AS IF*: The Reification of IT
the paradox of language
The fundamental truth... is that the reality of objects perceived by the senses does not reside in sensible impressions as such, but solely in the exigencies of which the impressions constitute the signs.... This sensible universe in which we find ourselves has no other reality than that of necessity. .Simone Weil1
Our reliance on language as our primary means of communication requires that we assign word-labels to the phenomena which surround us. We then tend to refer to these phenomena by their assigned labels, as if the label is the phenomenon, rather than a shorthand referent. It is, of course, more convenient to say, "That's a cow," than to say, "That is something to which our culture, by general agreement, assigns the label "cow". In science as well, it is convenient to speak of atomic structure as if atoms are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons, even though modern physics presents a somewhat different view.
Cassirer, Sapir, and Whorf 2 have investigated this phenomenon in detail; their work has variously been described as the study of meta-, psycho-, or sociolinguistics3. Rather than recapitulate their conclusions, however, the purpose of the present essay is to discuss how the phenomenological constraints of language on world-view can be overcome, using relatively simple strategies.
Physical constants are free creations of the human mind, Einstein observed over fifty years ago, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.4
Confusion arises, however, when we think of the labels as if they are the phenomena to which they refer. In Einstein's simile, we presume that our assumptions about how the watch works are, in fact, absolutely congruent with what is. But we cannot know that this is true. We lose sight of the reality that everything other than the phenomenon is abstraction; thus the phenomenon loses some part of its experiential immediacy when "named". A wall between the phenomenon and the self is erected when an image, construct, or definition is assigned. 5
This is precisely the point where language fails. Obviously, all language must be abstraction. The limits of language require abstraction, since there is no way the entirety of experience can be communicated in words. Any description beyond "is- ness", however, is culturally determined and as such constrains our perception to remain within the parameters established by our culture. While the imperatives of communication require the use of language to induce agreement about shared, or consensual reality, our experiential reality inevitably suffers as language is incorporated into our cultural mindset.
We learn language by internalizing verbal labels as shorthand referents to specific matrices of our sensory input; thereafter, when a specific sensory matrix is experienced or recalled, we subvocalize its language "label". It is generally assumed that, although our conversation with others is discontinuous, we must continually maintain an internal dialogue, conversing with ourselves, as we internally identify or label sensory phenomena by subvocalization, using the nouns, verbs and adjectives sanctioned by our culture. This assumption that maintenance of internal dialogue is mandatory, however, limits our potentiality, since the habitual application of labels leads us to deal with the label as if it is the thing. Understanding this is central to the practise of Zen Buddhism. Discussing the function of the koan, Thomas Merton, in his 1966 Preface to John C.H. Wu's The Golden Age of Zen, made this comment:
The human dilemma of communication is that we cannot communicate ordinarily without words and signs, but even ordinary experience tends to be falsified by our habits of verbalization and rationalization. The convenient tools of language enable us to decide beforehand what we think things mean, and tempt us all too easily to see things only in a way that fits our logical preconceptions and our verbal formulas. Instead of seeing things and facts as they are we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds. We quickly forget how to simply see things and substitute our words and our formulas for the things themselves, manipulating facts so that we see only what conveniently fits our prejudices. Zen uses language against itself to blast out these preconceptions and to destroy the specious "reality" in our minds so that we can see directly.6
Lest the mention of Zen Buddhism seem unduly metaphysical in the context of this essay, it's worthwhile to consider the remarks of Katsuki Sekida, a teacher of Zen, who says, The external world is really there around us. That its existence is normally veiled is due not to existence but to our eyes. The habitual way of consciousness makes us look at things mechanically and think them dead. If only this mechanical view is abandoned, then existence is exposed in its nakedness.... Zen is not, in my view, philosophy or mysticism. It is simply a practice of readjustment of nervous activity. That is, it restores the distorted nervous system to its normal functioning.7
A compelling everyday example of the limitation of human potential by the application of language can be seen in the faces of children. The face of a pre-verbal child glows with the wonder of its surroundings, as do the faces of those only just introduced to language. To them, everything is new, and everything is possible. They swim in a sea of infinite possibility.8 Gradually, however, as schooling progresses and the internal dialogue becomes continuous (as society demands) the child's face begins to close.9 Finally, usually in late adolescence or early adulthood, the face reflects its owner's conviction that, in fact, very little is possible. Graham Greene once famously observed that "There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." 10 This is, in fact, the moment of disillusion, the moment when each of us decides that our agreement with our culture's mandated limitations is irrevocable.
