Mind Your Language

Noun                          -                    Verb
Being                         -                    Becoming
Solid                          -                    Liquid
State                           -                    Process
Rational                     -                    Empirical
Essentialism               -                    Nominalism
Left hemisphere         -                    Right hemisphere

And so castles made of sand,
fall in the sea,

[Jimi Hendrix]

[...] language tends to divide our experience into segments that have the appearance of objects.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 87-8

If our language tends to foster the delusion of misplaced concreteness, it is particularly nouns - substantives - that get in the way of our being able to clearly see the flux and interconnectedness of our world.

Yet the problem is not so much words per se as our relationship with them.

"Language [...] is a remarkable servant and a lousy master."

And there exists something called poetry, which is the practice of using words to say what cannot be said in words.

Language labels things for us. Jean Piaget wrote: "Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself." The problem with language is that it turns the world into things. Because of the incredible convenience of language, we hypnotize ourselves into believing the reality of linguistic symbols, especially nouns.

Gregory Bateson, following the inspiration of Anatol Holt, used to say that he wanted to get a bumper sticker that would say, "Stamp out Nouns."

Nouns, representing so-called persons, places, things, and ideas, are a marvelous convenience to allow us to get up and to move our mouth parts at each other and communicate, but they don't represent anything except for a very provisional and temporary kind of reality.

[Stephen Nachmanovitch]
'Old Men Ought to be Explorers', p.10-11
'Improvisation as a Tool for Investigating Reality', found here.

Anthropologist Rupert Ross said that primordial languages often center on the use of verbs rather than nouns.

Native Americans for example, tend not to label individuals, but look at people as a process rather than a static thing.

Ross says, "When we apply such labels to real people, however, they tend to stick. And when they stick, they cause us to start denying the complexity and wholeness of the human beings we are speaking of."

Many primordial languages in the Americas had no words for guilt or shame. For example, the Apaches say those words were developed by white men to control one another. Actions that we think of as unforgivable actions were considered by many native cultures as mistakes which created opportunities to discover more about themselves and growth toward deeper wisdom.

When living close to nature, everything is in a constant flux of change. Nothing stays good or bad forever. Judgment and expectation get us in trouble. They become shorthand for a dead-end label that some thing or some one is good or bad.

[Sunny Strasburg]
'Violence and the Need for Tribalism', found at Reality Sandwich

The physicist David Bohm argued that quantum reality is so very different from our everyday large scale experience that it requires a new language for its discussion.

Our Indo-European languages are strongly noun based and subject-object structured. For Bohm they represent a barrier to deeper understanding. The essence of the quantum world is flux, movement, transformation, symmetry and relationship rather than individual objects in interaction.

For Bohm the essence of such a reality requires a verb-based, process-based language - probably one very close to that still spoken by the Blackfoot.

[F. David Peat]
'Creativity: The Meeting of Apollo and Dionysus'

He: But aren't you supposed to be inside? My interior person?

Chest-Voice: You are stuck in words. Interior simply means deeper. Going inward simply means going more deeply into things, into their heart and soul.

Interior is a sense of inward chambers, the hollow in the chest that resounds. It isn't a place to go and it doesn't mean all those things you've learned and taken so literalistically: introverting, introspecting, internalizing.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.122

Unlike Westerners, Ladakhis never express themselves with certitude about something they have not experienced. Any event in which they have not personally participated will be described using verbs that reflect the limitations of their knowledge: "It is said that ...,""It appears that ...,""It is probable that ..." If I ask someone, "Is it a big house?" he or she will be likely to answer, "It seemed big to me."

Even when people have personal experience, they are far more reluctant than we are to categorize and judge. Good and bad, fast and slow, here and there; these are not sharply different qualities. In the same way, Ladakhis will not think in terms of fundamental opposition, for instance, between mind and body or reason and intuition.

Ladakhis experience the world through what they call their semba, best translated as a cross between "heart" and "mind." This reflects the Buddhist insistence that Wisdom and Compassion are inseparable.

