So here’s my take….
1) Some words are purely representational and symbolic.
2) Some words — or bodies of words — may actually embody the essence-of-a-thing, or “the thing as-it-is.”
3) And some words or bodies of words may actually create a thing.
In my view these three different operations of language are usually unconscious — humans don’t, in general, actively navigate the world around them via consciously ‘code-switching’ between these operations. Some may try to do this…usually those who have spent their lives intending to either a) understand and appreciate their own consciousness and agency in the world in an intuitive and introspective way, or b) have been educated about a particular approach to consciousness and agency in a systematic way. Still, extensive mastery of language in this context is IMO extremely rare.
Some examples will probably be helpful here. The first case — pure representation — is fairly easy to grasp and likely needs no examples (it seems as though the question itself is predicated on this assumption). The second case, embodying essence, is perhaps a fundamental function of consciousness itself, as evident in an infant’s gurgling as it is in a poet’s gift or a mystic’s insights. We see this in the phonemes “ma,” “muh” and “meh” which are an almost universal component of all the words referring “mother” or “motherly” in any language. How is this possible, unless there is some basic, essential unity-of-association between a given sound and its particular representation (or evocation) in our emotional experience…? In other words, in some instances a given word touches upon “the thing as-it-is” — at least in the context of universal human experience and response.
Poetic and mystical examples follow along similar lines, with kindred or identical sounds, words and phrases in many different languages (which do not share common linguistic roots) evoking similar meanings, contexts or experiences. Atman, alma, anda, pneuma, arima, anima, anam, jan (жан), neshama (נֶפֶשׁ) all relate to spirit or soul, for example. Likewise, metaphors that relate to happiness as a “rising up” experience are cross-cultural, near universals, as are idioms expressing anger or frustration that relate to being enclosed and trying to get out. Some linguistic theorists surmise that such universals reflect our common neurophysiology, or parallel developments in culture, and these are certainly viable explanations. Some behavioral scientists have even suggested that “moral grammar” — and the culture that arises around it — is itself a feature of our biology. Another explanation is that there are universal patterns, structures, energies and processes that occur on a quantum level across all of biology and consciousness — again, just a theory. And, adding to the mix, there are also intuitions of a unitive principle behind all consciousness and spirit. These theories are themselves representations from one perspective. From another perspective they are sussing out a shared ground — of being, becoming, evolving, a common cascade of interdependencies, and so on; that is, they are embodying essence. Personally, I’m willing to bet that all of these theories offer a piece of the puzzle (that is, that all of them have some degree of descriptive accuracy).
Lastly, we come to creative language. On one level, this idea is as simple as one person writing fiction, and another “experiencing” that story as a felt reality in their own mind. On another level, there is the suggestion that language itself has formative and projective capacity on human development and activity (Sapir-Whorf, etc.) — movements like “nonviolent communication” have been heavily influenced by this line of thinking. And on yet another level, there is the concept of logos within various Christian and Hermetic traditions, and the panentheism across various other traditions, that link mind and language and unfolding reality in interpenetrating ways. Even certain schools of philosophy have addressed the possibility of the projective capacity of mind on reality (from various forms of dualism all the way up to quantum consciousness), and here language can become a component of that projection as well. I’m covering a lot of ground here that probably requires more detailed elaboration, but the basic idea is that “a word” is much more than a description of a concept — it has its own substance, its own energy, its own essence, which links it more directly to the creation of other phenomena.
So this is a fascinating question, with substantial capacity for ever-broadening exploration. The danger, I think, is trying to reduce language and thought to mere representation, when there may be a lot more going on….
My 2 cents.
Comment by Danijel Starcevic: "Really interesting perspective, especially the part about the “ projective capacity of mind on reality”, with language being a component of that projection. Are there any modern scientific inquiries into this?"
LOL. No. At least not mainstream stuff. Bohm’s “implicate order,” Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance” and László's “Akashic field” theory are about as close as you’ll likely get to actual science along these lines — and the implications for language are mostly my own, even in those instances. Interesting reading though. Most of what I’m referencing is more esoteric in nature. Can it be directly experienced? Sure. Can it be replicated in a double-blind experiment? Not so much. I’m wondering if “the observer effect” actually has an impact on this — trying to measure something that reacts to the measurement instrument. Just a thought….
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