The Word

Posted: July 14, 2011 in Consciousness, Culture, Literacy, Philosophy

I’ve struggled for a little while to know quite what to do with this quote from The Master and His Emissary, which I’m currently reading (albeit very slowly) and blogging as I go:

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 artificially 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.

After this, McGilchrist launches into a wider discussion of metaphor and symbol, which gets a little heady for the uninitiated. I say uninitiated because the insight that language is a human technology, like writing, number systems, clock time, and others, that enables us to construe reality according to certain inherently limiting principles is not altogether obvious or intuitive to most of us precisely because we are inside the bubble, working and thinking from within those limitations. For instance, the inner voice everyone hears in the mind’s ear is language based, and to think in other terms — without words — is closer in experience to feeling than thinking.

I sensed something profound in McGilchrist’s analysis, but I didn’t know how to structure my thinking. Then I saw in the comments at a recent post at kulturCritic this remarkable observation, which Sandy Krolick appears to have simply tossed off:

… the transformation of language from an oral to written traditions wrought incalculable damage not only to the fullness of words, but to the fullness of experience as well. Univocality replaced polysemy. And the power of the spoken word was emptied out in the interests of clarity, disambiguation and legalistic adjudication. Scientific control of nature and people took precedence over everything else. And life became similarly emptied as a result. Specialization in how we interacted with one another was a further qualification on this specialization in language — at the semantic, syntactic and logistic levels of communication. This was the ground work for the curriculum of the West.

Krolick’s comment meshes extremely well with McGilchrist and reminded me of a blog post I wrote more than two years ago citing Neil Postman’s discussion of “The Judgment of Thamus,” as well as another more recent blog post about language in decline. It’s all probably too much to read and absorb, so I’ll summarize.

Krolick and McGilchrist are both arguing that words get in the way of a more immediate connection with (not “to”) the world by creating screens and abstractions that allow us to understand, manipulate, and control things and ideas. Language and writing thus represent a fundamental departure from a much older, primal identification with reality. In contrast, I’ve been in the rather unfortunate position of defending language and deploring the decreasing facility with which most people use words in both speech and writing. These perspectives share a fundamental concern: the loss of meaning. But the lost meanings are quite different from each other. Preverbal cognition is experienced in the body but is notoriously difficult to access, as in the controversy over infant amnesia, precisely because it isn’t fixed in memory through language. Meaning is felt through empathetic identification, but it’s a constantly moving target. Verbal cognition is experienced in the head and essentially amounts to a powerful virtual reality that blocks or at least dominates other cognitive states. Meaning is imposed and rationalized but ultimately fails to be very convincing because it is largely fictive.

This presents a puzzle: what type of beings should we really be? Slobbering, grunting brutes who share the world (modestly) with other animals or sophisticated, thinking men who possess power to create wonders and even more immense power to destroy? History has gotten us to this second state, but it’s clear that many of us are deeply dissatisfied with our labors and wish for something more immediate and primitive. The trend toward ever greater erudition and understanding has probably only just reversed, but it’s apparent to the cognoscenti that, for the masses, being a know-nothing is preferable to being a know-something. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to nearly so many silly fops in entertainment and government to keep us enthralled with their vapid stupidity. Whether this is an expression of the cultural mind destroying itself is a good question.

  1. halsmith says:

    Congrats for sticking with McGilchrist! That guy can wear you down, I am just starting on Part 2 myself.

    I also liked the Sandy Krolick quote.

    You seem to allude to something I have been saying: that people are no longer people. Few have noticed this.

  2. kulturcritic says:

    Good post Brutus!!

    It’s true that our immediate response is to blame language, and in some way that is authentic. But there are examples of language, even written ones (like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) that retain the rich polysemy and textures of speech, and the profound silences in which rests the power of nature.

