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! Google this article to read the interesting details underlying this question. In my view, this is a no-brainer question. Clearly, 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
Language, instilled in us from infancy, occupies a vast portion of our awareness. Language filters and interprets the ‘what is’ of reality, and leaves us feeling we truly know reality. We trust what we think and end up with biased judgments. Yet, that is just the dipolar nature of language, i.e., black and white are easier to wrap our thoughts around than fuzzy grey in-betweens — the Shadowy, indistinct, Indistinct and shadowy”, of which chapter 21 speaks. We take the path of least resistance and choose either the ‘black’ or ‘white’, and let most of the in-between fade from awareness.
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 account for 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 uncategorized and unfiltered reality, although the arts help 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 cultural 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 pigeonhole with ‘black’ or ‘white’, so to speak. (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. Yes, we may intellectually acknowledge that ‘words are just the tip’, but in real life, we react otherwise emotionally. Those emotions stir up and steer our thoughts to line up with the emotion. Emotion rules the roost of cognition and its understandings.
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 study Chinese, this time more deeply, more seriously. 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. What was happening exactly?
The emotional underpinning of word meaning stood out especially strong. This said to me that words, thoughts, and language were actually emotional experiences. The more I have a feeling of the meaning and not a translation of English feeling, the more I truly know the living language — in this case Chinese. Understanding then is not so much a cognitive experience as an emotional one. Perhaps that is why the Tao Te Ching has such a dim view of names and words.
The bottom line
One of humanity’s strongest emotions, if not the strongest, is the social imperative of feeling connected to our group. Language is fundamentally an emotional experience, which means that communication is more about an emotional connection than any true mutual cognitive understanding.