Does language capture reality – or capture us in a cage of our own making?
Hilary Lawson believes we close the world; its rich, polyvalent potentiality is closed down into our limited stock of concepts and finite vocabulary so that our language doesn’t deliver reality to us at all; it lies beyond words. He recognises the difficulty of expounding, in words, the fundamental inadequacy of language.
There’s some truth in that view (and Lawson’s strictures about the limitations of our senses recall the basis of Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory). We surely do see things differently. Imagine a couple viewing houses; they have different priorities and see different things about each house. Later, when they discuss the one with the conservatory it’s not much of a stretch to say that they’re discussing different houses – though Lawson has in mind a more radical problem than that! In fact when you think about it, what he demands is astonishing – that in order to capture reality we have to apprehend the whole totality of it in every aspect. Either we have exhaustive perfect acquaintance with reality – or it’s not reality at all. Why aren’t small chunks of reality real?
Emma Borg, indeed, believes that there is an objective reality and words can tell us about it. Sure, language is a human fantasy, a human construct, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tell about the world. It’s human beings that give meanings to things, in fact. She grants that there are many different perspectives we can take, but ultimately some descriptions of the world just yield better results than others – as we’d have to concede in the case of say, medical diagnosis.
Daniel Everett thinks there are certainly big differences between the way different cultures address the world; in fact he says the idea of being “beyond words” would be hard to articulate in many cultures. Everett is of course famous for his controversial descriptions of the Piraha language, which has no numbers or colours and seems strangely restricted in other interesting ways. People have challenged his research, but no-one else really has anything like Everett’s depth of experience and knowledge of the Piraha. The cultural differences he describes seem to support the idea that words trap us in a “reality” of our own, but he also points out that we develop shared conventions and end up talking like the people we talk with.
Words can certainly be understood differently; who hasn’t picked up a word from hearing it in context, only to discover years later that the dictionary definition is not what we expected yet years of using the word slightly wrong and therefore not saying quite what we thought we were saying, have passed unnoticed. (It turns out that “strictures” above might not really have been the word I wanted…)
Myself, I don’t think language is primarily about describing the world for our own benefit anyway; it’s more about influencing other people’s thoughts and creating harmonised streams of shared thoughts. It’s a pragmatic game, too, not a formal encoding based on a fixed intellectual structure,; it’s not unlike a game of charades whose players have developed a wonderful set of conventions that let them signal at blazing speed. So I’m really with Borg, I think.