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May 22, 2013 at 4:00 PMComments: 6 Faves: 0

Language as Essence: Man, Mind, and Meaning

By Kyle McCarthy from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Culturology Blog Series

"All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly." - St. Thomas Aquinas

“The assumption will be made that [sic] current theory of language is incoherent, that the formal-descriptive disciplines of linguistics deal with the products, the corpora, of the language phenomenon, that the factual science of psychology deals with the stimuli and responses of organisms, and that between them lies the terra incognita of the phenomenon itself.” – Walker Percy

"I am. I am. I am." - Sylvia Plath

Signifying Nothing

I am a man. I am not as young as I once was, nor ever as much as I had previously perceived myself to be. I am relatively short; I am growing ever-so-slightly pudgy around the waist, and I am marginally pissed about both of these facts. I am my father's son and my mother's boy. I am an enthusiastic uncle, and I am a disappointing nephew. I am a writer of fiction, a collector of knowledge, and a champion of fact, supposition, and opinion. I have created, and I have destroyed - usually with great respect for what I have crafted and casual irreverence for what I have demolished. I am lazy and often uninspired, not apathetic, but often sullen and bored. I have been brave, but I am a coward. I am content in this moment, but prone to envy, like all the men before me. I am peaceful when it is convenient, and I am quick-tempered at all the wrong times. I am contemplative and ravaged by doubt. I am in love, and I am prone to self-loathing. I see, I touch, I hear, I smell, and I feel. I sense that I am terrifically lost in cacophonous tones of disorienting confusion, yet I faintly hear a riotous symphony in the discordance of this world.

I am self-centered. (See Above Paragraph.)

I am a man, but I have no idea what this means. Any of this. Further, if indeed it does mean anything at all, it’s an empty sort of connotation because I’m the one that has ascribed it any meaning in the first place.

Essence Under Lock & Key

What is essence? How do we interpret such a notion, and what difference does it make in the larger schema? It can be difficult to ascertain the fundamental genesis or particle of any given concept or matter, but we never stop searching for the answers.

Despite our attempts to discern our nature, we are foreigners in our own minds. We are like the child in the darkest of rooms searching for the exit, never knowing that, even if we stumble upon it, (which we won’t) the door is locked from the outside. Yet, we continue to scratch the walls in desperate pursuit of what we will never achieve. What's worse is that what lies outside of our limited perspective doesn't give a damn about our relentless desire for understanding and would reveal nothing even if it did.

The Delta Factor is what connects a sound-word with an image; it's the origin of abstraction; it's everything that a sign is, has been, or will ever be.

This is our curse and our catalyst. Our curiosity propels us into the world and we are foolish enough to believe we aren't damned by our inquisitive nature. To know ourselves, truly know ourselves, would be to permanently sever the mind from the body or to force a merger of the two - to disrupt a certain harmonious naiveté that allows us to function in this fiction we call life.

The Delta Factor

Walker Percy, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th Century (or any other for that matter), felt that the unifying answer to every question worth asking about our humanity was grounded in language. In his socio-linguistic philosophy, he would often reduce his theories to the signifier (form), the related intrinsic signified (concept, although variable depending on what the concept means to the interpreter), and the coupler of the two (a member of a species capable of abstraction – i.e. a human) - which is utterly irreducible and correspondingly unknowable. Once these two are joined by the coupler, a sign results, but even that is arbitrary because it’s a random human construction – which is precisely why language varies by region. Basically, Percy felt that the key to the essence of man lay somewhere along the ever-narrowing spectrum of language and psychology and how the two interact and influence one another. If this dichotomy could collapse and the two bookends coalesce, we might finally know something about ourselves. But the gap remains.

In talking about the fundamental phenomenon of language (which is really the fundamental phenomenon of abstraction), Percy uses the phrase, “The Delta Factor.” The Greek letter Delta translates to "irreducibility," which is exactly what language implies; it is the very building block of our awareness of the world, how we negotiate with it, and how we navigate its murky waters. Thus, The Delta Factor allows for the construction of language, while simultaneously separating us from every other organism in existence. It elevates us, but we rarely examine the origins of our exalted state, choosing instead to focus on how similar we are to dolphins.

