Tuesday, 13 July 2010

What are Words Worth? 2.) Language and Reality

This post is a continuation of a previous one

In the beginning was the word …

Language and consciousness are indivisibly bound up with each other. This realisation has many consequences for the way we understand and explain things.

The first thing we should always be aware of is that our understanding, our expressing of the way things are, is an expression of the way we see and explain things. We define in our language; out of these definitions, these namings, we build ideas, concepts, meanings, theories, explanations. They are the products of our human perceptions, our particular situations, our societies, our histories. The way we see and explain the world and everything in it is our way, formed and limited by the language we use to express it.

This basic insight, both difficult and banal, is confirmed by both a major trend in philosophy and modern theoretical physics. In philosophy, the tendency can be traced back as far as Kant, at the end of the eighteenth century, and can be (simplifying a complex area greatly) called phenomenology. At its simplest, the phenomenological approach notes that everything we experience, think and talk about happens at the meeting point between our human observing consciousness and whatever-it-is that is “out there [i],” often called the “thing-in-itself.” This meeting-point is called “phenomenon.” In over two hundred years, philosophers have debated endlessly over what one can say about the “thing-in-itself,” or, indeed, whether we can say anything about it at all. On this last point, as I think has already become clear, I belong to those who are extremely sceptical.

This viewpoint is supported by one of the major trends in 20th Century theoretical physics, quantum theory. A basic conclusion which comes from various formulations of the “uncertainty principle” at the core of quantum theory [ii] is that, in any scientific experiment carried out, the very fact of observation has an influence on the result of the experiment. This is generally accepted by theoretical physicists today and has major consequences for the theoretical foundations of science, based as they are on ideas like neutral objectivity and the repeatability of experiments.

So, what does all this have to do with language? If the ideas of the philosophers and physicists are correct, then any statements we make about everything are products of our observing human consciousness and this consciousness is intimately, indivisibly entwined with the language we use to express and describe anything, the language we use to communicate our thoughts, to meaningfully interact with each other. Seen this way, in a very real sense it can be said that in naming things we create them. This seems completely crazy or, to use a term used by those who think seriously about such things, counterintuitive. To put it even more simply, it seems to contradict everything we experience, to contradict “common sense.” But when we think about some things a bit more, it becomes clearer. Many of the concepts according to which we organise our lives and societies would have been incomprehensible to people three hundred years ago, at least in the sense in which we use and understand them; democracy, equality, freedom … economics. Maybe one of the best examples is an idea we understand as basic for the functioning of a decent society – that of human rights. Ideas coalescing, developing, interacting with people and groups and their actions, being named.

There are other implications, too. The great Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, spent a lot of time thinking about language and the way it works. One of his insights was that we use language according to rules in much the same way as games are organised by rules. And often, the same words can have different meanings because they are used in different games. As long as all the “players” are following the same rules then there’s no problem. But frequently, people use the same words and assume that others understand them, whereas, in fact, the others are “playing according to different rules.” A Chinese delegate to the United Nations may understand the phrase “common good” very differently to a delegate from the USA, simply because the histories of both cultures and the conceptual frameworks within which they work are different.

So, our consciousness orders and structures the mass of ‘things’ we perceive, naming and cataloguing things, putting impressions and events, everything we perceive really, into our own subjective categories, organising according to our experiences, our preconceptions, our priorities and beliefs. It’s a continual, complex process with countless streams of thoughts and ideas being born, developing, dying away, memories and actually occurring experiences, feelings and emotions influencing, forming and reforming each other, feedback loops – positive and negative – happening all over the place. In his (even for non-philosophers quite readable) book “Consciousness Explained,” the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett argues that consciousness itself is nothing other than this extremely complex process. But even if you don’t want to go as far as Dennett does, the network underlying and carrying all of this is language, made of words.

In the beginning was the word … John the Divine (and the many other Greek thinkers playing with the concept of Logos) was on to something very deep here – even if my use of the phrase here has little to do with the conventional Christian interpretation of it. And we spin the words and turn them, play with them and combine them – into phrases, statements, ideas and concepts, feelings and poems and diatribes and promises, handbooks and bibles and lists; fundamental building blocks of our ordering of our perceptions, our lives, our world.

This has all kinds of implications about the way we see, react to and mould the worlds in which we find ourselves. One interesting train of thought, for example, is the examination of the major ways that views of the world and what is called “reality” change when cultures make the change from a general oral basis to the written world [iii]. But that’s a topic for another day. I’ll finish this post with the image of a group of early humans, gathered around a fire providing warmth and protection, and the smiles of anticipation when one of the elders signifies assent to the request, “Tell us a story!” …

[i] In the history of philosophy this basic insight, and the questions arising from it, go back further than Kant. A famous philosophical riddle which poses the problem was stated by the Irish thinker, Bishop George Berkeley at the beginning of the 18th Century; “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” [Berkeley stated the question slightly differently, but that’s not important.] Hundreds of years earlier, a Zen story/riddle (koan) states it somewhat differently, but – in my opinion – very beautifully: "Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree. Hui-neng said, "Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were struck with awe."

- The Mumonkan Case 29, translation by Robert Aitken

[ii] Elaborated most famously by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 in his thought-experiment involving a cat in a box which seems to be unavoidably alive and dead at the same time until the box is opened, on the basis of which he put forward the (for subsequent developments in quantum theory) very important concept of “entanglement.”

[iii] Those interested in reading more about this subject could look at the works of Walter J. Ong and Erik A. Havelock. (Thanks to Lara for fascinating conversations and reading tips about this J)


  1. In the beginning there is tone pattern recognition or prosody ( Word recognition as a way to relate to the world is historically younger and has been misused by religious Machtpolitik, for example.

  2. Needless to say Francis, we can find some Greek phenomenologists. I suppose the recent turn has been to reject the overblown notions in modernist positivisms about how clearly we can express in language. I think I want to look at how patterns of credibility are established by speakers I'm partly listening to Maradonna talking about his cocaine addiction - loneliness, bitterness,insularity, nostalgia and can only compare this with drinking. His soccer I can be more certain about. I know areas of science where there are no questions,just workings out. There are people who are just trying to take power through talk. There are idols of talk. We have capta not data; but then the capta get reliable for all but idiots and seem given everywhere.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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