Is man condemned to settle for traditional language ? Is he a prisoner of this system
of signs or is he capable of communicating with other ways ?

According to British evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, language has enabled the emergence of human societies through its ability to unite around a common interest. Human beings have thus been led to socialize in order to share and evolve, as described in the myth of Babel. Before being condemned by God to the dispersion of languages, humanity spoke a single language and thus worked in perfect harmony. The dispersion of post-Babelic languages thus represents the allegory of the birth of the heterogeneity of cultures and the richness of languages. At the same time, it is the birth of translation, always imperfect, which is the image of a loss, a break between reality and language as if we had lost an ideal language, the divine language, this gift of God, which made it possible to know reality through the word.

Language therefore represents the ability to communicate and share the expression of a thought, feeling or emotion. It tries to imitate reality through a set of sounds, phonemes, signs and graphics. It is in this attempt to appropriate reality that language translates an abstract concept into something understandable by the majority through the principle of analogies. Just as there are different language registers, there are different types of languages, whether verbal or essentially corporal. Moreover, according to cultures, alphabets and thus the way in which language is transcribed, differ in a plurality of signs.

This great diversity of signs, symbols and meanings therefore invites us to ask ourselves whether everyone is capable of deciphering these analogies and by what means. Is man condemned to be satisfied with this language? Is he a prisoner of this system of signs or is he able to communicate in other ways?

First of all, language implies a reflection on understanding. For John Locke, the 17th century English liberalist philosopher, understanding is what gives man his ability to be self-aware. To justify himself, Locke distinguishes, in the Essay on the Human Understanding, the primary qualities from the secondary qualities. The primary qualities determine the property of the bodies, the material, such as strength, extent and movement. Conversely, secondary qualities are more akin to what can be considered immaterial, or what is perceived by the senses, such as colours, smells and sounds. 

The existence of a being would then only be related to its perception. In other words, everything that exists exists only as perceived by a perceiving subject. Thus, for George Berkeley, Irish Anglican bishop of Ireland, immaterialist, "to be is to be perceived"(1). In The New Theory of Vision, he therefore hypothesizes that objects specific to vision, namely light and colours, form a universal language of nature. It is then thanks to the arrangement of these objects that this language would make it possible to express and account for an almost infinite number of meanings of descriptive states and sensations. Euphranor(2), in Alciphron, defines vision according to properties specific to language. The language of man would then be the expression of the imitation of the archaic language of nature. Moreover, in Correspondances, Baudelaire insists on the ability of artists to understand the meaning of the analogies present in nature. Artists would then be able, through their pictorial creations, for example, and therefore through their own language, to imitate nature's language. Wassily Kandinsky also established a correlation between the primary shapes, the square, the circle and the triangle, also present in nature and the primary colours. He therefore defined the beginnings of a new type of alphabet of shapes and colours, and thus, of a new language. Moreover, in speaking of Malraux in Indirect language and the voices of silence, Merleau-Ponty explains that he considered painting as a way of representing the perceived world before him. Painting would therefore play the role of a language that conveys ideas and emotions. 

The shapes and colours, by their arrangement in the form of language, could then describe a sensation, an emotion, a mood, an atmosphere. Martin Heidegger, a postmodern German philosopher, explains, in Being and Time, how we agree with our existence as beings, through the notion of tonality, of German "stimmung". The stimmung would then define our mood, our way of being "in the world", by the atmosphere and the tone of the atmosphere that prevails. More concretely, music generally causes this feeling of being in harmony with the environment by the simple fact that we are sensitive and that the music touches us directly. Heidegger speaks of "resonance" because our being is in tune with the tone, and he described his feelings towards Van Gogh's painting, Les Souliers. The latter crossed the author through his different senses, from vision to sound. He explained that the canvas, representing a pair of used shoes, expresses for him the truth about the object. This painting thus aroused in Heidegger an association of meaning, called synesthesia, which later revealed an emotion, a meaning that may initially have been hidden at the bottom of the work.

In the context of music, the language composed of shapes and colours lives through this notion of synaesthesia, the association of two or more senses. Indeed, if we agree that stimmung, by a particular combination of shapes and colours, stimulates our ability to resonate with the atmosphere of our environment, we could imagine illustrating the general atmosphere of a given music. It would then be a question of "capturing with the eyes what is said" by translating the tone, the overall mood of the music, in the manner of Baudelaire, his calligrams or his collection Le Spleen de Paris. The poet seeks to create a versification capable of blurring the senses to give access to the ideal, a sensory paradise, where all sensations cross and respond: to show a smell or taste a sound. The idea being to separate precisely from the boundaries of reality and the language to which instrumental use condemns it. Language is thus more a place of expression than a tool of communication. It is this ideal language in which Baudelaire's poetry and synesthesias claim to resurrect or recreate: a poetic language beyond the imperfect post-babelic language. We can also mention Arthur Rimbaud, who, in 1871, published Voyelles, a poem in which he assigns traits to vowels, including a colour and a fantasized idea of what the letter portrays for him.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist and writer, explains that Isaac Newton conceived of the existence of a correspondence between the seven distinct colours of the light spectrum and the seven notes of the diatonic scale. Thus, as early as the 17th century, Newton already laid the foundations for the synaesthesia and correlation between music and the secondary qualities referred to by John Locke. A concrete example of the synaesthesia Oliver Sacks is the need for some people to hum the ABC song to remember the alphabet. The author explains that it is the combination of song and alphabet that is decisive for the perception of the latter. Unlike Baudelaire, Oliver Sacks believes that artists are not the only ones who conceive the world of ideas. It is as a child that we learn to recite the alphabet by humming it. This learning is long and works best for individuals who are inclined to associate different concepts with each other.
Therefore, Oliver Sacks seems to think that everyone is capable of expressing through concepts.

Man would therefore be able to emancipate himself from his primary language of words, signs and sounds in order to communicate through perhaps more intuitive forms such as the translation of the language of nature, painting and art in general, or synesthesia. Through these different languages, man could then grasp an abstract concept and assign it a characteristic, a shape, a colour, a concrete translation thanks to his environment, the context and therefore the atmosphere that emerges around him.
So, this language seems to flow from our culture and education. We can then consider it like a non-conscient form of expression which enables us to communicate with strangers.
Related to design, it allows us to express an intention using a minimum of texts and first stages references such as pictures. Using codes that the majority of people understand and can rely to, like a combination of shapes and colors, or a particular ambient sound, we can communicate differently and maybe more efficiently because we would then talk to the inner us. And as Victor Vasarely once said, "A global civilisation must have a corresponding global plastic language - one that is simple, beautiful, and acceptable to all. Better yet : fit for use by all." And this is what Kandinsky aimed to do. In Point and Line to Plane, he established a geometrical code, through lines and angles graphically represented, that could speak to the inner us. In fact, he explains that straight lines in a plane, let's say painted in black on a white canvas for example, express concepts like temperature, colors and intuitions. Through their direction, their angle or even through their composition on the canvas, we unconsciously understand meanings, feelings or sensations. According to Kandinsky, to understand this language, it would only require reaching "the inner resonance of the form (bodily and above all abstract)". This way, the artwork as a whole is no longer abstract, but communicates through its combination of lines, angles and colours to resonate within us.

(1) "To be is to be perceived" (from the Latin esse is percipi aut percipere) - George Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge
(2) Euphranor, a Greek artist of the 4th century BC, was taken up by Berkeley to stage a dialogue between him and Alciphron, a Greek author of the 2nd century, on the existence of God

With the help of my former philosophy teacher.
Back to Top