Language & Thought
by Hunter MacKenzie & J.P. MacKenzie
What is the relationship of language to thought? Most people would probably accept the idea that language is what describes our thoughts as well as the things we perceive in the world around us. The alphabet and the words we make from it are symbols by means of which we attempt to translate our subjective experiences into something more concrete. Language arises, at least in part, from the need to express our thoughts and experiences to others, as well as to reference them for ourselves.
We describe our visit to the dentist and our co-workers cringe because the words which we use in the telling of the story evoke images and memories from their own visits to the dentist. Stop right now and think about your reaction to reading the word “dentist” on this page. Chances are, even if you have no particular aversion to dental appointments, it is still probably quite a different reaction than you would have upon reading the word “chocolate.” You know that the word “dentist” has a very negative connotation for many other people, and this pervades our thinking so that it is likely to affect even those who have never even been to a dentist. Likewise, you may be allergic to chocolate and have your own wary associations with it, but you know that for most people it is a very pleasant and enjoyable thing; therefore, that association is available to you as well even if it is not the “primary file” you have stored in your own memory.
We make a “mental note” to ourselves to stop by the grocery store on the way home, and we write down on paper a list of things we need to remember to buy when we are there — theoretically, this is so that we can look at the list later to recall what we needed, but often just the act of putting the thought into words and transcribing it onto paper is sufficient to imprint it into our short-term memory. We find that we don’t even need to look at the list when we get to the store. In a way, then, language creates thought as well; the two have become somewhat interdependent.
Has language taken on the power to create reality? To a certain extent, perhaps it has. People read in a newspaper or hear on the radio that one country has bombed another, and this is accepted as a reality; it matters not that the individual hearing the report has never experienced a bombing or visited the country mentioned. The words have made it a reality for this person — a second-hand reality, but one which this person may not have ever experienced otherwise. Without being told about such things, without having the language to describe them, many of us would probably never know what a bomb was unless it was dropped on our heads. Even then, we would not know immediately what was happening because the language with which to describe an experience we have never had before does not usually just spontaneously arise from the experience itself.
Take another example, something a bit less objective: the out-of-body experience, or OBE for short. Does having the language to discuss it make it more tangible? Somewhat, perhaps, but it is still an elusive idea for many. One can read about OBEs day and night but those who have experienced them are adamant that words are quite inadequate to accurately convey what the experience is really like. Reading about it does not fully translate the experience. It is something like trying to transfer a file from one computer program to another; you may get the main part of it copied, but it may be missing certain features such as type styles and sizes, while it has numerous little symbols scattered here and there which did not appear in the other program. On the other hand, there are people who, upon reading about OBEs for the first time, have a reaction of, “Oh, so that’s what it was! I’ve had those for years and never knew what to make of it.”
We have said that reading about an experience makes it more real but that it is a sort of “distant” reality; it is not a direct experience. Can language close the gap and bring the theoretical reality near enough to become your own experience? Go back for a moment to the example of OBEs. Reading about OBEs does not make you have them any more than saying, “vodka and orange juice” will make you drunk right there on the spot. However, in the same way that saying the words “vodka and orange juice” will get the bartender to bring that to you, thus bringing the possibility of drunkenness closer than it was before, reading about OBEs may implant the suggestion in your mind in a way that will allow you to have an OBE.
Words can be very persuasive and suggestive to various levels of consciousness. The power of what is called “subliminal suggestion” is well-known by now, though the extent to which it is used will probably never be ascertained. Interesting results have been obtained with language and hypnosis as well; in fact, the practice of hypnosis relies very heavily on words and language to override sensory input. Perhaps this is because language can penetrate to a level of our mind deeper than the surface awareness which is so dependent upon physical sensation. A hypnotized subject, for example, can be told that there is a snake in the room, and upon seeing a yardstick lying in the floor, will perceive it as a snake and evince all the physiological signs of fear which he would show if he actually happened upon a snake while out mowing the lawn, for instance. Even though the yardstick is still a yardstick to anyone else looking on, the word “snake” has created that reality for the subject in the particular state of consciousness in which he finds himself.
It is a somewhat unfortunate thing that our language is often arbitrary and that there are gaps in it. Some words do have a certain inherent meaning to them, it seems. We say that a bee buzzes because the sound that it makes sounds like the word buzz; this is called onomatopoeia. But what about words like the names of colors? If someone says to you, “think of something blue,” you know right away what color that is, what it looks like — not the precise shade, perhaps, but you know what blue is. You think of blue, and not green or red. But what if you said this to someone who spoke only French, or German? Chances are, you would not be able to evoke the color blue for them by saying “blue” — you would have to translate it into their own language. There is no inherent color in the phonetic sounds or combination of letters of the word “blue.” The reason we automatically “see” blue when the word is said is because we have learned and internalized the association between the word and the color; it is stored in our memory banks, and that “file” automatically opens when we hear the word. But even though it is by now an automatic association, it was still originally an arbitrarily designated word to stand for that color. And here we encounter one of the problems with language.
