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The Lingual Aspect

Briefly ...

We experience the lingual aspect intuitively in expressing, recording and interpreting. This can be by speech, writing, pictures, gestures etc. and even such things as boundary stones. Dooyeweerd's discussion of the lingual aspect is rather brief, found mainly on pages 221-227 of [1955, II] but some may be found on pages 284-5, with a link to the aesthetic aspect on page 137.

Words that express things meaningful from the perspective of the lingual aspect include: 'speak', 'hear', 'write', 'read', 'gesture', 'signal', 'mark', 'record', 'edit', 'quote'; 'understandable', 'intelligible', 'expressive'; 'sign', 'symbol', 'phoneme, 'word', 'sentence', 'paragraph'; 'vocabulary', 'language'; 'noun', 'verb', 'adjective'; 'text', 'diagram'; 'media'; 'data', 'information', 'meaning' (as that which words carry) and so on. Note the quote marks; these signify that we list words with lingual importance, whereas in other aspects phenomena of importance are listed, without quotes. This highlights the difference between the use of words and what those words signify. What each word above signifies is meaningful in the lingual aspect.

One good possibility that the lingual aspect introduces into temporal reality is externalisation of our intended meaning. Thoughts and concept structures are private, and cease when we forget or die, but lingual functioning enables them to be externalized so they can be received by others (communication), and survive forgetting and death if expressed in a persistent medium.

Negative in the lingual aspect is anything that prevents adequate expression and understanding of what was meant; this includes unintentional problems like inability to express oneself on the one hand, and lying, obfuscation and equivocation on the other.

The lingual aspect works with meaning, and hence is closely allied with the oceanic meaningfulness by reference to which all occurs. The relationship between these has not been properly explored because the immanence-standpoint mitigates against doing so, and meaningfulness is presumed to be be attributed meaning. However, the linguistic turn in philosophy has opened the door into this expanse. Much of the linguistic turn in philosophy (Wittgenstein, Gadamer, Habermas and Derrida) is already prefigured in Dooyeweerd's understanding of the lingual aspect, but Dooyeweerd might have criticised it for a tendency to reduce other aspects to the lingual, whether in Habermas' Theory of Communicative Action [1986] or in Gadamer and Derrida who treat the whole of life as 'text'. They follow Husserl's mistake of confusing signified intentional meaning with aspectual meaningfulness [Dooyeweerd 1955,II,p.225 footnote]. Nevertheless, signified meaning is not disconnected from oceanic aspectual meaningfulness.

Lingual interpretation is not the same as forensic 'interpretation'. In lingual interpretation, it is of prior lingual objects, i.e. symbols created by someone with signification which the reader or hearer must interpret. Forensic interpretation, on the other hand, is more like analysis, because it is of what has been observed. The two types of interpretation, therefore, should not be confused, even though both involve 'meaning'. One is the signification of symbols, the other is the general oceanic meaningfulness inscribed into the things selected for observation, by the functioning of the observed. This difference will be important when considering human social activity.

Lingual functioning is pre-social, referring to what individuals do and might not involve communication. Most of use employ abbrev'ns (sic) in shorthand notes. However, most of the potential of the lingual aspect remains closed until it is used in the service of social functioning; the lingual aspect very strongly antecipates the social.

Defining the Aspect x

Also called 'semiotic' aspect by Dirk Stafleu.

Kernel x

rather than:

What does it mean to 'refer'?

A useful discussion of this question (actually 'What does it take to refer?') is by Kent Bach [2006]. Problem is that if we take "dog" to refer to a dog or all dogs, or the idea of dogness, or whatever, then we get into tangles. So Bach begins with Strawson's [1950] famous dictum, "Referring is not something an expression does; it is something that someone can use an expression to do." And then he tries to untangle that. But he ends up concluding "Referring is not as easy as is commonly supposed."

The idea that referring is something that people do rather than something an expression does is central to Dooyeweerd's approach, in that all 'objects' (e.g. expressions) are not objects in themselves, but only in relation to someone's subject-functioning. (That the expression itself does the referring presupposes Descartes' subject-object idea rather then Dooyeweerd's law-subject-object idea.)

However I think Dooyeweerd might help with the problem in Strawson's idea. (Warning: the following paragraphs will only make full sense once you have understood the rest of this webpage; so read it now, to get a jist, then re-read it when you have read all else.)

First, he might affirm the notion of referring as central, because, in characterizing his notion of cosmic meaning, he said 'meaning has the character of referring', that is a thing refers beyond to other things (and ultimately to its Source). The cosmos refers beyond itself to its Creator. Lingual referring is, of course, different. But it still exhibits the character of referring. The role of the lingual aspect among the others (see below?) is to enable deliberate reference.

Second, Dooyeweerd can help us understand the supposed relationship of referring, as related to the kernel meaning of the lingual aspect. Like all aspectual kernel meanings, we can only grasp it with our intuition, not with theoretical thought. We cannot understand theoretically what it is for a symbol or sign to refer or signify, but we can grasp it intuitively. But many in linguistics, trying to explain it theoretically, tend to speak of the (reference) relationship between symbol and its meaning as though those are two 'things' that exist separately and happen to be linked by a relationship of referring. But Dooyeweerd would question that presupposition (which is a variant of the existence presupposition). Instead, the symbol that comes into being when we utter (or write or draw) it and the being of the reference relationship are one and the same - and the being of both is the responsive act of a human being responding to the laws of the lingual aspect - which is largely what Strawson was getting at. Dooyeweerd might urge those in the science of linguistics to put the symbol and the reference relationship back together. Otherwise one gets into a maze of confusion. But with Dooyeweerd's view, then the relationship between syntax, semantics and pragmatics becomes less problematic, since all are human functionings (viz. respondings to laws of aspects).

