Language and Reality Construction: A Process of Abstraction

17 Feb

The first words that an infant learns are normally simple nouns with
repeatable syllables, such as ‘puppy’, ‘papa’, or ‘mama’. However, as
the number of concepts and sounds in a child’s repertoire increases,
language becomes progressively abstract. As we grow from infancy to
maturity and develop our capacity for language and critical
evaluation, we naturally categorize experiences into classes that
share certain characteristics, for example: Animal, Vegetable,
mineral. The game of 21 questions nicely illustrates this process. As
we gain experience, and this continues through all phases of our
active mental life, we both place experiences into already defined
categories, such as Animal: dog or cat, breed; and create new
categories where we don’t find the existing ones convenient. Each of
these classes and there is an exacting logical science for
classification, is a level of abstraction. As the class of objects grows,
new subclasses, more abstract formulations, occur. Carried far
enough and we have, as in the field of natural history, the story of life
on this planet and an array of scientific subjects, an encyclopedia of
species, and specializations that fill a catalog.

Scholar Korzybski identified a problem with abstractions in that the
further along the chain you go the greater the distance you get from
the original, first-order, experience. Reality loses its concreteness
and concreteness is the foundation of a sane, rational mind. One
major problem with this process is that we tend to think that the
word represents the thing itself. Ultimately you get into
philosophical debates about whether categories or forms have
independent existence and the mind-body split, a phenomenon
Korzybski concluded was one of the major pathologies of modern
life. Related to this pathology is identification.
The Buddha calls this process of mental construction papañca,
“elaboration,” “embellishment,” or “conceptual proliferation.” For the
Buddha, the elaborations block out the presentational immediacy of
phenomena; they let us know an object only “at a distance,” not as it
really is. But the elaborations do not only screen cognition; they also
serve as a basis for projections. The deluded mind, cloaked in
ignorance, projects its own internal constructs outwardly, ascribing
them to the object as if they really belonged to it.

As a result, what we know as the final object of cognition, what we
use as the basis for our values, plans, and actions, is a patchwork
product, not the original article. To be sure, the product is not wholly
an illusion, not sheer fantasy. It takes what is given in immediate
experience as its groundwork and raw material, but along with this, it
includes something else: the embellishments fabricated by the mind.
In the end, the original direct experience has been overrun by
ideation and the presented object appears only dimly through dense
layers of ideas and views, like the moon through a layer of clouds.
Language, then, enables us to conceive and express about objects
and relationships with no concrete physical referents. Examples
include hypothetical relationships, mathematical concepts, and
highly complex social constructions such as ‘liberty’ or ‘justice’. Once
constructed via language, these mental entities, rules, obligations
and expectancies govern human thought and action to a remarkable
degree. In short, language shapes not only communication but also
understanding. Our “worldview is inescapably shaped by” our
language.7 Language clearly draws our attention to certain aspects of
the world and influences our judgment about it.

Language gives a name to an object for purposes of easy
communication. When it has the sanction of others, it becomes a
convention. There would be no shared world that human beings
enjoy in common if there were no shared dimension of this
subliminal awareness. It is only through conceptual categorization
that we can objectify ourselves in contrast to others and in relation to
remembered pasts and anticipated futures. “It is a final irony,”
Deacon concludes, “that it is the virtual, not actual, reference that
[linguistic] symbols provide, which gives rise to this experience of self.
This most undeniably real experience is a virtual reality”
1. Most of this,
though, occurs without our awareness of it.

Our ‘shared virtual world,’ which arises in correlation with the
common cognitive structures and linguistic categories, is so deeply
engrained and so utterly habituated that it occurs almost
automatically and nearly unconsciously in every moment. Our
human worlds are collective and consensual, yet unconscious,
construct, and the concepts are invested with the necessary flexibility
and set on their tracks to proliferate. The uninstructed average
person succumbs to it; the disciple training on the Eightfold Path
resists it, and the Emancipated Ones transcend it. Concepts for them
are “merely worldly conventions in common use, which he made use of,
without clinging to them” (D. N. I. 202). The Buddha reminds us that
language is only based on conventional usage and that these worldly
usages are not to be taken with an absolute perspective.
Over the course of a lifetime, this shared-world of linguistic concepts
becomes deeply engrained in our thought and speech patterns.
Indeed, these concepts are unavoidable when we learn to speak and
live as members of a specific culture. Of these concepts, perhaps the
the most elaborate and deeply engrained psychological category is our
concept of the self, which evolves and is defined dependent on and in
relation to a complex web of other concepts. Since language provides
most of these concepts to us, one can easily agree that in large part
our sense of self reflects our cultural inheritance, the shared reality
that we tacitly agree upon with others.