Language is a finite concept whereas the mind has infinite capacity for perception and expression. To continue with the example of color, even with all the possible variants upon “blue” we can contrive, the words are still arbitrary and there are still gaps between them. If we encounter a color that is somewhere between cobalt blue and Prussian blue, we have difficulty describing it precisely until a name is assigned to it. Any time we express something using our spoken or written language, we limit the concept; if it is “this” it cannot also be “that.” Unless we are talking to someone who is very gifted with comprehending paradox, we diminish the experience we are trying to describe by the very act of describing it. It is somewhat like a sculptor working on a block of stone; every piece that is chipped away helps define more clearly the form which the artist wishes to show us, but by doing so, part of the essence of the stone is taken away.
Why is language so limited in comparison to our thought capacity, if it is supposed to be the codex through which we communicate our thoughts? If we accept the basic premise that language arises from the need to express thoughts, then our language is delineated by our experiences. Ideas are assigned words according to how important we deem them, or in proportion to the impact they have upon us. In some Scandinavian countries, for instance, where the weather is wintry for much of the year, there are a dozen or more different words for “snow,” each one referring to a slightly different but distinct form of snow.
Anything we encounter must necessarily be understood at first by comparing it to the closest experiences in our “memory files” with which we are already familiar. However, as our range of experience broadens, we are able to conceive of a still wider range of potential experiences, thereby enlarging upon our ability to describe and translate the ideas which we already know as well as those which are still potential realities. For example, if you understood only what was meant by the word RED, then everything you saw would be described in terms of RED or NOT RED. Once your eyes began to pick up and discern commonly occurring patterns which were close to red — say, orange — then the scope of your descriptive abilities would expand to include RED, ORANGE, and NOT RED OR ORANGE. And from there you might progress to yellow, etc., until you were describing things in terms of, say, DEEP ULTRAMARINE BLUE or BURNT SIENNA.
What about more abstract or ethereal ideas? How well does our language serve us when we want to explain something that isn’t concrete? We still have to resort to pulling comparisons from the concrete; we say things such as “love is like a rose” because that is as close as we can get to describing what cannot really be described at this point in the evolution of our language. Our language is not only limited, it is also approximate. The word is not the idea any more than the map is the territory. We have enough words that it is relatively easy to talk about something for hours and never really hit upon the mark exactly, but somehow not enough words to be able to say precisely what we mean at any given time. There is always a gap between what is said and what is intended; the size of the gap varies depending upon the language skills of the people involved as well as the objectivity of the experience, among other factors.
How do we begin to close the gap? Certainly the human race as a whole is still some distance away from being able to communicate telepathically (at least on a conscious level), a situation in which words would be largely unnecessary. Our languages are still a much-needed (and, for some, much-loved) component of communication, and they are expanding constantly; even the Oxford English Dictionary occasionally revises its many volumes to include new words which have become common usage since the previous edition.
Naturally we don’t need words to be in a dictionary in order to use them; it helps to define them, certainly, making them more widely available for everyone to understand, but all we really need is for a word to be understood by the individuals who use it. Consider the words you use to translate your thoughts; if you don’t find them adequate, explore, create, make variations! Take language into a new dimension, one letter at a time if necessary.
Let your words illuminate, not limit, your thoughts.
© Copyright 1999, 2013 by Hunter MacKenzie & J.P. MacKenzie
[This article previously appeared in SKOPOS Vol. II No.3; it is presented here in an updated format by permission of the authors.]
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We as humans have many problems. One in particular that is rooted at the base of our problems is the lack of responsibility. What is responsibility? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word responsible as: liable to be called upon as the primary cause, motive or agent; able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations; being a free moral agent. Our lack of personal responsibility keeps us powerless to solve the problems we already have while it generates even more new problems for us. It is possible to transform Webster’s definition of the word responsible into a way of living. I would like for you to keep an open mind while we explore some of the causes and solutions for our lack of responsibility.
Stuart Sorensen, RMN, in an essay entitled “Understanding Responsibility,” states that people drift through life reacting to the actions of others instead of taking steps on their own behalf; many people think that their lives are something that “JUST HAPPENS.” We often don’t take control of the direction of our lives, and even more often we leave many of our decisions to someone or something else.
