IT’S LANGUAGE, STUPID!
Ever thought there might be something missing from our understanding of the universe?
What if language was that something, a fifth dimension in the fabric of the universe which unfolds itself whenever we think, speak or write?
As you read, think about how language creates a passage through a dimension that didn’t exist before. As your mind ‘travels’ through this dimension, think about how the words flow from left to right into sentences and the sentences into a paragraph. There is a sense of being transported somewhere; a sense of travelling perhaps. This is not a trip through space however, but a journey through the dimension of language.
The mind is where language takes place, i.e. where the linguistic dimension is accessed, and this is all that takes place there. Language therefore is the DNA of the mind. Or more succinctly, language is the mind and the mind is language. All else that takes place within our brain is non-conscious brain activity. Seeing images, hearing sounds, feeling surfaces, etc. are all just brain activity that we can never be mindful of unless we use language to token and structure it.
A lifetime of linguistic thought and contemplation goes on behind this personality which we could never foretell. I have probably had more linguistic conversations with myself this morning travelling in to work on the train than I have had in public with other people in this whole year! Certainly my private thoughts this morning have been much more personal, intimate and familiar to me. We live a whole lifetime behind the mask of our minds, only letting slip the odd conversation or so, and we live that life in the glorious technicolour of language.
“Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. “
Dr Michael Cribb is Assistant Professor of English Language at Coventry University in the United Kingdom. He has published widely on applied linguistics and political discourse analysis. His other books include Slips of the Tongue from the Linguistic Graveyard and the sumptuous photo essay to be someone in a language. He lives in Oxfordshire in the United Kingdom.
The commentaries and links below are intended to stimulate further thought and ideas as you ponder whether language is the DNA of the mind.
1. shadows of our minds: Taken on a sunny summer’s day, these images of our shadow remind us that every time we speak we are essentially casting a shadow of our minds, a silhouette of our thoughts. Language is the shadow. Others can take up our shadows and place them in their own minds. We do not have a privileged access to the physical world, only a silhouette of our minds.
2. the mind of a machine : Machines can do many intelligent things these days, even talk to us. But does a machine have a mind? Does that mind have intentionality? A machine merely performs the steps of the algorithm it has been given. It does not commit to these in an intentional way. Intentionality is only a product of the mind, the human mind and that is language.
This image took me aback when I first saw it on the inimitable RANT 73‘s Flickr page and still remains one of my favourites in the book. The sadness in the eyes of the machine seems to suggest a childlike nature, one which realises its own destiny.
3. the artist and the clay : I took these pictures of these birds on a beach on the south coast of England. The birds were making swooping patterns and getting very close. At home, I composed these pictures to remind me of the artistic nature of the actions. The birds shape and mould their bodies to the world. Yet it is language that shapes our world for us. The physical world is merely the vessel. Language draws out the patterns and shapes from the chaotic fundamental underworld. As you consider the images, think about who is the artist and who is the clay? The birds or your mind?
4. the forest : imagine you are a tree in the forest, jammed up against all the other trees. Without language this is all we are. But language has two special properties. First it lifts us up from the forest floor above the canopy. Then it gives us a sight into the distance and beyond the horizon. It enables us to bring order to the chaotic jungle below and look into the future towards our own mortality.
These trees are tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, U.S.
5. grammar : many people are put off by grammar and avoid it. Yet it constitutes the structure of the most redeeming feature of the human mind. There is so much significance in the grammar of even a simple sentence as words are brought together in special relations. No other entity in the world has a grammar. If you don’t have grammar then you are just a paving stone juxtaposed with other paving stones. Grammar enables our minds to expand out into a fifth dimension.
6. the past : Ian Hacking wrote this quote. It suggests that our past is not determined by events but by how we describe these events: to revise history is simply to re-present it under a new description. This realisation is as frightening as it is empowering. Language truly is the guardian of our past.
The image show various animals looking back to their past. Which ones can contemplate their past? Which ones can revise it?
