My last series of posts showed how our sense of self can be seen to be composed from an unending string of conclusions about who we are. In discovering this something interesting becomes apparent. We realize that our self-concept is built in language. Our sense of who we are is contained in sentences – statements that appear in the mind and that we believe represent the reality of ‘us’.
If we think about it, we also see that all of our knowledge about anything is constructed in language and can only be found in sentences. Without language there is no knowledge (at least of the common type) about anything. This may not be immediately apparent to you, but think about it for a few minutes. Look at something in front of you. I happen to be at an airport and so I am looking at a plane on the runway.
Now, ask yourself what you know about whatever it is that you are looking at. You will find yourself generating a list of sentences. The plane is big. The plane is blue. The plane is designed to fly. The plane is scheduled to fly in 40 minutes. Etc. What you know will come to you in sentences. Now try to conjure up some knowing about the thing in front of you that does not come in a sentence. Go ahead try it.
What you find when you try to conjure up knowing outside of language is that you can’t do it. You might be able to experience things outside of language, but that is different from knowing about them. I can experience the size of the plane. I see it on the runway and I see next to it a car and I get some experiential sense of size, but to turn that experience into knowing I have to turn it into a sentence. The plane is bigger than the car.
I am painting a picture that is important to think about because it points to the fact that what we know, we know in sentences. We often don’t recognize this and we assume that we know things directly, but that isn’t necessarily true. Our knowledge about the world comes to us through language – it is mediated and the medium through which it comes is sentences.
What is the significance of this? I mean really, does it matter? Yes! Because if we don’t consider this carefully we will falsely assume that we are seeing reality as it actually is and not through a filter of language. Language does not act like a mirror, reflecting to us a perfect depiction of reality, it acts like a filter, it makes us see reality in particular ways. The way language is constructed and the popular usage of language at any given time in history and in any given culture on earth will create a different perception of what is real. I don’t see reality as it is. I see reality as an American male at the beginning of the 21st century sees it. Some of what I am seeing may be objectively accurate, much of it may not be. And I think it is very, very important to know the difference. That is why the contemplation of the relationship between our perception of reality and language is so important. If knowing what is real is important to us then we have to deconstructed how our current perception is being shaped by the sentences in our heads.
Our language conditions our perception. It shapes the way we see things. It has been said that Eskimos have 21 different words that describe snow. That means when an Eskimo looks out at the world on a snowy day he or she sees up to 21 different kinds of snow where I would only see one. Snow is snow to me, but to him or her there are 21 kinds of snow and it is probably important to their way of life to know the difference. Language chops reality into distinct pieces and creates distinctions. The distinctions that exist in any given language are those that are important for the people using that language. Our languages have evolved to organize and optimize human perception and human behavior. If circumstances change, or if you change your circumstances, the language you had before may no longer be optimal. In fact, your old language may have become a detriment.
Those of us who are working to evolve ourselves and our culture recognize that the language we have often seems cumbersome in the new terrains that we are attempting to traverse. Understanding the relationship between language and our perception of reality and our ability to act effectively is not a luxury – it is essential for those of us who want to develop from where we are to where we could be.
Foucault said that the role of language is important in the creation of truth. Foucault looked at language as cultural and social phenomenon. Foucault: all stories, expressions and rules of a culture are embedded in the language, it brings forth values and morals: in our language are the rules that powerfully control human behavior. Data that makes us conclude that something is true is produced in a social-cultural context and that shifts during history. He points at the constructions of opposites like good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, hetero/homosexuality that are created in our thinking and speaking. Enlightenment goes beyond these structures, even though… Read more »
Excellent post, Jeff. To realize that all interpretation of reality is constructed through sentences is a profound contemplation indeed. So many of our most closely cherished values, ideas, and notions of what “should be” are reinforced sentences we’ve heard over and over again. But without close scrutinization, I and we confuse them with “what is”. Very enlightening…
This could be a great subject for our students this year. To wake up to the fact that we are not as objective as we think, that we see and perceive everything through the lens of language. And I guess that also our level of perfection on our language is influential on those lens.
The sooner they can be aware of this the better.
As usual, thank you Jeff for your posts:-)
So fascinating to consider that at a certain level of consciousness, there is no separation between language and knowing; and therefore none between language and enlightenment. on Saturday, after watching the interview Lonny did with you for the course on his website, I found the book, ‘Proust was a Neuroscientist’ in a used book store (it kind of jumped off the shelf at me). It’s about the way artistic breakthroughs and explorations often preceed those of science in any given area. When I got home, I opened right to the chapter on Gertrude Stein’s explorations and discoveries about the nature… Read more »