Language, Friendship, and Communion: Eastern and Western Perspectives
What we share as human beings are the unique ability for language and the capacity for friendship. These are like windows opening us up to our essential nature. They are, I suggest, oases in which we can recapture and build new possibilities for dialogue among diverse cultures. Ludwig Wittgenstein said the most difficult thing to… The post Language, Friendship, and Communion: Eastern and Western Perspectives appeared first on VoegelinView.




What we share as human beings are the unique ability for language and the capacity for friendship. These are like windows opening us up to our essential nature. They are, I suggest, oases in which we can recapture and build new possibilities for dialogue among diverse cultures. Ludwig Wittgenstein said the most difficult thing to do is to establish new ways of thinking. He observed how here already ‘we are engaged in a struggle with language.’[1] It is my view that that there is a need to clothe ourselves in a new language of the human person measuring up appropriately to the reality.  The debate on our nature is often reductionist and inadequate. Paul Ricoeur, for instance, speaks of how we often look at human beings in a purely ‘performative’ way forgetting that behind the seemingly powerless person there is, nevertheless, the being who is ‘capable.’[2] Artists like Judith Scott (1943-2005) are a case in point. Curator Leslie Umberger explains how against all the odds she became an artist of great renown. Judith remained in an asylum for thirty-six years since she did not speak ‘conventionally’ because of Down’s syndrome. However, her works embody ‘an alternative language sought and found, and their nuanced ways of speaking benefit from the context of her experience.’[3] Knowing who we are also necessarily involves the ‘other.’ So, this means having regard to the much-forgotten principle of fraternity.[4] Hopefully, we can discard and overcome these problems in understanding and, thereby, come to a richer understanding of who we are as persons. Language and our capability for friendship are, I believe, oases which can be joined up so that the intellectual and spiritual desert around us disappears.
The reality of the human person provides us with an ultimate horizon of meaning. A ‘horizon’ literally denotes a limit, for example, ‘the line at which earth and sky appear to meet.’[5] It is the point beyond which we cannot see but at the same time ‘what lies within one’s horizon is in some measure great’ because it allows us to contemplate ‘the condition and the limitation’ of our knowledge.[6] But I could also say the person is a ‘threshold’ because consideration of the core reality of human beings actually catapults us beyond apparent limitations. The experience of realizing who we are therefore facilitates a breakthrough and movement into a new horizon of understanding. It is into this person-centered field of enquiry that I wish to reflect on.
Reflection on the themes of language and friendship can assist us greatly in fundamental breakthroughs into an emerging experience of who we are as human beings. Indeed, if this reality cannot be communicated to other peoples and cultures as possessing universal significance then it is hardly possible to contemplate it as a ‘truth.’ If such ‘truth’ is not the shared currency of intellectual and spiritual exchanges how then can we profess to speak of a common humanity?

Axial breakthroughs

Interestingly, Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), speaks of an ‘axial time’ of humanity. The period around 500 BC was when, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, what it means to be human was first clearly articulated.  In each of these outbreaks there occurred what Henri Bergson (1859–1941) called ‘the opening of the soul.’ This opening or self-discovery of the soul in Israel began around 1300 BC with Moses and the Exodus. In Greece the discoveries were made by Xenophanes, Parmenides and Heraclitus, around 500 bc, and later developed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle from about 400 bc. It was the period when human beings first reflected explicitly on their own nature and origins, breaking more or less decisively with myth.[7] These spiritual breakthroughs were not only Western in origin. Eric Voegelin notes how:
[T]he true axis of world history would have to be found as a fact that is valid for all men…an overwhelming fertility in the formation of humanity, equally convincing to Orient and Occident, so that for all peoples there would be a common frame of historical self-understanding. This epoch is to be found in the spiritual processes that take place in China and India, in Iran, Israel, and Hellas between 800 and 200 B.C, with a concentration about 500 B.C. when Confucius, Laotse, the Buddha, Deutero-Isaiah, Pythagoras and Heraclitus were members of the same generation.[8]
St John Paul II in Fides et Ratio likewise noted how both in the East and West we can trace a common journey which occurs ‘within the horizon of personal self-consciousness.’ He explains how history clearly shows that among different cultures fundamental questions are ever emergent. Questions like ‘Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?’ are equally found in the sacred writings “of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle.”[9]
These existential questions have their ‘common source in the quest for meaning’ to be discovered in every human heart. We use human language to articulate that search and to journey and it is with friends that we want to share our discovery in order ‘to serve humanity in different ways.’[10] Paraphrasing Voegelin we need therefore to be able ‘to recognize, and make intelligible’ the search for who we are as human beings ‘in a Babylonian hymn, or a Taoist speculation, or a Platonic dialogue, just as much as in a Gospel.’[11]

