A mini study in metaphysics: How language creates us

By: Chris Miller – Sophomore, Communication

Language is the great key to learning all things terrestrial and beyond. It is that same key that traps us into certain beliefs and perception, but I will discuss this soon enough.

Language is so important to our daily life. Through language, we know that if we say a certain code with a certain amount of syllables, we will get food exactly how we like it. We know that we can make noises at each other and both meet at Chipotle on Brown Street at 1:15 p.m. for lunch. We can show love, hate, empathy, and anger with our words.

Humans love distinction, categories and organization. Language gives us the ability to make things simple through categorization. Good or bad, without language society simply would not be where it is today. Forget about technology, complex education, and politics without the great key.

It is honestly pretty funny that with all its complexity and helpfulness, language is made up. Words are not real. English rhetorician Ivor Armstrong Richards believed that words are symbols and those symbols are arbitrary. After all, there is nothing inherently “chairy” about the word “chair”.

Many words have different meanings when contextualized in certain situations. To Richards, ambiguity is an unstoppable factor in language.

Richards developed the semantic triangle of meaning. The three components include a symbol, a referent and a thought. The uttering of a symbol, or word, makes you think about what the word means to you based on your experiences with its referent.

The referent is the actual object of person that the symbol describes. Richards said that the thought component of the triangle has a direct relationship with the word and the referent. However the referent and the symbol have no direct or causal relationship.

As I was learning these concepts, my mind started to wonder. I asked myself, “If simple, concrete symbols and their referents have no inherent relation, what about abstract ideas and words?” The word “real” immediately shot into my head. A few moments later, I quietly laughed to myself. The word real is not real and may be the most delusional of all symbols.

Everyone knows what real means, yet nobody knows what it means. Nobody can explain it without just looking around aimlessly and saying “this” or “that” while simultaneously pointing toward a building or a car. As humans, we tend to trick ourselves into believing that we really know what’s going on around here.

Oh well, it’s probably because we are too busy with our extremely important lives to stop thinking about the future all the time and focus on the present. The present: that infinite little thing lying right underneath our collective noses.

Linguists and anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf developed two versions of a hypothesis that linked language to perception. The weak version claims that native language has an influence on an individual’s perception of reality. The strong version, which I prefer, states that an individual’s perception is actually determined by their language.

Therefore different cultures and languages have very different worldviews. Of course social norms are going to be different, but it is interesting to think that one’s perception of basic right and wrong is determined by their location on the earth.

In his book, “Language, Thought, and Reality, Whorf said, “We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do largely because, through our mother tongue, we are parties to an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented that way for all to see.”

This is one of my favorite quotes ever because it beautifully states how language is a key to gain more information, but it also traps us by making us think that our specific perception is exactly how the world is.

Speaking of language, social scientists C.H. Cooley and George Mead claimed that an individuals’ self conceptions result from collecting and comparing judgments of significant others.

These two scientists were around in the late 19th century and early 20th century and I am sure that today they would add new dimension to their theory to include media. This theory infers that humans are born with exactly no idea of who they are, and learn about their individual self through socialization.

I couldn’t talk about the Mead-Cooley hypothesis without bringing up British philosopher Alan Watts. Generally in Western culture and religion people are seen as independents. They have almost full control over their lives.

To Americans, choice is king and freedom is used so loosely it’s practically losing its meaning. Generally, people believe that they are individuals who are not connected to anyone else. They logically and individually feel their own emotions and think what they think. According to Watts, this is  “the unique personal ego, separate from both nature and God.”

On the opposite end of reality there is what Watts calls the “cog in the industrial-collectivist machine.” If you believe that life is all about individual expression then you may see this cog-like person as being depressed or suppressed, even if that person’s culture does not perceive them in that way.

The third possibility somehow combines both of these perceptions while also ignoring them. For Watts, the  individual can be seen “as one particular focal point at which the whole universe expresses itself—as an incarnation of the self, of the Godhead, or whatever one may choose to call IT.”

Please read that last sentence again because it is easily one of the best sentences ever written of all time. Indeed, everything is connected. It’s like Newton’s law of gravitational force; every mass exerts a force on the masses around it. From the smallest human to the largest galaxy, we are all expressions of the universe. Even if that isn’t “real” I still think it is a great understanding to carry with you throughout life.  


Photo Courtesy of rstreet.org

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