Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 7: The Intellect > Chapter 5: Semantics
Semantics requires us to train ourself in clear communication so that we shall be able to weigh the effect of our words upon people.
We begin by making a scientific analysis of the meaning of each major term used in a linguistic expression. We proceed by exposing with the utmost clarity and exactitude, the implications hidden beneath the superficial meaning of each concept. We conclude by examining the general purport of the entire linguistic form, whether it be a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or a page.
The need of semantic discipline was recognized thousands of years ago by Patanjali, the Yoga authority whose approach to the subject was so thoroughly scientific. He wrote: "There is confusion of word, object, and mental image because one is superimposed on the other."
I esteem Socrates because he was the first European to bestow attention upon the search for real definitions.
The analytic logicians do a needed work, just as garbage collectors do, but it does not give us anything. The semantic probers do the same with the same results. Both have their place, but it is a limited one. Error starts when they cross their limits.
We study meaning from two angles: (a) ruthless analysis of words used without any corresponding meaning at all, mere blab words like "intuition," "god," etc., and (b) words which have a meaning, but are used by different persons in different senses.
Semantics deals with those subtleties of language which escape the notice of uneducated people and are ignored by those who shirk a little labour.
If ever the importance of semantics was demonstrated to the whole world, it was during the twelve months after the war ended. For then Russia on the one side and Britain and America on the other quarrelled openly about the meanings of rules for postwar policy made by three heads of State at Potsdam. Issues of grave moment to the lives of millions of people were involved in those rules.
If such a sentence is not to be a mere juxtaposition of words, if it is to be something more than verbal confusion, we must test its meaning by reference to the facts of verified and criticized experience, and we must discover if it corresponds to something discernible in the actual world.
Semantics are really a part of logic.
When it comes to expressing metaphysical thought, the student should choose his language carefully.
Questions which are wrongly put need not be answered. Silence is their only fitting response.
The evaluation of linguistic factors forms an important determinant of the validity of philosophic ideas.
We get out of the marsh of dubious data on to the firm ground of fact only when we observe a strict semantic discipline.
We can define only by contrast and discrimination. Light defines itself by contrast to darkness. All definition is therefore relative and forms a duality. Meaning arises only by separation of one thing from another. Hence the meaning of one word is entirely relative to that of another. We can think of what the word "hot" means, for instance, only by thinking of its opposite "cold"--similarly for "tall' and "short."
Why make difficult topics still more difficult for students by unclear obscure writing? This is one reason why from the beginning of my career I aimed at a direct, to-the-point style.
Do not ask an analogy to correspond to a situation in every way. It is enough if it usefully illustrates a single point, if it makes that point easier to understand.
We must ask people "What do you mean by this word, `real', `unreal', etc.?" This semantics is the very beginning of Vedanta.
Words may cloud understanding or help it. If they are semantically clear they may help to explain themselves but still leave the fact behind them untouched. This happens when firsthand knowledge is lacking, when only hearsay or speculation or tradition prompts them.
Clarity is essential
Mind and its expression in language are thoroughly interwoven and to improve one is to improve the other.
We must begin by looking into our thoughts and examining what sort of ideas we form when dealing with such words and especially when dealing with abstract words. We must attend carefully to what passes in our own mental comprehension the moment an abstract term is used.
We have begun our studies not by learning new matter but by unlearning the old. So much that we take for granted is not knowledge at all but fantasy. For instance, we assume unconsciously that "B" must exist. The only way to cure ourselves of false assumptions is first to discover that they are assumptions. The only way to clear our minds of false learning is to inquire into all our learning and examine its warrant. And since all thoughts are embodied in words, we can carry out this essential preliminary task only by examining the words habitually used, the terms we have inherited from our mental environment, and to see how far they are justified.
It will not harm our spiritual affairs to bring more clarity into them. It will not help them to keep our thinking about them muddled.
He who can conquer language, conquers men.
