Language, Logic, and Poetry

By Michelle Mairesse

You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse."

Shakespeare, The Tempest


     In Shakespeare's The Tempest,the magician Prospero reminds the monster Caliban that he taught Caliban language when the monster had "no language but a cry." Caliban is unappreciative of this boon because he is still a monster, albeit a monster who speaks. Animals can convey information with cries and gestures, but only humans have the vocal and neurological equipment to speak, create meaning, communicate, and understand spoken and written language. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer believed that humankind's acquisition of an elaborate symbolic system has transformed our lives, so that we live in a "new dimension of reality."

      All human societies have languages with complex syntactical structures, and normal children can learn the local version of any language without an accent until they are twelve years old. Feral children who lack the cultural stimulus of language during this crucial twelve-year period never acquire the range and fluency of acculturated children. The poorest, least educated children anywhere in the world who grow up in a community of speakers are the inheritors of incalculable riches, whatever language or dialect they learn to speak. (Linguists bypass the problem of differentiating a language from a dialect by joking that a language is a dialect with a navy.)

     During their first twelve years, children learn to attach sounds to the visible and invisible world around them, and the sounds and structure of their primary language creates a kind of template for future language learning. We understand (or misunderstand) our native language directly, but foreign languages have to be translated into our native tongue. One meaning of babble (derived from the Biblical story of the tower of Babel) is "to utter meaningless sounds." Our word barbarian comes from the Greek word for foreigners, which was the Greeks' imitation of the outlandish bar bar sounds foreigners made when they spoke. (The barbarians, of course, thought it was the Greeks who were making funny sounds.)

     Children and isolated groups who are unacquainted with other languages imagine that their native language provides them with the "real" names of things. The best cure for linguistic provincialism is the study of foreign languages. New concepts and different grammatical forms give us insight into the peculiarities of the mother tongue.

    The Japanese word mokusatsu means both "to ignore" and "to refrain from comment." The Japanese cabinet was preparing to accede to the Allied ultimatum in 1945 but wanted time to deliberate. The press release announcing a policy of mokusatsu was not translated as "to refrain from comment" but as "to ignore." Rather than lose face, the cabinet let the misinterpretation stand, and the atomic holocaust followed.

      The brilliant amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf discovered that Native American languages reflect different conceptual universes. Of the Hopis he says, "I find it gratuitous to assume that a Hopi who knows only the Hopi language and the cultural ideas of his own society has the same notions, often supposed to be intuitions, of time and space that we have, and that are generally assumed to be universal. In particular, he has no general notion or intuition of TIME as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate, out of a future, through a present, into a past; or, in which, to reverse the picture, the observer is being carried in the stream of duration continuously away from a past and into a future.... Just as it is possible to have any number of geometries other than the Euclidean which give an equally perfect account of space configurations, so it is possible to have descriptions of the universe, all equally valid, that do not contain our familiar contrasts of time and space. The relativity viewpoint of modern physics is one such view, conceived in mathematical terms, and the Hopi Weltanschauung is another and quite different one, nonmathematical and linguistic." (Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, Edited by John B. Carroll, The MIT Press, c. 1956)

     Where the subject-predicate form of Indo-European languages forces us to say, "The fire flamed up," the Hopis say, "Flame." Hopis have a single word to name everything that flies except birds. We can be more explicit and differentiate between airplanes and bumblebees, simply by naming them.

      The Inuit have different words for various forms of snow but no generic term for "snow, generally speaking." All adjectives in Hottentot apply to cows unless something else is specified. Hawaiian has no word for "weather." Quecha has no word for "clean." There are Native American languages and Asian languages that classify things by shape (round, linear, granular), a less arbitrary distinction than some European languages make when they divide the universe into masculine, feminine, and neuter genders.

      The Wakashan Amerindians inflect verbs to indicate one is speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay.

     To the dismay of metaphysicians, all the categories they had believed to be embedded in the universe were merely projected onto the universe by their language systems. A number of twentieth-century philosophers made a career of linguistic analysis in the attempt to expose and eliminate the hidden categories of language. Alfred Korzybski went so far as to write his treatises without using the word "is" so as to avoid implying the category of "existence." (Sometimes, though, he slipped. Students who wish to dig deeper might want to consult Korzybski's General Semantics.)

     Korzybski untiringly repeated, "The map is not the territory." A map that perfectly represented a city in its entirety would have to be the size of the city. The map is not the territory, and the word or proposition is not the thing it refers to; the spoken or written word has none of the referent's characteristics.

