Thursday, December 2, 2010

Existing Inside Words

I'm not smart enough to figure out computer problems, so in order to have my browsers talk to the 'net, i'm just going to leave the broken part of my antivirus software turned off and hope it fixes itself, just like it suddenly broke itself. Therefore....... on to more interesting topics.

This from a very interesting paper by B. Alan Wallace called Intersubjectivity in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.

The fourteenth-century, Tibetan Madhyamaka philosopher Tsongkhapa asserts in this regard: ‘Although the objects of perception have forever utterly lacked a final self-nature or objective existence, nonetheless they indisputably appear with the nature of having real, inherent existence... These things function conventionally on the basis of the laws of interdependence and causality.’ ... According to this view, the objects of perception — colours, sounds, smells and so forth—do not exist in the objective world, independently of the sense modalities by which they are perceived. But, for example, do trees exist apart from our perception of them? The Madhyamaka answer is that trees and the many other objects in the natural world do indeed exist independently of our perceptions. Flowers continue to grow and bloom when no one is looking, and trees fall to the forest floor, sending out ripples in the atmosphere and over the ground, and then begin to decay,whether or not anyone is there to witness these events.

One may then ask: ‘Do flowers, trees and other natural phenomena exist independently of any conceptual designations of them?’ To this the answer is that the words ‘flowers’, ‘trees’ and so on have no meaning apart from their definitions which we have attributed to them. Thus, the question has no meaning. But we may then push this point and ask: ‘Does anything exist independently of human language and thought?’ This question implies that the word ‘exist’ is somehow self-defining, that it stands on its own, independent of any consensually accepted definition. But all terms such as subject, object, existence, reference, meaning, reason, knowledge, observation and experience have a multitude of different uses, and none has a single absolute meaning to which priority must be granted. Since these terms are not self-defining, we employ their definitions according to the conceptual schemes of our choice. That is, we choose our definitions; they are not determined by objective reality. So, once again, proponents of the Madhyamaka view conclude that the question is meaningless: if the word ‘exist’ has no meaning independently of all conceptual frameworks, then it makes no sense to ask whether anything exists independently of all conceptual frameworks.

Along these lines, every now and then i pick up a paper that focuses on the idea that our language defines what exists for us. I'll have to dig it out, but i seem to remember reading a very good paper by David Loy several years ago on this topic. (I think it was Loy.) The point being, until something exists in our language, until we have a word for it, it doesn't exist.

Which goes back to a story i've seen in two separate places now (but at the gut level question its veracity) about early meetings between Spanish explorers and the native inhabitants of what has come to be know as South America. Before the explorers first arrived, the native's had never seen nor even heard of a "ship." They had no concept of what that could be, it simply didn't exist in their mentality or their vocabulary. The explorers were met on the shore by the tribe's shaman and as they landed, he asked how they had gotten there. The explorers pointed out to the ships anchored further off the shore but the shaman couldn't see them. Because "ship" didn't exist as a concept for them it didn't exist materially either, and was, therefore, invisible. It was only after much effort that he was able to get the concept into his head, and with the new word "ship" offered by the explorers, slowly the ships came into view.

I know this is slightly off-topic as far as Wallace's comments are concerned but, between Wallace's quote and the other example, i find it fascinating how language so defines who we are. Few people, i think, take the time to stop and analyze how completely language affects every aspect of who we are. Not just what we think, but what we are, what we accept as relevant, what we accept as valid, what we accept as existent. Language truly does define who we are as a person, as a culture, as a civilization, and all the way up to what we are as homo sapiens.

No comments: