The Inexpressible


Introduction on this Supplement:

There are two aspects of background important to thoughts of language and meaning as we work to follow Lyotard.  The first concerns a brief intellectual history on language and meaning; the second concerns linguistics and Lyotard’s engagement with it and its vocabulary more properly.  As an introduction to the former, you will find below a brief introduction to several thinkers (Augustine, Wittgenstein, De Saussure, and Derrida), cursory overviews of their relevant ideas, and few but extensive quotations from their works crafted into a narrative in order to highlight the evolution of ideas crucial for understanding the history of expressibility through which Lyotard is working.  For the latter, your will find a brief introduction to linguistics and questions about language, a brief exercise, a section with definitions and explanations of important terms, and a few final reflections on names.

For the purposes of our course, this is provided as an aid for insight, not information for memorization.  I encourage you to undertake the exercises on your own informally, and may or may not introduce them formally in class, depending upon interest and time.  However, I encourage you to undertake closer studies of these thinkers/ideas at some time and directed by your own interests, as the following cursory narrative must leave out many fascinating points and reduce each to only an overview. 

Please Read the Following Along with The Differend’s Chapter One, “The Differend”

I) A Brief Intellectual History on Language and Meaning:

1) Augustine

Saint Augustine was born Aurelius Augustinus in 354 C.E., died in 430 C.E..  His Confessions is an autobiographical exploration of his anxiety-ridden religious conversion to Christianity.  A preeminent literary and philosophical work, the Confessions are written in thirteen books, or meta-chapters, where the first nine span his memories of his past from infancy to about age 33, book ten is an examination of memory, and books eleven to thirteen discuss his philosophy of time, eternity, and an exegesis on the opening book of Genesis.  In this work, he offers a radical conception of time much like Edmund Husserl’s groundbreaking 1900’s conception wherein the “now” is a fluid point of reference that, at once, reaches into the future and back into the past—time, then, is a distension of the mind—that is, there is no past, present, or future, in and of themselves, but, rather, a present memory of the past, a present intuition of the present, and a present expectation of the future.  His guiding question in the book asks: “How can I seek you, God, if I do not remember you?”  In his autobiographical search, he reveals the self to be, thus, essentially a relation to God: the more delve into the self, the closer we come to God.

We can begin to understand why Lyotard left us a most amazing posthumous work on Augustine’s Confessions

Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Book I, Chapter 6:

“Then [as an infant] all knew was how to suck, to be content with bodily pleasure, and to be discontented with bodily pain; that was all.

Afterward, I began to smile; first when I was asleep and later when awake.  So, at least, I have been told and I can easily believe it, since we see the same thing in other babies.  I cannot of course remember what happened in my own case.  And now little by little I began to become conscious of where I was, and that I wanted to express me desires to those who could satisfy them; but this was impossible, since my desires were inside me and those to whom I wished to express them were outside and could not by any sense perception of their own enter into my spirit.  And so I used to jerk my limbs about and make various noises by way of indicating what I wanted, using the limited forms of communication which were within my capacity and which, indeed, were not very like the real thing.  And when people did not do what I wanted, either because I could not make myself understood or because what I wanted was bad for me, then I would become angry with my elders for not being subservient to me, and with responsible people for not acting as though they were my slaves; and I would avenge myself on them by bursting into tears.  This, I have learned, is what babies are like, so far as I have been able to observe them; and they in their ignorance have shown me that I myself was like this better than my nurses who knew that I was.”

This gives us something like Augustine’s genealogy of knowledge:

First, we live like brute life, happy with pleasure, repelled from pain.  Smiles reveal the birth of consciousness.  Consciousness is (wholly or predominantly) consciousness of desire and is pre-linguistic.  Satisfaction becomes an end to which we strive to find the means.  This implies the birth of reason, to some degree.  Expression was decided upon as the means for achieving the ends.  Vengeance was acted out when communication failed.

This is an instrumentalist view of language, but also a model that presupposes a very complex pre-linguistic meaning.  What is troubling about this model?: “It is clear, indeed, that infants are harmless because of physical weakness, not because of any innocence of mind.”