Some central themes x

In lingual functioning there is a source (speaker, writer, etc.) and a recipient (hearer, reader, etc.). Some of the themes below are about source, some about recipient, some about medium, and some about all. (Most thinkers in this field take source, recipient and medium as the main components of lingual functioning, but it may be that other components will be seen as important in future; for example, is context part of lingual functioning or is it the input of functioning in another aspect? Only time will tell.)

Themes about both source recipient and medium:

Themes to do with Source:

Themes to do with recipient:

Note that the lingual aspect inherently recognises the existence of a recipient, that is, another entity that is similar to the source, in being able to understand the signification that is the symbol structure generated. This is not yet social, but it certainly echoes the social idea of working together.

Themes to do with Medium:

When Dooyeweerd identified an aspect, he meant it to have full and rich meaning, with a complex of activity to serve full-orbed functioning in the aspect. Foucault (1972:120) expressed some of the diversity of functioning in the lingual aspect, with "statements are ... things that are transmitted and preserved, .. which one tries to appropriate; that are repeated, reproduced, and transformed ... things that are duplicated not only by copy or translation, but by exegesis, commentary, and the internal proliferation of meaning."

Common Misconceptions x

'Signs' are not necessarily lingual. For example seeing where an animal has gone by its tracks left in mud, by the twigs it has broken, etc.: these are signs but they are not lingual. Lingual involves deliberate intent to signify. Signs left by a thief, by which the police catch her/him, would be the opposite of a desire to signify!


'Interpretation' is sometimes lingual, sometimes analytical. Lingual interpretation is when we interpret what someone has said. Analytic interpretation is when we 'interpret' signs that were not meant as communication, such as a detective interpreting clues left at the scene of a crime. Into this category, I believe, comes non-deliberate body language from which we interpret a person's mood or whether they are telling the truth. Vickers' concept of interpretation of situations involves both lingual and analytical forms, but primarily the latter.

But lingual interpretation involves attaching meaning to signs and symbols (in whatever medium) by both sender and recipient, meaning that is shared between both. This, of course, implies the possibility of misunderstanding, when the overlap of meanings is not total. Since the lingual aspects requires the laws of the earlier analytical aspect, lingual interpretion often involves some analytical interpretation.

The confusion between the two types is due to the analogy between them. There is an echo of lingual interpretation within the analytical aspect.

The Hermeneutic Circle is an important insight into the nature of lingual interpretation by recipients.

The Aspect Itself

Inside the Aspect x

Lingual functioning may be defined as picking pieces of meaningfulness that one wishes to convey (usually to another, but possibly to oneself later on). The conveyance is by generating symbols to carry these pieces of meaningfulness as signification-meanings.

That it implies some kind of intention to do so, rather than being a totally automated response shows its foundational dependency on the formative aspect. That it is a picking-out implies a dependency on the analytical aspect. That it involves media (air in speaking, paper or screen in writing, body in gesturing, stone or any other physical thing in leaving markers, and so on) implies dependency on the physical and organic aspects. NOTE that in writing, a thing is signified, rather than depicted or 'represented' as it would be by a picture (though I personally use the term 'represented' to include both: deliberate depiction or signification in communication). See NC III:150.

Laws of the Lingual Aspect

Laws of the lingual aspect are deeper than those of individual languages. They cover the realities of things like:

The laws of the lingual aspect enable us to express all that and guide us in doing this such that the result of our expression can be understood by others and also by ourselves later on. Each language deals with such things in different ways.

Shalom - Contribution x

Jürgen Habermas may be seen as undertaking an intensive investigation of the lingual aspect with his Theory of Communicative Action. He investigated the transcendental conditions that make it possible, and hence touched on the norms of the lingual aspect, which he called communicative norms. As with Dooyeweerd, such 'norms' are not merely guides to 'good' lingual functioning (communicative action), but are, as Habermas puts it 'always already' present in lingual functioning. For example,

(For more on this, see the source of the above: p. 25 of L.J. Ray's Rethinking Critical Theory (Sage publications, 1993).) It would seem that (a) Habermas offers to Dooyeweerd a detailed investigation of (part of) the lingual aspect that Dooyeweerd did not carry out - so that his insights may enrich Dooyeweerd - (b) but Habermas is sometimes in danger of elevating the lingual aspect too highly, making it the self-dependent foundation to which all else may be reduced - so that we have to be a little careful in taking his insights.

A rich gift

The lingual aspect enables discourse. This is a rich gift to us human beings, that enables us to refer to a whole diversity of meaning at will, and moreover to share some of that diversity with others. Foucault (1972:118) put rather nicely the richness that discourse brings:

".. each discourse contains the power to say something other than what it actually says, and thus to embrace a plurality of meanings: a plethora of the 'signified' in relation to a single 'signifier'. From this point of view, discourse is both plenitude and endless wealth."