[Helena Norberg-Hodge]
Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh, p.82

While rationality can explain much, there are limits to human capabilities of understanding. The English language is structured to account for cause and effect. For example, English speakers say, "It is raining," with the implication that there is a cause "it" that leads to rain.

Many Indian languages, on the other hand, merely note what is most accurately translated as "raining" as an observable fact. Such an approach brings a freedom to stop worrying about causes of things, and merely to relax and accept that our human insights can only go so far.

By not taking ourselves too seriously, or overinflating human importance, we can get beyond the logical world.

[Walter L. Williams]
The Spirit and the Flesh, p.20-1

"From West to East" is a commonplace journalistic structure for an article. "From West to Female" is more like poetry. By jumping from one criterion, one binary, to another, it represents a real difference rather than the staged differences of the binary. It's fresh!  

[language becomes] mere texture when dichotomy ends.

What the remapping of the binaries produces, I think, is something irrational: beauty. 

It also produces a sort of self-knowledge; the realisation that all truths are provisional, contextual, consensual, habitual. It's therefore good to break one's habits from time to time -- to "binary hop".

'Binary hopping'

Montaigne's thinking baffles our most common categories. The vision of an ever-changing world that he developed threatens the being of all things. ‘We have no communication with being’.

We wrongly take that which appears for that which is, and we indulge in a dogmatic, deceptive language that is cut off from an ever-changing reality. We ought to be more careful with our use of language. 

Montaigne would prefer that children be taught other ways of speaking, more appropriate to the nature of human inquiry, such as ‘What does that mean ?’, ‘I do not understand it’, ‘This might be’, ‘Is it true?’

Montaigne himself is fond of ‘these formulas that soften the boldness of our propositions’: “perhaps”, “to some extent”, “they say”, “I think”, and the like.

“I can see why the Pyrrhonian philosophers cannot express their general conception in any manner of speaking ; for they would need a new language. Ours is wholly formed of affirmative propositions….”

'Michel de Montaigne'

Saussure pointed out that the association of a given sound, or signifier, with a given concept, or signified, is arbitrary - there’s nothing natural, simple, or permanent about it. Saussure wrote, “the arbitrary nature of the sign … dominates all the linguistics of language; its consequences are numberless.”

[The arbitrary association between signifier/signified] suggested an uncertainty, or slippage, in language, that would become a key tenet of poststructuralism.

How does that slippage arise? In place of the idea that signified and signifier were closely tied to one another, Saussure observed that each term is defined in relation to other, similar, terms nearby. For example, the sound of the word ‘horse’ differs only slightly from ‘horn’ and ‘hearse.’ Saussure pointed out that the concept, the signified, was also defined differentially, in the same way. Defining meaning not positively, but negatively, as a gap between adjacent terms, also contributed to this sense of slippage […]

Saussure had another diagram to express the blurry boundaries between terms - he redrew the series of signifiers [and signifieds] as a continuum. It’s language’s role to delineate units of meaning, and map between these two streams.

“It is mysterious that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.”

[Christopher Bolton]
Animating Poststructuralism

Saussure's radical observation that signifieds are linked only arbitrarily to signifiers, defined by the structure of a given language system, led him also to notice that the signified is not stable, but the signified slides under the signifier because that signifier requires other signifiers to define the original arbitrary one (e.g., "deciduous broad-leafed trees of the genus Quercus or Lithocarpus").

Each of those signifiers ("deciduous" and "broad-leafed" and "trees" and, yes, even "of") yield signifieds which are themselves caught up in the slippage under their signifieds, a process that could possibly slide all the way to pure meaninglessness.

One of Derrida's unlikely allies, Jaques Lacan, a French Freudian psychoanalyst, gave a series of lectures in which he reapplied Saussurian linguistics to Freud and launched a new theory of personality.

In Lacan's appropriation of Deconstruction, we are "normal" (i.e., merely neurotic) because our minds refuse to notice most of the slippage Derrida insisted was going on. 