7. Language is a way for the human mind to make sense of its existence. Without it we are just left with a material world that is built from the bottom up: atoms to molecules to materials to products to rooms to societies to worlds. Language enables us to see the world from the top-down – to focus in on some level in the hierarchy, and to rationalise this. It brings coherence and validity to our lives.
Epistemic nihilism is the situation in which one boils down an object into its components parts until all you are left with is particles in relationship to each other in a certain way. What is the difference between an apple, say, and a banana if you can boil them both down to the same fundamental particles? This is the logical fallacy of strict empiricism. Language allows us to get out of the trap and put a ‘cap’ on things’. Without language we would just be a bottom-up distributed system but we would not know it.
This image is entitled ‘pushing up the daises‘ and asks the question which way will we view the universe once we are dead and buried. From the bottom-up or from the top-down?
8. I think we sometimes do not realise how much we are creatures of our own minds rather than of the world. We spend much of our waking day in our own minds , thinking and talking with ourselves. Even when we are in conversation with another we still hold this conversation with ourselves. I have probably had more talk with myself just today in my own mind that I have had with others this whole month.
All of this thought happens in language. Language is the DNA of the mind, the way we ‘colour’ our lives. Much of it is hidden away from others, much like wearing a mask.
Gatekeepers on The Road of the Ancients by Prairie Kittin / ANIMUS by aka Tman / 25th July 2020 – Shadows Day 6 – shadowy Russians by Forbes Johnston, CC BY 2.0 / Broken by Prairie Kittin, CC BY-ND 2.0
9. the linguistic paradox : When I first started writing my book It’s Language Stupid I spent a lot of time falling a sleep at night going through the arguments that I constructed. The frustrating thing was that I would often fall asleep just when it seemed that I had solved the paradox. Or if I did solve the paradox in my mind, I would then not recall it in the morning. Sometimes the answer to the paradox does seem to fall on us from above but only in fleeting moments.
I recommend that you take the paradox with you to your bed and contemplate its significance. If you find that you are still contemplating this in the morning then you can be sure that the wise wizard Gandalf has been in your room keeping you talking all night. You are sure to turn to stone and the first light of dawn!
The picture in this spread are all taken in a park I frequented in 2020 during the COVID lockdown. They were places where I had sat or walked by daily. The bench in particular is quite old with gnarly wood. A lot of minds have sat here no doubt contemplating something. Where are those minds now?
10. The physical world seems very complex to us: atoms, molecules, materials all governed by complex laws of physics. But is this complexity a feature of the physical world itself or just a feature of language? After all, I have just stated this complexity in the previous sentences through language. It seems that the physical world does not need to know about any complexity. All it needs is a fundamental particle (string?) obeying a fundamental principle (vibration?). All the resultant complexity is then a product of the mind that is observing this. And that mind is our mind and language is the DNA of this mind.
Complexity by Martin Dougiamas
11. language and truth : If you have ever spend a few minutes or so on social media following some sort of discussion, you will know how quickly the discussion can move. Due to my busy schedule, I typically join the discussion several hours after the fact and only see the aftermath of the fight. The language has usually long since gone – over the hill and far away. Truth may still be labouring up the hill trying to re-establish itself but the language has moved on, to some other debate and some other site.
The reason why this happens is that language is somewhat divorced from the physical world. It is as if there is a void in our heads which we can fill with any type of language that we so desire. This language does not always have to correspond with the truth. As more and more people join, the wheel spins faster and faster breaking loose from its bearings and any brake that was hopelessly designed to stop it.
But language is the guardian of our world and our society. We need to understand that we can all too often spin in the void at too great a rate of knots. If we better understand this fact then we will better serve the solidarity and free will we have been gifted.
Running Fast by Tiani. When I first saw this picture on Flickr I know that it would sit perfectly with the quote. The two sisters (or one?) look as if they have just committed some sort of crime and are about to flee the scene just as the photograph captures them bang to rights. It reminds me in part of the well-know twin sister paradox which you can read about here.
