The following article is excerpted from Genius of Being by Peter Ralston, published by North Atlantic Books.
If we aspire to get at the core of our perceptive-experience, we need to understand what language is. Most people rarely stop and think of language as anything other than simply a means to talk or write to one another. While this is true of language, it misses the real magnitude and existential impact that language has on our perception of reality. The interdependent nature of language, mind, and perception only begins to become clear when we delve into questioning just what it takes to create this ability.
One of the hardest things for us to grasp is what leaps in consciousness were required to actually create something that is currently taken for granted in our perceptive-experience. Having language as an automatic and inescapable activity as far back as we can remember, we literally can’t conceive of life without it, nor can we realistically imagine how it came to exist in the first place. It seems obvious to us now: just start talking and you generate language. But if we take some time, and work to fully eliminate even the possibility of language in our experience, we can start to consider how it’s possible for something to arise from nothing, and from here we can more effectively contemplate this matter. In this section we’re going to get warmed up and ball-parked in our contemplation so that we can press ever more deeply as we go.
Begin your contemplation by working hard to create an experience of the possibility of having no language in existence at all, not even as an idea. Then you can question: How is it possible to create it? Because of a nearly indelible familiarity, our minds tell us that all we need to do is simply produce a sound that means something to another person, forgetting that, without even an idea of language, to other people our sounds are merely sounds. So what needs to occur to make one thing—a sound, a gesture, a shape—into another, into a representation of something it’s not?
It’s not as easy as we might think. For starters, from no language, the very context of language must be created. It needs to become possible. Every baby has to create language starting from nothing. Although we may have the ability to do so, the first thing that must occur is a huge leap in our perceptive-experience where it becomes possible to somehow connect with another through symbols and representations. We’re not talking about something that merely occurs in your thinking, but a new existential possibility that must be created from nothing. Once possible, once this context has been created, then the task of learning words and inventing symbols begins.
Try to imagine—even once you have already somehow managed to create the possibility of communication—that turning a sound into a “word” representing a distinction is a huge leap. Consider the enormity of that famous moment when Helen Keller finally grasped the connection between the touch of her teacher’s hand and the distinction of w-a-t-e-r. If you recall from childhood, even after having more or less mastered words verbally, it still took you years to relate those words to written symbols in a way that enables you to make sense of what I’m writing here. If you hadn’t worked so hard learning to “read,” you would see these words as just squiggles on a page. If you didn’t know them to be a form of language, they would be meaningless and not a form of communication.
Consider: when you hear a foreign language spoken, you may not understand what’s being said but you know that something is being said. That is vastly different from having no language at all.
Try to grasp how, without the context of language, you wouldn’t know that anything was being said—it wouldn’t be possible! You might hear sounds but they wouldn’t be words or represent anything but the sound, and perhaps an association of the sound with some activity. You may see shapes and images, but once again they would only be the images themselves and nothing more.
Are you beginning to see how language overwhelmingly influences and expands your experience? The context of language not only generates words and conversation, it creates a whole world that does not exist without it. For example, how much of your thinking arises in the form of internal dialogue? Without language, this could not occur! You couldn’t “talk to yourself” if language didn’t exist. Right now try to stop your internal dialogue. Sit for several
minutes without any internal speaking, not even in the background or in your mind at all. Besides noticing how hard this is, can you see how just the internal dialogue adds so much to your everyday experience? Now imagine eliminating language altogether.
Beyond an absence of internal dialogue, without language you wouldn’t just be unable to read the signs, there would be no signs. You wouldn’t know a table or a chair as a table or chair. There would be no labels. You wouldn’t “perceive” or suspect that there is a “mind” acting behind people’s behavior. How could you? Without any form of communication, they would just be seen as another creature. Unless the distinction of mind is created, mind doesn’t exist. An object would be an object; an action would be an action. The domain of mind exists only in the abstract. It is attributed to yourself and others primarily because of language. Think about it.
Sometimes people think that communication has taken place because some sound or movement originates from an entity. Yet imagine a bunch of lumber is leaning against a construction site wall and a breeze blows them over. Would the clattering of boards hitting the ground be communicating to you? Hearing the noise, you might turn your head, but that doesn’t mean any communication has occurred. Sounds and shapes and movements and feelings are not the same thing as language.
You make all sorts of distinctions and interpretations of sounds and so on, but just as a sound is not a communication simply because of the noise, the fact that the sound issues from a living organism does not make it language. If you hear a bear growl, you may make an association of that sound with a bear, but this is still not a communication. Sound is sound. Association is associating one thing with another, and neither of these rise to the level of being language.
Most creatures have some type of hard-wired mechanism where certain stimuli will elicit predictable responses. We should take care not to confuse the activities of this very sophisticated mechanism with communication taking place. A pinprick might produce a knee-jerk reaction that causes a person to cry out or pull away, but although these reactions may well be interpreted as an expression of discomfort, neither response is a communication.
Simply because some activity results in a reaction—even if the reaction occurs as sound or gesture, forms that are frequently used for communicating—that isn’t enough to make the reaction a communication. Language is a very complex and specific domain for humans. Yet we tend to infer meaning in everything we perceive, and often imagine that any activity arising from a creature is expressing a “message,” but this may not be true.
