The tyranny of words

The tyranny of words
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Language is no more than crudely acquired before children begin to suffer from it, and to misinterpret the world by reason of it.Stuart Chase, The Tyranny of Words (1938)

When was the first time that you sat a behaviour or personality test? Was it at fifteen? Earlier? Perhaps even recently, at work or for prospective employment. According to a recent study1, 70% of companies in the UK use some form of behaviour or psychometric test to measure our motivators, interests, and values”. Behaviour testing is big business2, drawing in $700 million last year. Psychometric tests are in many cases, kludged together from IQ tests, personality tests (like Myers-Briggs, Jungian Type Indicators, and so on), and psychological tests (like those used to assess mental disorders). Some behavioural tests are administered within organisational teams, and are focussed on interactions between employees. Such tests treat our mannerisms, moods, and peculiar eccentricities as a puzzle to be solved. Foibles to be taken apart, put together, labeled, and imprinted on our being. Perhaps, more perniciously, tests make us curious about our traits and tendencies. We want to know where we stand in relation to our peers through an impersonal scrutinisation of our being as an object. Such a curiosity fosters only doubt and preys on our self-confidence.

When I begin to look upon other beings as objects, I begin to develop a capacity to see myself in the same way. However, the act of collecting labels for oneself and others is not restricted to any particular time or place. From the moment that I start communicating with others, I begin to develop a theory of self. This is an inventory of the things that others perceive about me, or more precisely, the object that is me—a composite of images stitched together from conversations and encounters. Such labels are useful because we can take them into our new encounters in the future, giving our interlocutors the means to grasp our personality and, in the process, furnish us with new or revised labels that we can carry forth, constantly testing and revising them. Apart from constructing oneself as a series of attributes in a stacked Jenga tower, an assessment of your’s and other’s person-object gives us a tacit understanding of where we and they are placed in the grand scheme of things. Labels are nothing but the words that stand in for attributes and objects. Language originated in the cave, where the survival of the tribe depended upon the estimation of the abilities, temperaments, phobias, and moods of its members. There was a far more urgent need to know and discuss those abstract concepts that pertained to the soul and the being than any account of objects in their environment. But language could only evolve from the senses, of things known to the eyes, ears, nose, or other sense organs of the body. These sensible ideas were then made to stand for notions and ideas quite removed from sense”. According to the onomatopoeic theory3, primitive words were moulded from the sounds made by nature and given to the objects emitting them. By law of analogy, these names would be passed on to objects which did not emit such sounds but held a peculiar likeness to the eye of the beholder. Under a still greater law—which Lord Francis Bacon called the law of respondences4—the name would be passed on to emotions, feelings, and sentiments. Since men only had words for the material facts of life, when abstract, intellectual, or spiritual ideas appeared in their consciousness, by that law of respondences, by a resemblance to a well-known material object, whose name was then borrowed by the speaker to give expression to the spiritual fact5.

Nature, even in the naming of things, suggested to men the originals and principals of all their knowledge… to give names that might make known to others any operations they felt in themselves, or any other ideas, that came not under their senses.John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

In Indo-European languages, the principal is the thing (noun), which has certain characteristics (adjectives), and which meets and interacts in various ways (verbs) with other things”. This thingness which we must all conform to may work to some extent for our physical attributes, but when we extend these conceptions to the matters of soul and character, they fail miserably. And how do categories work? By rules of subordination, coordination, proportionality, or equality. Subordination places objects in an order and hierarchy. In medieval times, celestial beings such as angels were above the humans; humans were above the animals; animals were above the plants, and; the plants were above the non-living things. Coordination, proportionality, and equality pertain to how aesthetically similar objects are to one another. Categories place us into the symbolic order of culture.

The classical (Objectivist) view holds that categories are defined by necessary and sufficient conditions which specify the properties shared by all and only members of the category. Recent studies show that, although a few of our categories fit the classical model, most of them differ insofar as they involve imaginative structures of understanding, such as schemata, metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery. Furthermore, their structures typically depend on the nature of the human body, especially on our perceptual capacities and motor skills. Such categories are formed on the basis of imaginatively structured cognitive models, and their nature is such that they could not correspond directly to anything in reality external to human experience.Johnson, M. (2013). The Body in the Mind The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

According to Edward de Bono6, all our words and abstract concepts were created in an ancient world very much simpler and ideologically backwards compared to our modern realm. But their words were frozen into permanence by language”, with little or no movement with the tide of our own conscious evolution. Meaning that we may be forced to look at things in a very inadequate way”.

The French philosopher, structuralist, and writer Jacques Lacan suggests that human beings learn to create themselves as the subject of language7. Such an abstraction of the self is inconceivable outside the system of language, but we learn to construct this subject, this selfhood, through those, and only those, possibilities offered to us by words. Our central reality is thus constructed as we are inserted into the symbolic order of culture.” When we begin to build personal and shared realities from these categories and distinctions created in the past (such as masculine-feminine, ++more-more++) we become victims of them. Categorisation is a necessary part of life and essential for us to keep evolving under changing conditions. In the Buddhist philosophy, this habit of mind is called the Lord of Speech”, which we need to make sense of the world and without which, the world would seem to slip away from us. Most especially, the category of ideologies—“Nationalism, Communism, existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism—all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do8. When categories become stereotyped, the concepts and habits enshrined by the category become harder to change.

