Monday, April 21, 2014


142. Limits of language

 In item 29 of this blog I proposed that abstract concepts, expressed in words, such as knowledge, memory, meaning, communication, peace, justice, identity, truth, and so on, are modelled in terms of metaphors from objects moving in time and space, while those are not necessarily adequate for that purpose. I called this the ‘object bias’.

I proposed that the inclination to think that way derives from evolution, where survival depended on adequately identifying objects moving in time and space: hunting a prey, being hunted by the sabre-toothed tiger, aiming and tracing projectiles, enemies, etc.

Examples of the bias are the container metaphor (we are ‘in’ love, ‘in’ trouble), the transmission metaphor (communication as ‘sending signals’ along a ‘communication channel’), ‘putting forth’ an argument, ‘retrieving’ a memory, etc.

The object bias concerning the notion of meaning yields the intuition that meaning is constant as it is shifted from one sentence or context of action to another, like a chair being moved from room to room. This masks the context-dependence of meaning.

The object bias also breeds misleading fundamental intuitions such as being as an object rather than as a process, the notion of substance as a ‘carrier’ of characteristics, essence as a defining ingredient. The notion of identity, of a person or culture, is misleadingly felt to require some essence (see items 8 and 9). The notion that something must be inside or outside a category, seen as a container, yields an abhorrence of ambiguity, of being both inside and outside, or neither. Ambiguity is as frightening as a leaking roof, or doubt whether the sabre-toothed tiger is inside or outside the cave.

It is a challenge to expand language and meaning beyond the object bias. In item 36 I discussed how meanings can be ambiguous, context dependent, and subject to change, along the hermeneutic circle. In item 105 I recalled Wittgenstein’s idea of similarity without shared essence, on the basis of family resemblance.   

Montaigne also was sceptical of the ability of language to grasp objective, outside reality, and employed language to express what he saw as an inner reality, in the self-searching of his Essais.

Taoism also, in its own way, was sceptical of language. One aspect of that is notion that the cosmos, the all-encompassing whole of natural forces, is ineffable. That notion of ineffability is familiar also, in the form of an ineffable God, among mystical streams in Christianity and the Islam. According to Taoism it also applies to wisdom. Since that transcends ordinary experience with its misleading linguistic categories, it cannot be entirely or adequately communicated with words.

From Coutinho[1] I learn that Taoism was also aware of what Gilbert Ryle called knowing how vs. knowing what. Knowing how is also known as tacit knowledge. In ordinary life it applies to the skill and artistry of an artisan, a motorcycle mechanic, a painter, or a musician, for example. According to Taoism it also applies to wisdom. Teaching wisdom, as a way of thinking and living, is largely by ostentation, with a master showing how, guiding practice in the training of an apprentice.

Clever metaphors may help to trigger steps in the groping for insight, skill, and mastery, as when in master class for violinists the maestro implores the playing to be ‘more like a mountain stream in spring’. This may help, before we turn away in despair from the rational incomprehensibility of Taoist writing, to explain the preaching of silence and the use of baffling, bewildering metaphors, images and aphorisms in much of it.


[1] Steve Countinho, An introduction to Daoist philosophies, New York, Columbia University Press, 2014.