Monday, July 27, 2009


Humankind is distinct from other non-human creatures in being the animal symbolicum of the planet. Many animals communicate, but only humans appear to use ever more intricate formal systems of abstract, flexible symbolisation systematically to represent the world to themselves and to others. In this sense, only humans have language. It is language that has permitted the staggering variety of cultural creation throughout unrecorded and recorded history across the globe. It is language that has released the imaginative power of the human mind and allowed it to soar across the cosmos into realms of possibility of which the non-human creatures of the planet, bound as they are to largely instinct-impelled, routine lives, appear to have no experience whatsoever. It is language, in short, that has raised the processes of the human mind from mere awareness of an immediate earthly environment to self-conscious contemplation of the ‘whole’ universe, perceived and unperceived. It is language, allied to the instantaneous global communication-networks, that is now propelling the information-drenched world civilisation at an increasingly hotter pace, for good or ill, towards some, as yet unimaginable future.

Language is a richly varied and rapidly evolving world in its own right. It is indeed a complete middle world between mind and universe. It is what we have called ‘midworld’. It includes every form of expression known to man, both past and present. It is the locus of the most vibrant and portentous creativity on the earth. It can be seen as the growing tip, as it were, of evolving life on earth, the vanguard of evolutionary advance on this planet – at least as far as our species is concerned. It is strange, therefore, that an egregiously impoverished conception of the power and role of language should rule in western culture. The fact that what is called ‘precise language’ is considered in western culture as uniquely authoritative, to the exclusion of all other forms of communication is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of our civilisation. Its strength is the ambivalent gift of technology and technological control. Its weakness is that it denies us the comprehension of anything that is not comprehensible in terms of measurable 3D ‘things’ and therefore cuts us off from insights that are vital to our continuing survival. Precise language gives us technology without spirituality and thereby equips us to destroy ourselves and our world.

What is ‘precise language’? This is a very complex question and any answer given here will be no more than a simplified, rough-and-ready résumé of many deep and valuable insights in the philosophy of language. But some indication of its nature, its strength and corresponding weakness can nevertheless be given. Essentially, it is a simplification of natural descriptive speech. At its lowest level, it is no more than a tool for mapping the geometrical relations between three-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space; but at any higher level of complexity, its meaning – though still fundamentally derived from the lower level – is largely conferred upon it by the activity of a community of specialists. Meaning in precise language is fundamentally referential. That is to say, the meanings of words amount to the fact that they or their cognates ultimately ‘point to’ definable objects. The word is, at this level, the definition. Each word is, as it were, a cipher that can stand for the object named. Since language is a combination of semantic units or vocables and syntactic rules, this ‘pointing to’ objects, or ‘ostensive definition’, constitutes the basis of semantic content. This semantic content is then enriched by the process of ‘abstraction’, which is essentially the generation of general terms, the semantic precision of which is preserved by maintaining analogies with three dimensional objects. The syntactic rules, then, are essentially the imposition upon natural grammar of rules that everyday perception leads us to imagine govern the collocations and relations of the objects in space: i.e. that each object is itself and not something else, that objects cannot both be and not be, and that an object either has to be or not be and so on. These so-called ‘laws of thought’ are considered to be imposed by the nature of reality itself and not just dreamed up by us. In reality, they are rooted in the habits of our sensory-cognitive apparatus.

With this simple conception of symbolic reference and syntactic rules of combination, the prophets of precise language in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hoped to evolve a tool for the complete and completely precise – i.e. definitive – description of the world. The big discovery of the twentieth century in this respect – at least in the Anglo-Saxon world – was the principle enunciated by the Logical Empiricists that only those sentences would be allowed in this language that could be ‘proved’, either by an appeal to the evidence of the senses, or by an appeal to the laws of logic indicated above. Everything else (poetry, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, theology etc.) was magnificently described as ‘nonsense’.

