On Language and All That Is Lost in Transit

Is there anything more than those ideas and thoughts that can be put into words? Can you think something that is unable to be expressed, something that cannot be mechanically translated from the ‘pre-lingual’ notion in your head into a collectively understood syntax? Is there ‘thought’ before language? This is the question that remains to be answered.

In a highly scientific age, such as our own, the habitual response is to make thought a universal feature in nature; to flatten thinking, until it is ubiquitous. Clearly, the brain operates before language is acquired. Infants ‘think’ in this colloquial sense – that is, they exhibit the outer signs of life, they have some sensory experience. They smile back at the face of their mother. They cry when they feel pain. Animals could be said to ‘think’ in this way as well. The lion intends to hunt for it is hungry. The sparrow builds its nest and feeds its young. The outworks of intent are present. These ‘thinking’ creatures respond to stimuli and mere “sensations are enough to guide them automatically” (Durkheim 338). Thought understood like this – as a feature of sentience, undifferentiated – is a reflection of our modern, scientific ethos, which urges us to imagine ourselves as indistinct from nature. Of course, the scientists are right. Each of us is part of nature. We are composed of the same material and have a shared physiognomy: we are animals. Yet, it seems to me that the drive to entirely untether thought from anything specifically human is misguided. Schopenhauer said somewhere that “the mere addition of thought gives rise to the vast and lofty structure of human happiness and misery from the same basic sensations of pain and pleasure, which are experienced by every animal.” (Schopenhauer, 17). He captures a subtlety that has been lost in modern discourse. We can embrace our animal nature, while simultaneously understanding mankind as somehow distinct, and that thought is the demarcation. It seems, however, we are still in desperate need of a definition of thought. To settle on one, we must seek out that which separates man from animal because that is thought.

Vision once seemed to me to be the most objective sense. However, a recent visit to an optometrist disabused me of this notion. Regardless, I think the intuition is quite common. Unlike smell or taste, which are challenging to describe in language, the experience of sight seems so easily communicable. I am now convinced that, in actuality, vision is the most deceptive, precisely for the apparent effortlessness of its transliteration into words. If I were to attempt to describe a sensation, I could convey the abstract concept, but none of the feeling: “it is impossible for me to pass a sensation of my consciousness along to some else’s consciousness; it has the stamp of my body and my personality and cannot be detached from me” (Durkheim 329). Indeed, I have no way of knowing that the subjective experience of the other has any true correspondence to my own. The general concordance gives no reason to be suspicious, all the while the actual texture of the experience is abraded by language.

Thus, for accurate measurement to occur, one must be removed from reality and introduced to an entirely artificial environment: a well lit, alabaster white room. The depth and color of the world constitute the first sacrifice: a reduction of dimensionality and a desaturation of vividness. I sat, as one does, in the chair opposite the eye chart. The rows of letters descended into oblivion, marching down the wall until they were impossible to resolve. Through the precision of the vision test, I was reminded of just how much reality is sacrificed to construct perception. So much of everyday experience can not be as it appears. If overlaying a convex pane of glass in front of my eyes, suddenly sharpens the world and brings it into focus, then what reality was I living in before? It didn’t feel blurry. Few considers the particularity of their own perspective until it scrutinized relative to others. The limits of perception are all but imperceptible to any single individual. We can only know ourselves through comparison for “each is furthest from himself – with respect to ourselves, we are not ‘knowers'” (Nietzsche, Genealogy, 1). The artifice of seeing is taken for granted. 

Conditions, pathologies and abnormalities of all types have an interesting power to illuminate the unspoken definitions of normalcy. What does life look like when realized in bodies which betray the absence of things that other hold in common? Just as no one considers oxygen, until they are short of breath, we need the counterfactual to recognize the function of the mundane and the ubiquitous. Otherwise, all these things held in common recede from view and they are so overtly present as to become part of the background.

Insanity has a revelatory character precisely because the extent of the normal is defined by what is considered deviation. I find that insanity is best understood as a breakdown in communication, where an individual slips out of mutual intelligibility and their thought processes takes on a ‘irrational’ character. It is more a social label than a medial diagnosis. It is a decline from a previous state of mental health. I had two brushes with insanity over the summer. The first I no longer remember. The second prompted this reflection. “Who is more sick, the man who bellows out incoherent cries, which slip the bonds of language and communicate something more primal: anguish; or the man – the men, women and children – who listen to that anguish, that insensate shriek, and pretend to hear nothing. Who is mad in this exchange? One has lost his grip on reality, the other willfully rejects it. The former has nothing to hide; he could not lie even if he wished to mask his suffering. The latter, however, feigns ignorance – he pretends to an immaculate conscience. He is pierced by the scream, yet he does not react outwardly. Perhaps, at most, a head is lifted from a screen, a gaze averted, an eyebrow raised. But even this is unusual. The normal response is a peculiar type of unseeing. An incomplete blindness where one observes, but does not feel. A dispassionate affect that is most disconcerting, especially when I came to recognize it in myself. Everyone, for an instant, is an actor. Each is compelled to play the role, for if the mask were to slip, even if just for the briefest second, the illusion would disintegrate. The crowd –  the cast of this lifeless tableaux – would be forced to acknowledge the oh-so-tenous order of our streets, of our relations with other men and of the mind itself. Insanity is studiously ignored in order to foreclose this reckoning. We don’t avert our eyes and muzzle our reactions for their sake, but for the maintenance of a shared illusion.”

