Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The Dangers of Language

"Our own language has been invented for the purpose of expressing our own experience. When we use it for discussing other peoples' we assimilate their experience into our own". (RG Collingwood, The Principles of Art)

It's funny how much of our lives we live entirely within the realm of symbolism. The human mind interprets experience in terms of concepts, words. This is a beautifully unique capability of human beings (to our knowledge), but the problems it generates - and conceals - hold a curious fascination for me.

Language is essentially a limiting force; it reduces experience into universally comprehensible units of data. The word 'chair' is the universal form of particular instances. The word represents all and anything which falls under the concept 'chair'. Plato argued that the universal is the true expression of an object - that particulars are but shadows of the universals that the human mind utilises. But this misses so much of the quality and impact of the particular. Imagine the difference between the word chair and the experience of a chair! While Plato is correct in seeing the purity and eternity of the universal (the concept represented by the word), it is also an etiolated, bloodless extraction from reality. All power has gone from it, stripped and corrupted from reality into mindstuff. Meaning without experience.

But all symbolism does this, for communication demands it. There is no other way to transfer an experience from my mind into yours. We must reduce reality to a vastly simplified representation...and just as MP3s grow in size as they grow in quality, the amount of information in our communication increases exponentially as we try to do the experience justice - to give the listener more depth and quality, we have to use more and more words.

But there is a crucial problem here: it is impossible to give a completely accurate description of an experience. Language always masks the particular by translating it into a universal, and no matter how hard we try we cannot fully communicate the depth of an experience without the listener being in exactly the same place at the same time. In effect, the representation would need to mirror the experience on an atomic level, so that it was precisely the same as the original. But, still the listener would not know how the experience felt to us. Our experiences are based on associations and past experiences (again the dreaded 'concept' enters the equation...we colour an experience of the sun, for example, by what we know of it, and what we have experienced of it before. One who has seen an eclipse in all its glory, or understands the nuclear process ocurring within it from moment to moment, is not experiencing the same sun as one who knows nothing of these wonders).

Experience itself, in all its unthinkable glory (that is, unintellectualisable - or undepictable) cannot be transferred between minds. It can only be more or less represented, a general sense given and we hope that too much isn't lost in the translation. Essentially though, the more different someone's experiences (including their feelings about the source objects/relations), the less they will comprehend our own meaning behind the words.

Precisely this is the beauty and the danger of symbol, of language. Of concept. The experience loses so much in being reduced to language. So much of our experience is cauterised by the boundaries of intellect and language that our understanding of reality is often more like an autopsy than a marriage. It is the inexpressible that is truly captivating, and this is what is killed by representation.

The return to subjectivity within philosophy, the gauntlet that Kierkegaard threw down to Hegel and his followers, represents this same knowledge: that the universal may be perfect, but its meaning and impact is nothing compared to first-hand, lived experience. Logic shrinks into insignificance when faced with everyday life.

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