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Language, Experience and Illusion

Prof. K.V.K. Nehru, Ph.D.

[Originally published in The Theosophist, (June 1993, pp. 339--345) under the title "Language, the Slayer of the Real." The article is revised (1998) and adopted for Reciprocity since it brings to light some of the epistemological difficulties that beset the dissemination of a new basic paradigm as in the case of the Reciprocal System.]

One of the many obstacles that a serious student of spirituality has to face is language. One uses it not only for communication, but to organize one's thinking, to direct reason and analyze nature. Sooner or later, he has to come to a clear and thorough understanding of how language distorts truth. As members of the human Brotherhood we are divided by thousands of languages. Not only man is alienated from man by language, but also more sinisterly, man is alienated from Reality by the language he uses. There are two functional levels in language: the lexical and the patternment. The lexical level is more directly concerned with meaning in expressing and communicating. There are plenty of traps in this. We would like to dwell, in this article, on the patternment level, which conditions us more deeply, through grammatical forms and other structural features.

The task is exceedingly difficult, if possible at all in its several implications, but worth trying. We would like to expose some subtle traps laid by language. But there is a vicious circle here: namely, the fact that we have to use the same language as a tool of explanation to show the traps that exist in it. We never notice any conditioning factor that occurs constantly and without exception. It then forms part of the background of experience, of which we tend to remain unconscious. Consider, for example, the force of gravity or the pressure of the atmosphere acting on our physical bodies. We are never aware of their existence unless an artificial situation is created in which they are made conspicuous by their absence---like in a free-fall or in deep diving. In a similar fashion the language of our community is a constantly occurring factor into which we are born and in which we are continually bred. Our intellectual processes have been so developed from the very beginning in the medium of language that it requires the utmost detachment and celerity to understand its traps. Even after explaining how the conditioning takes place in a specific instance, one may continue to see---as a hypnotic subject does---the salient feature being pointed out as given in nature, rather than as the result of conditioning by language. Illumination dawns only if one does not close the door of observation too soon.

The January and April issues of The Theosophist of 1942 carry a momentous article entitled 'Language, Mind and Reality' by Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf was a Theosophist and an authority in linguistics. He began his career by working for an insurance company. Once while investigating the case of a fire in a fuel company stockyard, he noticed a signboard there written 'empty barrels.' He found that those words tended to misguide, making one believe that 'empty' barrels are dangerless, leading someone to throw a lighted cigarette butt. The residual fuel from the unsealed empty barrels, evaporated in the heat of the day, had charged the atmosphere with inflammable mixture that resulted in the fire. Whorf realized how much one's behavior is controlled by language, and he turned to study linguistics and he came up with valuable discoveries.

Whorf and his teacher Edward Sapir state: "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society... The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group... We see and hear or otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."[1]

The Actual and the Factual

We are inclined to think of a world of facts as against a world of words that describe these facts. Dr. Friedrich Weissmann points out: "What is called a fact depends on the linguistic medium through which we see it... What rebels in us against such a suggestion is the feeling that the fact is there objectively no matter in which way we render it. I perceive something that exists and put it into words. From this it seems to follow that fact is something that exists independent of and prior to, language... What we are liable to overlook here is that the way we see a fact---that is, what we emphasize and what we disregard---is our work... A fact is something that emerges out from, and takes shape against a background... Language supplies us with a means of comprehending and categorizing, and different languages categorize differently."[2]

Noticing a fact may be likened to seeing a face in a cloud. Certainly, that is not inventing it. But one would not have noticed it unless he had already had the experience of faces earlier. Similarly, noticing a fact may not mean inventing it but one might not perceive it if one does not have certain forms of comprehension ready at hand, which language has supplied previously. Thus "language contributes to the formation and participates in the constitution of a fact; which, of course, does not mean that it 'produces' the fact."[3]

Suppose we consider a description without sentences, say a map, a mime or a musical notation. Then we are not tempted to regard the country, or the story unraveled in the mime, or the melody as facts. Here we begin to see that it is not true that the real world is made up of a cluster of facts, as a wall is of bricks. "Reality is undivided," says Dr. Weissmann, and since language contains units, namely, sentences, he points out: "In describing reality by using sentences we draw, as it were, lines through it, limit a part and call what corresponds with such a sentence a fact. In other words, language is the knife with which we cut out facts."[4]

