Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Materialization of Thought

The stray thought struck me the other day that language may be a kind of materialization of thought—a happy circumstance allowing us to communicate in this world of boxes. Words are sounds or their symbolic representations. Depending on the language in question, the words lo, Pferd, equus, and cheval all mean the same thing in English, horse. The entity so designated is the same no matter where observed; we may quarrel over what we’re seeing, a phenomenon or noumenon (the kind of questions, evidently, Russians can get into fights about (link)), but what is certain is that what we call it is quite arbitrary—if many people all agree. At the same time, quite obviously, when we finally call it by some name, it seems to take on a special quality missing, somehow, until that name’s affixed—hence, presumably, Helen Keller’s earth-shaking discovery that a particular hand-gesture and the experience of water were one and the same thing. With a little help from the Creator, who presented the world’s animals to Adam, this process of naming began, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19).

But why do I call this the “materialization of thought”? I do so because we can’t communicate without a material medium—sound, gesture, or writing. The inner perception, say of a horse, is present in the mind—say in a dream. But we cannot convey that image, as we perceive it, to anybody else without the use of language. As children we are taught each name—and acquiring each word is an act of socialization. Since words merely represent, as a sound, something they are not, we manage to compress one kind of reality, however complex, into another, which is a realm of sounds. To speak of abstraction here is actually false—since abstraction comes from the Latin for “drawn away.” Rather the opposite happens: words are “stamped upon” something real out there. We engage in an abbreviating substitution of sounds for often massively complicated relationships. Thus five words will do it if I want to ask for “equal justice under the law,” but unpacking those sounds into a living reality might be almost impossible without days of demonstrations on the scale of the Passion Play at Oberammergau.

The great convenience of words—for creatures who, in another and more perfect realm, may well communicate just thought-to-thought but here are boxed into bodies—also has its problems—for the very reason that words are arbitrary and the meanings we attach to them always vary and change over time. Therefore misunderstandings are inevitable—and people talk right past each other all the time. The material nature of meaning-sounds, however, also gives us the delights of poetry—where we can play with sounds in efforts to produce exalted or funny meanings just by the art rubbing of this word against that one.

A last note. I refer, earlier to the “world of boxes.” The phrase comes from Carl G. Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. There Jung recalls a near-death experience of his; it came in the aftermath of a heart attack. After some quite stupendously elevated experiences, he found himself back again. “Now I must return to ‘the box system’ again,” he thought. “For it seemed to me as if, behind the horizon of the cosmos, a three-dimensional world had been artificially built up, in which each person sat by himself in a little box.” Thank the Lord we’ve found a way to penetrate that cardboard and thus can talk to one another.

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