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5.4 Language and the reconstruction of reality


It is a matter of personal experience for many who work with different languages that things can be said in one language which cannot be adequately expressed in another, if at all. It is extraordinary that so little attention is paid to the significance of such observations. Their implications have been largely neglected by the academic world and by the world of policy-making bodies whose views they reinforce. The problem is left to the technicalities of interpreters if multi-lingual discourse is accepted. The problem is especially well-disguised by those who believe that everything can be adequately articulated in a mono-lingual environment, particularly one such as English. It is ironic that this point has been highlighted by a journalist, Howard Rheingold, in a simple book: They Have a Word for It: a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words and phrases (1988).

Rheingold suggests a thought experiment with the material he presents (which might also apply to entries in this section): "See if you can recognize an experiential reverberation (yoin) or a state of emotional and spiritual revitalization (sabsung) when you run across one of them in your life. Think about ta and Wen and see if you don't understand life and thought in a different way. Meditate on mu and watch your mind struggling with thoughts that can't be captured in nets made of words."

He cites Alan Watts (The Way of Zen, 1957): "We have no difficulty in understanding that the word tree is a matter of convention. What is much less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned....Thus scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions....a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs -- so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities."

Much of the material in this section derives from non-English sources. Much of it is about the limitations of language in expressing levels of significance beyond that which can be effectively captured by words. The challenge may be that what we need to understand may only be expressible in a "language" that we do not know.

The issue for academics is whether language is a thought-tool, or whether thought is a language tool. Do words merely provide the vehicles through which internal perceptions are externalized and shared, or are they templates that determine how and what it is possible to think? This question continues to be a matter of debate amongst linguists, anthropologists and psychologists. As Rheningold notes, most English-speaking people equate "thinking" with "state of mind". Yet there are other languages in which there may even be hundreds of words for states of mind that do not include "thoughts" as defined in English.

The limits of current epistemological frameworks in understanding mysticism have been summarized by Donald Rothberg (Understanding Mysticism: transpersonal theory and the limits of contemporary epistemological frameworks, 1989). He draws attention to the constructivist perspective reviewed by Steven Katz (1978, 1983) which maintains that mystical experience is, at least in part, constructed on the basis of a particular background context. "In this way, many constructivists challenge two of the central claims whose validity seems vital to the very possibility of transpersonal approaches: (1) the claim that mystical experiences are cross-culturally identical or highly similar, and (2) the related claim that mystics in important ways transcend their own conceptual framework, as well as conditioned modes of knowing and being in general". Further comments by Katz and others are to be found in his book Mysticism and Language (1992).

According to Rothberg, for Katz and his colleagues: "the experience of brahman is always a Hindu experience, the experience of nirvana always Buddhist, and both are fundamentally different from the Christian experience of God or the Jewish Kabbalist's experience of the higher levels of reality (the Sefiroth)." From this perspective there are no pure unmediated experiences. Every moment of experience is "constructed", in an extremely complex way, by the elements that determine its context. These may be: guiding ideological, perceptual, emotional, somatic assumptions and structures; core ideas and texts of the tradition; social, economic and political relations; activities and practices of the community; the individual's memories, preoccupations, plans, and the like. Rothberg's response is to point out that "it has been precisely the aim and claim of the most prominent philosophical and mystical projects in the dominant world traditions of the last twenty-five hundred years to come to a direct (ie unmediated) knowledge of what is ultimately real...The metaphor is not usually that of eliminating that which "stands between" or "mediates" knower and known, but the main traditional metaphors (eg ascent to the real, foundation, representation) all suggest a "pure" and "direct" knowledge in which error, uncertainty, and mere opinion are eliminated". Rothberg argues that constructivists implicitly prejudge as invalid some mystical claims, thus forfeiting their pretended claim to "objectivity" and neutrality. Furthermore, they do not adequately account for the ways in which there seem to be partial and sometimes full "deconstruction" of the structures of ordinary experience, including beliefs and perceptions. Finally he argues that they remain incapable of thematicizing modes of knowledge rooted in such deconstruction. Deconstruction may be understood as an activity in which the ordinary structures of experiencing are suspended. Rothberg argues that this is a simplification and that there seems to be another type in which the "constructions" of ordinary experience are recognized as such, even if they still remain operative. What is then deconstructed are not the actual structures, but the implicit assumption that there is no construction.

The important point ignored by academic approaches to deconstruction is the degree to which many of the approaches reviewed in this section involve techniques for addressing and transcending the epistemological frameworks by which an individual may be trapped. Clearly these approaches are described in particular languages, symbols and contexts. These may indeed appear strange to the western eye. The fact that such structures may influence or facilitate particular forms of experience is a secondary consideration. Non-anglophone diplomats may choose to use English because of its advantages in certain types of negotiation, but this does not mean that the results of such negotiation are simply an artifact of English.

Rothberg calls for a shift in the assumptions of contemporary epistemology which might involve retention of many constructivist emphases on context, without the extreme relativism often accompanying constructivism and without the dogmatism which he regrets. "These new frameworks would facilitate a fuller contemporary response to the concerns of how to balance commonalities and differences among human spiritual traditions and how to interpret, in the postmodern situation, such traditions as contributing to the resolution of contemporary cultural problems. In our context, many of these theoretical questions appear charged with practical urgency."

