Swimming is to Water as Knowing is to Language

Jeff CarreiraBlog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry33 Comments

When we think about knowing and not knowing, the known and the unknown, sooner or later we have to start thinking about language. Language is the currency of knowing. Realizing this is like swimming for years before realizing that you were not just swimming – you were swimming in something – water. Analogously, we are not just thinking, we are thinking in something – language.

Swimming in fresh water is different than swimming in salt water and both are different from swimming in oil, mud or wet concrete. Thinking in one language is different from thinking in another. And thinking with one vocabulary set is different from thinking with another.  Language cannot be separated from thinking. And what we think determines what we know – or at least that is the question I want to open up.

When I was a teenager I had a friend named John.  One night he was trying to explain something and couldn’t say it clearly. As his friend I taunted him saying that he didn’t know what he was talking about. In frustration he blurted out, “I know it, but I don’t understand it!” I almost fell over laughing at what I thought was ludicrous statement. Now years later and after having read many pages of philosophy I realize that John was actually making a profound point (although I doubt he realized it) that I had no way of appreciating at the time.

I put forth that understanding, aka knowing, is something that can only happens in language.* Think about it. Can you know something without knowing it in words and sentences? Take for example the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Can you know that fact in any other way except in a sentence that says, “The Earth revolves around the Sun?” If you can, then how do you know it other without using words?

Maybe this seems too “abstract” a piece of knowledge. Let’s pick something simpler. Can I know that blue is my favorite color without resorting to the use of language? You might say that of course I know what my favorite color is without having to have a sentence in mind that tells me it is. It might be true that when you see something blue it makes you feel more pleasant than seeing any other color. But feeling pleasant when you see a color isn’t the same as knowing that is your favorite color. In fact, feeling pleasant when you see a certain color isn’t the same thing as knowing you feel pleasant when you see that color.

What do we mean when we say we ‘know’ something? Usually we mean that we are holding something in the mental space of our mind that corresponds to something that is true outside of our mind in the world. You can perceive the color blue and you can perceive a pleasant emotion arise in you , but that isn’t the same as holding in your mind the idea that this color is my favorite color, or even that I like this color. Those ideas are abstractions deduced from the original perceptions.

There is a long road that must be traveled before our experience of pleasure at seeing the color blue and the thought that “blue is my favorite color.” And that thought when it appears always comes as a sentence in your mind.

If it is true that everything we know we know in language then what we know is dependent on the language at our disposal and our skill in using it. And what we believe to be true is similarly limited by the language at our disposal and our skill in using it. If it is not true and there are other ways of knowing then what are those ways?

*Please note that I am specifically talking about the language of the written word, but language in the widest sense can include any symbolic system of communication from the dances of some native cultures to the mathematics of science.

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gregorylent
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gregorylent

ok .. that’s the first step, thoughts are words, the mind is a collection of thoughts …

but there is pre-verbal mental activity, and there is awareness without object .. common experiences to mystics. in fact, mystics will say that thoughts are after the fact, and not at all important.

so i am going to reverse part of your title .. swimming is to water as language is to knowing ..

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Gregory I don’t disagree with you…as you say this is the first step. What we need to start looking into are the different ways that we know and the different ways that language can help us express what we know. There is the possibility that the knowing of the mystic will be completely lost if we define knowing only as the knowing of language…but to many of us that is knowing and thinking and language have become all there is….read on in my future posts and lets look into these distinctions together.

Adam Richard
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The comment on mysticism does bring up an interesting point, and is one that can be looked further into. I think Jeff was speaking more level to the surface and I can definitely relate. I don’t write about complex concepts often enough and therefore often find it hard to express my thoughts even though in my mind it all makes complete sense. I suppose there’s only one solution to this. As for mysticism, pre-verbal mental activity accounts for the Interior Individual and represents so much of ourselves. To express this one must break that barrier to and interpret and express… Read more »

Anna Kelly
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What is knowing? It is indeed a very interesting thing to contemplate, and my experience with this is when I hear someone speak, particularly if they are on a path toward enlightenment, about spiritual matters and eternal truths, there is a part of me that knows that what I am hearing is the truth; in fact a part of me already knows it! This happens in 12 step meetings all of the time, or when I am listening to Andrew–I have a “knowing in my knower” that I am hearing the absolute truth. Yet if asked to articulate it with… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

