projecting a more naturalistic view onto them and heralding their clairvoyant abilities to see nature clearer than the urban white man.

For Americans beginning to embrace the idea of individuality and new epistemologies, Emerson deeply seems to struggle with the semantics of language and philology. Emerson believed that our language mostly derived from symbols in nature. Yet, here is a problem, if nature gives humanity language, an arbitrary symbol and primary tool for culture, hasn’t nature contaminated itself? To navigate around this Emerson places language in what he calls the Spirit (Emerson 27). So are we nature itself? (Most people at the time I think would be terrified because of the implication that there was a phenomena going on inside everyone’s body) If every intellectual and spiritual product we conceive is based in language, nature then, is humanity and humanity is nature and nature produces these things though humanity as conduits to itself, and as a result—there really is then, only nature. Man is in his very being; through language is what Emerson calls the Father, which is also the Spirit (Emerson 27). A contradictory patriarchal archetype Emerson might have wanted to avoid.

This is typical of nature writing and it appears every time: nature is a metaphor for man. The question is, can that statement be plausibly reversed? And the irony is that Emerson knows he will always fall short of getting to the heart of Transcendentalism and nature, “Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least.” Language both enables a concept of nature but excludes it because it cannot facilitate a total idea/image/symbol to retain it in its entirety.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book American Renaissance 2009

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.