March 17

Seeing Through Sentences in Your Head

One of the things that the study of philosophy reveals is the profound relationship between the language that we use and our perception of what is real. We don’t have to look too deeply into philosophy before we begin to realize that our knowledge about anything is constructed in language and is always found in the form of sentences in our heads. Without language it seems that we cannot have knowledge about anything.

Think about it for a few minutes. Look around you and ask yourself what you know about what you see. You will find yourself generating a list of sentences. “The wall is flat. The sky is blue. The person is looking at me.” What you know will come to you in sentences. Now try to conjure up some knowing about the thing in front of you that does not come in a sentence. Go ahead try it.

What you find when you try to conjure up knowing outside of language is that you can’t do it. You can experience things outside of language, you can even experience knowing outside of language, but that is different from knowing about. I can experience the size of the building in front of me, but to turn that experience into something I know about the building, I have to turn it into a sentence. What we know about, we know about in sentences. We often don’t recognize this and we assume that we know things directly, but that isn’t necessarily true.

If we don’t consider this carefully, we will falsely assume that we are seeing reality as it actually is and not through a filter of language. Language does not act like a mirror, reflecting to us a perfect depiction of reality; it acts like a filter, it makes us see reality in particular ways. The way language is constructed and the popular usage of language at any given time in history and in any given culture on earth will create a different perception of what is real.

Our knowledge about the world comes to us through language – it is not direct knowledge; it is mediated and the medium through which it comes is sentences. Many of our difficulties come when we confuse our knowing about things with the reality of the way things are. This is what Wilfred Sellers was getting at with his conception of the myth of the given and what William James meant by vicious intellectualism. James spoke directly to this in The Varieties of Religious Experience in his discussion about what serves the aims of religion.

Knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself… If religion be a function by which either God’s cause or man’s cause is to be really advanced, then he who lives the life of it, however narrowly, is a better servant than he who merely knows about it, however much. Knowledge about life is one thing; effective occupation of a place in life, with its dynamic currents passing through your being, is another.

If knowing what is real is important to us, then we have to deconstruct how our current perception is being shaped by the sentences in our heads. This is why philosophy is not a luxury and why we need to think about how we think.