Borges and Heisenberg converged on the slipperiness of language

Borges and Heisenberg converged on the slipperiness of language

William Egginton writes:

[A]s war raged around him, and as he worked to produce (or to hinder the production of, we may never know for sure) an atomic weapon for Germany, [Werner] Heisenberg was secretly working on a philosophical book. The ‘Manuscript of 1942’ would be named not for the year it was published, which wouldn’t be until long after his death, but for the year he finished and circulated it among close friends. From that work, it would seem that what really interested Heisenberg during the time he was supposed to be working on Germany’s weapons programme was the mystery of our relation to and knowledge of reality. The issue, he believed, came down to language.

For Heisenberg, science translates reality into thought. Humans, in turn, require language in order to think. Language, however, depends on the same limitations that Heisenberg’s work from the 1920s showed held for our knowledge of nature. Language can home in on the world to a highly objective degree, where it becomes well defined and useful for scientists who study the natural world. But, when it is so focused and finely honed, language loses its other essential aspect, one we need in order to be able to think. Specifically, our words lose their ability to have meanings that change depending on their context.

Heisenberg calls the first kind of language use static, and the second dynamic. Humans use language in a variety of ways that span the spectrum between the mostly static and mostly dynamic. On one extreme, there are physicists, who strive to link their words as closely as possible to a single phenomenon. On the other side are poets, whose use of language depends on its ability to have multiple meanings. While scientists use the static quality of words so as to pin down observations under very specific conditions, they do so at a cost. As Heisenberg writes:

What is sacrificed in ‘static’ description is that infinitely complex association among words and concepts without which we would lack any sense at all that we have understood anything of the infinite abundance of reality.

Because of this trade-off, insofar as thinking about the world depends on coordinating both the static and dynamic aspects of language, ‘a complete and exact depiction of reality can never be achieved.’ [Continue reading…]

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