So here’s something language-related that’s bugged me for some time: I saw this guy giving a talk a couple of years back, and was generally impressed with the massively interesting and quite important stuff he was doing. However, I found myself wary about embracing his enthusiasm for one thing. He said something like (I paraphrase): “Wouldn’t it be good if we could just bypass language altogether and directly communicate our thoughts and feelings from mind to mind.” He seemed to think this would clear up arguments and misunderstandings with his spouse.
I’ll admit that, like many people, I have fantasised in the past about being able to see into the minds of others, and thought how much easier life would be if I could do that. I’ve also, in moments when I’ve felt misunderstood and lacking sympathy, wished I could just show someone what was going on in my head so they would get how I felt and understand what I understood.
But that kind of thing would only work as a one-off, if you were the only one with that power and could turn it on and off. If we all woke up tomorrow able to see and feel the inner-most workings of each other’s headspace, I think it would be nothing less than the end of civilisation as we know it.
Freud’s theories may have been largely discarded as science – his constructed model of ‘the psyche’ has little in the way of research evidence to back it up, and much of the detail just looks bizarre and wrong-headed in the light of modern psychology; but the basic notion of the unconscious still rings true to some extent: The idea that we really are not entirely rational creatures under the surface, and that there must be all kinds of processes going on within us that we’re just not aware of on a day-to-day conscious level seems self-evident.
Freud was convinced that our conscious selves – our identity, our persona, how we think of ourselves and present ourselves to others – is only the tip of the iceberg of the full entity that is us.
Beneath the surface everyone is a seething mass of childish, irrational, reactive animal urges, fears and desires that are necessarily kept repressed and hidden from the world - to the extent we ourselves barely acknowledge or understand them. This is true of everyone, no matter how sophisticated, controlled and professional they appear on the outside, from the Queen to Jeremy Paxman to Bez (some are better at it than others). How aware or unaware of this stuff we are is debatable, but we certainly need to learn, consciously or unconsciously, to keep it in check to participate in society as a responsible adult.
But just because this stuff is kept in check, doesn’t mean it's not there – and more importantly, thought Freud, these basic fears and desires actually influence our so-called ‘rational’ decisions and behaviour much, much more than we would like to admit: We tend to come up with rational explanations for our actions afterwards, but it’s obvious there is more to our behaviour than simple logical thought.
In short the idea that human nature and human society is driven by enlightened, logical rationality is a complete myth – reason is at best a regulatory tempering force, and a tool for use, in how we our go about our lives.
I must say personal experience of living in ‘rational society’ (not to mention living with myself and my own weather-like temperament and unmanageable whims) has led me to have a hell of a lot of sympathy with this aspect of Freud. Anyone who has spent time delving into the dispassionate, analytical world of philosophy and psychology and then turned their gaze once more on the barely-sentient everyday politics of human relationships will know the world really does not run on reflective rationality.
But never mind the unconscious – simply knowing what is going on in everyone’s heads, conscious or not, all the time would make any kind of business-like interaction or professional detachment impossible to maintain. Imagine if every minor resentment, annoyance or uncharitable thought you had was immediately known by everyone around you – or how you would feel if you immediately knew everyone else's. That’s bad enough, but it would be so much more than that – everyone would know how you were feeling all the time: There would be no way to hide boredom, reluctance, anger, fear, disdain, discomfort, silliness – or your preference for the company of certain people over others – or, God forbid, desire, neediness and lust.
Everyone’s internal landscape must be so unique, dense and complex that it may as well be an alien world. We would all have to become inconceivably more understanding and forgiving of others if we were going to be party to everyone’s inner-most secrets and feelings all the time. Just to glimpse what is going on inside someone is to know what it is like to be them, in the raw. I suspect the experience would be so over-whelming we would never recover from it.
Which tells us something about the function language plays. It is not, and has never been, simply for transferring dry information. It allows us to choose what we reveal or what we keep secret, it gives us a chance to control how we present ourselves. It acts as a buffer and is also a diplomatic translation tool that enables us to communicate sensibly, at a distance. It acts as both conduit and filter, and is to some extent a protective mask for our inner landscape.
I suppose at this point some readers might be raising an objecting finger - am I suggesting it's a bad thing to be honest and open? Am I advocating deception and secrecy? Aren't I being be pretty down on the purity of straight-forward truthfulness? Why should we have to hide our true selves?
Well, dear, dear, reader, I raise you Nietzsche. Things are not as simple as 'truth' and 'lie', said the walrus-‘tached one, not when it comes to how language is used. There are, in fact, many shades of grey between those supposed exclusive opposites.
Certainly there are lies - out-and-out untruths – things that are demonstrably not the case - complete fabrications, deliberately created - that you could utter, but this is not really our concern here.
Nietzsche's concern is what we mean by truth: Because 'truth' is a very difficult thing to pin down. “Every word is a prejudice” said he - one of my all-time favourite lines because it so succinctly sums up his view of language: The very words you select to convey information necessarily spin it in a particular way. Any expression in words will only highlight a small, limited aspect of the concept or situation you are dealing with, a concise and contained package of signs that gestures towards a wider reality and tries to pin it down in finite terms.