The Chinese experience

In terms of these traces of movements towards greater insights into personal self-consciousness John Paul II spoke of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) as an example. Confucius exhorted others to develop as the humane man – what he considered himself to be. In The Analects we read ‘The Master said, “People are similar by nature; they become distinct through practice.”’[12] Confucius considerably developed the concept of man realizing his own ren [仁] (humanity). The Russian-American scholar, linguist and sinologist Peter Boodberg interestingly translates ren as ‘humanity’ and ‘co-humanity.’[13] In The Analects we read how, “the Master said, ‘A person who is not humane cannot remain for long either in hard or in easy circumstances. A humane person feels at home in humaneness. A wise person [practices it because he] sees benefits in humaneness.’”[14]
The Confucian philosopher Mencius (circa fourth century BC) faced the challenge of increasing cynicism towards Confucian ideas by adapting them to the new age. He promoted the doctrine of the basic goodness of human nature and reflects on the ‘original heart’ which can be lost or overwhelmed by our selfish desires. Mencius’ contribution can, I believe, be understood as one of those ‘spiritual outbursts’ which lead to ever-increasing insights into understanding the uniqueness of the human being. In fact, it was in Mencius’s day that the topic of human nature became hotly debated. Mencius philosophical method is to use analogy since he understands that logical argumentation is not enough. He says the junzi or the superior man is:
A gentleman [that] differs from other men in that he retains his heart. A gentleman retains his heart by means of benevolence and the rites. The benevolent man loves others…He who loves others is always loved by them…Suppose a man treats one in an outrageous manner…When, on looking into himself, he finds that he has done his best and yet this outrageous treatment continues, then the gentleman will say, ‘This man does not know what he is doing. Such a person is no different from an animal. One cannot expect an animal to know any better.’[15]
Therefore, according to this Chinese philosophical perspective what distinguishes the human person from the animal is their heart [hsin]. The function of learning is ‘to go after this strayed heart.’[16] The special purpose of the heart is to ‘think.’ In Mencius we read how “though equally human, why are some men guided one way and others guided another way?” and “[t]he organs of hearing and sight are unable to think and can be misled by external things…The organ of the heart can think. But it will find the answer only if it thinks; otherwise it will not find the answer. This is what Heaven has given me…’[17]
Indeed, the whole experience of transcendence could be interpreted in terms of the symbol of tian [heaven] referred to in various Confucian writings. Confucius sets out his spiritual journey describing how ‘at fifteen, I set my heart on learning. At thirty, I found my balance through the rites. At forty, I was free from doubts [about myself]. At fifty, I understood what Heaven intended me to do…At seventy, I followed what my heart desired without overstepping the line.’[18]
Confucius’s disciple Zigong also says “one can get to learn about the Master’s accomplishments in literature and the cultural tradition [wenzhang] but not his views on human nature and the way of Heaven [tiandao].”[19]
Commentators suggest the reason why Confucius spoke indirectly about these matters was because he wanted to prepare ‘his students for the journey of discovering their meaning for themselves.’ It was Confucian followers however who ‘let others know their views on human nature and the way of Heaven’ because they were speaking from their own experiences of self-appropriation.[20] Bernard Lonergan describes such appropriation as the individual attending to experiencing, understanding, and judging. This entails ‘one’s own rational self-consciousness clearly and distinctly taking possession of itself as rational self-consciousness.’[21] The Chinese Voegelinian scholar Daniel Hsu believes that Tian must be understood ‘in its symbolic and analogical meanings’ which are ‘dependent upon experiences of transcendence by the readers.’ It ‘communicates a great deal about how human beings ought to live and act.’[22]

Aristotle and Confucius: synoptic outlooks

Aristotle (384-322 BC) in the West later developed the importance of human action in his all-important reflections on phronēsis, that is, practical wisdom. He says that we can grasp what practical wisdom is only by considering the action of people we call prudent.[23] Correspondingly, in The Analects we read: ‘The Master said, “The mistakes people make reflect the type [dang] of person each one is. Observe their mistakes, and you will know their character [ren].”’[24] Ren is associated with five attitudes, that is, ‘being respectful, large-minded, trustworthy, quick in response, and generous.’[25] ‘Humaneness’ [ren] is realized not only in a commitment to see things in a particular way. It is actually ‘realized only in practice, especially in one’s interaction with others.’[26] So, ren can be understood in the Aristotelian sense of ‘practical wisdom’ [phronēsis] although there are important differences. Bryan Van Norden notes how ‘for Aristotle, phronesis is the master virtue that subsumes all the others. In contrast Goodness is the overarching virtue’ in Confucius.’[27]
Nonetheless, in Aristotle’s mind and it seems in Confucius’ too you engage in good action by ‘doing.’ The person of practical wisdom judges rightly because he has turned over his whole existence to the ‘right thing to do.’ This is Aristotle’s spoudaios; the ethically mature person of practical reasonableness. In The Nicomachean Ethics we see how:
[T]he man of good character [spoudaios] judges every situation rightly; i.e. in every situation what appears to him is the truth…what makes the man of good character stand out furthest is the fact that he sees the truth in every kind of situation: he is a sort of a standard and yardstick of what is fine and pleasant’ [1113a, 25-30].[28]
There are some similarities between Aristotle’s spoudaios and Confucius’s notion of jūnzi the ‘gentleman,’ ‘noble person’ or ‘exemplary person.’ We read in The Analects, “the Master said, ‘A gentleman, in his dealings with the world, is not predisposed to what he is for or against. He sides only with what is right.”’[29]
Being a junzi in a Confucian perspective is not about belonging to a certain social class but ‘about being a good person.’[30] We read that ‘the Master said, “The gentleman harmonizes [he] without being an echo. The petty man echoes [tong] and does not harmonize.’[31] All of these philosophical insights are breakthroughs, partial or complete, towards the reality of the emerging experience of what it means to be a human person. I suggest that these developments in Eastern and Western philosophy are not only a historical advancement in understanding. We are faced with the challenge of carrying on these dialogues and discoveries within ourselves. Awareness of who we are is not a matter of drawing conclusions from an argument but of rising to a level of self-reflection within the person doing the seeking.