     Words have tremendous power but only as much power as we allow them to have.

Danger: Forbidden Words Ahead

     "The word umbrella will not keep you dry if you walk in the rain; the words 'steak and lobster, with a baked potato' will not feed you if you need food; the word-phantom 'formless spiritual essences' gave great satisfaction to Irish author A.E. (George Russell) but never clothed the naked, fed the starving, visited the sick, or (for that matter) broke a leg or gave a bully a black eye.

     "Everybody knows all this, of course? If you think so, walk into a Gay Leather Bar and ask 'How many of you guys are fairies?'; walk into a Nation of Islam mosque and enquire 'How many niggers come here regularly?'; walk into MS. Magazine and demand to know 'Which of you cunts is in charge of this place?' Nowadays, these admittedly tasteless jokes can get you jailed in some states, and sued in any state.

      "Do people only re-act as if words really equal things ('sticks and stones may break my bones, and names can also hurt me') in such touchy areas? Try opening two restaurants and have the menu in one say 'Chef's special: Tender, juicy filet mignon' and have the other menu say 'Chef's special: a hunk of dead meat hacked off a castrated bull.' Both phrases describe the same non-verbal event, but see which sells better." Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger, Volume III: My Life After Death, c. 1995.

How many angels can dance on the point of a ball-point pen?

    Philosophically, Occidentals have been living off Greek capital for over two thousand years. Greek grammatical classifications, rules for definition, and theory of logic have been basic in Western thinking. Even the term "semiotics," recently revived to describe the philosophical investigation of language, was used by the Stoics.

     Paramount among Greek thinkers are Aristotle and Plato. (Alfred North Whitehead said that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato.) Plato's enduring accounts of the speculations that engaged the best minds of Athens in the fifth century BCE have fascinated readers over the centuries.

     Plato immortalized his teacher, Socrates, in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, which depict an extraordinary man who lived by his principles. Even when in 399 the Athenian authorities sentenced him to death for religious heresies and for "corrupting" youths with his teaching, Socrates serenely comforted his students before drinking the poisoned chalice. Socrates thought of philosophy as "the pursuit of meanings." He methodically questioned his students, forcing them to define such terms as justice, good, and piety, terms they used liberally in discourse without considering what their words meant.

     Socrates knew that the great enemy of communication is ambiguity, and abstractions like justice are subject to several interpretations. Is justice being served when a serial killer is executed by the state? The term justice is ambiguous. If you look up justice in a dictionary, you will find several definitions. (Dictionaries define words in terms of usage, and usage sometimes changes, which accounts for the frequent revisions and new editions of dictionaries.) One definition for justice is "the administration of law." Another is "righteousness." Disputes about the justice of state executions come about because the disputants are using key words in very different ways. Although they may not agree after a discussion, they would certainly understand and communicate their positions better if they defined their terms before arguing.

     Sometimes a writer is unaware that s/he is using a term with more than one definition and will unwittingly construct a fallacious argument from the confusion of meanings. See if you are able to find the ambiguity in this proposition: "We know that Nature's Laws cannot be violated. It stands to reason that The Divine Law-giver has given us moral Laws that cannot be violated." Hint: Natural laws, scientific laws, are generalizations.

     Here's another example: "If you take Dr. De Witt's tonic twice a day, it will enhance all natural processes." Metabolism? The nitrogen cycle? Hmmm?

In the interests of clarity,

  • Definitions should not be circular, with a term being repeated in the purported definition. "A bigot is a person who behaves in a bigoted manner."

  • Definitions should not be negative. "Ugliness is the absence of beauty." (But how about "Darkness is the absence of light."?)

  • Definitions should not be figurative. "Happiness is a warm puppy."

     Speakers sometimes use words for which there are no actual referents. We can discuss griffins, gargoyles, and unicorns without for a moment believing that any of them have ever existed, yet we often think of such theoretical entities as super-egos and neutrinos as if they were pieces of furniture. We call this tendency to turn abstractions into objects reification.

     The problem of fictions has intrigued many contemporary philosophers. When we make a distinction between something that is real (this computer) and something that is not real (unicorns), to justify our unbelief, we will appeal to the evidence of our senses, authority, or whatever convinces us that unicorns are not real.

     A related problem is that of paradoxes. How are we able to make some statements that apparently contradict themselves? Here are some examples:

     The statement after the semicolon is false; the statement before the semicolon is true.

