Google [Does Your Language Shape How You Think?] for research that speaks to my recent post Thinking Clouds Consciousness (p.119). This offers interesting details underlying this question, although, in my view this is a no-brainer.
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. Only pure perception remains. Chapter 20 describes this well, 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. Language’s ‘blacks and whites’ are easier to mentally manipulate than fuzzy grey in-betweens — the Shadowy, indistinct, Indistinct and shadowy, as chapter 21 implies. We take the ‘black and white’ path of least resistance and let most of the fuzzy 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 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 means 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. I assume our deep trust in language arises largely from our need for social connection. To feel connected to our group we need to believe (i.e., trust, support, tout) its culture’s groupthink.
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 broader uncategorized and unfiltered reality, although the arts help with that somewhat.
A crucial lesson I taught my home-schooled kids was that 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. This acknowledgment decreases our need to know precisely what is going on, and helps take what seems real with more grains of salt.
Thought bubbles up from emotion.
Thinking is an emergent property (p.121) of feeling, which in turn flows from the shadowy, silent mystery of innate biology. Feeling drives thinking, which means feeling is much broader and deeper than what thinking can encompass. We are at loss for words when it comes to our deepest experiences. Indeed, experience lies beyond what words can pigeonhole. (See Tools of Taoist Thought: Correlations, p.565.)
Words are just the tip of the iceberg of consciousness. This is 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. Even though we can intellectually acknowledge and understand an issue, in real life we easily react otherwise emotionally. Pressing 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 indicates that words, thoughts, and language are 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. No wonder 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.