This essay is part of an ongoing series on Sakura no Uta. It contains spoilers for the content through A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.
“Red” is the name of a color. When uttered in isolation, there is no additional meaning to be drawn out of the word. But when Kenichiro shouts “Red!” Naoya knows that the one word exclamation actually means “Bring me the red paint!” It is an ordinary, everyday phenomenon that demonstrates just how amazing it is that humans can understand one another.
If the Olympia route is an introduction to philosophy, and specifically epistemology, then A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (ANDoE) is a linguistic turn in the discussion. It explores the wonders of language as well as its relationship to art.
Kenichiro’s “Red!” is a direct reference to a famous example Wittgenstein uses in Philosophical Investigations to illustrate the concept of language games. Wittgenstein observed that ordinary language often eschews logical relations between words in order to communicate ideas. For example, the exclamation “Water!” does not connect the name of the object “Water” to any other factual proposition (Wittgenstein, 11).1 Yet in practice, such exclamations take on different meanings depending on the context. If we are eating in a restaurant, we are commanding the waiter to bring water. If we are digging a well, we are informing the other diggers that we have found water.
The exclamation only has meaning when a speaker and a listener “play” under a set of rules that dictate how the words are being used. This set of rules forms the basis of a language game. Wittgenstein argues that all language, not just exclamations, happens in the context of some language game. To understand a word or sentence, we must look beyond the lexical definitions of the words and investigate how the speaker and listener are using the words in that specific interaction.
ANDoE introduces us to a uniquely constructed set of speaker and listener. Rin has supreme creative talent. She is able to perfectly project her imagination into the real world. Shizuku has her own supreme talent. When she drinks the dreams of others, she experiences their feelings as her own. But while Rin can perfectly externalize her thoughts and Shizuku can perfectly grasp the internal thoughts of others, they are both deeply flawed as human beings.
Kenichiro does not consider Rin’s creations art because she does not create for an audience. In his words,
It is the act of being seen that makes art complete. The work is a carcass, albeit one that does not rot. It is something like a beautiful specimen.2Kusanagi Kenichiro
Similarly, Shizuku’s sensing of other people’s feelings cannot be considered understanding. Dreams are images without an audience. They are corpses with the form of feelings, and no matter how convincing that form, there is no meaning to be communicated.
This characterization of art bears a strong resemblance to the concept of language games. The work, like a sentence, is a structure without essential meaning. It is only in the context of the artist communicating with the audience that the work has life. Both Rin and Shizuku bypass the rules of communication, and their interactions cannot be considered a language game.
After the loss of her powers, Shizuku discovers that expressing her feelings is a rather complicated affair. While she may say words that mean “I love you” those words and the intention behind them are not enough for them to be interpreted as a confession.
“I have always meant it, every time I confessed…”
“The way you said it could only be interpreted as a joke.”3Natsume Shizuku, Kusanagi Naoya
This is a failure of both parties. Shizuku fails to convey her feelings in a way that Naoya can understand them, and Naoya fails to interpret her feelings in the way that Shizuku intended.
Which brings us to the eponymous paper by Donald Davidson, A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. Like Wittgenstein, Davidson observes that what we communicate does not always match the literal meaning of the words that we use.
Malapropisms, the often unintentional substitution of a similar sounding word are still generally understandable by the listener. For example, the utterance, “Take for granite” will still be interpreted as “Take for granted” even though the words “granite” and “granted” have different meanings. The frequent and sometimes intentional misuse of words by Shizuku and Sui are a nod to the malapropisms that Davidson’s paper focuses on.
To understand how malapropisms come to be understood, Davidson proposes a model of communication where both the speaker and the listener have two theories of how the language works (Davidson, 260-261).4
The speaker has a prior theory of how he believes the listener will interpret the speaker’s language. The speaker also has a second theory of how he wants the listener to interpret his language.
Similarly, the listener has a prior theory of how he believes he will interpret the speaker’s language. When the speaker says something that doesn’t correspond to the listener’s prior theory of language, a malapropism for example, the listener makes adjustments to his prior theory to create a new passing theory that includes the speaker’s usage.