You: “Stop blathering. Shut up and explain it, Kyle.”

Kyle: “Okay.”

Language as Transcendental Signified

Regardless of what B.F. Skinner would you have you believe, when chimpanzees speak, they are not engaging in language, but a learned, and appropriate, response to certain stimuli. True language lies in the ability to abstract – to  implement context as well as ignore it, to quickly recall key events in our world and then forget them just as swiftly, to understand the difference between the infinitesimal and the infinite and the implications of both. Certain primates can develop a vocabulary, but only one that is based purely on a linear behavioral model. Response is not abstraction, it is instinct.

For instance, does an ape have the ability to speak in metaphor? Of course not. Why not? The ability to stretch meaning, or create entirely new meaning, is an exclusively human occurrence. When was the last time a monkey told a knock-knock joke? Exactly. Yet, for some insane reason, many linguisticians are far more concerned with pointing out the similarities between man and beast than the much more prolific and prominent differences.

What would a dolphin make of this stanza?

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,           
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes   
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,   
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains” – T.S. Eliot (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

Fog doesn't have vertebrae, but a dolphin doesn't know that.

When we speak, think, and feel, there's something much deeper happening than surface level communication - of which, I don't deny that other species are primitively capable. The distinction here is made possible by the genesis of thought, The Delta Factor. The Delta Factor is what connects a sound-word with an image; it's the origin of abstraction; it's everything that a sign is, has been, or will ever be. It's the mysterious human element of not only language, but likely that of the very essence of man.

Break on Through

In explaining The Delta Factor, Walker Percy uses the example of Helen Keller's breakthrough with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Percy is fixated on that instant when Helen finally understood that there was more than simply a causal relationship between the words Annie was signing into her open palm and a simultaneously occurring sensory event. Water was spelled into her left hand and poured over her right, and she finally understood that it was more than a relationship between these two separate things, but that these two things weren't separate at all. The word was water, but it was also just a word. A paradox to be sure, but the fact that you even know what a paradox is proves that there is something larger happening here. Only humans have the ability or the inclination to act as contrarians - and we do so gladly! But, I digress.

To categorize is to negate, yet this is the favorite pastime of mankind. Create. Categorize. Destroy. Repeat until we are simultaneously decimated by hyperbole and entropy.

Helen did not just know water in the immediate sense; the word was what fills the bathtub, what splashes down on us in the spring, what she drank from the well, and what flows down the river. She actively participated as the missing link in coupling the signifier and the signified, and she projected this realization into a new realm of abstraction; she instantly transformed from a being relying on a linear structure of cause and effect to an enlightened human operating within a triadic scheme of language. After her moment of clarity, she began to experience emotions that she never knew existed. Whereas she'd previously only known base instinctual needs such as hunger and frustration, upon developing an awareness of language, she instantly felt remorse, guilt, and sorrow over the doll that she had destroyed earlier that very day - emotions she'd never even new existed. Language served as the canal for her rebirth after a prolonged gestation period in utter solitude, but abstraction was the oxygen that gave her new life. Percy believes this is the pivotal event that we all experience, although usually much earlier in life, and that it is this event that puts on the path toward developing our essence.

Rabbit Holes and Dark Spaces

Percy is probably on to something, but we'll never know for sure, because our essence remains a mystery. We can focus on the circuitry of our brains until we are blue in the face, but that is merely a practice predicated on defining certain terms to give the illusion that we’ve gained a greater understanding. Language is really a concept we use to decipher other concepts, an invisible idea that could mean a million different things to a million different people, but could also be used to share our experience as humans. We name everything, but we don’t really know anything about ourselves – other than what Aristotle referred to as “accidental elements” - things that are a part of us but don’t define our essence (i.e. hair color). Definition and categorization don’t lead us to a greater understanding of our world; they simply allow us to feel more comfortable with the unknown.