On human language

I want now to focus on ‘human language’ and ‘friendship’ which are unique characteristics of human beings. We could easily choose other features, but both of these are ‘windows’ through which we can look and recapture the reality and uniqueness of the human person. This will hopefully afford us the opportunity to depth-dive into the reality of the human being. Wittgenstein put it well when he said that going deeper into questions ‘involves our beginning to think about…things in a new way…The new way of thinking is what is so hard to establish…if we clothe ourselves in a new form of expression, the old problems are discarded along with the old garments.’[32]
Aristotle has a great appreciation of the distinctiveness of language for human beings. In The Politics he observes how people are ‘endowed…alone among the animals with the power of speech [language].’[33] The human being ‘is furnished with the faculty of language.’[34] Aristotle carefully distinguishes ‘speech’ from ‘voice’ or ‘sound’ from ‘language.’ He says ‘the mere making of sounds serves to indicate pleasure and pain’ and this is shared with animals too.[35] Thus, animals are able to experience pain and pleasure and they can communicate this as well. But Aristotle sees human language as being totally different.[36] Language declares “what is advantageous and what is the reverse, and it is the peculiarity of man, in comparison with other animals, that he alone possesses a perception [Aisthēsis] of good and evil, of the just and the unjust, and other similar qualities.”[37]
People who possess language share a common understanding of the ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ among them. It is, according to Aristotle, ‘the sharing of a common view in these matters that makes a household and a state.’[38] Language constitutes this as a shared reality. By means of language we share a joint understanding of one another and we actively perceive the bond that exists between us as human beings. This presupposes that we are human persons possessing rational natures. The Canadian political scientist John von Heyking explains how ‘speech [language] is what makes us political—it is what some scholars call “logos-sociality.”’[39]

Confucian perspectives on language

Confucius equally developed an understanding on human language. Qiao Liqing and Min Shangchao’s in their essay ‘A Study on Confucius’ Views on Language Functions’ comment on how “the proverb, ‘words are the voice,’ indicating that language directly reflects one’s personal inner world and thought. Language functions as a link of inner thought among people, which makes it possible for people to achieve mutual understanding and in turn maintain the normal operation of social life.” [40]
In The Analects we learn how ‘the Master said, “The gentleman [junzi] is not a vessel [qi].”’ In other words, he is not just passive because ‘he first puts his words into action. He lets his words follow his action.’[41] In Chinese philosophy there are various developments on theories of language which I cannot develop here. But Zhuangzi (c. 369 BC- c. 296 BC) whose work is called after him The Zhuangzi is one of the foundational texts of Taoism and it develops some central insights. In it he reflects on the power and limitations of human language. At one stage Zhuangzi says:
Saying is not blowing breath, saying says something; the only trouble is that what it says is never fixed. Do we really say something? Or have we never said anything? If you think it different from the twitter of fledglings, is there proof of the distinction [bian]? Or isn’t there any proof?…By what is saying darkened?  “That’s it” and sometimes “That’s not” [shi-fei]?…Whatever the standpoint how can saying be unallowable [buke]?’[42]

Language in Western thought

In Western-European thought the French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) in his Discourse on Method likewise observed the difference between human beings, apes and parrots in terms of language capability. Descartes declared:
[T]here are no men so dull and stupid, not even idiots, as to be incapable of joining together different words, and thereby constructing a declaration by which to make their thoughts understood; and that on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect or happily circumstanced which can do the like. Nor does this inability arise from want of organs: for we observe that magpies and parrots can utter words like ourselves, and are yet unable to speak as we do, that is, so as to show that they understand what they say; in place of which men born deaf and dumb, and thus not less, but rather more than the brutes, destitute of the organs which others use in speaking, are in the habit of spontaneously inventing certain signs by which they discover their thoughts to those who, being usually in their company, have leisure to learn their language.[43]
Descartes’s reflections are extremely interesting in that he does not see language as a mere external means of communication. Language goes, in fact, much deeper into the interior of our being. It is the way in which the experience of human thoughts can be understood by us and others. Even the deaf and dumb use sign language to reveal their thoughts to others. Language is, therefore, revelatory of the inner life of human beings; it is not just about externals. It is, in fact, about the very opposite. Indeed, St. Augustine of Hippo (354 AD – 430 AD) previously developed his own innovative philosophy of language in which he shows how it leads us ‘inwards’ to knowledge of reality. In De magistro [On the Teacher] in dialogue with his son Adeodatus he asks how is it that we learn things from words. Adeodatus sums up what he has understood on the purpose of language by saying that ‘words do nothing but prompt man to learn.’[44] Augustine gives the example of pupils going to school to learn where they listen to the words of the teacher. He asks are they going just ‘to learn what the teacher thinks?’ No, he suggests that they go and really only learn if they ‘consider within themselves whether truths have been stated.’ To do this they look ‘upon the inner Truth, according to their abilities.’ This is when they actually learn, that is, when they ‘inwardly discover that truths have been stated.’[45]