When the passing theory of the speaker corresponds with the passing theory of the listener, then the two have understood each other. This can happen even when their prior theories do not match, as is the case when the speaker unknowingly misuses a word. It can also happen when the speaker intentionally misuses a word and the listener is able to figure out the true intention. In both cases, the speaker has “gotten away with it.” If the passing theories are unable to be coordinated, then a misunderstanding occurs.
This relationship between the speaker and listener resembles a language game. The speaker must think about not only what he wants to communicate, but also how he thinks the listener will interpret his speech. The listener must think beyond the meaning of the words and interpret how the speaker is using them. There is again no source of essential meaning that the speaker or listener can rely on to communicate and understand.
There is also a nuanced difference. In Davidson’s model, the speaker and listener do not share their prior theories. If they did, there would be no malapropisms and there would be no need to adjust prior theories. In other words, they are not playing by the same rules of a language game but rather figuring them out as they go.
Kenichiro brings Rin and Shizuku together because he wants them to learn this process of figuring out the rules of communication. Rin has the power to create that which is not of this world out of nothing.5 She is in other words, a god. We can finally start to see why the epistemological groundwork set in Olympia was needed. SCA-DI is making the following argument based on Wittgenstein’s philosophy:
- The world is the totality of facts.
- Language describes all that is the world.
- Language cannot describe what is not of this world.
- Rin creates that which is not of this world.
- Rin’s creation is not language.
1-3 can be drawn from Wittgenstein’s earlier work, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus. The leap of faith this argument asks you to make is that Art is Language. If we can accept this idea, we can understand why Kenichiro claims that Art is a human construct and why Rin’s creations are not art. Language is a game between human beings. A god not bound by the rules of a language game cannot create art.
But God can create humans, and that is what Kenichiro wanted Rin to do for Shizuku. Because Shizuku lacks a heart, she is not moved by Rin’s overwhelming talent. This quality makes Shizuku the only individual capable of playing a language game with Rin, because neither side can innately communicate with the other. A conversation between gods would make a human out of both. This proves too difficult to realize, and it is only after the loss of these powers that the two really begin to live as human beings.
In a dramatic conclusion, Davidson concludes that the existence of malapropisms proves that Language as philosophers define it, a system of shared meanings, rules, and conventions to attribute meaning to utterances, cannot exist. In his words,
But if we do say this, then we should realize that we have abandoned not only the ordinary notion of a language, but we have erased the boundary betweenDonald Davidson
knowing a language and knowing our way around in the world generally (Davidson, 265).
It is this process of knowing our way around the world that we seem to forget over time. Philosophers are naturally drawn to systems, and the search for answers often turns into a search for order. But the systems we create to explain the world can also blind us from that very truth, and we lose sight of something that we should have known intuitively—what it means to live. That is why there is something deviously satisfying about getting away with the misuse of words. It is a small rebellion against these systems that exposes a beautiful truth about the world we live in.
Kenichiro’s epitaphs are one of these rebellions. Those who read A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs would realize that “Epitaph” is itself a malapropism for “Epithet.” In making his signature a literal epitaph, the dying man inscribes his final scam on the fake corpse of a work. It is also his final act as an artist, drawing the most wonderful significance out of a mistake in meaning.6 Of course, the epitaphs themselves have no intrinsic meaning. What they are saying and whether they are fake or genuine depends on how you frame them.
This is a topic I am quite nostalgic for. In my now distant undergraduate years, I finished my coursework in philosophy with a focus on aesthetics. That brief period of my life culminated in an investigation of Ordinary Language Philosophy that changed my view of the world forever. It also killed off my desire to continue the formal pursuit of philosophy. I just found myself satisfied figuring things out as I went, marveling at the wonders of everyday life. If you are looking to philosophy for answers on how to live, I think you may find some semblance of direction after tangling with the questions of language.
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (2001). Philosophical Investigations: The German text, with a revised English translation, Third edition. Blackwell Publishers Inc. ↩︎
- Davidson, Donald. (2006). The Essential Davidson. Oxford University Press Inc. ↩︎
- 「毎日、毎日、絵を書いた」「この世のあるものすべて、そしてこの世にないもののすべて」 ↩︎
- 「意味の取り違いが、より素晴らしき意義を生み出す」 ↩︎