June 30

A World Made of Sentences, Part I: Sentences and the Perception or Reality

In a past series of posts I showed how our sense of self  can be seen to be composed from an unending string of conclusions about who we are. In discovering this something interesting becomes apparent. We realize that our self-concept is built in language. Our sense of who we are is contained in sentences – statements that appear in the mind and that we believe represent the reality of ‘us’.

If we think about it, we also see that all of our knowledge about anything is constructed in language and can only be found in sentences. Without language there is no knowledge (at least of the common type) about anything. This may not be immediately apparent to you, but think about it for a few minutes. Look at something in front of you. I happen to be at an airport and so I am looking at a plane on the runway.

Now, ask yourself what you know about whatever it is that you are looking at. You will find yourself generating a list of sentences. The plane is big. The plane is blue. The plane is designed to fly. The plane is scheduled to fly in 40 minutes. Etc. 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 might be able to experience things outside of language, but that is different from knowing about them. I can experience the size of the plane. I see it on the runway and I see next to it a car and I get some experiential sense of size, but to turn that experience into knowing I have to turn it into a sentence. The plane is bigger than the car.

I am painting a picture that is important to think about because it points to the fact that what we know, we know in sentences. We often don’t recognize this and we assume that we know things directly, but that isn’t necessarily true. Our knowledge about the world comes to us through language – it is mediated and the medium through which it comes is sentences.

What is the significance of this? I mean really, does it matter? Yes! Because 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. I don’t see reality as it is. I see reality as an American male at the beginning of the 21st century sees it. Some of what I am seeing may be objectively accurate, much of it may not be. And I think it is very, very important to know the difference. That is why the contemplation of the relationship between our perception of reality and language is so important. If knowing what is real is important to us then we have to deconstructed how our current perception is being shaped by the sentences in our heads.

Our language conditions our perception. It shapes the way we see things. It has been said that Eskimos have 21 different words that describe snow. That means when an Eskimo looks out at the world on a snowy day he or she sees up to 21 different kinds of snow where I would only see one. Snow is snow to me, but to him or her there are 21 kinds of snow and it is probably important to their way of life to know the difference. Language chops reality into distinct pieces and creates distinctions. The distinctions that exist in any given language are those that are important for the people using that language. Our languages have evolved to organize and optimize human perception and human behavior. If circumstances change, or if you change your circumstances, the language you had before may no longer be optimal. In fact, your old language may have become a detriment.

Those of us who are working to evolve ourselves and our culture recognize that the language we have often seems cumbersome in the new terrains that we are attempting to traverse. Understanding the relationship between language and our perception of reality and our ability to act effectively is not a luxury – it is essential for those of us who want to develop from where we are to where we could be.