In fact, the power of the lingual aspect employed within discourse was so valued by Jürgen Habermas that he made discourse central to his Theory of Communicative Action, and saw 'ideal discourse' (an ideal that can never be fully realised) as a route to true emancipation.

Harm x

Anti-normative functioning in this aspect obviously includes such things as errors and what might be called lying making false statements. We could differentiate lying, deceit and equivocation: lying concerns false semantics, and deceit and equivocation are false pragmatics. However these three also have a strong social aspect, in that the harm they do is not indicated by the question "Is it OK for me to lie?" but rather by "Is it OK to be lied to by someone else?"

Quibbling is probably a dysfunction in the lingual aspect. It entails being over-fussy and over-critical about the words used when it is not necessary nor appropriate. There is of course a secondary juridical undertone in this too, but there is less social.

Avoiding answer a question is also a dysfunction that is meaningful in the lingual aspect, as is withholding information.

Less obvious and perhaps more damaging that those are:

Media Distortion

Simone Weil once said:

"Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful,
nothing is so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy,
as the good;
no desert is so monotonous and boring as evil.

But with fantasy it is the other way round.
Fictional good is boring and flat,
while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound and full of charm."

For example, when I was at school, R.M. Ballantyne's 'The Coral Island' was despised and Golding's 'The Lord of the Flies' was applauded. But the truth of Weil's incisive words goes way beyond the strict meaning of its words, and extends into all the media. Think not only of fantasy; think of every medium which purports to represent life 'as it is': think of news, think of soaps, think of plays, think of the stories we tell one another. Then think of real, everyday living that is never represented but just lived, that affords on-going comfort, satisfaction and joy. What I find beautiful and interesting there, usually seems boring when mediated to others via symbols.

In similar vein, the words of Billy Connelly (spoken on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs, 2002) stand out:

"Home is where you are allowed to be boring."

Both refer to some phenomenon not often discussed. The result of it is that our whole worldview (at least that of the West and other global cultures in which media plays a major part) is distorted, to make evil attractive, and ordinary, wholesome life, such as in the home, such as being surrounded by the natural creation, boring and to be escaped from. This is a societal phenomenon, it pervades a whole culture.

We find a slightly different example in Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, p.227 (Penguin edition). An old man was telling a story of when, as a child, he took his mother's horse, in a huff and pique because he had been forced to share with his siblings, and using deceit to do so. But he had no control and the horse went at full speed recklessly, and it all ended with broken knees for the horse and broken crown for the boy. "The moral of this story," Flora Thompson remarked, "was the danger of selfish recklessness". However, she continued, "but he told it with such relish and so much fascinating detail that had the ... children had access to anybody's stable they would have tried to imitate him." (There was, of course, some excitement that is good in the sensory aspect, but the overall situation was one of selfishness, deceit, pique, sulk, to say nothing of damage to an animal and to himself.)

It is often the case, when a story is made of some evil, in which (it seems clear) the end of the story is harm, but in which the immediate allure is towards rather than away from the evil. Somehow, it seems inherent in the lingual aspect itself that evil will be glorified and made alluring and exciting, while good will seem boring. Is this so?

Dooyeweerd held that the aspects of themselves are good and do not lead to harm. If Dooyeweerd is right, then there must be a societal functioning in the lingual aspect in which Weil's statement is reversed - when what is good, beautiful, wonderful in ordinary living comes across as wonderful, interesting, stimulating in media, while what is evil in living comes across as ugly and boring in media.

If this is so, then we have largely forgotten and lost the ability to function in this way. Perhaps we have to explore, find, research and learn that forgotten way. I still hope that this is possible without patronising moralizing or blandness. There are glimpses that it is possible. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' manages to make courage, wisdom, goodness, commitment, loyalty and sacrifice compelling, even if sometimes evil also seems interesting. Perhaps a better example is John Muir's 'The Wilderness Journeys', in which he renders the glories of the natural creation as vibrantly interesting. But we have much to learn, and much to unlearn. A curse on Hollywood!

Elevation of Lingual Aspect

Elevation of this aspect also brings harm, because, like all aspects, it is not absolute, as discussed below. An example of elevation is when we assume that talking a matter through will solve all our problems and gain agreement whereas, sometimes in fact, all that happens is that those less eloquent or articulate have their ideas suppressed and go away rejected, frustrated or angry.

Habermas perhaps tended to elevate the lingual aspect when he proposed 'ideal discourse'. Though he was careful to say it is an ideal that is perhaps never reached, he still tended to deem it sufficient in itself, and thus attributed some absoluteness to it. Dooyeweerd always held that it is non-absolute, and thus never sufficient, even in an ideal form.

More practically, we see elevation of the lingual aspect when management believes that collecting and distributing information and making information 'accessible' will solve their problems. It might help, but it is by no means the full solution.