Augustine gives us the next steps:

“… since then I have observed how I learned to speak.  It was not that my elders provided me with words by some set method of teaching, as they did later on when it came to learning my lessons.  No, I learned to speak myself by the use of that mind which you, God, gave me.  By making all sorts of cries and noises, all sorts of movements with my limbs, I desired to express my inner feelings, so that people would do what I wanted; but I was incapable of expressing everything I desired to express and I was incapable of making everyone understand.  Then I turned things over in my memory.  When other people gave a particular name to some object and, as they spoke, turned towards this object, I saw and grasped the fact that the sound they uttered was the name given by them to the object which they wished to indicate.  That they meant this object and no other was clear from the movements of their bodies, a kind of universal language, expressed by the face, the direction of the eye, gestures of the limbs and tones of the voice, all indicating the state of feeling in the mind as it seeks, enjoys, rejects, or avoids various objects.  So, by constantly hearing words placed in their proper order in various sentences, I gradually acquired the knowledge of what they meant.  Then, having broken in my mouth to the pronunciation of these signs, I was at last able to use them to say what I wanted to say.  So I was able to share with those about me in this language for the communication of our desires; and in this way I launched out further into the stormy intercourse of human life…”

Here, his instrumentalism and highly developed, pre-linguistic, theory of mind is clear!  With cool, reflective, objectivity, the infant sits back and observes the working of language employed by the adults around him.  The infant learns not words, but the method of naming, then these names and then practices them and then engages in communication, whose sole purpose is the communication of our desires.  This is the entry to human life.

2) Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein (b. 1889 in Vienna; d. 1951 in Cambridge, England) is a monumental figure for both analytic and Continental philosophy, and interpreted dramatically differently (almost always) by the two sides. 

Lyotard names Wittgenstein as one half of the “pre-text” for The Differend in the Reading Dossier; this is an important to the story behind Lyotard’s own concern with expressibility and the history of the problem of language and meaning.  The two thinkers share much in common; both were polymaths in the range of topics their reflections broached or dwelt upon; both are contentiously challenging to brand or summarize; both employed diverse and unusual forms and styles in their writings—rampant pith and irony, rich images and oblique declarations.


Concerning Augustine, Lyotard’s posthumous book explicitly reveals his interest in him, yet The Differend is implicitly concerned throughout with the Saint’s ideas (especially what is detailed above).  This interest is best revealed and understood through The Differend’s more explicit engagement with Wittgenstein and the latter’s engagement with Augustine.

Wittgenstein quotes Augustine (I, 8—the last one quoted above) in the opening lines of his monumental book Philosophical Investigations (1929-49).  Immediately after, he writes: “These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language.  It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names.  –In this picture of language, we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning.  This meaning is correlated with the word.  It is the object for which the word stands.”

He goes on to give an instance of this view of language:

A person is sent shopping with a list reading “five red apples.”  He gives this to a shop keeper who, in turn, looks up each word; he finds the bins of apples, he takes out a paint chip with the color red, he matches them up and removes five of them. 

Wittgenstein, as his own interlocutor, asks, “But how does he know where and how to look up the word ‘red’ and what is he to do with the word ‘five’?” and responds, to himself: no, he just acts this way, “Explanations come to an end somewhere.”  We don’t need rules for the rules for the rules; we just use language! 

“That philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions.  But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours” (§2). 

Then offers an example of the ‘language of builders:’

Builder A is building a building.  His assistant B has to pass A the necessary components of building when he needs them.  A calls “block,” B passes the block; A calls “pillar,” B brings the pillar. 

This may be a system of communication, but it is not a language—at least, not everything that we call language. 

So, Wittgenstein asks us to imagine a game: one plays a game in accordance with rules; these rules differ depending upon the game in question (e.g., checkers versus rugby).  To understand the game, we must understand its rules—that is, the contextual, conceptual form around the activity of certain particular associated actions and reactions, be they words, ideas, or physical responses (i.e., if we did not understand the role of small colored discs or netted sticks, we would not understand the playing of checkers or rugby, and, further, if burly players on a field were inching plastic discs around, we would not call it rugby, just as we would not call it checkers if some number of people we hitting each other with sticks, even if doing so upon or around a checker board).

So, if one person has something like a script wherein words stand for certain sounds (e.g., imagine a voice exercise for a singer) and another person reads the script not for the sounds but by the words themselves (e.g., as if it were a novel), they are not playing the same game (following the proper/intended set of rules), ignorant to the fact that the words had an entirely different function and meaning.  Wittgenstein says that Augustine’s conception of language is much like this over-simplification of the script: 

— Did that Assistant Builder B understand language when he brought a slab when the sound “slab” was belted out? 