12. experience : This quote was made by Hannah Arendt in a letter to her friend and confidant Mary McCarthy in 1971. It puts ‘experience’ firmly at the centre of Arendt’s philosophy and language as the vehicle for that experience. When Arendt emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis in the 1940s she recognised the loss not only of her homeland but also her mother tongue. Being forced to communicate and think in English robbed her of the productivity that her mother tongue German had afforded her. Language is not a ‘synthetic layer’ over reality but a mechanism to confer ‘reality upon our own existence’ (Popova).
Ursula K. Le Guin in a similar vein wrote that ‘words are events, they do things, change things’.
13. We are so used to a four dimensional universe: three spatial dimensions and a time dimension. But what if language was a fifth dimension? Think about how language unfurls itself into a hidden fifth dimension every time you process it in your mind. As you read the sentences here, you are travelling along this dimension. It is not a journey through space or time. It is a journey through the linguistic dimension. Each word is like stepping stone through this dimension and as you take these steps, meaning is revealed to you. Meaning that is not part of the physical world.
The images here are of a tunnel under a railway line near where I live. As you travel down the tunnel you past lights, stones and graffiti until you emerge on the other side. There is a sense that you have travelled somewhere to emerge in a different part of town. It is still the same town of course but a part that feels separated from the other half. That is what railway lines do sometimes. They split communities. It is only the thin, tight tunnels that connect them. Language is in some ways connecting the human mind so that we can be one.
14. Imagine you have a craving for cake and see a sign saying ‘cake’ pointing to a house. You rip the sign off the gate and start to eat it only to realise your mistake. You knock at the door of the house only to be told that the cake is being given away free in the park. You go down to the park but there are only cake boxes left. All the cake has gone. You see the last person walking away and approach them only to be told that they gave their cake to a dog. You see the dog eating the last morsels of cake.
Sometimes it feels like we chase language down a rabbit hole expecting there to be something material at the end – a piece of cake or something. But why should there be anything down there? Language does not promise that. If I say ‘I have got some cake’ you cannot rip the last word out of my mouth and expect to taste cake. The word ‘cake’ is not the material sweet dessert that you crave.
It is sometimes said that language is a representation of the physical world and that if we only follow it down we will eventually find what we are looking for. But this is a fallacy I believe. Language does not represent the physical world. It doesn’t represent anything. It is the world in itself. If we accept language for what it is (nonrepresentational) then we will be better positioned to choose the rabbit holes that are fruitful for us which we can get out of.
Twitter is probably the pre-eminent minefield of rabbit holes currently enjoying high popularity. How easy it is to peer down a ‘hole’ early in the morning in your garden only to find you have been swallowed up and don’t emerge until lunch time. A simple tweet of less than 140 characters soon spawns into a series of burrows anyone of which you are tempted to follow down. Each hole then leads on to further burrows and out to newspapers and blogs. Then back to the tweet only to find that it has been connected to other warrens through side tunnels and connecting burrows. It is enough to keep an old-timer like me dazed and confused.
But is there anything material at the end of all these rabbit holes? Does the world actually change for our efforts? Do the government heed our cries, or politicians change their minds? What do we get from all that burrowing: a sense that we are societal influencers, perhaps, or a short-lived frisson with members of a campaign group that we have never met? And so we emerge just before lunch none the wiser and a little more sore in the thumbs.
