Yaroslav N. Yeremeyev


The mystery of the word is in its intercourse with the object and its intercourse with other people. The word is overstepping the limits of a separate individuality. It is a bridge between the subject and the object.

Alexei Losev. Philosophy of Name

1.1 What is the nature of language? Does it exist as an ideal object, before and above verbal communication hic et nunc? Or, has it got its existence only within concrete speech acts, concrete communication? This century has witnessed ceaseless battles with innumerable supporters of either side of the argument. And no side has so far managed to completely defeat its rivals. Rather, both sides succeeded in pointing out the serious drawbacks and incompleteness in each other’s theoretical programmes.

Yet, it was Plato’s Kratilos that first suggested that Heraclitian (objectivistic and onthologistic) and sophistic (subjectivistic and relativistic) visions of language are not only contrary to each other, but also complementary. The idea was too radical and innovatory for the time (as it still remains for the ‘monologistic’ majority of philosophy of language today) and European thought chose the less ambiguous and more logically formalistic Aristotelian framework, the basis of Cartesian rationalistic paradigm. This paradigm with its Principle of identity (A=A) cannot accept dialogical antinomistic interpretation of the object. Some occasional antinomistic treatments of the being and its constituent elements (language being one of them) can be found in Pascal’s and Kant’s works but they remained outside the general framework of the European thought.

1.2 Wilhelm von Humboldt was the first to take up and seriously develop Plato’s idea of language having a complex nature. Language is both ergon and energeia, he wrote, these poles being contrary and complementary to each other at the same time.

The thesis is the fact that everything in language is alive. The man creates language in the free process of communication, in every speech act. The essence of language lies in the continuing act of its creation in speech, communication. Communication is the only real state in which language exists. Language and real life are inseparable notions.

The antithesis admits a fundamental character of language. Vocabulary and grammar are given to an individual as something ready-made and unchangeable. We can use a language but we do not create it. Languages belong to nations, not to individuals, and using them we become their subjects, not vice-versa. Language has its own life independent of an individual, its user, has its own power which is exercised upon us.

2.1 Humboldt’s ideas have had a serious influence upon modern linguistics. But, unfortunately, its two mainstreams remain monological, and therefore they accept either the antithesis (Saussure and linguistic structuralism and pragmatics up to Speech Act Theory by J.Austin and J.Searle), or, as a reaction, – the thesis (L. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, French school of poststructuralism – R. Barthes, J. Kristeva, J. Derridas and others).

It seems that Humboldt’s antinomistic views of the language were truly accepted and developed by two other language philosophy schools which were only too ready to do it due to their Platonic and, in the second case, also neo-Kantian roots. These schools are the Russian philosophy of Name (P.Florensky, S.Boulgakoff, A.Losev) and Dialogistic philosophy (M.Bakhtin, M.Buber, F.Rosenzweig, E.Rosenstock-Huessy). Though most of these philosophers worked independently of each other, their ideas have much in common. Their main concepts are antinomy and dialogue. These two concepts were also present among the basic ideas of W. von Humboldt’s works (though he did not use these terms).

2.2 In his principal philosophical work Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (On the Difference of Human Languages Structure) Humboldt argues that the two visions of language regarding it as either independent of a human soul or depending on it, in reality coincide and express the special character of the essence of language. This contradiction may not and is not to be avoided. Language cannot be presented as being foreign to the soul and independent of it in its certain parts, and in some other parts utterly belonging to it.

Language can be compared to a wide cloth, in which every thread is more or less noticeably interwoven with all the others. Speaking a language a person touches upon only a small part of this great cloth but treats it as a whole, with which it has a regular connection and inner harmony.

Language as a whole takes its position between the man and the nature influencing the former inwardly and outwardly.

The man encloses oneself within the wall of sounds in order to perceive and understand the world of objects.

Since the man’s perception and activity depends crucially on his mental concepts, his relations with the objective world are greatly affected by language.

The mental development of an individual is only possible with the help of and through language. Language in its turn requires another individual, requires understanding. Language by its nature is a means to objectivize our subjective world. Mental concepts transformed into words come into the ownership of others. Language needs two as sine qua non, though in reality it belongs to all mankind.

An individual understands oneself as long as he is understood by others. A thought in order to be understood needs another individual, who is equal to the speaker and yet is different. Being well aware of his limits, an individual has to regard the truth as something external to himself. One of the most powerful means of approximation to it is constant communication with others.