De-elevation of the Lingual Aspect

While the lingual aspect is very visible to linguists and people in communications, I find that the lingual aspect is often overlooked in multi-aspectual (interdisciplinary) analysis, possibly because it is the aspect specifically enabling our manipulation of that which enables our very being: Meaning. Ontologies and aspectual suites generated by academic thinkers, for example of Hartmann, Bunge, Wilenius, Boulding, seem always to overlook it, jumping directly from psychic or formative to social. Academic discourse on the field of information systems dubs it "socio-technical" and overlooks the lingual aspect in between, which is arguably the one that most usefully defines and locates the field [Basden, 2010]. The main academic exception to this is Habermas, who gives exquisite attention to 'Communicative Action' [1986, 1987], but even so finds it difficult to clearly separate it conceptually from the social aspect. It is only when we get to the more practical reflections on reality that we find the lingual aspect recognised explicitly alongside others, such as in Maslow's [1943] hierarchy of needs, the sections in Roget's Thesaurus and the Outline in Encyclopedia Britannica [1975]. Why the lingual aspect is so often overlooked by philosophical thinkers is not clear, but it might be because that Meaning, which we handle, is also that within we live, exist and occur. [refs above to be supplied later ====]

All aspects have their own special role among the others, connected with the good they introduce. For example, the quantitative aspect speaks of the number of aspects and the aesthetic speaks of their harmony. But, arguably, the lingual's special place is more special. Dooyeweerd believed that Meaning is more fundamental than Being [Dooyeweerd, 1984,I:4], that Meaning always refers beyond itself first to all else in creation and then eventually to The Origin (God), that creation is 'speaking' of God, and that humanity is an image or representation of God within it (we do not explore the theological complexities of this latter here). While our functioning in all aspects is a functioning embedded in Meaning, the lingual aspect enables human beings to handle Meaning deliberately - to express what we mean, not just to refer to (as recognised by the field of linguistic semantics) but also intend (as recognised by pragmatics) as living within the framework of Meaning that is the aspects in their harmony. Dooyeweerd's picture suggests that Meaning is somehow especially associated with the Origin, so in being able to handle Meaning under our own volition human beings are similar, in a tiny way, to the Origin.

Opening up of this Aspect x

Throughout human history, the potential of the lingual aspect has been opened up by poetry, writing, drawing, printing, radio, photography, film, computers and Internet. In more detail ("externalised meaning" refers to the meaning carried by the symbols we create when we function lingually):

Non-Absoluteness of the Lingual Aspect x

The lingual aspect cannot stand alone in our functioning, and it cannot be the self-dependent basis of all other functioning. Some, though, elevate it as such. However, all social functioning depends foundationally on it.


Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus, tried to solve what is known as Russell's problem, namely that in logic there is an inherent inconsistency, and thus that logic cannot be 'grounded' in itself but needs some factor outside itself on which to stand. He proposed that if we adopt the idea of the symbol, by which we mean a token that refers to something 'out there' (whether imaginary or real, it matters not), then logic can be 'grounded'. So he wrote his Tractatus.

However, right at the end of his enormous work, one finds the enigmatic phrase "That whereof one cannot speak, one should keep silent." That is, there are some things that are inherently beyond language's ability to encapsulate. One example is the word (token) 'object': to what does this refer? Only to the symbol itself: a circular kind of relationship, which means that here, at the very bottom level of language is something that is floating. Language itself cannot be 'grounded'. The lingual aspect is inherently non-absolute.

The sad thing is that Wittgenstein went off into 'language games' as the basis for all things; he still tried for an absolute foundation, and ended up giving us a reductionism.


Foucault (1972:118) knew well the limitation of the lingual aspect, when he said "statements (however numerous they may be) are always in deficit". Before the passage quoted above, he was discussing the 'totality of meaning' which is contained in any discourse (functioning in the lingual aspect) and which cannot be fully expressed via the discourse:

"But this primary and ultimate meaning springs up through the manifest formulations, it hides beneath what appears, and secretly duplicates it, because each discourse contains the power to say something other than what it actually says, ..."

But Foucault did not seem to think of the limitation of discourse in a negative way, but in a positive. He saw that the meaning carried lingually is only part of a much wider meaning, and spoke of

"what men 'really meant' not only in their words and texts, their discourses and their writings, but also in the institutions, practices, techniques, and objects that they produced. In relation to this implicit, sovereign, communal 'meaning', statements appear in superabundant proliferation, since it is to that meaning alone that they all refer and to it alone that they owe their truth: a plethora of signifying elements in relation to this single 'signified' (signifié)."

In this way, Foucault seemed to be reaching for what Dooyeweerd made explicit: that Meaning has a number of distinct aspects (we can see , of which the lingual is only one, and which it is the role of the lingual to provide us with a way of referring to all types of Meaning within this Created Order. This lingual way of referring is a gift to us, and a rich gift at that, but, being non-absolute like all aspects, it can never fully capture all Meaning. It cannot even capture all the meaning that we finite discoursers might mean in a situation.


"'residua of opacity' which meant that however extensively the lifeworld background was explicated, there would always be reserves of cultural meaning upon which actors would draw, but which would remain inaccessible to conscious reflection." [Ray, Rethinking Critical Theory 1993:30].


I am grateful to Dr. Philip Sampson for nudging me towards Derrida, with some of the following.

Derrida's notion of différance might be understood as follows. Meaning in the form of lingual signification, as a capacity of language, is always deferred, is always postponed. As has been said, "there is never a moment when meaning is complete and total". The usual example is the act of looking up a given word in a dictionary, then proceeding to look up the words found in that word's definition, etc.; comparing earlier usages etc. Such a process never ends. (See also dependence on analytic aspect below.)

Derrida suggested that "we cannot escape language", in the sense that our experience of the world is always mediate via language. But in saying this, Derrida was making two conflations. One was the lingual with the analytical and sensitive aspects: our experience of the world is mediated via the senses and our distinction-making as well as our symbolizing it. The conflation is understandable since according to Dooyeweerd, our living in the world involves every aspect. The other was that Derrida was conflating signification-meaning with meaningfulness of the cosmic kind that Dooyeweerd was recognising, which is prior to us and surrounding us.