— Would an infant know that you were pointing to the redness of an apple when you said “red” and not the fruit itself, or indicating its shape, or number, or health benefits? 

There is also a difference between the ostensive teaching of words and ostensive definition. 

By asking these questions and giving and taking away these examples, Wittgenstein, over the course of his work, destroys the idea of any one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning (i.e., “red” = the color/the visible light with an approximate wavelength of 650 nm/etc.), thereby liberating language from the conceptual binds such correspondence consequentially imposed upon it.  The binds he particularly attacks come from the theories of the competing schools of behaviorism and psychologism that gave opposite origins and means for the expression of knowledge. 

3) Ferdinand de Saussure

De Saussure makes an almost identical move to destroy one-to-one correspondence in his seminal Course in General Linguistics (complied from notes from his 1906 and 1911 lectures at the University of Geneva and stands as the foundational text for the contemporary school of thought called Structuralism).  He named his version of this radical proposition as the “arbitrariness of the sign,” and argued that there is a basic arbitrariness or difference between the word and the thing, that is, the signifier and the signified.  As did Wittgenstein’s arguments, this undermines and dismisses a theory of language that says that there is a one to one correspondence, an unbreakable bond, between, for example, “desk” and a physical desk in the room.  De Saussure liberates language from being chained to its static instantiation in a particular reality and instead reveals that there is no ultimate rule or set of structures for a relationship between a word and that which it represents. 

While de Saussure’s argument is a component to a grander reconception of language and meaning, a very simplified example of this liberation can be evidenced in the expansion of meanings of terms, especially in conjunction to technology, e.g., “disc” conjures a cd more readily than a record today, a “dock,” something for resting or charging one’s iPod, not something wooden by the seaside, a “tweet,” a short electronic message, not a noise from a bird, etc.

4) Jacques Derrida

Derrida (b. 1930 in French Algeria; d. 2004 in Paris), the controversial, contemporary French philosopher in the school(s) of thought we call Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Postmodernism, and who has broached the status of cultural icon, helps us to better understand the far-reaching implications of this liberation from one-to-one correspondence, its radicalism, and its immense importance for understanding Lyotard.  Derrida takes up the difference between the word and thing as a central point of richness and interest, expanding and expounding it as his idea of différance.  This is not the same as the French word différence, which we would translate as “difference,” although they are pronounced the same.  Instead, it is his term coined to hearken the two meanings of “differ” and “defer” in the French root verb, différer and to point to the fertile, ambiguous space in between a word and thing/meaning, that difference between them and deference between them.  We can think of many differences between words and things/meanings, from the literal difference between letters or sounds and physical objects or definitions to the spectrum of intended meanings from a single word; Derrida stresses how these differences differentiate elements, thus, difference is a force, a “spacing” (espacement) necessary for the possibility of meaning itself.  Less obvious, at first, is the deference between word and meaning.  What he is pointing towards is that the conceptual space between them prohibits us from conceiving of them like two dots on a piece of paper between which we can draw a straight line, from one to the other.  From the word, meaning is always, forever deferred (and vice versa).  Take, for example, the word “dog.”  Instantly, you “know” what this word means.  But, this “knowing” is not simple, direct, rigid, fixed, absolute, or even actual: there is no one-to-one correspondence or identity between word and thing/idea/meaning.  A word summons forth its meaning, but never fully; we must appeal to other words (e.g., animal, canine, poodle, Jacques, the one over there, now or in childhood, or the one belonging to some queen of France, the next category in a taxonomy, a new word in a child’s book, a less than nice word to describe a person, etc.) and all of these other words are different than the word “dog,” just as they are different from being one and the same as the meaning “dog.”

Derrida’s conception of this deference of meaning is very similar to Lyotard’s explanation of the endless linkage of phrases, although we may argue the latter is more concretely applying the idea to actual lived experience, even while taking the idea conceptually further.  Rephrasing Derrida’s explanation of différance (as/and the two elements of difference and deference, above) in something closer to his own language helps us see its connection to Lyotard:

différance is a “hinge” between writing and speech, permits the one and other, but is also a “space” between them to indicate the deferral of meaning that must take place between the signified and signifier;

différance is the movement of a passage through imprint that produces difference wherein the pure trace is différance, the non-sensible, non-intelligible possibility of the plenitude of sensible abundance, that which grants permission to the sensible and intelligible.

