How Does Language Think?

   The following was originally written as a weekly course post on Roman Rhetorics for RCID 8010 at Clemson University. 

          How does language think? The question is too large. A different question would read how does Latin think?, and then would perhaps add on, additionally, at the end so as to denote even more limit and restraint, for a particular collection of cultures gathered around the streets of Rome in the centuries surrounding the birth of a Christ? Latin thinks. The thinking of language is concealed, but it does not do the concealing itself. The games in play conceal and disclose. The question how does Latin think? really circles back/forward/around to the question Heidegger asked so coercingly and so compellingly: are we able to think the thoughts of an earlier age? Are we able to reach them, to call out to them, to summon, to resurrect? Is the possibility of access simply a distance, semiotic or otherwise, too far and too great? When we think on the thinking of language, we come to the realization that language is open-ended always, irretrievably, but never more so than when a question intervenes. So, we will ask again, perpetually and playfully, how does Latin think? How did Latin perform the act of thinking for those Romans gathered by moment, chance, geography, into what those in 2018 call into being in the word Romans?

        Language thinks by compelling response. Lanham reminds us of this necessity in The “Q” Question with his anecdote detailing the Anglo-Saxon system of jurisprudence, incidentally an ancestor of the Roman system which Latin helped lay the foundations for far earlier. Lanham recalls the Anglo-Saxon system to be composed as “a public drama” consisting of an audience called a jury who are offered “contending versions of reality.” The jury settles on one version, which sets precedent and reference for future dramas. There is no magic here for Lanham, but rather a system is outlined. The magic interjects, always, though, to transmutate: the system depends on a drive, one drive, the “need to reach a decision.” The jury must respond. The jury must decide. There must always be a verdict. It is in the same way that language compels response. We must respond to it. It may be repressed and forgotten in Western thought (Latin is complicit in this), but human beings respond to language in their role as addressee. Language connects. Language thinks, and in doing so inspires, moves, galvanizes connections. Language thinks by compelling unification, even if only momentarily. James Murphy notes this and ties it specifically to the Romans, reminding us that “history does in fact tell us that for more than half a millenium the Latin language and its schools served as a kind of social cement throughout the western world.” But what sort of social cement? What could this possibly mean? Communication between members of a culture or constituent citizens of the polis or the agora is but a linkage. It takes something else, something more, to form a unified network. Latin unified politically, but it also unified networks of language games into fully-referential systems. The question then becomes: how does language/Latin, thinking in this way, mean for the those Romans? An answer resides in value-free language, or rather its impossibility. By its very existence, by virtue of existing rather than not existing, language dares a valuation.  Deirdre McCloskey bids forth an answer to the central question of this essay by writing that “figures of speech are not mere frills. They think for us.” Language acts, structures, demands, reroutes, amplifies, brings together. Language thinks with us. The Romans missed this, passed it by in the finite stretch of their grand narratives. For the Romans, language was the architecture that unified them through their overarching narrative, their raison d’etre : empire. The Romans tended to view language unselfconsciously, pragmatically, and as such laid a foundation to deceive themselves into forgetting (not asking, not questioning) where they existed within it. Language for the Romans was to be harnessed, managed, weaponized. It was a tool for domination. Language was a spear arming one for empire. Murphy reminds us that Romans such as Quintilian, in typical dedicated adherence to practiciality and pursuit of pragmatic law-court oratorical competency, viewed writing (and we can say, by extension, language) as “a tool to change the psyche of the writer by habituating him to use language well in any place, in any time, for any purpose.”  But is Murphy’s statement, specifically its final three words (“for any purpose…”), really an accurate representation of a typical Roman approach to a relationship with language?

        Language does change the psyche, but not as a tool wielded autonomously. The Romans (and others– they are far from alone in this) thought the value of language to be in its power. Their chief appreciation of language was as armament, as equipment for empire. It would be an egregious error to limit the Romans to only these brief, motivated notes, and generalizations are of course ripe here in these notes, but suffice it to say there are grains of honesty in the above lines.

        Onward, then. Language thinks by binding us not only to language games, but to specific language games. Just as Lyotard reads Kant as tethered to a wholly-unmodern and “Jewish” language game, we (I) read the Romans as tethered to distinct and distinguishing language games available in their fullness (their unconcealedness, their honesty and their authenticity) only in moments long ago expired. These language games are what Madeleine Kahn and her undergraduate students attempt to summon in the conversations chronicled in her Pedagogy essay “Why Are We Reading A Handbook On Rape?’ Young Women Transform A Classic.” Language compels us into specific language games, compelled writers and languagers of Latin such as Ovid into language games dissolved in ink, incommensurate with the English used here, untransportable and untranslatable by this essay’s internality, language games wholly ensnaring. Writers like Ovid, writing in Latin, are nodes in the relay of language’s thinking, if we take Lyotard as creed (remember, we are in the realm of opinion/belief/doxa here, always). Language thinks pagan. For Lyotard, Ovid is an addressee, meaning he is prescribed a situation within a game of language that is certainly not of his control, and which he his certainly compelled to respond, though never autonomously, never more than as a nexus or linkage in a network. Ovid acts and writes with a plethora of tasks before him, none of which exists in a vacuum.

        Language thinks in the margins, between the lines, in the gaps between the letters. Language devours, tenaciously, and summons forth, tenaciously, and compels us to respond, tenaciously. Each culture views its relationship to language uniquely and individually. The Romans’ conception of their own relationship to language and its thinking proves, for later ages, to be profoundly illustrative of what was once and may still be (different) possibilities.



Lanham, Richard. “The Q Question.” PDF.

Murphy, James J. “Roman Writing Instruction as Described by Quintilian.” PDF.

–“Quintilian and Modern Writing.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 19, No. 2.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois and Jean-Loup Thebaud. “Just Gaming.” Trans. Wlad Godzich. University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “Parmenides.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Kahn, Madeleine. “Why Are We Reading A Handbook On Rape?’ Young Women Transform A Classic.” Pedagogy, Vol. 4 Issue 3. Fall 2014.

McCloskey, Deirdre. “The Rhetoric of Economics.” University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

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