Ronan Loughney • • 15 min read
The Power of Language: How It Shapes Our Perception of Reality and Separates Us from the World
Reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass recently, I was struck by the power of language to shape the way we think, and therefore to shapeour perception of reality itself.
Apparently, seventy percent of the words in the English language are nouns, whereas in Potawatomi, the native language of the tribe from which its author - Robin Wall Kimmerer - comes, 70% of the words are verbs.
To get an indication of what this means, she gives an example: whereas we refer to a ‘bay of water’, Potawatomi speakers would instead refer to the process of ‘baying’. In other words, life, in this particular moment and location, is expressing itself in the formation of a bay.
Although the two ways of speaking refer to the same thing then, the emphasis is very different. Whereas the English language denotes a static, identifiable, separated phenomenon, the Potawatomi emphasis on process evokes an unfolding, where the subject of the sentence does not need to be mentioned because it is life itself, simply in a particular instantiation.
We see here clearly how languages shapes the way we think, since the two different ways of expressing the same thing entail two completely different worldviews! Potawatomi, like all Native American languages, arises within an animist culture and worldview, which is to say a worldview where everything, from rocks to stars to spirits, is alive, interconnected, and interacting. Modern English, on the other hand, is a product of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality and objectivity (as well as individual sovereignty, ‘progress’ etc, all of which have important connotations for how we then experience the world, as well shall see), and denotes a world exterior and other to me, composed largely of inanimate - ie dead - matter.
How different must the world be for me if I understand it as constituted by fundamentally separate, inert, mechanically determined objects as compared with as a living breathing interplay? And what are the ensuing consequences of such a perception of reality?
If I learn to refer to things as static objects outside of myself - ‘that is a chair’, ‘that is a cow’ - this has profound consequences for my experience of what the world is, because I am also saying, ‘that is not me.’. The world becomes a series of phenomena experienced as fundamentally other to myself, with all the attendant threats, scarcity and competition for resources that entails.
Thus here language shapes the way I think and perceive the world, but also the way I act in the world, which then further reinforces that perception. That is, if I begin to see the world as a collection of dangerous ‘others’, it implies that I will interact with it defensively and aggressively, and thereby will establish a dynamic of competition and aggression which will be mirrored back to me. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind and all that.
Whereas the Potawatomi language encourages us back into connection with the world, all of the modern European languages do the opposite. They atomise the world into ‘me’ and a trillion ‘not mes’, which I am either striving to consume or obtain or run away from. It creates a universe of separation and thereby antagonism and competition, because we exist under the illusion that I could possibly acquire something to my benefit at your expense. (As opposed to understanding that everything is just an instantiation of an ultimately indivisible process called ‘life’).
This process has sped up exponentially since the birth of the Enlightenment, often dated to the publication of that famous phrase: ‘I think therefore I am’. This is the phrase par excellence to demonstrate exactly how much language shapes how we think. Because it says that the first and most fundamental reality is I. The mind reflects, whereupon it discovers the self. From here it proceeds outwards to the world.
But there is a trick hidden subtly in this formulation, which reflects the exact type of conditioning which language can impose. Because it is only due to the structure of our language that we conclude that a thinking mind must denote a subject - I, and an object - Thought. But of course, this is to pull the cart before the horses! That is, only when I have separated out thought and thinker do I then discover this when ‘I’ reflect. But that separation is based on a subject/object distinction based in grammar, not reality.
(All that introspection can ever reveal is: ‘there is thought’. And if we go to the level of consciousness, of pure experience, that’s all there is. There is no subject/objective distinction. There is simply consciousness and its contents, which are one and the same.)
How language create separation
All language is an abstraction from reality, seeking to describe and make sense of it, and in so doing always falling short, because it can only ever symbolise the real. It points to it, and therefore is not it.
Language, therefore, is inherently separative. At least, in so far as we habitually forget that it is merely pointing to reality, as opposed to constituting it.
Of course, language does constitute reality in a brute way as well. When I speak a sentence, it exists, just as any sounds do. But I am also conjuring up an imaginal reality through what I am referring to. The world language refers to is not the real world, but a representation of it.
The problem is that part of learning to be a card-carrying member of society means learning to confuse the world itself for the word referred to by language. When we are children, we perceive the world directly, an endless dream of unindividuated images and nebulous sense-impressions. Gradually, we learn to separate the world into this and that, with the first grammar of separation being ‘me’ and ‘not me’.
Over time, we are so inundated with values, symbols, and positive and negative stimuli which encourage us to view the world in a certain way that we actually perceive the world as such. This is what Zizek means when he talks about ideology as indistinguishable from perception. It is not simply that we make sense of the world based on the perceptual categories given to us by language and culture. It is that we see the world through and as them.
The sense of self therefore is the first fracture in our connectedness, imposed upon us by a world of others who are lost in the same illusion and have learnt to call it reality. (This is what Anthony de Mello means when he says “The whole world is crazy. Certifiable lunatics! The only reason we're not locked up in an institution is that there are so many of us.")
