The following is the text of Dr. Pieper’s address at the 1987 Ingersoll Prizes Awards Banquet.
It seems to be rather easy to translate “Scholarly Letters” adequately into German. Every year the German Academy for Language and Poetry awards a prize for “wissenschaftliche prosa,” and what this phrase means is precisely identical with the meaning of “Scholarly Letters.” Nevertheless, there is, in this characteristically different wording, a hidden problem. One becomes aware of it once one tries to retranslate the German phrase back into English. Then it might become almost impossible to recognize the “Scholarly Letters” at all: “scientific prose” is obviously quite a different thing! It is, however, exactly this difference which I have in mind to scrutinize a bit, in order to make clear what I feel is the distinguishing mark, the differentia specifica of a philosophical language, in contradistinction to the language of science. True, both are languages, of course. But I would dare to name the language of science “terminology”—consisting of terms—whereas the philosopher is speaking a real language, consisting not of terms but of words. And allow me, please, to make a few remarks on the difference between terminology and language.
For decades, logical positivism has been demanding that philosophers use an exact artificial terminology, like the physicists, instead of the supposedly inexact, naturally grown language. It is indeed an advantage of terminology to be more precise than language. But there exists a preciseness that philosophy is unable to bring about, that philosophy cannot even wish to achieve. “Precise” literally means “cut ofF’ and “cut out”—out of the whole of a special event or of a piece of reality. But it is this very whole in which philosophy is explicitly interested. When physicians speak to each other of “exitus,” they mean the precise physiological fact that a patient’s life is ending. “Exitus” is a term which leaves out everything that is happening in addition to the physiological event whenever a man dies. The “word” of the living natural historical language which corresponds to the term “exitus” is “death.” And this word means and names the whole, including the incomprehensible, of what happens in the dying of a human being. Of course, the language of philosophy also has to be clear, and the word “death” is absolutely clear but is not at all precise. Moreover, it is by far richer; it grasps much more reality than even the most precise term can ever do.
T.S. Eliot ironically compares a special well-known kind of modern art with a special kind of philosophy which is eager to imitate the natural sciences; he says the one seems to provide a method of producing works of art without imagination, and the other seems to provide a method of philosophizing without insight and wisdom. The sharpest dictum, however, comes from an unexpected side. It is Alfred North Whitehead, the coauthor of the Principia Mathematica in his early years, but later a real philosopher in the spirit of the great Western tradition—it is he, who finished his public farewell lecture on Immortality (it was, by the way, the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard University)—he finished it with the provocative sentence: “Exactness is a fake.”
The difficulty of understanding a book can have remarkably different reasons. I have been told that perhaps only 20 people in the world are capable of understanding the writings of Albert Einstein on the theory of relativity. Here, the difficulty obviously lies in the extreme complicatedness of the subject matter. And so there may be many scientific books which only experts are able to understand. One could possibly also say that the difficulty has to do with the lack of knowledge of the specific terminology. But this terminology, normally based on a conventional agreement among the scientists, can and has to be acquired by learning. And therefore the real obstacle to understanding is not the terminological language itself. Also in philosophy, though only in its “outer court,” a special kind of scientific terminology can have its legitimate place. And this terminology too can be acquired by learning; one can and perhaps has to become an expert—again so the language would no longer be an obstacle to understanding. But now we are approaching the border line of a region wherein language itself is the main, if not the only, obstacle to understanding. In his own house, beyond the “outer court” (of, let us say, formal logic or linguistic analysis) the philosopher is dealing with and speaking of matters which by their very nature do not concern experts, but the human being as such, which means everybody. Of course, I do not maintain that everybody would or should be able to grasp, quickly and easily, what philosophers can. On the contrary, there may exist enormous difficulties of understanding, which possibly cannot be overcome by an effort of conceptual thinking but rather only by silent meditation. It remains true, however, that in a genuine philosophical utterance one thing is important (and perhaps very demanding): namely, to make perceivable the clarifying and illuminating power of the naturally developed language in such a way that the object of man’s search for wisdom, concerning not only experts but everybody, becomes and remains clear. Therefore, the language of philosophy, of the loving search for wisdom, has to be a plain language which must not be an obstacle but the vehicle to understanding. It is here, however, in the very center of the philosophical field, where we are facing the phenomenon of a linguistic idiom that is neither terminology nor language but a frightening kind of jargon, an arbitrarily constructed mode of speaking that makes understanding and communication impossible. Strangely enough, the obstacle is nothing but the language itself!
None of my great heroes in philosophy speaks jargon, not even a terminology. All of them—Lao-tse, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas—express whatever they have to say in a plain language. This is, by the way, why they are much more readable than their commentators.
Two of those great philosophers—this shall be my concluding remark—Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, both extremely sober and realistic minds, surprisingly speak of an essential affinity and agreement between philosophy and poetry. And this again has to do with the plainness of language. But first of all I have to say what Aristotle and Thomas mean. They mean what they say: Philosophy and poetry are both dealing with what they call the mirandum. The mirandum means that which gives rise, or which ought to give rise, to astonishment and wonder; it means the non-self-evidency of what seems to be obvious. This idea is based on the conviction that being itself is a mystery—inexhaustible by any language or terminology. And this is one of the ideas that have consequences for the language of philosophy as well. Not that philosophy should use a poetical way of expression; nor that philosophy would be a kind of conceptual poetry. No, the affinity means that the language of philosophy, in spite of its plainness, must not cover up the unfathomability of being, but on the contrary ought to keep it within the range of vision—as poetry also does.
The false mysticism of an arbitrarily constructed jargon as well as the exactness of a pseudo-philosophical scientistic terminology—both are making us forget that the road leading from true philosophy to genuine poetry has already been paved: it is only the water of plain language, by its undemanding simplicity permitting the light to penetrate it to the bottom, that is capable of being changed into the wine of poetry.