  3. I was browsing posts and this one caught my eye. The content certainly gained my attention. I, too, sense that something is, well…something is just amiss in our modern culture of society. I remember well applying the power of narrative storytelling (as opposed to the read aloud) with my own children and with the students in my classrooms. I would simply make up many of my stories as I went along. Not surprisingly, I would weave those stories together in order to provide youngsters with a “third person” framework for dealing with and manipulating whatever their social “problems of the moment” just so happened to be.

    What I have noticed is that, while youngsters could find “many adventures at hand” for “proving themselves” (character development) during such times as the medieval period in our history, this is just not so in these modern times (this, mostly within Western civilization).

    There was a time when moral values were held to be something quite sacred to us. Today, many of our youth are growing up without this sense. What was once held sacred has been stripped down to something like, “…four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”–Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

    This gives we “old-timers” a sense of having been plundered and pillaged; it apparently gives our youngsters a sense of, “…ah, what the hey…eat, drink and be marry–for tomorrow we die!”

    It is true that words are vastly powerful. The Communist Manifesto was incredibly brief, but it was certainly dense with ideas that were powerfully attractive to many humans and many societies. I do not think that Marx or Engels had meant for their “cognitive virtual reality,” fictive as it may have been in written form or thought, to have been so inhumane as it certainly appeared, when it was in fact taken up into Reality and appropriated.

    Scientific reasoning does seem to have the singular, narrow purpose of elevating that which can be empirically “gotten at,” while devaluing that which cannot.

    I have read Stephen Hawking’s latest book, “The Grand Design” twice; I have read a few of the chapters more times than this. There is a lot of language in there…a lot is communicated. Why is it that the only thing that seems to have been extrapolated from it, by so many, many readers, is the following quote:

    “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

    The vast intrigue of each chapter in that book cannot be reiterated enough. The vast denseness within this single quote, taken from the very last pages, seems all that shall be remembered from it!

    C. S. Lewis wrote about this in an address with the title, “Educating Men without Chests.” He warned us about the dangerous effects that would result from the removal of value judgments from the minds of our youth. Have we learned to educate our youth by teaching them to be suspicious of any form of emotion? To educate them in the rigors of a society of “mind,” whereby Intellectual Reasoning alone shall reign as king…while moral and social reasoning shall be mere minions…and affective reasoning shall be slave to them all?!

    It seems we are edging on becoming mere “Data’s” from Star Trek. I think the real Data had the better judgment–he longed to be more human.

    Great post. Invigorating.

  4. the agnostik says:

    Hey Brutus!, i just arrived to your blog via David Masten one, your debate with him caught my attention really fast; and then reading about your thought on the mentioned reading (McGilchrist) an idea emerged. Right now i’m in the middle of my Masters in Architectural Design, being my main goal to research around the role of imagery and representation in this field, and some months ago i read Joan Costa’s “La Forma de las Ideas” (Idea’s shape), there he would point my attention towards this oral and written archeology that is linked to your own post, giving the chance to ask something that i wondered even at Masten’s arguing, regarding the line that take into account that our thoughts, inner “voices”, and other kind of mind instrumental and operative representations aren’t simple language constructions, rather a complex, maybe kinestesic products, that culturally we tend to think as visual imagery, auditive imagery, tactile imagery, etc.; maybe the missing element of study relies on our limits to “think” in that way, even when a kinestesic able person might explain his “perception” of stuff, i mean, that even those people are locked through language to communicate the way they produce mental awareness.

    The main obstacle prevails, linguistic translation of experience…but that is just a mere assumption from my current understanding.

    I find really interesting what you’re currently sharing via your blog, cause it opens a chance for others to feedback and viceversa, the ongoing personal journeys of thought.


    I apologize in advance for my writing syntaxis, foreign and still in development skills :P

  5. Brutus says:

    Thank you all for your comments and encouragement. I have nothing to add just yet that wouldn’t be reiteration of points I’ve already made, but please visit again as I plan to continue developing my ideas — including the ones borrowed from other, better thinkers.

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