NL VI: “Language”

Index to this series

This is about the first section of Chapter VI, “Language,” of The New Leviathan. The whole chapter can be ana­lyzed into five sections, with §N consisting of those paragraphs numbered 6. N or 6. NX. I summarize the sections as follows:

  1. Language is an abstraction from discourse. Discourse is an activity together with what is meant by it. (¶¶6. 1–19)
  2. Through language, we become conscious of our feelings. Becoming conscious of our language is another step, which is taken by artists. (¶¶6. 2–29)
  3. A feeling is not “mediated” by the language we use for it. (¶¶6. 3–36)
  4. Hobbes discovered that language is prior to knowledge. (¶¶6. 4–47)
  5. Those who dispute this finding over­look that not all language is rational. (¶¶6. 5–59)

I expect to say more about all of these sections, eventually. For now, my specific remarks below take the first section as their point of departure.

Collingwood’s earlier book The Principles of Art (1938) culminates in the identification of art with language. In Chapter VI of The New Leviathan (1942), Collingwood does not refer to the earlier book or its conclusion. However, I do not suppose Collingwood now disagrees with anything he said before. Why does he not now quote his earlier book?

In my notes on The New Leviathan so far, I have quoted from most of Collingwood’s books. The quotations are just snapshots. A photograph taken on a mountaintop in Switzerland cannot tell you what it is like to be on that mountaintop. It can remind you of the feeling, if you have had it. Or it can help you assemble such a feeling from the various feelings that you have had.

Niesen, Berne, Switzerland, July, 2008.  Photograph by Ayşe Berkman

Niesen, Berne, Switzerland, July, 2008. Photograph by Ayşe Berkman

I like to have photographs of the pleasant places that I visit, but the photograph itself cannot capture the scene: thinking must do this.

By Collingwood’s own account, his writings are not strings of propositions, each proposition being intended as true (but possibly being false). If his writings were such, then he could cite a few true propositions from The Principles of Art in The New Leviathan. However, he takes issue with the “propositional” analysis of language in Chapter V, “Question and Answer,” of An Autobiography (1939), as follows:

…Meaning, agreement and contra­diction, truth and falsehood, none of these belonged to propositions in their own right, propositions by themselves; they belonged only to propositions as the answers to questions: each proposition answering a question strictly correlative to itself.

Here I parted company with what I called propositional logic, and its offspring the generally recognized theories of truth. According to propositional logic (under which denomination I include the so-called ‘traditional’ logic, the ‘idealistic’ logic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the ‘symbolic’ logic of the nineteenth and twentieth), truth or falsehood, which are what logic is chiefly concerned with, belongs to propositions as such. This doctrine was often expressed by calling the proposition the ‘unit of thought’, meaning that if you divide it up into parts such as subject, copula, predicate, any of these parts taken singly is not a complete thought, that is, not capable of being true or false.

It seemed to me that this doctrine was a mistake due to the early partnership between logic and grammar. The logician’s proposition seemed to me a kind of ghostly double of the grammarian’s sentence, just as in primitive speculation about the mind people imagine minds as ghostly doubles of bodies…logicians have almost always tried to conceive the ‘unit of thought’, or that which is either true or false, as a kind of logical ‘soul’ whose linguistic ‘body’ is the indicative sentence.

I pause to note that we have seen this kind of ridicule in Chapter II, “The Relation Between Body and Mind,” of The New Leviathan. Collingwood continues in An Autobiography with a new paragraph:

This attempt to correlate the logical pro­position with the grammatical indicative sentence has never been altogether satisfactory. There have always been people who saw that the true ‘unit of thought’ was not the proposition but something more complex in which the proposition served as answer to a question. Not only Bacon and Descartes, but Plato and Kant, come to mind as examples…

Even apart from this, however, logic has never been able to assert a de facto one-one relation between propositions and indicative sentences. It has always maintained that the words actually used by a man on a given occasion in order to express his thought may be ‘elliptical’ or ‘pleonastic’ or in some other way not quite in accordance with the rule that one sentence should express one proposition. It is generally held, again, that indicative sentences in a work of fiction, professing to be that and nothing more, do not express propositions. But when these and other qualifications have been made, this can be described as the central doctrine of propositional logic: that there is, or ought to be, or in a well-constructed and well-used language would be,1 a one-one correspondence between pro­positions and indicative sentences…

1 Hence that numerous and frightful offspring of propositional logic out of illiteracy, the various attempts at a ‘logical language’, beginning with the pedantry of the text-books about ’reducing a proposition to logical form’, and ending, for the present, in the typographical jargon of Principia Mathematica.

