What Do Names Do? Do They Reflect or Do They Evoke?
The opening words of Martin Buber’s magnum opus, I and Thou, begin: “Basic words do not state something that might exist outside them; by being spoken they establish a mode of existence.”
When Buber says that “Basic words do not state something that might exist outside them,” he is gesturing toward a fundamental divide between two very different ways of understanding the status of language. For purposes of this essay, I’ll say that that distinction rests somewhere between “reflection” and “evocation.” And by that I mean that some hold that their words accurately reflect what is outside them and others hold that their words evoke meaningful perspectives that enable the contours of human life to be defined in particular ways. Let’s look at this distinction a bit more closely.