The very first linguistic turn

Early Greek cosmologies and learned myths that account for the origin of the universe and its present state tend to bring up the question of representation in language. If we were to formulate this question nowadays it would probably be in these terms: how can the whole natural process of becoming, which in principle is not knowable through direct experience, be objectified in a narrative? In early Greek thought, this reflection took the form of a “linguistic turn” that was probably embedded in a poetical tradition already well alive in archaic times: language, by its own fictional potential, appears as an autonomous instance, distinguished from its referent, which it cannot attain directly. I believe the boldest statement announcing this very first “linguistic turn” is the Muses’ address to Hesiod at the beginning of the Theogony (27-8): “We know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones (etumoisin homoia), but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things (alêthéa gêrusasthai)”. The poet states here that the concepts of truth, falsity and reality itself, do not exclusively depend on factual experience; Hesiod’s narrative, and subsequently philosophical treaties written in hexameters between the sixth and fifth centuries BC deploy a concurrent poetical dimension of referentiality.

The conspicuous use of analogies, metaphors and metonymies by early Greek philosophers reveals a conscious and systematic deployment of this kind of indirect referentiality. By this, I mean not the simple use of lexical substitutions (in which a term takes the place of another that already names the object), but the more fundamental sense in which the description of a referent other than the one we wish to know reveals aspects of a reality that, without this transfer, would remain unknown to us. My project at the CHS looks at one of these indirect thematic references, namely “craftsmanship” in early Greek thought.

The philological analysis of certain works representative of the ancient philosophical tradition, such as the poems of Parmenides, Empedocles, or Plato’s Timaeus, has indeed allowed me to ascertain the existence of a connection between their content (the physical world conceived as the object of a demiurgical technique) and the underlying reflection they develop concerning the linguistic and compositional means necessary to present that content. Unsurprisingly, the craftsmanship paradigm becomes the privileged means to conduct this reflection within their discourses — the composition itself being conceived as an “assemblage”. In the work of these authors, the craftsmanship metaphor conveys a double meaning: both the discourse and the world, understood as the result of composition and assemblage, are represented by the technai.

The monograph I am writing during my stay at the CHS develops in the longue durée the issue outlined above, in order to exhibit both its historical dimension and its theoretical importance. To my knowledge, a reconstruction of the continuity of this “linguistic turn” has never been attempted; in fact literary studies, the history of philosophy, or more generally the history of ideas fail to account for it.