     All generalizations are false, including this one.

     Epimedes the Cretan said, "All Cretans are liars."

     The barber in our neighborhood shaves everyone who doesn't shave himself. Does he shave himself?

     The school of Logical Positivists claims that all natural languages lead to paradoxes and verbal quibbles. They invented a calculus to express propositions from natural languages in unambiguous form. A group of words which show relations (if, and, or, no all and some) are the constants of their systems. The symbols which represent these terms never represent anything else, just as the arithmetical plus and minus signs refer always to the relations of addition and subtraction. Unfortunately for their theory, symbols cannot stand alone. Just as mathematical formulas must be accompanied by a text in ordinary language so the symbols can be interpreted, so must the axioms of symbolic logic be translated into ordinary language.

     As critical thinkers, we needn't translate information into a set of nonverbal symbols. Our job is to understand what the key words signify and to analyze propositions and arguments for accuracy and logical consistency.

But what about extraordinary language, the rhythmical, metaphorical, singing, swinging language of poets?

"A new meaning is the equivalent of a new word." Wallace Stevens

Poets make some philosophers uneasy. Plato would have banished them from his ideal republic because they deal with unreality. The poet Wallace Stevens says , "For Plato, the only reality that mattered is exemplified best for us in the principles of mathematics. The aim of our lives should be to draw ourselves away as much as possible from the unsubstantial fluctuating facts of the world about us and establish some communion with the objects which are apprehended by thought and not sense."

But Stevens protests, ". . .poetry has to do with reality in that concrete and individual aspect of it which the mind can never tackle altogether on its own terms, with matter that is foreign and alien in a way in which abstract systems, ideas in which we detect an inherent pattern, a structure that belongs to the ideas themselves, can never be. It is never familiar to us in the way in which Plato wished the conquests of the mind to be familiar. On the contrary its function, the need which it meets and which has to be met in some way in every age that is not to become decadent or barbarous is precisely this contact with reality as it impinges on us from the outside, the sense that we can touch and feel a solid reality which does not wholly dissolve itself into the conceptions of our own minds. It is the individual and particular that does this. And the wonder and mystery of art, as indeed of religion in the last resort, is the revelation of something 'wholly other' by which the inexpressible loneliness of thinking is broken and enriched. To know facts as facts in the ordinary way has, indeed, no particular power or worth. But a quickening of our awareness of the irrevocability by which a thing is what it is, has such power, and it is, I believe, the very soul of art. But no fact is a bare fact, no individual is a universe in itself."

Stevens objects to abstracting the poem's meaning and appraising it by non-aesthetic standards. "The 'something said' is important, but it is important to the poem only in so far as the saying of that particular something in a special way is a revelation of reality. The form derives its significance from the whole. Form has no significance except in relation to the reality that is being revealed." Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous , Alfred A. Knopf, 1957

So we need poetry not only to "purify the language of the tribe," but also to expand the concepts of the tribe.

The poet Charles Simic says it best: "Poetry proves again and again that any single overall theory of anything doesn't work. Poetry is always the cat concert under the window of the room in which the official version of reality is being written."


1. Choose one category: animal, vegetable, or mineral. Now create either an imaginary member of the animal kingdom (no unicorns, please), or the vegetable kingdom, or an imaginary artifact or machine composed of elements from the mineral kingdom. This should be your creation, something you bring into existence, albeit an imaginary existence. Describe your creation in detail. Visualize it. Touch it. Smell it. Now choose the essential information from your description to frame a definition. Now set this definition aside and proceed to the next exercise.

2. Consider three ambiguous terms that could cause or have caused confusion in a discussion. Substitute new, unambiguous terms for those three.

3. Give three instances of reification.

4. Construct a paradox. Hint: Paradoxes are generated when you make a class a member of itself. (But how about the class of all classes? Is it a member of itself?)

5. Return to exercise #1. We are about to examine animal, vegetable, and mineral creations on a brightly lit platform. If your imaginary animal is too large to carry over to the lighted platform, lead your animal there or transport it on a wheeled cage. Put your vegetable creation in a bucket, basket, or vase, or, if it's too large, plant it in a big container and transport it to the lighted platform on a flatbed truck. If your artifact or invention is small enough to carry, place it on the lighted platform. If not, lift it onto the platform with a crane.