Those who could not resist seeing the slippage fell into psychosis, which presents verbal symptoms known, for instance, as "word salad," "clang associations," "knight's move" thinking, "neologism" (coining new words), etc.. Thus, language's identity-structuring power could be used to explain losses of structure, as well. 

'Slippage of the Signified Under the Signifier: Unstable Identity in Language'

With the rise of Saussurian linguistics in the twentieth century, it has become fashionable to insist on the arbitrary nature of the sign - a fascinating and counterintuitive move, designed to emphasise the 'freedom' of language as far as possible from the trammels of the body and of the physical world it describes.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that the sounds of words are not arbitrary, but evocative, in a synaesthetic way, of the experience of the things they refer to.

Why do I emphasise this bodily origin of thought and language? Partly it has been denied in our own age, not by any means only, or even mainly, by de Saussure and his followers.

More than that, the fact of its denial seems to me to form part of a general trend, throughout the last hundred years or so, towards the ever greater repudiation of our embodied being, in favour of an abstracted, cerebralised, machine-like version of ourselves that has taken hold on popular thinking [...]

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 119-20

Hegel deals with a sequence of logical categories: being, becoming, one, many, essence, existence, cause, effect, universal, mechanism, and "life". Each is examined in turn and made to reveal its own inadequacies and internal tensions. Each category is made to generate another more promising one which in its turn will be subject to the same kind of scrutiny.

Hegel calls this dynamic aspect of his thinking the power of "negation".

It is by means of this "negativity" of thought that the static (or habitual) becomes discarded or dissolved, made fluid and adaptable, and recovers its eagerness to push on towards "the whole".

Dialectical thinking derives its dynamic of negation from its ability to reveal "contradictions" within almost any category or identity.

Hegel's "contradiction" does not simply mean a mechanical denial or opposition. Indeed, he challenges the classical notion of static self-identity, A = A, or A = non-A.

By negation or contradiction, Hegel means a wide variety of relations - difference, opposition, reflection or relation. It can indicate the mere insufficiency of a category or its incoherence. Most dramatically, categories are sometimes shown to be self-contradictory.

[Lloyd Spencer]
Introducing Hegel: A Graphic Guide

[...] Popper condemns 'what is?' questions generally [...] Their quasi-magical attempt to capture the essence of reality in a definition has led Popper to brand the use of such questions as 'essentialism.'

In politics the essentialist approach leads almost naturally to Utopianism and doctrinal conflict. Genuinely important questions are more like 'What should we do in these circumstances? What are your proposals?' [...]

Because authoritarian structures incorporate the same mistaken notions of certainty, and the same mistaken assumptions about method, as does the traditional view of science, the arguments underlying Popper's criticism of the view that in politics we can, let alone should aim to, establish and preserve a certain state of society are in point after point the same of those underlying his criticism of the view that science can, let alone should aim to, establish and preserve certain knowledge.

[Bryan Magee]
Popper, p. 106-7

[...] language is necessary neither for categorisation, nor for reasoning, nor for concept formation, nor perception: it does not itself bring the landscape of the world in which we live into being.

What it does, rather, is shape that landscape by fixing the 'counties' into which we divide it, defining which categories or types of entities we see there - how we carve it up.

In the process, language helps some things stand forward, but by the same token makes others recede.

What language contributes is to firm up certain particular ways of seeing the world and give fixity to them. This has its good side, and its bad. It aids consistency of reference over time and space. But it can also exert a restrictive force on what and how we think. It represents a more fixed version of the world: it shapes, rather than grounds our thinking.

Language enables the left hemisphere to represent the world 'off-line', a conceptual version, distinct from the world of experience, and shielded from the immediate environment, with its insistent impressions, feelings and demands, abstracted from the body, no longer dealing with what is concrete, specific, individual, unrepeatable, and constantly changing, but with a disembodied representation of the world, abstracted, central, not particularised in time and place, generally applicable, clear and fixed.

Isolating things from their context brings the advantage of enabling us to focus intently on a particular aspect of reality and how it can be modelled, so that it can be grasped and controlled.

