Linguistic Limitations


In the information age, many people appear to have forgotten the analogical limitations of language; culture now incessantly produces and reproduces new information such that it seems to have an infallible apprehension of the world. Language has convinced us, in short, that words can be taken at face value for truth. Because of this, many of the fundamental questions about language have started to collect dust on the shelf. I think it’s crucial to continue an exploration as to the functions and limits of language, particularly in the face of inundating information. Alan Watts and Friedrich Nietzsche present views on language that appear to both question and cripple the assumption embedded in Western culture–if not all cultures–that language maps onto reality. Watts and Nietzsche resist the tendency of language to dissect the world apart; drawing from Eastern philosophy, they view the universe as being one, indistinct, chaotic process. If they are right in their assessment of our language and its misrepresentation of reality, then what does that mean for us?

Language, according to Watts and Nietzsche, falsely fragments reality. By the very act of labelling things, it ascribes distinctions that aren’t necessarily representative of reality itself. The cultured Western mind will inevitably want to resist this claim insofar that our experience of the world is, in fact, comprised of individual and separate objects or actions. To this end, Nietzsche rejects the distinction between “perceivable appearances,” on the one hand, and a “concealed, underlying reality” on the other. Nietzsche, here, is undermining one of the foundations of western philosophy, Platonism, the view that appearance and reality are at odds. Nietzsche’s rejection of Platonism is contingent upon one’s perspective, however; but one’s perspective is drenched in metaphorical potential.

Nietzsche examines, in The Gay Science, what it’s like to be us. He posits that our experience in the world is primarily mediated by our individual perspective. This view gets built into “Perspectivism,” which Nietzsche considers as the fundamental condition of all life. To unpack this, perspectivism arises from our “take” on the world, so to speak. We’ve been thrown into the culminating world of human culture; thus, we inherit the language, symbols, values, and beliefs of our ancestry. This inheritance greatly, if not primarily, shapes our understanding of reality. At birth, we get taught “one, two, three” and “A, B, C” until we successfully prattle the terms back at our parents. However, they soon start to mean something to us. So, our perspectives are individual at the literal level but become collective at the symbolic level. All of this has two major implications for us: (1) The fact of multiple perspectives problematizes the concept of an “objective” take on the world, and (2) otherwise epistemic peers can disagree on their interpretations about the world.

Watts further problematizes this idea of Perspectivism by picking apart the way in which attention interacts with reality. Attention, at least the way we speak of it, is noticing things. The consequence of Nietzsche’s view of Perspectivism, according to Watts, is that our perspective and, thus, our attention, are mediated by the intervals we ignore–what we don’t notice. We experience all kinds of things that we don’t notice (i.e. radiation, microbial life, the hum of the AC, etc.). Watts proposes that more of our life is like this than we’d care to admit.

To demonstrate how language is a corollary of attention, Watts asks us to consider the act of driving. Driving is a case, he argues, where we multitask, usually at the expense of our attention to the act of driving itself. As I listen to audiobooks in my car, I somehow make it from point A to point B without colliding with another car or killing a squirrel. In this example, behavior has been automated. Thus, attention seems to be predicated on the degree to which an activity is automated for us. This example of driving applies to language. The extent to which we have automated language–from childhood onward–is so deeply ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible to break free from its shackles. In some real sense, language has been automated such that I don’t consciously control the linguistic tendencies I have internalized. Watts goes further to suggest that this automaticity of attention is in large part due to the main function of language: The symbolization of our world. It has compartmentalized phenomena into words, numbers, notations, etc. all of which facilitate the classifications of perception. Language, as a function of both Perspectivism and attention, “pigeonholes” our experience into easily classifiable bits for our memory to store and sort. But, the implication of this, as Watts notes, is that we have a really hard time noticing things for which we do not have the words.