Nevertheless, I believe that Derrida was actually reaching out for the idea of cosmic meaningfulness as well as lingual signification. If "we cannot escape language" refers also to the fact that we cannot exit the above process (finding meanings of words), then "meaning precedes the subject, escapes the subject, and leaves the real intact." This is a conundrum for subjectivist philosophies, and even for Derrida, and gives credence to Dooyeweerd's understanding of meaning as prior to us and prior to all existence or being.

Special Science x

Linguistics and semiotics. (But note the overlap with the Sensitive aspect in such things as phonetics.)

Linguists have proposed several levels within their aspect: syntax, semantics and pragmatics (as well as lower levels like phonology and phonetics). The relationship between such a suite of levels and the aspects of Dooyeweerd is interesting.

Institutions x

Contributions from the Field x

There are several streams of contribution from the field.

Syntax, Semantics and Pragmatics

For long it had been assumed that the most important issue in language was words and their structure (syntax) and what they refer to or express (semantics). But in the early 20th century or earlier, it became clear that there was something else that needed to be taken into account to explain how people actually use language; for want of any better name, it was called pragmatics.

Several people explored pragmatics. A major thinker, J.R. Austin, realised that our utterances are not just expressions of states or affairs or even of our own inner states, but are acts. We speak or write because we want to do or achieve something, not just express something. Each utterance has 'illocutionary force', and often what we want to do or achieve differs from what the words seem to mean; example "Were you born in a tunnel?" means "Please shut the door!".

J. Searle, a student of Austin, took this further, and developed Speech Act Theory, and delineated five different kinds of illocutionary intentions: to assert, to commit, to direct, to declare, to express a feeling. He wrote,

"all linguistic communication involves linguistic acts. The unit of linguistic communication is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol, word or sentence, or even the token of the symbol, word or sentence, but rather the production or issuance of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of the speech act." [p.16, our italics]

Notice the similarity to Dooyeweerd here: as can be seen from the emphasised words, he is here moving away from focus on self-dependent substance (symbols, words, sentences) to a functioning. Moreover, this functioning is in obedience to law:

"speaking a language is engaging in a rule-governed form of behavior."

Winograd's [1988] Language Action Perspective takes this further. Not only is language a functioning but it has a social aspect. It is not just individual utterances with illocutionary intention, but it is conversation, in a social setting. In this sense, the human activity of language is multi-aspectual, involving a social as well as a lingual aspect.

Conversation theory, related to Language Action Perspective, is interested in the structure of conversations, composed of a sequence of speech acts. Its studies throw light on issues of structure and sequence in our lingual functioning, such as turn-taking, adjacency, repair, etc.

Discourse analysis throws light on power relations in lingual functioning, such as dominance, inequalities, conflict and confrontation. Introduced initially by Harris [1952], Discourse analysis studies conversations and also inter-text relationships as part of social situations. With roots in socio-critical theory, Marxism, Habermas, Foucault, Gramsci, etc., it is interested in how lingual functioning serves social functioning, though it is rather limited by an assumption that social situations are based on power and dominance. It studies the construction of meanings (note: this is concrete pieces of meaning, rather than as Dooyeweerd understands meaning) as a social process.


Semiotics, the science of signs, approached it from a slightly different angle. A sign is the carrier of signified meaning. Up to the late 1800s it was assumed to reflect something in the world. That is, the origin of signs was the world, and signs were merely labels for what is in the world. This presupposes a fixed and knowable world (with which Dooyeweerd disagreed).

Ferdinand de Saussure introduced a new paradigm, structuralism, in which the origin of the sign was the human signer. This agrees more with Dooyeweerd's notion of the human as lingual subject, and the lingual objects being signs. De Saussure argued

"It is ... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. ... We shall call is 'semiology'. ... It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistic will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge."
In this we see several links with Dooyeweerdian thought regarding the lingual aspect:

De Saussure's work was a major paradigm shift (in the Kuhniam, not semiotic sense!), and some thought that it was the most important advance in the 20th century. However, as often happens, reaction set in, and de Saussure became seen as 'outdated' - though his ideas persisted as an almost invisible foundation for that reacting thought. (Dooyeweerd would see both the elevation and subsequent reaction, and its blindness to its foundation, as pistic functioning among various semiotic theorists.)

Peirce developed similar ideas, but tried to include, in his theory of signs not just language, symbols, but things like a cloud being a sign of rain. Arguanly, Dooyeweerd would disagree that this is of the same aspect as signs; he would see signs as human functioning that intends towards expressing something, but clouds being signs of rain would be, to Dooyeweerd, analytical functioning. Peirce developed a complex notion of triad (sign or representamen, object and interpretant which is a kind of sign), which can recurse in itself.

One reaction against de Saussure was post-structuralism, though this did not reject his ideas but rejected rather that we can know the laws by which the semiotic functioning 'works'. This is commensurate with Dooyeweerd's position, that the laws of aspects cannot be fully known, partly because we live 'within' and 'by' them.

Is Language Necessary for Thought?