The currently popular self-help movements like to speak of "contacting one's inner child". Rather than merely recognizing the existence of one's childhood, often by acting out previously inhibited emotional responses to childhood crises, as they recommend, a more powerful strategy is to rehabilitate our childhood sense of potentiality by stopping our internal dialogue. This may be done through learning how to withhold our agreement with cultural labelling, recalling that "the word is not the thing." 11 That is, it's all metaphor. Our usual reality consists of our agreement with one or more particular metaphors.
Others have used the simile of the Midas legend to delineate the problem: when Midas touched anything, it turned to gold. In the same way, when we agree with a description of something, we concretize it, we freeze it, thereby constraining it within the parameters of that particular description. It's not necessary. It's not necessary to agree with anyone's metaphor, to invest in any interpersonal matrix, in order to exist, in order to remain real. In fact, every time we agree, we limit our selfhood. [But there are tradeoffs implicit in this realization: human society, whatever the culture may be, is structured such that, without some level of agreement, the individual will be isolated from society in inverse ratio to his degree of agreement with his society's normal reality.]
Our culture insists that we have to keep trying to "figure things out". That is, our society tells us that, in order to "understand" our world, we must fit observed phenomena into its Procrustean bed of preconceived constructs, using language as our tool. But actually, we don't figure things out; we don't learn how things work. What we're doing, rather, is creating enough agreement about the dynamics of phenomena to permit us to talk about them, and to manipulate them. This is not describing how things work. By assigning a "meaning," or a "why," we merely impose our own biases, our own postulates, whatever they may be, on these phenomena. Given how any culture's reality is structured by its utilization of language, it cannot be otherwise.
Everything outside our skin is an inchoate stew of infinite possibility, which is not to say that there's nothing "out there," but rather that our creation of order consists in our interpreting, not explaining, the stew. Interpretation can be described as our passing our undifferentiated input through the filter of our biases, which, in turn, are the result of our agreement with our culture. Interpretation cannot therefore be assumed to be equivalent to explanation of observed phenomena. Interpretation merely describes how we perceive and organize a particular matrix of sensory input, as well as the relationship we subsequently adopt toward that matrix, given our particular bias set.12 Explanation, on the other hand, purports to describe what the matrix is, as well as how and why it works, thus giving it its "meaning".
But, in the instant "meaning" is attributed to a phenomenon, and it is "explained" in terms of that attributed meaning, the psycholinguistic equivalent of quantum physics' concept of the collapse of the wave function occurs; that is, the "explained" phenomenon is fixed within the parameters of its attributed meaning. While we seem to be designed such that we filter that which we consider important at any instant from our total perceptual input, it is useful to recall that we are selectively filtering. That is, out of the totality which surrounds us, and of which we are a part, we will find only what we are already conditioned to look for.
However, if we can remove the "why," the "meaning," from our mindset, thought (if thought is understood to consist of processing, or labelling, input) stops. But we continue to exist, even though our thought has stopped, thereby demonstrating to ourselves that it is not necessary to continuously process input in order to validate our existence. That is, it's all right to "let go," which is functionally identical to "unlearning." Letting go can be viewed as a deconstruction of cognitive processing, and can be achieved by utilizing relatively simple methods widely outlined in religious and metaphysical literature and (more recently) taught by stress-reduction trainers. The outcome of this manoeuvre is the willed suspension of ordinary reality (that is, our linguistically determined definition of "what's out there") resulting from the cessation of our usually continuous subvocal internal dialogue, whose customary function is the delimitation of our surroundings to cultural norms. An inevitable consequence of this exercise is the comprehension of our full potential capability, typically last sensed in our prevocal childhood.