We are linguistic beings and burrowing is what we do but we need to understand that all the burrowing in the world does not change the physical. Language is nonrepresentational and the more we digest this, the better we can construct the rabbit holes that we want to construct and know when to follow them down.
from top left clockwise: spiral staircase by Rodrigo Soldon Souza, CC BY-ND 2.0 / Spiral staircase by John Mason, CC BY 2.0 / spiral staircase by Rodrigo Soldon Souza, CC BY-ND 2.0 / The spiral staircase by Rob Oo, CC BY 2.0
16. : I asked this question in my book and I have also asked it of the Andromeda Galaxy. You could ask it of anything to tell the truth. It is a puzzling situation when you ask a question and you struggle to truly answer it. It seems like whenever we name something we bring it into existence. If I were to name half of the Taj Mahal (left’s say the left half) as ‘Ta Mah’ then can we now say there is something Ta Mah? Have I just brought it into existence? And what happens to it when I cease to talk about it and forget it? I could of course create an infinite number of items just by listing the bricks in the Taj Mahal – brick number 356 is brick356, and brick number 357 is brick357. But then a brick is a collection of crystal structures which are a collection of molecules which are a collection of atoms which are a collection of strings and so on.
I think the Taj Mahal does disappear after you finish reading the question. It disappear as soon as we stop using the term only to return when we use it again. It is only when we use the term in human consciousness that it exists. That does not mean the physical stuff out there just disappears. There is something there but it is not determinate. It is language which creates the Taj Mahal, the Andromeda Galaxy and bricks, crystals, molecules, atoms and string.
The main image of the Taj Mahal is by FunGi (Trading)
17. If language is divorced from the physical world as NLI suggests then what is to stop it ‘spinning in the void’? In other words, if we are just creating a conceptual world in our minds that does not represent objective reality, what brake is there to stop us endlessly creating this linguistic world? Sometime when I read discussions and debates on social media sites such as Twitter it feels just like this, as if the brake has been let off. Everyone is jumping on the wheel which is spinning at an every increasing rate. As more and more join, the discourse gets away from us and the debate ends up as a shouting match, until everyone gets sick and decides to take a rest.
In some ways, we should expect this behaviour because we know we are language. That is what we do. But we lose the solidarity with our fellow human minds when we pile on the wheel like this. Questions remain unanswered and objectivity is lost in a sea of language. The ability as a collective to guard the debate is lost for a moment. The more we understand this fact the more we can attempt to control the spinning and guard our solidarity.
18. Why do we ask questions? Why not just speak and assert. A question is generally framed by inverting the subject and verb in English or bringing in ‘do’ support. But the formal structure of a question is not the matter. The matter is that language is such a dimension that it has a propositional structure. A propositional structure can also ask questions of itself and this is what language does. Or at least this is what human minds do with language.
So we ask questions of why are we here, is there a God, what happened before the Big Bang and what will happen to us before we die. To ask a questions is to recognise that there is someone else in the room. Your partner, friend, guest… even your own mind. That mind can share the journey with us and recognise this propositional structure. A question signals that we are not alone.
The physical world does not ask questions of itself. Neither does the time dimension. Questions are only a feature of the linguistic dimension.
19. painting : Vincent Van Gogh is considered to be one greatest post-impressionists of all time but during his life he was not celebrated and struggled to get recognition. Van Gogh is certainly one of my favourite painters but for all the 900 or so paintings he left us, do any one of them say anything? Can they speak? I do not think so. Only the human mind speaks. Granted we may find inspiration from one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces but it is not the picture that paints the world but the mind. And that means language. Next time you peruse a picture in a gallery listen to what it says. You will only hear silence.
View Van Gogh prints on the web via rawpixel.com
20. Emmanuel Kant is the father of transcendental idealism, the belief that the mind is at the centre of reality as we know it. This does not mean that the world is a figment of our imagination, but simply that we necessarily experience it through the filter of the mind and that is the only way we can experience it.
In this quote, Kant asks what would happen if the ‘thinking subject’ i.e. the human mind were taken away. For Kant this meant the ‘whole corporeal world’ i.e. the physical world would have to disappear. Kant is not saying that the world is a figment of our imagination. Just that to know of it requires a mind – a thinking subject.
Read here an excellent introduction to Kant’s idealism and how it fits in with the metaphysics of his times. According to the writer, Kant rejects both pure reason and pure empiricism. It is the linking of the mind with nature that enables us to validate realism. Kant thus emphasised the unity of mind and nature through experience which was the precursor to the romantic movement.
