The Beast Who Speaks


Daniel Dennett argues that it is language that really makes us human:

We are the only species whose members try to figure out why to do things, why we have done things, and why others are doing what they are doing. We represent reasons to each other, thereby influencing each other’s behaviour. Being movable by reasons in this way makes us fitting carriers of the burden of moral responsibility. No other species can commit murder, though many kill each other. And if we now see that it is appropriate to hold ourselves responsible for the well-being of other species, we also recognise that this sets us apart from them. They may be suitable bearers of moral value, but we don’t hold them responsible for maintaining, let alone improving, the well-being of others, even of their own species.

Or as Pascal memorably put it:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.

The question to me seems to be whether we embrace our strength as thinking reeds or our weakness; whether we live in the recognition of our limits or in the recognition or our spark of divinity. I am a Christian, in one way, because I believe that it’s only by embracing our weakness that we have the wisdom to be truly strong. And language is part of that spark of divinity. It came from us, from below, and yet it points so often above, to something beyond us. Does that in itself tell us something?