“Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds-the given and the home-made, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols. The man who has successfully solved the problem of his relations with the two worlds of data and symbols, is a man who has no beliefs” Aldous Huxley
In 1986, profesor of phonetics Daniel Everett published an academic article who would defied one of the most important linguist of XX century: Noam Chomsky. According to the last one, human beings are biologically predisposed for learning and using language, in a way that makes all languages share some common principles, called the Universal Grammar.
Nevertheless, Daniel Everett would discover an exception to the rule: the Pirahã. This tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Amazonas has kept itself to the margin of time and contact with other human groups, preserving an incredible purity in their way of life. Their language can teach us a lot about the root of the human being.
Pirahã language contains only three vocals and seven consonants. They do not have names for colors or numbers that allow them to count. In fact, they don’t even use their index finger to point things out. Abstraction becomes imposible in their language, as they don’t have gramatical structures that permit them to speak about past or future events, not even one foundational myth, individual or shared stories. They are so insert into the present moment that they communicate through whistles, whispers, shouts and music that, according to the melody or intensity that it uses, may communicate different things. The Pirahã people, besides all this, share a different type of intelligence from a person from the city, that helps them with activities like hunting or living in a community.
In this way, Pirahã teach us that a symptom of Civilization’s Separation has been the growth of the virtual world that symbols create. The number, the word and the measurement, all intermediaries with reality, are both cause and effect of the progressive Ascent of Humanity, that has lead human beings to feel away of the world, to become strangers.
To understand this phenomenon, it is crucial to have a look into the history of language. In here, there has always been speculation about an original language that was spoken by Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden, called the Adamic language. Man had not yet started the project of the Ascent, and for this he used symbology that could not be separated from what it represented, like the sound ¡Ah!, ¡Ouch! or the ones a couple does when making love, all which are a legacy of this type of language. Probably Sanskrit, being such an old language that it is said it’s the mother of all others, still contains some elements of this type of communication. For example, the Sanskrit phonemes know as Mantras, carry with the word a vibration that has emotional feeling, so at the same time that they communicate a concept, they communicate a message that can be felt in the body.
Nevertheless, the use of language has become something banal and irrelevant, just a game of symbols in a virtual world without effects in reality. Language, numbers, measurements and art are examples of symbolism that is worth cultivating, but that is easily misunderstood for reality. To prevent it, it is important to know their negative aspects, like reductionism, delusion, standarization, property and separation.
In the first place, a symbol guides to reductionism when it tries to represent something that cannot be represented, a reality that is always complex and mutable. It is no coincidence that religions like Islam prohibit representation with images, because reality is always mute, it does not bring interpretations: a painting of God is not God and 1+1 equals 2, only if one accepts it. That is why when people are discussing around a concept like democracy or communism, in fact what is being discussing is a conception, images or mental models of empty concepts whose meaning becomes concretize in dialogue. In the end, all linguistic disagreements are a problem of definitions.
In second place, all the world of symbols is utilized by the mind to create thought. This one, coming always a moment just after actuality, creates a virtual world that is independent of the physical world, a territory with its own space and time, that can operate over the past and future, and prevents us from living in the moment. Simply stated, it is not possible to think about the instant, what is happening here and now. That is the reason for Pedro Calderón de la Barca saying “Life is a dream”, or Rodolfo Llinás saying “the brain is a dreaming machine”, because the whiteness of the wall does not exist outside of our heads, the perfect circle never replicates in nature or the warm air that we feel is just in respect to our interpretation. Like Ludwig’s Wittgenstein phrase, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. The world is the way we live it, because we can think it.
This has been explained by Douglas Hofstadter saying that all meaning comes from analogy. That is, if it wasn’t for the mind and its memory, without an scheme to make references, none of the stuff we live would make any sense. All that we speak and think, in a way, talks about something external and about ourselves, because it shows that which lies between previous knowledge and a knew situation, called thought. In Led Zepellin words, “Our shadows taller than our soul”, so word and thought are echoes of who we are, that go on creating the poetry that is the world.
On this part, standarization refers to the process of homogenization that it’s created every time that we use symbols. Progressively, we go on naming the world and associating certain qualities to each word, like saying communism is red or that each table has four legs. Then, the mind that has replaced reality for the symbol, is caught up in a sea of images and thinks that it knows the whole world. What’s the point of living, when we already know of does a mountain looks or what’s the taste of a pineapple? The blindness that creates the growth of the virtual world creates a phenomenon practically unknown in the history of mankind: boredom.
In regards to property, every time that we name a tree, our mind is capable of refering to the concept and, for this matter, the existence of the physical becomes irrelevant. In this way, the subject may play how he chooses with an idea that, contrary to the world of matter, does not have traces of its origin nor decays with time. It is a pure entity that may be associated or modified, subtracting or adding properties to it. On the contrary, in some indigenous languages it’s not possible to freeze a moment, so things are not but are being; one person it not greedy, but greedies.
In consequence, to think is to posses. It is no coincidence that English, which is one of this most used language in Civilization and one that has greatly promoted its own vision of the world, property, it’s one of the language with the biggest lexicon. This type of property that language creates is highly strengthened with writing, where words are definitive and untouched by change, so the illusion that what is written means reality is created. In contrast to this inmutable and linear world, in societies of oral tradition life has as many interpretations as voices. For example, history and culture are not a fixed and non arguable idea that one is taught at school, but rather a dialogue, a web or tissue of voices and visions.
Finally, the separation that symbols cause may be seen in art. Oscar Wilde wrote “In my judgement, the more we study Art, the less we care about Nature. Really what Art reveal us is the lack of planning of Nature, its incredible coarseness, its extraordinary monotony, its totally incomplete character. Art is our energetic protest, our brave effort to teach nature its real function”. It is not a big surprise that some tendencies to abstract art have proliferated. We have transitioned from the paintings of prehistoric man where some daily realities were shown like the hunt of Mammoths, or even the beautiful paintings in the Renaissance, to the conceptual art where a red wall may be considered art. Each time, the symbol matters more than what it represents.
If one notes, the only way to name something is if on a first moment we were capable of seeing it and, for this, we must be separated. For this motive, babies generally mention their fathers name before their mother’s, because their union with the latter is so total that they cannot conceive it as something different from them, something that does happen with the father. If you want to know to what level our lives have been conditioned by separation, try to think what things, if nobody had told you their names, had you taken the hassle to name. Had you put a name to your mom? To you arm? To the color of your skin? To your religion, country or ideology? The only reason for naming things is to communicate something to other. Language, and in this manner thought, are eminently social things.
I’d like to thank my Indigenous Thought professor, Daniel Aguirre Licht, for many of the ideas in this post. If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Charles Eisenstein
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