Of course every user of language knows that language is a much richer and more elusive thing than this picture of it would seem to suggest: words are richly ambiguous and allusive or designate very ill-defined but pregnant concepts, whereas the semantically empty symbols and rigid rules of logical formalisms are utterly impoverished. Similarly, every user of language knows that grammar, too, allows all sorts of conflicting and apparently contradictory statements. But the point about precise language is that it not only strives to ground its authority in what is ‘obvious’ (namely the existence of discrete objects and the three-dimensional, spatial relations between them), it also denounces all uses of language that are not precise, in its narrowly referential manner, as devoid of meaning. It rules out of court any of the apparent abilities of language to talk about entities that are not available to experience and denounces them as delusion. It strives to make the world entirely ‘obvious’. The trouble with this approach (apart from the fact that nothing is obvious except that mental habit make it so) is that it denies any possible proof for the fundamental thesis of this use of language, namely that the meaning of any statement has to be the same as its empirical or logical validation. Who lays down this rule? Why? There is simply no way that this rule can be proved by its own recommended method of proving all propositions. The rule therefore invalidates itself. Thus the basic thesis that underlies so-called ‘precise’ language – i.e. that it is uniquely and universally valid – can be accepted only on the basis of an act of faith or on someone’s say-so.

Nevertheless, this conception of precise language is essential to the ideology of scientism, the ruling cultural authority in our civilisation. It must be said that it is less and less tenable as a linguistic theory in those sciences that are the most precise – which should give us cause for thought. But it is nevertheless the dominant conception of language in most other areas of intellectual discipline. It is dominant and it is exclusive, not to say intolerant; and these two facts, alone, are sufficient to sound warning bells. The dominance gives it too much control over our lives; and the exclusivity sets us off down the road to dogmatism and bigotry. We have to understand that once a method of discourse has become all-powerful and exclusive, once a method of discourse has become an official theory of the universe in a culture, then that culture has missed its way. We are in the world of ‘newspeak’ of George Orwell’s Brave New World and of all other closed, totalitarian systems. It is the intellectual equivalent of ‘politically correct’ language. The simple fact, however, is that the dominance of one linguistic form that sets itself up as the only form possible is entirely unjustified. The reason for this is indicated in the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who invented the ‘game’-theory of language as opposed to the ‘picture’-theory. Essentially what the former says about language is that meanings of statements are strictly relative to, and given by, the use made of them within a distinct cultural context, within distinct ‘forms of life’; they are not absolute, as the ‘snap-shot’ view of meaning in the picture-theory of language would like to maintain.

What is the upshot of this Wittgensteinian conception of language as a game, in which the behaviour of the players of the game determines the meanings of the statements? In short, it is that in talking about the world, human groups can play a huge variety of games with perfect legitimacy. Of course, the players cannot play one game while simultaneously playing another. Crucially, moreover, the rules of one game cannot be used to ‘refute’ the rules and meanings of another. You cannot play rugby while playing cricket. You cannot say, “because this game of cricket does not respect the rules of rugby it is not allowed.” You cannot say, “only cricket is the legitimate game.” Of course, people do say silly things like this; and when the language-games in question are political theories or religious dogmas, and when the games played by opposing theories or dogmas set about combating each other for supremacy, then the war of words rapidly turns into a shooting war and it is exactly as if cricket supporters and rugby supporters began killing each other and justifying their actions by appealing to the rules of the respective games.

We would quickly recognise the futile and destructive nature of the linguistic conflict if we only had to stop opposing sports-fans beating each other to death. We recognise the problem less when the language-game in question happens to correspond to what authoritative people believe about the nature of society or of the world. We recognise the conflict almost not at all when it is a matter of ‘scientific’ language denouncing as ‘impossible’ certain possible interpretations of the nature of the world. And yet, it has to be admitted: epistemological mechanism, epistemological determinism and the thing-ideology are no more than a language-game of particularly august authority, namely, the scientific method. The fact that this authority has often threatened to become exclusive in our culture, means that the players of one particular game became sufficiently influential to denounce all other games as illegitimate. But so-called ‘precise’ language loses its exclusive authority as the only legitimate form of discourse in proportion as the view of the world as a collection of three-dimensional objects is discredited. The correspondence notion of ‘precision’ (in which words have only ostensive force and syntax is supposed to mirror the structure of reality) is abolished as the multi-dimensionality of the world is seen to render both possible and desirable a return of humanity to all those non-material, or ‘spiritual’ concerns that have constituted the focus of culture throughout history and that have generated a rich if ‘imprecise’ language. Scientific language ‘proves’ the negative all the time with regard to the spiritual dimension of life simply because in the scientific language game there is no spiritual dimension. That is to say that in the world of cricket there is no rugby. Scientific language achieves this exclusive authority by claiming that it alone ‘corresponds’ to the nature of reality.