Such semantic self-vigilance will have a chastening effect on his private thoughts, quite apart from his public talk or writing.
We start by elucidating the information contained in single words or in sentence constructions, and our procedure is to question not the word or sentence itself but the meaning assigned to it.
We have to get the meaning of certain words by going within, to find by internal experience the correct definition of Spirit, Thought, and Love.
If this new scrupulousness requires him to reform his speech, he should do so. If a spiritualized semantics is needed for his thinking about truth, he should take it up.
The philosopher must ask each word to yield thoroughly a definition which possesses an exactitude that may well terrify the ordinary man. He must become a hunter and wander through the forests of verbal meaning to track down real meaning. He will not rush prematurely into utterance. Words are cheap for the ordinary man but dear for him. His studied hesitation leads, however, closer to truth. This interpretational discipline must be vigorously applied until it leads to a thorough understanding of all concepts which are the essential counters in philosophical research. For when men go astray in their definitions of these highly important terms, they will surely go astray in their thinking, and thence be led astray altogether from truth.
There are no words in human language in which Truth can find adequate expression.
Mind cannot grasp the Brahman because the drik is different from drysam: hence words, as the expression of thought, cannot express it. This is the reason, not as mystics say, that Brahman is too wonderful for words.
What do we mean when we use this "A"? We must mean something or we would not use it. Now we must either understand what we mean by it or else we do not understand it. Few persons will venture to assert that they understand "A." Consequently we do not understand what we mean when we use the term. But is there any difference between such a situation and one where we use a term like gkmouch? That is to say, is not "A" a meaningless sound?
We perceive things because we distinguish the form, colour, etc., of a particular one from others. After having done this, we affix a name to the thing so distinguished. The fact that we have perceived, distinguished, and named the thing makes us sit complacently back with the feeling that we have understood it. We deceive ourselves when we utter this word that is a name. For we have perceived only an appearance, namely, only as much as the five senses can comprehend. The reality behind this appearance has escaped us.
In work of a non-philosophic or non-scientific character, the duty of preliminary definition is not laid on the student because both author and reader may imagine what they please without doing much harm. Hence the philosopher need not become austerely insensitive to the charms of poetry and the fascination of fiction and the solace of humour. And he may himself rise above taking words in their literal meaning and move amid their attractions as simile and metaphor.
There are numerous "Gods" existing in the minds of different people, although all are denominated by this single term. Now if the primal instrument in this question of truth is thinking and if every thought must find words in which to express itself, it is essential for us to begin by defining every important term which we use, as and when we first use it. Definition must precede explanation; otherwise confusion will reign in the mental relationship between reader and writer. No instruction can be given, no discussion can take place effectively unless both first combine to define their terms and to state their positions. I cannot incur the danger of using a word with one significance given to it by my own mind and another given to it by a reader. We must both beware of the habit of inexact expression.
Clear concepts and lucid statements are not less needed by the metaphysical and mystical than by the scientifical.
The average man has not the patience to, and does not want to, inquire into meanings of words. He says, "My meaning is the right one and good enough for me." This implies that he knows, but in fact he does not because he has not examined it.
The intellect cannot work accurately with blurred concepts. Pitfalls wait to receive it under such conditions. This is one reason why the process of discovering and clarifying meanings leads its advance into truth.
Many think it useless to discuss the meaning of a term. This is often correct in the case of a logician who seeks merely to score a cheap intellectual triumph over an opponent, however dishonestly, but in the case of a true metaphysician who seeks truth in its genuine sense, such a procedure may be most helpful to him. At the least, it may point out pitfalls.
However approximate all meanings may be in view of the incessant development of language, we have to pin down the words used in philosophy to workable definitions. This sort of self-training is highly valuable and constitutes the beginning of philosophical wisdom. But where this quest is concerned we ought to avoid such simplicity of mind and not fall into fallacies as readily as the unthinking masses.
