Language is more than words. Philosopher Etienne Gilson composes a hymn to thought

Linguistics and Philosophy: An Essay on the Philosophical Constants of Language, by Etienne Gilson. Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press. 201 pp. $27.95. Etienne Gilson's writing is known for clarity, rigor, and humane irony. In ``Linguistics and Philosophy: An Essay on the Philosophical Constants of Language,'' there's all this plus a certain personal tone that has an almost nostalgic finality about it. Gilson has been writing for more than 50 years. As a commentator on medieval philosophy, he has no peers; as a commentator on the crisis caused by the modern aversion to metaphysics, he has only a few. His latest book may be described as a hymn to thought, an elegant, powerfully argued, sometimes moving, always persuasive defense of being - against the abstractions of modern science.

Gilson recognizes the benefits of studying language in and for itself. His book is replete with acknowledgments of gratitude to linguists such as Edward Sapir, Emile Benveniste, Noam Chomsky. The precision of his language is inseparable from theirs. But he also sees the downside of linguistics. In practice and sometimes in theory, linguists have cut words off from thought, and hence from being.

Gilson starts with the way modern science atomizes its subject, and with the replacement of thought by the expressions of thought we call words. Straying from science into philosophy, linguists say, ``There is no thought without words.''

Gilson soon returns to the fountains of thought, which include not only Aristotle (whom he calls the Philosopher) but also Chomsky - whose recognition of language as a creative power, as production, not product, Gilson recognizes as on a par with some of the Philosopher's achievements. In the center of the book, there's a marvelous meditation on the fate of the concept; in one of the digressions in the back he tells how on Nov. 21, 1968, the Acad'emie Fran,caise considered striking the word concept from the dictionary because it had become a technical term!

Gilson touches, with delicate strength of phrase, on the profound mystery of the sentence ``In the beginning was the word.'' In a few pages, he unfolds a number of points about the relationship between beginnings and linear developments, quoting St. Thomas, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Andr'e Breton, pausing to consider ``The American custom, so baffling to Latin minds,'' of beginning with a few anecdotes, ``preferably humorous.''

The book thickens after that, not technically, but emotionally, as Gilson turns to many voices in the great conversation about language, to Musset, Benveniste, Emerson, the Dadaists, Mallarm'e, Wittgenstein. Reading Gilson is a constant process of surprise and discovery. Of why Aristotle reserved the last place in his work on logic for his ``Rhetoric,'' Gilson writes, ``No more than one can completely describe man as the speaking animal without including in the description the logician, the mathematician, and the scholar, can one conceive him such as he is without taking account of the dialectician and the rhetorician which he obligatorily is by the sole fact that he thinks, lives, and speaks in society.''

And with his typical spritely alertness to the small, Gilson discusses homonyms, for his interest is in bringing us to see the connections among sound, writing, and thought.

Gilson reserves Plato for the end. In a far-ranging chapter named after Plato's last work, Gilson confronts the old problem posed by writing. Speech is living language. It is being. Writing is a thing. Speech is acting. Writing is making. But writing reflects speech and sends us back to being. Of writing, he says: ``It is a holy and quasi-divine domain, in the strict sense of the term, for in the written the spoken endures, and in the spoken the intellect lives, a witness in man of a power of creation superior to man.'' A whole life lives in that sentence.

Gilson has always modestly styled himself a historian of philosophy, a commentator. It should come as no surprise - but it does - that the last pages of this book include a portrait of the great French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869). Of his literary criticism, Gilson writes: ``It ... enters into a sort of general conversation among the interlocutors, some living, some dead, who, without ever being together, talk about some mighty spirit of whom the written work alone assures the presence, and which can itself only be pursued in silence, like a party game in which partners should exchange written remarks without a word being said.''

I think Gilson has come to see himself in Sainte-Beuve, for Sainte-Beuve saw himself as someone who gives voice to the print on the page. Gilson has done that, too, for philosophers and, in this book, poets and linguists as well, in whose texts we now hear, unmistakably along with the others, the modest, clear, Gallic voice of Etienne Gilson. I know no greater proof of his long-held belief in the transcendence of language by thought.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

Language - in itself and for itself The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, edited by David Crystal. New York: Cambridge University Press. 472 pp. $39.50.

To paraphrase one of the founding fathers of the field, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), linguistics is the study of language in itself and for itself. Isolating the forms of language from their thought contexts, linguists have amassed an amazing amount of information, much of it surveyed now in David Crystal's handy ``Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.''

Organized not alphabetically but by themes, the book is in effect a series of articles, with accompanying sidebars and copious illustrations, ranging from ``popular ideas about language'' to ``language, brain, and handicap,'' to ``language in the world.''

Crystal investigates every conceivable corner of the world of language. We read about ``statistical regularities''; artificial languages; semantics and deconstruction and homonyms (sound alikes) and different kinds of dictionaries. Poets as well as linguists are quoted, and the overlaps between literary criticism and linguistics help suggest the amplitude of this science.

To round it off, there are a glossary, a table of world languages, and several indexes. This embarras de richesses does add up to the celebration of language intended by Crystal. The book belongs in all public libraries and should inspire thoughtful young people to think hard and creatively about language.

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