Monday, September 15, 2014

Urban: Language and Reality (1938)

The American philosopher Wilbur Urban seems to have been one of the most vocal advocates for the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer in the English-speaking world. Most references I've seen to his work point to the 1938 book Language and Reality.

I haven't familiarized myself very much with this massive book, but it seems that its general thesis is that a phenomenological metaphysics can be reconstructed on the basis of a careful analysis of language. This involves, among other things, an inspection of what he calls "radical metaphor."

Wilbur M. Urban; uncredited photo snatched from this website.

Urban writes:
It has repeatedly been pointed out that metaphor, in the sense here understood, must be clearly distinguished from metaphor in the conscious reflective activity of the poet. It is rather the unconscious activity that is creative in language itself. (p. 176)
The essence of radical metaphor is that it is intuitive and involves the intuitive meaning which we analysed out and described in the preceding chapter. This is seen especially in the Erlebnis-Wert of the adjective. The transfer of the coldness of ice to the coldness of a reception, the height of a tree or mountain to nobility, the dirt of the streets to the dirt of the Yellow Press—in all such cases we recognize a certain natural affinity or likeness between the objects which makes the transferences natural and even inevitable. (p. 177)
It is true that such transfers may often be conceptually justified, but such a "verification" is always ex post facto. The transfer of the cold of the ice to the cold of a reception … may be thus justified. It consists in arguing that when A is to B as C is to D, the name A can be used to indicate C. But such validation is significantly different from the self-authenticating process by which the transfer takes place. (p. 178)
A recurring theme in these analyses is that language "moves upwards" in the sense of transferring meaning from concrete, physical concepts to more abstract or "spiritual" ones. Thus:
The general upward movement of language "from the physical to the spiritual," the transfer of names, analogical predication with the accompanying development of ontological predicates, creates an entire region or universe or discourse which is post-logical or metalogical in this sense. (p. 331)
… this "figurative" use of language is not so much a fanciful expression for something otherwise known, as the means of apprehending and fixating new aspects and meanings. The natural movement of language, the upward movement as we described it, is from the physical to the spiritual. All words are physical in their origin and have a physical reference. It is through metaphorical transfer that they acquire their new references, their second intentions, but they acquire these new references because they becomes the vehicle for the intuition and description or expression of new entities. (p. 345)
But these very figurative expressions are expressions precisely because they are representative, or rather constitutive, of the intuitions themselves. Here intuition and expression are one, for the reason that the figurative expression itself is part of the apprehension or knowing. (p. 345)
Although Urban muddles the point a bit, I think his take on the relation between metaphorical language and thought is that the language influences the thought. At least, this is what he appears to be focus on most of the time, perhaps because it is the most controversial direction of the claim.

His remark about "expressions" does seem to indicate, however, that he has some kind of phenomenological authenticity criterion in mind too. This could mean that he also considers figurative language to be an expression of certain cognitive "intuitions," although these intuitions may also, in a circular fashion, have been put there by the language shared by a given culture.

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