Language as house of Being

There is, of course, a whole ongoing modern debate about the adequacy of various theories of language, however, I do not want to enter directly into these discussions. It is my view that language is an expression of who we are as human persons, but language is not who we are. So, through it we can catch a glimpse of our identity as human beings. Charles Taylor, for example, introduces readers to two competing perspectives on language; these are the designative and the constitutive views.[46] The designative tradition he sees as promoted by Hobbes, Locke and Condillac (Taylor refers to this as the ‘HLC’ theory). The constitutive understanding of language arises in the writings of Hamann, Herder and Humboldt (this is termed the ‘HHH’ theory) emergent from German Romanticism.[47] Taylor argues for a ‘constitutive’ understanding of human language. He says that this perspective ‘gives us a picture of language as making possible new purposes, new levels of behavior, new meanings.’[48] Taylor is critical of the ‘HLC’ perspective because it tries ‘to understand language within the confines of the modern representational epistemology made dominant by Descartes.’[49] Taylor’s classification is conceivably helpful but it still leaves open the question if language can be easily analyzed in such a way. Wittgenstein once described language as being like a landscape which presents us with countless fragments saying that ‘piecing them together is too hard for me, I can only make an imperfect job of it.’[50] I argue that if we analyze language only from a linguistic perspective then we are perhaps not measuring up to the totality of the reality itself. Indeed, Taylor freely acknowledges this. He cites Rowan William’s book The Edge of Words admitting that he only came across it late in the process of completing his own work. Williams points out how “ordinary language, stripped to its bare descriptive skeleton, turns out to be only a part of a far larger and more variegated pattern of activity.”[51]
Professors Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky in their study Why Only Us: Language and Evolution offer penetrating insights into the whole area. Language they say is ‘a species property of humans…unlike anything known in the organic world in its essentials, and surely central to human life since its emergence.’[52] It is central to human intellectual and moral nature and as such to ‘the human capacitates for creative imagination, language and symbolism generally…intricate social practices and the like, a complex that is sometimes simply called the “human capacity.”’[53]
The principal function of language is not communication, nonetheless, it is used for that. It is difficult after all to assign a unique function to an organ or characteristic. Berwick and Chomsky give the example of human bones in that they ‘do not have a single, unambiguous “function.”’ They explain, “while it is true that bones support the body, allowing us to stand up and walk, they are also a storehouse for calcium and bone marrow for producing new blood cells, so they are in a sense part of the circulatory system. What is true of bones is also true for human language.”[54]
So, weighing up the available scientific evidence, it is Berwick and Chomsky’s considered view that to hold ‘that communication is the “function” of language’ is mistaken, rather, ‘language is fundamentally a system of thought.’[55] Therefore, language is not something to be understood on its own ‘but rather as the means by which being, [the] reality [of who we are], reveals itself to us.’[56] Language is a window opening up unto our very being as human persons. Drawing on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, David Walsh writes of language and its intrinsic relationality towards being saying:
[I]t is for this reason that man plays a special role in relation to Being. He is the ‘shepherd’ or ‘guardian’ of Being because it is only in him that Being is disclosed and nowhere else in existence. All other beings provide a mute testament to Being, that by which they are disclosed, but only man can give voice to that awareness through language. This special relationship, however, is not made possible because man has the capacity for articulation, rather he has the capacity for speaking because of his relationship with Being.[57]
Heidegger in his ‘Letter on Humanism’ says that ‘language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.’[58] Language, therefore, could be said to be the home in which the human person expresses who they are. Thought, according to Heidegger, ‘concerns the relation of Being to man.’[59] He argues that we ‘we must free ourselves from the technical interpretation of thinking…[because] Being, as the element of thinking, is [often] abandoned by the technical interpretation of thinking.’[60] Chomsky in ‘What is Language?’ explains how a theory of language is what is called ‘an I-language—“I” standing for internal, individual, and intensional.’[61] Thus, failure to give due consideration to human language is, I believe, missing the link in our understanding about the truth of the person. As human beings and language users we are carriers of such meaning. In ‘The Way to Language’ Heidegger affirms that ‘the essence of man consists in language.’[62] Ignorance of this can be compared to trying to discover the essence of a fish by seeing how long it can survive out of water. Our analysis of language can be stranded on the dry land of the old dogma that ‘the function of language is communication’ whereas it cannot be fully understood from this perspective.[63]
Human meaning is thereby not just about material or technical ‘function.’ In a debate between Chomsky and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, Chomsky gives the thought-provoking example of music. He describes how regarding music:
[N]o direct functional explanation seems available. Music ability is not a factor in reproduction. Music does not improve material well-being, does not permit one to function better in society etc. Quite simply, it responds to the human need for aesthetic expression. If we study human nature in a proper way, we may discover that certain musical systems correspond to that need.[64]
Chomsky goes on to explain that if we remain at the level of use or behavior theory in terms of understanding the meaning of music, we soon realize that this is ‘beyond our cognitive reach…It would be as if we tried to teach a monkey Bach. A waste of time…’[65] The philosopher George Steiner in Real Presences writes:
more than any other act of intelligibility…music entails differentiations between that which can be understood, this is to say, paraphrased, and that which can be thought and lived in categories which are, rigorously considered, transcendent to such understanding.[66]
The ‘truths’ in the musical experience ‘are not irrational; but they are irreducible to reason or pragmatic reckoning.’ Steiner says ‘it may well be that man is man, and that man “borders on” limitations of a peculiar and open “otherness,” because he can produce and be possessed by music.’[67] This is why, I suggested, at the beginning that the human person is a ‘threshold’ which necessarily leads us ‘beyond’ the very reality we seek to understand. An ongoing philosophical investigation into this reality facilitates breakthroughs into new horizons of meaning as we have seen evidenced in the ‘greats’ like Confucius and Aristotle.