Words came to possess a power to influence man which, in primitive times, was widely recognized and raised by priestly society to the pedestal of magic. Sacred words or secret ones were embodied in all the primitive systems of magic and religion. Contrariwise, men even made scapegoats of mere words, so that evil spirits and gibbering devils had their evocatory names.
The mere use of a phrase--and especially its printed use--carries the suggestion that the thing for which the phrase stands is really what it is described to be.
Naturally, we would not know what the teaching of the Buddha was if we had had no communication in words--words were very much needed--but when there is no correspondence between words and meaning the teaching itself will lose its sense. The Lankavatara thus reiterates throughout the text that the Tathagata never teaches the Dharma fallen into mere talk.
Put this word on the torture rack and make it confess its meaning.
This is not a plea for the abolition of all abstract terms and all universal ones; they are immensely useful and necessary in the everyday affairs of practical life. It is a plea for the realization that the moment we drop the practical affairs from consideration and take up the philosophical quest of truth, we have to shift to a higher and stricter standpoint; we have to reject for the time being all such terms as are temporary counters that have no value in exchange and no corresponding significance.
Propaganda knows only two shades--black and white. Truth knows all the range of colours in between.
He will exhibit a caution of language suggested by experience and enforced by knowledge.
The nominalists of medieval times were realists whereas the conceptualists were idealists. The former abhorred abstract words as unnecessary mystifications and declared there was no such entity as India, but only individual Indians, for instance, that society is only the men who compose it. A list of abstract universals which would be non-existent and which may be unveiled by semantic analysis, their definition would include: God, Time, Space, Matter, Eternal and Absolute Existence, Happiness, Motion, Justice, Evil, Spirit, Truth, Reality, First Cause, and even "I."
We must keep things in their proper places to characterize them correctly and to use names with more precision. Theology should not be dressed in philosophic pretensions as magic should not be dressed in mystical pretensions.
The philosopher must demand as perfect an integrity in speech as possible. For him a word must be used rightly or not at all.
If we attribute meaning where there is none, we are telling lies to ourselves.
There is a profound difference between using words because they have been understood and merely repeating them because somebody else has used them.
If a man had arrived at some vital and powerful thought, the addition of a group of words can only stifle the newborn life; it can never render a faithful copy of the throbbing image which palpitated within the man's self.
I learnt from Locke to get my meanings clear in thought, then the expression could well take care of itself.
Those who are discerning enough can taste the elixir in true words.
To state a metaphysical truth in such a way that it will be more helpful to the recipient's understanding, it needs to be more precise and come directly to the point. It should not lose itself in high-sounding but vague terms. It should be, and be felt or visioned as, something quite clear.
The poverty of vocabulary is shown in the use of words like "marvellous" or "wonderful" or "nice" when precise ones are available. Accuracy in the use of words shows also a tidy mind.
Semantics has its part in the self-training of a quester. Its study makes him cautious of what he says and critical of what he reads and clear about what he understands.
The repeated phrase sticks longer to the mind and memory. But if repetition is overdone it becomes an irritant or a bore: the author is then simply nagging the reader.
Metaphysicians lost in the winding convolutions of their speculation, mystics whose works are pointless and incomprehensible as hieroglyphics--these belong to the old school. Tell us quickly what you mean, or keep silent, says the modern.
The forms taken by language reflect character and evolutionary status. If refined elegant and grammatically correct then the speaker is a superior person. But if replete with slang, vulgarity, crudeness, his language is spoilt and he shames what he could be.
What is needed today is not a continuation of that enigmatic, puzzling, metaphorical, or overcautious language of the Middle Ages--a style taken up perhaps to avoid religious persecution or civil prosecution--but straightforward, direct, and honest expression, not to hide Truth, but to deliver it openly.
Wherever possible let us not use a language remote from common understanding. Where this is not possible, then the student must make the effort which is necessary to arrive at comprehension.
Truth in the higher sense can not be communicated by words, but in an indirect symbolic sense the knower of Truth may seek for and find words that will accurately give out what his consciousness knows as being Truth.
