Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life Experience Affects Criterion Affects Belief

In a reading group I attend a discussion broke out over whether there is a pre- or sub- linguistic connection to the world where we contact pure experience, a “felt sense” outside of language, or whether language infuses everything so that we cannot say when we are contacting something sub- or supra- or extra- linguistic such as “the way the world is,” reality, raw or felt experience, and when we’re not. So I was defending the Rortyan view that we can’t know when we’re in touch with that which is beyond language because language can always be argued to be already there. Whereas the other guy was saying that no, in his experience, he can mindfully or self-consciously feel into or gain awareness of what’s there which of course includes language but can go beyond it.

I said you can’t know which view – language infuses all access or we have access to experience - to choose because there are compelling arguments on both sides. He appealed to his phenomenological experience: he looks into his experience and experiences things like sensations, urges, emotions, etc. I was thinking that the criterion you choose to decide the question will be a determining factor in whether you see it one way or the other. I have chosen rational argumentation as the ultimate determiner. I know this issue, and lots of other philosophical issues, have not been decided and probably never will. So I lean towards the pervasiveness of language since language, in the form of rational inquiry, seems to generate more debate, as the alleged eternal problems of philosophy indicate. He uses experience as his primary criterion and finds by using that criterion and method that experience is experienced as having both linguistic and extralinguistic contact.

So which criterion to choose? I realized that my choice of primary criterion was influenced by my life experience. I was in graduate school studying for a Ph.D. and doing abstract intellectual work. I discovered Buddhist practice which can be radically experiential and left school and did that. I later became frustrated with and doubtful of it and stopped doing it formally and went back to intellectual work. Experience, in a sense, betrayed me and I adopted argumentation as the way to go. Now there are those who use argumentation and have the view that you can contact reality. So it can’t only be that choice that makes me defend the undecidability of the issue. But this life experience moved me to adopt one view over another and be a person who argues this way rather than that.


Joshua Nash said...

What I find so interesting about these types of debates is the fact that one has to use lanuage in order to defend and/or discuss the pervasiveness OF language. That was the first thing that popped into my mind.

The second thing that popped in was the seemingly romantic view that apparently gets adopted when talking about "raw" experiences or "contacting reality." In what I'm currently reading, I am once again reminded that it is possible to reach a trans-egoic state of being (which isn't the language the author is using)when we cease personalizing every experience.

To my limited understanding and experience, language does not go away in these experiences; rather, one's interpretations and concepts of the world go away. More accurately, perhaps, is to say that our images and expectations of the world disappear. In these experiences, language doesn't cease to exist or become meaningless. It's just that we are not dependent upon language to interact with the real.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


My best reader! Good to hear from you.

Yes, the language seems so inescapable and yet, as you say, there are trans-linguistic feeling experiences that are often described as ineffable, and so wordless.

But we have to be clear what we mean by "language." If it's only the words in our minds it does seem that we go beyond them. But if language is understood more broadly as that which allows us to have the human form of being that we have - no human kind of consciousness without language - a la Heidegger (I believe) then just having our human kind of consciousness (as opposed to the kind we share with other animals) means that language is always there.

We certainly are not dependent on language to interact with the real, depending on how you define interact and real. The unconscious person or comatose person is in causal contact with the real. But you may mean it differently.

My approach is to look at the criterion we choose to use to decide the issue of contact with the real. And further ask, why this fixation on contact with the real, beyond our everyday practical contact with the real? Why not just focus on good acting in the world and not so much on this philosophical, mystical, ultimate type of contact with the real? This is my Rorty inspired, pragmatic move.

Joshua Nash said...

I totally dig your approach. I have also always been prone to being context-dependent when defining concepts and/or definitions. If your move is indeed Rorytian and pragmatic, I guess I'm a believer.

For some reason, this topic reminds me of the debate over whether or not children have privileged access to the spiritual, or per Wilber, most folks have confused the issue as the "Pre-trans fallacy" explains it.

As much as Wilber bugs me on many levels, I do still tend to agree with his pres-trans fallacy due to the fact that those that don't adhere to it seem to romanticize pre-linguistic states as much as trans-linguistic states.

Also, if we follow your very good point about language being more than just the words in our heads (which I agree with), we get to have a lot of fun defining language AS WELL AS communication within the contexts of "real" and "connecting," etc.