5) Lyotard

The importance of this sketchy narrative on language and meaning from Augustine to Derrida illuminates many aspects of utmost importance for Lyotard, but especially the following:

--The impossibility of teaching language (in its full sense) by ostension; thus, illuminating Lyotard’s struggle with the problem of evidence via a phrase “showing” the gas chambers.

--The narrowness of an instrumentalist view of language (i.e., language is tool that we use to accomplish the task of communication).  The greatest narrowness of such is revealed when it is assumed to be an origin for language and, consequentially, the presupposition that we exist outside of language and, thus, that we can draw firm lines between thought and language, desires and language, power and language, etc.  Lyotard address this especially in his questioning of “owning” language or being “owned” by it. 

--It also gives us the idea of language as a game, which Lyotard explicitly borrows from Wittgenstein (although we see similar ideas in de Saussure and Derrida, among others) for his conception of phrase universes and the linkage of phrases.  Instead of speaking specifically of games, Lyotard offers the images of drifting between archipelagos and clouds drifting across the sky for conveying this linkage of phrases and for characterizing how thought works (or ought to work). 

--The explanations of the destruction of a one to one correspondence between words and things, the arbitrariness of the sign, and différance all show why the witness cannot testify to the revisionist in an idiom that the latter would accept as legitimate.  The revisionist presumes language operates like that of Wittgenstein’s builders (a firm one-to-one correspondence).  But, just as Lyotard revealed the trickery in Protagoras’ paradox (how he was including the current case in consideration instead of keeping it as the universal rule), we need to find and expose the trickery of the revisionist, find where he uses the wrong set of rules, discover if there is a way to reconcile the differing sets of rules or translate them into a third, common set, and then see if there is still a differend …

To formalize what Lyotard foreshadows: yes, there still will be a differend, but it is not as the revisionist gives it! 

A first exercise:

(1) Explain the similarities that you see in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory that words relate via family resemblances and operate according to Language Games to Lyotard’s theory that language has Phrase Regimens (the rules for constituting a phrase, e.g., reasoning, knowing, describing, recounting, questioning, showing, ordering, etc.) and Genres of Discourse (rules for linking phrases together, e.g., to know, to teach, to be just, to seduce, to justify, to evaluate, to rouse emotion, to oversee). 

(2) Lyotard describes the activity of language, thinking, and philosophy through analogy to clouds drifting across the sky and to a boat drifting amongst an archipelago (a part of a sea with a cluster of islands).  Explicate how these images can express his theory of language’s Phrase Regimens and Genres of Discourse.

(3) “… a man is only a particle inserted in unstable and entangled wholes.  These wholes are composed in personal life in the form of multiple possibilities, starting with a knowledge that is crossed like a threshold—and the existence of the particle can in no way be isolated from this composition. … This extreme instability of connections alone permits one to introduce, as a puerile but convenient illusion, a representation of isolated experience turning in on itself” (George Bataille, “The Labyrinth,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, trans. Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 174).  How does this quote compare to or differ from Wittgenstein and Lyotard’s theories of language?

(4) William S. Burroughs wrote “Language is a virus from outer space” and Georges Bataille argued that communication is like a contagion.  How do these quotes compare to or differ from Wittgenstein and Lyotard’s theories of language?

Please Read the Following Along with The Differend’s

Chapter Two, “The Referent, The Name”

II) The Linguistic Aspect:

Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structure, which includes the study of morphology (of the forms of things), syntax (of the arrangement of words and phrases), phonetics (of the speech sounds), and semantics (of the meaning, including formal—its logical aspects, lexical—that of words and word relations, and conceptual—its cognitive structure).  This discipline (while distinct today from the discipline of philosophy) is a focused investigation of a fundamental concern—language and its structure—of all philosophy, not just branches of it like philosophy of language and logic or the shared topic from which the contemporary analytic and Continental schools diverged from one another.  While clearly crucial to studies of knowledge or ethics, language is more foundationally inextricable from questions of reason and meaning, without which philosophy would not be.  Yet, due to their being different disciplines, no matter their shared concern for language, they have developed very different vocabularies and ways of thinking about language.  The following is only an attempt to point towards the most (1) basic questions of language proper that undergird Lyotard’s project, (2) define some of the terms more commonly found within linguistics that will appear in The Differend concerning names (most explicitly in the second chapter “The Referent, The Name”), and (3) suggest the importance of names. 

(1) Basic Questions of Language

Let me begin by evading the task of concisely or specifically defining “language” in order to emphasize how we must conceive of it in the broadest possible way in order to best follow Lyotard as he weaves in and out of its many micro and macro perspectives.  “Language” comes from the Latin lingua, “tongue,” and while it is a genus—all those methods and systems of communication and expression—it is also what we call each of its species—from English to sign language to that of animals and bodies, not to mention that of flowers or stars or love; it is also importantly the structure of knowledge itself and that by which its content is formed and may be constitutive of that content.  Even to limit this immense breadth to something concrete, let us just say the specific language of English, the fact that there are roughly 14 words added to it every day and that the Oxford English Dictionary has about 600,000 entries, is hardly a limitation that makes language something easy to grasp for our study.  Thus, to simplify our most abiding concern with language down to a concern with the expression of meaning hardly yields us a simple task.

The expression of meaning, however, is so very simple; we do it all the time, endlessly, from infancy to dying words to pointing, in building a memorial to writing a term paper.  It is so very simple until we try to express the meaning of expressing meaning.  The following investigates one of the micro perspectives in Lyotard’s task of the expression of meaning—the name—and quickly shows how the simple becomes hardly so:

The name is a word (spoken or written, both will be implied with the use of “word” here) or set of words by which something is known.  But, of course, it is also a verb, the activity of naming something, whether to found it (“we will call it…”), embellish it (sir, doctor, father of the year), identify it (cup), specify it (“name your price,” 7:00, right here), mention it (“there’s the lamp”), cite it (Lyotard’s The Differend), etc..  It is also, of course, used idiomatically to designate fame or reputation, and likely many other things, but let us just consider the noun and verb nonspecifically: the name is an expression of what something is.  To be lenient and take “is” to be “as,” or, that what something is, is how it is or what it is as, then to offer a name is to express what something means.  This is, of course, a central problem, no matter that this is what we do all the time: what is that thing?  It is a lamp.  “Lamp” is, at once, the name and meaning of the “thing.”

So, perhaps we will gain more clarity if we ask not what a name is, but why do we name something?  “Why” is diversely answered when we think again about defining the verb form of “name” (to identify something, etc.) and we can summarize these many answers into the general answer that we name something because we want to know it, since each diverse answer specifies some aspect of how we know it (in existence, time, place, type, etc.).

Thus, let us ask, if we name something in order to know it, what is the nature of this relation between names and knowledge? 

Does a name have an ontological relation to the thing named (it is, if it has a name)? 

Does a name necessitate an ethical relation to the thing named (if the named is known, and knowledge of it makes a relation between knower and known, and ethics is about relations)?

These questions, namely the instant difficulty of answers, reinforces the importance and urgency of Lyotard’s task to determine whether and how we can express the inexpressible, name that which prohibits a name.  The survivor, as witness, is trying to have the referent of her testimony, gas chambers, be legitimated at true, real in the tribunal that prohibits her authority as addressor.  There are multiple levels here: the premise that one can name what one knows, or else one does not know it; that if one does not know it, one cannot prove it true or real; and that one’s name is what one is.  If there is a survivor, there must be something that was survived, and the something must be known as something that can be survived, and if it is known, it can be named, and if it cannot be named, there is no survivor.  If there is a witness, there must be something that was witnessed, and the something must be known as something that can be witnessed, and if it is known, it can be named, and if it cannot be named, there is no witness.  And, most damningly, if a human being is a rational animal, and to be rational is to be capable of speech, and one not capable of speech, then … what is the ontological status of such a being?  We want to, desperately, along with Lyotard, refuse this logic.  Along with Lyotard, we cannot just call it hateful or sophistry and walk away.  So, we must walk back into the difficult and hopefully not impossible tangles of naming, of expressing meaning, of language.

To begin:

A second exercise:

The purpose here is to think about names.  Read the following poem, then think through and try to answer the question beneath it.

