An article, Does Your Language Shape How You Think?, by Guy Deutscher appeared just days after my post Thinking Clouds Consciousness … What a neat coincidence! The article points out such ideas create quite a stir, which is somewhat weird. Surely, this is a no-brainer question. Certainly language and thinking are inextricably linked; it takes one to do the other. If you can, flip off the language switch in your mind. Well? When I do that, I’m unable to think.
Honestly, as chapter 20 puts it, My mind is that of a fool – how blank — and peaceful too, at least when it’s blank! Sure, the senses still function – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – and I’d add one more, ‘a diffuse light of consciousness’. Although you could argue, this ‘light’ is just the overall sum sensation induced by the five senses. Alternatively, perhaps it is what remains when cognition holds firmly to stillness as chapter 16 puts it.
As the Biblical Tower of Babel suggests, language causes issues
I find the general problem we face is one of being overly certain. We trust what we think, and easily end up with biased judgments. Yet, that is also just the nature of language… black and white are easier to wrap our thoughts around than fuzzy grey in-betweens, “Shadowy, indistinct, Indistinct and shadowy“, of which chapter 21 speaks. We take the easy path and notice only one side of the coin, rather than work at seeing all sides.
The article quotes linguist Benjamin Whorf as saying, “Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”).”
While perhaps true to some degree, this fails to take into account how language arises from, and links to, primal human emotion. We all share the same emotional base — whether ancient Cro-Magnon or modern day city slicker, male or female, young or old. The impetus behind language is social connection with communication coming in a distant second. All that we need in order to have language feel fulfilling is that speaker and listener feel they are heard, recognized and accepted. From the primate standpoint, that is merely ‘grooming’ with language, so to speak. Simply put, communication is something of a charade; social connection is the underlying reality.
All social animals have their way of social connection.
We big-brained apes use language as a principle means of social connection. Just as the nit-picking grooming that apes practice never gets rid of all the nits, language never fully succeeds in communicating. It just gives us the illusion that it does so we can feel connected. This benefit has a price: The more we trust language’s truth that names and words are real in their own right, the less we can perceive anything outside that box of names. Our belief in ‘word reality’ hinders our ability to see a more uncatagorized and unfiltered reality, although art helps with that somewhat. I’ll bet our trust in language ties directly to our need for social connection. To feel integral to the group we need to believe (i.e., trust, hold to, support, tout) the groupthink of our tribe’s culture (paradigm).
A basic home-schooling lesson I taught my kids from ‘day one’ onward was this: Things are never as they seem on the surface. Instead, we are mostly seeing only a reflection of ourselves — our needs and fears. Fortunately, just acknowledging this ‘house of mirrors’ is usually enough to give us a few moments to pause and reconsider what we think we see and know. Recognizing this decreases the need to know precisely what is going on, and helps one to ‘take what seems real with a grain of salt’.
Thought bubbles up from emotion.
Thinking is an emergent property of feeling, which in turn flows from the shadowy, silent mystery of biology within. Feeling drives thinking, which makes feeling much broader and deeper than anything thinking can encompass. We are at loss for words when it comes to our deepest experiences. All experience reaches beyond anything words can ‘generalize’ with words. (See Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations)
Words are just the tip of the iceberg of consciousness. This may be a good example of chapter 70’s, My words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice. While we may intellectually acknowledge that ‘words are just the tip’, we emotionally respond otherwise… and then cognitively, as emotion returns to stir and steer our thoughts.
Digging down into meaning
In my early 20’s I had free time on a job site in Vietnam, so I took up learning Chinese characters. After a year, I’d learned a few thousand and could understand the gist of many articles in Chinese newspapers. Even so, I never was actually reading them in Chinese. I understood the characters in their English translation. In other words, I was reading English written in another ‘script’. Naturally, I forgot most everything after a few decades.
About 10 years ago, I returned to Chinese, this time to actually learn the language. While in Asia, I had learned to speak a number of languages at a ‘market’ or pidgin level. I picked them up more like a child does, listening and speaking, trial and error, without any awareness of process. This time around with Chinese, I was curious to investigate my actual learning process in real time; exactly what was happening?
The emotional backdrop of word meaning has stood out especially strong. More to the point, word meaning is really an emotional experience – truly, totally, exclusively, utterly, infinitely. The more I have a feeling of the meaning, and not a translation of English feeling, the more I truly understand, the living language in this case Chinese. Understanding then is not really a cognitive experience; it is an emotional one. No wonder the Tao Te Ching has such a dim view of names and words.
The bottom line… again.
One of humanity’s strongest emotions, if not the strongest, is the social imperative — feeling connected to our group. To understand and be understood is really just the need to connect socially, to feel accepted, and to accept.