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Problems of Language

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Over View

A major issue in modern philosophy is language and the problems that it causes. Language can be considered to be a major way of relating to an external world of objects and events. This external world is created by our consciousness. Consciousness creates its external world by first creating objectivity.

Consciousness creates objectivity, and it does this by assigning value to objects and events that are important to it. What we like is assigned positive value, and what we dislike is assigned negative value. These values become incorporated into language; by this means we can discuss and debate these values.

Consciousness creates objectivity, and the particular view of objectivity that is created reflects our value system. Language is the expression of this system.

Sub - Headings
Going round in Circles
Circular Nature
Self-Reference 1
Projection and Introjection
Self-Reference 2

However, we need to understand how values first arise. Values are socially-accepted standards, and this is why they are incorporated into language and made aspects of objectivity. Nevertheless, values are derivative. Before objectivity can arise, subjectivity has to have its day. Subjectivity always precedes objectivity. The aspect of subjectivity which is important here is that of  meaning.  The individual person explores what is meaningful to him or her. Then if the person's subjective meanings become important to society, they are taken up as objective social values. Meanings can transform the individual, whilst values can transform society. Hence tied into the problems of language are the differences between the subjectivity of meanings and the objectivity of values. [¹]

Another idea that is needed is that of relativity. My understanding of relativity is derived from my analysis of perception, and is different from the traditional view of it. My definition of relativity is that anything that is relative has both a subjective component and an objective component to it. Relativity is a relationship between a subjective aspect and an objective aspect  of the object or matter in question. [²]

The central problem to understand is that language is self-referential, whereas values are derived from relativity. Why is language self-referential?

Going Round in Circles

During my 40s and 50s  I undertook a quest into meaning. What was the meaning of my psychological problems?  [ As a digression, this eventually became translated into ‘what were the emotional dynamics of my problems ?’ and ‘what were the unconscious ideas that underpinned them ?’ ]. [³]

I centred on using language as my chief means of solving my problems, together with the technique of psycho-analysis. My hope was that by understanding them they would disappear. What actually happened was that three times I went round in linguistic circles.

On one level I started my psychology from the need to understand fear ; I explored situations and beliefs which generate fear. This exploration led to other emotions, other kinds of situations, other beliefs. During my analysis I traversed all my dominant emotions, and ended up at fear again (after several years) ; to arrive back at the beginning generated a lot of confusion and frustration in me. This was a circle of psychology and emotion. I learned to understand myself.

On another level I started from existential philosophy and the problem of Being (the world of unchanging reality). From Being I went into Becoming (the world of changing reality). Being and Becoming are related to one another. They can only be taken to be separate when inquiry is superficial or prejudiced. Becoming led back into Being. So I ended up back at my starting point once again. This was a circle of philosophy and intellect. I learned to understand the ego and its place in reincarnation theory.

Now I am traversing a third circle, that of will and activity. I am re-experiencing situations that severely inhibited my will years ago. In this circle I am learning detachment.

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The Circular Nature of Language

This circular process is inevitable because of the nature of language. Language is based on concepts, and all concepts have only a relational existence. In Saussure's view any language term (for example, a noun) can only be defined by other terms, using relations of difference. We do not define an object by what it is (which would mean defining it in terms of its essence), but only by how it differs from other objects. This is the problem that language causes. The empirical inquiry into language, when pushed hard enough and long enough, takes the seeker round in circles.

Take any starting point and explore language for meaning. A problem leads to an answer X, a concept X ; but then X is seen to depend on concept Y. As Y is explored it is seen to depend on concept Z ; and Z only leads to concept A, etc, etc. If the person continually pushes language in order to try to extract meaning from it, the person simply chases one relational term after another. Meaning is always deferred unto the next term in the sequence.

If this pushing of language is maintained long enough then the relational chain brings the person back to his starting point. In this manner language functions as a philosophical-Idealist intermediary system between the individual and the world.[4]. Relations hold only between ideas and events, and not between objects. Language is like a circle, there is no beginning and no end to it ; it is just a treadmill. However, each time that I go round the circle my intellectual grasp becomes more sophisticated as I eliminate confusion and self-deception.

Each era poses new problems. Empiricism refines the awareness of these problems, so the intellectual standard of each era becomes more sophisticated than that of previous ones. Therefore the way that the circle of language is traversed is always different from one era to the next. The quest for truth always brings the seeker back to his starting point.  What does this circular wandering achieve?  As the seeker's intellect grows in power he can gradually eliminate self-deception from his mind and begin to form an accurate assessment of his state of evolution.[5]. Without such an assessment, choice is illusory.

Language is an intermediary between the individual and society. Meaning does not reside in language but in the individual. Therefore if a person seeks meaning in life through language, he goes round in circles. What needs to be done is to first find meaning in life, and then encapsulate it in language. Language has the function of converting meanings into values.