This is the doctrine which is pre­supposed by all the various well-known theories of truth…

All these theories of truth I denied…

A proposition in isolation is not true or false, but must be understood as an answer to a question before it can be evaluated. And yet, if a proposition is not the ghost of an indicative sentence, presumably a question is not the ghost of an interrogative sentence. Collingwood is not arguing that, in proper writing, there should be as many question marks as periods.

The question that I set out to deal with was why Collingwood does not refer to The Principles of Art in The New Leviathan. An answer is that Collingwood’s questions in the two books are different. For Collingwood to insert quotations of the former book in the latter would be to suggest that he believes in propositional logic. What he has to say must be understood in context. What he has to say in The Principles of Art “has been written in the belief that it has a practical bearing, direct or indirect, upon the condition of art in England in 1937, and in the hope that artists primarily, and secondarily persons whose interest in art is lively and sympathetic, will find it of some use to them.” The New Leviathan has a new context: the war with Germany. Both books deal with language, but the argument of the latter book is taken up afresh.

I am currently working on my own book-length document, on the subject of ultraproducts, ostensibly for use in a course of lectures this summer (2014). I prepared a similar document for use in the summer of 2012. But my understanding has developed since then, and I find it difficult to use the old document as it is. Some of the old chapters are independent of the others and can be reused. But I am probably going to end up rewriting much of the old document, not because it has significant mistakes (that I know of), but because I think differently now.

What language is

The first paragraph of Chapter VI of The New Leviathan suggests a change of emphasis from The Principles of Art:

6. 1. By ‘language’ I mean not only speech, that is, language consisting of movements in the mouth-cavity producing sounds; I mean that chiefly, because that is the most highly developed kind of language men possess; but I also mean any system of bodily movements, not necessarily vocal, whereby the men who make them mean or signify anything.

I compare and constrast with §4, “Language and Languages,” of Chapter XI, “Language,” in Book II, “The Theory of Imagination,” of The Principles of Art. Here the emphasis is on primitive or pre-rational language and on the many forms that language in general can take. It is said that in speaking, the French use the lips more; Germans, the throat; Italian peasants, the hands. I am willing to accept this as Collingwood’s experience; for me perhaps it can only be a stereotype. In Italy, I feel as if I am in an Italian movie: does this mean movies portray the country accurately, or have the movies told me how to see the country in the first place? Collingwood observes that national differences in the parts of the body used in language do not reflect any physiological differences. They are an historical accident. This may be taken for granted today; but Collingwood was writing during the rise of “National Socialism.” He continues:

Vocal language is thus only one among many possible languages or orders of languages. Any of these might, by a par­ticular civilization, be developed into a highly organized form of emotional expression. It is sometimes fancied that although any one of these languages might express emotion, vocal language has an exclusive, or at least a pre-eminent, function in the expression of thought. Even if this were true, it would not be of interest at the present stage in our discussion, for we are now dealing with language as it is before being adapted to serve the purposes of thought. As a matter of fact, it is probably not true. There is a story that Buddha once, at the climax of a philosophical discussion, broke into gesture-language as an Oxford philo­sopher may break into Greek: he took a flower in his hand, and looked at it; one of his disciples smiled, and the master said to him, ‘You have understood me.’

The original language of total bodily gesture

In The New Leviathan, we are interested in language as adapted to serve the purposes of thought. We want to think our way out of subjection to the Nazis and Fascists. Before proceeding though, I want to consider the etymological fallacy that language must be an activity merely of the langue, the lingua, the tongue. Later in the section of The Principles of Art quoted above, Collingwood elaborates:

I said that ‘the dance is the mother of all languages’; this demands further explanation. I meant that every kind or order of language (speech, gesture, and so forth) was an offshoot from an original language of total bodily gesture. This would have to be a language in which every movement and every stationary poise of every part of the body had the same kind of significance which movements of the vocal organs possess in a spoken language. A person using it would be speaking with every part of himself.

The “language of total bodily gesture” is “original,” not historically, but logically. It is the language that we in fact use, although we may not be conscious of the significance of every part of our body when we speak. Collingwood’s paragraph continues:

Now, in calling this an ‘original’ language, I am not indulging (God forbid) in that kind of a priori archaeology which attempts to recon­struct man’s distant past without any archaeological data. I do not place it in the remote past. I place it in the present. I mean that each one of us, whenever he expresses himself, is doing so with his whole body, and is thus actually talking in this ‘original’ language of total bodily gesture. This may seem absurd. Some peoples, we know, cannot talk without waving their hands and shrugging their shoulders and waving their bodies about, but others can and do. That is no objection to what I am saying. Rigidity is a gesture, no less than movement. If there were people who never talked unless they were standing stiffly at attention, it would be because that gesture was expressive of a permanent emotional habit which they felt obliged to express concurrently with any other emotion they might happen to be expressing. This ‘original’ language of total bodily gesture is thus the one and only true language, which everybody who is in any way expressing himself is using all the time. What we call speech and the other kinds of language are only parts of it which have undergone specialized development; in this specialized development they never come altogether detached from the parent organism.