It follows that, if our usual or ordinary reality is a construct arising from our own internal dialogue as we interpret our sensory input, then, since each of our dialogues must be the unique result of the sum of our individual experience, there is no way we can share a totally agreed-upon mutual reality. Douglas Hofstadter, although arguing the rationality of "common sense" in his essay, "World Views in Collision", nonetheless concedes, "In the end, rate of survival is the only difference between belief systems. . . .but scientists, I find, are not usually willing to see science itself as being rooted in an impenetrably murky swamp of beliefs and attitudes and perceptions." Later in the same essay, he continues: "What is also interesting is that each human being has a totally unique worldview, with its private contradictions and even small insanities."13
It seems certain that one of the substantive causes of the "bad trips" reported by some of those who experimented with psychotropic substances in the '60s and '70s was their perception and experience of radically non-ordinary phenomena when in a chemically induced altered state of consciousness. For those who had deeply rooted emotional commitments to their ordinary reality, this experience produced a profound anxiety, occasionally evolving into psychosis, stemming from their inability to apply labels to, and thereby interpret, their experiences in terms of their ordinary reality. This led to their unwilling realization that ordinary reality is an arbitrary construct, a concept that they were unable to accept. Paradoxically, one of the heroes of the '70s alternative culture was Carlos Casteneda's protagonist, the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus, who had but one essential message: "The world is such and such or so and so, only because we talk to ourselves about its being such and such or so and so. . . .To change our idea of the world is the crux of sorcery. . . .and stopping the internal dialogue is the only way to accomplish it. The rest is just padding." 14
This message has been repackaged for sale in the '90's. One of the central arguments of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), for instance, asserts that language has power over behaviour; that is, that the self tends to agree with itself about preferred neurological response to outside stimuli. Anthony Robbins, probably the best known proponent of NLP, incorporates this thesis into his currently popular "Unlimited Power" seminars.15 To demonstrate the validity of this concept, participants in these seminars are challenged to attempt walking on hot coals during the course of the seminar. Fire-walking has become routine in these circumstances, and is almost always accomplished without harm, due to the support derived from the attainment of a high degree of group consensus that success in this endeavour is possible.
But no such heroics are required to validate the assertion that personal reality is self- constructed, using internal verbalization as its building blocks. We need look no further than the world of digital computers: virtual reality, created within a computer, is a powerful demonstration of the arbitrary nature of ordinary reality.
Virtual reality software, a manifestly human construct, is an obvious analogue of how our ordinary reality is created. While the images generated by the software are presently fairly crude and obviously artificial, over time its inevitable refinement, as well as the steadily increasing power of personal computers will result in freely available computer-generated interactive virtual images which will seem to be indistinguishable from "real" images.
At that point, home computers and video arcades will become laboratories of altered states of consciousness. This point was not lost on Timothy Leary, the '60's evangelist of LSD, who, in the last years of his life, advocated the mind-expanding effects of virtual reality games. When participating in ("playing" seems an inadequate word in this context) these games, objects are manipulated at will within the terrain of what science-fiction writers recently have termed "cyberspace." This manipulation, as well as our interactive modification of the perceived environment within a virtual reality, obviously parallels our moment-to-moment maintenance of ordinary personal reality.
* * *
This has been a discussion of "what happens in our head" to create personal reality. This is a fundamental question, from which all else flows, but there are other fundamental questions regarding how and why we relate to others, as well as what may be the species' impetus to form communities. Now we have come full circle, since language -- precisely that which tends to limit our worldview -- is to human interaction what mortar is to brickwork. The challenge, then, is to preserve a creative balance between the maintenance of internal full functionality, recognising that "the word is not the thing", and the maintenance of functionality within one's society, recognising that we relate to one another primarily through the use of language.
* Coincidentally, this essay shares its main title with the major philosophical work of Hans Vaihinger (1852–1933), Die Philosophie des Als Ob, first published in Germany in 1911 and translated into English as The Philosophy of "As If" in 1924. Vaihinger, considered by many one of the great Kantian scholars of the late 19th century and founder of The Kant Society, extended Immanuel Kant's view that knowledge is limited to phenomena and cannot reach to things-in-themselves to hold that, in order to survive, man must use his will to construct fictional explanations of phenomena "as if " there were rational grounds for believing that such a method reflects reality. For example, in physics, man must proceed "as if " a material world exists independently of our perception; that in behaviour, he must act "as if " ethical certainty were possible; and in religion, he must believe "as if " there were a God.