To return to my subject, it seems to me that genuine incoherence, an inability to communicate, is where thought ends. The contrapositive gives us a definition of thought: thinking begins with mutual coherence, the capacity to formulate an idea in such a way that it can be conceptually revitalized in the mind of another. To think is to enter communion with other minds. Durkheim says bluntly that lacking this capacity, man “would be inseparable from animal.” True abnormality in thought is not the realm of heretics or contrarians who, despite their pretense of nonconformity, are indistinguishable from the normal in comparison to the unarticulatable foreignness of someone who has never known language.

Languaglessness of this sort is not conjectural. Particularly before the rise of mandatory childhood education, when it was not rare for the pre-lingually deaf to go unexposed to anyone besides their immediate family for decades. For instance, in 18th century France, Jean Massieu was without language until the age of seventeen (Sacks 35). Born deaf, his sole mode of communication until his teenage years was a invented form of sign language, so rudimentary that it lacked any sort of grammar. A human being is not mindless or mentally deficient without language, but he is severely restricted in the range of his ideas. “It is not that he lacked a mind, but that he was not using his mind fully” (Sacks 34). Language is more than a simple substrate. It is not just strings of symbols on a page or successive utterances, vibrations in the air produced in response to breath pushed out over the larynx. Rather, it exerts an active force on our thoughts. In a concrete way, Wittgenstein is entirely right in saying that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” particularly with respect to language’s absence. The essential function of language is not to merely to enable the mechanical act of communication, but produce the shared conceptual understandings that make communication possible. Unexposed to language’s symbolic inheritance, people are largely restricted to a world of immediate sensation, devoid of any abstract, communal concepts. These isolated souls are perhaps the only true individuals.

Though I have no direct experience with deafness, I have always had the vague idea that others possessed an ability that I did not. At various times, I’ve attempted to analogize it as a lack of “social proprioception” – proprioception being the ability to sense the orientation of your body in your environment. It is another one of those sedimented capacities that is invisible until absent. It allows you to move quickly and freely without having to consciously think about where you are in space. Some people lose the ability or are born lacking it. They are still entirely mobile, yet each motion must be deliberate and conscious which results in a wooden, uncanny movement.

While I can move my limbs intuitively, conversation has always demanded a concerted effort. My attempts are clumsy and awkward. I sound uncoordinated as if my tongue is decoupled from the thoughts it articulates. My words lurch out either in a rapid staccato or languid, hesitating drawl, interrupted by long pauses. I am fortunate to look the way that I do and so my ineptitude is charitably mistaken for aloofness or disinterest. I wonder what I would have been diagnosed with if I appeared differently or if I wasn’t adept enough to compensate for my lack of social intuition with rote stories, each practiced until the artificiality of the performance had been erased.

I am excruciatingly aware that the concepts and grammars that sustain communication across distinct and fundamentally isolated consciousnesses are not without their costs. Damage had to be done to facilitate this communication. Nietzsche says that “the history of language is the history of a process of abbreviation.” (Nietzsche, Beyond, 216). I’ve described already the cost of maintaining the shared illusion, which is the lie that each of us can truly speak and be heard. We compress ourselves and make ourselves similar, common. Still, when we talk to each other, though we speak in the same language, it has been subtly particularized. If language is mere abbreviation, then the dictionary is imprecise – contingent upon various experiences and individual interpretations.   

I am struck by how much is lost in that vertiginous space between consciousnesses, an intellectual Sargasso littered with the wrecks of ill fated voyages from one mind to another. Or perhaps this distance better conveyed as a desert that must be traversed: a dry and barren plain, whose unyielding sands overwhelm all but the most equipped caravans that attempt a crossing. I imagine a vast expanse, like those depicted by Dali. Wastelands studded with heaps of broken images, jettisoned or abandoned in transit.

Language enables the journey, but the delicate, and entirely personal, structure of an idea is denatured in the transition from one mind to the next. The cost of thinking is the sacrifice of specificity. To convey an idea, one must express themselves in stable, universal concepts, which are the work of the collective. For my part, I prefer for my ideas to remain in my head. Language has a way of dulling them. The damaging conversion to thought is one to be avoided if it can be helped. My attempts to communicate an idea are almost always an exercise in mediocrity. I feel that my language doesn’t have the expressive capacity to present anything beyond the most tenuous contours of an idea, the most hazy depiction, always in an autumnal hue, never with the vibrance of a living thought. “We immortalize what can live and fly no longer – only weary, mellow things! And it is only your afternoon, you, my written and painted thoughts … but nobody will guess how you looked in the morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude.” (Nietzsche, Beyond, 327).


Durkheim, Emile. Elementary Form of Religious Life

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Essays and Aphorisms

Sacks, Oliver. Seeing Voices

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