This “pigeonholing” is evident in Watts’ example of Eskimos vs. Aztecs: The Eskimos have five words for different kinds of snow, whereas the Aztec language has only one word for all forms of precipitation. This is evidence for how our perceptions and, thus, our words, reflect what we value. The Eskimos value snow because they live in it, whereas the Aztecs did not. And you can see this today with the rise of internet culture, where the hashtag has sprouted organically from our minds. Words like “selfie” wouldn’t even be comprehensible to someone living before the age of cameras. But as we now have cameras in our pockets, it has become important to us and, thus, we now have a range of words to grapple with “selfie-culture.” With this in mind, there appears to be a kernel of truth to the quip William Burroughs once made when he wrote that “Language is a virus from outer space.” Or, at least, the “virus” part seems true; language inexorably infects our thoughts. It seems Watts and Nietzsche are in agreement here that our language distorts–and reflects the short-sightedness of–our immediate experience.

Now that the relationship between perspective, attention, and language have been problematized, one might object to Watts and Nietzsche here. It seems necessary that we filter out parts of our experience to hone in on fragments of reality. But Watts accounts this immediate impulse, however, by agreeing: “To perceive [everything] at once would be pandemonium, as when someone slams down all the keys of the piano at the same time”. So, what’s the problem? Frankly, just because language is necessitated by our culture doesn’t mean we can’t scrutinize it. If our perspective and attention filter reality and, thus, the language we use, then this has severe implications for the way we experience life. These implications, according to Watts, present us with two functional failures of language: (1) We mistake antipodal concepts like black and white, on and off, etc. as opposites, and (2) we really think that the world is an assemblage of separate, discrete, individual objects.

The world Watts and Nietzsche are presenting is one not full of separate, individual objects and actions. They see our common notion of reality as a byproduct–a mistake–of our language. We have rendered everything into symbols, but we forget that symbols can never be what they signify. So, instead of seeing these antipodal concepts as going together, as a part of the single thing (the Universe), we see these opposites as pitted against each other. Hence, concepts like Good and Evil. We see these oppositions as battles and, thus, we really believe they don’t necessitate each other by their very existence–that we can get rid of the Evil while keeping the Good. Both Watts and Nietzsche reject this perspective on reality. Watts goes as far as to say that, as far as language is concerned, “the logic of thought is quite arbitrary…it is a purely and strictly human invention without any basis in the physical universe”. In other words, the symbols we have to represent reality are just capriciously chosen placeholders. Yet, though I think Watts is incontrovertibly correct about this position on thought and language, everything about my subjective experience wants to reject this view. The ontological structure of our language is such that I can’t help but think of things in terms of objects and actions. It is incoherent to our systems of logic to cease compartmentalizing aspects of our experience. But, as Watts argues, there is no way to draw the line between subject and object, cause and effect, etc. without that line being mercurial. This is because each distinction we make necessitates, by implication, two opposites. Watts attempts to palliate this issue by interjecting a new, admittedly clumsy, word into our language: “Goeswith.”

Goeswith is a way of rectifying the failure of our grammatical structure. We break things (nouns) and actions (verbs) apart into distinct words that “go with” each other. Objects and actions are spoken of as separate and distinct from one another but, in reality, neither can exist without the other. The implication for our own experience is that, because of our language, we forget that these patterns of noun/verb do not reflect the patterns of nature. This is no new insight, but our culture seems to have forgotten it. This is bizarre because, for decades, anthropologists have espoused the incongruities of languages around the world. Color, for example, is expressed in some languages as a verb as opposed to an adjective (i.e. a painting is not “red” to these cultures, it is “redding,” and so on).

The very fact that there are other, seemingly coherent, languages which treat the world differently than we do begins to reveal how tremulous our linguistic distinctions really are. Returning to goeswith, the failures of our grammatical structures become clearer: It’s not that “the plant is growing” but, rather, that “the plant goeswith growing.” Again, Watts is careful to underscore how cumbersome this word is; but, conceptually, he’s putting us back on the right track in terms of accurately describing the world. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that there can be no plant without the action of growth, and no growth without the object of the plant. Not only are our linguistic distinctions fragile, they’re objectively incoherent and patently false. Language represents, rather than reflects, reality. And yet, our linguistic distinctions seem internally consistent; in dividing up the world piece by piece we form a coherence of our own.