If you could have the power to control what happens in your life… would you use it? Or is it better to say do you use it? Because you have this power: it is choice. It is freewill. By choosing, you are accepting and taking responsibility for your life. You are the primary cause of your actions and happiness. You are the one that is ultimately responsible for you.
So, then, why are we so willing to abdicate responsibility? Why can we not see the choices? A paper titled “On the Concept of Ecological Optimism” by Irina Shirkova-Tuuli paraphrases anthropologist Ralph Linton: “The last creature in the world to discover water would be the fish, precisely because he is always immersed in it.” This reminds us that some important things are difficult to see — just like our difficulty in seeing that we are the cause of our lack of responsibility.
How many times have you heard yourself or someone else say, “Well, I can’t help it,” or “It’s always been that way”… “I didn’t know”… “No one told me”… or “That’s just the way it is.” Let me use an illustration from an old e-mail; you may have heard it or seen it at work — it’s distributed widely on the web….
“Company Policy Explained”
“Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.
“After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result — all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.
“Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
“Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked, and the previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, and then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.
“Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not?
“Because as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been done around here.
“And that, my dear friends, is how company policy is born.”
Our excuses for not knowing are not only acceptable with us but also socially acceptable. We make excuses for our actions and our feelings. Ultimately the excuses that we make mean nothing. They are just an illustration of our unwillingness and even laziness to take responsibility and move forward.
We are responsible for the decisions that we do or don’t make. In his “Understanding Responsibility” article, Sorensen states, “The difficulty is that it often feels easier to leave all the decisions to someone or something else.” Appointing another person or thing responsible for our situation and feelings is not putting forth any effort. It is relying on another source for your actions or dependence. This dependence for something or someone else also makes it easier for us to blame them instead of blaming ourselves.
A good example of shifting the blame is my kid brother, who is still in high school. This past semester, by his choice, he missed 13 days of school, which is the school’s absence limit. He went to Saturday class in an attempt to make up some of the days he missed. But to his amazement, upon arrival he found that the school had the rule that if you miss or exceed the maximum of 13 absences, Saturday class does not make up any of the missed days. So he left the Saturday class mad. When I asked why he was mad he replied, “Because it’s the school’s fault — they screwed me because I didn’t know there was a rule about not being able to make up absences.” So not only did he make an excuse, he blamed the school for how he felt and for his situation.
Basically, the true cause of our lack of responsibility is us. Our inability to want to see or do something about our circumstances or feelings is our choice, our responsibility. Even when an outside obstacle comes our way, it is still our responsibility to choose how we are going to take action and how we are going to feel about it. So if we are the cause to our problem, we are also the solution.
There are outside influences that can help lead you in understanding responsibility better. But the first step is up to you. You have to choose, use your free will, and know that your responsibilities are your own.
Four helpful steps offered by Sorenson are:
1. Whenever faced with a problem, be it emotional or practical, take a deep breath, focus your mind clearly and objectively upon the situation, and remind yourself that you are responsible. Ask yourself what you intend to do, design a plan of action, and/or alter the way you feel about it.
2. You may need to learn new skills in order to take action.
3. Stop waiting for other people to solve your problems for you. Remember: you are responsible, not dependent. What are you going to do about it?
4. Take the time to learn and use a system of self-help that works for you.
Other solutions I found are methods known as “Reality Therapy” and “Choice Theory,” developed by the American psychiatrist William Glasser. Glasser states that Reality Therapy is a method of counseling that teaches people how to direct their own lives, make more effective choices, and develop the strength to handle stresses and problems of life. Choice Theory contends that the only person’s behavior we can control is our own. Both aspects of William Glasser’s methods emphasize our responsibility, and self-empowerment. Ultimately, we are the only one who is responsible for us.
“Responsibility starts with the willingness to acknowledge that you are the cause in the matter. It starts with the willingness to deal with a situation from and with the point of view, whether at the moment realized or not, that you are the source of what you are, what you do and what you have. This point of view extends to include even what is done to you and ultimately what another does to another.” This definition of responsibility is offered from U.S. Sports Academy faculty member William J. Price.
Our lack of responsibility leaves us powerless; it is throwing in the towel on who we are, and on our choices and free will. The lack of responsibility comes from making excuses, social acceptance, dependence, blaming others, and sheer laziness and/or fear in wanting to acknowledge that we are the only person responsible for us. Remember, you are responsible for your actions and your feelings; it is your choice and responsibility to take action. Don’t feel guilty for what you have or have not done. The important thing is that you learn and understand your personal responsibility. Don’t deny your responsibilities — embrace them and shape the beautiful person you are.