Rigidity is sometimes not a gesture, but a medical condition: paralysis. If this does need to be pointed out, it is because we do expect people to express themselves with their whole bodies, and we see rigidity as a form of expression.


Elsewhere in the quoted section of The Principles of Art, Collingwood observes, “The habit of going heavily clothed cramps the expressiveness of all bodily parts except the face.” This is especially so of the women I see in Istanbul who are covered head to toe in a black sheet. I have seen no such women among the students at our university; but among those students, the majority of whom are women, a few women do cover every bit of their hair in a scarf.

Some young women do this only after they have been with us for a semester or a year. For all I know, under the influence of their friends, they have embraced asceticism, like the followers of the Straight Edge movement within punk rock during my youth in Washington. I have already looked ahead at Chapter XIII, “Choice,” of The New Leviathan; now it is relevant to do so again:

13. 67. There is a stage of mental growth at which self-respect is precarious. The conquest of desire is achieved, but there is, or is fancied to be, a danger that some desire more powerful than the rest may break loose and take charge.1

1 ‘To get out of control and act automatically esp. with disastrous or destructive effect’ (O.E.D., Supplement, art. ‘Charge’, §13). Sailor’s language. A heavy cask e.g. ‘takes charge’ when it breaks loose in a seaway and rushes from side to side of the ship, defeating efforts to secure it.

13. 68. Fear of this is a motive for the asceticism which is common at this stage, when men try to bolster up their self-respect by deliberately doing things they would rather not. This impulse dies away at mental maturity.

The OED Supplement reads as Collingwood says in his footnote. The Supplement’s illustrative quotations are from the Daily News of 1890 and 1897. In each case the context is nautical, and the phrase “take charge” is in inverted commas, evidently as being colloquial. In the original OED, §13 of the article on Charge gives its meaning in “take charge” as “The duty or responsibility of taking care”; and the oldest illustrative quotation is from 1389.

The language of clothing

Meanwhile, in the section of The Principles of Art that I have quoted, there is a foot­note on the language of clothing. Among the women in Turkey who cover up their hair and bodies, different individuals say different things by it. A body made amorphous under a loose black sheet says something else from a tight-waisted overcoat and an Italian silk scarf. When some university students cover their hair, I have heard that they wish to show that they are not like their mothers. I think this can be true, whether those mothers wear the headscarf or not.

Billboard on Halaskargazi Caddesi, in Osmanbey, facing towards Taksim, in Istanbul

Billboard on Halaskargazi Caddesi, in Osmanbey, facing towards Taksim, in Istanbul, February 28, 2014

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I should say that most women I see in Turkey do not cover their hair. It is true that there are neighborhoods where the only children playing on the street are boys. And there are private dormitories for women where the headscarf is obligatory. On the other hand, sometimes it seems as if most women cover their legs only in spandex.

Billboard in Ankara for a lingerie shop.  Photo taken on May Day, 2010

Billboard in Ankara for a lingerie shop. Photo taken on May Day, 2010

In the same footnote in The Principles of Art on the language of clothing, Colling­wood writes:

It may be worth while to point out that in the liberal political theory, where rivalry between policies is dissociated from emotional hostility between the persons supporting them, it is essential that parties should not be dis­tinguished by uniforms. Put your parties in uniform, and the difference of their policies becomes at once a less important division between them than their emotional hostility.

Collingwood will elaborate on the liberal theory in The New Leviathan. Meanwhile, I would note the wrong that American politicians do in travelling abroad on official business wearing an American-flag lapel-pin. Or maybe it is not a wrong, if it is intended as a sign that what they seek is not international harmony, but American dominance.

Language as system

Having become a fan of Collingwood through The Principles of Art, I am con­cerned that, in The New Leviathan, Collingwood refers to language as a system. A system has to be worked out before it can be used, and this working out is done with language. Thus language as such is not a system. Actually Collingwood does not say otherwise. It is a language that is a system:

6. 11. A language is an abstraction from discourse, which is the activity by which a man means anything; a language is the system adopted, the means employed, the rules followed, in this activity.

I think Collingwood could have put the first clause thus: “A language is an abstraction from language.” In other words, Colling­wood uses the word “discourse” where the word “language” could also be used, provided the indefinite article “a/an” is not used.

