Language: Its Function
Kuyper wrote Principles of
Sacred Theology in the late 1890s to expound the details of
a truly Biblical encyclopedia—the development of the “mind of
Christ” within the entire body of Christ that would be developed
over the entire history of mankind.
Within this development he defines “science”* as, “a
necessary and even-continued impulse in the human mind to
reflect within itself the cosmos, plastically as to its
elements, and to think it through logically as to its relations;
always with the understanding that the human mind is capable of
this by reason of its organic affinity to its object.”
Following this statement he begins to discuss the role of
language in this development—which follows here.
“If a single
man could perform this gigantic task in one moment of time, and
if there were no difficulties to encounter, immediate and
complete knowledge would be conceivable without
memory and without
But since this intellectual task laps across the ages, is
divided among many thousands of thinkers , and amid all sorts of
difficulties can make but very slow progress—science is not
conceivable without memory
and language. With the
flight of time neither science by representation nor science by
conception can be retained with any permanency, unless we have
some means by which to retain these representation and
this retention is accomplished immediately by what we call
memory, or mediately by signs, pictures, or writing, which
recall to us at any moment like representations and conceptions,
is immaterial as for as the result is concerned.
In either case the action goes out
from our human mind.
The fact that representations and conceptions are
recognized from the page shows that our mind has maintained its
relation to them, although in a different way from common
“remembrance.” If we
had become estranged from them we would
not recognize what had
then our mind is more active in what we call “memory,” and more
passive in the recognition of what has been recorded, it is in
both cases the action of the same faculty of our mind which
either with or without the help of means, retains the
representation of conception and hold it permanently as
Observe, however, that in our present state at least, this
stored treasure is sure to corrode when kept in the memory
without aids for retention.
This is shown by the fact that we find it easier to
retain a representation than a conception; and that our memory
encounters the greatest difficulties in retaining names and
signs, which give neither a complete representation nor a
complete conception, but which in relation to each are always
more or less arbitrarily chosen.
Finally, as to the record of the contents of our
consciousness outside of us, representations and conceptions
each follows a way of their own.
representation expresses itself by art in the
image, the conception
by language in the word.
This distinction maintains its full force, even though by
writing the word
acquires in part the nature of the image, and by
description the image acquires in part the nature of the word.
The word is written in figures, even if these are but
signs, and the figure can also be pictured by the poet in words.
From this intermingling
of two domains, it is seen once more how close this alliance is
between representations and conception, in consequence of the
oneness of the action by which the understanding
(facultas intelligendi) directs itself in turn to the elements in the
cosmos and the relations between these elements.”
(Ed: Might we then say that language is the
soma of the
however, does not imply that language serves no higher purpose
than to aid the memory in securing the capital once acquired by
our consciousness against the destructive inroads of time.
The function of language … make(s) the fund of our
representations and conceptions (the sum total of all thoughts)
the common property of man, and thus to raise his individual
condition to the common possession of the general consciousness
of humanity. Without
language, the human race falls atomistically apart, and it is
only by language that the organic communion, in which the
members of the human race stand to each other, expresses itself…
The consciousness of one actually imparts to the
consciousness of the other what it has observed and thought out;
of its representations therefore, this language has the two
fundamental forms of image and word; it being quite immaterial
whether the image is a mere indication, a rough sign, or a
finely wrought form.
A motion of the hand, a sign, a look of the eyes, a facial
expression, are parts of human language.
it be overlooked that language
without words has a
broad advantage over language
While language in words serves your purpose as far as the
knowledge of your own language extends, the language of symbol
is universally intelligible, even to the deaf and dumb, with
only the blind excepted…. The union of
word will ever be the
most perfect means of communication between the consciousness of
one and of another.
And communion can become so complete that a given content may be
perfectly transmitted from the consciousness of one into that of
another. (Ed: If
Kuyper could only have known the possibilities of uniting word
and image—as sound and picture—beginning early in the 20th
difficulty arises only when instead of being borrowed from the
morphological part of the cosmos, the content of your
communication is taken from the amorphic or asomatic part of the
cosmos (Ed: pure cognition); such as, when you try to convey to
others your impressions and perceptions of the world of the
true, the good, and the beautiful.
We have no proper means at our command by which to
reproduce the elements of this amorphic cosmos, so that by the
aid of symbolism we must resort to
analogies and other
utterances of mind which are forever incomplete.
