In their relations with themselves and with their environment, people act consciously, and this consciousness extends both to the environment and to control. This separates people qualitatively from animals, as the closest relations to humans among all natural creatures. Animals are also conscious of their environment, but in a passive manner, while people, on the other hand, are not only conscious of their environment, but are also conscious of themselves. As the only creatures with self-awareness, humans are the sole real subjects in nature.

“Animals are directly identical with their own life activity; they cannot distinguish themselves from their life activity. Human beings, on the other hand, make their life activity the object of their consciousness and will.”[1]

Humans are not simply creatures of nature, but they are also social beings. As such, their consciousness is not limited to the relationships they form with the natural environment, as it also contains an image of social relationships.

“Humans, as they affect and change the outside world, simultaneously change their own nature; they activate the dormant powers within themselves.”[2]

Through their ability to change their nature, people have taken their fate into their own hands, which makes them historical beings. Animals can adapt to their environment, but are unable to change it. People, on the other hand, can live in all environments, and if the appropriate conditions do not exist, they can simply create them. People use tools to change their environment, and tools, in return, change people, providing them with additional capabilities. Deciding which tools to use for a given task requires having a certain consciousness. As such, people can be considered performers of “action”, or of conscious and purposeful activity.

“Purpose” involves imagining (designing) the future, and imparts meaning to human life. “Design” refers to images in the mind, with “images” reflected in the mind as representations of objective and subjective processes. The qualities and visions of objects also contain images, along with the will and purpose of the subject. Thus, as they reproduce nature, people add a human quality to it and turn it into a cultural being. Throughout history, people have started to build environments that contain more and more cultural objects and less and less natural objects. In other words, they live off of what they produce, rather than what they find. This is a life built out of human effort.

As people affect and change their environment, and shape nature to fit their will and purpose, the need arises to separate labor and cooperation, which would be impossible without interaction and communication. This is why language was required. Achieving any task requires cooperation in the use of the relevant tools, and creating and using shared images, which shows that language is a social phenomenon.

Languages consist of propositions, and the smallest meaningful unit in a language is the “word”. Words provide a generalized representation of the outside world that is perceived via the senses. Words in a language can be compared to individuals in a society, with each having semantic and logical connections with the rest of the language. Sentences are formed by placing words in a logical order.

Language is a necessary instrument for consciousness. Without language, it would be impossible to speak of a consciousness. People reproduce the world through language, and exist as humans (as conscious beings) through it. This is why language forms the boundaries of our world of meanings, although languages can be produced and improved, expanding the boundaries of our world of meanings.

“In the beginning was the word.”[3]

People are born into nature, society and religion; these are given. Through infancy, “sensations” are gradually supplemented by “perceptions”, and upon uttering their first words, babies transform into children. When children start talking, they also start the process of forming conceptions. With language as the intermediary, they start to distinguish themselves from their environment, and recognize their own selves.

Repeated and accumulated perceptions undergo a qualitative change to form concepts. In addition to describing appearances and external relationships between objects –as reflected in sensory perceptions– concepts also help comprehend the essence, integrity and internal relationships of objects. Conceptual thinking is how we move from “perceptive knowledge” to “rational knowledge”, and this transition to rational knowledge involves a process of analysis and personal processing. As it creates concepts, the consciousness simultaneously transforms so that intellectual constructs are replaced by rational ones.

A system of concepts and theories is needed to be able to reflect the essence of an object in the mind, and to unearth the laws giving rise to a fact. Creating concepts by moving from one fact to another, and from the outside to the inside, requires, simultaneously, the assigning of a context and a theoretical class to the concept. When a language progresses to this level, it becomes suitable for use in science, art and philosophy.

Perceptive knowledge is inferior to rational knowledge, because it is subjective, it concerns only sensory data and it lacks the power of abstraction. It is unable to obtain the knowledge of reality in the face of objects, events and facts. Seeing reality is only possible with a third eye – being that of reason.

People can liberate themselves from the indirect consciousness of their surrounding reality and nature only through “rational concepts”, thus reproducing themselves as subjects.

Individuals and societies still at the level of perceptive knowledge are passive in their environment. They can somewhat change the outside world, but only by moving things. People who discover the laws of objects through “rational abstraction” and “conception” become civilized people who are able to change, transform and produce objects. Civilized people are producers, producing also themselves – they stop being mere objects in nature, and become “self-aware” subjects. Language is both the instrument and the environment of this progression to becoming subjects.

When language is used to make judgments, it is liberated from its producer, and becomes also objectified and permanent. In addition to being permanent, it gains the ability to open up to other minds, and can then be criticized and improved upon by other minds, independently of the first producer, turning into a living language.

Language and History of Thought

In the history of thought, Plato was the first to conduct a systematic examination of language in terms of its “knowledge value”.

Herder was also interested in the “knowledge” aspect of language, and examined language from the perspectives of emotions and ideas.

Parmenides was the first to propose that language concerns the essence of humans.

The empiricists and rationalists were also interested in the “knowledge” aspect of language, demonstrating approaches to language that were based on their respective theories of knowledge. Empiricists rely on psychology to explain language, whereas rationalists rely on logic.