In terms of our language’s “coherence,” consider a spider-web. No thread of spider silk does much, or holds much weight, on its own. But as the spider weaves together strand after strand, each piece ends up supporting the rest and, thus, they are much stronger together than any individual thread alone. This spider-web analogy is, in my view, the way our language functions; together it all coheres, but is individually meaningless. Watts wants to further pick apart this collective coherence to investigate which ways language can be fixed so as to be independently coherent, instead of relying on the whole web of meanings.

By no means am I in a position to pontificate about the ways in which we can fix our language. In fact, the problem appears to be intractable. But one such solution can be revealed, through Watts: Everything in existence is a process. This process understands the subject/object, noun/verb, distinction as a false one. Watts says that these conceptual categories exist primarily because we are still operating in the language of “Newtonian billiards.” But it’s easier and more accurate to regard all situations, not as active agents and passive objects, but as processes. Borrowing again from Eastern philosophy, Watts notes how everything in the world acts like a magnet, both entailing and attracting its opposite, only more complexly patterned–like the spider-web analogy. As our language exists now, we never allow ourselves more than a “sketch” of a situation. But, if we are to aim our efforts towards rectifying the errors in our conceptions of the world, we must begin to understand that nothing exists independently, and nothing acts independently, of anything else.

Furthermore, we as human beings are a process not apart from our actions: We are what we do, and what we do is who we are. By dividing our experience into symbolic parts (words), we have fallen prey to, what Watts calls, “fictions of language.” If Watts is correct that dividing the world into words is fictive, then this seems to put to bed the age old questions such as the nature vs. nurture debate (gene-environment interactions) in biology. That is, if our polar divisions are false, then it’s incoherent to posit that an organism could be independent of its environment and, conversely, that an environment is independent of the organism. This returns us to our initial concern, Nietzsche’s Perspectivism, in that we only understand our environment in terms of our perspective or, rather, our perspective is mediated by our environment. Using Watts’ language of goeswith, we goeswith our environment as much as our environment goeswith us. To speak of either as distinct from the other, according to Watts, is make-believe.

We have contextualized the relationship between perspectivism and goeswith, but we have yet to explore the severity of what this means for us. Consider the age old, eye-roll inducing, question of the philosophers: If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? The clear answer, in this conception of perspectivism and goeswith, is no. Sound only would exist in accordance with one’s perspective. To make this conclusion clear, Watts describes how all of our “senses” (taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing) are forms of touch: “All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons.” In other words, everything we experience is an environmental interaction with our bodies. If I goeswith hearing, then hearing (or sound) goeswith me. Sound cannot be produced without the interaction of the vibrating air, my cochlea, and my auditory cortex. Sound, then, is itself the interaction of these parts. These implications become clearer through Watts’ example of chasing a rainbow. Our language treats a rainbow as an object which, if it were an object, could be apprehended in space-time. But, like sound, the rainbow only exists in its interaction with water, sunlight, and one’s perspective. I think that “chasing the rainbow” is an apt metaphor for the way we experience the world through language.

Language leads us into conceptual wormholes that are equally fictive as the rainbow. We are lost in the illusion of things, primarily because our grammar necessitates illusion. In fact, all language boils down to metaphor. Watts goes as far as to call this metaphoric tendency a “mythology.” It would be intellectually dishonest to posit that, like the rainbow, things (nouns) exist (verb) on their own. This mythology of language leads us to believe that we are not really “in the world” in the way other things are. Rather, this mythology supports the illusion that we can observe reality–objectively and independently–without having an effect on it. Our language dictates that the world is “out there,” and we are “in here” in our bodies. We even have words for the experience of being in control of our bodies from just behind our eyes. But this illusory linguistic trick of being “confronted” by reality is clearly a misrepresentation of the way we and the world really are, according to Watts and Nietzsche. This is because our perspective has gotten in the way, birthed language and, thus, has restricted our access to the fluctuating fullness of reality.

