Humility is the foundation of all other virtues, so said Saint Augustine. Humility comes from knowing yourself. A good place to begin to know yourself is to study how language works because language is a context of mind. It is the most abstract level of the ordinary mind. This context involves the symbols of language, measurement, mathematics, money, and as well every sign or object we use to signify something.
The context of language has a relative agency in that meaning is simultaneously both hidden and revealed by it. This contradictory function comes into operation whenever we speak, write or use symbols to communicate. It tells us that for every expression, message, measurement, signal or text we use something is revealed while at the same time some accompanying meaning is hidden.
This contradictory agency of language makes it impossible to express a concise, clear, logical and certain statement without ambiguity or uncertainty. In other words, every statement will always be provisional and contain ambiguities and uncertainties. This is the case even for mathematics and logic.
The failure of language to ever produce a total closed certainty is due to its representational role as well as its status within the mind. Language occupies the most abstract level of mind and therefore can only ever operate by pointing to non-symbolic events that exist prior to this level of abstraction. The only time this is not the case is when language deliberately or implicitly point to itself (as I am doing here).
The role of language is always relative and representational and as a consequence, all information, data, measurements and stories will be provisional and open to the vagaries of cultural change and different interpretations. Open-ended uncertainty is therefore, the reality of language use and also the profile of humility.
Yet most of us will ignore how the symbols we use simultaneously reveal as well as conceal meaning. A common attitude is to treat them like the reflection in a mirror or even to see language as having no agency, as neutral in respect to the way we express ourselves or how our mind works.
Such trust leads to a sense of pride that comes with the illusion of certainty. This happens because we believe in the veracity of a single meaning. Whenever we want to create the illusion of certainty we resort to the use of the single meaning, which is created by a closed and unambiguous statement. The illusion of the certainty generated by closed statement represents the sleep of single vision; the outward sign of ignorance and pride.
The sleep of single meaning comes often from a literal and surface reading or rendering of any text, whether scientific, religious, ethnic, commercial or monetary. As a consequence of disregarding the relative agency of language we end up being dominated by symbols, that is, we unintentionally give symbols absolute control over our thoughts. Dominated by language is to be rigid and fixed in our thought patterns, it is to live in the prison-house of language.
The meaning we make through the use of language is always uncertain, yet we often dismiss this uncertainty in favour of the precise sequential logic of reason or measurement, fact or data. It is then we will find ourselves out of tune with the essential nature of meaning itself. When we are out of tune with the reality of meaning we can easily be lulled by spin, rhetoric and advertising.
Out of tune with the structure of meaning is to believe that something is absolute when it is actually relative. This reversal of the order within the mind can easily occur whenever we over-value the explicit details of measurements, money, logic or empirical data and disregard the wider contexts in which these details always occur. When we see the world through this kind of view it is very limited and narrow. In the words of the Zen Master Yoka Daishi (665 – 713), we should not belittle the sky by looking through a pipe.
Perhaps a productive way to discuss language is through the use of metaphor. In this regard language can be seen as a house. As a general principle, everyone should become literate and to be able to live in the house of language and use this abstract level of their mind with some dexterity. If we live illiterate lives and only vaguely know about the house of language we will suffer from the harsh weather conditions of an inhospitable social climate as well from as a lack of maturation and fulfilment.
On the other hand, if we are fascinated by the wonders of sign and symbol we may find we are unable to leave this house. If this happens, (as it so often does with tertiary-trained people) the symbols we use become our prison-house. In the prison-house of language there are few outside views, with no distant perspective that shows us the limitations of what we are saying or the values we have given to money and status. Hence, there will be no other reality than the one created by this ‘pipe-view’.
It is therefore essential to be able to leave the house of language. But how do we leave? We do not leave by simply denying that this level of mind has agency. This is the ploy used by materialists who simply delete any reference to language, mind or meaning in their investigations. Neither can we leave by living in rags in a cave or by taking a vow of silence in a monastery. Such practices have a range of practical, spiritual benefits but they do not automatically guarantee an escape from the prison-house of language. This prison house can often manifest itself as the ‘monkey mind’ in meditation.
Rather, we leave this house through the humble doorways that sub-text, context, metaphor, irony and parable offer us. These are the practical passports to a freedom beyond the self-enclosed walls of pride and the the prison-house of the single vision. These are the escape passages that lead us into the light of a larger and perhaps fourfold vision, a vision that comes from the non-symbolic depth of spirit and meaning.
Metaphors are used to express a depth of meaning. A depth of meaning also signifies and records the multi-levels of mind. We therefore, need to employ metaphors in order to escape from the prison-house of the single meaning. One example would be to reduce the house of language to the size of a cartographer’s toolbox. A cartographer is a mapmaker and in this sense we are all cartographers for symbols are a map-making (representational) mode of thought. Symbols provide us with maps of, and for, other territories. Map-making is itself a metaphor that highlights the important distinction between the map and the territory.
There can be many maps of the same territory and usually the more maps the more meaning that is revealed. This implies that no single map is ever complete, unconditional or has an absolute and closed value. Maps are always works-in-progress. Even the axiomatic and factual maps of science or even the sacred ‘maps’ of Holy Scripture represent maps that are incomplete and open to interpretation. This is the case even for the word of God, for such words have to be read and understood by ordinary fallible minds. Hence, the humble truths we create by using language, discourse and symbols cannot be anything other than interim, provisional and incomplete.
The great Russian scientist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov called our language capacity the ‘second signal system’ and declared that its use by humans makes us distinct from other animals. However, when we take this context of mind for granted, or pay little attention to how it conceals as well as reveals meaning, then our responses will tend to imitate the habitual conditioning responses of animals. Then we will begin to live stressful lives dominated by the illusion of what the English poet William Blake (1757 – 1827) referred to the sleep of single vision.
Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always.
May God us keep
From single vision & Newton’s sleep.
(Extracted from Trekking the Big Picture, forthcoming)
Below is a computer scientist’s response to the above piece on language. This response was sent to us by email but we thought it interesting enough to post even though the writer asked to remain anonymous.
Surely [language] is precisely where people need to take active control of their destiny. By realising that all the symbols that we use, including the linguistic one, are abstractions and constructs of the mind, we can shape the formation of these constructs and shape the world as we, and others who our language reaches, see it.
I think this is all very apparent when dealing with mathematics and computer science. When writing software one is always seeking abstractions that crystalise the essence of a process and the choice of symbol has an enormous impact on how effectively that symbol can be used and what it can potentially do. We see this in the design and evolution of computer languages as well. C++ has evolved to the point where some of the idiomatic forms are now being given first-class representation in the core of the language. Unfortunately because of the way the language and these idioms have evolved, they don’t sit entirely well in the language and I find myself wanting to do a lot of things that aren’t well supported by the language. It’s a case of bad language design.
Science is full of this tension between passive acceptance of symbols and the active creation of symbols that represent (or create) the world. An experiment is designed with a certain experimental protocol that shapes how the scientist can think about the problem being studied and influences the conceptualisations that are possible.
Language and symbols are where the real magic happens. The creation of a sigil is the beginning of the magical manipulation of a situation. Once the sigil is created, the abstraction is formed and can be actively used to shape the world. A well-formed sigil can become a meme and spreads like a virus, altering everyone it reaches. But this is all active, not passive. It requires effort and the conscious direction of will.