Language as a whole is given to everybody, which means that every man aims at, regulated, stimulated and restricted by a certain force, exercising the verbal activity in accordance with his external or internal needs, and in such a way that could be understood by others (Humboldt, 1985).

2.3The ideas, the synopsis of which has just been given, were not properly understood and accepted by the last century linguists, though one can find some applications of the antinomistic approach to language in H.Steinthal, DerDie Ursprung dieder Sprache, Berlin,1858; А.Потебня, Мысль и язык, Харьков, 1892; V.Henry, Antinomies linguistiques, Paris, 1896.Only in 1920s the thoroughly developed and original antinomistic philosophy of language was created in the works of the Russian authors P.Florensky Мысль и язык (Thought and Language), 1922(published in Moscow in 1990); S.Boulgakoff Философия имени (Philosophy of Name), 1922 (published in Paris in1953); A.LosevФилософия имени (Philosophy of Name), Moscow,1927.

3.1 Pavel Florensky in his early book Cтолп и утверждение истины (The Pillar and Foundation of Truth), Moscow,1914argued that thesis and antithesis only taken together express the truth. In other words, the truth is always an antinomy and it cannot be expressed otherwise (Florensky,1989, p.147).Quoting Nicolaus de Cusa we can say that truth is coincidentia oppositorum.

In Thought and LanguageFlorensky develops Humboldt’s treatment of language as an equilibrium of ergon and energeia, thing and life. The equilibrium is being maintained in the constant process of verbal activity. The two poles of the language support each other and without either of them the whole structure of language would be destroyed. The existence of language is only possible in the process of confrontation of these poles, as a frail unsteady balance of stability and changeability in language.

There is no individual language which is not universal in its basis, substance; likewise there is no universal language which is not individual in its actual, phenomenal reality (Florensky, 1990).

3.2 The last notion became one of the principal points in Alexei Losev’s Philosophy of Name (Losev, 1990) and his other linguistic works (Losev, 1998). Losev builds up his philosophy upon dichotomy of substance and its energies. Substances and meanings are revealed to the man through their energies or phenomena that can be perceived as true expressions of the former.

Each energy of the substance is therefore the language in which the substance communicates with its surroundings. Hence, substance can be perceived and understood through its energies. Each substance is apophatic and symbolic, i.e. its nature cannot be known, except through its energies or its expression and inasmuch it revealed through them.

Following Losev’s thought it is possible to say that inter-relationship between the universal language and the concrete utterance is the relationship and one of its innumerable energies (via certain intermediate stages of realization – a national language, its contemporary state, one of its stylistic register, a degree of formality etc. plus the individual linguistic features of the speaker).

If we take an individual as a substance, his speech will be his energy (and at the same time an energy of the language). Being substantially two different things the interlocutors can understand each other through and in each other’s energies, in each other’s words. They co-ordinate their energies and achieve understanding. Or, it may be said, they co-ordinate the energies of the language they use in communication. If they understand each other, they obtain a certain degree of objectivity.

Losev stressed the fact that without language an individual would be imprisoned within his subjectivity, he would be essentially anti-social and non-communicative, and therefore he would also be non-individual, non-substantial, but purely an animal organism or, if a man still, he would be a madman (Losev,1990, p.49).

3.3 Sergei Boulgakoff in his Philosophy of Name takes as the basic notions, instead of substance or energy, subject and predicate. He argues that these logical and grammatical terms reflect the real intercourse between the idea and the phenomenon.

The word is the bridge between sensible empirical impressions and categorical terms. Every sentence subject is, according to Boulgakoff, a product of reduction of a logical/grammatical judgement consisting of 1) a demonstrative or personal pronoun indicating the concrete subject of the material world, 2) a name, i.e., one of the subjects of the ideal world, and 3) the verb to be connecting the elements of the two worlds.

So, the sentence subject a tiger, for instance, in a sentence like A tiger came out of the jungle, really means This is a tiger.

Subject is one of the two Boulgakoff’s key notions. The second one is predicate. Predication is a universal process. Every subject (or substance in Losev’s terms) has innumerable predicates (Losev’s energies). As the language connects two sides of reality – ideal and empirical, every utterance is the product of the process of predication, the self-revelation of the subject, its realization hic et nunc. Verbs with their tense system introduce the temporal factor, case and numeric systems introduce the space factor. Subject is no more free of the material world.