The first thing that came up reading your blog was the memory of a deaf person in my work who was brilliant in localizing pictures of unknown places in Amsterdam. He compensated his not being able to hear (language) with images. I looked a bit on the Internet and it seems that visual thinking has been argued to be an origin for delayed speech in people with autism. One person said: ‘I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

In terms of what I am thinking about I wonder if even if someone thought in a “picture language” they are still thinking in language. After all letters are also pictures of a sort, they are more abstract than pictures that are meant to visual represent something, but they are still shapes that we see. The question about what is language is an important one and it dominated a great deal of 20th century philosophy. I am really becoming fascinated by thinking abou it.

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

What I wrote was a bit double, some pictures are representations. But what I was talking about is the real ‘picture thinking’ which means not a representation of something. I could not find anything about dreaming but I think that is also an example of connection of picture- and language thinking. Sometimes strange connections are made which proves (to my idea) that both are distinct forms of thinking. A spiritual teacher told me once that we do in ‘waking’ state the same as in dreaming which means pictures and thinking connects –not always in a logical way. But this might… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Dear Jeff I don’t know about this. Equating Knowledgea nd Language is what I have been taught at the French school. “Ce qui se pense bien s’énonce clairement Et les mots pour le dire arrient aisément” From the French classics Corneille “ What is well though is well enunciated And the words to say, arrive easily” [ my poor translation doesn’t give the incredible lightness of the whole sentence which is (for me) part of the French genius, if one still recognize one to our culture ( which we should) !]. But well, since I started to work at the… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Hello Catherine, I don’t believe that knowing is only thinking, but that is the way most of us are conditioned to relate to our experience. It is also the way we consciously act a great deal of the time. If there is a knowing that exists outside of language then it would be good for us to keep discussing what that knowing is, what the source of it is, and how to trust what it can and cannot know. If we are able to get clear about the fact that there is a knowing that is not contained in language… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Isn’t language more a limitation at the moment ? James Clerk Maxwell is my favorite physicists of all times. What took my heart about him is precisely his investigation of the role of language as a means to favor scientific intuition. He didn’t believe in formalism to achieve this goal, but advised his students to alway write their scientific results in prose, and he himself was putting them in verses…. !!! So we get solutions of mathematics problems in English versification, by this outmost scientific genius [ Scientists always fight between him, Newton and Einstein for the greatest one. Maxwell… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

A Problem in Dynamics User Rating: 6.8 /10 (14 votes) Print friendly version A poem in Dynamics An inextensible heavy chain Lies on a smooth horizontal plane, An impulsive force is applied at A, Required the initial motion of K. Let ds be the infinitesimal link, Of which for the present we’ve only to think; Let T be the tension, and T + dT The same for the end that is nearest to B. Let a be put, by a common convention, For the angle at M ’twixt OX and the tension; Let Vt and Vn be ds’s velocities, Of… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

If language is a limitation to our deeper intuitions then we should either expand the way we use language or stop using it. I see our job as the former, trying to expand our use of language to bring out our intuitions. Martin Heiddeger along with earlier Romantics like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samual Taylor Coleridge believed that poetry and poetic writing could better point toward direct recognitions of truth than other ways that language was used.

Catherine
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Catherine

Yes I completely agree with you. Somehow we shall expand the way we use the language and invent new ways of communicating together. Where I don’t follow, is when you say that that language is the only way to make the Intuitions Impersonal. I don’t have a conclusion on this, I have simply never thought of language that way. It seems to me that my Intuition , for example, the first time I met Andrew, that this encounter is very important, this intuition was absolutely impersonal. Now if this intuition is correct, then something “will” emerge out of our interaction,… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

“If language is a limitation to our deeper intuitions then we should either expand the way we use language or stop using it.”

