Humankind has been called “the magic animal” because of our linguistic ability. Robert Anton Wilson put it this way: “Language. . . allowed people to do what no other animal seems to do, namely to visualize and/or verbally ‘contemplate’ something that is not present before their senses. This fantasy or reflection or cognition allows us, then, to compare the imagined with the experienced.” The amazing discriminating mind that language has enabled is, however, a two-edged sword. Language has made it possible for us to progress as a species – to create civilizations, art, literature – but it’s also responsible for a kind of suffering that’s unique to the human animal.
Any bad situation can be made much worse by the way we think about it. Our human imagination can make us depressed, fearful, or enraged without a realistic external cause. If it’s responsible for the building of magnificent cities, it’s also responsible for the Holocaust and other man-made horrors. As a retired psychotherapist, I know well that people often suffer needless pain because of the way they think.
The purest truths, it seems to me, reside in our experience. Anything we say about things we experience is once-removed from reality. We have to rely on metaphor to communicate our truths. Nothing we say or write about love can match the purity of our experiences of love. Most words don’t have absolute meanings, and the possibilities of misunderstanding another person’s words are endless. We encode our thoughts into words, and every listener must decode them. Two people hearing the same sentence or speech might decode it in very different ways. Language is a leaky vessel for conveying Truth.
Not only do we have words for specific phenomenal things, like rain; we also have words for things that don’t exist in the same way that rain exists. Concepts like Justice and Salvation and Divine Right are noumenal, and might not have the same meanings to different people. And yet people often act as if certain noumena were as real as rain, and had some absolute meaning. Wars are fought over things (Honor, God’s Will) that are totally subjective, or can’t be proven to exist in the way rain exists. To most Muslims jihad means the inward spiritual battle against sinful impulses, but to some it means killing infidels in the name of Allah.
The Wharfian hypothesis – a popular linguistic theory for much of the twentieth century – suggested that our experience is created by the language that we speak. While a person from our culture, at the beach, would see waves in the ocean, someone from another culture might see the water waving. According to the theory, the first person perceived the waves as things, while the second person perceived a process. While the theory has been largely discredited, I think there is some truth to it: language may not determine one’s experience, but it certainly shapes it to some degree.
Linguistic conventions can make us prisoners of metaphor. Words can almost instantly arouse emotions. A good orator or storyteller can put her audience in a trance. A speech can turn a crowd into an angry mob. In both his essay, “Politics and the English Language” and his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about the manipulation of language for political purposes. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” He also wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In my last post I wrote about the linguistic trap of “is,” and E-Prime as a tool for becoming more aware of what “is” is in our language and our thought. To the degree that you’re unaware of the limits of language as a means of conveying truths, you are under its bewitchment.
Our belief systems are largely constructed from our native language, and the conventions we live by are largely determined by the culture we were raised in. Because we’re all acculturated, we tend to share certain assumptions about what is real, and what is right or wrong, with the people around us. It’s even been speculated that each of us live our lives in a culturally-induced trance state. It’s easy to find seeming irrationalities or blind spots in people whose belief system differs significantly from your own, not so easy to become aware of your own culturally-transmitted limitations or fixations.
Imagine living in a culture whose language didn’t have the word “week,” and which didn’t have the convention of a seven-day week. How would life be different? Years and months are phenomenal measurements of time, based on solar and lunar cycles. The four seasons are likewise phenomenal. The seven-day week is an arbitrary, contrived convention which affects the lives of most people on the planet. It’s noumenal, but seems to be experienced by most people as real, in the way that rain is real. Many workers wake up with the blues when they remember that it “is” Monday, and tend to have a bright mood when it “is” Friday afternoon. If you were a castaway on a desert island, would you have a reason to know what day of the week it “is”?
It’s only Monday if you think it is. Your experience or interpretation of almost anything you encounter in your life is mediated by your belief system, your mental map. It’s possible, as Alan Watts put it, to miss the meal and eat the menu. We all need mental maps to navigate our way through life, but the map isn’t identical to the territory it depicts. If you don’t like some of the places your mental map takes you, you can re-draw parts of it – whatever your age. If you pay attention to the tricks and traps of language, it need not ensnare you, or limit who or what you may make of yourself.