The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Hidden Metaphysics of Language

Language is obviously one of the most sophisticated cognitive skills that humans possess, and one of the most apparent differences between the human species and other animal species. No surprise, then, that language is often considered the main clue to the secrets of the mind. After all, it is through language that our mind expresses itself. It is with language that we can study the mind.

The US linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf extended the view of his teacher, the German-born Edward Sapir, that language is even more than a tool to speak: it is “thought” itself. Or, better, that language and thought influence each other. Language is used to express thought, but, in turn, language shapes thought. In particular, the structure of the language they speak has an influence on the way its speakers understand the environment. Language influences thought because it contains what Sapir had called “a hidden metaphysics”, i.e. a view of the world, a culture, a  conceptual system. Language contains an implicit classification of experience. Whorf restated Sapir's view in his principle of “linguistic determinism”: grammatical and categorial patterns of language embody cultural models. Every language is a culturally-determined system of patterns that creates the categories by which individuals not only communicate but also think.

The US psychologist Katherine Nelson, whose studies focused on the stages of cognitive development in a child, discovered that language is crucial to the formation of the adult mind: language acts as the medium through which the mind becomes part of a culture, through which the shared meanings of society take over the individualistic meanings of the child's mind. Society takes over the individual mind, and it does so through language. From the moment we were born, the ultimate goal of our mind, through our studying, working, making friends, writing books, etc., was to be social.

The US neurologist Karl Lashley ("The problem of serial order in behavior", 1951) showed that a “syntax” similar to the one for language also exists in actions (physical movement) in general, an intuition that would remain unexplored for decades.

Spoken Language

Written language is often the one that is studied, but that can be misleading, because language is, first and foremost, spoken, not written. Written language was invented when the only experience that humans could record and save was visual experience. Not until the end of the 19th century were humans able to record sound (and to this day we don't have a way to record smell, touch and taste). Written language is a visual representation of a sound phenomenon, a trick to make a recording of sound without using sound. Written language separates words with blanks that don't exist in spoken language. Written language translates a continuous sound into a fragmented visual experience; and it does so by splitting sound into atoms (such as words and sentences). Punctuation helps preserve part of the meaning, but the speed and the tone of voice are largely lost.

Spoken language is an altogether different beast from written language. The main property of spoken language is that. we don't control it. Spoken language happens unconsciously. We don't consciously pick the words we use. We decide what to say, but the way we say it, the specific arrangement of words that we use, is largely outside of our conscious control: words just come out of our mouth to express what we want to say. If writing, we have to keep rewriting the same sentence several times before we find the right wording. If speaking, we don't have the luxury of respeaking the words we have already spoken. In fact, we may add a lot of extra words simply because the words that first came out of our mouth were not the right ones. No matter how conscious we are of speaking, the speaking itself is unconscious.


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