    Good. Take a deep breath and admire your creation. Watch closely. The management of this exhibition has arranged for an overhead giant machine-claw to drop a huge boulder on your exhibit. There it goes! Crash! Sorry about that. How did it make you feel? Do you think your creation was, in some sense, real? Look up "real" in the dictionary.

Excerpts: Why Materialism Is Baloney
How true skeptics know there is no death and fathom
answers to life, the universe, and everything
Bernardo Kastrup

Throughout this book I have endeavored to convey my ideas through metaphors. Indeed, metaphors are powerful tools to paint subtle, complex and nuanced mental landscapes that are difficult or even impossible to communicate literally. While literal descriptions seek to characterize an idea directly, metaphors do it indirectly, by borrowing an essential, underlying meaning from another known idea or mental landscape. For instance, I sought to characterize mind by borrowing the essential, underlying meaning of the imagery of vibrating membranes.

Metaphors use disposable vehicles--in this case, the imagery of a vibrating membrane--to describe a new idea gestalt. The vehicle itself is not to be taken literally: mind, of course, is not literally a vibrating membrane. It is only the essential, underlying meaning surrounding the imagery of a vibrating membrane that is useful to characterize mind. Once this essential meaning is conveyed, one must discard the vehicle as if it were disposable packaging, lest it outlive its usefulness and turn into an intellectual entrapment.

The vehicle of the metaphor may have literal existence: vibrating membranes do seem to exist literally. Yet, that is not needed or even important. Passages from many fantasy books and films are routinely used as powerful metaphorical vehicles, even though they do not have any literal existence. For instance, I could have alluded to the 2010 Hollywood film Inception to metaphorically illustrate my idealist view that reality is a shared dream. This metaphor would have been a powerful one, as you will probably acknowledge if you've watched the film. Yet, Inception was 100% fiction and the events it portrayed never had literal existence. The literal existence of the metaphorical vehicle is unimportant for the evocative power of the metaphor.

With this as background, I invite you now to join me on a little thought experiment. Since the eye that sees cannot see itself directly, mind can never understand itself literally. A literal--that is, direct--apprehension of the nature of existence is fundamentally impossible, this being the perennial cosmic itch. The vibrations of mind--that is, experiences--can never directly reveal the underlying nature of the medium that vibrates, in the same way that one cannot see a guitar string merely by hearing the sounds it produces when plucked. Yet, the vibrations of mind do embody and reflect the intrinsic potentialities of their underlying medium, in the same way that valid inferences can be made about the length and composition of a guitar string purely from the sound it produces. The sound of a vibrating medium is a metaphor for the medium's essential, underlying nature. The medium obviously isn't the sound, but its essence is indeed indirectly reflected in the sound it produces.

As such, consensus reality is nothing but a metaphor for the fundamental nature of mind. Nothing--no thing, event, process or phenomenon--is literally true, but an evocative vehicle. As we've seen above, not only is this sufficient for mind to capture its own essential meaning, it means that only this essential meaning is ultimately true. Everything else is just packaging: disposable vehicles to evoke the underlying essence of mind. The plethora of phenomena we call nature and civilization holds no more reality than a theatrical play. They serve a purpose as carriers, but they are not essential in and by themselves. 'All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players,' said Shakespeare.[1]

A metaphorical world isn't a less real place; on the contrary! It is a world where only essential meanings are ultimately true. It is a world of pure significance and pure essence. It is a world where there is no frivolity, where nothing is 'just so.' All phenomena are suggesting something about the nature of mind. Understanding this allows one to peel off the cover of dullness preventing us from developing a closer, richer, and more mature relationship with life. It forces us to try and absorb the underlying meaning of each development, each day, and each encounter. Life becomes pungent. The cosmic metaphor is unfolding before us at all times. What is it trying to say? A job loss, a new romantic relationship, a sudden illness, a promotion, the death of a pet, a major personal success, a friend in need. What is the underlying meaning of it all in the context of our lives? What are all these events saying about our true selves? These are the questions that we must constantly confront in a metaphorical world. We must look upon life in the same way that many people look upon their nightly dreams: when they wake up, they don't attribute literal truth to the dream they just had. To do so would be tantamount to closing one's eyes to what the dream was trying to convey. Instead, they ask themselves: 'what did it really mean?' They know that the dream wasn't a direct representation of its meaning, but a subtle metaphorical suggestion of something else. And so may waking reality be. As such, it is this ineffable something else that--I believe--we must try to find in life. Do you see what I am trying to say? In a metaphorical world, all the images of consensus reality are symbols, not literal realities. Goethe knew this, for he wrote in Faust:

'All that doth pass away Is but a symbol;' [2]

What in life doesn't pass away? What in life isn't transitory? Goethe went on to say: 'The indescribable Here is it done.'