Research on young children and the uneducated congenital deaf of all ages shows that they observe, think and express themselves naturally in terms of events as a whole, and not in terms of words referring to one thing at a time. R.A.S. Paget remarks: "In fact we never see 'one thing at a time'... but we have learnt to pretend that we do, and to ignore the surroundings of each selected element. We can then give each element a name or symbol, and thus acquire an entirely new power---namely, that of recombining old symbols in our minds so as to form new patterns---the power of imagining and inventing. This was man's greatest discovery, and the basis of all verbal language; we learn it at our mother's knee, but it is not natural to man, it has to be learnt."[5]

Whorf demonstrates that we use grammatical patterns---like plurality, gender, tenses, voices, and the 'parts of speech'---not only to interpret experience, but also to understand 'time,' 'space' and the 'external universe.' It would be enlightening to see how this happens by considering several of these grammatical categories. Since remaining within the tradition of our own language (or family of languages) is never going to make us realize its conditioning, linguists advocate the study of languages of altogether different grammatical structures in order to discern the nature of the conditioning of our own language. Whorf uses the American Indian Hopi for comparison.

Plurality and Numeration

In our so-called developed languages we have what may be termed the real and the imaginary plurals: e.g., 'five trees' and 'five days.' Five trees are or could be perceived as five in one group perception: but we experience only one day, today. Our language has but one form to express them both. "Cyclicity brings the response of imaginary plurals," points out Whorf, "but a likeness of cyclicity to aggregates is not unmistakably given by experience prior to language."[6]

Our awareness of time does contain something subjective and immediate, the basic feeling of 'becoming later and later.' We use cardinal numbers to represent actual aggregates. These are counted on discrete entities. Ordinal numbers differ in that they represent the process of counting itself---a sequence. The latter, therefore, could legitimately be used to refer to the imaginary plurals, like the days or the moments of time, by virtue of their sequential nature. But since our language does not distinguish between the real and the imaginary plurals, it objectifies the latter, making us imagine that they are just as much 'counted on something' as are the former. Thus our concept of time loses contact with the reality of the subjective feeling of 'becoming later:' time gets treated as a countable quantity. Language assists us to imagine time as 'consisting' of so many moments, like the units in a length. Whorf points out in Hopi an altogether different linguistic situation: our length of time is not regarded as a length but 'a relation between two events in lateness.' The Hopi, therefore, are never alienated from the subjective experience of time.

Nouns of Physical Quantity

In our language we have two kinds of nouns denoting physical items: nouns indicating individual things and nouns for a mass of things. Water, wood, sand, air are examples of the latter. Such nouns denote a uniform medium without implied boundaries. Convenience demands that these nouns be individualized by some further linguistic tool. Consequently we say a 'glass of water,' a 'bag of sugar,' or a 'dish of food.' In all these cases the nexus 'of' denotes contents.

But the formula does not lend itself to a 'heap of sand,' a 'block of ice,' a 'stick of wood' or a 'lump of sugar.' In these cases, if we withdraw the contents we are left with no container. But the linguistic pattern is identical and so while it denotes contents in the obvious cases, it suggests contents in the other, inobvious cases. The heaps, blocks, sticks and lumps seem to contain something, a 'stuff' so to say. In fact, the philosophic notion of substance or matter can be seen to arise out of this naļve linguistic practice.

Whorf explains: "Our language patterns often require us to name a physical thing by a binomial that splits the reference into a formless item plus a form... Thus with our binomial formula we can say and think a 'moment of time,' a 'second of time,' or a 'year of time.'... the pattern is simply that of a 'bottle of milk' or a 'piece of cheese.' Thus we are assisted to imagine that a 'summer' actually contains or consists of such-and-such a quantity of 'time.'