© Copyright 2004, 2013 by Nez
[Editor’s note: The “monkey story” appears to be widely distributed online, and we have not been able to determine its origin. If you have information about its source, please contact us so that we may give appropriate credit.]
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Fact and Fiction
by Rob Colfax
I have been giving much thought lately to the concepts of “fact” and “fiction.” Actually, this is something to which I’ve given quite a lot of thought and speculation most of my life — falling, as it does, in that somewhat nebulous area between philosophy and metaphysics. This recent bout of contemplation was occasioned by someone who read something I wrote, asked if the story “really happened,” and then proceeded to become quite bothered when I declined to answer the question.
In my mind, it’s very simple: “fact” = “real”; “fiction” = “not real.” Well, at least it’s simple to begin with. After that first statement, it starts to get a little murkier. Kind of like the tranquil water of a pool that you just can’t resist stirring gently with a stick — you never know what’s going to be dredged up from the muddy bottom. The gray area lies, I think, in the definition of “real.” And here is where my logic may confound some; I do not think it is anyone’s right to define what is “real” for anyone else. In fact, I often question the need to have such a dichotomy. I am reluctant to designate one bit of writing as “truth” or “fact” while calling another (written with equal conviction) “fiction.” The word “fiction,” in many people’s minds, translates to “something you just made up.”
“Real,” to me, does not necessarily mean something that can be supported by traditional empirical evidence, or backed up by witnesses, or even pinned down to a specific time and place. “Reality,” I believe, is one of those elusive ideas that we have difficulty describing and explaining — but we know it when we see it.
And while we’re on the subject of reality, I would like to point out as well that there are schools of thought which hold that we are creating our “reality” as we go along — that every day is basically a new story that we make up, that we build our identities out of our various experiences, and that we can change the story (to some extent, at least) as we go along. If you don’t like your job, you can get another. Don’t like your car? Get a different one. Don’t like living alone? Get a roommate — or perhaps a cat. From this perspective, we are all the authors, every single day, of our own stories, which crisscross and collide with the stories of others. We are all masters of improvisational performance art, making up our scripts as we go along. Do we think, then, that just because we can see how we create a given situation, it is somehow less real? No. For the most part, we are each quite certain that what we are seeing and experiencing is the absolute truth. Even should we later discover that we had a mistaken perception or impression of something, we still accept the corrected version of the event as a reality. Fiction can become fact, and vice versa. Truth is malleable.
Still, not everyone is willing to go along with the idea that we are creating what we know as “reality.” Some prefer to think of it as some abstract (yet very concrete) thing that is “out there” — perceptible, yet somehow separate from us; surrounding us, yet impervious to the influence of our thoughts and desires.
Still others would say that thoughts and desires are a reality in their own right; if you think it, then it becomes real in some sense. A corollary to this idea is that the thought of something increases its potential of becoming an actuality. Even if it never emerges into what we think of as physical, everyday reality, the thought is still there, and the thought is real, even if what is thought about is not. (For instance, if I imagine a blue unicorn, even though I may never have seen such a creature and may not believe that they exist, the thought which contains the image of the blue unicorn most certainly exists — as well as the seed of potential — thereby increasing the possibility that there may someday, someplace, be one.)
Can any of us truly say with conviction that what I experience is real but what the other fellow experiences is not? How arrogant that would be; how egocentric, to imagine that just because an event happened to someone else and not us that it cannot possibly be as real as the event we experienced.
I have seen research scientists with opposing viewpoints argue on and on over what would appear to be an incontrovertible bit of evidence regarding one or the other’s theory — a proof that the other refused to accept and proceeded to debunk. I have seen fistfights break out between proponents of differing beliefs with not a shred of evidence to back up either point of view — nothing to support them except the strength of their respective convictions. At a weekly news publication where I once worked, I even received personal threats if I did not “stop printing such slanderous lies” regarding some unsavory ethics of a certain public personage (allegations of actions which I had witnessed firsthand). Meeting with the irate caller and explaining the basis for my statements, including tapes and photographs, did nothing to sway his belief that I was the devil incarnate, hell-bent on destroying the reputation of his sainted hero. It did, however, serve to confirm for me a belief I had long held as a sort of working hypothesis: that people will believe what they want to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary.
And so if I am disinclined, these days, to spell out what I think is “fact” and what is “fiction,” it is not out of any desire to be coy or mislead anyone. It is because I think that everyone has the right and responsibility to choose their own paradigm — to decide for themselves what they will accept as their reality. I would not deprive anyone of that choice.
© Copyright 2001, 2013 by Rob Colfax
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