In recent decades, a great deal has been made of the notion that language and object are not related. That is to say, a signifier (word) can never fully capture or embody the signified (object). From this position, philosophers and others (such as psychiatrists) then draw the conclusion that language is somehow useless or dangerously misleading.

Man thoughtfully fishing with a stick

Language is essential for sustaining consciousness. Without it, we go into a coma. (Image: Reusable Art)

A vague mysticism sets in where we assume that humans are condemned to live in a world we can never properly describe or even conceptually grasp. Unless we can master something like the knowledge-obliterating Buddhist technique of direct perception, we are forever divorced from reality and therefore must live our lives in a language-induced haze of unreality, error, and arbitrary subjectivity. There exists a widespread opinion that what goes on inside our heads has little or nothing to do with what goes on around us. Solipsism, the philosophical theory that all we can be sure of is the self, gains credence.

This is a catastrophic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In reality, language does not need to fully capture the signified; it is merely a pointer, a “do-for” or stand-in for what is being referred to. Different languages use different stand-ins for any given object, and in this sense, language and object are not related. Nevertheless, language and the world of objects are related in a more useful, more fundamental sense. In fact, in humans, language is an essential aspect of how we relate to the world.

Sensory-deprivation experiments make the point vividly. Once in the tank, the lack of sensory input (i.e. perception of objects) quickly removes thought (i.e. language) from the subject’s mind. Non-linguistic fantasy and dreaming, with their rich array of images, only slightly delay the onset of this situation. The resulting comatose state is living proof that language and object are indeed related in that external objects are required to generate language.

It is vital to grasp the significance of the fact that imagined or dreamed objects are not enough to stimulate the generation of language necessary to avoid going into a coma. The senses wire the real world directly to thought and language. Consciousness depends entirely on language, and language depends entirely on the real world.

7 thoughts on “Fishing Language from the Sensory Deprivation Tank

  1. I knew that sensory deprivation did away with thought (I assume prisoners in solitary confinment suffer from a much milder version of this) but had never thought much about it. Very interesting.

  2. Phillip, it is always hard to recommend books for someone you do not know well, but I enjoy being asked anyway! My biggest vice is intellectual vanity.

    This post was inspired by Elizabeth Wright’s, *Speaking Desires Can Be Dangerous*. Be warned that this psychology book is abstract and requires careful reading. My posts are a blend of ideas from books I have read (often more than one) and my own original thinking in response to those ideas. I find that books I disagree with (like this one) are more stimulating, while more compatible books help build a knowledge base.

    More accessible, but less directly on topic are Gregory Bateson’s *Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity* and Morris Berman’s *Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West.* Both of these books are enlightening and entertaining.

    Then there are the more general titles such as Gordon Rattray Taylor’s very readable *Natural History of the Mind*.

    If you look me up on Goodreads (under my own name), you can view my “Mind” and “Psychology” shelves for more ideas.

  3. Since we regard solitary confinement as punishment, one must assume that it has unpleasant effects on the mind. For most people, being alone for extended periods brings on the psychic entropy I wrote about in my post “The Radiant Solitude of the Artist.”

  4. Thomas, I keep trying to ‘like’ this post, but for some reason my computer won’t let me! Blasted technology! You wouldn’t want to know the kind of language I’m currently using to relate to the world…

    Interesting post, as always. I can’t honestly add much to the debate, as it’s been a long time since I studied the philosophy of language. I do remember the last words of Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’: ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.’ As far as I remember, Wittgenstein’s belief was that only language that performed the function of logical propositions made sense.

    Then again, given how much time has passed, I could very well be wrong … 🙂

  5. In World War I (during which he wrote the Tractatus), Wittgenstein fought in the Austrian trenches shoulder to shoulder with working men, and falling under their influence, he became a socialist extremist. After the war, he set aside his intellectual life, gave away most of his money (he had been wealthy), and went to teach elementary-school children in rural Austria. He also took gardening jobs. When finally coaxed back to England by Bertrand Russell and other friends, he sold his stored custom-built furniture to Russell and lived at Cambridge in empty rooms.

    He was a deeply troubled man. He took the position that no one should talk about philosophy because, with no way to view the world from outside, philosophizing meant talking nonsense. Naturally, we were to give up on philosophy *after* we had all read the Tractatus. He did admit that it too was nonsense, but his own work was a “ladder” that we must climb, and then, having reached the heights, discard.

    Wittgenstein was a rabid perfectionist, and like all men of that sort, he could not accept the idea that something might be “good enough” or “roughly correct” or “workable.” His attempt to reduce language to a kind of perfectly precise mathematical logic is a case in point.

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