To categorize is to negate, yet this is the favorite pastime of mankind. Create. Categorize. Destroy. Repeat until we are simultaneously decimated by hyperbole and entropy. Definition through comparative negations tells us nothing about that which is actually happening when you and I point at the Honda in the parking lot and simultaneously refer to it as a car. The car is there, we both recognize the word-sound “car,” but we cannot know what has happened in our brain that has coupled these two unrelated things together, nor why we understand one another. Language is vital to the human experience, but ultimately futile in teaching us anything about what that means until we are able to unlock the seminal event of its existence. Understanding the essence of abstraction will allow us to understand the essence of ourselves.

Language is the key to the door in the dark room, but we're yet to find the lock, much less turn the key. What's lurking outside these four walls is what propels us, but maybe it’s what's inside them that we should be paying attention to.


Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle. "The Delta Factor." New York: Picador, 1975. Print.

More from Kyle McCarthy from SLN Others Are Reading


  • Wow, isn't it amazing how different we are from the rest of the animals? Such amazing things that our brains can do. We can theorize, contemplate, and learn all in the same breath. Beautiful, really.

  • Who we are is a collection of stories.

  • "Yet, we continue to scratch the walls in desperate pursuit of what we will never achieve. What's worse is that what lies outside of our limited perspective doesn't give a damn about our relentless desire for understanding and would reveal nothing even if it did."

    As always, a great concept peace; heavy and poignant. I do take issue with the idea that we will never be able to transcend our current form due to the unbridgeable dichotomy between psychology and language though. Not very long ago our truest forefathers walked upon two legs without a cerebral cortex in much the same way as the animals we now use for intellectual pursuits. Somewhere along the line they stumbled upon an internal/external factor that encouraged the growth of the area of the brain needed to think abstractly and here we are, discussing our own awareness of self and what the hell that even means.

    To discount the possibility of evolution, both metaphysical and physical, is pretty classic modern human. Due to our massive leap in technological prowess over the last few centuries, we have become "full" of ourselves and the belief that we have reached some type of pinnacle. This is unfortunate is many ways, especially when discussing the possibility of truly knowing who we are.

    I couldn't begin to postulate what the next form of our evolution will look like, but I can say, based on precedent, that it will take us a step closer to knowing what it means to be human. Until that point, I hold that we should always recognize the possibility that it will happen, especially in discussions on existence and the almighty "why."

  • Rex: It's totally unbelievable, and it really makes me wonder why we're so concerned with comparing ourselves to them. I don't care if that sounds elitist. I am a human and my dog is a dog. There is a MAAAAAAJOR difference, and it shouldn't be politically incorrect to point toward this fact.

    Erin: Well said, and very true. But I'm still interested in the ontology of these stories, namely the development and process of language as a way of telling them.

    Neal: You're right about one thing: Whenever we enter the realm of absolutes, we close ourselves off to the world of possibility (or, at the very least, plausibility). However, what I'm talking about when I talk about this collapse or coalescence is really more a comment about what many people refer to as the soul (not the best word for it, true, but a recognizable, and therefore, serviceable one) - something that I think is likely to remain unknowable... Certainly while we remain in within our physical bodies.

    I should never say never, but it's called the metaphysical for a reason.

  • I certainly respect those philosophies that discount the idea of ever truly knowing who we are, but I can not jump on board with them. I can not look at all the questions faced in this life and believe that there are no answers for every single one of them. Will I ever know them all? Of course not, but the attempt is what makes life worth living. If I were to accept that the truth of our existence was unknowable, a significant portion of the beauty that is life would be lost to me.

  • Neal: The attempt is what makes life worth living. We are species set in motion to discover the varying degrees of truth that permeate our environment, yet we seem to be afraid or unable to ever look inward for the truth, to begin at the beginning. Everything may be knowable, but we're going about it the wrong way by basing our method on comparative analysis. It MUST be possible to isolate the essence of something without discussing its position in relation to something else, but I can't really think of an instance where we do that. It seems that our current mode of thought is incapable of viewing things through clear, singular prism. We can only know "this" insofar as its likeness or dissimilarity to "that."

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