The ‘correspondence’ theory of language and truth is no more than the tyranny of one particular configuration of the human sensory apparatus structured as it is by the consensus known as ‘common sense’. The proponents of precise language consider it to be of supreme value and view other forms of language, judged by them as ‘imprecise’ to have no value. So obviously we have to broaden our conception of what constitutes a legitimate linguistic form. Reality is infinitely deeper than common sense suggests. We have, perhaps to reserve the linguistic correlate of the thing-ideology for technological talk and recognise that for our mental health, we need to re-learn the languages of art, poetry and religious symbolism. ‘Relearning’ here means re-discovering that such language is essentially exploratory of the psyche and is exploited creatively by human intelligence to probe its own processes. The authoritativeness of such language would come not from its ability precisely to describe so-called ‘everyday’ things, but from its ability precisely to express (where ‘precisely’ means ‘convincingly’) the range and depth of self-consciousness. Rich traditions and rich vocabularies exist already for such exploration. Their authority has for too long been diminished and undermined by the so-called ‘objective’ language of things. But they have long proved their usefulness as providing access to domains of legitimate, even vital, exploration.

In the achievement of dominance and pre-eminence in our culture of ‘scientific’ or ‘precise’ or ‘left-brain’ modes of discourse, we witness the ousting by one language game of all others. It is as if soccer had become the only game allowed and all others forbidden. The so-called ‘precise’ language of science, when it claims exclusive validity, is no more than an oppressive ideology. As the linguistic correlate of the thing-ideology, it stands and falls with the latter. It is not any longer in fact the language of the precise physical sciences. These have moved on and are capable of working with two distinct areas of discourse that are each precise in the old sense, but mutually contradictory, and that have to cohabit and be taken together despite being incompatible, because in a way that is counter-intuitive, they both fit the phenomena. That one of the fundamental laws of logic is violated by this procedure, that paradox is enthroned at the heart of the precisest science, is not in any sense fatal to the success of these modes of discourse, because they both ‘work’. Physicists with a little sophistication about them have accepted that not all of ‘reality’ is captured in a single theory. That is to say, the old notion of viewing physical theory as interchangeable with the reality it was supposed to represent has given way to a new understanding of the exploratory nature of all theory.

The so-called ‘precise’ use of language, that wishes, in perpetuation of the old Positivist program, to represent itself as exhaustively coherent and complete, is the voice of the ideology of materialistic scientism; it is the idiom of the materialistic-mechanistic-deterministic dogma. It is time that we took a long hard look at the dominance of this particular language-game in our culture, for it is the exclusive reliance upon the type of discourse that it allows that is responsible for the fragmentation of the human personality, human society and human discourse. It is also responsible for most of the disastrous planet-corroding policies of western developed economies and their governments. It is the conception of knowledge, and the resulting conception of the world, that is fostered by this language-game that is responsible for the alienation and rootlessness of much of the population of the ‘developed’ countries. The game is also responsible for the alienation of large sections of the developing world from the developed. We fail to see that this exclusive reliance on only one possible language-game to the exclusion of all others is making us partially blind to most things of real value to humanity and totally blind to many. Logic is but a convenient procedure. The world it is used to describe is not logical; so logic should be used with caution. The future cannot be derived logically from the past; and yet the fact that we have to plan rationally for the future makes us believe it can. Surely we have the wit to live forwards into the future without behaving as if the future necessarily resembles the past or as of the future could be deduced logically from the past. The future is in principle unpredictable because the world is creative. We therefore need all the resources of non-scientific linguistic richness that we have inherited to make sense of a world that is necessarily always going to surprise us.

We have hobbled our minds and imprisoned our imagination by our bone-headed investment in only one type of discourse. But worse than this is the creeping dogmatism and creeping mechanisation that characterises all western democracies, the intellectual intolerance that arises from dogmatic conceptions of language, knowledge and truth. Either we realise that other forms of discourse have potentially their own particular legitimacy for our full humanity or we allow, by using totalitarian thought-patterns, the political totalitarianism and the stunted conception of human life that comes with them.

