A World of Sentences, Part 3: The Transformative Power of Language

In my last two posts I have suggested that it may not be valid to think of language as a description of reality. So if our language does not describe reality, what does it do? There are many ways to look at the value and function of language, but there is one that I find particularly compelling. Maybe language is the way that we commit to reality.

When I say to someone “this is a book” what I am saying is that I commit to acting as if this is a book. A book is an object that is interacted with in particular ways and by making a statement that something is a book; I am committing to certain actions and not others. That means that I will open it and read the words in it. I will lend it to you to read and I will store it on a book shelf. I will not boil it in water and try to serve it to you for dinner. I will not take it out to my car on a snowy day and use it to scrap the ice off of my windshield. My statement “this is a book” is a statement of my commitment to a certain set of behaviors over other possible behaviors.

Imagine that you are invited to someone’s house for dinner – let’s assume that they are not serving boiled book, but rather vegetable stew. You are eating your soup when you notice a small box of rat poison on the center of the table. You look at it puzzled and your host says, “That’s salt.” You are suddenly terrified because it looks like rat poison to you and if they say it is salt, they are committing to act as if it is salt and you start to worry that there is rat poison sprinkled into your soup.

It may be more useful to think about our statements of fact not as descriptions of what is real, but as declarations about what reality I am committed to act in accordance with. The declarative sentences that we use either in speech with others or in our own heads as thoughts are our commitments to what is real.

We all already know this to some extent. Have you ever been alone in the dark and start to feel afraid? Thoughts of what might be out there beyond what you can see start flooding into your head. What do you do in situations like this? I usually start repeating to myself something like, “There is nothing out there.” Sometimes I even repeat it aloud. Usually we think of this as a way to convince ourselves about what is real, but I would say that we are affirming to ourselves what we are committing to relate to as being real. By repeating the statement we are strengthening our commitment to stay calm and not to panic and scream etc. We can’t know for sure that there is nothing out there, but we are committing ourselves to acting as if there isn’t.

There is a transformative power that gets released when we start to see the sentences in our heads, and those that we speak, as commitments to reality rather than descriptions of it. If our sentences are descriptions of a reality that already exists out there then there is nothing we can do to change it. But if the sentences that I use are commitments to reality rather than descriptions of it then maybe by changing my sentences I can change reality.

Let’s not be silly about this. I can call ‘rat poison’ ‘salt’ from now until doomsday, but if I sprinkle it in my dinner guests’ soup it will still kill them. But there are instances where reality is more of a commitment than a fact.

Consider all those sentences that we hold in our heads – and sometimes speak out loud – that describe who we are to ourselves and others. What if the sentence, “I am stupid.” that keeps rolling around your head is not a statement about reality, but a commitment to it? What if your constant use of that sentence was actually an ongoing affirmation of your own commitment to act as if you were stupid? What if repeating that sentence with others was a way of creating an agreement with them to act as if you were stupid? What if you change that agreement about reality with yourself and with others?

As we start to consider the possibility that our sentences, or at least some of them, might not be descriptions of reality, but commitments to it, we see how we are constantly affirming our commitment to act in certain ways and not others to ourselves and to those around us. And everyone else is doing the same.

Maybe reality is more fluid and much less fixed than we have imagined. Maybe our constant affirmation and re-affirmation of commitments to reality is what makes it seem so static and unchangeable. What if we started to change the way we spoke? What if we were more transparent about the fact that we were committing to reality rather than describing it? Would reality itself become more supple, malleable and alterable? – Interesting thought.