17 April 2007

Language is Not Linguistic?

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:50 pm

Poststructuralists contend that all human experience is linguistically mediated — or, less dramatically, mediated by interpretive matrices that are structured like languages. That’s because humans think linguistically, and impose linguistic-type structures on everything. Language is such an all-pervading medium that we can have no assurance that human understanding of the world is true, that it directly corresponds to the underlying phenomena to which it refers. In linguistic terms, the linguistic signifiers don’t necessarily signify anything outside language itself — or, as Derrida puts it, there is nothing outside the text.

Humans are the only language-using animals that we know of. Other creatures interact with the world, but since they’re not language-users it seems pretty darned unlikely that they structure their experiences linguistically. For example, all creatures react instinctively to potential food sources, being drawn by sensory receptors specifically to stuff which that particular species can digest and metabolize. We can describe this instinct linguistically, but that doesn’t mean the creatures themselves operate according to our linguistic description.

We humans also react instinctively to foods. Newborns, who can’t yet structure their experiences linguistically, instinctively eat nourishing food and reject other stuff — though they do have the unsettling tendency to put weird things in their mouths. It’s possible that, once higher-level thought processes kick in, young children no longer react to food out of pure instinct, that thinking about foods linguistically becomes integral to their reactions. We can override our instincts; e.g., by not eating that second piece of cake and developing a refined palate for wines. Still, the taste buds and salivary glands continue to work automatically. I don’t know whether psychological research has been able to parse out the intricate interrelationships of instinct and cognitive-linguistic processing. I would tentatively speculate that at least some aspects of human experience operate non-linguistically, but that any human experience can be described linguistically if we think about it.

Once we’ve framed an instinctive reaction in cognitive-linguistic terms, can we ever again have the raw instinctive experience? I suspect we can. Much of what we do is automatic. We might be able to arrive at a conscious awareness of an instinctive act, an awareness that we may be able to retrieve at will, but meanwhile the instinct continues to operate automatically just as it always has. We can talk about going on a diet, but that doesn’t mean we don’t salivate at the sight or smell of a nice juicy steak.

We react instinctively, just like all other animals, bu we also perform distinctively human cultural acts without being consciously aware of them. Consider something like personal space. Americans feel comfortable speaking to one another up to a certain proximity; if someone gets too close we get nervous. Other cultures tolerate, even prefer, getting right up in each others’ faces. Though our reactions seem instinctive, clearly this is at least partly a cultural phenomenon, an element of social etiquette, like shaking right hands or hugging or kissing each other’s cheeks as a greeting. If personal space preferences were instinctive, they would be pretty much universal. Still, it’s possible to go through a lifetime without ever being aware of our cultural personal space preference. Once it enters our awareness we can describe the parameters of personal space in structural linguistic terms, but is it intrinsically structured this way? I doubt it. I think human interactions generate emergent collective structures that aren’t the result of conceptual-linguistic operations of the people involved. Consequently there’s no reason to assert that these emergent phenomena structure themselves like language.

Even language itself is mostly automatic. You can overhear people talking and, without even listening or thinking about it, you can understand what’s being said. You take this automatic language processing for granted until you go to a place where people don’t speak your language. You know they understand each other, but you cannot understand them. The language processing centers of your brain don’t even get activated. To you it’s a stream of human vocalization without linguistic meaning. You become more aware of the raw sounds (the strange r and u sounds in French), the rhythm (English accentuates syllables, French accentuates phrases) the volume (Americans generally speak more loudly than French people). Language is an emergent human artifact that is structured linguistically, and it operates linguistically in automated brain activities that don’t require conscious attention. A foreign language in which you’re not fluent doesn’t affect you the same way. You can pay conscious attention and try to understand as best you can, but once you stop paying attention the words and phrases recede back into nonlinguistic sound streams.

French schoolchildren study with intensity the structure of their own language — the grammar and verb conjugations and syntactical structures — in a way that American students never do. French people claim it’s because French is a more complicated language than English, but that seems unlikely. It’s just that they subject their language to more conscious scrutiny than we do. French people can probably tell you when they’re using the pluperfect, but just because we Americans can’t name it doesn’t mean we don’t use it — and use it correctly. In a way language is like personal space: a cultural medium that we don’t have to think about in order to participate in it. Language-using is second nature, automatic, unconscious — a lot like instinct, or like personal space. Language is a structured medium, but the cognitive structures by which we describe language aren’t necessarily intrinsic to language itself. The words we use to describe the structure of language are part of the vocabulary of that language, but it’s not clear we use grammatical rules when we happen to use a pluperfect construction in the flow of speech. In that sense you could say that language isn’t linguistic.