What is the alternative? The alternative is to see the whole area of language-use as a world in its own right, as midworld. We cannot pre-judge the nature of this world by favouring just one of its phenomena. The language of reductive scientism is as corrosive and destructive as any racism or sexism. It is doubly destructive because its ideological nature is not admitted. Midworld is the world of human creativity and as such it contains a great variety of different things. There is no sense in giving special place to one category of these things and according them special status over the others. Scientific language of the positivistic type is just one of the phenomena of midworld though as a method is it very powerful. But it fails to do justice to full humanity. Midworld includes many more language-games that arise from human existence and from all manner of different types of human insight. The language of music, for example, expresses some of the deepest insights about life in the world, but because it doesn’t do this in terms of talk about three-dimensional objects and their relations in space, because it deals in inarticulate feelings, it is denounced as ‘mere subjectivity’ mere ‘emotion’ mere ‘comfort’ and denied any cognitive value whatever. Thus we impoverish ourselves.

Similarly, the language of morality is ruled out as nonsensical, because it does not talk about three-dimensional objects in space, but about the ‘good’, the ‘bad’, about values and virtues, about what ‘ought’ to be the case, and the like; and these notions cannot be defined in terms of objects. The dogmatic exclusivity of scientific language that would exclude from valid discourse any other mode of expression and say, in effect “rugby is contemptible because it is not soccer” is nonsensical. We have to find the imagination and the courage to realise that the object-ideology has dominated our language for far too long. Its logic is only one type of logic among many. Ultimately, what is convincing is what intelligence creates in order to comprehend itself. There are no objectively absolute forms of language, guaranteed, as it were, by the world itself. The world is a mystery and we generate an infinity of narratives concerning it. We have to discover the courage to look carefully at all human modes of discourse, including the poetic, the mystical, the religious, the lyrical, the theological, the ethical and the like, to see if we can not find in them the indication of patterns and regularities to our universe that are not simply the regularities of the three-dimensional world of objects. The world as such is far more than this latter. We have to have the courage to take seriously our total human response to reality; and that total response includes the affective response, the ethical response, the aesthetic response, the spiritual response for these are no less legitimate than the scientific.

Physics has departed from the world of three-dimensional objects and has opened up a world of multi-dimensionality, a world of many more degrees of freedom than our everyday conceptions immediately suggest. Immanuel Kant wanted to demonstrate that the view of a world of three-dimensional objects existing in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time was a view that was necessary for us and from which we could not escape. Physics has broken this mould and opened up a deeply mysterious and exciting world in which old conceptions of time, space, matter and causality have to be abandoned. In this situation, the anxiety naturally presents itself that our culture will degenerate into a cacophony of conflicting voices in which every different utterance of whatever quality has equal right to be heard: if every different voice is equally authoritative, it is objected, then in the end none will be authoritative. But this is not necessarily the case. The call for the abandonment of reliance on one linguisitic idiom really amounts to no more than seeing language-games as only authoritative in a relative sense and as not being exclusively authoritative. So-called precise language is no more than a language appropriate to belief in a world consisting of three-dimensional objects alone. Since such a world is the direct expression of our infirmity and since the conception of such a world has been destroyed by science itself, as the true depth of reality begins to reveal itself, new forms of language will become ever more vital. As precise language continues its investigation into the ‘ultimate’ constituents of phenomena, we need to develop another idiom that deals with our relation to the world.

Essentially we have to learn to use two types of language together, even though in many senses they contradict each other quite as much as Relativity and Quantum Theory. We have to use the precise language of reduction along with the mythical language of wholes. While the language of reduction is most congenial to our object-obsessed rational thought, the language of wholes draws upon our undivided intelligence. We must not be disturbed by the fact that our discourse is no longer by means of a single, all-embracing, uniquely and exclusively authoritative language, internally self-consistent and complete, the rules of which are objective and absolute. Such a view of language is misguided and logically flawed anyway. Linguistic pluralism has to be tried. We must be able to use conflicting language-games heuristically and methodologically, not exclusively and dogmatically. We have to be a whole lot ‘cooler’ about debate, about rights and wrongs of particular types of discourse, about meanings and nonsense of particular language-games. It is time we dropped the arguments from intellectual snobbery and scorn that were used by the Positivists. We have to give our creative intelligence a little more credit for its ability to recognise what is of worth and to winnow out the chaff. This, of course, can never be merely a matter of reason and logic alone, though it is a matter of intelligence. Our indeterminate intelligence is ultimately beyond all forms of discourse anyway, because it is the origin of all forms of discourse. As Kurt Gödel demonstrated, we are always above and beyond our formalisms.

