It's language, stupid!

Nonrepresentational Linguistic Idealism (part 3)

PART 3: NONREPRESENTATIONLISM

NLI is a philosophical position that puts the mind at the centre of reality and language at the centre of the mind. It asserts that thought is linguistic in nature and we can only ever be conscious of linguistic ideas. Language does not represent the physical world but is the world itself. We are language in effect.

In part 1 and part 2 of this three part series, I looked at idealism and linguistic idealism respectively. These form the basis of the philosophical position of NLI that I am defending. The most controversial part of the theory however is ‘nonrepresentationalism’ which I outline in this post.

Idealism is the notion that the mind is at the centre of the reality for humans and linguistic idealism is the notion that language is at the centre of the mind. This does not entail that the material world does not exist, but that to understand human existence we need to work from the inside out, that is from the mind out to the external world.

Representation

Representation I admit is a term which I struggled with earlier on in my career in applied linguistics. The term refers to the (accepted) notion that language is a vehicle for the mind to approximate, or model, the outside world. This seems like a pretty useful vehicle which helps us to make sense of the world in which we live.

If we take a very ordinary, everyday sentence such as ‘the cat is on the mat’, it is assumed that the language of this sentence in the mind represents, or approximates, to a current state of affairs in the material world. For example, the words in the sentence refer to real-world objects; thus ‘cat’ represents a cat and ‘mat’ to a mat. In addition, the sentence as a whole represents a state of affairs, namely that there is a cat on the mat. We can use language to represent future (or possible) worlds as in when I think that there will be a cat on the mat when I get home.

This purported ability of language to represents the physical world seems like quite a useful vehicle for our thoughts in that we can model the real-world in our minds and presumably use this to make decisions, argue positions, and communicate with our fellow human beings about the world.

A closely related notion is that of intentionality. Intentionality in philosophy is used in a very special sense which does not carry the day-to-day meaning of ‘on purpose’. We say that language ‘intends’ towards objects and states of affairs in the real world. What this means is that the object of a word or a sentence is something in the outside external world, which is external to our minds. So when we use the word ‘cat’ it intends toward the real world object cat and the sentence ‘the cat is on the mat’ intends towards the state of affairs.

Representation and intentionality are very similar constructs and for all intents and purposes we can treat them as the same here. If we were to tease out the difference between the two we might suggest that intention is more of a process whereas representation is more of a product, but I won’t make any use of this distinction in this post here.

Nonrepresentation

The basis of NLI, and perhaps its most contentious claim, is that language does not represent the outside world. That is, when we use language to think in our minds or to communicate with other minds, the words and sentences are not actually pointing to the outside world. We might then ask what does language refer to if not objects in the material world. NLI suggest that language does not represent anything. It is a world in itself – the linguistic world. Granted this linguistic world may seem very similar to the external world at times but there are important differences. I will argue this in two ways: the how and the why.

The first argument for nonrepresentation is one of how. How does language represent the external world, if that is what we claim it does? What magical force conveys the representation from the linguistic thought in our minds to the external objects and facts? There does not appear to be any invisible force-carrying particle that conveys representation from the mind to the external world. (Unlike gravity which has invisible force-carrying particles: gravitons.) And if there is, when do these start to act? When do they stop? These are not trivial questions. It seems like most scholars in the philosophical community just accept that there is a link of representation between the linguistic and physical without really questioning how this happens. But this is a mistake I believe. There is no logical explanation for how language represents the external world.

A second argument that questions the notion of representation is the why. Why does representation need to occur? What is the purpose of representation for the physical world and the mind? Without a human mind there is no representation. A red traffic light conventionally represents the notion of ‘stop’. But it only does so as a human mind in a car approaches. It doesn’t mean stop for a cat, or a bird, or a road marking for that matter. It only means stop for human minds and even then it is only conventional. We have agreed as a society to recognise it as such but I can easily override this and drive through a red traffic light if I am so inclined.

But a traffic light is nothing like language. A traffic light has only three colours and a limited number of colour combinations. Language is a propositionally-based thought system that can generate an infinite number of ideas. It is the basis for human minds but no one can say why language represents the physical world.

Everything we think and say in the social world is carried out in language. We write poetry in language, our histories, our laws, conduct politics and education in language. So what is going on when we do this, when we use language to construct this social world? Are we saying that everything that has ever been thought, said or written is just a representation of the physical world. Is it not more likely that language is a world in itself: a world that is local to itself and largely independent of the physical world? NLI argues for this latter position; that language does not represent the physical world but is in fact a world in itself – a linguistic world.

A more complicated example

Let me give a more complicated example than the simple ‘cat on a mat’ sentence that I discussed above. The following sentence is taken from a book which I read a few years ago:

The phenomenologist studies perception, not as a purely subjective phenomenon, but as it is lived through by a perceiver who is in the world, and who is also an embodied agent with motivations and purposes.

The Phenomenological Mind by Gallagher and Zahavi

It is hard to see how we could check to see whether this sentence is true or false in the real world. We would need to test each and every phenomenologist and see how they studied perception. If one single phenomenologist did not study perception as stipulated then the sentence would fall. As the sentences of language that we use become more complex and abstract, it becomes more and more difficult to claim that they are pointing to the real world.