The relational nature of language has led many seekers who have accessed high spiritual states of consciousness to spurn intellectual (that is, linguistic) understanding of their experiences. Unfortunately this has meant that they become incapable of explaining those experiences to other people.

The circular nature of language is derivative and not primary. It is derived from the way that desire and emotion create a psychological loop within the mind of each person, the loop of  projection and introjection. This is described below.

Sometimes language forms a closed system of thinking; this happens when any framework of knowledge tries to ask and answer all questions concerning values and standards within its own boundaries. Such a system does not lead to the acceptance of any knowledge that is outside those boundaries. So another name for a closed system is an ideology.

A closed system of thought pre-supposes that all answers are contained within it. Language can be open or closed. If the individual keeps his mind open as he seeks for truth then the language circle remains open and the journey is more of a spiral as that person achieves ever greater sophistication of his knowledge. All concepts of reality are contained in language. As the empiricist and the thinker continually attempt to refine the problems of reality so language evolves and the circle is never a closed one. However, once a person ceases to seek new knowledge, his mind and his language become closed systems - this means that familiar problems just reproduce familiar stereotyped responses.

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Self - Reference 1

Because language has a circular nature it is self-referential. The idea in the mind is not identical to the objective referent (the external object which gives rise to the idea of it in my mind). Language comes between the individual and the object, or, language comes between the individual and reality. Language is simply a construct that is put on reality ; language does not mirror reality as it is but only as we are conditioned (or constructed) to see it. Why is this so? Although language is derived from the mind, it functions differently from the mind.

The mind is an aspect of the ego, and the ego itself is a relative construction. The new-born baby constructs its ego by relativising the world of sensations into certain recurrent shapes, shapes that one day it will recognise as being the teddy bear, the rattle, the face of the mother, etc. It learns to discriminate by relativising its sensory stimuli into patterns. These patterns become the objects of the everyday world, and the baby becomes the subject who sees these objects. The relationship between the subjective world of the baby and the objective world of external objects is a relative relationship. Hence the ego is a relative consciousness. [6]

Now I need to bring in some terms from semiology.
Language is a system of signs, and by using signs we can communicate ideas. The sign has two parts : a name plus an idea. These parts are termed the signifier and the signified. The sign is a compound of a word that signifies, and the idea in the mind which is the signified.

The signifier is the name, which includes the sound of that name.
The image of the object in the mind is called the signified.

The sign usually refers to a particular object in the external world to which we are drawing attention. For example, the word ‘dog’ is the signifier, and the idea or image in my mind of a small mammal with four legs, etc, is the signified.

Additionally, when any aspect of the linguistic sign is examined using a perspective of time, such as how the sign actually evolved in history, this examination is termed ‘diachronic’. When any aspect of the sign is examined in its present state, without regard to how it became the way it is, this examination is termed ‘synchronic’.

For example : if today I look up the present arrangement of teams in the football league, the way that they are grouped into a table, I see a synchronic comparison. Whereas if  I follow the teams every week then a diachronic comparison unfolds (because I see the way in which the teams continually change their order in the table). [7]

Now I return to self-reference and relativity.
Language is self-referential and the mind is relative. Relativity and self-reference interact to produce specific effects. This means that the interactions between the consciousness of the individual person, the social consciousness, and language generate specific forms of determinism. [8]

Mind structures language to produce the synchronic mode.
This is achieved by the sign. This is determinism by the sign.

Language structures the mind to produce the diachronic mode.
This is achieved by grammar. This is determinism by grammar.

Language is a sign system. In my view, this system is modelled on consciousness, and so consciousness itself can be considered to be a sign system. Hence there are two sign systems, those of language and of consciousness. As an existentialist centred on the sign of consciousness I am trying to realise value from myself. [9]. In the sign of consciousness :

The synchronic mode is referential to subjective mind.
The diachronic mode is referential to language.

The diachronic mode developed as mankind became social ; society developed as language developed. At first glance it seems that language is a social product ; this view is a superficial one and is the reverse of what really occurs. In actuality, language pulls the person into social reality, into being subject to social conditioning and social learning (see article Language and Society). Language, and objectivity, is the basis of society. The social person orientates around objective values. In contrast the existential ego pulls the person out of language into intuitive contact with one's own reality. The individual orientates around subjective feelings and meanings.

The synchronic mode is the individual factor.
The diachronic mode is the social factor.

What is the difference between self-reference and relativity?
The mind is form, thoughts are content. The mind is relative form, and thinking becomes self-referential content. Therefore relativity means only that mind is involved in whatever is considered to be relative. The use of thought is language. Everything that uses language becomes self-referential. Ideas are relative but language is not.