Words are valuable in telling us about something, but they can never take the place of that something itself.
By working on his own consciousness in the proper way he may hope to come to an impersonal state where the words he speaks, the products of his pen, are less coloured by the falsities of his ego, less distant from the egoless truth.
Articulate speech is not an absolute necessity for human intercourse. Mere gazing is said to be sufficient in the world of Samantabhadra to make one realize the highest state of enlightenment known as Anutpattikadharmakshanti. Even in this world, says the sutra, the ordinary business of life is carried on most successfully among bees or ants that never use words. If so, we never need wonder at those Zen masters who merely raise a finger.
Why is it that there are speakers whose words are forgotten as soon as they are uttered? Why is it that there are lecturers whose addresses are lost to remembrance as soon as the audience leaves the lecture hall? Why is it that there are writers whose works are left unread to perish slowly on untouched shelves? In the last analysis it is because of the lack of truth. For those whose every sentence compels thought, whose every lecture is a notable event in the audience's life, and the appearance of whose every book is hailed with holy joy, are those who think truth and can therefore speak and write it.
We seek a truth which is unvarying and universal. Define your terms and then examine them to discover whether they are related to facts or not.
Only those who seek facts rather than phrases, who respect the meaning of words, are not likely to be overwhelmed by them.
The right use of spiritual, religious, mystical, and metaphysical terms, with the attempt to get full consciousness of their meaning, may help the development of spiritual understanding.
When a word becomes so vague that it carries different meanings in different mouths, the way in which it is being used should be specifically clarified.
Serious students are willing to struggle for the meaning, but busy workers and professionals may feel that their energies are not up to the demand.
We lose our way in all this meaningless verbiage, but we may begin to find it by learning to use words that we really do understand.
A statement which purports to give the whole truth, whether about a man's character, a legal situation, or a cosmic scheme is usually less incomplete than other statements, but it is still incomplete.
The symbol is a substitute for reality.
He says foolish things because he holds foolish thoughts. When wisdom enlightens his mind, he will utter fewer words, but they will be more prudently uttered.
Once a word has transmitted the meaning in its speaker's mind without failing at any point, it may be said to be effective.
Communication can only come into actual being where the collective verbal symbolism is understood in a similar manner by all who use it. If such common understanding is absent or only partial, then the representational value of the symbolism breaks down.
Many people know the meaning of a word without really understanding the meaning. This ignorance was shown up by Socrates in the simple but celebrated case of an onion.
They manage to pack the smallest quantity of thought into the largest quantity of words.
The instinctive faculty of animals and primitive men gives way in time to the thinking faculty of developed men who form concepts, invent words, and formulate phrases to accommodate what they try to express. In time the habit of thinking conditions them as it gets more strongly seated. When the need arises with further development for abstract thoughts, the words used tend to spread out their meaning, become more generalized and vague, and thus in a different way tend to limit consciousness still further. If the consciousness is to free itself from these limitations it must probe words more semantically and cut into concepts with more precision. This becomes important if the higher Truth becomes the object of a quest.
The problem with words
Whoever has read the blood-stained pages of history knows what terrors and what agonies have afflicted mankind when words were only half-understood or quarter-understood or quite misunderstood. When these dangerous interpretations of words have been let loose like beasts of prey in the name of religion or war, men, women, and children have in consequence been butchered. For religious scripture and monarchical proclamations are nothing but collections of words. When they are deified, words thereby become deified. Sect wars with sect over the interpretations of a few words in a single scripture and governments war with their own people over the interpretation of a constitutional phrase or a legal clause. Who then dares assert that the worship of words is of no consequence?
The failure to cultivate a scrupulous regard for truth in speech is one of the reasons why these seekers accept so easily teachings which are remote from or distortions of the truth.
The problems of metaphysics are often mere pseudo-problems. The dogmas of religion are mere dogmas of language, playthings of terminology, utterly divorced from universal fact and human experience.