But its losses are the picture as a whole. Whatever lies in the realm of the implicit, or depends on flexibility, whatever can't be brought into focus and fixed, ceases to exist as far as the speaking hemisphere is concerned.

Language in summary brings precision and fixity, two very important features if we are to succeed in manipulating the world.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 110, 114-5

In short I would say the term "infinite" should only ever modify verbs. "Infinite counting" instead of infinity, its meaning being merely "ceaseless counting."

Nouns are usually to be suspected in precise contexts unless they describe physical objects and we are doing physics or something. Otherwise they too easily hide verbs within them.

A waving action is bundled into "a wave." An act of collecting is bundled into a "collection," more familiarly called a "set." Counting or numbering becomes "numbers." English (and I assume most languages) then lets us blithely throw these around with the same grammatical machinery as we use for physical objects.

['J J']
Comments on 'Ep. 100 - Trying to Solve Philosophy'

E-Prime (short for English-Prime or English Prime, sometimes denoted É or E′) is a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be, including all conjugations, contractions and archaic forms.

Words not used in E-prime include: be, being, been, am, is, isn't, are, aren't, was, wasn't, were, and weren't.

Bourland and other advocates also suggest that use of E-Prime leads to a less dogmatic style of language that reduces the possibility of misunderstanding or conflict.

Kellogg and Bourland describe misuse of the verb to be as creating a "deity mode of speech", allowing "even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things".


Consider the following paired sets of propositions, in which Standard English alternates with English-Prime (E-Prime):

lA. The electron is a wave.
lB. The electron appears as a wave when measured with instrument-l.
2A. The electron is a particle.
2B. The electron appears as a particle when measured with instrument-2.
3A. John is lethargic and unhappy.
3B. John appears lethargic and unhappy in the office.
4A. John is bright and cheerful.
4B. John appears bright and cheerful on holiday at the beach.
5A. This is the knife the first man used to stab the second man.
5B. The first man appeared to stab the second man with what looked like a knife to me.
6A. The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.
6B. In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.
7A. This is a fascist idea.
7B. This seems like a fascist idea to me.
8A. Beethoven is better than Mozart.
8B. In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance, Beethoven seems better to me than Mozart.
9A. That is a sexist movie.
9B. That seems like a sexist movie to me. 
10A. The fetus is a person.
10B. In my system of metaphysics, I classify the fetus as a person.

The "A"-type statements (Standard English) all implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view called "Aristotelian essentialism" or "naive realism." In other words, they assume a world made up of block-like entities with indwelling "essences" or spooks- "ghosts in the machine."

The "B"-type statements (E-Prime) recast these sentences into a form isomorphic to modern science by first abolishing the "is" of Aristotelian essence and then reformulating each observation in terms of signals received and interpreted by a body (or instrument) moving in space-time.

Relativity, quantum mechanics, large sections of general physics, perception psychology, sociology, linguistics, modern math, anthropology, ethology, and several other sciences make perfect sense when put into the software of E-Prime. Each of these sciences generates paradoxes, some bordering on "nonsense" or "gibberish," if you try to translate them back into the software of Standard English.

Concretely, "The electron is a wave" employs the Aristotelian "is" and thereby introduces us to the false-to-experience notion that we can know the indwelling "essence" of the electron. 

"The electron appears as a wave when measured by instrument-1" reports what actually occurred in space-time, namely that the electron when constrained by a certain instrument behaved in a certain way. Similarly, "The electron is a particle" contains medieval Aristotelian software, but "The electron appears as a particle when measured by instrument-2" contains modern scientific software. Once again, the software determines whether we impose a medieval or modern grid upon our reality-tunnel.

Note that "the electron is a wave" and "the electron is a particle" contradict each other and begin the insidious process by which we move gradually from paradox to nonsense to total gibberish. 

On the other hand, the modern scientific statements "the electron appears as a wave when measured one way" and "the electron appears as a particle measured another way" do not contradict, but rather complement each other. (Bohr's Principle of Complementarity, which explained this and revolutionized physics, would have appeared obvious to all, and not just to a person of his genius, if physicists had written in E-Prime all along. . . .)

