Language and Ontological-Space of Consciousness

Risalatul Hukmi

Head of Metaphysics and Continental Philosophy
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There are two approaches we can take if the presuppositions of the existence of extraterrestrial beings are true. First, we could strongly advance our military capability to protect the earth from possible invasions, or second, we could formulate a universal language system to communicate with them.

Arrival (2016) is a dramatic reconstruction of the latter approaches. Colonel Weber, as the head of the US military, does not take the decision to attack the spacecraft; he, by contrast, hires a physicist and linguist to investigate the purpose of the aliens’ arrival. When the language translation process is completed, the answers they obtain from those aliens are a ‘weapon’. That answer almost engenders a regrettable war to start.

The film provides a genuine philosophical exposure regarding the way in which humans solely risk their existence on language. In the absence of a language that is necessary for revealing people’s minds, possibly, human beings would have been extinct from the list of Earth species, or at least, our civilization has never been like now. It raises a vital philosophical question: where is the position of language in the struggle of life of a species, especially for a human, which in the failing of it they would not exist until now? In light of this question, this article attempts to offer arguments by appropriating some of Nietzsche’s theses on the relations between language and consciousness.

Language: Awareness and Conceptualization

Beginning with the assumption of ‘species intelligence’, what we truly mean by intelligence, according to Nietzsche, is our ability to become conscious of something. However, the real meaning of consciousness is still in thorough scientific debates, including in the field of philosophy and, perhaps, psychology. What is actually the thing called consciousness? Does it really exist?

Paul Katsafanas formulates four Nietzsche theses of consciousness. Firstly, consciousness is an only epiphenomenon, a marginal mental property that is not essential. Secondly, mental states are said to be conscious if and only if they are articulated; on the contrary, they are said to be unconscious if and only if they are not articulated. Thirdly, consciousness is superficial and false. Fourthly, the conscious state is not the only epiphenomenon but also able to be falsified[i].

Considering all of the theses given, it is only the first thesis that is essential to be understood, while the other theses are merely a further elaboration of the first. Why? Let us make it clear in the following argument:

Consciousness is only epiphenomenon [1],

if it is perceived to exist and essential, then it is superficial and falsifying [3].

Superficial means articulating the unconscious mental state conceptually so that it becomes conscious [2].

Since it is only grounded on a conceptual framework, it opens to be falsified [4].

Through the argument presented, it can be seen that our ability to become conscious is not only about perceiving the world but also about being able to conceptualize it into the structure of the sign. A sensible world without a single conception merely leads us to the ‘aware’ state. It is shifted to the conscious state (consciousness) when conceptualization has been introduced.

However, for Nietzsche, we always succeed in becoming conscious, because we can always successfully articulate the object of ‘awareness’ (to some extent, it can be understood as a pre-conscious state). This is the reason for which Nietzsche assumes that consciousness is superficial. It is capable of wrapping the field of the unconscious state into a conceptual language and, subsequently, put it into consciousness. In other words, the position of consciousness can be understood in terms of our ability to discover differences and/or similarities of one thing and another, which, eventually, we translate it into sign language. This is why Nietzsche says, “…the subtlety and strength of consciousness always were proportionate to a man’s (or animal’s) capacity for communication“.[ii]

For, to say it once more: Man, like every living being. thinks continually without knowing it: the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this-the most superficial and worst part-for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication. And this fact uncovers the origin of consciousness.  (GS§354)

We should underline the relationship between ‘words’ and ‘consciousness’ here since the words, according to Nietzsche, are the key to recognize the way in which events in the actual world can pervade into consciousness. “We have no sensitive organs for the inner world,” says Nietzsche, “so we perceive thousands-folds of complexity as a unity; while we enter the causation in which the reasons for movement and change are still invisible to us-only the sequence of thoughts and feelings are ‘visible’ in consciousness. “[iii] Thus, it can be said that consciousness is merely the result of the conceptualization of the sequence of thoughts and feelings.

The Social as Ontological-Space of Consciousness

The assumption that consciousness is merely an ability to articulate an unconscious mental state leads us to another Nietzsche’s thesis that says:

consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication; that from the start it was needed and useful only between human beings {particularly between those who commanded and those who obeyed); and that it also developed only in proportion to the degree of this utility. Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human (GS§354).

According to Nietzsche, consciousness has never lain at the individual level but always been on ‘the social’. “That it has grown subtle so far,” Nietzsche says, “it is only in relation to its usefulness to society or herds.” It means what we are conscious of is merely in the fact that it has a social interest.

Indeed, we can propose a proposition stating almost all theoretical breakthroughs in science are anchored to the framework of social reason insofar as they are understood in their needs to be communicated. In the view of this assumption, we can say that ‘the social’ is the ontological-space of consciousness, meaning there is no possibility to articulate the object of awareness beyond the social properties, one of which is ‘communicability’.

To argue for the proposition considered, we should discern it in relation to the limitations of our intentionality to something. We almost do not have abundant intentions for things that are not communicated socially. That is to say, our intentions toward anything are almost always determined by ‘encouragement’ to convey it to others. Take the concept of gravity as an illustration; undoubtedly, the phenomenon of the concept has already existed prior to the time when Newton discovered his theory. Everyone knows that when an apple falls down from the tree it will fall to the earth, yet the consciousness of gravitational event had just emerged when it had been conceptualized. If there were no concept of gravity, we might simply refer to it as a ‘downfall’, or, probably, merely apprehend it as an ‘event’.

The issue is how Newton could have a consciousness of the phenomenon on the condition there is no ‘consciousness’ about it in his sociality? Consciousness, apparently, does not work that way. Intentionality never goes hand-in-hand with consciousness, but only on the level of awareness. It means we are still possible to have an intention to something that is not communicated, but again, it is still in the pre-conscious state. Thus, Newton was not really conscious about the existence of gravity when he saw the apple fall. The fallen event comes into consciousness when Newton explained it into a conceptual framework which, of course, uses the ‘social’ reason, and then called it ‘gravity’. Nietzsche says:

…not only language serves as a bridge between human beings but also a mien, a pressure, a gesture. The emergence of our sense impressions into our own consciousness, the ability to fix them and, as it were. exhibit them externally, increased proportionately with the need to communicate them to others by means of signs. The human being inventing signs is at the same time the human being who becomes ever more keenly conscious of him- self. It was only as a social animal that man acquired self-consciousness (GS § 254)

In this sense, we can say there is no consciousness outside ‘the social’. For we always refer to the ‘general’ reason to explain every event that we experience. Meanwhile, reasoning, in general, depends extremely on language development, on our need to communicate.


By affirming all propositions proposed by Nietzsche, the important question that should be taken seriously is: what are the major consequences of the determination of language to consciousness?

Theoretically, computational science at least has partially answered the question through a Quantum computer project regardless of not fully completed. However, the most interesting and, at the same time, terrible is the possibility described in Arrival. Following Nietzsche’s proposition on the relations between language and consciousness, Arrival presupposes that by language, referred to as ‘weapons’ by extraterrestrial beings in the movie, the main character, Louise Banks, is able to see the past and the future. As such, she can then prevent the war by saying a few sentences in Chinese that she learned from the future. Yes, language is the home of consciousness!


[i] Paul Katsafanas, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Mind: Consciousness and Conceptualization”, European Journal of Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2005), 1-2.

[ii] Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), 298, (GS).

[iii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), 284.