How false teeth make Jesus an only child

The Cat Sat on the Mat

October 10, 2003

John Weightman's privately published book is worth seeking out for several reasons. Not least is its fashionably unfashionable theme. This, if I may risk summing it up in rather different terms from the author's, is the deep pretentiousness of human ignorance, particularly among the more educated strata of western society. Weightman himself describes it somewhat too convolutedly: "The world appears absurd to us, because we have not been let into the secret behind it, nor do we fully understand the operation of the language we use to cope with it."

This is enough to put off readers whose minds have been damaged by first-year philosophy courses. They will complain that it already presupposes that there is a "secret" that would immediately make sense of human existence if only it were revealed to us in a better language than the one(s) we have. That is not, I think, what Weightman believes. The focus of his concern is why, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are no further forward in our understanding of the human condition.

His treatment of the subject is unashamedly Gallocentric. His point of departure is Descartes. The literary scene in postwar France is an ever-present backdrop. Weightman's historical esprit de l'escalier cuts some of the erstwhile giants down to size. Sartre was "enough of a megalomaniac not to be too much worried by the absence of God". Camus was "prone in both his plays and theoretical works to confuse rhetoric with thought". A cynic might say that both weaknesses are now endemic in Parisian intellectuals, whose shallow "anti-bourgeoisism" Weightman excoriates with unconcealed delight.

Weightman's own insistence on the metaphor of language as a "collective prosthesis" (false teeth), together with his academic fondness for footnotes, were for me distractions from the main thrust of the book. Some of the chapters read like an old-fashioned secularist diatribe against religion, and hence will fill many with a feeling of déja vu . But, for Weightman, religious discourse is still the prime example of linguistic hubris. He cites Pope John Paul II's pronouncement - on the basis of no philological evidence - that the Aramaic word translated in the Greek as adelphos meant "cousin" and that therefore, in spite of what the Bible says, Jesus in fact had no siblings. Weightman, himself a distinguished translator, might just as well have cited the ruling of the medieval church against Abelard on the interpretation of a Latin text. Plus ça change .

These are details, but they bear witness to the continuing propagation of a culture in which some authorities are deemed to have a lien on the true meanings of words.

It is within - or in revolt against - such a culture that most of the French intellectuals whom Weightman mentions operate. Absurdism is "a form of Stoicism". He has some sharp digs at Foucault, Derrida and others who have tried to instal rival linguistic absurdities of their own. Sadly, he has nothing to say about Wittgenstein, who pursued the notion of the limits of language further than any Frenchman of that or subsequent generations.

But then, the French never took very kindly to Wittgenstein.

Granted the point about the linguistic hubris of religion, I wish Weightman could have said more about the corresponding linguistic hubris that nowadays pervades the discourse of the sciences - including the so-called sciences of language. He thinks that we lack a "fundamental critique of language", but that such a critique is "beyond our possibilities". He may be right.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.

The Cat Sat on the Mat: Language and the Absurd

Author - John Weightman
Publisher - Weech
15 Kelross Road
London, N5 2QS
Pages - 195
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 9543296 0 0

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