I have found repeatedly that when baffled by a problem in science, in "philosophy," or in daily life, I gain immediate insight by writing down what I know about the enigma in strict E-Prime. Often, solutions appear immediately - just as happens when you throw out the "wrong" software and put the "right" software into your PC. In other cases, I at least get an insight into why the problem remains intractable and where and how future science might go about finding an answer. (This has contributed greatly to my ever-escalating agnosticism about the political, ideological, and religious issues that still generate the most passion on this primitive planet.)

'Toward Understanding E-Prime'
[Robert Anton Wilson]

Nietzsche does not simply attack the distinction between appearance and reality. He also offers, as we have seen, a psychological account of its origin.

He claims that the distinction is simply a projection onto the external world of our belief that the self is a substance, somehow set over and above its thoughts, desires, and actions.

Language, he writes, "everywhere ... sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things - only thereby does it first create the concept of a 'thing' ... the concept of being follows, and is a derivative of, the concept of ego."

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 171

Fichte's work abounds with such incantations, such as "simply," "completely,” “nothing but,” “really,” “purely," "only, “merely," "absolutely," "unconditionally.”

He knows, for example, "with absolute certainty," "that only by means of real, pure, and true thought, and simply by means of no other organ, can one grasp and bring to oneself the divinity and the blissful life that flows from it.”

In Fichte, this arises from the endeavor to force others to submit to his ideas. It was the despotic impulse for subjugation and the annihilating power of proof.

[Carl Schmitt]
Political Romanticism, p.137

Unconditional language betrays a domineering tendency, a desire for others to submit to your view

Within our Western worldview agents carry out actions, nouns/objects interact and bring about changes in each other. The author of a process is a noun, an object, and the verb is its action.

But for the Montagnais reality is profoundly different; it is flux, process and change within which individual human beings are transitory form; and manifest expression of temporary alliances of power, spirits, and energies.

[…] “he sings in the sweat tent,” is really […] an expression of a pure process of singing. It is as if many nouns emerge out of the verbs, the object out of the process […] What is really happening is “singing” - the action, the process. The healer cannot really say that it is “he” who is singing, rather the process of singing is going on.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.144-5

English, Saʼke'j says, is a language for the eye, while an Algonquin language is a language for the ear.

When he has to speak English instead of Mic Maq, Saʼke'j feels that he is being forced to interact with a world of objects, things, rigid boundaries and categories in place of a more familiar world of flows, processes, activities, transformations, and energies.

For Saʼke'j, the Mic Maq language is itself a world of sounds that echoes and reflects the vibrations of the physical world. 

While the surface world of objects and material things can easily be identified by the eye, it is the ear that must deal with the more subtle levels of flux, transformation, and reality behind appearances.

The English language, in his opinion, does little more than mimic what the eye can do far better by giving emphasis to names and objects, while the Algonquin family of languages complements the eye's abilities by addressing a world of sounds and energies. In speaking English Sa'ke'j is also struck by the many metaphors that refer to seeing. We say "Yes, I see that" or speak of an "illuminating idea." Mic Maq, by contrast, places less emphasis upon this world of visual appearances.

The problem with English is that when it tries to grapple with abstractions and categories it tends to trap the mind into believing that such categories have an equal status with tangible objects.

Algonquin languages, being for the ear, deal in vibrations in which each word is related directly, not only to a process of thought, but also to the animating energies of the universe. To the Algonquin people, language is not a duplication of sight, but a complement to it. Thus, "popping wind" is not a representation of reality, or something separate from it; rather it is an integral part.

[F. David Peat]
Blackfoot Physics, p.231-2

Related posts:-
Shades of Gray
Lost Tribe
All is Change
Escaping Uncertainty
Are You Sure?
Where language ends and art begins
Making it up as we go along
A Difference that makes a Difference
The Eternal Ideas
Middle World
Dancing at the Border