“Language” is one of the nouns that have two meanings, one “concrete,” one “abstract.” Used concretely, one of these nouns will be given an article or made plural: green is a color, namely the color of leaves in summer; green and purple are colors. But the distinction between green and purple is a distinction in color: here we use the noun abstractly. Likewise, Greek is a language, and the distinction between Greek and Chinese is a distinction in language.

But a color like green is itself an abstraction from various particular colors, or instances of color, such as the color of a fig leaf or a pine needle or new grass. Similarly, a language like English is an abstraction from various instances: books, lectures, conver­sations. These instances could themselves be called language; but Collingwood calls them discourse.

He says of a lexicographer’s definitions of words, “they rest on correct usage as already existing; they cannot be guides to correct usage except for persons ignorant of the language in question” (¶6. 16). Here is the shade of Collingwood’s warning in Chapter I: in the study of mind, we are all qualified to check the answers to all questions.

Many people seem to think that the correctness or incorrectness of their language is something determined by an external authority. I am afraid they get this idea from teachers who delight in being the boss of the classroom. For English speakers at least, English class ought to be like art class. Unfortunately a further qualification is needed, since there are art classes where students are required to draw or paint exactly what the teacher tells them, in a specified style. In any case, English class is an art class, since language is art. The goal should be, not to learn somebody else’s rules, but to learn how to say what you want to say.

This just in: an article in The Atlantic by Michelle Navarre Cleary, February 25, 2014, seems to agree with me:

A century of research shows that traditional grammar lessons—those hours spent diagramming sentences and memorizing parts of speech—don’t help and may even hinder students’ efforts to become better writers…

These students are victims of the mistaken belief that grammar lessons must come before writing, rather than grammar being something that is best learned through writing…

Happily, there are solutions. Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write gram­matically by letting them write. Once students get ideas they care about onto the page, they are ready for instruction—including grammar instruction—that will help com­municate those ideas. We know that grammar instruction that works includes teaching students strategies for revising and editing, providing targeted lessons on problems that students immediately apply to their own writing, and having students play with sentences like Legos, combining basic sentences into more complex ones. Often, surprisingly little formal grammar instruction is needed. Researcher Marcia Hurlow has shown that many errors “disappear” from student writing when students focus on their ideas and stop “trying to ‘sound correct.’”

Meaning one thing by another

The first section of Chapter VI of The New Leviathan ends by pointing out the two aspects of language. They are not two parts, any more than body and mind are two parts of a human being. Rather:

6. 19. Discourse is thus two things at once. It is the activity of meaning something (a) by something else (b), where meaning a is an act of theo­retical consciousness, and b is a practical activity, the production in oneself or others of a flow of sounds or the like which serve you as the vehicle of that meaning.

I would just note for now that this analysis is a posteriori. For Collingwood, the question “Why did people decide that this word was appropriate for this meaning?” is nonsense (¶6. 18). Before it had its meaning, the so-called word was not a word.

In the footnote to ¶13. 67 quoted above, Collingwood forestalls the reader’s pre­sumption that “to take charge” means to assume responsibility. He tells us it means to get out of control. In short, the word “charge” does not have its usual meaning. But we have just indicated that a word does not put on a meaning like a suit of clothes. There is no word without a meaning. Strictly then, we should say that the word denoted by “charge” is not the one we might have thought.

Collingwood takes this point to the extreme in The Principles of Art, in §7, “The Grammatical Analysis of Language,” of the same chapter, “Language,” quoted above:

Lexicography. Every word, as it actually occurs in discourse, occurs once and once only. But if the dissection is skilfully carried out, there will be words here and there which are so alike one another that they can be treated as recurrences of the same word. Thus we get a new fiction: the recurring word, the entity which forms the lexi­cographer’s unit…

Elsewhere in the chapter, Collingwood points out that proper speech comes with a tone of voice. What is the tone of Collingwood’s writing here? Obviously he does appreciate the scholarship of a work like the OED. But we should understand how that scholarship proceeds. The parts of speech are not given; rather:

…The division of the ‘thing’ known as language into words is a division not discovered, but devised, in the process of analysing it.

This was from two paragraphs earlier in the section just quoted. Collingwood says the same thing in The New Leviathan. Strictly, it is almost the same thing; now there is a useful analogy:

6. 14. Discourse begins by being a continuous activity, and is only after­wards dissected into parts, just as a visual field begins by being a continuous feeling and is only afterwards dissected into colour-patches; in each case the dissection is done by the same agency, viz. an activity of selective attention.

What it means for discourse to mean something will be taken up later.

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Collingwood, The New Leviathan (1942) « Polytropy on February 27, 2014 at 3:41 pm

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  2. By NL VI: “Language,” again « Polytropy on March 31, 2014 at 11:33 am

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  4. By NL V: “The Ambiguity of Feeling” « Polytropy on January 25, 2019 at 5:44 am

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