Chatwin And Nietzsche On Metaphors, Words, And Concepts

Writing of the Yaghan people and Thomas BridgesYaghan Dictionary, Bruce Chatwin writes:

Finding in primitive languages a dearth of words for moral ideas, many people assumed these ideas did not exist, but the concepts of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ so essential to Western thought are meaningless unless they are rooted to things. The first speakers of language took the raw material of their surroundings and pressed it into metaphor to suggest abstract ideas. The Yaghan tongue–and by inference all language–proceeds as a system of navigation. Named things are fixed points, aligned or compared, which allow the speaker to plot the next move.  [In Patagonia, Penguin, New York, 1977, pp. 136]

Chatwin then goes on to describe some of the extraordinarily rich range of metaphorical allusion found in the Yaghan language. His analysis finds resonance in Nietzsche‘s thoughts on language in ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘:

What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds….One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one….It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities….Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases…Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf.”

The Yaghan language helps its speakers and users plot and live a particular a form of life. If it at all it is infected by a ‘dearth of moral ideas’ it is not because the moral–or aesthetic–concepts in question are lacking. Rather, the concept is manifest in altogether another fashion: the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’ are visible and operative in its concrete instances, as examples of what to do and what not to do, in what worked and did not, in that which helped and that which was unhelpful, in that which was praiseworthy or not. A nominalistic language then, is not inferior to one that traffics more extravagantly with universals; it is merely more nominalistic; it has evolved to suit and conform to, another way of life, of doing things, of relating to a very particular environment in a particular time and place. The language of universals, as Nietzsche notes, has not brought us closer to reality’s ‘ultimate forms’ – whatever that may mean.  

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