• Ernesto L. Brea

Between experience and language

We are explorers

There is no way we can express ourselves fully with the use of words

We are curious observers, explorers and wonderers of this world. We investigate the environment around us, we write and learn about it, but most importantly, we experience it. All of us experience being in this world differently. We have acquired most of our knowledge from the characteristic standpoint of distant observers or scientists. The knowledge that we have gained throughout time have made us understand with accuracy most of the wonders that occur in our world, yet, on the other hand we have not gained as much knowledge about the way other living things (the world) experiences us.

Is there a reality?

Thanks to our inspiring scientists who have spent thousands of years of tenacious dedication and discipline we can nowadays answer some of the most fundamental questions of physics. Answers that help us make sense and understand some of the deepest and the most complex laws of nature. We understand and theorise about the time when everything was created; we have discovered billions of galaxies; visited neighbouring satellite and planets and calculated the distance between all stars in the heavens. But of course there isn’t just a universal reality out there to be discovered, there is also an internal reality which each of us co-construct with such complexity and sophistication that no science can comprehend with similar accuracy. Our internal reality, the way each of us experiences and interacts with the world might undoubtedly be one of the most arduous and mysterious challenges for any science.

The describing language

At the heart of each story there is the language. A language that can help us describe the world around us with detailed precision. Mathematics in this case is a language that describes most of the things we can and cannot see. Mathematics describes but not only in a quantitative manner. It can describe shapes, forms, patters, combinations, probabilities and so on. Nowadays, the results of mathematical calculations are employed in music and the arts, medicine, economics and nearly any other aspect of our lives. Mathematics helps us calculate and describe with astonishing exactitude the distance between the Earth and the Sun; the Moon and the stars and galaxies across the entire universe. So based on all the great achievements that we have accomplished since our prehistoric times thanks to the discovery of mathematics and numbers, we consider this language to be factual truths. But can mathematics describe our human phenomenons with the same accuracy?

There seem to be no discovered formulas or number representations which can describe with comparable detailed precision the way we experience being in the world . In a questionnaire about happiness on a scale from 1 to 10, different people ticking the same number 4 would have a very different experiences of happiness.

In the case of happiness, numbers simply cannot describe the intensity of it or the way we experience it as. It is a very unique experience of each individual. In this area of our lives numbers can only help us to navigate and interpret some patterns in purely subjective manner. The language of mathematics and numbers in this example fails to describe with the same accuracy some of the most fundamental attributes of our human nature.

Word definitions and experience

Of course we can describe our environment, the world around us and our experience of it with words. But can we? Can we really explain with words to someone who has never seen before what the colour green really looks like? It would take me a life time describing this colour and yet the person would never get to experience it the way I do.

If we close our eyes for one second, can we describe how we are experiencing the world? We all do, but how many of us are lost for words attempting to describe this experience? This clearly shows that there seem to be parameters and limitations to language.

Words on the other hand always carry implicit ideas. If we speak about masculine/feminine/man/woman for example, how many assumptions and ideas these words hold? And does these words carry the same ideas for everyone? Lets examine them a bit further. It is not difficult that when we try to get to the core by analysing the words masculine/feminine, man/woman, other terms such as “norm” or “traditional” unavoidably emerge too.

But what words such “norm” or “traditional” or “general” mean? And, can they be looked at with sufficient rigour? All of us might have very different definitions of what traditional or norm is according to the way we are experiencing our world. If we have grown up in a society where men are praised for their empathy, tenderness, affection and nurturing over protection, competitiveness and soldiering, the world masculine could hold very different meanings for them. Does the word “woman” carry the same implications in New York and Saudi Arabia?

This small example only illustrates how language and meaning are socially constructed terms and how many implicit ideas and assumptions language carries. Of course when we communicate with others it is very difficult to become aware of all these differences.

The word “hospital” for example could evoke different reactions in people. For some people, this word could make them feel safe, other people could feel scared and others perhaps could feel a sense of loss or grief.

Here we can see how a single word could create different imagery and how it could shape the way we think and feel about it.

If we also have a word definition to our disposal it could also change the way we think and feel about things. If we feel a little bit low and melancholic for a while and we don’t know why, having the word “depression” to our disposal can contour and shape the way we feel and think about it. It might not define with exactitude and precision the way we feel but because we seem to have a limited vocabulary, the word “depression” is the closest we can find to describe our experience, but not quite.

Here we can see how language can shape and separate us from our own experience creating different realities. Language in this case is able to mould and shape our reality at the same time that our reality is shaped and mould by our language.

It is important during therapy to recognise the importance of language and how it may influence the way people experience and make sense of lived experiences.

The prison of language

When we communicate with others there always seem to be some gaps between the experience and the language. We may be trying to find the right word to describe the experience but the word will always slip away. There is always something extra added, an implication that comes along with it. In this case, if we have, for instance, one word for “love” or being “in love”, how do we describe the complexity and difficulties that this feeling holds?

I believe that it is important to look at language with sufficient rigour to realise just how limited it is when we struggle to communicate our experiences. Words do always carry implications, assumptions and nuances that can separate us from the experience itself. We seem to be trapped in a prison of language, something which Heidegger realised long ago but yet again we need our own assumptions to be able to move forward. Perhaps it is here between language and experience where most of us seem to be dwelling on.

“Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.” – Martin Heidegger, German philosopher, Letter on Humanism, 1947

Images on Creative Commons licence courtesy of the fraSon of Groucho,  decade_null

#counselling #existentialism #language

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