Breaking the Bonds of Language

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 11 Comments

Have you ever tried to have an original thought – or worse – had a truly original thought that you tried to put into language? That is when you realize that you are trapped in a prison constructed of words and sentences and syntax and grammar. You know something, in the recesses of your perceptual field and yet you can’t quite get it into language and when you try the words appear tangential to, but not exactly connected to, what you want to say. The people you talk to might tell you they know what you mean, but what they describe back to you is not it. Try as you will you can’t seem to articulate the knowing in your head as sounds coming out of your mouth.

At moments like this one of the things you are experiencing is the inadequacy of language. Trying to express a novel idea in existing language can feel like trying to pick up toothpicks with boxing gloves on. The words you have at your disposal are simply not the right tools for the job. This difficulty, of course, might be due to your own inadequacies in the use of language, but it is also possible that language itself is just not up to the task of expressing what you have inside your head.

And from a certain point of view if you can’t express a thought it doesn’t really exist. I might have a great thought in my head. I might keep insisting to you that it is there and that I can “see” it with my mind’s eye. But if I can’t express it, why should you believe me?

We are trapped in words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Words limit what can be thought of. They are the boundaries of understanding. This is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other Romantic thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries thought anyway. And Coleridge made the distinction between understanding and reason to explain this limitation and go beyond it. If words and sentences are limited to their literal symbolic interpretation they become the limit to what can be understood – that is one way to describe what Coleridge means by understanding.

And, in our moments of intuition, it becomes clear to us that we can know some things that we cannot understand. We can have a subtle and direct vision of a truth that appears to lie just outside of the grasp of language. This is when we begin to have an original thought – at least original to us – and we don’t have language yet to wrap it and present it to the world in. This direct knowing beyond the confines of language is what Coleridge referred to as Reason.

Coleridge uses the metaphor of light to describe what he means by reason. He describes it as a “seeing light,” “the eye of the sol” and most fascinatingly as “a power that sees by its own light.”  He goes on to define this “enlightening eye” as “reflection” itself and for Coleridge this is a “universal light” that he believed proved that life itself was “one universal soul.” This conception of Reason as the self-illuminating light of consciousness came to be incorporated into the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson as the “transparent eyeball” and it lead to his understanding of the “Over-Soul” as “the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded.”

In the writing of the American Pragmatists, who were the next generation of American thinkers after Emerson, this idea of a self-illuminating origin of reality resurfaced. It can be found in Charles Sander’s Peirce’s conception of “Firstness” and William James’ vision of “the field of consciousness” and “a world of pure experience.” Although these Pragmatists placed themselves radically apart from the ideas of Emerson, and James particularly wanted to distance himself from any form of idealism, the fact is there is a deep idealism in their evolutionary thinking that seems to paint an image of the universe as emerging out of pure mind.

Language and understanding are symbolic representations of what is original known by the self-illuminating light of reason. In Peirce’s philosophy this conception of understanding would be called “thirdness.” I am fascinated by this quality of “self-illumination” and will explore it more deeply in my next post.

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Kimberly Blozie
9 years ago

Very fascinating post. Reminds me of when I am grasping at a new idea. It is like being in a life boat amidst tall waves and the new thing comes in partial glimmers, like a distant island appearing between the crests and toughs of the waves. It is only with time, and when the water is “right” where I get a sudden and total view of what that new idea is. Then I can talk about it fully but until then, sailing toward partial understanding, trusting that more complete understanding is further out is the way ahead.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

I am not my mind, there is something more, what is it? Somehow reading Einstein brings me closest: time and space are relative -and my mind is part of that. As Chopra wrote: Energy and matter are symbolic representations of consciousness. Synaptic firings in neural networks are electromagnetic signatures of thought, consciousness appearing as energy and information and matter. Unmanifest to manifest sequence: consciousness=potentiality thought-subjectivity (qualia) Synaptic firings=electromagnetic signature Neurotransmitters-material representation. ‘Going beyond the mind’ is consciousness that is not relative, it happens on a different level and somehow we can grasp it, but never completely. It is like Coleridge… Read more »

Daniel
Daniel
9 years ago

Funny, I was just thinking that.

Anna Kelly
9 years ago

It is interesting to me that Coleridge would describe Reason as that which is beyond the telling of it. Typically I think of reason as that which can be precisely articulated and spelled out, easily followed.

So I will have to think about that….

Daniel
Daniel
9 years ago

I think the clear, illuminated, spontaneous mind has pre-articulated Reasoned thoughts. It seems to me there is a lot of confusion in culture about intuition, inspiration, the generation of thought. The Being-Becoming model is a fantastic clarifier / rectifier of the situation. Our articulation of things, when you really think about it clearly, always seems to come from nowhere and nothing and emerge out of that into Becoming.

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

the quality of self illumination ! I am fascinated by it too.
I believe one day humans will be able to communicate it directly between themselves, without language or with a new form of language, a more evolved form.

This new race of human will be as different from us than we are from dogs or apes.

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

how great would it be if, after experiencing self illumination, I was able to communicate it to you and to my fellow humans directly, and in a precise way ?
Wouldn’t it be the most fantastic thing ?

This makes me think about how language was born. How a few apes, in between human and apes, after trying and trying and trying to communicated, finally gave the first name to things. And the community agreed to give a common name.

For spiritual experiences and self illumination, maybe the language has to evolve correspondingly.

Don Briddell
9 years ago

The great thing about a realization of a truth is that they present themselves as ancient and self-sustaining, we are just privileged to catch on and share in them.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

Arthur Young on Youtube: ‘Bergson argued with Einstein and talked about the asymmetry of time – he anticipated quantum physics. The universe is not a structure in time and space, it is a structure in space that changed through time and you cannot anticipate. Bergson included novelty in becoming, he said there is a perpetual novelty occurring. There are drops of novelty on the line of time. This is why Bergson was rediscovered by process philosophers. Bergsons intuition is an aspect of the universal life force (Eros) that causes evolution, Intuition is the way we feel One with Eros the… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

‘We can have a subtle and direct vision of a truth that appears to lie just outside of the grasp of language’ I think this is not about LANGUAGE but about ‘THOUGHT’ itself: In David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’ I found connections to what I thought was so interesting in Colleridge: the idea that the mind can only see parts, not the whole. According to him ‘to take part in truth’ points to ‘what it means to understand wholes’. He says that ‘There is no way by which THOUGHT can hold the whole, because thought only abstracts; it limits and defines’.… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
9 years ago

This video of Dr. David Eagleman is about how our brains experiences reality, it is about how our brain functions/ how among other things our thinking works.. It is totally amazing. In my work someone who was deaf got a device who made her hear again. She has all kinds of programms she can install. In a short while she will get a programm which will make it possible for her to listen to music again.. This video makes clear how this works, how the brain works, interpreting reality.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpSBdA0Dc14&w=425&h=349%5D