I recently stumbled across the work of Victorian philologist/theologian Max Müller. The existence of philologist/theologian as a descriptor is delightful enough as it is, but I was particularly drawn by the way in which the study of language, and in particular the limitations of language, influenced Müller’s theological interests.
Müller saw religion as a defect of language. He argued that there was a perceptual faculty, aistheton, that was able to contemplate the existence of the infinite, so that rather than being restricted to the phenomenal realm of sense-data we could intuitively get that there was something bigger extending beyond it.
Müller held that very early language, like the early Sanskrit of the Vedas, had a greater depth and flexibility of meaning, largely because the language was more simplistic and there was less of it so it had to do more and express more.
It therefore got used with broader brush-strokes and more poetic licence. It was more metaphorical. Central to this metaphorical form of representation was the description of bits of the physical world – mountains, rivers, the sky etc – as being active rather than just sterile stuff.
Müller called these sorts of big things semi-tangible objects: you could see and grasp bits of them but underpinning that was the knowledge that there was more of it that you could not see. The vastness and not-quite-perceptibility of the natural world was therefore embedded in this sense of aistheton, of a bigger infinite thing beyond the things we see.
For Müller, the development of language that was more tightly focused on picking out nouns – bits of stuff – in what it was describing and concomitantly less metaphorical in those descriptions left a gap where the infinite had previously lurked.
Once you just called a mountain a mountain and a river a river and the dawn the dawn and it was just a thing, you needed to find another way of making it rich with meaning again. The next phase of this was animism, where you take the noun Eos, the Dawn, and make it into a name, so that the Dawn is a person imbued with a mixture of anthropomorphic and dawn-like properties. You have yourself a god.
Müller thought this was a pretty simplistic approach to religion: you lost the sense of wonder and gained a soap opera with a cast of embodied nouns. How was this a conceptual improvement on the magic of metaphorical language, which was poetic and broad rather than denotational, and capable of glimpsing the infinite?
To generate a noun called God and fit all of those attributes into a thing is just as crude as turning Dawn into a character – you end up thinking you understand it, that it is possible to hold and define. Müller lionised the apophatic approach of Buddhism, or certain Buddhist traditions: you can only describe what you are describing by setting out what it isn’t. Müller was a dude.
Anyway, I started thinking more about aistheton. I like it as an idea. I started to wonder if that might be what we’re after when we climb a mountain or wade along the edges of a river or perceive a dawn: the idea that the richness and vitality of something beyond the immediate frame of our perception is present.
Our contemporary disorder of language is guilty of the same drive to object-making that Müller identified over a century ago. We went further and ditched the god-noun, which is probably no bad thing. Our perceptual frames have shrunk back even further, though: the ready supply of synthetic novelty on screens, online, in the weird leisure scenarios of late capitalism have withered away our capacity to dig for richness beneath surface appearance.
Maybe aistheton, now, is simply to be present in a moment unfed by technology and to peer beyond it, and remember that there is a world beyond it whose unfolding detail is vast and limitless, like a river or some other semi-tangible object; maybe it is the ability to hold the world, or anything in it, as something that can not quite be held.