Friday, July 26, 2013

The Bewitchment of our intelligence by language.

Highlighted by the setting sun, three lilly pads,
 having fought to the surface through dark, 
algae-clogged water, reveal the perseverance, 
mystery, and transcendental beauty of life.
CC Jean Stimmell 

“Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced”  – Rilke

I like this quote by Rilke so much that this is the second time I have written about it in my blog. The first entry by that name, back on September 27, 2011, includes an ethereal photograph of Cadillac Mountain and a magical quote by Alan McGlashan. Today, you are viewing a straight photograph of the last sunbeams of the day illuminating three lilly pads combined with my own musings about the role language has played in making life into a problem rather than a sublime mystery to be experienced.

When you think about it, the only direct knowledge we have of this ongoing mystery we call life is our moment-by-moment sensory awareness of it.  If we are in our natural state, attuned to spirit of what it is to be human, our senses, instincts, and intuition bind us into the world, connecting us directly to our fellow humans, other sentient beings, Mother Earth, and the universe beyond.

Cognition – thinking about what we have experienced, comes later – and, in moderation – is a valuable addition, fueling our human evolution. Unfortunately, in today’s overly rational, materialistic society, we have taken cognition too far, spurning what our direct senses and intuition tell us. 

Disavowing the infinite richness of our primal selves, we are now trying to subsist on abstract knowledge alone, a thin gruel made up solely of words, words and more words, building blocks upon which we have built an empty edifice which we have arrogantly proclaimed to be the one and only reality – and had it blessed by our newest incarnation of our supreme god whose name is Science.

We forget that words are only a socially constructed map, one of many we could choose to navigate by; we forget that our word map is not the real flesh-and-blood territory[1] of our pulsating, ever-changing world. 

But hope is on the horizon!

At last, we are finally re-learning what indigenous people always knew about the nature of language: “Oral, storytelling cultures wield words in a very different way [from us]. For such folk traditions, language is not primarily a tool for getting at or figuring out the world, but more a way of binding oneself into the world.”[2]

Social constructionists and philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein have been instrumental in recapturing the spirit of this indigenous ethic in a postmodern manifesto that denies that words, in and of themselves, have any ultimate validity.

Wittgenstein, probably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century tells us that while we can look up a word in the dictionary, that doesn’t necessarily tell us how it functions in the real world.  In order to do that, he says, we must determine the particular meaning our friends, acquaintances and society place on the words they use and how that meaning shifts over time, something he calls "learning to play the language game," a game where knowledge is always provisional because it is based on an ongoing dialogue that never ends.

Harlene Anderson[3] describes this process as “a way to find meaning and understanding which are constantly interpreted, re-interpreted, clarified and revised. In other words, dialogue is a process and therefore a generator, of possibilities.”

Knowledge, seen in this new postmodern light, is no longer fixed and static but relational and open ended. It’s a whole new way of experiencing the world. In the words of Janice DeFehr, such an open-ended dialogue becomes more than just a conversation, it becomes “a discursive way, joint action and a philosophy of life.”[4]

How we define our reality is more than idle philosophical speculation. It has immense ramifications going far beyond mere political posturing, cutting to the root of the culture war that is raging around us. Wittgenstein called it the “battle against the bewitchment of our [native] intelligence by means of language.”

[1] paraphrasing Gregory Bateson
[2]  David Abrams
[3], [4]  Of Crabs and Starfish: Ancestral Knowledge and Collaborative Practice 
Rocio Chaveste and Papusa (Maria Luisa) Molina

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