Maybe transform language as well ?
I see this as a goal for the Autonomy and Communion spiritual Ideal , very present in Andrew’s teachings. When one is really together, one almost doesn’t need to talk, or talks proceeds in very different ways.
I feel we agree on this …

Catherine
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Catherine

Can we directly access to “togetherness” without the use of language ? Maybe it is not the best example, but one which is dear to me: Albert Schweitzer account for his first meeting with Steiner who was his elder by 14 years and especially this sentence : “His face with the wonderful eyes met an unforgettable impression on me”. Maybe it is all we need to change a life ? an unforgettable impression ? maybe really togetherness is far beyond language ? bath Schweitzer and Steiner were beautiful examples of impersonal Forces in our world. Young Schweitzer and established Rudolf… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I just want to interfere making some clarification. I was very sorry later that I wrote that ‘as soon as it sounded like non-sense it was OK in some previous post. While reading the above it connected with me to ‘beyond te mind’. Trying to put something into words that is beyond the rational sounds like non-sense to a rational mind. When I said how precious Andrew is, I meant that he is able to help people with this. Either himself or with the process, which means finding out with others. It connects to what you printed from Steiner. Talking… Read more »

Nanna J
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Nanna J

Thank you for the post, its interesting. You could check out Lakoff and Johnson, “Metaphors we live by”. They have theorised on the (for the most part unconsious) corporal and spacial “embeddedness of thought and language. At the same time, they are pointing out structures of thought as language. Thoughts and knowing that we are seldom conscious of, but do see, if we examine language closely. In a way reading their theory also exemplifies, that knowing/understanding very well could be language, as you propose. I remember having the thought, that they were digging out (and at the same time expressing… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

“We learned from each other that we had both taken on the life mission of working for the emergence of a true culture enlivened by the ideal of humanity and to encourage people to become truly thinking beings.” isn’t it so close to what Andrew wants to do and yet Andrew comes at a later times and now I feel it is possible… It makes me very excited. Maybe one days I shall try to write why Andrew is, to me, the true heir of Steiner. Having such an heritage and never claim it, it mesmerizes me !!!! Steiner and… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I just re-read the piece of Steiner and what I experienced reading is not really mentioned, so I think I should explain. For me the communication must have been authentic. It must have been so because it touched both of them so deeply. I think this has anything to do with the impersonality Jeff is talking about. I think that the deep communication those two men had can never be on a personal level. That is ‘ I know’ meeting ‘you know’ which is a kind of ‘ exchange of information’ and that comes from a place of already knowing.… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Yes Liesbeth, I like this text by Albert Schweitzer very much, and I love what you write about it. The first time I read this text, the last sentence with the “wonderful eyes” made me cry. I just couldn’t help wondering how those “wonderful eyes ” could be so that they leave such an indestructible impression to Schweitzer. I also love the subtle silence of Steiner while listening to his younger friend lecturing him about the life of Jesus, and in the younger friend the subtle sensation that Steiner is inwardly yawning to the talk. And then Schweitzer’s courage to… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

dear Jeff, you write “. If there is a knowing that exists outside of language then it would be good for us to keep discussing what that knowing is, what the source of it is, and how to trust what it can and cannot know. If we are able to get clear about the fact that there is a knowing that is not contained in language then we may be able to articulate that understanding in language in ways that will make it “known” in the language sense to many people. ” I find it is one of the most… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I read a bit more about Steiner: in the chapter about philosophy of freedom he is quoted talking about purifying the thinking process ‘this purification means freeing it from all emotions, wishes and other illusions’. If a person acts from impulses, that are –without him being aware of it – at the basis of his thinking from which he acts, it means he is not free. It is not he who is acting, but ‘it’, which means the emotions that determine the actions… The spiritual is active only when the impulses of his actions in the field of thought, uninfluenced… Read more »

Don Briddell
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Jeff, I follow your blog. In this one, there is something even deeper than image and the word for the image, and that is structure. We sense structure before we can even connect word to object. I tseems to me you are talking about chicken and egg, subject-object relation, and all you have said is true. Underlying subject-object, text and context, is structure. I’m writing a book on structure so this is something I’ve been studying for many years. It is through structure we arrive at form, i.e., object. Thanks to structure, we establish and organize our basis relationships with… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