In the 1950s the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis emerged (Sapir, 1951, Whorf, 1956) which said that language is necessary for thought, without language we could never think; that is thought depends on language. They were quite specific about what they included in thought:

"We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do; largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language." (Whorf, p.213)

'Cutting up' is precisely the kernel of the analytical aspect, so Whorf would either combine the analytical and lingual aspects, or place the analytical one after the lingual. Hart also conflates them (he has only 14 aspects, in which the lingual is missing).

But Dooyeweerd's proposal is that the lingual is separate from, and dependent upon, the analytical aspect, and therefore that thought (at least in the act of making distinctions) can be carried out without language, even if lingual functioning might enrich it and open it up. He also places the formative aspect, which includes creativity, before the lingual, so he would presumably believe that creative thought does not depend upon, nor need, language, even though it might be enriched by it. Who is right?

The argument has swayed to and fro since the 1950s. Carroll (1992) says "In general the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has come to be regarded as either unconfirmable or incorrect ... most linguists and psychologists believe that evidence offered in its support is flawed ... If the hypothesis can be sustained at all, it implies only a weak influence of language structure on thought." (Notice: the 'weak influence' could be the enriching we spoke of above.) Furthermore, our everyday experience seems to tell us that we can distinguish and create in our minds without ever attaching words or other symbolic labels to what we are thinking about, and many of us have difficulties in finding the right words - though supporters of the hypothesis would presumably find other ways of explaining that.

(Just at thought: When an hypothesis of this kind is found to be 'unconfirmable', does that suggest that we might have conflated two aspects? Does unconfirmability come from conflation of aspects?)


Toulmin [1958] approached lingual functioning from a different direction, asking "What is necessary for a good argument?" His proposal is that good argumentation involves:

In good argumentation, each one of these elements is present in a balanced way in relation to all the others. In confining his interest to argument, he was focusing on lingual functioning used in the service of the analytical aspect, but his approach can perhaps be extended to lingual functioning employed in service of other aspects. For example, what kinds of lingual elements are needed for fun, or for poetry (aesthetic aspect)? What are needed for worship (pistic aspect)? In such a way, might Dooyeweerd's aspects stimulate further research based on Toulmin's ideas.

Media and Persuasion

Media studies may be much derided, but actually does cast light on certain portions of lingual functioning. Persuasion is another human activity made possible and meaningful by the lingual law-sphere (i.e. aspect treated as a spheres of laws). This must be developed.


Multi-aspectual Nature of Lingual Functioning

Take the lingual norm which may be expressed as "we need to be careful that the words and phrases we use convey what we mean". In doing this we will always also function in other aspects, both pre- and post-lingual, such as:

And so on.

'Levels' in Linguistics

One attempt to understand what is inside the lingual aspect has resulted from linguistic study of levels in (spoken) utterances:

A similar sequence of levels may be compiled for written, gestural or other types of communication. For a document (on paper, but similar for computer screen), they would be:

While there might not be universal agreement about these levels, they are interesting to us because they more-or-less follow the aspects near the lingual:

Aural utterances Document Dooyeweerdian aspect
Acoustics Physical materials The utterance seen from the physical aspect
Phonetics Manufactured organs
Phonology: meaningful sounds Marks, shapes, spatial arrangements on paper The utterance seen from the sensory aspect
Syntax The utterance seen from the formative aspect of deliberate shaping and structuring
Semantics The utterance seen from the lingual aspect
Pragmatics The utterance seen from the social aspect

While the correspondence between levels and aspects is not perfect, it is striking. It is also in accord with Dooyeweerd's theory of inter-aspect dependency, which says that for an entity to function properly in any aspect, they must be functioning properly also in the earlier aspects. For semantics to function properly, for example, there must be syntax, phonology, phonetics, acoustics.

Note several things, for both Dooyeweerd and linguistics:

More than Levels

But the lingual aspect seems to cover more than levels. In addition to its syntactic form and its semantic and pragmatic meaning, we can see the following are important:

Irreducibility of the Lingual Aspect

Is language merely an outcome of logic? Or of creativity? That the Lingual aspect cannot be reduced to either the analytical or the formative aspect can be seen from the levels. While the lower four levels can perhaps be explained by earlier aspects, the top two cannot. Semantics, to do roughly with 'dictionary definitions' - ultimately these dictionary definitions must be grounded in some lingual commitment of a symbol to a meaning. Pragmatics is to do with cultural assumptions etc., and meaning that comes through jokes, idioms, etc. This again is a lingual commitment of symbol to meaning.

Law-dependencies x

It is not fully clear to me. But placing the lingual aspect after that of formative power makes some sense because to truly signify by symbols one needs not only to sense them, to distinguish meaningful signs from other patterns, but also to construct. The sender of the message constructs the message, and the recipient constructs a mental model of it. Therefore to fully signify symbolically does require the laws of the sensitive, analytical and formative aspects foundationally, and on the social aspect antecipatorily. We can obtain pieces of evidence of such dependency links from many quarters.

Dependence of Lingual on Sensitive Aspect

Scheper-Hughes and Lock point out: "Sartre's observation (1943) that language, insofar as it represents above all a being-for others, presupposes a prereflexive relationship with other human beings - wordless encounters between mother and infant, lover and beloved, mortally ill patient and healer, in which bodies are offered, unreservedly presented to the other..." [But maybe this is more a retrocipation than a dependency? also, 'unreserved' giving is, to Dooyeweerd, ethical.]