Returning again to Perspectivism, it seems to be the case that knowledge is always obfuscated by us. But Nietzsche goes further than Watts with this claim, which I admire. Perspectivism is a claim about truth as well. Our access to truth is contingent upon our perspective, sure, but it doesn’t seem to follow that truth is itself ethereal. Perspectivism grinds up against our conceptual framework for championing the multitudinous successes of the sciences. But Nietzsche dismisses this urge to bolster science–as a counterexample–as a mistaken metaphysical presumption which is worthy of repudiation. Yet, we desire that everyone agree on truth; that is, our culture tacitly denies Perspectivism. Nietzsche, however, recognizes that there is no one “truth,” there are but many perspectives on truth. The degree to which we confer the value of “truth” to a perspective is another matter.

Watts’ view on truth, in contrast, appears to be at odds with Nietzsche’s inconclusive view. After all, if everything goeswith everything else, then there could, in fact, be a unified “truth” about the nature of things. Yet, I think Watts and Nietzsche are more in alignment than they initially appear. In fact, Watts seems to outright deny the importance of seeking an absolute truth about everything, or that we could possibly be arrogant enough to try and know it. Watts might agree that each perspective is different, sure, but each is as much a part of other perspectives as other perspectives are a part of it. Here, Watts and Nietzsche seem to agree that language is simply the way we communicate between perspectives.

To this end, Watts anticipates the question, “So what?” It might seem to the casual reader that Nietzsche and Watts are just playing semantic games in redefining language; that is, they aren’t really giving us anything to fix the problems with. But there is a psychologically important insight to these views: By making linguistic distinctions, we create antagonists and out-groups that are more destructive than we’d care to admit. We end up defining ourselves in terms of negatives, and unfairly excluding parts of experience from our lives that we might otherwise not feel so averse towards. Watts responds to the question posed above by saying that, regarding language, “the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline which this involves.” And this seems to be what Nietzsche is saying with his views on life-affirmation and the eternal recurrence of the same (which I will succinctly summarize, because these notions constitute another discussion entirely); we need to live here and now, without prejudice and regret.

This is all well and good, yet one might still be unclear as to how a better understanding of language could help us achieve this end. If Watts and Nietzsche are correct–which I think they are–then language prevents us at every turn from meeting these life-affirming conditions in the present moment. This discussion of language is so crippling for us precisely because it severely damages our capacities to enjoy life. Less melodramatically, the act of conceptually separating ourselves from the world–from objects, persons, actions, environments, and moments in time–limits our experience of it. We’ve seen, through Watts, how indistinguishable we are from the world. In its current incarnation, language wedges itself in between that fact of inseparability.

Another damning fact about language is to be found in the Library of Babel, an internet archive which, through an algorithm, has combined every possible arrangement of the English language’s letters, including the comma, space, and period. The implications for the existence of such a site are enormous. Compose any 3,200 character query and the Library of Babel will have already accounted for what you submit. The Library of Babel blurs the line–regarding the functions of language–between something we invent, and something we discover. You can find details of your birth, death, a love note you wrote in middle school, the emails you just sent, etc. Anything that could be said can be found–it just needs to be looked up. Because of this tool, all language starts to look a little suspicious, skeletal, and stale. But stepping back from the confines of culture, this quantification of language seems laughably inevitable. Yet, culture has convinced us that language is something we command with agency. The Library of Babel’s very existence poses a threat to that alleged agency over language. In fact, to undercut language is to undercut an essential feature of our humanity.