That is, because of language, we have each gradually learnt to separate the world off from our perception of self. We therefore treat the world and its inhabitants as 'other', thereby reifying their and our own experience of otherness, and so the merry dance continues.
(Whether language leads to the development of a worldview or a worldview leads to the development of a language isn’t really important for the purposes of this article. What is important is that they always go hand in hand. The language we use to talk about the world shapes how we then perceive the world. And how we perceive the world shapes the language we use. That is, they pull each other down in vicious cycles. But they may also pull each other up. And pulling either lever will affect the other.)
How Language Is a Form of Control
In his thought-provoking if typically scattergun documentary ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, Adam Curtis makes an interesting connection between language and colonisation/empire.
It is not only that most empires, and certainly modern-day ones, demanded that their colonies adopted the language of the conquering state. It is that once that language has been imposed, it sets in motion a second, higher level of conquest and subjugation. That of the mind, as seen in the above example.
‘The slave in chains is as free as his master.’
When Sartre said ‘the slave in chains is as free as his master’, this is precisely because the slave, despite his physical bondage, retains the capacity for free thought. Thought, inner mental life, is not only the last bastion of freedom but could be argued as where freedom lies in totality.
That is, if I do not have a free mind and dominion over the content of my thoughts but also the structure which governs them, no amount of external freedom will mean much, because I will be a slave to random impulses, ‘junk values’ (as Johann Hari puts it in Lost Connections) and so on.
I cannot be said to think freely if I am not even aware of the structure (grammar) under which my thoughts operate. I am like a rat running up and down a maze who mistakes it for the world, when really the parameters of my experience are dictated entirely by the maze and the whole world beyond is completely unknown and inaccessible to me.
It is in this sense therefore, that the final frontier of empire is language. Because when I control language, I control thought. And when I control thought, I control how someone sees and inhabits the world.
An invasion which includes the imposition of language is not only the last in a long line of encroachments on freedom, but of an entirely new and more profound nature, since it is invisible to me as it overlaps with my very sense of reality.
This invasion is so profound because of this invisibility, erasing even the capacity for dissent by implanting the culture and value system that co-constitute it into the minds of the colonised.
It is in this sense that we have all been enslaved by modern culture. We have been indoctrinated into a way of seeing the world which thereby makes us participants in the desecration of that world. We have been conned into polluting our own home, because we have come to see a home as a house, and a house as a collection of items that can be broken, exchanged, chucked out without consequence. The room is on fire, while we’re fixing our hair.
Consequences of a Language based around Separation
Once established, this sense of separation - of a world as composed of subjects and objects - reinforces itself and becomes more and more deeply embedded over time.
One consequence of the objectification of our reality has been the development of technology. Most technology can be seen as the imposition of human intelligence in order to subordinate the environment to its own ends (although there is also technology which operates in harmony with the natural environment). From a pitchfork to a rocket ship, technology allows us to manipulate nature to achieve ends that would not be possible according to the restrictions nature places on us by default.
But the whole desire to subjugate my desire to my whims is founded on the principle of separation codified in our language!
The further technology advances along these lines, the further we become estranged from our environment, and the more we perceive it and understand it in terms of atomised, separate objects.
And the more technology we create, the more it mediates our relationship with our environment, making us more functionally separate from it.
Think of the progress in our means of navigation, from following the stars, to using a paper map, to using your phone. Each step is a further retreat from the real world. The map is not the territory certainly. But here there is an extra, fractal layer of alienation where I cease to be able even to read a map and instead grasp my reality through watching myself move on the map in order to figure out where I am in the real world!
That is, through the creation of the digital, we have created a new layer of reality that not only mediates but actually replaces reality. That is how you complete alienation. When it is not only that you forget the way home. You forget that where you are right now is not, in fact, your home.
Language, Separation and Control In Modern Society
One particularly stark example of this is in the progressive left’s insistence on the endless demarcation of groups into ever more specific categories. Whilst the intention of this process is good: to honour the specific experiences of marginalised groups who have for too long been sidelined, exploited, terrorised and worse by society, the effect is the opposite. We become ever more atomised according to whatever identity category we fall into, seeing one another as fundamentally ‘other’, which is to say threatening.
This language tells us, fundamentally, we are not the same. We are in fact so different that our differences must constantly be acknowledged and born in mind throughout our interactions so that we do not offend each other based on our inalienably incompatible perceptions of reality.
[IMPORTANT: I am not deriding identity politics or the employment of language which is sensitive to different people’s lived experiences. It is vital that we acknowledge the differences in people’s backgrounds and present realities and that we appreciate we are not all starting from the same blank slate. But this can go too far. I am simply highlighting a dangerous consequence if the logic of separation is followed to its conclusion.]
This too is deeply ironic because separation is exactly what political correctness seeks to correct. It aims to create an ‘inclusive’ world where all people’s experiences are honoured. But by constantly emphasising difference we instead create a reality where everyone is automatically excluded because there is in fact no shared reality or perception of reality in which we can all participate.
And it is doubly ironic because Foucault - one of the primary influences on intersectional politics via his philosophy of history and society being essentially a function of power dynamics - decried separation as one of the fundamental sicknesses of society!