According to Epicurus, language is not a product of consensus, nor is it a postulate, but is rather something natural and necessary, like the senses themselves. In humans, it is present at birth, like sight, hearing, pain and pleasure. Various sounds are developed on the basis of consensus, as well as a variety of words and languages.

According to Hamann, language is reason, and reason is language. Without language, there would be no reason. Language is the “organon” and “criterion” of reason. Our ideas are realized and made competent through language. Thought is identical to language.

According to Herder, language can be conceived as a product of the senses and thought, in that thinking underlies the spiritual lives of humans.

According to Humboldt, every human being is part of a community, and thus has connections with other people. We can meet our needs only through mutual understanding, which in turn is possible only through language. Language is what makes us human. More competently, Humboldt –after Parmenides and Herder– thought of language as the “human essence”. According to Humboldt, language encapsulates the entire human existence. Through language, people can sense and perceive the distant past, apart from their immediate sensations, as language is created also with input from the sensations of previous generations. Language is an activity, not a product, and so can be properly understood only through historical methods. The ability to make use of language is present at birth, but the development of language takes place in history, depending on the strength of language.

Gottfried Leibniz

According to Leibniz, language is a mirror for reason. There are mutual ties between human intellect and language. Language develops as the intellect matures, and the intellect improves as the language gains fluency and becomes easier to understand.

According to Porzig, language is at its most successful when expressing thoughts. Thinking means comprehending connections. Words are loaded with connections in language, which is not only an instrument for thinking, as it also develops and matures as a result of thought. Language is a system of symbols that evolves both within and through thinking. Thinking moves from one connection to another. The act of thinking, which forms connections between objects and facts, eventually starts forming connections between connections, and this is the highest level of language. Language is intrinsic to individual human beings; however, in social relationships, it gains a form of objective existence, transcends individuals and exercises power over individuals.

Language and Discourse

In thinking, language is reproduced anew every time – it absorbs the effects of individuals in the production process, and turns into discourse. To begin with, language is an object of consciousness for thought, and transforms into an alive conscious being once it partakes in thought processes, and discourse emerges out of this sort of living language process.

Every individual has a discourse, and everyone produces their own discourse using language. Thus, language undergoes a transformation in each individual. Language exercises objective power over individuals in social processes and relationships. In the process of discourse formation, on the other hand, language is subject to the power of consciousness. Thus, the individual who is dependent on language in turn affects language.

As Humboldt argues, “Using the same words and the same forms differently, and by adding a strong reflection of their own soul, an author can give a new character to language in their works.”

Language and Nation

The lifestyle, culture and thought characteristics of each nation affect and shape its language. The continued existence of individual nations depends on their languages, and their independence and freedom is reflected in their language. When societies or civilizations retreat from the arena of history, their languages lose vitality. What makes a language a living being disappears when freedom is lost.

The national language is the only thing that meaningfully connects members of a nation to one another. The national language, in turn, is the result of a common life and a common culture – in short, a common history. Each society, each nation has a different world, and their expectations, desires, feelings, ideas and attitudes are all different. As a result, each society has a distinct worldview, and this worldview is reflected in the language of the nation.

Linguistic ability is common to all humanity, but it is manifested to varying degrees depending on the non-material qualities of nations, and the strength of their thought and language, in particular.

The national character –the way a nation perceives and thinks about things, and conceives of objects, events, and facts– must first be reflected in the language if it is to have any effect on the nation.

When a nation is independent and sovereign, so is its language; and when this is the case, the language thrives, with thought scaling the highest peaks through language. The people who make up a nation share their common cultural values through language. The national language also carries traces of civilization, which is the common denominator of all humanity, going beyond reflecting the nation, and manifesting the human virtues.

Language and Philosophy

Friedrich Schelling

According to Schelling, “An immature language with a confounded structure is an obstacle to thinking, and holds it captive. Linguistic captivity prevents free thought, and hence philosophy. Where there is no freedom, there is no philosophy. Freedom is the essence of being human.”

According to Bedia Akarsu, “When the growth of a nation’s language, which makes it possible to communicate with the world, is stunted, that nation would certainly fail in the field of philosophy.”[4]

In ancient Greek thought, “logos” means both “word” and “language”, but it also means “thought” and “reason”. The goal here is not to try and assign meanings from different fields to a word, but to establish a principled semantic connection between different fields. Philosophy is a language of concepts, and in this sense, philosophy is the language of languages – a meta-language. It is possible to express philosophical concepts in each and every language, and so languages form intrinsic connections with one another through philosophy and common meanings. Beginning our journey from different cultures, it becomes possible to arrive at a universal human civilization.

Aristotle was the first person to argue that there were two aspects to a word, being “form” and “meaning”, and that words were the smallest meaningful units in language. Philosophy is a discipline in which thought is free to move in any direction, and so language reaches the highest level of maturity through philosophy. When a language is used for philosophy, it develops also the mind, and societies that are good at using that language would inevitably be more advanced in terms of civilization.