But there is a simple and stronger reason why we can say that the sentence does not represent the physical world, or a possible future world, and that is due to the principle of nonrepresentation.

Principle of nonrepresentation

The principle of nonrepresentation is a stipulation of NLI that says that one dimension cannot be used to represent another dimension. We accept that we live in a world that has physical dimensions (space) and a temporal dimension (time). If I clasp my palms together in front of me I know that they enclose a certain volume of space and within this space is some matter – chiefly air and perhaps a few dust particles. But it would be wrong to say that by clasping my palms I also capture time in them. Time is a different dimension and of completely different stuff. (Quite an extraordinary dimension I must say but I won’t get into the nitty gritty of it here.) Each dimension has its own properties and one cannot be used to represent the other. We cannot explain space through time and we cannot explain time through space.

NLI states that language is also a dimension, the linguistic dimension. This dimension is separate to the physical and the temporal and has properties of its own. To say that language resides in its own dimension (or domain) is not some stuff of a weird Science Fiction movie. It is just simply the basic observation that language is of different stuff to the physical and the temporal. It is not matter and it is not time; it is language. To claim it exists in a separate dimension is merely to convey on it something basic and fundamental to it that cannot be explained by space or time. To say that we exist in a three dimension spatial world and a one-dimensional temporal world is a given. NLI adds the linguistic to this.

So NLI is saying that the sentence shown above and the earlier one (the cat is on the mat), and all the sentences and bits of language that have ever been though and said and written are not representations of the physical, material world but are in fact a world in themselves. The principle of nonrepresentation says that one dimension cannot be used to represent another and therefore language is not merely representing the linguistic world. If we try to do so, or think we are doing so, we commit a representation fallacy (Dyke 2008) and misconstrue our understanding of the universe and who we are within it.

There are some odd outcomes of this position which we do not need to get too hung up on here. One outcome is that cats and mats are really products of the linguistic world, not the material world. Something does exists in the physical world but we cannot say it is a cat or a mat because these are linguistic terms. We have to accept the physical dimension for what it is – a physical world filled with matter that is indeterminate to the linguist world: a bunch of fundamental particles obeying the laws of physics. And that is really the most we can say about it, and even this is pushing things.

The principle of nonrepresentation states that one dimension cannot be used to represent another.

If you are not yet convinced that language is a separate dimension in a world of its own, consider this: everything you have read in this post so far has been written in language. Language is the only medium I can use to retain your attention and to explain the ideas that I have. You remain here on this post because language is engaging you (even though you may not agree with what I am saying). It would seem odd then to suggest that language is not something unique. It would seem odd to suggest that all human thought and speech and written texts that have ever been expressed are simply particles of dust like the dust particles in the space between my palms. Surely language has to be something special in the seat of human consciousness and human existence?

non- or anti- representationalism?

There is a widely established position of anti-representationalism that differs significantly from my account. Anti-representationalism holds that perception is not a process of constructing internal representations but is in fact an active and dynamic process between the agent and the environment. Most anti-representational accounts do not take language to be a separate dimension which is why I prefer the term ‘non-‘ as opposed to ‘anti-‘ representationalism.

I have outlined the nonrepresentational aspect of my theory in this post and have covered the other two aspects in part 1 and part 2. Briefly NLI claims that the mind is at the centre of reality for us and language is at the centre of the mind. Language does not merely represent the physical world but creates a world in itself. Language is a separate dimension.

For some people this claim may be too strong but let’s look at what it is not saying. NLI does not claim that there is no physical world. It is just that this world is indeterminate to us. We can probe and push this world all we like, but we can only ever be conscious of our own existence through language. We are language in effect.

Let’s look at this claim that ‘we are language’ in more detail because some of you may think that I am emphasising language too much over the physical world and time.

We are language

There is a bit of language in this sentence that seems to claim that language is in some sense superior or more important to us that the space-time which we live in. This is not the case however. The linguistic part is supported by the physical. The physical world provides the light and the pixels and the screen and the PC and all the other material bits that allow this statement to exist, and this includes our bodies and our brains. And time provides the temporal sequencing that allows our eyes to move from the left to the right of the sentence. Without space and time language would be nothing. It is just the case that space and time cannot express themselves in the way that the linguistic can. They operate in the background, off-stage so to speak. The principle of nonrepresentationalism entails that the physical can only express itself in a physical way, though matter. It cannot be represented by language. And time can only represent itself in the way that the dimension is constituted, not by the physical or the linguistic.

Imagine you have three children which you love dearly and equally except that only one child can speak, only one child can see and only one child can organise events. You interact with each child in the only way they can and accept them as they are. You talk to one, you see the other and you hold events with the third. It is only together as a team that they can get out of the house and live their lives. And that is who we are. So to say ‘we are language’ is to celebrate all aspects of our lives.


Dyke, H. (2008). Metaphysics and the representational fallacy. Routledge.

Gallagher, S. & Zahavi, D. (2012). The Phenomenological Mind, (2nd ed.). Routledge.

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