So how do we go about opening up our discourse? One way is by observing humility. Another is by the re-discovery of the habit of intuitive speculation. We can carry on simplifying and reductively analysing our conceptions of matter for as long as we like. But we can also begin to review and re-examine the holistic conceptions of the world and of the mind that have traditionally existed throughout human culture. We can examine these to see if there is any grand structure and to see whether this grand structure could not be of service to us. But we should, above all, carefully examine the phenomenon of imaginative linguistic creativity, for somewhere inherent in the productions of the human imagination over the millennia is the means of understanding our place and role in the universe. Language has made us what we are and this has come about ‘naturally’, not by any rational method. It is the ego-maniacal attempt to supplant this non-rational aspect of language by a purely rational one that has done all the damage.

We have tried and failed to formalise our approach to the world to such an extent that we mechanise our world and our minds and our language and reduce all three to a self-repeating algorithm. We want language (midworld) to account completely for the source of our experience (foreworld) such that the one perfectly covers the other. We want the subjective dimension (hindworld) to disappear entirely and our ‘objective picture’ of reality to occupy our minds completely. We want mind to disappear in complete ‘objectivity’. We want, in short, foreworld, hindworld and midworld to correspond exactly such that there is no essential difference between them, such that we have a single object-world of brute physical facts from which all unknowns and all incomprehension have been exorcised. We want to abolish hyperworld, the world as such, for some definitive Theory of Everything. When such a state of affairs is achieved, we believe, then ‘truth’ will have dawned upon us and the human race will have arrived at the realisation of its ancient dream of absolute knowledge. Such a world would be in the truest sense of the word ‘meaningless’. It would be as futile as it would be sterile. It would be the victory of delusion over intelligence and thus the triumph of insanity.

We forget in all this that the world, as such, is still the mystery tout court, the unsolved conundrum that defies any explanation: it is still hyperworld and there is no prospect of its ceasing to be this simply because a particular set of sentences has been pronounced, like some magic spell. Meaning arises from our ever-renewed discovery and evaluation of our place in the world. Until we realise that the four worlds cannot be reduced to each other, that they are perpetually in creative interaction in perpetual cross-fertilisation and mutual fecundation, we will be little dogmatists doomed to pile dogmatic inanity upon dogmatic inanity and disaster upon disaster. We suffer from the problems created by our purblindness and we invent ‘solutions’ that are part of the problem. The essential problem is the hobbling of our mind by the thing-ideology and by the language that props it up. There are in essence no such things as things; so the thing-language is redundant. Only a re-discovery of our infinite linguistic creativity and of the undetermined intuition that links us to the entire universe will allow us to break out of the vicious circle of our own restricted logic.

The mind’s essence is a direct access to the undetermined heart of the universe, to its indeterminate, creative core. Our linguistic creation throughout the ages is tangible evidence that, far from being definable ‘things’, we are constantly being created and recreated by the world. The mind is the perception from one finite point of view of the enfolded order of the whole. Such perception is never exclusively rational, but affective too, because it involves our whole being and our understanding of our stake in the totality of the world. We are affective beings because without emotion, to put it bluntly, we would do nothing; and to neglect the emotions in the interest of some ‘dispassionate’ language of inquiry is self-delusion of the worst kind. Apprehension of the order of the world through feeling is no less valid than its apprehension by reason and logic. It is apprehension of the world as object of interest. Given that, it is obviously of importance to develop forms of language appropriate to the access that our whole being has to reality. Rediscovery of access to enfolded order by conscious means could allow us to regain to some extent the spontaneous innocence of the animals and combine it with our intellect to re-establish the harmony between ourselves and our world that we have lost. This is a work of language, a task in midworld. One of its first accomplishments will be to rehabilitate the mind-words, the mind-language, spirit-words and spirit-language that we have tried to eliminate with our thing-talk. The mind-language is holistic. It designates emergent and dynamic features of the world that arise creatively; and it does it by innovation. It does not just stick labels on objects. It therefore must be used to supplement the reductive language-game of things that is unable in principle to discuss these matters.

Language is the most fluid and protean realm of reality that we know. It is pure emergent world; but it is at the highest level of reflectivity that we know. It is the shifting realm of new, emergent human reality, the locus of discovery and creation, the zone of interaction between foreworld and hindworld, the incarnation of hyperworld. To go beyond precise language we need to find the linguistic means of exploring the interference patterns that arise when our own intellect encounters the indeterminate realm of universal intelligence.