The Naming Of Cats

T.S. Eliot

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,

Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,

Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey

All of them sensible everyday names.

There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,

Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:

Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter--

But all of them sensible everyday names.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,

A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,

Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,

Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,

Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,

Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-

Names that never belong to more than one cat.

But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,

And that is the name that you never will guess;

The name that no human research can discover--

But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable


Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

(A)  How many names are named? 

(B)  Explain (A).

(2) Terminology

Let us begin with a quick repetition, and then move to some terms selected from linguistics in general, terms specifically used or created by Lyotard, and then general terms specifically in relation to names that Lyotard references or uses, especially in his chapter “The Referent, The Name.” 

Linguistics: the scientific study of language and its structure, which includes the study of:

Morphology: study of the forms or structures of units of meaning,

Syntax: study of the arrangement of words and phrases; can also directly refer to the rules that oversee the structure of language (through Notices on Gertrude Stein and Theodor Adorno, Lyotard will also discuss its contrast, parataxis: a side-by-side arrangement of words/phrases based upon coordination, rather than subordination; typically, this is done through the removal of logical conjunctions (e.g., “thus,” “therefore,” “so,” “then,” etc.) so that the flow of meaning is determined by something other than grammatical rules),

Phonetics: study of the speech sounds, and

Semantics: study of the meaning, non-exhaustively including formal semantics (study of its logical aspects), lexical semantics (that of words and word relations), and conceptual semantics (its cognitive structure). 

Sense and Reference: frequently left in the German Sinn and Bedeutung.  Very important terms that shift their meaning slightly depending upon who is using them; in general, however, they are the two components that make up meaning wherein reference is the object a term or expression refers to and sense is the way in which the same term or expression refers to that object, that is, the mode of presentation of the object.  The interplay between sense and reference takes different forms; for example, there can be one referent to which two (or more) different senses apply (referent: Johnny Cash; sense 1: singer, sense 2: father, or, interesting for our studies, referent: Kierkegaard; sense 1: Kierkegaard, sense 2: Johannes de Silentio—Kierkegaard is Kierkegaard, yet the latter is one of his pseudonyms, thus, also Kierkegaard), just as there can be one sense to which two (or more) different referents apply (sense: the divine being; referent 1: The Father, referent 2: The Son, referent 3: The Holy Ghost).  One of the great questions for Lyotard is the idea of sense without a reference, that is, a term or expression that is or would be considered meaningful, yet lacks a precise reference.  The lack of a referent can be for multiple reasons, including: there are none because there could be an infinite number of referents (a common example is “the greatest integer”—since there is no greatest integer, while we “understand” the expression, it lacks a precise referent; the philosopher Frege used the example “the least rapidly convergent series”—again, we “understand” all of the components herein, yet there is no such precise thing) or because the referent lacks a fixed proper name or ontological status because it evades/exceeds our conceptual comprehension or linguistic grasp (for example, perhaps!, the living’s experience of one’s own death, God, the sublime, etc.).

Lyotard’s Specific Terminology:

Phrase Regimen: the rules for constituting a phrase (phrase regimens include reasoning, knowing, describing, recounting, questioning, showing, ordering, etc., which all have their attendant rules).

Genres of Discourse: rules for linking phrases together (genres of discourse include to know, to teach, to be just, to seduce, to justify, to evaluate, to rouse emotion, to oversee, etc., which are all genres that dictate their own rules about linking phrases).

Linkages: every phrase calls for another, by necessity; these linkages are made in accordance with whichever genre of discourse within which parties are operating.

Phrase universe:  a phrase presents (establishes) a universe, which includes:

Addressee: one to whom the phrase is addressed,

Addressor: one from whom the phrase comes,

Referent: that which the phrase is about, and

Sense: the meaning, or mode (way or manner) of presentation about the referent.

General terminology Lyotard uses in relation to his inquiry into names:

Onomatology (Onomastics): the study of proper names.  It is the genus that includes toponymy and anthroponymy (see below). 

Nomenclature: from the Greek nomen, name, plus clatura, calling; system of names.

There are many systems of naming.  In the most general sense, a system could be discerned by repetition and pattern, e.g., all of the N-S roads in Manhattan are Avenues and all the E-W ones are Streets. 

