On expression

Expression can then be first roughly described of as a kind of making public or visible through a bodily action. This captures something of gestural expressions and labour, as well as linguistic utterances. In expression, there is literally a pressing-outwards of something that was not yet visible that was contained in the inner life of a subject. Husserl clarifies this talk, observing that while we may not verbally express something, yet a thought, simply by being meant may possess all the hallmarks of expression. If we have consciously meant something, such as recalling a memory, that could potentially be explicated, then that too qualifies as expression (Husserl 1982, 294-5). On the other hand, do we really mean something by a facial expression or hand gesture? Often, such gestures are not explicitly voluntary. But as an observer, or partner in discussion, we certainly do oftentimes take facial expressions and gestures are a part of the expressed meaning to be taken. But can they always be explicated? This is not so certain. There is some degree of ambiguity here to be analysed, then.  
There is both a what that is expressed, as well as a how of expression to consider. As we’ve initially described, the what to be expressed is a meaning provided by our conscious intention. With expressive phenomena, we enter into a new sphere of life. This new sphere appears to transform all of our experience by making experience a matter for expression. Consider again the facial expression; if my colleague sees me smiling, or possibly, frowning, they then may respond by inquiring about my mood. Even more so if the inquirer has a closer relationship to me. Even if my expression was spontaneous, the expectation of the other is that my mood can be explicated through further expression. But does this mean that the facial expression is included in the set of expressions? It is possible to differ in opinion on this case, as we shall see below.

How is it then that we happen to have something to be expressed? There are two separate elements to distinguish here. Firstly, expression implies a ‘pre-expressive’ domain, a ready reservoir which is capable of being productively drawn upon. Where would such a reservoir be found? Within us, or in the world? Perhaps it is the inchoate flow of experience, or something like raw sensation or emotion. Alternatively, perhaps it is the network of references that we learn from our surrounding cultural world. That is, expression raises the question of the receptive side of our abilities, and the form in which we receive something from the world and others about us. Secondly, there is the very process by which we come to express something. Here, the matter of concern is to understand if “thinking” is expressive or not, or which mental activities can be classed as expressive. Do we perceive, think, and only then express? This view seems doubtful for most phenomenologists. The reliance of thought on developed language skills suggests that linguistic expression transforms thinking. For Husserl, Derrida and Merleau-Ponty, for example, expression as speech is in fact the “body” of thought, as it were, and not a mere “clothing” that covers over it as an optional accessory. And yet the final stage of the “clothing” does also seem to be of importance. A gentle gesture may communicate more than words; an artistic demonstration like a song or poem may transcend mere prosaic description. Expression on this approach would therefore characterize something unique about human cognition and action. Expression indicates the complex series of processes by which we acquire something meaningful and then go on to produce it as an action – for example, speech, writing, or some other mode – of our own.

 On this initial sketch, we can see already many important questions to follow on with, for we have designated many separate areas for both theoretical and empirical investigation. However we can also anticipate the significance of a full theory of expression, too. Discourse on expression, in the role given to it by phenomenology, concerns itself with accurately describing the active intellectual capacities of human beings. The conclusions drawn have concrete consequences, for example, in educational contexts where a teacher’s design of the learning environment is specifically aimed at prompting students’ expressions. The implicit theory of expression here will have an effect not only on how well something is learned, but even on what is considered available to be learned. The healthy development of human capacities is at issue. More broadly, the norms of a given culture will highlight some styles of expression as publicly appropriate and useful, and others as less so or even discouraged. If there is a connection to basic human capacities, and those capacities remain undeveloped, will the subject may thereby be harmed. The implications for both social psychological well-being, as well as the depth and breadth of public discussion, are considerable. 


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