Pitfalls of Higher Language
I love language. My faculty for the English language makes it harder to learn others, because basic communication is always the first step, but a seemingly meager end. Nevertheless, my last week of embodiment work reminded me that higher language has a deep shadow. There is great utility in language as it is the fabric of reason, but it also takes us away from our bodies and world.
There’s a saying, not only in the spiritual community, but also colloquially, that sometimes are people are stuck “in their head.” This is a real and problematic phenomenon. Loops of inner verbalization, anecdotally more prevalent in those with the highest linguistic abilities, distract from all else. It’s not coincidence that a general aim of various mindfulness practices is to calm or halt the inner voice. Many, until adopting this practice, are hardly aware that there is a conscious experience of more than what is verbal. It can be jarring for one like myself who spent a great deal of life caught up in internal dialogue to realize that there is experience beyond this. I would argue the most satisfying experiences are sub-verbal. Or perhaps I should say, super-verbal. It may very well be transcending language eliminates it.
But well before transcendence, language has been on a long rise. The cutting edge of linguistics research presents an extraordinary tale of the evolution of the human language, from our earliest vocalizations to the poetic formalization of our two best understood ancient languages, Latin and Sanskrit, themselves surprisingly close relatives.
Our first voices were likely exclusively external vocalizations, like those we still share with many of fellow members of kingdom animilia. Our working memory was limited and any thought we had said out loud, in the moment. We might have been savage, but we were unfailingly honest. Eventually, we developed the inner voice, first a mere mirror of the outer voice.
We could then keep our thoughts to ourselves. I suspect our first thoughts were far from profound. They were probably along the lines of, “eat, kill, fuck,” or, “happy, sad, mad.” Those were simpler times, though many of us today might consider them hardly inferior. The essence of our lives has changed little, for all the flourishes.
Our first words named objects and actions; what was tangible. I should note evolutionary linguistics suggests that spirituality preceded language. This is a vital point. Modernism tends to denigrate spirituality, but as our most primal selves, we seem to have had an intuitive connection to that beyond what we plainly and materially encounter. The next important step in our linguistic development was reflexivity.
By then, we could speak of I, and we, and they. This was immensely useful in developing complex societies, as we could partition ourselves into many parts, yielding what we could in today’s lingo describe as an increase in productivity through specialization. Initially, it probably helped to formalize societal hierarchy, which exists in nonlinguistic beings like apes and chimpanzees, but most notably helped homo sapiens become the most lethal species on the planet. Indeed, the most likely reason that language developed to assist us in group coordination was so that we became better at killing. It’s worth taking a breath to consider that language’s progression from death enabler to Proust.
At some point we made a quantum leap into abstraction. We could then no longer only speak of what was, but what could be. We were not longer constrained to the now, but talk of and distinguish between past, present, and future. We broke out of three dimensions, and entered the world of n-dimensions. Skipping just a few steps between, mathematics flourished with science, and reason paved the long road to modernism. Literature went beyond representing the layers of our lives — it began to add to them. But today, we reflect not on this glory, but on the discontents. Some flavor of postmodernism is essential to our contemporary beingness.
The core limitation of modernism is that it cannot explain everything. Modern society ramped the evolutionary pressures on the development of extraordinary verbal intelligence. Humans today are, in a sense, likely smarter than they have ever been. We are certainly better at arguing with each other than we have ever been. That does not however mean that we are wiser.
In one of the MIT Press Readers, I recall a discussion around that demonstrated that smarter were better at arguing, but no better at making decisions in the realms of business and politics, based on how their decisions mapped to eventual real world outcomes. Anecdotally, I see this all the time. There’s a reason the world isn’t ruled by MIT’s top decile. Intelligence, one one hand, can help us advance the world. But on the other, it can also take us away from it.
Some strains of postmodernism attempt to blur language and experience. Many critiques of such writing essentially argue that they don’t make sense. True, but they weren’t trying to, at least in the modernist method of sense-making. To criticize those works in that way is akin to criticizing Picasso’s works for a lack of definition. I myself have a hard time reading such works, but when I take time with them, I enjoy their richness and texture. I see them not as a replacement, as but as a softer complement to the harder styles of writing rooted in tight reason. An expression of feeling and sentiment need not be written in the same style of language used for formal argumentation. These works feel like a liberation of language, bringing us back a bit closer to what we actually feel and experience. It may be that final stage of linguistic evolution is the disappearance of language entirely. In a post-economic humanity, we may perceive formal abstraction as a barbaric pursuit suited only to machines, not our higher selves.
I opened by saying I love language, and I still do. But I also recognize that much of the experience of life is nonlinguistic. To try to describe can take away from the experience of what is. It useful to describe experiences to others as templates, inspiration, or guidance for how to achieve such experience. But one of the most valuable lessons I have recently learned is the importance of “dropping in,” which involves letting go of language. We are already in the most beautiful world, if we can just pause to experience it.