Dependence of Lingual on Analytical Aspect

[I am grateful to Dr. Philip J, Sampson for the following.]

Does not the Saussurian observation that (signification) meaning arises from is produced by interplay of differences within language (for example, we indicate dependence on the analytical aspect? For example, the signified meaning of a word or phrase is often made much sharper when we contrast it with an opposite (e.g. "It is raining" rather than "It is snowing" has a different meaning than rather than "It is sunny and dry".) This is developed further by Derrida's notion of différance, that (signified) meaning emerges as one element or segment of language differs from another.

Dependence of Lingual on Formative Aspect

Gadamer's insight that the difference in understanding between the reader (interpreter) and the author of a text is created by the historical distance between them, indicates his recognition of the formative roots of this lingual phenomenon.

Dependence of Lingual on Social Aspect

But does lingual not also require the laws of the social? After all, one needs at least two people in order to communicate? Not in the same way. It might require two people to communicate, but it does not require the laws of the social aspect. As mentioned above, the lingual aspect inherently recognises the presence of a similar other, which functions lingually as subject, and this is what is required for communication. But this merely implies a conveyance of signification, a mutual understanding of what a symbol means, not an agreement nor a working together. It is pre-social. However, the mutual understanding does echo social agreement and working together analogically.

Furthermore, it could be argued that it does not even require two people: many a time I have not only talked to myself but also set down things on paper for the sake of clarifying ideas; I suppose I am both sender and recipient. See also Alan Storkey's idea below.

However, the following is a more formalized discussion of the same topic.

Analogies x

Antinomies x

Common Reductions x

Reduction to, or elevation of, the Lingual aspect can be seen in e.g. Winograd and Flores (1986) Understanding Computers and Cognition. The authors propose that the business situation is "a network or conversations". Not that conversations are important, but that the situation *is* conversations. That is, conversations are the prime, and maybe only, factor to take into account.

This is part of a more widespread tendency to reduce much to the Lingual aspect that should not be, in which Wittgenstein's work was one of the foremost. He came to treat almost the whole of human life as 'language games'.

Contributions From the Field x

Austin's Speech Acts

Austin (1962) discussed speech acts. He saw, in a manner that fits well with Dooyeweerd's idea of human functioning in each aspect, that linguistic utterances were performed as a volitional act. They did not carry their own meaning, but the meaning was found in the act of which they were the lingual part.

He distinguished between different types of speech acts:

It would seem, under a Dooyeweerdian perspective, that 'illocutionary' refers to the lingual nature of the act while 'perlocutionary' refers to other aspects. In the example above, intimidating is probably based in the social aspect. Without giving it much thought, it seems to me that most perlocutionary acts speak of the social aspect, but this needs further study. Perlocutionary speech acts might therefore be an analogical link between the lingual and other aspects.

Towards a Dooyeweerdian Model of Communication

(This needs to be written up as a paper in an academic journal.)

Communication is lingual functioning. It involves an Originator (writer, speaker, drawer, etc.) and a Recipient (reader, hearer, etc.). These are lingual subjects; communication is a subject-subject relationship.

It also involves a lingual object, what in semiotics is called a sign: the word, picture, signpost or whatever, or something more complex involving multiple words, pictures, etc.

Simple model

The simplest model is:

So - Sr

where So is Originator, Sr is Recipient. But a better model would be:

So - O - Sr

where O is the lingual object, the sign. O is a generated object to So, i.e. made by So, while O is a prior object to Sr (see Two Kinds of Object.

Strauss' Model

Strauss [2012] introduces a second object into that model:

S1 - O1 - O2 - S2

where S1 and S2 are So and Sr, O2 is the sign, the generated lingual object, and O1 is what O2 signifies.

This is useful, because O2 will always (necessarily) signify something. Much confusion occurs in communication when we fail to differentiate between the signified thing and the word or phrase that signifies it.

Strauss briefly discusses that O2 is actually two objects, physical (the medium) and communicative. That is perceptive, because O2 cannot exist without a physical medium.

However, I would question two things about that. 1. Is O1 always and necessarily an object? OK when talking about roses, pens, wars, etc. But not when talking about harmony, generosity, quantity, in general.

Example: Teenager grunts "Boring!" Not "This book is boring", nor even "I am bored", but just "Boring!", referring to the whole situation and reality as they experience it. I suggest that it is at least misleading to treat the whole of reality as an object, even though one might theorize it as such.

2. Does it not presupposes semantics without pragmatics, which is the communicative intention and context. Do we not need pragmatics as well, to fully understand lingual functioning?

Fuller Model

Instead of O1 I would suggest M, the signification-meaning that O2 signifies. M is often complex, involving several aspects.

A lingual event (communicative event) may be understood by the following formula:

Slo - Ol (M, P) - Slr


M is a usually 'bundle' of aspectual kernel meanings. Take the utterance "This rose is red" and we have:

It can also cover "harmony", "quantity" etc. as properties that are meaningful in various aspects. "Boring!" would refer to a bundle of aspects, including the pistic, aesthetic and psychical. Hence it can cover all cases above. It covers both pragmatics and semantics together.

The model copes with both immediate communication (conversation, email exchange, etc.) and delayed communication (e.g. reading Augustine's Confessions). A non-persistent physical medium does not allow the latter.

