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Language: Its Function in Encyclopedia†


Abraham Kuyper


Abraham 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 spoken language.  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 conceptions.  Whether 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 been chronicled. 


“Although 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 accumulated capital.  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.


“The 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 psyche?)


“This, 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.


“But should it be overlooked that language without words has a broad advantage over language in words.  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 image and 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 century!)


“The real 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.  (Ed’s emphasis)  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.


“But 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.


“This writing 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 conceptions.”


“But even  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 conceptions.


“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 objectification.  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 thought.


“Being used 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.


“We readily 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.”


†From Principle of Sacred Theology, Baker Book House Edition, 1980, pages 84-89.


*The word “science” used herein is the broader concept of systemized study of any subject, not limited to the natural sciences that we mean today.



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