Philosophy of Language
by Vilém Flusser; foreword by Sean Cubitt and translated by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2016
142 pp. Paper, $24.95
Reviewed by Dr. Ana Peraica
Vilém Flusser's Philosophy of Language is published in a serial by Flusser Archive among already published Flusseriana, Natural: Mind, On Doubt and Post-History and upcoming Language and Reality, Foundational Concepts of Western Thought and The Influence of Existential Thought Today. Ten articles compiled in this edition were the original Flusser's lectures held at Brazilian Institute of Philosophy (IBF) in São Paulo in 1965 and consequently published with Brazilian Institute of Technology and Aeronautics (ITA) Journal. Translated from Portuguese by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, the book is added an introduction by Sean Cubitt providing substantial historical account for this particular manuscript, being important especially to the English speaking public, as only after a great popularity of his media theory and philosophy of technology.
The Philosophy of Language is indeed the philosophical account of the world through language. From at the beginning Flusser profiles the thesis by the claim "everything that is not linguistic, is absurd" (p. 10), introducing philosophy of language as the theory of knowledge itself. Language is prior to experience, he claims.
Grounding philosophy in language, Flusser's main interest falls in proper names, sentences, but also partially to predicate calculus. In theory of proper names Flusser defends the position of nominalism, which he sees as necessary when capturing philosophy through language. Proper names pre-exist any particular experience, as they are the source of language.
At the same time in ontology he is a dualist, distinguishing language from reality, which can be experienced only after the language. Structuring the reality from two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and finally mystic, Flusser paints Platonist ontology as mysticism, so it is no wonder that in his philosophical system (sketched at pp. 15-16), he replaces metaphysics of the theory of being with cosmology. By eliminating external reality, almost as being an epiphenomena, he concentrates on philosophy as the analysis of the true self, which exists dynamically in conversation with nothingness. Despite this stratified world, translations are possible, so Flusser provides insight into horizontal and vertical translations in the lecture number IV, and that is the only lecture in which he provides not bibliography but instead a note on the whole lecture is his own "theory of knowledge" in which knower and knowledge, external world and self, are but a two aspects of the same discourse, to which language is primordial.
Consequently, as the world is language-based, philosophy is itself a "small talk," which, Flusser means, talk that is not having any utilitarian purpose outside of the conversation or speech that is not performative for which he criticizes Marxism. Instead of taking Marxist point, being weak on instrumentalism, Flusser builds his philosophy between the two, to contemporary approaches to philosophy. He takes two philosophies – Existentialism arising in France and Neopositivism built in the USA by the Vienna School – as paradigmatic to the way art and science are exercised, each on own side. In this edition Flusser shows himself knowledgeable of different philosophical systems he uses as antipodes for constructing own arguments: besides Existentialist versus Neopositivist, also Western, by which he means mainly German idealism, versus Indian in regard to philosophy of self.
Amazingly enough, even in this early work, from 1965, we are finding rhizomes of his latter theories fully connected to contemporary digital discourse, as for example his definition of metaphysics; "there must be a computer that is the computer of all computers" (p. 62/3). Besides topos, what can be recognized in Flusser's pre-media phase is his style of writing. Flusser's texts, as writings the philosophy of photography and theory of technical image, are highly seductive, at certain points so flirting that it produces a question of there has been a slippery argument inside. Readers may find being overly convinced in points they would never have chosen to defend. Besides being a small booklet, enforcing quick reading and concentration, Philosophy of Language by Vilém Flusser is one of these books you will wait to read until finding a perfect place for a full intellectual hedonism.