We get the meaning of a statement from several factors, such as the text which contains it, the obvious intention of its writer or speaker, the mood which seems to dominate him at the time, and the ideas which it arouses in our own minds. The same sentence in a different text, written by a writer with a different intention and under a different mood, may arouse different ideas in us and thus yield a different meaning.
If the mystery of the Spirit is only to be written about in unintelligible language which makes readers only more puzzled than before, why try to communicate it?
For one who does not inquire, the writings of mystics and yogis will be full of meaning, because the reader may imagine as he likes. For a thinker, much in these writings is meaningless where their works are carefully examined. In Vedanta we do not want things which we cannot understand.
How many words, how many phrases, are but thick disguises which deceive their users and delude their hearers into the naïve belief that they contain real meaning. How many utterances are but hollow sounds, containing no sense and conveying no facts.
We can adequately solve a problem only after we have adequately stated it. We can thoroughly think our way to a solution only after we have thoroughly thought out its verbal meaning. When this is done it may even be found that the problem simply does not exist.
They have become inebriated by words and think they present convincing statements and arguments when they have merely lost themselves in the maze of their feelings. What is the sense of being so fervid if they are fuddled?
Much discussion is only much ado about nothing, because based on terms that express self-contradictory concepts or meaningless sounds.
We must not mistake lyrical outbursts in passionate prose for sensible maxims in careful phraseology.
We must beware of becoming obsessed by mere jargon, by long words which convey the conceit of knowledge but not its reality.
Talk to a Tibetan yak-herder about the internal combustion engine, tell him how the noisy explosion of gases starts a series of processes into operation, and although you may be using good Tibetan words they will not make sense to him. His consciousness can take in your sounded words but not your mental pictures.
The words which the clergyman pours into your ear every Sunday may be as empty of content as an unfilled box. The sentences which lie before you in black print on the white ground of a newspaper may be as meaningless as the gabbing of a verbose lunatic.
We must not mistake the glamorous rhetoric of the orator for the divine knowledge of the illuminati.
All unprovable statements of this character, all assertions based on the usage of ambiguous words are outside the realm of true thinking, and therefore need no refutation; they are ineligible for discussion, and incapable of yielding the slightest fruit upon examination.
Water which has any temperature at all, however low, necessarily has some heat. Therefore when we speak of cold water we are speaking of apparent and not scientific truth.
It is unfortunate that a sentence which has no factual content, no logical meaning, and no corresponding object in Nature, is shaped into the same grammatical form as a statement of fact which can be scientifically verified or as an account of experience which can be personally verified. The consequence is that careless readers are misled into illusory belief that they are reading about real things or reasonable events when they are doing nothing of the sort.
Before we go any farther it is desirable to define our terms. We have to deal with facts, truth, reality, God, and religion--all of which are among the most ambiguous words in human language. Everybody usually produces the first definition that pleases him, without caring to enquire and consider whether there are other definitions of a conflicting kind.
The cultural assumptions of earlier periods are embodied in such words and, without our awareness, are apt to mislead us when they are false to present knowledge of facts.
We are word-drugged!
We misunderstand each other often because we do not communicate our thoughts adequately or accurately enough to each other. And out of such misunderstanding there is born strife, conflict, and hatred.
When a word has become quite lifeless, when it is habitually used without any consciousness of a meaning attached to it, there is real danger of deceiving oneself every time it is so used.
Such a diet of empty phrases ("flapdoodle," as H.P. Blavatsky used to call it) would sicken any other stomachs than those of these foolish followers.
It is the role of words to give meanings or hide them, to explain truths or expound falsehoods.
Words may be cunningly or thoughtlessly used to cloud facts as well as reveal them.
The same words which express knowledge in one mouth, merely hide ignorance in another mouth.
Whether it be a professor entangled in a web of words or a labourer imprisoned in a cell of materialism, both misconceive the meaning of "real."