There's a whole raft of decisions that need to be made before you float an utterance out from your gob: What words are you going to use, what angle are you going to come at it from, how will you start, what are you going to include, what are you going to leave out, what are you going to highlight or prioritise as important? All of these elements serve to present the information in a way you want it presented, designed to have a particular impact. There are possibly infinite variations, all of which are 'true', in that the facts are the same, despite very different trajectories.
It sounds like I’m talking about spin, but it’s not necessarily deliberately manipulative or disingenuous – often you will express things the way you have picked up on them, the way you see or interpret them, and prioritise what is genuinely most important to you at that moment. In fact you can’t do anything else, but also, in fact, it’s very rare you will ever say anything that isn’t in some way in your interests to say, and pretending this is the same as speaking the whole dry truth is either naive or flat-out bogus.
Neitzsche was very aware of the power politics at work in language – far from simply conveying facts, language’s function is very much to advance the agenda of the speaker – to have an effect on the behaviour or thinking of the recipient. In the first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil he essentially suggests that even the most dry and rational of philosophical writings are trying to impose the author’s values and preferences on the reader – far from being the dispassionate, open minded explorations they pretend to be, they all start with an agenda, based on the writer's value system, and seek to persuade the reader towards it.
The manipulation of language for social effect is so common we do it unconsciously and when others do it to us it often slips under the radar. We notice it in politicians because we’ve learnt to look for it, but it happens everywhere – from polite small talk with strangers to the dynamics between loved ones, from interactions in the workplace to (especially) advertising and business, the media and the law courts. Where there are people trying to live together there will be power politics, and where there is power politics it will infuse language.
But again I should stress that language has to be prejudiced – it has to take a perspective. At the end of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche laments how his ideas look dull and dead now they have been immortalised on the page, that he hasn’t represented the vibrant flux of his thoughts fully. We speak only interpretations and perspectives – the true nature of things is not to be pinned down in words. The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way, the name that can be named is not the constant name...
Language is not truth, it is a tool. Together with non-verbal cues, it’s the primary social tool of our species, massively powerful in the effect it can have. As much as we may sneer and bemoan how much easier it would be if we could communicate simply and directly, language exists as it is for a reason – because we need it that way to protect ourselves, to advance our cause and translate our thoughts and feelings. If we were to take this away, to bypass this with telepathy, everything would change – millennia of social development, the whole structure of our society, would be redundant.
Nietzsche’s pre-occupation with language and its function is nothing compared to Wittgenstein – no philosopher took language apart as brilliantly as that guy.
There are echoes of Nietzsche’s assertion that language is not simply a logical conveyance of information in Wittgenstein’s later work Philosophical Investigations, particularly in the idea of language games – that the way people use language falls into different categories, each with its own set of rules, that language is woven into the various activities and modes of being we can slip into. Language is an extension of action and behaviour and the way we use it – for example commanding, requesting, pleading, joking, debating - denotes which mode we are in, and requires a response appropriate to that language game.
To understand language you really have to understand human interaction – Wittgenstein contended that without interaction it would be impossible to learn language in the first place – without feedback from others in active situations there would be nothing to tie the system of rules and symbols to. You cannot learn language by watching TV in a room on your own, and you cannot not develop your own language on a desert island on your own - you need to communicate with at least one responsive other.
The real reason Wittegenstein was so interested in language was that for him language, logic and consciousness are inseparable. Thought and language develop side by side, and both through communication and interaction with the world and others – language does not just express thought; thought is influenced by language, since language solidifies and gives shape to concepts, perspectives and ways of thinking – it structures thought, to the extent that developing language may be essential to developing a reflective consciousness, certainly to developing rationality.
It’s easy to see why – without language we have no way to consistently pin down thoughts and concepts, let alone analyze them; and in having to consider how we are going to present our thoughts in language, it makes us analyze and reflect on them.
Without the need for, and practice of, communication with others, there is really no need to be that conscious or reflective at all. Language does not arise, neither does rational thought.
Which raises the point – if we scrap language, do we become less conscious, less rational? If we have direct access to each others’ minds, would we lose our individual identity altogether and no longer have the need for considered communication; or would we have to develop a new 'language' of thought behaviour?
WE EXPLORED SOME THINGS
I don’t think for a second that the kind of total mind-merge telepathy I’ve been considering is possible at all – it seems a condition of consciousness that each perspective is isolated.
So, maybe the above is so much blather about nothing. But we’ve explored some things, and if nothing else it demonstrates that language is not just something we do to tell each other stuff – it is essential to who and what we are, and awesomely sophisticated.
Wishing that we could bypass words and see directly into each other is, I suggest, a folly, fraught with unforeseen problems, and underestimates what language does.
A telepathic society would be unrecognisable to us. It sure as hell wouldn’t look like it does in sci-fi movies, where telepathic aliens are just like us but a bit quieter, all peace-nik and touchy-feely and possibly bald. No: With that kind of power, and without language, we wouldn’t be looking at conscious individuals as we currently understand the concept at all – we would have transformed into something else entirely. That would no longer be human life as we know it.
Careful what you wish for. I’ll be monitoring your thoughts.