A World of Sentences, Part 4: Living in a Background of Affirmed Commitment

I have been developing a thought about language and reality and suggesting that it might be better to think about the sentences that we use as commitments to reality rather than descriptions of it. Of course there is danger to take this thought too far. There are layers and levels of reality and some lend themselves to the notion of commitment better than others.

At the level of physical reality it is probably better to think of language as a descriptive tool. A book as a physical object is real. If I throw it at someone they will move to avoid it – even if they have no idea what it is. If we add another layer to reality – this time of function – then a book is not just an object, but an object that can be open and read. And this can be seen as a commitment to treating the object that is a book in a certain way. If the book ends up in a culture that knows nothing of books then there will be no agreed upon commitments for how to use it. In that culture people might use the book for things that the commitments in a ‘booked’ culture would tend to prevent. If we add a layer of quality and say it is a ‘good’ book, now we are really opening things up to commitment. When I say the book is good I am expressing a conviction about the book and a commitment to sticking by that conviction.

The flip of mind that I would like to induce is the recognition that the very use of language commits us to a certain reality. When we speak we are constantly affirming a particular view on what is real. When we think in language we are similarly affirming reality. And when we hear others speak they affirm reality for us. We live in a verbal sea of constant affirmations about what is real and true. This background of affirmed commitments is what we use to validate incoming information. If new information aligns with the background of affirmed commitments then we see it as true. If it is misaligned we either assume it is false or we investigate further.

Sometimes the commitments about reality in words are embedded in the meaning of the words. Let’s use a simple example. Most of us can easily distinguish between the word ‘spray’ and ‘drip’. The sentence “Don’t drip paint on the wall.” conjures a very different image than the sentence “Don’t spray paint on the wall.” Making use of this distinction has a hidden commitment in it – a commitment to the reality of gravity. The difference between dripping and spraying is that dripping occurs when a liquid falls due to the force of gravity and spraying implies some other propulsive force driving the liquid.

Built into the simple distinction of ‘drip’ and ‘spray’ there is an assumption of the reality of gravity and we could say that assumption can be seen as a commitment. Philosophers and cultural critics have long analyzed language to find all the hidden commitments to reality that are embedded in our language. Using the pronoun ‘he’ as the default pronoun for human beings is a famous one. Feminists rightly pointed out that this use of language continually reinforced a commitment to the reality that the male is the more primary gender.  There are many ways that shared commitments to reality are embedded in language.  

The most compelling language commitment that I know of is the one contained in our names. When someone asks me who I am and I reply, “I am Jeff,” what am I committing to? Who is this person Jeff that I am committed to being? Maybe it would be best to think of the sentence “I am Jeff” not as a description of who I am, but as a commitment to acting like the person I have come to imagine Jeff is.  Who is that person? What commitments are embedded in the name ‘Jeff’? When I say “I am Jeff” what set of beliefs about ‘Jeff’ and how he should act am I committing to? The name Jeff represents a commitment to a way of being. I make that commitment and reaffirm it all the time. When other people use my name they are reaffirming the reality of ‘Jeff’ too. Eventually I start to relate to Jeff as if he exists in a fixed state independent of my choices, he becomes so solid and firm that I believe it will take enormous effort to change him – if I believe he will change at all. I build up a habit of commitment to a particular way of being called ‘Jeff’ that it is hard to break – even if I don’t like parts of it.