A person can be considered to be a mixture of past and present. The present is the state of the ego (its desires and ideals), and the past is the kind of character and conditioning that the person has. The past is also the realm of determinism or karma

Another way to describe a person is:
A person is ego + karma. [10]

For the existentialist, karma relates to values embedded in language, and is therefore self-referential ; ego relates to relativity and is form. In the moment of equanimity, consciousness remains relative but ceases to be self-referential once language ceases.

I re-phrase these ideas :

The relation of a concept to reality is relative.
The use of language is self-referential.

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Projection and Introjection

In order to explain why language is self-referential, I first have to clarify the terms projection and introjection. [11]

Projection means that we imagine that our own virtues and vices and attitudes are embodied in other people. We see in other people what is in ourself. This psychological stratagem is particularly noticeable with regard to our vices. We try to escape from our faults by denying them ; we see them only as aspects of other people – it is always other people that are the source of conflict.

Introjection is the complementary process. We emulate the virtues (and vices) in the people that we admire. We incorporate into ourself the attitudes of people that are significant to us. Our own idealised image of ourself can also act as a source for introjection : we can use such an image as an object from which we can introject virtues that we need.

Projection and introjection are unconscious mechanisms and much of their content is subconscious, that is, this content is usually made up of emotions and attitudes and desires that the person is not aware of. Projection and introjection operate in a similar manner to suggestion, but at an unconscious level of mind.

Emotions are partly derived from feelings. There are just three feelings : the pleasant one, the unpleasant one, and the neutral one. This is the Buddhist understanding and I verified this fact directly during the time when I used to practise meditation. However, there are a multitude of emotions. [12]

Projection and introjection form a loop of desire and feeling/emotion. (See diagram). A simple desire-emotion loop operates when I satisfy hunger by going to a nearby fruit tree and picking the fruit and eating it. The desire to eat leads to a pleasant emotional experience. This, in turn, will lead to a new desire to eat until the stomach is full.

However, in most situations there has to be a delayed fulfillment of desire. For example, if my body is weak I may desire to build it up through better nutrition and exercise. But this desire will take time and cannot be accomplished immediately. So projection and introjection are used to fill the gap. The desire-emotion loop becomes completed in imagination. I have to remain content with imagining what my quality of life will be like once I achieve a strong body. Then, after a suitable period of time, subjective imagination becomes objective reality.

The loop of projection and introjection is described and illustrated in the articles The Loop of Intuition and Origin of Language.

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Self - Reference 2

Now I can explain what I mean by the self-reference of language. Language is modelled on projection and introjection, in the way that subjective thought processes are transformed into objective communication.

If the desire-emotion loop was always fulfilled immediately, then language would never have arisen. If, in the absence of language ability, I want to communicate my actions to other people then I can get by with a few varied grunts and pointing actions. However, this is ineffectual in situations of delayed fulfillment of desire. The importance of imagination is that it played a major part in the creation of language. Language was created so that the person could fulfill long-term desires. Animals do not have long-term desires, and consequently they have never evolved any language beyond a few sounds.

The more complex that projection and introjection are, the more sophisticated the language becomes. Now projection and introjection form a closed loop, so similarly the use of language forms a closed loop. Projection and introjection centre on the individual ; the loop points to the needs of that individual. Language centres on society ; it usually points only to the needs of that society.

The difference between the two loops is simply that the psychological one is based on individual meanings and the linguistic one on social values.

The self-reference of language is a reflection of the self-reference of society.
The self-reference of society arise from its own needs.

It is always the pursuit of needs that create self-reference.

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The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it. The addresses of my other websites are on the Links page.

[¹]. See section 5, the article on Meaning and Value. [1]

[²]. Section 2 describes aspects of relativity as it applies to consciousness. The first article in this section is Relativity of the Ego. [2]

[³]. Unconscious ideas are the basis of emotions, and are explained in the articles on Emotion, which are on all my psychology websites, such as Discover Your Mind and The Strange World of Emotion. [3]

[4]. Philosophical Idealism is the concept that the whole of reality is just a mental phenomena. This concept is described in section 4, beginning with Subjective Idealism. [4]

[5]. I have an article on Personal Evolution. [5]

[6]. See the article Relativity of the Ego. [6]

[7].See section 5 on Sign Systems. The first article is Semiology. [7]

[8]. The individual consciousness and the social consciousness are featured in the article Logic of Consciousness.
For a description of how determinism functions through the sign systems, see the article Existentialism and Psychology. [8]

[9]. For a description of consciousness as a sign system, see the article Structuralism. [9]

[10]. For the view of a person as "ego + karma", see the articles Sexuality and Ethics and Existentialism and Psychology. [10]

[11]. There is an article on Projection and Introjection on my websites Discover Your Mind and The Strange World of Emotion. [11]

[12]. See the article Notes on Emotion and Abreaction. [12]

Home List of  Articles Links Top of  Page

The articles in this section are :

Problems of  Language

Language and Society

Origin of  Language

Logic of  Consciousness

The Text in Literary Theory

Copyright @2003  Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
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