21. be or say : If I ask you whether you are happy or sad at the moment, as you read this question, do you think you can be happy or sad? When you are reading language can you have any other thoughts? And if not how can you be happy or sad? We all know the feeling that accompanies sadness and happiness, but when our mind is preoccupied with some other thought, does the sadness or happiness persist? Is it not the case that feeling happy is different to saying ‘I am happy’?
What if the grim reaper gave you a choice of being happy in the after-world or being able to say you are happy. Which option would you choose? Being happy is a state but you would not be able to say you ‘are happy’. Being able to say you ‘are happy’ would not allow you to feel happy.
22. complexity :
23. we are what we speak :
24. consciousness : We all know of zombies from the movies – mindless beasts whose arms and legs seem to fall off at the gentlest of tugs. But a philosophical zombie is of a different kind. A p-zombie walks, talk and acts exactly like a human would, and looks exactly like a human, but they do not have a human mind. They are not conscious of their existence. How do you know that your neighbour is not a p-zombie for example, or your spouse? How do you know that you are not one for that matter? Read this blog to answer this question: zombie.
The backdrop to this thought experiment (the Chinese room) is Chinese paper money – macros by Kevin Dooley. The red colour, a theme that runs through the book, is incredible and there is a tangible feeling of texture to this print.
25. the guardian :
26. DNA :
27. Questions are a very interesting feature of language. Why do we have questions? Why are we able to invert the subject and verb to ask a question? We cannot invert an electron and proton, for example, and create a question. The material world knows nothing of questions.
Yet questions are fundamental to the human mind. We have inquisitive minds that are constantly asking questions: what will I become, is there a God, what was there before the Big Bang, is there life on Mars? Some of these questions we might find partial answers to in our lifetimes. Others we will probably never be able to answer.
NLI argues that all questions are unanswerable. We can never truthfully answer a question because language does not represent the physical world. We may accept answers from time to time as ‘near enough’ but these answers can always be challenged. We accept, for example, that Hillary and Tenzing were the first people to climb mount Everest but some may challenge this. Perhaps it was Mallory and Irving or someone else? I could claim that my great grandfather was the first person to climb Everest and you would be hard pressed to convince me otherwise.
Why is it that we can answer questions in any way we want to? It is because language does not represent the physical world. A question is really just a bit of language floating around in the mind which we can reshape and refashion at will. The only really interesting question is what comes next.
28. Death is a favourite subject of the philosopher because of the implications it entails. The presumptive change in mind-body state is no doubt so catastrophic that we can assume something profound is going to happen. Maybe the revelation of God, or the universe, or an endless sleep? We really don’t know because no one has ever experienced death yet. By this I mean the death of a mind. That will only happen for me when my mind comes to an end and for you when your mind comes to an end, if at all. But since you are here reading this, I presume that it has not yet happened for you?
There is a theory that a mind can never die. Since it is the mind that holds concepts such as life and death, to say that a mind can experience death in its totality is absurd. If there is no mind then there is no life or death. Life and death exist only in the linguistic domain.
It is true that we observe physical changes in people after they die. Their bodies decay and wither away. They stop abruptly doing what they did so well before death: walking, talking, eating, etc. But this change is a change in the physical domain. It says nothing of the mind. In a sense, the physical body lives on. While it decomposes into matter and other elements, it is still a part of the physical world. From the point of view of the physical it is still expressing itself in the way that any matter does.
But what of the mind? And what of language? Can the mind live on after death? What if I will my mind to exists and refuse to think of death. Will my mind forever continue to hold these thoughts and bootstrap its own existence? Why, if I just keep on composing one more sentence, can I not just delay the point of departure?
30. the politics of division : We are destined to rewrite our world for ever and ever — continually producing new description that clash with, and overwrite, the previous. These descriptions will, and have already done so, repeat themselves eventually, only in different form, but we probably will not recognise this fact. The only way we can stop the spinning and step off this Ferris wheel is if we realise we are not destined to find truth in the physical world but to construct truth that unites us in the linguistic.
