The Shattering of the Old Dream of the Enlightenment

Interesting discussion on the human/animal/language/communication debate broke out on Percy-L of late, prompting list member Mike Larson to post the following passage from Walker Percy’s “The Mystery of Language,” THE MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLE (p. 158):

An awareness of the nature of language must have the greatest possible consequences for our minimal concept of man. For one thing it must reveal the ordinary secular concept of man held in the West as not merely inadequate but quite simply mistaken. I do not refer to the Christian idea of man as a composite of body and soul, a belief which is professed by some and given lip service by many but which can hardly be said to be a working assumption of secular learning. We see man — when I say we, I mean 95 per cent of those who attended American high schools and universities–as the highest of the organisms: He stands erect, he apposes thumb and forefinger, his language is far more complex than that of the most advanced Cebus azarae. But the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. Man is a higher organism, standing in direct continuity with rocks, soil, fungi, protozoa, and mammals.

This happens not to be true, however, and in a way it is unfortunate. I say unfortunate because it means the shattering of the old dream of the Enlightenment — that an objective-explanatory-causal science can discover and set forth all the knowledge of which man is capable. The dream is drawing to a close. The existentialists have taught us that what man is cannot be grasped by the sciences of man. The case is rather that man’s science is one of the things that man does, a mode of existence. Another mode is speech. Man is not merely a higher organism responding to and controlling his environment. He is, in Heidegger’s words, that being in the world whose calling it is to find a name for Being, to give testimony to it, and to provide for it a clearing.


  1. Well, this comment doesn’t really pertain to this post, but I know you folks have an interest in Walker Percy. Have you seen that his personal library has been catalogued at LibraryThing? You can browse around to your heart’s content. It’s not quite as good as being asked over for a bourbon, but it’s still enjoyable.

    I’ve written briefly about the project here.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Thanks. I’ve added a post about your blog and added you to our blogroll.

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