Nomosthetes and Ordinary Language

Cesare Maccari - Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889.

Language’s core function is to represent. A representation requires both a referent and an agent presented with the referent to produce the representation. The first linguistic sign, the ostensive, was performed in presence of its referent.1 Linguistic acts generally are assemblages of sorts, that if we continue following through, lead us to something of an infinite regress which ends up being circular on the macro level. i.e This word’s meaning can only be explained with reference to these words, whose meaning can only be explained with reference to these words, whose meaning can only be explained with reference to these words… ad infinitum. So what breaks through language, being constituted by this regress, is to consider the given agent which constructs and/or presents the linguistic construct.

The Medievals also knew this – Meister Eckhart wrote that no communicative construct or apprehension of an external referent represents or signifies itself. It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol. And since man has no ideas, except those abstracted from external things, he cannot “be blessed by mere idea”.2

A given communicative act is only intelligible with regard to the intention of the agent who makes said act. If you were alone in a forest and the sound of the rustling leaves started sounding like English words, perhaps even an intelligible phrase, say, “When the ruler’s seat is insecure, the great ministers revolt and the smaller ones pilfer.”3 Unless we were to associate agency to the leaves and the breeze which would posit that they have intellectual capacities, regardless of this audible construct corresponding to being a fragment of ancient Chinese wisdom from the Lî Yun, it would be meaningless. 

It would just so happen coincidentally to sound like the Lî Yun, unless the leaves and breeze were somehow not just alive but intelligent. Language, communicative acts, words themselves, are only intelligible with reference to the intentional agent who presents them to us, otherwise, we must construct our own meaning through interpretation, from words/phrases/ideas, of which we have inherited from other intentional agents. To consider this more socially speaking, in any scene of intentional agents, there will always be one who is the most “influential” at any given point in time – influence being constituted by having dominant representations over other rival representation presented by other intentional agents.

Because, out of all groups, there will be one whose representations are the most dominant. And within that group there will be an agent who is the most “influential” – the de facto Sovereign; herein lies the essential stupidity of libertarianism and its understanding of politics which fails to see authority as anything beyond mere coercive power. Power, at least as it is politically constituted, is rather the ability to direct attention to a given object – linguistic acts are its techne (tactics/tools/craft) through which it does this.

To illustrate; obviously, it is not the king’s coercive power over his military that keeps them inline but that loyalty is conferred, maintained and communicated through some set of representations. Whether this be payment for their services, mythology that holds them in awe or a complex ideological superstructure, all of this must be mediated through linguistic representation from King to military in some fashion. As a good friend of mine Alexander Iulianus remarked the other day, if you stick to your own definitions of language and simply assume that everyone else will operate on the same definitions, you will never know what they are truly saying. I think he hits the nail on the head. God, afterall, only becomes God when creation says “God”, or otherwise ho Theos, Deus, The Good, YHWH, Guđán, 천주, 上帝, He Who Is, and so on and so forth.

Take this in tandem with say Derrida’s understanding of language, specifically writing, that a signifier that can be made radically detached from what it signifies, moulded and “played with” – misconstrued even purposely so to rupture some totality4 – unlike speech which becomes unintelligible without its agent, writing can be retroactively reinterpreted by whatever dominant agent exists to do so, whether or not they be the original speaker. You can reinterpret a written signifier but reinterpreting a spoken signifier always traces back to a present intentionality. With writing, the agent that anchors meaning through intention is absent. 

By enregistering speech, inscription has as its essential objective, and indeed takes this fatal risk, the emancipation of meaning – as concerns any actual field of perception – from the natural predicament in which everything refers to the disposition of a contingent situation. This is why writing will never be simple “voice-painting*.5

*“Voice painting” is a reference to Voltaire’s rather naive understanding of writing.

Subsequently, we do have to conclude upon a fundamental fluidity to human language but also that it is only fluid insofar as it is not anchored by human agents. Its anchorage to intentional agents also follows in an implicitly hierarchical fashion, to Derrida’s horror – hence why he considers writing less “totalitarian” than speech, given writing’s ability to be played with. Surely to Derrida, Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics was nothing short of Fascism. There’s no real way for an audience to “play” with the speech of a speaker. There is no possibility for forcing absence through rupturing structure because unlike speech, writing can persist without the continuous effort of its writer. It can be written on the page, passed around in different contexts, reinterpreted regardless of accuracy or what have you.