I have not read Vaihinger, and have only recently (June, 2000) stumbled across his existence - in fact, most of the above was cribbed from the online Encyclopedia Britannica. In broad outline, his thesis seems to closely resemble the premise of this essay. My own conclusions, however, were reached as a result of the occurrences outlined in another essay on this website, entitled, "What Happened?", and, based on that experience, I would argue that Vaihinger goes too far when he asserts that "as if-ness" is an existential necessity - that we must construct explanations of phenomena. I maintain that rather than being necessary, our "explanations" are merely contingencies, and that true creativity inheres in the recognition of the "as if-ness" of our ordinary consensual reality, a condition known in Zen as an attitude of "radical doubt." Once this recognition occurs, we recover a truly holistic and integral approach to all aspects of our environment - including our fellow human beings.
For those interested in further discussion of this topic, especially as it applies to scientific endeavour, I've recently discovered Erwin Schrödinger's essay, "Mind and Matter," first published in 1958. Schrödinger, the 1933 Nobel Laureate for physics, is considered one of the "fathers" of modern quantum mechanics. His essay can be found in his What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, published by Cambridge University Press (1994).
2. Ernst Cassirer: Language and Myth, Harper, New York, 1946 and An Essay on Man, Doubleday, New York, 1953; Edward Sapir: Culture, Language and Personality, edited by D.G. Mandelbaum, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1956; Benjamin L. Whorf: Language, Thought and Reality, edited by J.B. Carroll, Technology Press of M.I.T., Cambridge Mass., 1956.
3. discussed in Edward E. Sampson: Ego at the Threshold: In Search of Man's Freedom, Delacorte Press, New York, 1975, pp. 14-15: ". . .linguistic relativity argues that our entire worldview, or Weltanschauung, is determined linguistically. Speakers of different language systems thus live in different social realities; their language systems cut up and reformulate reality into uniquely different bundles." A particularly cogent analysis of this topic has been made by Peter L Berger and Thomas Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality (Anchor Doubleday, 1966). See also Humberto R. Maturana, Ph.D & Francisco J. Varela, Ph.D: The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, (revised edition) Shambala, Boston, 1992, pp 25-26: "Therefore, underlying everything we shall say is this constant awareness that the phenomenon of knowing cannot be taken as though there were 'facts' or objects out there that we grasp and store in our head. The experience of anything out there is validated in a special way by the human structure, which makes possible 'the thing' that arises in the description…. This inseparability between a particular way of being and how the world appears to us, tells us that every act of knowing brings forth a world." See also the work of the late linguist D. M. Alford.