There are no ‘pure words’, logos, in real languages as there are no holy people in this world. Words have their roots in ideas, but in their phenomenal, historical existence they are marked with the human subjectivity and psychology. That is why every utterance even if it is a set-phrase or a quotation is a unique speech act, not simply a reproduction of what has already existed.

4.1 Here we come to the dialogical treatment of language and discourse. Mikhail Bakhtin wrote, “Two or more sentences may be absolutely identical (just like two identical geometrical figures), moreover, we must admit that any sentence, can be repeated innumerable times remaining formally identical, but as an utterance (or a part of it) not a single sentence, even a one-word sentence, can be repeated: it will always be a new utterance (even if it is a quotation)” (Bakhtin,1979, p.286).

If the philosophers of Name focused on dichotomy of language and discourse mostly, the dialogists’ principal interest lies mostly in the sphere of discourse, its participants and its context (though, of course, these notions were by no means foreign to Humboldt, Boulgakoff, Florensky and Losev).

Since logos transformed into this or that individual’s word, became perspectivised, the question of how communication is possible arises. Bakhtin’s principal idea is the idea ofindividualising communality.

Being open to different modifications and interpretations of meaning the word provides freedom, creativity and dialogical independence for interlocutors. Retaining its own identity the word installs agreement, understanding, equality of interlocutors.

Only in a dialogue a person can express oneself, can be understood by others. And only if he is understood by others and inasmuch he can understand himself (applying Losev’s terminology it may be said that one can know oneself to the extent that can be expressed in one’s energies).

4.2 Bakhtin uses the notion dialogue in a broad sense. It is not only a concrete act of communication between interlocutors, it is also a dialogue with the immediate communicative and social context and a broader historical and cultural one, and, of course, dialogue with language with the word. Every word in a way has its own memory which has accumulated a certain amount of semantic and connotative information. Employing a word, a speaker uses it in a concrete narrow meaning but bears in mind everything this word possesses (at least everything the speaker knows about this word). Likewise, the addressee perceiving the word with all its ‘luggage’, tries to make out the meaning the speaker implied, to decipher it with the help of the communicative context.

So, the interlocutors must install the dialogical connections with all the elements of the context in order to be understood and to understand each other.

Still, of course, the most important thing is the dialogue between the interlocutors. Each utterance is somehow the product of mutual efforts of the participants of the conversation to establish understanding, to reach the productive communality of their verbal actions. “The understanding of somebody’s utterance ordinarily involves active treatment of that utterance, this treatment partially consisting in the formulation of an actual ‘response’ ” (Linell, 1998, p.78).

Speech Act Theory treatment of the utterance as an individual realization of the speaker’s intention is essentially unacceptable for dialogism. “Individual speech act is contradictio in adjecto”, Bakhtin wrote (Bakhtin (Voloshinov), [1929] 1993,p.35) some forty years before John R. Searle published his principal works. An utterance must be regarded as a “product of a reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addresser and addressee” (op. cit., p.56)

4.3 This article began with the statement that language has a complex antinomical nature – it is both ideal and real, universal and individual, ergon and energeia. It may be finished with the assertion that dialogue is the only state in which language can exist manifesting its both sides and in which it does really exist.


  1. Bakhtin,1979 – Бахтин М.М. Эстетика словесного творчества. Москва,1979
  2. Bakhtin (Voloshinov),1993 – Бахтин М.М. (Волошинов В.Н.) Марксизм и философия языка. Москва, 1993.
  3. Boulgakoff,1999 – Булгаков С.Н. Образ и первообраз. Санкт-Петербург,1999.
  4. Florensky,1989 – Флоренский П.А. Столп и утверждение истины. Paris,1989.
  5. Florensky,1990 – Флоренский П.А. У водоразделов мысли. Москва,1990.
  6. Humboldt,1985 – Гумбольдт В. фон Язык и философия культуры. Москва,1985.
  7. Linell,1998 – Linell Per. Approaching Dialogue. Amsterdam/Philadelphia,1998.
  8. Losev,1990 – Лосев А.Ф. Философия имени. Москва,1990.
  9. Losev,1998 – Лосев А.Ф. Имя. Санкт-Петербург,1998.