Our concept of self-arises from a perceived division between
subject and object, which contains yet further divisions within itself.
On the one hand, there is the self as agent, the subjective I who
performs various actions at the moment. On the other hand, there is
another view of the self, the objectified ‘me’, as an enduring entity
with a set of personality traits that we evaluate and judge according
to cultural norms. This split becomes evident when people say things
such as “I am a very intelligent person”. Such an expression is only
coherent if we accept a split between our self in the moment, and a
deeper, more permanent, and reflective self. At this point it is
significant to remember that the human brain is a rather creative
storyteller that uses language to organize the world of conscious
experience, thereby efficiently making sense of the otherwise
overwhelming volume of perceptual information processed by the
nervous system. Building stories to describe the world of concepts
around us, it means at the same time defining ourselves, an idea
referred to the “narrative self”.9 Let’s put it more simply: as we gain
mastery of our native language, we begin to use words to tell stories,
and in these stories, we create what we call ourselves. This ongoing
and reflective personal narrative constructs the fiction of a time-bound, continuous self. The great drawback to the structure imposed
by language is that our words emphasize the separateness of things at the expense of perceiving the unity of experience.
Transcending the Dualism of Language
For the Buddha, the central snare of language is that we become
confined in the misconception of the identifications of the self which
are encouraged from the grammatical use of agent and object. Once
we establish the intentional ‘I’ as part of our lexicon, I-related thoughts
enter our inner dialogue of mental chatter. We select the ‘I’ thoughts
that build and maintain a story about ourselves that we are willing to
accept; we are all creative writers in the service of the self. As a result,
our reality is filtered through the selective and often self-serving vision
of our subjective I lens. Engrossed and compelled as we are in our
stories and our I, me, and mine, which are founded on dualism, we
cannot comprehend the actuality of existence, which in turn leads to

our state of suffering. We now turn to the question of how to
transcend this unhappy state.
In Buddha’s psychology, the term Nāma-rūpa or ‘name-form’ is used
to describe the interplay of psychological and physical processes,
which define a human being. Nāma(name) refers to the
psychological dimension and includes processes such as feeling,
attention, and perception. Rūpa(form) refers to physical substance,
and provides some consistency and recognizability to the individual,
giving shape to abstraction. However, in keeping with the doctrine of
Anattà (no-self), neither nāma nor rūpa has any meaning or
significance without the other: they are complementary or mutually
necessary. Rūpa can secure a basis in consciousness only in
collaboration with nāma, and vice versa. In other words, without an
observer, there is no object. We perceive the world in dualistic terms
because language helps make any unity experience elusive to our
cognitive apparatus. Enlightenment becomes possible when one
understands that the shared social world, which includes a self, is a
construction, and becomes open to directly experiencing the unity,
which underlies Nāma-rūpa and other apparent dualities.
Importantly, this unity cannot be fully grasped by exercising
one’s intellectual faculties alone because that inevitably brings
symbols and concepts back into the picture, which is self-defeating.
Instead, Buddhist meditative practice teaches disciples to clear their
mind of concepts in incremental stages, gradually dissolving the
illusory boundaries which confuse us.

Through a systematic meditative practice, we can free our
perceptions from all the restraints and burdens of the preenlightened mind and achieve Awakening – a non-verbal appreciation of the world as it continuously comes into being.
Adherents of the apophatic tradition hold that ‘God’ or (X) is beyond
the limits of what humans can understand, and that one should not
seek ‘God’ by means of intellectual understanding, but through a
direct experience.
So, Awakening consists in seeing and reflecting on things just
as they are, impartially, without exclusion, bias, attachment,
obstructions, or distortion. The grasper-grasped relationship ceases.
When this transcendence is achieved, the use of language and
symbols to describe a God or mystical being is easily seen through as
mere human language fascinations and abstractions. There is the
clear recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe
God or the divine essence.
In the apophatic tradition, this fetish of using language and cognitive
constructions to create a dualistic reality is stepped back from. There
is no attachment to this as it is seen for what it is, a fantasy, or as
Deacon called it ‘virtual reality, perhaps at times a helpful one but
still a fantasy. Instead, as the Buddha taught in the seen shall only be
the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the sensed only the sensed,
in the cognized only the cognized.

Language and Reality Construction: A Process of Abstraction
Of the Book, God is No-thing. The Apophatic Assertion. Copyright Rodger
Ricketts Psy.D.,2020. All rights reserved. Protected by international copyright
conventions. No part of this chapter may be reproduced in any manner
whatsoever, or stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, without the express
permission of the Author-publisher, except in case of brief quotations with due
acknowledgment. Published through CreateSpace Independent Publishing


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