How can we get at truth when long but meaningless words or short but ambiguous ones are built like a barricade between it and us?
Abstract words like "justice" may easily mislead the thoughtless and call for care in use or reading, but that does not mean they are quite unnecessary. They have their place but they ought not to be permitted to transgress beyond their proper limit.
Too many bad doctrines exist today because their pleaders' eloquence has saved them. But man cannot live by talk alone.
Both the religious devotee and the philosopher may use the word "soul," for instance. But whereas the one is only dimly aware of its significance, the other is fully aware.
The word "soul" is so vague a word that the Oxford English Dictionary offers no less than twenty-five meanings for it!
The logic of thinking may be affected and influenced by wrong use of words, even by the wrong use of grammar.
We habitually speak of "sunrise" and "sunset" yet we know that those phenomena have nothing to do with the sun's movements, but only with the earth's daily rotation. Our very language is obsolete, unscientific, and misleading in this instance, and in many others.
Men who become so attached to words, phrases, and other symbols as to attribute a reality--either of meaning or fact--to them which they do not possess, become idolatrous worshippers of "the letter which killeth."
The use of slang is vulgar. The use of careless slipshod phrases is unworthy of an educated man. But the use of the word "God" in common swearing as "God damn it!" is quite unpardonable.
Glib slogans are too easily used by the young, the uneducated, or the emotional as a substitute for reason.
Some speak or write naturally in an enigmatic or obscure manner in order to lend more importance to the subject and thus by implication to their own depth of knowledge.
The semantic dangers of using abstract terms which are translated by different groups of people into different or contradictory concrete images, are plain enough in politics but, more subtly, they exist also in matters of religion and metaphysics.
It is unphilosophic to use the word "spirit" when what is unconsciously meant is "mind."
The profound philosopher tries to put his truth into terse terms. The shallow philosopher wades out into the deep waters of many words, loses himself, and half drowns his reader in the waves of time-wasting.
If we approach different theological authorities, we shall find that one attributes to such important words as "salvation" and "sin" meanings which are at variance with those attributed by the others.
Science has been helped in its advance because it has always sought to create a new term for every new conception, whereas philosophy has been hindered because its store of distinguishing terms lags far in arrear of its store of conceptions. With such an inadequate number of tools in its possession we need not be surprised why philosophy has been hard put to till its fields satisfactorily. It has had to pack two or more meanings in a single word; it has had to bear the burden of ancient words which caricature the newly discovered facts of today. It has found itself at times unable to say what ought to be said, at other times actually saying what should not be said, and at still other times trying to say what cannot be be said. The poverty of the philosophical vocabulary can only be got rid of by inventing new words or borrowing from alien tongues, but philosophers are a conservative race.
Few people ever recognize that the language they use, and hence the thoughts they think, are filled with unexamined assumptions, with uncriticized suggestions from outside, with untested inheritances from other peoples' past.
If a seer or teacher, a prophet or mystic does not clearly know his own meaning when he makes a statement, there is little hope that others will be able to do so.
Language, which was invented to help primitive man, sometimes hinders his advanced brother. When it appears in the form of a profuse plethora of abstract words or of a loose phraseology which needs mending, he is likely to be led astray.
It is sometimes pleasant to deceive ourselves with specious sophistries.
Do they realize what they are talking about? Or are they merely repeating with no more understanding than a phonograph record what they have been told by someone else?
Such muddy writing means only that there is uncertainty, obscurity, illogicality, or even error behind it.
What remains when we purify the significance of this term of all hallucinatory and imaginatory elements? We must frankly confess that nothing at all is left.
Through the lips and the pens of those who know no better, language has deteriorated and coarsened.
When language is used so variously, it signifies anything or nothing; it becomes an instrument of thought which is sometimes intelligible and sometimes hopelessly unintelligible.
The meaning of language
Language evolved in response to the needs of the thinking process. Its own limitations prevent it from serving with the same adequacy what the thinking process itself serves to conceal--the silent depths of the Mind behind the mind.