4. Albert Einstein and Leopold Inveld: The Evolution of Physics, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1938, p. 31 (cited by Gary Zukav in The Dancing Wu Li Masters - An Overview of the New Physics, Bantam Books, New York, 1980, p.8)
5. A poem by Rilke speaks to this point: "Between us there is but a narrow wall. . . .The wall is builded of your images. They stand before you hiding you, like names. . ." (Rainer Marie Rilke: "You, Neighbor God" from Poems from the Book of Hours, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1941)
8. See also Stephen Mitchell: The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers, HarperCollins, New York, 1991, pp. 11-12: "When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world. It is possible, he said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field, who are always within the eternal Now. This state of being is not something alien or mystical. We don't need to earn it. It is already ours. Most of us lose it as we grow up and become self-conscious, but it doesn't disappear forever; it is always there to be reclaimed, though we have to search hard to find it. The rich especially have a hard time reentering this state of being; they are so possessed by their possessions, so entrenched in their social power, that it is almost impossible for them to let go. Not that it is easy for any of us. But if we need reminding, we can always sit at the feet of our young children. They, because they haven't yet developed a firm sense of past and future, accept the infinite abundance of the present with all their hearts, in complete trust. Entering the kingdom of God means feeling as if we were floating in the womb of the universe, that we are being taken care of, always, at every moment." (emphasis added)
9. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman discuss the role of language in the phenomenon of childrens' primary socialization in their The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York 1967 (1966): "In the early phases of socialization the child is quite incapable of distinguishing between the objectivity of natural phenomena and the objectivity of the social formations. To take the most important item of socialization, language appears to the child as inherent in the nature of things, and he cannot grasp the notion of its conventionality. A thing is what it is called, and it could not be called anything else." (p.59); and: "Society, identity, and reality are subjectively crystallized in the same process of internalization. This crystallization is concurrent with the internalization of language. Indeed, for reasons evident from the foregoing observations on language, language constitutes the most important content and the most important instrument of socialization." (p. 133); and, finally: "Primary socialization... accomplishes what (in hindsight, of course) may be seen as the most important confidence trick that society plays on the individual -- to make appear as necessity what is in fact a bundle of contingencies, and thus to make meaningful the accident of his birth. The specific contents that are internalized in primary socialization vary, of course, from society to society. Some are found everywhere. It is language that must be internalized above all...." (p. 135)
10. Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory (1940), whose recurrent theme, according to Greene's biographer, Michael Sheldon, is "that sin is beautiful." (Michael Sheldon: Graham Greene: The Man Within, William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1994) A recent search for Greene's phrase found 209 occurrences of it on the Internet. In almost all of these citations, Greene's words are decontextualized to fit the writer's own ends, and interpreted to suggest that, through earnest application of some particular educational and/or religious system, a child's lot would be improved, leading to a bright future. I suggest a darker and, in my view, more accurate interpretation.
11. S. I. Hayakawa: Language in Thought and Action, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1972, p. 26. But, Hayakawa continues, "Let us call this world that comes to us through words the verbal world, as opposed to the world we know or are capable of knowing through our own experience, which we shall call the extensional world. . . . Now, to use the famous metaphor introduced by Alfred Korzybski in his science and sanity (1933), this verbal world ought to stand in relation to the extensional world as a map does to the territory it is supposed to represent." It is my conviction that Hayakawa errs when he assumes that we can, somehow, perceive the extensional world, or "the world as it really is," through our own experience. Rather, in my view, we mediate our experience through a filter of language, and, as our language changes, so does our world.
12. See Susan Sontag: Against Interpetation and Other Essays, Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1961-66. The thrust of Sontag's argument is concerned with the arts ("None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said becasue one knew - or thought one knew - what it did."), but her thesis seems equally applicable to all culturally mediated perception: "By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain 'rules' of interpretation." (p. 5)
13. Douglas R. Hofstadter: Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, pp. 107-109. Hofstadter goes on to say, "Most [scientists] have never considered how it is that human perception and categorization underlie all that we take for granted in terms of common sense, and in more primordial ways that are so deeply imbedded that we even find them hard to talk about. Such things as: how we break the world into parts, how we form mental categories, how we refine them certain times while blurring them other times, how experiences and categories are clustered associatively, how analogies guide our intuitions, how imagery works, how valid logic is and where it comes from, how we tend to favor simple statements over complex ones, and so on -- all these are, for most scientists, nearly un-grappleable-with issues, and so they pay them no heed and continue with their work."
14. Carlos Casteneda: Tales of Power, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974, p. 22. Sorcery, in Castenada's terms, refers to the utilization of metanormal abilities, accessed through the suspension of agreement with consensual reality.
15. see Anthony Robbins: Unlimited Power - The New Science of Personal Achievement, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986, p. 23: "Nothing has any meaning except the meaning we give it. Most of us have turned this process of interpretation on automatic, but we can take that power back and immediately change our experience of the world" and passim. Robbins melds this concept of personal reality with Norman Vincent Peale's "Power of Positive Thinking" and teaches that ". . .there is no such thing as failure. There are only results." Robbins' books are filled with similar platitudes and inspirational parables drawn from the lives of prominent people; however, his real message seems to be that, through using the techniques outlined in his books, "power" can be attained through the psychological manipulation of others and of ourselves, through carefully chosen internal dialogue.