The politics of division utilises language to establish small fissures between people. Like a piece of wood, the language is then twisted and turned so that the crack widens. Eventually the wood splits and the politician moves in to destroy.
Name of Narmer by Flinders Petrie, Public Domain / Narmer Macehead drawing by Budge, E.A.W, Public Domain • bottom: King Narmer conquers the Nile delta by Allan Ashby, Public Domain
31. truth :
32. stuck in language : stuck
33. return to language : Why do we always come back to language? We may go walking, climb a mountain, ride a bike, but we always return to language. Language is our social world, our relationship with other humans. Some people spend years writing books, publishing articles, composing lyrics, poetry. We don’t spend years climbing mountains or riding bikes. Our physical pursuits are mere commas in the sentences of our lives.
In the Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, a young lady appears to be content weaving her magic in isolation in a tower from which she cannot escape. She has all she needs but reveals her mind for the first time when she utters the words: “I’m half sick of shadows”. Her loneliness and isolation from the social and linguistic world is brought into stark relief. Isolation of the mind from language is rarely long-term.
34. I cannot change the physical just by willing it to change. If a photon is going to hit a surface and reflect into my eye, then it is going to do that no matter what I think. But I can change the linguistic. Language is the one area of life where we do have control – total free will to say what we like.
How do you change the physical? You might place your hand in the way of the photon so that it is deflected and does not reach your eye. But then you have not changed the physical. The physical is behaving just as you would expect it to. The hand provides a reflection surface and so the photon behaves as it should do by reflecting off the surface of the hand. The eye does not see the photon but then that was never the destiny. The destiny was for the hand to come up and reflect the photon. The laws of nature will always roll on in the way they always have done.
Drawings I made as a youngster.
35. Time is a very interesting construct. If I clasp my palms in front of me I enclose some space and capture some air and dust. But where is time? I cannot grasp that. Time is a dimension that seems to be outside of the three dimension space that we exist in. What is it that picks up the whole of the three dimensional space of the material world and deposits it a thousand microseconds ahead every second? Why does it do that? And why does it only seem to go in one direction? Why not in both?
One possibility is the way we refer to time using language. It may be that time as an absolute dimension is doing its own stuff but the human mind can only conceptualise it in two ways. One is with the past tense and the other is with the future tense. It is as if we are sitting on a train facing backwards from the direction of travel. The past then is everything that is ahead of us and visible. That is, everywhere we have just been but is not receding into the distance. We have our backs to the future. It is behind us and hidden but it is approaching us as the train moves forward.
So language gives us two tenses to look at the past and the future. If we were to turn our seat around and face the direction of travel on the train, everything would change. The future would now be visible and the past hidden. But that would go against the norms of society (language). So we align ourselves with what is the norm
37. cast your first person :
38. Life as a gherkin can be pretty lonely. Packed in to that jar in brine; jammed up against other gherkins that you cannot talk to. Waiting for your one moment in life to be picked, bitten in to and swallowed.
Does a gherkin understand the space it is in? Does it know it is in a jar, in brine, jammed up against other gherkins?
Well, a gherkin is probably not a good example to choose. Consider instead an ant moving around on a piece of paper. When it gets to the edge, it feels around for a bit then ducks underneath and walks to the other edge. Does it understand the 2-D space that is its world?
From our vantage point, from the view of the linguistic mind, we know that there is another dimension, a 3-D space. The ant might occasionally reach upwards, feeling for some other space. But without language, all the ant knows is food, survival and the 2-D world it lives out its life on.
But now give the ant language and suddenly it can ask “what is above me?”, “what is below me?”. It can ponder questions such as “does this space go on for ever?” or “what is outside this space”.
We have language and we can sense another dimension. We live in a 3-D world, but we have a mind, a linguistic mind, that can ponder whether this world goes on for ever, or if there are other dimension outside of the world.