This is not to say that choices about the use of words are themselves entirely fluid and arbitrary; humans always deliberate towards some end, and in light of that agent-cause, the scope of uses and also interpretations of a given word naturally narrows.

So, a given word is really made fundamentally intelligible by virtue of the principal-agent who leads “linguistic frame”, that is to say, has the most influence over the word’s use and application and disciplines the social scene to use it as such, towards his chosen end/deliberated purpose. With writing, this applies to whoever deliberates the dominant interpretation, and so it seems as though that Derrida’s attempt to play and fondle with writing to escape Caesar, to suspend and exit structure, utterly fails.

In this sense, you cannot actually appeal to “ordinary uses of language” for the basis of meaning. Human language is a structure meant to represent something, it is not the referent it represents. To treat language as such is quite a gross absolutisation of it. Hence why something like biblical/scriptural literalism is contrary to the religion itself – you end up deracinating the meaning of the text in thinking that its representation can be the same as its referent. E.g. Christ speaking the actual words of the Sermon on the Mount is not the same as the written Sermon on the Mount in either the Greek Septuagint, or in whatever version one might read — writing loses the illocutionary force that speech has, hence “deracination”.

Marcus Cunningham has a fantastic article on illocution and scriptural interpretation here.

Consider again what I paraphrased Eckhart saying above. Analogously to that argument, this means that no interpretation interprets itself – hence the absurdity of sola scriptura. All signs and interpretations point to something else, and so the only way to fix them to the spot is through power itself. Hence the practical necessity of a centralised authority like the Church and its Priesthood. Do people reappropriate words/ideas/phrases for new purposes, sometimes malicious purposes? 100% they do. What is the appropriate countermeasure to this? Well, it sure isn’t appealing to a supposed normality of language which does not really exist as most people tend to do, especially the no-frills brand of western conservatism does.

To conclude, let us consider Plato’s argument from Cratylus on the nature of names, the unification of form and meaning, precisely what Derrida designates as structure6, which runs almost entirely parallel to what I have just said now;

Socrates: Don’t we instruct each other, that is to say, divide things according to their natures?

Hermogenes: Certainly

Socrates: So just as a shuttle is a tool for dividing warp and wood, a name is a tool for giving instruction, that is to say, for diving being.

Hermogenes: Yes.

Socrates: Is not a shuttle a weaver’s tool?

Hermogenes: Of course.

Socrates: So a weaver will use shuttles well; and to use a shuttle well is to use it as a weaver does. By the same token, an instructor will use names well; and to use a name well is to use it as an instructor does.

Hermogenes: Yes.

Socrates: Is everyone a carpenter or only those who possess the craft of carpentry?

Hermogenes: Only those who possess the craft.

Socrates: Good. So whose product does an instructor use when he uses a name?

Hermogenes: I do not know.

Socrates: Can you at least tell me this? Who or what provides us with the names we use?

Hermogenes: I don’t know that either.

Socrates: Don’t you think that rules* provide us with them?

Hermogenes: I suppose they do.

Socrates: So, when an instructor uses a name, he’s using the product of a rule setter.

Hermogenes: I believe he is.

Socrates: Do you think that every man is a rule-setter or only the one who possesses the craft?

Hermogenes: Only the one who possesses the craft.

Socrates: It follows that it isn’t every man who can give names, Hermogenes, but only a name-maker, and he, it seems is a rule-setter – the king of craftsman most rarely found among human beings.

Hermogenes: I suppose so.7

*The greek here is ‘ho nomos’. 

Names are a function of the law-giver in relation to real natures/referents which are fixed by form. Form has normality as Plato would argue, sure, but its signifiers don’t have normality by any necessity – the name is not itself identical to the form, and hence why Plato considers names to be more immediately a function of the “nomothetes” – the lawgiver, i.e. authority. 


[1] Gans, Eric. The Origin of Language. Spuyten Duyvil, New York City, 2019, 38.

[2] Kurak, M. The Epistemology of Illumination in Meister Eckhart. Philosophy and Theology, 13(2), 2001, pp.275-286.

[3]  Max F. Muller. Sacred Books of the East. London: Routledge, 2004, Li Ki, Lî Yun, 2.11.

[4] Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. London and New York: Routledge, 2001, Force and Signification. 86-87.

[5] ibid., 13.

[6] ibid., 4.

[7] Plato and Cooper, J. Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009, Cratylus 388b – 389a.

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