Breaking the Bonds of Language

Have you ever tried to have an original thought – or worse – had a truly original thought that you tried to put into language? That is when you realize that you are trapped in a prison constructed of words and sentences and syntax and grammar. You know something, in the recesses of your perceptual field and yet you can’t quite get it into language and when you try the words appear tangential to, but not exactly connected to, what you want to say. The people you talk to might tell you they know what you mean, but what they describe back to you is not it. Try as you will you can’t seem to articulate the knowing in your head as sounds coming out of your mouth.

At moments like this one of the things you are experiencing is the inadequacy of language. Trying to express a novel idea in existing language can feel like trying to pick up toothpicks with boxing gloves on. The words you have at your disposal are simply not the right tools for the job. This difficulty, of course, might be due to your own inadequacies in the use of language, but it is also possible that language itself is just not up to the task of expressing what you have inside your head.

And from a certain point of view if you can’t express a thought it doesn’t really exist. I might have a great thought in my head. I might keep insisting to you that it is there and that I can “see” it with my mind’s eye. But if I can’t express it, why should you believe me?

We are trapped in words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Words limit what can be thought of. They are the boundaries of understanding. This is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other Romantic thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries thought anyway. And Coleridge made the distinction between understanding and reason to explain this limitation and go beyond it. If words and sentences are limited to their literal symbolic interpretation they become the limit to what can be understood – that is one way to describe what Coleridge means by understanding.

And, in our moments of intuition, it becomes clear to us that we can know some things that we cannot understand. We can have a subtle and direct vision of a truth that appears to lie just outside of the grasp of language. This is when we begin to have an original thought – at least original to us – and we don’t have language yet to wrap it and present it to the world in. This direct knowing beyond the confines of language is what Coleridge referred to as Reason.

Coleridge uses the metaphor of light to describe what he means by reason. He describes it as a “seeing light,” “the eye of the sol” and most fascinatingly as “a power that sees by its own light.”  He goes on to define this “enlightening eye” as “reflection” itself and for Coleridge this is a “universal light” that he believed proved that life itself was “one universal soul.” This conception of Reason as the self-illuminating light of consciousness came to be incorporated into the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson as the “transparent eyeball” and it lead to his understanding of the “Over-Soul” as “the aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded.”

In the writing of the American Pragmatists, who were the next generation of American thinkers after Emerson, this idea of a self-illuminating origin of reality resurfaced. It can be found in Charles Sander’s Peirce’s conception of “Firstness” and William James’ vision of “the field of consciousness” and “a world of pure experience.” Although these Pragmatists placed themselves radically apart from the ideas of Emerson, and James particularly wanted to distance himself from any form of idealism, the fact is there is a deep idealism in their evolutionary thinking that seems to paint an image of the universe as emerging out of pure mind.

Language and understanding are symbolic representations of what is original known by the self-illuminating light of reason. In Peirce’s philosophy this conception of understanding would be called “thirdness.” I am fascinated by this quality of “self-illumination” and will explore it more deeply in my next post.