Hello Don, Thank you for this and I agree with you that there is something underlying all this. You referred to it as structure. I believe that the Pragmatists were pointing toward the same thing with the way they used the word ‘habit.’ Habit was the underlying structure if you will of how everything worked. Habit is what held everything together – groves of ways of being that shape everything that falls into them. It is challenging to get a sense of what I belive the Pragmatists meant by the words habit, because it is so much more fundemental than… Read more »

Don Briddell
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Jeff, et all, Catherine has identified the “knowing that lies besides the language” as where the leading edge of awareness would be, if I read her meaning correctly. The Vedic sages and Yogis have given this a lot of thought for several thousand years so it might be helpful to look into what they have discovered. In Samkghya philosophy, used by yogis, there is prakriti, the stuff of reality and purusha, the consciousness that acts upon prakriti to manifest reality. Both have to be present. Prakriti has a structure, locality, whereas purusha (consciouness is a totality). Prakriti is made up… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
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Jeff Carreira

It definately does…in the same way if our intelect is limited to the intelligence of language then we cannot know outside of what we can know in language. If we can know something that exists outside of language then we have to know it in some form other than in language. What is that form of knowing. Often it has been assumed that some personal revelation is that form of knowing – but then the question how can that knowing be communicated. In spiritual traditions this is usually thought of as happening through some form of transmission, but in the… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Dear Don, actually you illustrate for me fantastically what I call the limitation of language. I know for having listen to you a few hours and because you have generously let me ask all the questions , however stupid they are, that I wanted, that what you are up to with the string and the knot is great stuff. Extremely elegant intuitively, and maybe an alternative able to reconcile at term, quantum mechanics and relativity. But somehow it is very difficult to convey the meaning, and the stature of it in one blog like this. Somehow all these wonderful ideas… Read more »

Catherine
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Catherine

Jeff,

I always thought that “some kind of transmission ” is absolutely necessary for communicating this form of knowing and insight.
can it ever be communicated only through language,
without the transmission ?

Or maybe shall we investigate “what transmission means” and what it consists of ?

Catherine
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Catherine

Don I wrote “ actually you illustrate for me fantastically what I call the limitation of language.” Re reading it I notice that it can look offensive. It is not at all what I meant… I am convinced your ideas are unusual and have a real potential. Some intrinsic elegance which is very appealing. It’s just illustrates how difficult it is to communicate sophisticated ideas between us, with the usual means of language. I will give another example. In 1905, when Einstein started his miraculous year, he had read thoroughly one book of physics, by Ludwig Boltzmann. On could say… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

Even though what you are talking about is different, in the sense of transmission like a spiritual teacher can do. I had to think of Rupert Sheldrake reading the post… I looked for the video ‘the extended mind’ (on you tube there a lots of video’s also from others) and I read some of the comments – ‘he just explained the quantum physical paradox of altering far distant objects by viewing them and thereby causing their probability fields to collapse. If the projection is also a non local phenomenon there is no longer any paradox, its just reality as normal… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I am so totally fascinated by this, I am sorry but I just want to say it one more time. I was thinking of all the connections I had with it and it all connects to what Tolle described: one instant you ‘wake up’ realizing that you are not that ego-shouting mind but that there is something beyond it. I experienced this in groups but also alone, I had it while reading a book (Goethe) but also watching (art) pictures. It is about Truth and it is Universal. It seems definitely clear is that it is consciousness that is not… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I just need to say that ‘transmission’ is not only happening about Truth.. three examples came to my mind. First ‘instinctual’ (a field) like explained by Freud, like being in a riot and the anger somehow just takes possession which leads to actions one normally would not do. Next: propaganda, one of the worst examples of that where the Germans during WO II promoting hatred towards Jews. One of the things they used was just putting images behind each other and in that sense creating some kind meaning, an idea of evil..I saw a small part of Der Juden Süss… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

I saw an interesting program about evil. The Aztecs where the most cruel killers ever, ripping the heart out of 40.000 alive humans and then cutting their heads off. The victims were taken from other tribes, the Aztecs civilians looked at this killing as an offer to the sun. At the same time it created fear: if they did not accept the leadership it could happen to them too. Accepting or creating the suffering of others or other groups is connected with evil, as opposite to ‘mine, ours’. In higher and collective consciousness exactly this ‘mine or ours’ is dropped,… Read more »