If many of the approaches identified in this section do represent carefully worked out ways of operating on habitual and other structures (as many would claim), it would be foolish to reinforce any disparaging attitude towards them. They would even be of interest if they only offered ways of modifying the structures associated with a particular culture. But they are especially interesting to the extent that they offer ways for individuals, and affinity groups, to construct and inhabit coherent alternative realities.

The issue is whether as individuals, or groups, we can find ways to construct a more powerful and appropriate language by which to order our experience in a life-enhancing manner. It is quite possible that the radical shift in lifestyles that is increasingly called will only become credible and viable when mediated through a language that needs to be constructed. Whether that language can be widely shared, or is private, or is an ecosystem of languages, remains to be explored.

In his chapter Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning in his book Mysticism and Language (1992), Katz suggests that although, to the mystic, "all language .... is too impoverished to perform the role assigned to it and .... the true unity of Being transcends both linguistic expression and the very particularity that language necessarily entails", there is no access to the experience of the great mystics except through their writings. In a chapter Literal and Nonliteral in Reports of Mystical Experience in the same book, William P Alston reviews the language in which, in Christian writing, the mystical awareness of Christ's presence has been described. Despite the struggle faced by mystics such as Saint Teresa when attempting to express themselves in language, Alston maintains that such descriptions may be taken literally rather than taking the "undiscriminating view that everything in such reports is to be understood analogically, metaphorically, or symbolically". Perhaps the problem is more, as David Hume said, that "a blind man can form no notion of colours, a deaf man of sounds". When we have the experience ourselves, we understand what the mystic was trying to say, until then we are as the blind or the deaf.

It is interesting that many writings do not so much describe the mystic experience as give directions as to the route to give rise to such experience. Many of the paths for development included in this section, particularly from the Buddhist tradition, give explicit instructions for realizing mystic experiences, assuming that if one follows that path one will realize the experience that has proved so difficult to describe. In Hinduism, Upanishads indicate that although experience cannot be taught it can be learned. Clearly, some paths can only be understood by actually following them (Taoist alchemy, Kabbalah). This may be one origin of claims of secrecy, although it may be that the meanings are not so much secret as that they can be transparent only to the initiated. The language is meaningless without prior experience, indeed might be fatally or dangerously misunderstood if made generally available or if falling into the wrong hands. With reference to the literal or nonliteral use of language in describing the mystic experience, it is again problematical whether paths such as that described in Taoist alchemy are meant to be taken literally, analogically, or both.

However, even when using language to assist reproduction of the mystic experience, rather than attempting to describe the experience so produced, the language used may in fact shape the experience. As Katz says, "the experiences themselves are inescapably shaped by prior linguistic influences such that the lived experience conforms to a preexistent pattern that has been learned, then intended, and then actualized in the experiential reality of the mystic".An additional complication is the distinction between the spoken and the written word. Many mystics and religious teachers have banned the writing down of their teachings, as the written forms "lack the organic vitality of oral communication". By tradition, the Upanishads are said to have existed for thousands of years by being passed on orally, and were only written down as a last resort when it was feared they were being forgotten.

Can one reproduce another's experience ? Gerald Edelman, in his book The Remembered Present (1990), suggests that consciousness is based on a mapping system which builds up metaphors and models in what would appear logically a bizarre or unexpected manner unique for each individual, and that therefore no two individuals' experience can be expected to correspond exactly. Even one's own perception of a phenomenon is never the same twice. However, similar backgrounds give rise to similar (although not the same) perceptions, which would support Katz' assertion on the uniqueness of experience for each tradition. It is the imaginative use of language in building up metaphors and models in unexpected or bizarre ways that produces the dynamic metaphorical models in the mind which in turn allow the individual to escape from external constraints and build his or her unique future.

Katz is clear that language is not only descriptive but can in itself perform an essential mystical task. This is the function of the Zen koan, of paradox, "to induce 'breakthroughs' of consciousness", when "violation of the laws of logic are intended to shock, even shatter, the standard epistemic security of 'disciples', thereby allowing them to move to new and higher forms of insight/knowledge". He further cites Shankara's commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad with respect to repetition of the mantra "Om", the mystical syllable, where "language - here the great mantra - helps create the transmogrifying conditions of that purified consciousness that allows one to become immediately aware of the existential truth that Atman is Brahman in one's own life". Despite the lack of emphasis on linguistically induced techniques in the Christian tradition, Katz asserts that "in all the major mystical traditions .... language as a psycho spiritual means of radical reorientation and purification is present" and "language is integral to mystical practice", and further, that "mantras, koans, mystical alphabets and lexicons, ascent texts, prayers, the repetition of scripture, the recitation of religious poetry, and still other linguistic acts embody a primal, radiant, metaphysical energy. They incorporate and encapsulate a dynamic power, the dynamic power, that enlivens the entire cosmic order. By deciphering their meaning, by utilizing their potential, the mystical personality is empowered to alter its own nature and fate, and thereby effect the historical and metahistorical order of things".