But… then there are more fixed systems, as Lyotard names in §49:

Chronological system: a system of naming in accordance to a chronological order, that is, one of date and time sequences.  Narratives in general have a tendency to be chronological but biographical sketches are typically such: begins with one’s birth, moving to childhood, adulthood, death.  We can also speak of Babylonian and Assyrian chronologies having different kings and dynasty names, even while they temporally overlap.  Then there are names themselves that are assigned because of the named thing’s chronology, for example, the Paleozoic Era names the geologic era from approximately 542 to 251 million years ago, it takes its name from the Greek for “old” and “life,” and is the oldest era in the Phanerozoic Eon, or how Brazil’s city Rio de Janeiro (“River of January”) takes its name from the Europeans’ first entry into its bay on January 1, 1502.

Topographical system: a description of structure, mapping surface features; examples would include a visual or written map of hydrographic, geographic, man-made features.

Toponymic system: topos, place, plus onuma, name: a system of place names, their origins, meanings, and use—it is a study of place names similar to how etymology studies the origins of words in language. 

Anthroponymic system: anthropos, human, plus onuma, name: a system of naming relating to humans; information relating to human names (important especially as a means of preserving information or uses of language that have disappeared from common usage).

There are also what we call “Conventions” of naming, in a precise sense, the groups that establish the conventionality of names.  These exist for the study of Classics, Horticulture, Astronomy, etc.

For example, by convention, in horticulture, a name includes: Latin botanical name of the genus and species and then the cultivar epithet, e.g., (shortened) Hemerocallis ‘Alabama Jubilee’ designates a cultivar of a daylily.

Deictics: (dik-tiks) from the Greek, deiktos, demonstrative; a word or expression whose meaning is dependent upon the context in which it is used, for examples: here!, now!, next Tuesday, you!, that, this, etc.  Lyotard explains: “Deictics relate the instances of the universe presented by the phrase in which they are placed back to a ‘current’ spatio-temporal origin so named ‘I-here-now.’  These deictics are designators of reality” (The Differend, §50).  The origin, however, of the deictics is not a static one, as “this” or “here” are most fluid, but they show origins that are presented or co-presented with the universe of the phrase in which they appear.  Deictics appear and disappear with the phrase. 

(3)  The Importance of Names

To know a name is to have power over that thing. 

This can begin to explain why Judaism does not speak or write the proper name of God or how, in Catholicism, exorcism classically succeeded when the demon gave up its name.

Lyotard’s Notice on the Cashinahua, a native tribe of Brazil, employed a fixed system of naming each other wherein the granting of a name designated one’s position within their society and an additional name was given for the individual to be known by by those outside of their society.  Similarly, Jewish and Islamic naming often gives the child the family name as designated by “bin” or “ibn” (for males) and “binti” or “inbu” (for females) or “Al-” or “-ullah” to designate child of / servant of God, which effectively establish an individual’s position within society and the greater cosmos. 

Finally, baptism is considered to be both a washing away or ablution of sins and also a ceremony of naming (new name for the newly sin-less or re-born). 

Pseudonyms: also invoke questions about the power of names since they are a taking of a name that is “not one’s own” in a proper sense or everyday existence.  Later in the semester, we will read Pseudo-Dionysius whose actual identity is unknown to us because he adopted the pseudonym Dionysius (and, paradoxically, wrote extensively about naming God, even while not leaving his own name to posterity).  Classically, the use of pseudonyms was an honorific, aligning oneself in the tradition of another.  It has also long been used as a form of protection from others for what one wrote.  It can also add a hermeneutical depth of meaning to one’s work, as one’s choice of penname brings with it the name’s connotations, for example, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling is Johannes de silentio, Johannes of silence, or the silent Johannes (a paradox, for silence is the author, yet, to be an author one cannot be silent), allegedly borrowed from the Grimm’s fairy tale “The Faithful Servant,” which hearkens his topic of faith, about which, in a way, he is silent because his messages is, essentially, that if you have it, you will not be able to explain it to anyone else, or, as he writes, Faith has no place in a system (i.e. Hegel).  “Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, in the Hannay translation, pp.10-11, in the Hong and Hong, p.82).

Things other than proper names can become names—these may become proper names, too, for example, Aristotle: “The Philosopher,” or Shakespeare: “The Bard”

On Language and Meaning
Supplement for Lyotard’s The Differend