Letters from an Epicurean (2)

The appropriate whole for language, the whole within which all the parts make sense, is the third [declarative] level, the one on which ‘we’ come to light as the ones who use the language.” — Phenomenology of the Human Person (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 33)

In this book, Sokolowski uses language as an entry point into a philosophical study of what it means to be a person. He divides different uses of language into four layers: 1. Prelinguistic, 2. ordinary use, 3. declarative, and 4. philosophical. To put it briefly, when we use language pre-linguistically, we are replacing sounds (of pleasure, excitement, pain, etc.) with words. We are doing something with words that could have been done without them. You are walking on a narrow corridor and your path is blocked by a slow walker. You say, “Excuse me”, but you could also clear your throat or announce your presence by humming a melody. Language here seems inessential.

The second layer consists of linguistic activities in which we exchange facts, commands, requests, promises, etc. The third layer can then be added above the second layer, by deflecting attention slightly from the fact and onto the agent who is delivering and framing the fact. Within the third layer, the primary emphasis is still on the fact, but now the person who is declaring the statement is in view. According to Sokolowski, if we place all the emphasis on the agent, we will end up with a fact [about the agent] and our activity falls back into the second level of language.

Finally, the fourth layer consists of a space in which we can recognize and examine the other 3 uses of language. Sokolowski warns us against regarding philosophy as a 2nd-level activity.

“… we must be careful lest what we describe now, the achievement of truth, get turned back – reduced – to a merely natural process, to one of the things described on the second level.” (ibid, p.33)

What can we say based on Sokolowski’s worries regarding the potential loss of the 3rd and 4th layers of language use? That the layers are never fully separate. The second layer is present, nested within, the two higher levels. The 3rd and 4th layer don’t require a different kind of activity, or a different set of words. They require a different way of noticing, a different way of paying attention to the same statements.

We can apply that way of noticing even to the first level. What do we accomplish when we use words to announce something pre-linguistic, such as pain, pleasure, or mere presence. We are engaging in an act of declaration — declaring ourselves as agents. What is supposedly the essential feature of the third layer is already at work at the very first level of language, at the level of language-as-sound.

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