Language enables this. The ant unfortunately does not have a linguistic mind and does not understand the space it is in. The gherkin does not even understand the jar it is in. It is going to get eaten, but not by me.
39. Which is more important? Existence or experience? If you experience seeing unicorns in your mind but you know that they are not real, which wins out?
Traditionally we have always looked toward existence as a marker of reality. If we can bump into it, handle it and investigate it, it exists, right?
Some might say that the mind does not exist but if I experience it throughout my life then it seems pretty important to me.
In some ways, mind might be more important than matter. I know there is a star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion which I occasionally look at. But for most of the time that object has little bearing on my life. Sure it might contribute in some tiny way to keeping the galaxy together, but what impact does that have on me?
Yet the contents of my mind are everything to me because I experience them every day and in totality. I cannot have a thought that is hidden away in some distant part of my brain, out of mind so to speak. The mind presents every thought to me simply because I am my mind.
Some of these thoughts might not have much impact on my life. Imagining a unicorn is perhaps not going to change my behaviour, unless it is a part of some recurring nightmare. But I do experience the unicorn, unlike Betelgeuse (apart from the times when I happen to to look at Betelgeuse).
It seems to me that what I experience is more of a life-defining quality than what exists. Perhaps this is the way we should view ourselves and the universe from now on?
Artist: Winslow Homer • top: The Gulf Stream (1889) • middle top left clockwise: Dad’s Coming (1873) / A Basket of Clams (1873) / Mending the Nets (1882) / Undertow (1886) / In the Garden (1874) / The Red School House (1873) / Under a Palm Tree (1886) / School Time (ca.1874) • bottom: East Hampton Beach, Long Island (1874) • source: rawpixel.com on Flickr, CC BY 4.0
41. first person truth : there may be some who suggest that language can approximate to the truth in the physical world and that this is good enough. That is, we can find a state of the world and make an utterance that approximates to this state, e.g. ‘The cat sits on the mat’. But nonrepresentational linguistic idealism (NLI) is not interested in approximation or what is useful for mankind. If language is an approximate for the world then it is not the world and if it is not the world it is not an approximate. NLI is interested what is – what is the actual state and what is the relation between the world and the linguistic.
We sometimes look at the world and believe we can describe it in the third-person. That is, we can state what is the case for everyone and all time. But truth is only in the first-person – the mind. That is only my truth and it is for you to take that truth as you see fit.
42. George Grace was an emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii in the late 20th century. This quote by him alludes to the reality-construction of the world, a theory which he expounded. In the reality-construction view of the world, the imperfection of our access to the real world gave us a false view of this world. Rather than language simply mapping the world onto our minds in an imperfect way, for Grace language was our world. Not only does language construct the world we find ourselves in, but it also enables us to preserve and transmit these realities from generation to generation.
43. tracks in the brain : This is fake news. Scientists have not found linguistic tracks in the brain. I took this picture one morning in 2020 during the COVID lockdown in my back garden. The ‘track’ is the trail of a snail that had wandered across my patio in a seemingly random way and subsequently left. When I reviewed the picture, I imagined that the patio mosaic could conceivable pass off as a brain and wondered if we would ever find something hidden in this organ where language resides. We still do not know how language works in the brain. We have good idea of which parts of the brain are involved in language processing but we do not know how a person comes to understand the language they use or hear; how the meaning of an utterance makes sense to the person. What if there was a hidden dimension in the brain where language ‘unfolded’ to create meaning? What if those tracks were vanishingly small or fleetingly transient that we had never noticed them? I must say I think it is unlikely that we will ever find such tracks. Language is unlikely to be simply a hidden path in the spacetime continuum.
I have however written about how language is the fifth dimension, a hidden dimension that is separate to the fabric of space and time. Language in some sense does unfurl itself to reveal meaning in a somewhat similar fashion to say a set of paving stones in a street revealing themselves to a walker. But there is a crucial difference in that the paving stones are merely juxtaposed with each other in physical space. The words in a linguistic sentence in contrast have linguistic relations with the other words. These relations are special and unique to language. The physical world does not make use of them and perhaps has no need for them. But the human mind is constituted in those relations.