When we analyse a spoken word we find it to be nothing more than a vibration in the air, which strikes the tympanum of the ear, a sound produced by throat, palate, lips, and teeth uniting to operate together. Speech therefore is thought made flesh. Every time we hear a word uttered we stand in the presence of this miracle. Familiarity has rendered it commonplace, but miracle it remains.
Just as the path of return from body-ruled intellect to divine intuition is necessarily a slow one, so the descent into matter of man's originally pure mind was also a slow process. The "Fall" was no sudden event; it was a gradual entanglement that increased through the ages. Pure consciousness--the Overself--is required even for the intellect's materialistic operations. We may say, therefore, that the Overself has never been really lost, for it is feeding the intellect with necessary life. All this has been going on for untold ages. At first man possessed only a subtle body for a long period; but later, as his intellect continued more outward bent than before, the material body accreted to him. This curious position has arisen where intellect cannot indeed function in the absence of the Overself, yet deceptively arrogates to itself the supremacy of man's being. Pretending to guide and protect man, it is itself rebelliously and egotistically blind to the guidance of the Overself, yet enjoys the protection of the latter. The intellectual ego-self is thus propped up by the Overself and would collapse without it, but pretends to be self-sufficing.
THE WORD. I am the world's greatest tyrant. Yet paradoxically I am the world's greatest liberator. I decimate peoples, raise armies, ruin families, and destroy marriages. I make the lives of countless people happy, I also mar the lives of countless others. I bring wealth to some and poverty to many. I am the Word.
The right use of words has brought into being that immense store of recorded knowledge which is one of the most precious heritages man possesses. Today, through the understanding of words, we are able to shake hands with the world's most renowned sages, to have the privilege of a discussion with the distant wise, and to sit at table for an intellectual feast with the dead.
Only present-day Western language is strained when it deals with other than physical matters. We find it difficult to talk about mental matters with the subtle precision they demand. We tend to make things out of words in the same way that we tend to make facts out of traditions.
Let us first enquire into the nature and function of this code of communication called language. What was its origin? Primitive men soon found the need of making known their thoughts or perceptions to each other when they began to live together. Ideas, not being visible, could hardly be communicated by gestures whilst a suitable vehicle had to be found by men even to present them clearly to their own minds. Thus the word was born and made to stand for a thought. Herein they secured a tremendous advantage over the animals. The number of words which human beings could form and accumulate immensely outranged the few hoarse cries in which animals had perforce to express themselves. This development was rendered possible by the possession of a larynx.
Such is the extraordinary situation that language, which delivers most men from superficial ignorance, binds them the more closely to profounder ignorance.
Men like Maeterlinck, Fabre, Thoreau, and Burroughs have given the most painstaking and careful attention to the life and psychology of ants, spiders, beavers, horses, dogs, and even birds. What is the sum of their discoveries? They have found that these creatures of the animal kingdom, although unable to think and reason as creatures of the human kingdom do, nevertheless exercise an unerring intelligence, seemingly automatic and hereditary though it be, an intelligence which we call instinct.
Ants and termites closely organize themselves into a wonderful society where each has his appointed task and where all work individually with soldierly discipline and indefatigable industry for the common benefit, as is demonstrated by the way they store food for future communal use and the expert way in which they practise the art of warfare. Beavers build their dams across streams with the accuracy and ingenuity of skilled engineers. Large flocks of birds migrate with unfailing regularity to the same spot in some distant country every year, never losing their correct direction. A wild creature roaming the jungles will not touch poisonous plants, however hungry it be. A spider spins a web for its prey with the calculated accuracy of a mathematician and the refined grace of an artist. Nobody dare deny that some kind of intelligence, some activity of mind guides and directs multitudes of creatures all over the world and shows them how to feed and support themselves and their young, how and when to store food for the winter months, how to cure themselves when ill, what are the nourishing foods for them to take, and so on.