This renders the relations among these elements
continually uncertain, so that our conceptions of these
relations are never entirely clear, while nevertheless a
tendency arises to interpret this amorphic cosmos as consisting
purely of conceptions…. Language in its widest sense is the indispensable means both of
communication between the consciousness of one and that of
another, and for the generalization of the human consciousness
in which all science* roots.
language by itself would only accomplish this task within the bounds
of a very limited circle and for a brief period of time, if it
had not received the means of perpetuating itself in
writing and in printing.
Not the spoken but
only the written word surmounts the difficulty of distance
between places and times. (Ed’s emphasis) No doubt language
possessed in tradition a means by which it could pass on from
mouth to mouth, and from age to age; especially in the fixed
tradition of song; but this was ever extremely defective.
Carving or painting on stone, wood, or canvas was
undoubtedly a more enduring form; but the full, rich content of
what the human consciousness had grasped, experienced, and
thought could only be made ecumenic and perpetual with any
degree of accuracy and completeness, when wondrous
writing provided the
means by which to objectify the content of the consciousness
outside of self and to fix it.
naturally began with the representation and only gradually
learned to reproduce conceptions by the indication of sounds.
Thus image and word were ever more sharply distinguished,
till at length with civilized nations the hieroglyphic language
of images and the sound-indicating language of words have become
two. And no finer
and higher development than this is conceivable.
The two actions of our consciousness, that of observing
the elements and of thinking out their relations, which at first
were commingled in their reproduction, are now clearly
distinguished, and while art is bent upon an ever more complete
reproduction of our representations, writing and printing offer
us an entirely sufficient means of the reproduction of our
this does not exhibit the highest function of
language for human
life in general and for science in particular.
Language does not derive its highest significance from
the fact that it enables us to retain and to collect the
representations and conceptions of our consciousness; nor yet
from the fact that in this way it serves as the means of
communication between the consciousness of one and the
consciousness of another; but much more from the fact that
language makes the content of our consciousness our property.
It is one thing in the first stage of development to know
that there are all sorts of sensations, perceptions,
impressions, and distinctions in our consciousness, which we
have neither assimilated nor classified.
And it is quite another thing to have entered upon that
second stage of our development in which we have transposed this
content of our consciousness into representations and
“And it is by
language only that our consciousness effects this mighty
transformation, by which the way is paved for the real progress
of all science; and this is done partly already by the language
of words; and thus by the combined action of the imagination and
thought. In this
connection we also refer to the action of the imagination, for
though ordinarily we attach a creative meaning to the
imagination, so that it imagines something that does not exist, the figurative
representation of something we have perceived belongs to this
selfsame action of our mind.
Representation surpasses the mere perception, in that it
presents the image as a unit and in some external relation, and
is in so far always in part a product also of our thought, but
only in so far as our thought is susceptible of plastic
Hence in the representation our
ego sees a
morphological something that belongs to the content of our
consciousness, the representation by itself is not sufficient
for our ego; we must also logically understand the object; and this is not
conceivable without the forming of the conception.
And this very forming of the conceptions, and the whole
work which our mind then undertakes with these conceptions,
would be absolutely inconceivable, if the
language of words did
not offer us the means to objectify for ourselves what is
present in our consciousness as the result of
to the manipulation of languages, we may well be able to follow
up a series of thoughts and partly arrange them in order,
without whispering or writing a word, but this is merely the
outcome of mental power acquired by the use of language.
When the content of our logical consciousness is
objectified in language, this objectification reflects itself in
our consciousness, which enables us to think without words; but
by itself we cannot
do without the word.
Since we are partly psychic and partly somatic, it is by virtue
of our two-fold nature that psychic thought seeks a body for
itself in the word, and only in the finest commingling of our
psychic and somatic being does our
ego grasp with
clearness the content of our logical consciousness.
The development of thinking and speaking keeps equal pace
with the growing child, and only a people with a richly
developed language can produce deep thinkers.
grant that there are persons whose speech is both fluent and
meaningless, and that on the other hand there are those who
think deeply and find great difficulty in expressing themselves
clearly; but this phenomenon presents no objection to our
assertion, since language is the product of the nation as a
whole, and during the period of his educational development, the
individual merely grows into the language and thereby into the
world of thought peculiar to his people.
No reckonings therefore can be made with what is peculiar
to the few.
The relation between language and thought bears a
general character, and
only after generalization can it be critically examined.”
Principle of Sacred Theology, Baker Book House Edition, 1980, pages
“science” used herein is the broader concept of systemized study
of any subject, not limited to the
natural sciences that
we mean today.