March 7, 2014 6:21 pm

Should we mind our language?

‘We create prisons for ourselves by talking in certain ways. Shifting the way we use words can be enough to let us out’
Illustration by Laura Carlin of a man and two carts with signs©Laura Carlin

The Shrink

Ludwig Wittgenstein said that “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” He also said that the aim of philosophy was “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”.

In some ways, the same logic could be applied to psychotherapy. Often we create prisons for ourselves by thinking and talking in certain ways. Just shifting the way we use words can be enough to let us out.

Say you’ve been trying to give up smoking but each time end up going back to the habit. It would be easy to describe this as “I can’t stop smoking”, “I always fail” and so on. If you did that, it would probably evoke despondent thoughts about your inability to give up, and that would be unlikely to prompt further attempts to quit. If instead you changed the description to not succeeding so far, there might be some room left for reflection about what went wrong and how to make it work next time.

Another common way we close down possibilities is when we give ourselves quasi-medical labels which imply that we suffer from a condition. We’re “addicted”, for instance. This kind of term could work if it spurred you on to do something about it. But it could equally work against you, if instead it led to passivity and a refusal to take responsibility: “I’m an addict and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just what I am.” Ask yourself what you really mean by the words you apply to yourself, trying to pinpoint what actually happens at those times and how you can turn it round.

The basic idea is to question language that is global and permanent, which implies this is how you are and always will be. Such language closes doors and impedes movement. When you spot such an approach, it may be helpful to replace it with more provisional, partial and time-limited words, which leave you some room for change.

. . .

The Sage

I’ve found that the answer to almost any question is “it depends”, and in philosophy, much appears to depend on what you mean. Do we have free will? It depends what you mean by “free will”. Is happiness the ultimate good? It depends what you mean by “happiness”. Can you bluff your way in philosophy simply by repeating “it depends on what you mean” ad nauseam? It depends what you mean by “bluff”.

Demanding definitions can become a tedious game but, more often than not, it is essential for eliminating ambiguity and avoiding misunderstanding. In the political arena, for example, many discussions about big values such as equality, fairness and freedom are dialogues of the deaf, simply because participants take the same words to mean different things.

It’s not always easy to notice when disagreement and confusion are the results of muddled meanings. Often, we are seriously led astray by standard vocabulary we assume is unproblematic. This is often because common words can have misleading implications. A few weeks ago, for example, I mentioned in passing how it is easy to assume that “mind” is a kind of thing, and so must either be the brain or some ghostly non-material spirit, because “mind” is a noun. But perhaps “minds” are not things at all, and so are neither material nor spiritual. It’s an imperfect analogy, but mind could be to neurons what music is to an orchestra.

Back in the 1940s, Gilbert Ryle named misunderstanding what kind of thing a word refers to as a “category mistake”, and we may make many more of them than we might think. For example, is it a category mistake to think of a wedding vow as a kind of contract when it’s really more of a sincere statement of intent? Are we fooled into thinking that all rights are fundamentally one and the same, when in reality consumer rights are legal constructs but basic human rights are moral imperatives? Much does indeed depend on what we mean, so we’d better take care to mean what we ought to mean, if you get my meaning.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.

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