[3] Yes. The indescribable is done--or reveals itself--through the transitory symbols of life. Think of the self-embracing double helix of DNA; the magical collapse of dualities during the sexual act; the melting away of parts of ourselves in the form of tears; the mysterious doorway of the eyes; the life-giving self-sacrifice of breastfeeding; the Faustian power of technology; the strange split of empirical experience into five different senses; the miracle of birth and the finality of death. What does it all mean? What are these images trying to evoke underneath their pedestrian literal appearances? They aren't just so' phenomena but, instead, represent something ineffable; something that cannot be conveyed in any other way but through the metaphor we call our everyday reality. We cannot be told what it all means. We must live it and somehow 'get it.' There is no other way. We must pay attention to how these symbols get woven together in the mental narrative we call life. Therein, concluded Henry Corbin from his study of ancient Persian traditions, lies the ultimate meaning of it all. He wrote: 'To come into this world . . . means . . . to pass into the plane of existence which in relation to [Paradise] is merely a metaphoric existence. Thus coming into this world has meaning only with a view to leading that which is metaphoric back to true being.'[4]

Perhaps Lao-tzu, over 2500 years ago, put it best in his description of the Dao, which might as well be a description of the membrane of mind: 'There is something formless yet complete That existed before heaven and earth. How still! How empty! Dependent on nothing, unchanging, All pervading, unfailing. One may think of it as the mother of all things under heaven. I do not know its name, But I call it '"Meaning."' [5]

Hong Zicheng made it clear where the meaning of the Dao can be seen and how it relates to mind. He wrote, in the 16th century: 'The chirping of birds and twittering of insects are all murmurings of the mind. The brilliance of flowers and colors of grasses are none other than the patterns of the Dao.'[6]

Clearly, we once knew with intuitive clarity that which we can no longer remember. In today's culture we take the package for the content, the vehicle for the precious cargo. We attribute reality to physical phenomena while taking their meanings to be inconsequential fantasies. By extricating 'reality' from mind, materialism has sent the significance of nature into exile. With the pathetic grin of hubris stamped on our foolish faces, we carefully unwrap the package and then proceed to throw away its contents while proudly storing the empty box on the altar of our ontology. What a huge stash of empty boxes have we accumulated! Idols of stupidity they are; public reminders of a state of affairs that would be hilarious if it weren't tragic.

The meaning of it all is unfolding right under our noses, all the time, but we can't see it. We don't pay any attention. We were taught from childhood to avert our gaze, lest we be considered fools. So now we seem to live in some kind of collective trance, lost in a daze the likes of which have probably never before been witnessed in history. We feel the gaping emptiness and meaninglessness of our condition in the depths of our psyches. But, like a desperate man thrashing about in quicksand, our reactions only make things worse: we chase more fictitious goals and accumulate more fictitious stuff, precisely the things that distract us further from watching what is really happening. And, when we finally realize the senselessness of such reactions, we turn to 'gurus' doling out pill-form answers instead of paying attention to life, the only authentic teacher, who is constantly speaking to us. There is no literal shortcut to whatever it is that the metaphor of life is trying to convey. There is no literal truth. The meaning of it all cannot be communicated directly. There are no secret answers spelled out in words in some rare old book. The metaphor is the only way to the answers, if only we have patience and pay attention. Look around: what is life trying to say?

[1] Quoted from Act 2, Scene 7, of William Shakespeare's play As You Like It.

[2] Goethe, J. W. (author) and Bernays, L. J. (translator) (1839). Goethe's Faust, Part II. London: Sampson Low, p. 207. Italics are mine.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cheetham, T. (2012). All the World an Icon: Henry Corbin and the angelic function of beings. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, p. 59. Italics are mine.

[5] Jung, C. G. (1985). Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. London: Routledge, p. 97. Italics are mine. The translation used by Jung is slightly changed to account for Richard Wilhelm's reading of the term 'Dao' (which is often also spelled 'Tao').

[6] Zicheng, H. (author), Aitken, R. (translator), and Kwok, D. W. Y. (translator) (2006). Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom from Ming China on Life and Living: The Caigentan. Berkeley, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, p. 105. Italics are mine.