The Mystery of Language and A Theory of Man

This semester I am doing a directed study on the writings of Walker Percy. He was a 20th C. American Southern Novelist who also published a large number of non-fiction works. Percy is most well known for his novel The Moviegoer but is also known for his non-fiction essays on the subject of language. Percy was always intrigued by the phenomenon of language and wondered why there was so little serious study of the subject. Percy believed that, for the most part, scientists who studied language refused to seriously look at the topic. It is important to note the difference between communication and language. Percy saw that language was the unique characteristic that sat man apart from other beasts who could merely communicate. However he saw that all scientists wanted to do was prove that language was not unique to man. He states:

Scientist are more interested in teaching apes to talk than finding out why people talk. It is one of the peculiarities of the age that scientists are more interested in spending millions of dollars and man-hours trying to teach chimps to use language in order to prove that language is not a unique property of man than in studying the property itself. Scientists tend to be dogmatic about the nature of man. Again they remind me of the Scholastics battling with Galileo. Scholastics spent thousands of man-hours inside their heads trying to prove that Jupiter couldn’t have moons and that the earth was at the center of the universe. To suggest otherwise offended their sense of the order of things. Galileo pointed to his telescope: Why don’t you take a look? Today we have plenty of Scholastics of language. What we need is a Galileo who is willing to take a look at it.

Walker Percy is right. To ascribe to the reality that language truly is a unique characteristic of man would upset most secular humanist’s order of things. To see that language is unique to man is to force one to change their concept of man. To truly look at a theory of language is to look at a theory of man. The next time someone tells you that man is just like all the other animals ask them to account for the peculiarity and uniqueness of language.

Until Next Time,

Michael

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