Language:  a carrier of meaning

Consequently, language can only be comprehended in relation to the human being that is intended in every act of meaning. Wittgenstein sees language as a ‘refinement…[because] “in the beginning was the deed.”’[68] Nevertheless, it is true that meaning finds its greatest liberation in its embodiment in language and so is fundamentally a carrier of meaning.[69] But it is a meaning as Socrates says to Phaedrus that is originally inscribed in the human being’s soul. Its significance is not nor can it ever be solely contained in its externalization. Socrates reminds Phaedrus that if we remain just on the surface and fail to dive into what Emmanuel Levinas might call ‘deep saying,’ then this “will implant forgetfulness in… [people’s] souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves.”[70]
Language, therefore, is ultimately a carrier of what it means to be a human person. In a Levinasian sense it is “a saying of myself as an unsituated and naked self face to face with another such self in abstraction from empirical paraphernalia behind which I might hide like Gyges concealing himself by twisting his ring.”[71]

On Helen Keller

Perhaps the most striking experience of a human being apprehending the reality of language is Helen Keller’s. Initially, as a young child she had the use of language but then illness left her both deaf and blind. She lived during that time ‘at sea in a dense fog’ because of these disabilities.[72] But she rediscovered what language entailed with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan. She tells us how:
[W]e walked down the path to the well-house … Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed on the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! … I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.’[73]
Her experience shows us ‘what it means to learn to discover language as language, rather than as a phenomenon for investigation by a detached observer.’[74] Lonergan gives an insightful reflection on Helen Keller’s experience:
in Helen Keller’s emotion and interest one can surmise the reason why ancient civilisations prized names so highly … Prizing names is prizing the human achievement of bringing conscious intentionality into sharp focus and, thereby, setting about the double task of both ordering one’s world and orientating oneself within it … So it is that conscious intentionality develops in and is moulded by its mother tongue … The action is reciprocal. Not only does language mould developing consciousness but also it structures the world about the subject. Spatial adverbs and adjectives relate places to the place of the speaker. The tenses of verbs relate times to his present. [Grammatical] Moods correspond to his intention to wish, or exhort, or command or declare. Voices make verbs now active and now passive and, at the same time, shift subjects to objects and objects to subjects.[75]
We might be familiar with the phrase ‘well, words escape me.’ It is generally used when a situation or human experience cannot be summed up in words. It is actually the case that words really do get away from us in terms of the real meaning of language. Helen Keller’s experience and insight cannot be merely summed up by ‘a semiology of parts.’[76] Human language is not just words about words. Lonergan points out that “were words only related to other words, their meaning would never be more than verbal. But the mere fact that a word can occur in a sentence that is affirmed endows it with a basic reference to the objective of intelligent and rational consciousness, to being.”[77]
As we have seen in this essay so far, the material elements do not in themselves ‘trigger the use of language – that requires human subjects [persons] operating in an interpersonal context.’[78] Language is a carrier of infinite meaning for others and for me. It witnesses to the ‘beyond’ of experience which even escapes our meagre words. As Levinas puts it, this reality is ‘witnessed, and not thematized, in the sign given to the other, the Infinite signifies out the responsibility for the other’ to communicate to the ‘other’ our very selves.[79]  When we speak and talk we exchange not just ‘know-how’ or information but the reality of ‘the incommunicable openness of the self to the other’ [we can see this in the case of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan].[80] This is why language is therefore a ‘window’ through which we can discover and learn the unique nature of our being human persons. Indeed, as we have seen in our reflections so far both the Eastern and Western traditions bear witness to this person-centric reality.

