Living in language? On the limitations of words…

I’ve been reading up on Western philosophy lately and one of the things philosophers of the last century have been concerned with is language: it’s limitations, how conversations are constrained by language, that language is the main foundation of culture.

Whenever I used to hear people say that we think in language, that we can in fact ONLY think in language – I disagreed. As a bit of a math whiz in high school (nothing like my dad, but still) I used to do a lot of thinking in images. I even pictured the fourth dimension to myself quite clearly in my early twenties. I even ended up combining the wave and particle aspect of physics in an object I created from paper and wire. My current understanding of physics tells me my interpretation missed the whole point, by the way.

So from experience I can affirm: yes, we can think in images. We do. The power of TV advertising is not in the words, it’s in the images and music.

When I started writing, say 15 years ago, I soon noticed that there were limitations to what I could write. I could only write about things that could be said.

That probably sounds pretty weird to you all. It had to do with a sense of understandings in the depths of me, seeking words, but not finding them.

I sensed a limitation of what people could hear, what the words might be permitted to say.
I still sense that border – a whole dimension of life that evades words, that just can’t be said.

But let me retrace my steps a bit and give an example of my point here: that the way we talk about spirituality is very much a cultural thing. Because that’s really what I’m talking about here: my deep felt sense of how language and culture are intertwined and limit what can be said, what can be imagined even.

Take ‘The Secret‘ for instance – it’s the ultimate optimistic creed. It states that if you can just imagine it, and do it, you can achieve anything, be anything. Whether it’s material success or health or enlightenment…
The dark side effect of that creed is that the negative, the hopeless, the need, the (literal) hunger gets pushed aside.

Yes, I’m talking about the economy here: I haven’t bothered looking up the latest stats, but roughly 10% of Americans are out of a job, something like 15% or 20% are on food stamps. Imagining a way out of that must be terribly tough for those caught in it. And yet, The Secret is right to an extent: daring to imagine another way of living is indeed the only way out. But the immediate message is one of denial: these earthly limitations aren’t real. And that denial of what IS is unfair.

It reminds me of my first steps towards becoming an author – I dare call myself that sometimes, now that I make a living online.
My first steps were taken 15 years ago or so, writing theosophical articles. Theosophical in the sense that I imagined a theosophical audience for them. Indeed: they were limited by the language and thoughts I had learned in the TS, though from the first I also used the language and experience of practical psychology.

I was too insecure as an author to insist on being published, or to ask why my articles were NOT being published. One article ignored and I thought I was just not good enough.

And what happened? I started publishing online, because there was this need to express myself and online I could find my own audience. I learned SEO and the rest is history as they say.

But the point of the story is that I never imagined the kind of success I have today. What I did was use the options open to me at any one point and move forward from there. My insecurities limited me, and instead of fighting them, I moved with them and found my own road.

Think back to the year 2000 – technology was very much in the air, so was the internet. We were worried about whether computers would survive the new millennium and at the same time the first internet bubble was not yet burst. The image of the internet as the place where people got access to porn was rampant. However, that was not the internet as I experienced it. I met Theosophists online, learned various perspectives on theosophical history.

I hadn’t the faintest clue I would one day make my living online. I still thought of myself as a teacher (of math and chemistry). My internet activities were a hobby.

Thoughts are NOT everything. Where I am today is the logical continuation of what I started DOING and LEARNING online in 1998.

But from a spiritual perspective the opposite question also arises: does it solve anything to go beyond language? To go beyond conditionings as Krishnamurti would have it?
Krishnamurti would never have wanted a ‘use’ to get in there. Still, he pointed to a path beyond conditioning. He had a point: that sense of mine that there is more to life than I can put into words is perhaps beyond conditioning. That force in me that pushed towards self-expression… certainly nothing to do with words, and only to do with conditioning if you include our conditioned emotions in the picture.
That’s the power of Krishnamurti’s teachings: his ability to show us that there IS more to life than culture, than thought, than memory. Yet all those things: culture, thought and memory are part of what IS.

For me, as an author, that Other, that Nameless Something is the source of my writing. However, perhaps it only starts meaning something when I CAN put it into words. When I succeed in integrating it with my life, with my experienced culture, with my context, with my emotions. It only starts meaning something when I find words to relate my experience to yours: my audience. And that’s something Krishnamurti would definitely NOT have said.

That would make a nice pointy conclusion to this piece, but it’s not quite fair. It suggests I don’t value Krishnamurti at all. I do – the very fact that I think he’s worth disagreeing with is a compliment to how much his teachings are part of my personal mental genealogy.

That is a philosopher’s way of dealing with this. It is sometimes said that the whole of Western Philosophy can be summed up as a dialog with Plato and Aristotle. Each generation of philosophers reinterprets them and finds new perspectives on what they taught. The fact that they’re still referenced today – whether to agree or disagree hardly matters – is testimony to their importance. Similarly my going against Krishnamurti is testimony to his influence on me. To the extent that we live in words: what we disagree with is as important as what we affirm. It’s how we position ourselves in our own mental universe.

[Inspired by Charles Taylor in Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays]

5 thoughts on “Living in language? On the limitations of words…”

  1. A favorite teacher of mine says reply to the speaker not what they say. Language is a powerful medium for communicating (at least when it’s done right). But rather than question it and search for a deeper way, we too often resign ourselves to the status quo (only human to do so). I LOVED YOUR ARTICLE. I will be back for more.

  2. Very good post. 5 comments. Language: I’m reminded of all the times that things are “lost in the translation,” between languages(words). I’m reminded of all the love songs with the lyric “the words got in the way.” The world segueing into computer Icons to access files, with the corresponding way that language, writing and spelling has declined in some ways. This is not altogether true because now we have texting, but it’s still abbreviated. And I agree with you about thinking in pictures, this may explain why there is so little dialogue in our dreams and so many pictures & images. Also the correlation of autistic people that see images better and take things so literal. Images are it.

    Also I see that many of your posts are similar to mine in some ideology. I’m currently writing a paper on conflict resolution, I’ve mainly done this by reviewing past arguments and disagreements.

    I have a post on Jiddu Krishnamurti, he was a very great man.

    I also have several posts of Karma and one on dreams.

    Have a good day. God be with you.

  3. I have heard, similarly, that Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, but also something like ‘once a philosopher studies, (s)he will find herself/himself at the works of Hegel.’ I have never heard anything similar about any other philosopher and am wondering if Hegel is as significant as Socrates, the (neo-)Platonists, the Aristoteleans.

  4. I was disappointed to hear a physicist once again ignorantly say that science without proof was merely philosophy. Little does he realize that maths, physics, chemistry are all still branches of philosophy. Modern philosophy too has forgotten its foundational raison d’être.

    For Plato, dialogue was primarily for interpreting our Universe from that which can’t be spoken, for the cave dwellers. For JK, dialogue was for pointing to that which can’t be spoken. To get frustrated at JK is to get frustrated at the finger pointing to the moon. For in the end, philosophy too is but the smoke that wafts away from the glowing caldera below.

  5. I was really drawn to this post…it reminded me of several experiences I had at a Dreamwork retreat a couple of years ago. I entered into a state of consciousness where I wanted to “drop down” into every word that people were saying, just sit with it. It made following overall conversations really difficult, and got me thinking about how language can encourage us to think along certain lines whilst discouraging others.

    I’ve recently realized that living from writing online is a dream of mine, too; so discovering that theme in your article was a nice added surprise.

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