He referred to this perception of separation as ‘the Medical Gaze’, modern medicine’s tendency to divide the body into isolated parts which require isolated care as opposed to understanding the body as a whole and interconnected system. (A salient example of this is in the modern pharmaceutically derived understanding of depression as an endogenous phenomenon caused by a malfunctioning brain, as opposed to a natural and correct response to an intolerable society.)
We can see how this medical gaze has spilled over into society at large, where the world is made up of separate components needing attendance rather than as a holistic and co-suffering entity whose wellness or not is dependent on the wellness of the whole.
All of which is to say that the language of identity politics can ultimately create the exact opposite effect it is trying to achieve because it is itself a product of the grammar of colonisation and separateness and alienation. It acknowledges the realities of colonisation, expropriation, exploitation and so forth but not on the fundamental cognitive level. It does not realise that the very structure of the ideas it propagates are themselves inherently separative and exclusionary.
The point here is not to deride identity politics, but to show how the colonisation of thought by language is such that, when we don’t realise this, we may end up further exacerbating that colonisation in our attempts to overthrow it.
What’s the Solution?
How the hell do you see beyond something which has become your sight itself?
Alright, confession time. I don’t have - brace yourselves - a ready-made answer for how to rewire humanity’s sensemaking apparatus as a whole in a way that is inclusive and progressive in a non-counterintuitive way, which honours our connection to the natural world and the self as well as preserving the dignity and sovereignty of others.
However, the first step is surely acknowledging the truth that our perception of reality has been bestowed on us by a historical worldview which is far abstracted from reality and which no longer serves us.
Once we have done that, we may begin to understand what this really means, and then perhaps solutions can emerge. By acknowledging the prison in which we are held, maybe we can begin to intuit ingenious ways to escape its walls.
It can seem like society is only splitting further apart. But one of the consequences of a fractured and atomised society is that some of those splintered-off groups are waking up to this fracturing. You wouldn’t be reading this article if you didn’t know what I meant.
It is the responsibility of these groups to reclaim a language which propagates connection and understanding. A language of the spirit and of the heart, which evokes a felt connection with the world and people around us.
This I think, paradoxically, means first going beyond language. Because the one we have received is the product of a mechanistic and culturally harmful worldview. But just as this changed out of something simpler and more beautiful, so it can change again.
Fundamental to any solution is the development of a worldview which honours our fundamental togetherness. This means going beyond thinking, beyond propositions and ‘I think therefore I am’. It means mindful awareness of the dynamic interconnectivity of all things and the headless inhabitation of pure consciousness. As with so many things, direct perception of reality is the key to freedom, not only for ourselves but society at large. This is what Tesla meant when he said:
“Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of races, and we are still far from this blissful realization.”
It doesn’t really matter whether the animist worldview is objectively true or not. Whether the world is alive or dead, whether the post-Newtonian worldview, however outdated it seems, does actually prove right. (No, I’m not buying it either).
What matters is rather that, when we treat the world as living and fundamentally non-dual, as something to which we therefore give thanks, honour, respect and so on, because we understand it as sentient and as not-other to ourselves, we feel happier and more connected to the world. We treat it with more respect and see it once again as a home rather than a guest house.
When we treat the world as alive, we feel more alive ourselves as participants in it, and we heal the sense of death that has grown with our sense of separation. When we treat the world as simply extensions and different manifestations of ourselves, we begin to feel an increased sense of happiness, an increased sense of at-homeness, an increased and larger sense of self, spilling over into the world around us.
That doesn’t mean that we start pretentiously saying that life is ‘baying’ when we see a bay. (Although perhaps one day, in a natural and gradual manner, we will return to a similarly connective language). But it does mean learning to feel into what we are saying. Remembering that words are signposts for a magisterial mystery that is unfolding in infinite complexity before our eyes each moment. And that there is no substitute for the prior felt communion with that right reality. That this must inform our thoughts and language, not the other way around.
As Krishnamurti points out, once the child knows the name of the creatures it sees, it no longer truly sees them. Because those things have become reduced to instances of a category, not unique manifestations of life.
But yet, we must call things something. And so let us try to see before we name, or at least let us acknowledge that we are seeing through our naming, and try to come a little closer to witnessing the thing-itself.
Without this felt sense of really being in the world, of aiming to see it for what it is and not just living in a world of oblique referencing, we are all just thrusting in the dark. When we try to proceed with an understanding of reality based first on thought, we encounter a perception that is automatically separative and exclusionary. We cannot think our way out of it, because it is part of the structure of the thought we employ itself. We must therefore relax back into feeling reality itself, and allow a new language to arise based on this more fundamental perception.
We must rediscover a nonconceptual, noncognitive relationship with being which is our birthright, which is the child’s default mode of being. We must become mindful. We must reinject our perception with the apprehension of beauty, of the aching thrum of life. Who knows, perhaps the things of this world will whisper their true name to us when we fall back simply into seeing.
Ronan is a writer, musician and coach, committed to seeking truth, finding beauty and deepening human connection and community.