The model can be made even fuller if we wish to consider all the aspectual functionings on which the lingual depends, such as the psychical functioning of making or hearing sounds or seeing patterns, the analytical functioning of concepts that Slo wishes to communicate, and formative, of the syntax of the utterance, the forming of Ol by Slo, and structuring its components (words) into something that makes sense, a social aspect of agreeing what the signs signify (e.g. a shared vocabulary), and so on. See Levels above. In the above, we explicitly state the physical and lingual functioning, but not these.

It can also cope with where Slo just makes a note for themselves or a record, without any intention to communicate. In that case, Slr would remain potential, latent, and might not be needed in the formula.

Notes x

Alan Storkey on Communication

Is communication lingual? My own view is that it is social aspect with strong retrocipation to the lingual. But Alan Storkey believes it is a distinct aspect (email received 28 March 2006):

"I've speculatively seen communication as an aspect, different from language, or any of the other aspects. It seems important to see media of communication within the central interpersonal act, so that techniques do not become separated from the meaning to which they are wedded. The central norms of communication are perhaps something like truthfulness and honesty, where these have a different meaning from logical, linguistic or social understandings of truthfulness. There are a lot of concepts in communication and media studies involving image, presentation, context, transmission, feedback, openness which can be looked at in these terms. Communication is often shaped within institutions, organizations, media forms, like news, and national and local cultures. Clearly, the Gospels give the keenest understanding of where this truthfulness has its roots. There may be others ways of seeing this area of life, but since the mid 70s (chapter 10 of Christian Social Perspective) it has seemed sui generis, and different from the aesthetic aspect. Alan"


Bach K. (2006). 'What does it take to refer?'. pp. 516-554 in E. Lepore, B C Smith (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, OUP.

Carroll J B (1992) "Anthroplogical linguistics: an overview", in Bright W (ed.) International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, OUP.

Foucault M (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, tr. Sheridan-Smith AM, Routledge.

Habermas J (1986) The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume I, Polity Press.

Harris, Z.S. (1952) Discourse Analysis. Language, 28(1), 1-30.

Mitcham C. 1994. Thinking through technology: The path between engineering and philosophy. University of Chicago Press.

Sapir E (1951) "The status of linguistics as a science" in Mandelbaum D (ed.), Collected writings, Berkeley: univ. California Press.

Searle, J. (====) Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language

Strawson P F (1950) 'On referring'. Mind, 59:326-44.

Toulmin, S.E. (1958) The Uses of Argument. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Whorf B L (1956) Language, Thought and Reality, Cambridge M.A., MIT Press.

Winograd T (1988) "A Language/Action Perspective on the design of cooperative work" Human-Computer Interaction (3):3-30

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: by 21 November 1997. Last updated: 30 August 1998 rearranged and tidied; added Non-Absoluteness of the Lingual Aspect. 3 November 1999 added Is Language Necessary for Thought? 8 January 2001 Levels and irreducility of the aspect. 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 5 March 2001 shalom started and made earlier. 2 March 2002 Gadamer's lingual-formative link. 14 March 2002 a bit of tidying. Scheper-Hughes and Locke on relshp with sensitive. 18 September 2002 anticipation of pistic. 13 November 2002 Reference to discourse, Foucault, and to Habermas' 'ideal discourse'; revamped the kernel. 27 December 2002 added Weil and Connelly. 29 January 2003 major new section: inside the aspect, and levels of linguistics. 18 March 2003 non-abs: 'residua of opacity'. 21 July 2003 added sub-section on 'More than levels', and added heading 'levels' in 'inside aspect'. 1 November 2004 7 basic plots to stories. 22 November 2004 retrocip to sv signals. 22 March 2005 depiction r.t. signification; admin redone, .nav. 24 August 2005 nav to aspects. 7 September 2005 Habermas and norms of communication. 5 January 2006 called 'semiotic'. 28 March 2006 Alan Storkey re Communicn, and made that comm'n may be social. 9 August 2007 SAT.LAP like Dooyeweerd. 21 February 2008 What is 'refer'; Bach, Strawson. 24 July 2008 Lark Rise story. 25 April 2009 bookmarks etc. 12 May 2010 de-elevation. 6 September 2010 mgmt elevation. 22 September 2010 Dooyeweerd's and Basden's kernel. 5 July 2011 Toulmin, convn th, discourse analysis. 9 January 2012 OpeningUp, more on Harm re lying being social. 15 May 2013 contributions from the field sectioned, ssp, semiotics, argumentation, (media) and de Saussure and Peirce introduced, with thank to John Whitehouse for alerting me to these and others yet to be added. 20 June 2013 other asps in lingual fning. 22 August 2013 and a bit of expansion of strawson, and themes separated into source, recipient, medium. 7 February 2015 lingual recognises a similar other in a pre-social way. 21 September 2016 briefly, rid counter. 4 October 2017 Dependence on various aspects now has headings; added Philip Sampson's re de Saussure and Derrida, and also a bit of non-absoluteness re. Derrida. 5 October 2017 corrected u to /ul. 14 October 2017 some corrections from Phil Sampson. 28 February 2018 intelligible. 20 July 2020 Mitcham analogy in formative. 15 June 2021 defn of lng functioning and its dependencies. 18 June 2021 quibbling. 16 December 2021 withholding info. 8 August 2022 models of communication. 20 October 2023 Laws section. Tidied levels.