When we begin to suspect how much language might be influencing our perception of reality our fundamental conception of what is real and true starts to unravel. Have we been wrong to assume that language is an accurate reflection of reality? Is there even a ‘reality’ out there to be reflected back to us in the first place? In our journey toward deeper truth even these assumptions must be dragged into the illuminating light of inquiry.
Let’s think for a minute about how we relate to language and reality. We commonly think about reality as what we live in. We believe that we make contact with reality through our senses and experience reality out there beyond our fingertips. We experience ourselves as ‘in here’ and we experience reality as ‘out there.’
Language is composed of symbols in the form of words that can be used as labels for different aspects of reality. And the words that we use to label reality can be passed on to others in the form of ‘communication.’ When someone hears the words that I speak, it triggers in them the same inner experience of reality that those words orginally triggered in me. Communication allows us to share our inner experience of reality.
We imagine that reality exists independent of us and our descriptions of it. We believe that we experience reality and then capture it in words to pass along to others. We see reality as a free-standing, static and fixed state of being to be labeled with words. If this is true then when two people describe the same reality differently one or the other, or both of them, must be describing it wrong. What underlies our common understanding of language is an unquestioned belief that there is one reality that language is designed to describe accurately. We operate in the world with an almost blind faith in the fact that the words we use describe reality as it is. Generally, it is only when our attempts at communication breaks down that we question the language we use and its connection to reality.
We can make this relationship to reality more vivid by imagining that we are exploring the content of a dark room by feeling around with our hands. We feel out into the darkness and make inferences about what is “out there’ based on what we feel. We assume that the room and everything in it already exists for us to find. We are discovering what is already there by groping in the dark with our outstretched arms.
The assumption in this image is that the truth about reality is “out there.” That it already exists and that we can discover it. Plato made this assumption when he imagined an idealized reality that could be discovered through reason and only approximated in form. In the middle ages the Christian faith held the same position in its belief that the truth was held in the word of God. And in the scientific age people developed a belief that the truth was out there waiting to be discovered in natural laws and empirical observation and measurement. Through all of these dramatic shifts in human thinking what remained unchanged was the underlying belief in a single reality that already existed and could be described accurately in language – even if that language was mathematical.
The Romantic philosophers and poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries began to explore a different idea about language. To them language didn’t merely describe the truth – it was part of creating it. In their philosophy and art they promoted the radical notion that truth was not only something that we discover; it was also something that we create through expression. I maintain that language, both in the form of communication between people and the thoughts in our heads, plays a significant role in creating our sense of self and the world we live in.