Once again, language is the domain of representing a distinction with something that is not that distinction. It is when we use some “form” to refer to a distinction that is not itself that form, nor
merely a reproduction of that form. When a sound, shape, gesture, or any other “thing” isn’t present as simply that—a sound, shape, gesture, or thing—but instead represents something else, any other distinction, then it is a function of language. For example, the sound “car” isn’t in any way like a car, but the distinction of car is what shows up in your mind when you hear the sound “car.” Take some more time and make sure you can truly experience how earthshaking this taken-for-granted ability is. Don’t just get it intellectually but grasp it existentially.
This isn’t just reproducing something like creating a conceptual picture of a thing and so representing it through a mimicking reproduction of that perception—such as remembering what your friend looks like and being able to picture his face in your mind. Such conceptual ability may be a necessary foundation for language, but it isn’t enough. A sound isn’t a car and doesn’t at all look like a car. The sound “car” only becomes a word when it represents the distinction car. It gets a bit tricky, though, because a picture of a car doesn’t represent the distinction car, it represents the image of a particular car—of which you will recognize the distinction that it is a car. Nothing is necessarily being communicated; something is being shown. For this activity to move from mere representation to language, the image or sound, or whatever form is used, must represent a distinction that is not the form itself. Lines on blue paper that represent a building, squiggles on a graph that represent data, hand shapes and movement that represent a greeting, all these and much more exist only because of language.
You know now that any distinction made creates the experience that is there. Distinctions are made within language that couldn’t be made without language. For example, you can’t create a metaphor or analogy without language. You can’t create all of the non-objective distinctions that make up a culture, a religion, a philosophy, our social world, and so on without language. Without language, much of the world, the way you experience it, would disappear from your awareness.
Because conceptual distinctions make thinking possible, abstract thought often uses language to create some kind of grounding. How much of what you call thought relates to your internal dialogue? Can you see how much language dominates your thinking and creates your intellect? When you’re satisfied that you consciously experience what has been asserted thus far, shift your contemplation toward some of the inventions made possible by language.
Inventions Made Possible By Language
Language creates symbol, metaphor, internal dialogue, art, science, religion, hearsay, literature, adopted beliefs, and more. Stop a moment and grasp what each one of those is and how much it influences and contributes to your experience.
Now try to add or subtract without language. Notice you can’t do it. Math is a language! Define a formula or think of a chemical without language. Know how chemicals interact and function without the language of chemistry. Without language there would be no physicology, no molecular theories, no atomic bombs, no engineering, no physics. Try to grasp that. Where in your experience do any of these things exist? How do they get created or understood? Without language there are no maps or schematics or blueprints or designs. Language is the primary content of intellect and the main tool for all reasoning, calculation, planning, and formulating of beliefs.
Just so, the creative application of intellect using the tool of language forms a language-dominated intellect—what we might call language-intellect. Language-intellect is necessary to develop the hard sciences by creating the possibility of investigating objective reality in order to discover and invent abstract distinctions, which then demand feedback and proof. All this is done solely through language—theories, models, experiments, data, symbols, papers, arguments, and assertions. Although nothing in science is direct, hard science is founded on a discipline that demands confirmation beyond self-generated beliefs. Furthermore, for any discovery or invention to be reflected in our collective experience, it must reach the community as newly believed distinctions. Without language, this cannot be done.
Language-intellect also creates the soft sciences—social, economic, psychological, political—as well as literature, philosophy, art, and so on by conceptually investigating along with inventing subjective realities, requiring only conclusions and approval by some. Language-intellect also creates and invents “religious” or “spiritual” worlds that are based on nothing more than faith and fantasy. These worlds are totally made up in the abstract and, without language-intellect, that couldn’t happen, and they certainly couldn’t be shared.
All these inventions compose a great deal of our collective world and are the focus for much of our energies. Dwell on each of these domains until you can experience that they are themselves languages—or manifest only through language—and how this is so. Grasp the worlds that are created and then taken for granted; experience the world that arises with each invention. It is mind-boggling, so stay with it until it becomes clear for you.
Our world isn’t made of earth, air and water or even molecules and atoms; our world is made of language.
Language vs. Presence
To help you clarify how much your experience is dominated by language, make a distinction of presence to create a contrast to more effectively reveal what language is and isn’t. Presence here refers to simply focusing attention on perceiving the current objective condition with no conceptual add-ons. The power of presence is that it moves the mind from a primary focus on intellect and concept to dwelling on the physical moment. Once again, this is not in any way direct but is simply a change in your state of mind and attention.
Shifting attention from abstract intellectual activity to the present moment reduces language to an objective domain that has no need for “comments.” Although interpretations and labels will still be dominating perception, the chatter and the world of “language-ing” tends to fade as not relevant or needed. To be sure, language still provides us with an orientation for whatever is encountered, but this shift will reduce the use of intellect. Try it.