Recently, it has been argued that the written word is weaker than the spoken word. Writing a language down alienates the language in question, and saps its vitality. Works of literature should be treated as a spoken language, not as objects of analysis. This requires interpretation, which resolves the problem of the weakness of the written language, and re-endows the work with the qualities of a spoken language. According to Habermas, for a dialogue to take place in interpretation, the interpreting subject needs to be able to reveal the individuality (subject) of the text, as a work of literature, being something created by a human being, contains a subjective human dimension – the dimension of “meaning”. Attempts to make sense of texts is known as hermeneutics in philosophy. The interpretation of written texts involves rendering a distant text, one whose meaning is hidden from us, meaningful. “Translation” is a fundamental function of hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics was developed by Schleiermacher in the 18th century, by Dilthey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and by such thinkers as Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas more recently.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

Schleiermacher describes “language” as the key to making sense of the world. The contemporary direction of hermeneutics was set by Dilthey, and this direction can be summarized as the beginning of people starting to comprehend themselves within history.[5] According to Dilthey, the cohesion of life refers to the entirety of an individual’s relationships with others. We gain self-consciousness only through “others”, as in other words, our consciousness is nothing but a setting. The spiritual world is not a world of facts or empirical reality, but a “world of meanings”. “Understanding” is the means by which we comprehend spirituality. Every historical period contains certain life values, and all historical events revolve around these values. Values that characterize a historical period can be identified in the language as the carrier of the narratives of that period. Accordingly, the basic materials of spiritual sciences are always “written works” as linguistic products.

According to Dilthey, spiritual sciences serve the practical purpose of helping people make sense of themselves. Therefore, spiritual sciences take precedence over natural sciences. Spiritual sciences are historical, as people get to learn about themselves only through history.[6]

According to Dilthey, reality depends on consciousness, being the consciousness of something existing out there “for me”. Things that exist independently of consciousness cannot become reality unless they exist for consciousness. As such, “reality” is that which manifests itself –within conceptual distinctions and connections– as “existing for me” and as consciousness. This “existing for me” is usually the life of “reality index”.

“When we say I,” says Dilthey, “we do not express the emergence and completion of self-consciousness; instead, we illuminate a relationship between that which exists in language and speaks, on the one hand, and the addressee, on the other.”

Spiritual life is also established through language. Spirit lives by externalizing itself, and then returning to itself by reflecting on these externalizations. The way the spirit thus emerges is interconnected with the history of humanity. Therefore, the everyday existence of a socialized individual takes place in the context of the connections between “life–expression–understanding”.[7]

Knowing, understanding and evaluating are all forms of “expression”; as all reproduce and restructure objects, events and facts, carrying them to the realm of language.

In the process of “description–definition–explanation”, “knowing as explaining” means applying “a general law” to an object or event. “Knowing as understanding”, on the other hand, refers to something deeper, as understanding takes place when reality opens up to a subject and the connections in their life, and when the person embraces reality with all their life opportunities. When we say we understand another person, we mean that we reconstruct them in the world of our own feelings and thoughts. This is a form of interpretation; we experience our environment and one another through ongoing interpretation, reconstructing and reevaluating our self-consciousness in the process. In this sense, understanding oneself is also a form of “expression” and interpretation. Understanding is vital, being produced by the entirety of our actions and identities.

Works of art, science, and philosophy are all constructs. Therefore, when we interpret a work, we engage in a reconstruction. Each act of knowing is simultaneously an act of creation. Understanding means creating, and the process of creating meaning is the process by which the spirit objectifies itself. Moving from one construct to another requires also deconstruction, in that it is impossible to move to another construct and to make progress without first deconstructing the existing one.

According to Nermi Uygur, language is translation, and this applies to all languages. Each language is the translation of the things it expresses – translation is what gives a language its linguistic existence. Language does not always translate things that already exist, as our desires and future designs are also reflected in works of language. Our mother tongue is our everyday language, and once we are done with special languages, we rest in its familiarity and habits.[8]

* First published in Us Düşün ve Ötesi (Reason, Thought, and Beyond), no.3, 1999. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.

** The title of this text refers to a “dogush” (poetical revelation) by İsmail Emre, a contemporary Anatolian sufi of Turkey.

[1]   K. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 1844
[2]   K. Marx, Das Kapital, 1867-94
[3]   Gospel of John, 1:1
[4]   Bedia Akarsu, Wilhelm von Humboldt’da Dil-Kültür Bağlantısı [The Language-Culture Connection in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Works], Remzi Kitabevi, 1984
[5]   Dilbilim ve Dilbilgisi Konuşmaları I [Philology and Grammar Speeches I], Türk Dil Kurumu Yayınları, 1980
[6]   Doğan Özlem, Metinlerle Hermeneutik [Hermeneutics Texts], İnkılâp Kitabevi, İstanbul, 1996
[7]   Nermi Uygur, Dilin Gücü [The Power of Language], Yapı Kredi Yayınları, İstanbul, 1984
[8]   George Thomson, İnsanın Özü [The Human Essence], Payel Yayınevi, İstanbul, 1987