Friendship: building oases of personal communion

In the concluding part of this discussion, I want briefly to comment on ‘friendship’ as a way of creating oases of ‘communion’ among persons. Regarding the Eastern tradition and its significant contribution on the theme, Confucius dealt with the matter of friendship in his writings. In The Analects we read:
is it not delightful to have friends coming from afar? …Confucius said: ‘There are three kinds of friendship that can benefit you and three types of friendship that can harm you.  It would be to your benefit to be friends with those who are upright, those whom you can trust, and those of broad learning. It would do you harm to be friends with those with practiced manners, and affected sweetness, a glib tongue.’[81]
So, there are no greater acts of friendship than ‘those performed by friends seeking the common good together.’[82] And so when you look at Aristotle’s analysis of ‘friendship’ it can be understood as a model leading to an understanding of society as persons in ‘communion.’ As we can see in the previous citation there are clearly discoverable equivalences in Confucian philosophy on the theme of ‘friendship.’ In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle classifies various kinds of friendship in terms of (1) utility (2) pleasure; and (3) virtue [1156a5-1156b35]. There are, he says basically ‘three reasons for loving’ [1151a25]. Friendship based solely on ‘utility’ or ‘pleasure’ are not outgoing and humanly insubstantial and unstable. Aristotle explains:
[T]hose who love each other on the ground of utility do not love each other for their personal qualities, but only in so far as they derive some benefit from each other. Similarly with those who love one another on the ground of pleasure…when they love each other on the ground of pleasure it is motivated by their own pleasure; that is they love the other person not for what he is, but qua useful or pleasant. So, these friendships are accidental, because the person is not loved on the ground of his actual nature, but merely as providing some benefit or pleasure. Consequently, such friendships are easily dissolved.[83]
Relationships based on ‘goodness’ are, on the other hand, outgoing, humanly substantial, enduring, and oriented towards life together. Aristotle also writes:
[O]nly friendship of those who are good, and similar in their goodness, is perfect. For these people each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves…in this friendship all the qualities that we have mentioned belong to the friends themselves; because it is their similarity…This kind of friendship, then, is perfect both in point of duration and in all other respects.[84]
It is worthwhile seeing Aristotle’s reflection on friendship as what Voegelin calls his ‘little politics’ [kleine Politik]. We see Aristotle uses the toolbox of the ‘good’ and ‘pleasant’ as he contrasts the different types of friendship (as true friends, utility and pleasure). But we also see unfold the reality that the different kinds contain each other and disclose each other. The good of utility and pleasure are ‘real goods’ and true friendship includes all these dimensions and that means the ‘useful’ and ‘pleasant.’ The theme of ‘pleasure’ is one Aristotle returns to again and again. The ‘pleasurable’ oils the reality of friendship and so too in society be it on the political or economic levels too. Pleasure helps human action gain momentum and friendship must be mutually pleasant too. What is the point of having friends if is it not enjoyable having them?
In true friendship, you aim at the ‘true good’ of the other person and they in turn aim at the ‘true good’ for you. This is ‘mutual love,’ that is, we wish for the ‘good’ of the ‘other’ person and spend time with them. In all of this we can see disclosed the reality that the human person is more than what they ‘do.’ There is even a movement in Aristotle’s thought towards the idea of who the ‘other’ human being is. In explaining how friends are necessary for happiness he says ‘man is a social creature and naturally constituted to live in company…It follows, therefore, that the happy man needs friends.’[85] In Aristotle’s perspective the ‘friend is a second self.’[86] So, there emerges a mutuality because it is on this basis that ‘each love the other as being the man he is.’[87] The consequence is, in Paul Ricoeur’s language, to see ‘oneself as another.’ This is really the prerequisite of the Golden Rule or Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant says ‘there is therefore only a single categorical imperative and it is this: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”’ [88] In a thoroughgoing analysis of friendship we can, I believe, unearth what Jonathan Sacks calls the ‘imperative of responsibility’ building our society ‘on the willingness to let the “I” be shaped by the “We” exactly because of who the ‘other’ is.[89]

Confucius on the Golden Rule

I referred earlier to how Karl Jaspers talked of an ‘axial time’ of humanity when breakthroughs occurred into an understanding of human origins and nature. We can also perhaps catch a glimpse of Aristotle’s insight into an understanding of the ‘other’ as another ‘self’ in Confucius’s articulation of the Golden Rule. We read how “Zigong asked, ‘Is there a single word that can serve as the guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘It is perhaps the word shu. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not want [others to impose on you].”’[90]
The translator’s comments are worth quoting here. She says, ‘I translate shu as “treating others with an awareness that they, too, are alive with humanity” …Scholars also suggest reading 15.24 with what Confucius describes in 6.30 as “the method and the way of realizing humaneness.”’[91] It is important to keep in mind how ‘friendship’ in Aristotle necessarily implies the ‘other.’ To him life is not a privatized matter; it is fundamentally an interpersonal reality. The fact that the ‘other’ is another ‘self’ and is considered a ‘friend’ has consequences. Indeed, in Aristotle’s particular analysis we discover an expansion of the concept of ‘friendship’ into a realization of a human community. He outlines how ‘concord’ or ‘likemindedness’ [homonoia]  “is found among good men, because they are in accord both with themselves and with one another, having (broadly speaking) the same outlook. For the wishes of such people remain constant and do not ebb and flow like the tides, and they wish for what is just and advantageous, and also pursue these objects in common.”[92]
The Irish philosopher Brendan Purcell comments on how ‘such likemindedness [‘concord’ as in Aristotle] has to do especially with the basic issues, choices and actions of the community, and guarantees the continuity of its inner substance since it springs from the friendship of good men whose real goal is the common good rather than self-interest.’[93] Analogously Confucius spoke of ‘harmony’ [he]. In The Analects we read, “Master You [Youzi] said, ‘Harmony is what is most prized…it is what makes the way of the former kings beautiful, and this [principle] applies to matters big and small…’ The Master said, ‘The gentleman harmonizes [he] without being an echo. The petty man echoes [tong] and does not harmonize.’”[94]
In other words, the ‘noble’ person’s voice does not echo back in return because his words convey meaning which wins mutual acceptance leading to ‘concord’ as in Aristotle’s homonoia.
Even the etymology of the Chinese character for ren [仁] (humanity, true goodness) is interesting here. It is made up of two parts, one for ‘man’ and the other for ‘two,’ indicating that a human person can be ren, that is, truly good only in association with others. As Daniel K. Gardner remarks ‘true goodness for Confucius is inter-relational, a virtue given realization only in a person’s interactions with other human beings.’[95]
Various Eastern schools of thought produced philosophical writings on ‘concord’ or ‘perfect harmony.’[96] In classic Chinese philosophy you also have The Doctrine of the Mean [chung-yung] indicating that there is ‘harmony in human nature and that this harmony underlies our moral being.’[97] This theory is seen as representing an advancement in Chinese thought. In the Politics Aristotle remarked that ‘friendship… is the chief good of cities [the polis].’[98] So, as I commented, we can find in Aristotle that there is a social consequence of friendship as in politike philia [political friendship]. The primary dimension uniting people together in an association like the state are the personal relationships constituting it.  Aristotle explains how ‘it is clear …that the best partnership in a state [politikē koinōia]] is the one which is dependent on ‘friendship.’[99] A ‘city’ [polis] is not merely a system of mutual co-operation, a mutual contract or a geographical area. It is constituted by the ‘likemindedness’ in what holds us together as human persons. Indeed, Eric Voegelin writes, “every human being is a center, radiating relations of friendship in all directions in which community…is possible with other human beings. When men have nothing that they can put in a community of friendship, the relations of friendship will vanish.”[100]