To go further, try taking the word off of an object. Don’t call it that or think of it as that anymore, but keep your attention on it. Completely eliminate any idea or knowing of what something is called, or what it is beyond simply being there. What happens? When you eliminate the word, notice how the “object” becomes more open and with increased perceptive-input. Put the word back on and watch the object coalesce into a “one” and become contained in the distinction that the word represents. Spend some time and switch to viewing objects, activities, and ideas without a word attached to them, and watch what happens. Try to grasp why this happens.
One reason our labeling and assessments are done so automatically is that it makes it possible to devote far less activity to “knowing” what’s there in our world, thus freeing our attention to address current self-concerns in a more manageable way. In any case, we begin to see even more how the existence of language itself, and our language in particular, strongly influences our experience of the world in which we live. What role does our language-intellect play in our experience of this very same world?
Language and Objective Reality
When we look into it more thoroughly, we see that all this language-intellect has less substance than a burp. The whole domain is ethereal and has no substance whatsoever, and yet it dominates our experience and overlays our entire perception of the objective world. When we make a distinction of a physical “reality,” we consider it to be outside of concept, intellect, and language. This is the distinction or experience that we refer to as objective—unalterable by mind, and independent of our beliefs, labels, or even our ability to perceive it. Although we intellectually understand that our experience of this “world” is not the same as the world itself, we still assume that the way we interpret what we perceive is what’s actually there.
Yet notice: the distinction that is held as outside of language, intellect, and conceptualization is a reality perceived as “there,” but, at the end of a thorough and committed search for the essence of this very reality, we must admit that it is fundamentally unknown. Why say it is unknown? Because everything “known”—even of objects and what we experience as reality—is known through activities generated by language-intellect-concept interpreting perceptions. If our conceptually dominated experience is applied rather than there, then we aren’t directly experiencing what is there, and so it actually remains unknown.
Minus all the indirect perceptions, distinctions, and interpretations, what is experienced as the absolute reality of this world? At present it may be unknown, but probing objective reality is another subject for another time. Perhaps we don’t know the true nature of reality (yet), but we might be able to move a step closer to that goal by getting a better handle on the nature of language.
The Nature of Language and Mind
What is the nature of language? Since we hold that language is a function of mind, perhaps we should first aim at grasping the nature of mind. Although culturally we accept mind as part of our experience and existence, it’s good to note that no one has ever seen one. Consider the possibility that before the distinction of “mind” was invented by ancient cultures, there was no “mind.” People didn’t perceive it, think about it, talk about it, or experience it in any way. We like to think that “mind” still existed and people were just ignorant of it. But is this true? Since we don’t know what mind is, it might be that it really doesn’t exist except as a created distinction.
Try to imagine a world in which you had no “experience” of mind—no thought of mind, no word “mind,” no reference to mind, no idea of a “place” where thoughts and emotions “reside,” no concept at all that there is such a thing. What would life and experience be like without the distinction mind? Mind is an invention in our perceptive-experience that serves to indicate and create the notion of an “internal state” with non-objective activities occurring that constitute conceptualization.
If we can recognize mind as a created context for experience, we see that this allows for a new domain of distinctions that didn’t occur before this invention. The contents of this context are the distinctions that constitute all conceptual activities—ideas, beliefs, internal dialogue, fantasies, imagination, memory, emotions, intuition, and so on. Even our reference to “the mind” (as if something is there) is content, not the context of which I speak. And neither the context nor the content is an object.
Relative to this matter of mind, the only object present is the brain. We may attribute the workings of mind to the brain but in our experience mind isn’t an object, it’s an activity. We tend to assume, without much thought, that there is somehow a “mind-object” filled with “conceptual-objects.” Yet in our experience, we only find mind as activities, not objects. When we grasp the nature of mind, we see that nothing is objectively there. If mind is not an object then language certainly can’t be.
If we were to open up your skull and look into your brain to search for the number four, do you think we would find a “4” in there? No, we would find a lot of tissue and blood.
The Book of Not Knowing 11:1
As we’ve seen, when we remove, or at least set aside, language-intellect-concept from our known reality, we are left with a deep unknown. This suggests that our world is built largely upon language and wholly upon what’s known in our perception and experience. As mentioned earlier, what’s known in our experience are distinctions, and many of these are created within or influenced by the fact and context of language.
Even if language is not an object and has no substance, it still creates far more than people think. Turning your contemplative efforts to the very formation of your experience of self and other will require some serious existential thinking to open up to the previously inconceivable formation of your personal existence. In order to take this on, you’ll approach it in layers, sliding back and forth through this issue repeatedly but each time adding some depth or new observation to the matter. Remember that you’re trying to grasp the assertions as a whole, even though this can only be done in stages.
We locate ourselves in our thoughts and emotions. We also suspect ourselves to be some entity generating thoughts and feeling emotions. But where did this conceptual-self and sense-of-self come from? Delving into the origins of our own self-experience requires that we dip into the abstract a little bit. We can’t consider our world as we normally would. Instead, we must consider how our world came to be the way it is. To do this requires that we think differently, as if our experience of the “world” as we know it hasn’t been created yet, and we are searching for its beginnings.
The Book of Not Knowing 8:21