The Place of Forms and the Form of Life

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. (Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Words only have meaning in the context of a life. Your words matter to me not just because they matter to you but because I use those same words to similar ends. We are here with each other, each in our own way. Our words, Heidegger pointed out, are part of the “equipmental contexture” of our existence; even our most theoretical pursuits are subject to our moods and require material resources. Our language is invested with the significance of the things and people we rely on to carry on our work.

Heidegger also taught us that human existence (Dasein, being-there) is a “place of forms” (topos eidon in Greek), a locus of ideas, a site of meaning. All of us are meeting places for ideas, our own and always also those of others. And, as William Carlos Williams famously said, there are “no ideas but in things”, i.e., ideas come to us in the significance of the things we find in our environment. We are simply the clearing in which they come to light. Our words are illuminated by this significance, just as our lives are. When we write we share that light with others.

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,” said Wittgenstein. Much of his work consisted of getting us to imagine various “language games”, i.e., activities in which words might be used in particular ways and in which their meaning would arise out of their use. “Speaking a language is part of an activity, or a form of life.” If that activity involves tools and materials of various kinds then those things (and the way we use them) will contribute to the meaning of the words we use (and the way we use them). To make myself understood by you I must understand your form of life.

Writers must discover this again and again. Kenneth Burke approached literature as “equipment for living”; Roland Barthes argued that “writing is essentially the morality of form”. “A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway, “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” That is, the writer must find a way to arrange words such that what they mean in the context of the writer’s life remains when they are thrown into the context of the reader’s life.

Technical language (the language of the science, for example) is really just ordinary language used in the context of some specialized equipment. The language will include the names of the dials and switches on the machines we use to engage with the world and the instructions for using them correctly. This includes things like “interview transcripts” and “intercoder reliability”. To the right person, which is to say, the person who leads the right kind of life, properly trained in the methods we deploy, these concepts are meaningful in the ordinary way. Their “meaning is use,” as Wittgenstein might put it.

The words in this post, too, are only meaningful in the context of a particular kind of life. “Yes, the life of a philosopher!” you might say. Fair enough; I suppose I’m being a bit philosophical, and these words will only matter greatly to someone who is interested in such things. But all academics, to a certain degree, are invested in philosophy; and academia, too, is in any case a form of life. It can be useful to have a look around the place now and then, this place of a particular set of forms, this locus of a particular class of ideas. They are “in things” too. Try to find them. They are very close at hand, I promise you.

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