As human beings we share in a unique ability for language and our capacity for friendship. These are like windowpanes opening up for us to see what we distinctively share as human persons. And such capacities can never be taken from us even if others want to silence or dehumanize us. At the outset I mentioned the example of the artist Judith Scott who at the age of forty-three was eventually released from an asylum into the custody of her twin sister Joyce.[101] Her work breaks open for us a wider horizon  which ‘evidences art as an alternative language, an extralinguistic way of conveying’ human meaning.[102]  This is why I suggest in this essay that language and friendship, are oases on which we can recapture and build new possibilities for philosophical dialogue among various cultures about who we are as human beings.
There are obviously problems in making comparisons between Eastern and Western philosophical perspectives as between Aristotle and Confucius. Indeed, Voegelin speaks of an ‘incomplete breakthrough’ occurring since the insights never emerge completely in the Chinese experience. He notes:
[T]he appearance of the ‘sages’ in China…is rather comparable to that of the ‘philosophers’ in the Hellas. But it is comparable in some respects; it is by no means the same phenomenon, for the appearance and recognition of the ordering force in a human soul, regardless of its institutional rank in the cosmologically ordered society, in China does not flower into philosophy in the Platonic-Aristotelian sense.[103]
However, significant breakthroughs seem to unfold in the existential movements of Confucianism and Taoism. Voegelin’s critique does not mean that we cannot see how ‘Chinese society had moved toward an anthropological conception of order through a leap in being.’[104] In any case in relation to the full meaning of friendship and fraternity it was not, of course, until the breakthrough of Christianity that the flowering of the true meaning of friendship and brotherhood unfolded. Jesus says to his disciples ‘no longer do I call you servants…but I have called you friends’ and it is here that we see a totally new understanding emerge of the human person as a being-for-others which clearly goes far beyond any earlier insights.[105] Fraternity in this perspective is not just based on election or blood relationship but is an ethic ‘of true self-loss’ since ‘Christ is man [the human person], humanity free from any particular individuality.’ To be brothers means to become identical to the One who loses himself. It entails ceasing ‘to regard one’s ego as an absolute.’[106] The dignity of each human person is based on this ‘nothingness.’
Wittgenstein said the most difficult thing to do is to establish new ways of thinking. But if we clothe ourselves in a new language about who we are and our distinctive capacity for friendship, then we can, hopefully, move beyond the long-standing and ever-new problems emerging among us. In this way the oases of who we are can be joined up so that the intellectual and spiritual wasteland around us disappears, flourishing in the realization of the Delphic oracle’s ‘Know Yourself.’ So, as the Irish poet Michael O’Siadhail says, although we may want to ‘break things down into their building blocks’ to undergird our world, in so doing we [may] discover that ‘every system is incomplete’ and so we must move outside our ‘mind’s frontiers’ and so even more appreciating Eastern and Western perspectives into who we are as persons.[107]