"In does not say 'it's a hot summer' or 'summer is hot;' summer is not hot, summer is only when conditions are does not say 'this summer,' but 'summer now' or 'summer recently.' There is no objectification, as a region, an extent, a quantity, of the subjective duration feeling. Nothing is suggested about time except the perpetual 'getting later' of it. And so there is no basis here for a formless item answering to our 'time'."[7]

Temporal Verbs

The three-tense system of past, present and future is in congruence with this objectified time, and colors all our thinking about time. In Hopi, on the other hand, one finds a two-tense system, of earlier and later, which corresponds better with the actual experience of duration. "If we inspect consciousness we find no past, present or future but a unity embracing complexity. Everything is in consciousness, and everything in consciousness IS and is together... Where real time comes in is that all this in consciousness is 'getting later,' changing certain relations in an irreversible manner... We can of course construct and contemplate in thought a system of past, present and future, in the objectified configuration of points on a line. This is what our general objectification tendency leads us to do and our tense system confirms."[8]

Adjectives Doing for Verbs

Consider, for example, how we express color: we render it by adjectives. We say 'the green pasture.' This practice makes us see color as a 'quality' or 'attribute' of things. This enables us to abstract color and see it in artificial isolation, 'greenness' by itself. Now in Russian and Italian color is rendered by verbs, something like 'the pasture greens.' Color is seen as an activity or modification that cannot be abstracted out from the thing. We say 'the light shines,' 'the stream shimmers' or 'the teeth gleam.' In this usage we cannot detach the glitter or the gleam from the thing, like a smile cannot be from the face. Thus, adjectival and verbal modes of rendering represent two different worlds of thought and the whole way in which a fact articulates itself is contingent on the linguistic modes adopted.

Spatial Metaphors

We say 'a long time,' 'a short while,' 'deep sorrow,' 'an elevating influence;' we say 'we do not grasp the line of so-and-so's thinking, since he never comes to the point'. This pattern is part of our objectification syndrome. It suggests an imaginary space into which we are inveigled to locate non-spatial items and see them there. But in Hopi abundant linguistic devices express intensity, tendency and duration directly, and there is no space term to be pressed into service when space is not involved. Thus the Hopi thought-world has no imaginary space. It does not locate a thought dealing with real space anywhere but in real space. It does not therefore see that physical things are in any way insulated from the powers of thought and life.

Nouns versus Verbs

Nouns and verbs have different grammatical and logical properties. English prefers nouns, Hopi, verbs. We tend to say 'I had a bad dream' rather than 'I dreamt badly.' It is part of our objectifying tendency. Sadly, this strips what is being talked about of all vividness. Consider the noun 'dream' and the verb 'to dream' or 'dreaming.' In the former we objectify, isolate and look at 'dream' as though it were a 'thing.' Spontaneity, the distinguishing quality of life from form is conveyed by the verb, whereas the noun reifies it into a thing. Regrettably, in English, some of the most important words that denote or ought to denote activity per se have no seminal verb at all! Examples are: 'awareness,' 'consciousness,' intelligence' and 'wisdom.' If we can coin 'consce' and 'intellige' as the verb forms of 'consciousness' and 'intelligence,' we see what a world of difference it makes to say 'I consce' or 'the creature consces' or 'he intelliges.'

Our preference for nouns lands us in another oddity. We first 'de-integrate' the whole and then look at it as a sum of its parts. For example, in a fountain, a river and a pond, we are able to see water as the common element. This makes us see a river as water plus flowing. Thus we fail to see the reality as it is. In Hopi, on the contrary, a fountain, a river and a pond, not only have different names but the linguistic pattern does not instigate them to abstract any 'thing,' like 'water,' from a fountainous form or a rivery flow. They appreciate each situation holistically.

Whorf observes that while the habitual thought of speakers of our language (with its preference for nouns) analyzes reality largely in terms of 'things' or bodies plus formless items like 'matter' or 'substance,' the Hopi thought-world analyzes largely in terms of 'events,' or more aptly 'eventings.' He remarks: "From the form-plus-substance dichotomy...belong materialism, psycho-physical parallelism...and dualistic views of universe in general... Newtonian space, time and matter are no intuitions. They are receipts from culture and language. That is where Newton got them."[9] Hard to believe, but true!

