Changing How the World Thinks

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The Word and the World

Our biggest ideas are linguistic concepts, not perpetual realities, but can language be separated from reality?

Joanna Kavenna 40

Is language limited? We might answer the question with reference to a tragi-comic empirical precept: everything is limited, in the end, in one sense or another. We are mortal; we exist in an unknowable and strange universe, of which we understand very little. Each one of us is limited, by finitude, by vantage point; our species is limited, and, we might reasonably assume, will one day become extinct.

Furthermore, these words I am deploying – ‘the universe,’ ‘time’ – are linguistic concepts, not perpetual realities. The word is not the thing. Moreover, the thing is most likely not the thing as we understand it; it is completely possible we have not grasped the meaning of it at all.

Despite this, we eagerly apply words to the formlessness around us, and our anointed experts deliver new taxonomies in language, which rise to prominence and then fade, to be replaced by other taxonomies in turn. Meanwhile, another species, with another language and another mode of being-in-the-world, might propound different concepts altogether, and re-taxonomise the prevailing formlessness in completely different ways.

Language must be limited, per se. Furthermore, any attempt to calibrate the limits of language, in language itself, must be limited. We are limited in our understanding of the limits of a limited system, precisely because it is limited and cannot express everything, including its own limits! We cannot stand aloft in some perpetual realm, calibrating what ‘reality’ truly is and how language fails or succeeds in expressing it.

Even this fantastical image suggests that ‘reality’ stands apart from ‘language’; that the two might be detached and considered separately. Yet, language is within us; we are brought to consciousness through language, inducted into a system of squeaks and murmurs. Consciousness and language are intertwined. If you corrupt language, concertedly and in line with a particular ideology, then you potentially corrupt consciousness in turn – we might cite the example of the ‘Nazification’ of the German language under the Third Reich. Or, you make it extremely hard for people to enunciate dissident views and be understood by others.

Language can enshrine obsolete ideologies, preserve ossified metaphors, or can be deliberately manipulated, for the purposes of propaganda and political control – varieties of Orwellian newspeak. We experience such semantic occlusions everyday, even in societies that purport to be ‘free’: ‘extreme rendition’, the ‘War on Terror’, ‘The Patriot Act’, ‘Austerity’.

Language, in general, is something into which you – a finite, unique being – have been enrolled, without your original consent. You must use it, in order to communicate with others and, even more weirdly, with yourself. Yet, it predates you, by centuries, or millennia. You might feel colonised by this language, invaded by words and the assumptions they deliver. Yet, this metaphor is not quite apposite. There is no original territory, no preceding Ur-self to defend: your self has developed through language, in language; without language, you are not entirely yourself. And yet, we intuit something beyond the purely linguistic; we are dimly aware of impulses, or apprehensions, that cannot entirely be expressed in words. What of these? Each individual, I think, must feel this ambivalence, the Caliban complaint – we were drawn into language and thereby into a particular version of consciousness, and now we cannot escape.

The whole thing is fascinating and perfectly impossible to calibrate. Shamanic authors, such as Shakespeare, pronounce in favour of the magic of words, their incantatory and creative power: ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ As Owen Barfield explains, when we try to describe the world before humanity, ancient volcanic-prehistoric eras, we do not render something that was; we create a notional world. When Newton describes the rainbow with seven colours, rather than the five or three colours of earlier epochs, he changes the way we perceive the rainbow. If it becomes established scientific wisdom that the brain is like a computer, I may be preconditioned to perceive the brain in a particular way, to note certain findings and not others, in line with this overweening conceit. Vast civilisations lie buried in our language; the thoughts and poetic metaphors of long-gone peoples. Language, as collective system, flows in and out of us all. Yet, each one of us is unique. Is there not a perpetual tension between the collective enterprise of language, and the distinctive nature of individual experience? Literature is founded on this dynamic instability of words; the improbable communion of subjective selves. Space is limited, so I must confine myself to one famous incantation, rich in echoes and associations:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. 

How many times have we heard the phrase, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’? Or, the ‘Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune’? Shakespeare’s metaphors, once novel, are now ingrained in our language. A further paradox: in words, Hamlet seeks to stray, imaginatively, beyond the limits of death, beyond words.

So, the question of language is necessarily baroque. There are limits we can demarcate; it is important, even, that we know when someone is trying to propagandise, to occlude, to impose restrictions on what can be expressed. These are sub-limits, however; the overarching limits of language are impossible to demarcate. Our arguments cannot be proven, eternally, because we cannot stand beyond the language in which we have phrased them. There can be no winner, because there can be no judge – the judge would need to be omniscient and beyond all languages, looking down, assessing the limits from far away. They would therefore no longer be human! Yet, we cannot transcend language, because we cannot transcend subjective, predominantly linguistic consciousness. As I express my caveats on this matter, I express myself in language; as I express my sense of self, my love for others, my philosophical speculations, my fleeting habitation of this strange and beautiful world. 

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Rob Marsh 28 November 2015

I would disagree on one point only, that we as human beings "cannot transcend subjective, predominantly linguistic consciousness."

While it is true that we are subjective creatures, and that we cannot get out of subjectivity and remain who and what we are; we certainly can transcend linguistic consciousness and in fact do it every single day.

Are you thinking every second of every minute of every hour? Or do you encounter pauses?

Furthermore, there is a wealth of techniques and behaviours designed primarily to accomplish just the transcendence of language you speak of in the Zen traditions, and more broadly the Yogic disciplines of India and Buddhism that are absolutely worth considering in relation to the problem of language and reality.

lenwk 27 November 2015

Wonderful article. Shades of Wittgenstein and his language games, with which we're eternally condemned to play.

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