From 1950 through the middle of the 1970s, Herbert Bayer, then director of the Container Corporation of America, commissioned a series of works under the title “Great Ideas of the Western Man.” The works were inspired by the who’s who of Western philosophy, literature, science, religion, and politics.

Bayer’s own contribution to the series included a piece titled “Reason Is Language, Logos” (1966). The quote comes from a letter Johann Georg Hamann wrote to Johann Gottfried Herder. In his 1984 letter, Hamann is addressing the contingency of reason to language.

If only I was as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would have to do no more than repeat a single word three times. Reason is language — Logos; I gnaw on this marrowbone and will gnaw myself to death over it. It is still always dark over these depths for me: I am still always awaiting an apocalyptic angel with a key to this abyss.[1]

The linguistic turn is often associated with Gottlob Frege’s The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884), Bertrand Russell’s 1905 pivotal essay “On Denoting,” or Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). However, Hamann’s Metacritique of the Purism of Reason should be considered as a forerunner to this philosophical discussion. I have written elsewhere on this issue, so no need to repeat it here. Rather, while viewing Bayer’s work, we should spend a moment gnawing on the bone of reason and language.

 

[1] Johann Georg Hamann, Briefwechsel, 6 vols., ed. Walther Ziesemer and Arthur Henkel (Wiesbaden: Insel, 1955-75), V, 177.

 

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