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, tr. Peter Winch (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 11e.
[2] Ricoeur, Philosophy, Ethics and Politics (Oxford, UK: Polity Press, 2020), 130.
[3] Umberger, We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection (Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2022), 186, 189.
[4] See Il principio dimenticato: la fraternità nella riflessione politologica contomproanea, ed. Antonio M. Baggio (Roma: Città Nuova, 2007).
[5] Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J., Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972), 235.
[6] Ibid., 236, 237.
[7] I am deeply indebted to Professor Brendan Purcell for alerting me to these unique insights. See Brendan Purcell, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012), 35ff.
[8] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 15, Order and History, Volume II, The World of the Polis, ed. Athanasios Moulakis (Colombia, MO: University of Missouri University, 2000), 86.
[9] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 1998). #1.
[10] Ibid., #1, 2.
[11] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 12, Published Essays 1966-1985. Ed. Ellis Sandoz (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 294.
[12] Confucius, The Analects (Lunyu), tr. Annping Chin (New York, Penguin Books, 2014), 281 [17.2].
[13] See A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, tr. Wing-Tsit Chan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 789. See also Boodberg,’Philological Notes on Chapter One of The Lao Tzu.’ Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 20, no. 3/4 (1957): 598-618. Accessed January 26, 2020. doi:10.2307/2718364.
[14] Confucius, The Analects, 43 [4.2], my emphasis.
[15] Mencius, Mencius, tr. D.C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1970), 133-134 [IV, B, 28], my emphases.
[16] Ibid., 167, VI, A, 11.
[17] Ibid., 168, VI, A, 15, my emphases.
[18] Confucius, The Analects, 13 [2.4], my emphases.
[19] Ibid., 66 [5.13], my emphases.
[20] Ibid., 67.
[21] Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (London: Darton, Longman & Todd: 1958), xviii.
[22] Daniel Hsu, ‘The Civil Theology of Confucius “Tian” Symbol.’ See <>.
[23] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, tr. J.A.K. Thomson (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 150 [1140a, 25].
[24] Confucius, The Analects, 47 [4.7].
[25] Ibid., 284 [17.6].
[26] Karyn Lai, An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 27.
[27] Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011), 41-42.
[28] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, tr. J.A.K. Thomson (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 60, my emphases.
[29] Ibid., 49 [4.10].
[30] Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, 20.
[31] Confucius, The Analects, 213 [13.23].
[32] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, tr. Peter Winch (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 48e.
[33] Aristotle, The Politics, tr. T.A. Sinclair (Middlesex, England: 1984), 60 [1253a7].
[34] See the Oxford University Press translation. Aristotle, The Politics, tr. Ernest Barker, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 11 [1253a7].
[35] Ibid., [1253a7], 11, Oxford edition.
[36] See Wen Qui, ‘Aristotle’s Definition of Language’ in International Journal of English Literature and Culture, Volume 2(8): 194-202, August 2014.
[37] Aristotle, The Politics [1253a7], 11, Oxford edition, my emphasis.
[38] Ibid., [1253a18], 60, Penguin edition.
[39] John von Heyking, ‘Friendship: The Horizon of Our Common life,’ 62.
[40] Qiao Liqing and Min Shangchao, “A Study on Confucius’ Views on Language Functions,” <>
[41] Confucius, The Analects, 2.12, 2.13.
[42] See Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, tr. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 30.
[43] René Descartes, Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, tr. Donald A. Cress (Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing, 1998 [1637]), 32 [V, 57-58] my emphases.
[44] Augustine, De magistro, 14.45.35.
[45] Ibid., 14.45. 5-10, my emphases.
[46] Charles Taylor, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).
[47] Ibid., ix.
[48] Ibid., 4.
[49] Ibid.
[50] Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 78e.
[51] See Taylor, The Language Animal, 89.
[52] Berwick and Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 55.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Ibid., 63, my emphases.
[55] Ibid., 102.
[56] Brendan Purcell, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012), 226.
[57] David Walsh, ‘The Turn toward Existence as Existence in the Turn,’ in Philosophy, Literature and Politics: Essays Honoring Ellis Sandoz, eds. Charles R. Embry and Barry Cooper (Colombia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 14. Walsh discusses this more fully in his chapter on Heidegger in The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). See ‘Heidegger’s Achievement Despite the Betrayal of Philosophical Existence,’ 232-290, my emphases.
[58] Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1977), 217.
[59] Ibid.
[60] Ibid., 218-219.
[61] Noam Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures are We? (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 4.
[62] Heidegger, Basic Writings, 398.
[63] Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures are We? 15.
[64] Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature (New York: The New Press, 2006), 124.
[65] The Chomsky-Foucault Debate, 124.
[66] George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 18.
[67] Ibid., 19.
[68] Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 31e.
[69] See Lonergan, Method in Theology, 70.
[70] See John Llewelyn, ‘Levinas and Language,’ The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, eds. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 133. See Plato, Phaedrus [275], my emphases.
[71] Llewelyn, ‘Levinas and Language, 133-134.
[72] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (New York: Airmont books, 1965), 4.
[73] Ibid., 21, my emphases.
[74] Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution, 285.
[75] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 70 -1.
[76] Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution, 318.
[77] Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (London: Longmans, 1958), 555.
[78] Purcell, From Big Bang to Big Mystery, 233.
[79] Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2008), 148.
[80] Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution, 318.
[81] Confucius, The Analects, 1 [1.1]; 273 [16.4].
[82] John von Heyking, The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), 18.
[83] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 203-204 [1156a10-20].
[84] Ibid., 205 [1156b5-20].
[85] Ibid., 246-247 [1169b15-20].
[86] Ibid., 249 [1170b5], my emphasis.
[87] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself ad Another, tr, Kathleen Blamey (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 183.
[88] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, tr. H.J Paton (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 88.
[89] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 83.
[90] Confucius, The Analects, 259 [15.24], my emphases.
[91] Ibid.
[92] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 240 [1167b5].
[93] Brendan Purcell, The Drama of Humanity: Towards a Philosophy of Humanity in History (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1996), 17.
[94] Confucius, The Analects, 9, 23 [1.2], [13.23].
[95] Daniel K. Gardner, Confucianism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 25.
[96] See ‘The T’ien-T’ai Philosophy of Perfect Harmony,’ A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 396ff.
[97] A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, 96.
[98] Aristotle, The Politics, Oxford edition, 44 [1262b7].
[99] Ibid., Penguin edition, 267 [1295b34].
[100] Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 16, Order and History, Volume III, Plato and Aristotle (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 375.
[101] See Umberger, We Are Made of Stories, 189.
[102] Ibid., 192.
[103] Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 17, Order and History, Volume IV, The Ecumenic Age, ed. Michael Franz (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 368, my emphases.
[104] Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 370.
[105] John 15:15. I refer readers to Joseph Ratzinger’s study The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993) for the development of the unique Christian sense of fraternity.
[106] Ratzinger, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, 54-55.
[107] O’Siadhail, The Five Quintets Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), 310-311.

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