Rūpa and Arūpa Levels

Whorf[10] recognizes two principal levels in a language structure, the rūpa and the arūpa levels of the plane of manas. He identifies the lower level with the process of giving names to the parts of the whole flux of experience, with the rūpa or the realm of name and form (form meaning organization in three-dimensional space). By naming, these parts are made to stand in an artificial isolation. See, for example, how the words 'hill' or 'swamp' entice us to regard them as referring to discrete things in themselves, while in truth they are nothing more than local variations in altitude or soil consistency as the case may be.

The next level of language he calls the level of 'patternment' and identifies with the arūpa levels of mind. Arūpa, formless, means that there is no reference to the spatial form (visual shape), which is the salient feature of the rūpa levels. It is a realm of syntactical patterns and grammatical structures. Whorf notes: "Such patterns are not like the meanings of words, but they are somewhat like the way meaning appears in sentences... Because of the systematic, configurative nature of the higher mind, the 'patternment' aspect of language always overrides and controls the 'lexation' or name-giving aspect... The context or sentence pattern determines what sort of object the...word refers to."

For example, the sentence 'I hold it' has the same pattern as that of 'I lift it,' 'I push it' or 'I hit it,' all of which depict overt action. However, 'hold,' does not imply any action or movement. It is rather a statement of relative positions. Nonetheless, we imagine---nay, we see---'hold' depicting action in the above sentence. This is simply because the proposition is set up on the same pattern as that of the other examples that do denote action or movement.

The formula, "substantive + verb = actor + his action," is implicit in our sentence structure. This pattern prompts us to read into nature non-existent actors or agents simply because our sentence structure (when not imperative) demands a substantive for a verb. We say 'it rains,' when 'rains' itself suffices for the reality: we set up an actor 'it' to perform the action. To quote Whorf: "Hopi can have verbs without subjects...(we) unknowingly project the linguistic patterns of a particular type of language upon the universe, and SEE them there, rendered visible on the very face of nature... A change in language can transform our appreciation of the not yet freed itself from the illusory necessities of common logic which are only at bottom necessities of grammatical pattern in Western Aryan grammar; necessities for substances which are only necessities for substantives in certain sentence positions, necessities for forces, attractions, etc. which are only necessities for verbs in certain other positions, and so on."

James Jeans, the Astronomer Royal, quoting Bertrand Russell states: "...grammar and ordinary language are bad guides to metaphysics...In illustration he mentions Descartes, who thought that there could not be motion unless something moves, nor thinking unless someone thought...This view springs from a notion---usually unconscious---that the categories of grammar are also the categories of reality.

"When it had become clear that light was of an undulatory nature, physicists argued that if there were undulations, there must be something to undulate---one cannot have a verb without a noun. And so the luminiferous ether became established in scientific thought as the nominative of the verb 'to undulate,' and misled physics for over a century."[11]

When Dewey Larson propounded the Reciprocal System of Theory, the first completely successful general theory of physics, which postulates that the most basic (and the only) constituent of the physical universe is motion, scientists came up with the same objection that there can be no motion without anything moving. It took quite some time for them to realize that in a universe of motion the primary entity ought to be motion, and that all the 'things' of the universe---matter, electricity, magnetism, radiation, gravitation etc.---are different manifestations of the primary motion.

The noun-dominated languages, with their tendency to objectify and isolate are well suited for conceptualization and the progress of science. But in the same proportion, they cause us to recede from Reality.


  1. Whorf B.L., Language, Thought and Reality, John Wiley & Sons, 1956, p. 134
  2. Weissmann Friedrich, "Verifiability," Logic and Language, Series I, Ed.: A.G.N. Flew, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1955, p. 139
  3. Ibid., p.141
  4. Ibid., p.140
  5. Paget R.A.S., "The Origin of Language," Science News 20, Penguin, p. 85
  6. Whorf B.L., Language, Thought and Reality, op. cit., p.139
  7. Ibid., p. 142--3
  8. Ibid., p. 143
  9. Ibid., p. 153
  10. Ibid., pp. 246--270
  11. Jeans J.H., Physics and Philosophy, p. 86

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