When however we ask in what way this animal mind compares with that of human beings, we soon observe one important difference. Science has ascertained that Nature invariably evolves a new bodily organ to perform a needed physical function: thus there was a time in the misty past when all creatures had no ears but grew them as the necessity of hearing sounds became more and more urgent. It was Nature's adaptation to inner need. There is one function which animals do not share in common with human beings and that is speech. They do not possess that delicate and intricate organ, the larynx. This is quite clearly because they do not feel the need of it. Even our primitive ancestors were once at the stage when they too were larynxless. Now language is the product of speech and came into belated being after men wished to communicate with other men. What is speech but uttered thoughts? And what are thoughts but the product of the working of intellect? And what is intellect but, to take the definition given in our first volumes, "the activity of logical thinking"? But logical thinking cannot be performed without using words. And words cannot be spoken without the possession of a larynx. If therefore Nature has failed to make the physical gesture of growing a larynx, it is because the mental needs of logical thinking have not compelled it, that is, such thinking is absent.
Many animals can see smell hear and taste with much greater acuteness than humans, but none of them can utter those magical words which will make a logically constructed thought known to another animal; none can frame words into phrases and then formulate the latter into sentences. The absence of spoken language among animals is itself a proof that they are not the ratiocinative creatures which human beings are. The splendid but limited intelligence they show and the remarkable perception of how and when to act which they possess are sufficiently remarkable to impress observers, but they are the results of the same logical faculty which man uses; they are the results of a subconscious instinctive mental working. We admit this when we refer to it as "instinct." An animal submits to the guidance of this subconscious mind and does not balance up the pros and cons of a matter requiring decision, as the human's logical mind does. Some higher animals, like the elephant, the lemur, and the ape, may not conform to this description. But this is merely because they mark a transitional stage in evolution and are close enough to the human kingdom to exhibit exceptional traits. They have begun to manifest special characteristics of their own, to break away from the herd imprint, and thus to show that individuality which is a mark of man. This individual self-consciousness which man alone possesses in its fullness is the fruit of his possession of self-conscious intellectual processes.
It is not the words of any scripture--be they Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit--which have special power over men: it is what they themselves put into the words. That is to say, it is their faith, imagination, desire, and expectancy which invest the text with such power. But these states of mind are their own.
Language shapes thinking. Its forms and structures may permit or prohibit the entertaining of certain specific ideas by those who speak it. The languages of Europe and America, for example, promote materialism, whereas Sanskrit retards it.
Words are much like coins for we find those whose value is nil, and yet these counterfeits are freely passed into general circulation. We also find others that have become debased by misuse and still others which are worn thin by time and mean but half of what they once meant. Yet whether genuine, defective, or worthless, all are still tokens of negotiable utility with us.
Beware of words. To the ignorant they are expressions of human knowledge; to the wise they are expressions of human ignorance.
Whilst we have to use a materialistic vocabulary with which to demolish materialism, we are hampered greatly.
The first difficulty the mind has in formulating thought about the truth is that the very words it must use in such formulations are bound up with, and taken from, the illusion which the senses engender in it. The vocabulary which it must use in understanding or in explaining its experience of the world is itself based on the idea that the illusive is the real. With such a false idea to start with, it can give false meanings only to end with.
Although he may not know it at the time, each man who offers a statement about anything which exists in this world, any situation or condition even, offers an interpretation of it, suggests a meaning. This is done by the very words he uses, the very form he gives to the sentences. It is not a willed action, for he has no choice in the matter.
The use to which it is ordinarily put makes up a word's meaning; on this basis no word is entirely meaningless.
A tremendous advantage came when words were inscribed on clay tablets, styled on dried palm leaves, written on tough parchments or printed as marks on paper. Then, a man's thought was able to traverse the immensity of space as his voice never could until lately. Such was the birth of this complicated apparatus of language which represents things and thoughts by articulate sounds or written signs.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.