44. man’s image of time : post
45. purpose :
46. : There is a general consensus among a very many people that language represents the external world, the physical world. When we speak we are representing what is true in the world or what we hope will be true in a future (possible) world. But there is a paradox (the linguistic paradox) here. We can only discuss and talk about the external world in language. This is the only propositional thought process we have. But the external world has no need to be represented. It is a distributed, bottom-up system which gets on very well by itself without the need for language. The physical world does not need language to bring it into existence or to keep it ticking over.
The principle of nonrepresentation in NLI states that one dimension cannot be used to represent another. So language as a dimension cannot be used to represent the physical world. So what does language represent? It doesn’t represent anything. It is a world in itself: a linguistic world. The paradox is that we seem to think that we are talking about the physical world when in fact we are just creating a world in our heads.
47. age seven : Most people of heard of the old adage “give me a child when they are seven and I will show you the adult”. The gist of this is that a child’s personality is practically determined by the age of seven. But personality is really only the capacity to act. Life I take to be more a filling up the mind with experience. How this experience is acquired depends on the life choices. The personality is the physical vessel that receives the experience. It is the actual experiences that determine the adult. And for that we will need to wait until the life has been lived.
48. first-person perspective : rudder baker
49. subjectivity : How can I say I have a subjectivity and you have a subjectivity but then say there is not two subjectivities? This is the linguistic paradox.
As soon as we use the word ‘subjectivity’ we objectivise an experience. If we have a word for it then we can pluralise it: ‘subjectivities’. We can count them, ‘one subjectivity’, ‘two subjectivities’ and so on. I can say that you have your ‘subjectivity’ and I have mine. By having a word for something, we immediately objectify it and suggest it is something of the physical world. And hence the rush to try and find where it is and what is its composition.
But subjectivity is not something we can objectify as I have previously argued. Subjectivity is the first-person perspective. It is not a thing. It is a viewpoint, a very special viewpoint because it is the one that I am privileged to inhabit. You too have your subjectivity but this does not mean that there are two subjectivities in the world. This is the paradox.
To experience life is to be in a language: to speak, write and utter words as I am doing now, and to receive in return. But there are two aspects to this life in language. What the language represents – what it denotates – and the subjective, the being-in-use of it. In other words, when I use the word ‘subjectivity’ we have a duality of experiences. Continue reading…
50. When I say ‘we are language’ I am not elevating the linguistic world over and above the physical world. Let me explain. In order to say or write ‘we are language’ we need a physical world and time. We need light and pixels and computer screens and computers to display the text. And we need fingers and eyes and a brain to conceive of the text. We also need a time dimension. Without time we would not be able to move left to right over the words and sentence. Everything would be frozen like the figures of Keats’ Grecian Urn.
So the sentence ‘we are language’ captures the linguistic the physical and the temporal. It is just that each dimension needs to express itself in its own way. The linguistic needs to be proposition. The physical needs to be material and the time dimension needs to be temporal. The sentence celebrate all aspects of our existence not just the linguistic.
51. the encryption key :
52. Richard Rorty wrote this quote in his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. We sometimes look for truth in the objective, material world, but Rorty is acknowledging that truth is a construct of the human mind. Truth is a construct of language because for anything to be true or false it must first be stated in language. If I ask whether the sky is blue, I have provided a description of the world in propositional form: ‘the sky is blue’ which I might then try to prove or falsify. But this propositional fact is not out there in the external world. It is in our minds. Sentences only exists in our minds and in language. There is something out there – what it is I am not quite sure. But I am quite sure that language is in my mind. Language is my mind.
53. Many people have questioned what consciousness and whether it exists. This the hard question. A related question is whether anyone else besides myself has consciousness. I know that I am conscious because I always come home to it.