And when it comes to feelings and emotions, language is wolefully inadequate. The French philosopher Henri Bergson said that as soon as we try to express our conscious states in words, the deeply personal conscious states change character, into less piquant, more generalised states that are impersonal, while the more poignant elements of the state are relegated to the nether regions of the subconscious. Language, which must be formulated from a grab-bag of limited, simple, and uniform words denoting generalised concepts and rigid definitions, is incapable of articulating the delicate shades of the ever fluctuating states”. On the other hand, it appears that our minds are naturally predisposed towards the generalisation in language, Language is prescriptive—its forms predetermine certain modes of observation” and interpretation”. For example, language requires an operator even when there is clearly no subject performing the action (like it is raining” or the King’s anger flares up”). Words forge a thing or event in memory and this becomes the nucleus of other associated notions and impressions. The word when recalled stirs up all these associations along with the primary correlation. An entire sequence of events may be attached to the name of the person or object at its centre. The word car could conjure up one specific incident involving a peaceful drive through the countryside or a gnarly trek up a precipitously winding road. Certain words interact with each other, one word calling up another. In the Jungian tradition, words with more poignant feeling-tones that cluster together are called complexes9. When we come across someone we fear, a former lover, someone whom we owe money, we are assailed by a torrent of inner thoughts and interacting feelings. So we may blush or tremble”. We may strain to impress or attempt to withdraw”. As in the man who after failing to hail a taxi on a busy street, tries to drop his extended arm nonchalantly, patting down a stray fringe or lock of hair, or checking his watch. As if he had a thousand eyes upon him, when in reality, his actions would have been conspicuous to a couple of idlers at hand. The complexes govern our reactions, especially the compensatory, inadequate reactions.”

Our feelings like hope, anger, are processes that are dynamic and intangible and not things that we can grasp in our hands.

Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born — the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience; the victim insofar as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell

The thing to remember is that all labels are open to interpretation. Any single gesture, remark, or act between people can have at least two interpretations: spontaneous versus impulsive; consistent versus rigid; softhearted vs weak; intense versus overemotional. Virtually all behaviour can be cast in a negative or a more tolerable or justifiable light.” Language is less a garment of thought than it is a prepared road.” Language is an instrument whose flow parallels that of consciousness” Only the universal, external form of a word is constant. Inwardly, the associations conjured up by the mind vary freely, depending on the tendencies at play and stage of development. As soon as two or more radical concepts are put before the human mind in immediate sequence it strives to bind them together with connecting values of some sort. Language and thought are not strictly coterminous.” Since sensations cannot live on on the mind, they are replaced (or transformed) into perceptions which are associations fromed from the past and the present. Perceptions require experience. Language gives that experience a particular shape in our minds.” A unique moment, or experience, does not make for perception. The record exists, but the mind does not process it, and hence there is no way to read it. The experience is perceived when there is a pattern—that is as a recurrence of something else.”

Language is experienced as a nomenclature because its existence precedes our understanding” of the world. Words seem to be symbols for things because things are inconceivable outside the system of differences which constitutes the language. Similarly, these very things seem to be represented in the mind, in an autonomous realm of thought, because thought is in essence symbolic, dependent on the differences brought about by the symbolic order. And so language is overlooked’, suppressed in favour of a quest for meaning in experience and/or in the mind. The world of things and subjectivity then become the twin guarantors of truth.Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (1980)

Since language parallels the flow of consciousness, it should come as no surprise that the ebb and tide of its evolution chart the history of human thinking. The Reformation in the sixteenth century extended the use of those religiously affiliated words to an inward, subjective association. According to Owen Barfield, it was soon after the reformation that we find alongside the syllables of tenderness and devotion a very pretty little vocabulary of abuse. Bigoted, faction, factious, malignant, monkish, papistical, pernicious, popery are among the products of the struggle between Catholic and Protestant … The later internecine struggles among the Protestants themselves gave us Puritan, precise, libertine—reminiscent of a time when liberty’ of thought was assumed as a matter of course to include licence of behaviour—credulous, superstitious, selfish, selfishness, and the awful Calvinistic word reprobate. It was towards the end of the Puritan ascendancy that atone and atonement (at-one-ment) acquired their present strong suggestion of legal expiation, and it may not be without significance that the odious epithet vindictive was then for the first time lapplied approvingly to the activities of the Almighty Hiself”10.

In a similar vein, the majority of compound words suffixed -self and the majority of compound words that attach so many psychological phenomena to this”self” entered English usage along with the rise of rationalism and the Enlightenment.”


  1. big business

  2. big business

  3. Belbin Team Inventory

  4. Max Müller

  5. C. Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973).

  6. C. Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973).

  7. Owen Barfield, History in English Words (1926)

inner lifelanguage

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