Are we to now abandon all thought and language, all the sciences, and the quest for truth? Surely not. The takeaway from Nietzsche is that language gave rise to consciousness in the first place; it was necessary for survival and is even more crucial today. The consequence here is that language doesn’t describe the world, as our culture says; language prescribes–it gives rise to thought, not the other way around. Given that we can only operate from our perspective, yet inherit the symbolic structure of other perspectives, we have to be vitally aware of when we’re passively accepting language as reality. A pragmatic solution to this problem of language might be easily formulated. But Nietzsche makes the effort of calling language into question–and its interpolating command on us as agents–precisely to illustrate how crucial this understanding is to living a good life. This conclusion reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s declaration that, “The limits of my language [are] the limits of my world.” Given this, I don’t think any self-respecting person would willingly choose a “limited” experience of the world; Nietzsche and Watts are providing an opportunity to reexamine the role of language in our lives. This examination of language is a step towards reformulating a life in accordance with the way the universe really is.

In addition to our considerations, Nietzsche proposes a solution to our linguistic problem: A “new science,” one which shakes us away from metaphor. This new science abandons the pretense and age-old notions of “hierarchically arranged oppositions” like Good and Evil, light and darkness, appearance and reality, fiction and truth, etc. This new science is content to live at the level of immediacy, of appearances.

A similar move is made by Watts in his conception of “IT.” To define IT would be to fall into the traps of language that we’ve been exploring. IT, if we are to try an explicate a meaning, is everything (Watts, 113). Nothing isn’t IT, including us. IT resists our dualistic tendencies of language in that there is nothing to define against IT. Watts goes further to suppose that IT entails all of everything such that IT can never become an object; Watts thinks IT is too central and basic to the totality of existence.

No wonder our language has such a hard time latching onto the facts of reality (can we even call them facts at this point?). According to Watts, there is no way to stand outside “IT,” and there is, in fact, no need to do so. He continues, rather profoundly, that “so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself” and, in doing so, am making a grievous error about reality. In essence, if Watts is right about IT, then Nietzsche’s new science succeeds. A new science taken at the level of surface appearances would more honestly reflect reality than the empiricism which has swept up the ideology of the western world. But at this point, haven’t we just crippled language to the point of paralysis? I don’t think so. In fact, there is some optimism embedded in this seemingly damning indictment. Here, I’ll quote Watts at length:

“the fact that IT eludes every description must not, as happens so often, be mistaken for the description of IT as the airiest of abstractions, as a literal transparent continuum or undifferentiated cosmic jello…Yet in speaking and thinking of IT, there is no alternative to the use of conceptions and images, and no harm in it so long as we realize what we are doing. Idolatry is not the use of images, but confusing them with what they represent, and in this respect mental images and lofty abstractions can be more insidious than bronze

If I’m reading Watts correctly, here, then it seems that he’s giving us a pass on our linguistic representation of reality; it’s permissible insofar that we are aware of the fact that we are representing reality, not reflecting it. Language’s limitations become problematic when we treat them as a fixed truth about reality (or “IT,” to use Watts’ language). Watts is not turning us loose, lassiez-faire. He is bringing to our attention–which, remember, is vital to our language–to the fact that language doesn’t always get it right. Often, if not always, we are speaking relative to something else. To resist this view of language is to distort, diminish, and degrade, reality itself. Like all things, language is a temporal process contingent upon our perspectives on IT (pun intended). Language, then, is the story we are telling about our perspectives.

Finally, I defer to the great modern poet, Les Murray, who quite beautifully sums up a lot of the work Nietzsche and Watts are trying to do regarding the limitations of language: “Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence. / Trees, planets, rivers, time / know nothing else. They express it / moment by moment as the universe. / Even this fool of a body / lives it in part, and would / have full dignity within it / but for the ignorant freedom / of my talking mind.” Looking through these lenses, it seems crucial to me that we take time to absorb the world apart from our labels for it. If language has fundamental limitations and is always confined to the metaphorical, then it becomes all the more vital to open ourselves to the raw experience of “IT.” But, can we take hold of language such that we account for this in the way that Watts and Nietzsche are suggesting? Whatever the case, language must always be held accountable to its limits.


Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude
in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.

Watts, Alan. The Book; on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Pantheon,
1966. Print.


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