What are the implications for psychotherapy? We do a lot of things automatically, without consciously thinking about them. Instincts, cultural practices, even speech operate mostly at this automatic level, perhaps without our ever having paid any conscious attention to what we’re doing and saying. These activities may be well-structured to the point of rigidity, but the structures aren’t directly accessible to conscious scrutiny. Calling attention to someone’s behaviors and describing them in words is to impose an interpretive framework on these behaviors that may be completely alien to the structured matrix in which the behavior patterns take shape. Even calling attention to the words and phrases a person uses means imposing a different kind of cognitive-linguistic structure on language itself. This sort of reframing of behavior and speech can be done, and we can get skilled at it. But we should have less assurance that cognitive-linguistic reframing will readily translate into the automated “languages” that govern behavior and speech on an everyday basis. Bringing a maladaptive reaction into awareness, making sense of it, assigning words to describe it, doesn’t mean that the automated structures generating the reaction will realign themselves appropriately, spontaneously making our reactions more “sensible.” This is a sad fact of which we’re all too well aware.



  1. This is exactly why I emphasize the interpersonal realm…linguistic practices, experience of personal space, etc are all products of relational and embodied practices which come to be felt as “automatic”. There is interesting work being done by Daniel Stern and the Boston Process Group on non-interpretive mechanisms of change in psychotherapy. Their argument is that the non-verbal realm plays a huge role in therapeutic change (caring eye gaze, facial expression, body posture, etc.) and is central to shifting one’s automatic processes. There is some good cognitive and neuropsych stuff on this same idea…our brains are interpersonal and the various connections in the brain become strengthened within relational processes. See the book, “A General Theory of Love” which lays out an argument attempting to integrate neuropsych, cognitive psych, and attachment theory. Perhaps a new relational experience plus the linguistic “opening” is what makes for therapeutic change?


    Comment by Ron — 18 April 2007 @ 7:00 am

  2. Ron –

    Okay, good, so gaze, movement, etc. are automatic, unscrutinized, interactive aspects of relationship. They operate in a structured realm that’s largely independent of conscious attention or linguistic description. So interventions that destructure or restructure these realms may function outside of focused cognitive-linguistic analysis.

    Verbal communication conveys information, but at the same time it also manifests the same characteristics a nonverbal communication: relational, automatic, structured, largely independent of conscious analysis. De-/restructuring of the verbal aspects of relationship without jumping into the more self-conscious evaluative register. So: willingness to listen, openness to topics ordinarily regarded as taboo, following the client’s lead, asking, expressing understanding and interest — these are verbalizations that operate in the automatic relational register of language. Is this what you refer to as “linguistic practices”? These verbal interventions might not take precedence over the nonverbal, but they needn’t be regarded as secondary either.

    Perhaps a new relational experience plus the linguistic “opening” is what makes for therapeutic change? It seems like a good possibility, doesn’t it? Can you clarify what do you mean by the linguistic opening? In this model of change do you think that offering interpretations or leading clients toward their own interpretations is an adjunct, a distraction, or immaterial to the change process?


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 April 2007 @ 9:17 am

  3. What I was meaning by “linguistic practices” is the common everyday manner that experiences are explained to or brought into existence by for a children by the parent’s verbalizations…and these “linguistic practices” automatically shape the child’s horizons of what types of experience are “ok”…I was just wanting to emphasize the social quality of our “automaticity” rather than just focusing on instinctual impulses.

    I think you are right in terms of the conveying the “automatic” information of the verbal aspects of the relationship. I wasn’t necessarily trying to suggest that one form or the other is necessarily more important. In psychoanalysis the tendency has been to esteem the interpretation, the linguistic, the conscious understanding, the cognitive change…while I think this is an important part of therapeutic change it is not enough by itself (hence why I am skeptical of the type of deep, relational change of one’s “automaticity” via internet therapy…I think interesting and creative things therapeutically can be done via internet, but I think a person that one “faces” is a necessary aspect of the type of relational change of automaticity I have in mind), I think that holding this together with the non-verbal, new relational experience is necessary. This is also my problem with Rogerian therapy, it gets the new relational experience part but doesn’t hold it together (in my opinion) with creating with the client a new linguistic opening or moving of the automatic horizon. I hope this makes some sense…


    Comment by Ron — 18 April 2007 @ 11:56 am

  4. Okay, I understand linguistic practices now. Parent-child verbal interaction as a way of understanding the world is what Davidson calls “triangulation.” Tomasello’s evolutionary psych research confirms the idea that children’s speech and cognition first develop in this triangulation context, with both parties in a relationship orienting toward the same things in the world. So the words and their referents are important in linguistic communication, but so are the relational elements.

    You propose that interventions ought to take place in both registers: the automatic/unconscious and the analytic/conscious. Spoken language as a medium operates in both registers, but in different ways. Probably all the apparatus available to us in relationships can also be used both unconsciously and consciously. So we can let our gaze go where it will, or we can consciously direct it; we can hear everything in our surroundings, or we can listen for specific things.

    I wasn’t necessarily trying to suggest that one form or the other is necessarily more important. In psychoanalysis the tendency has been to esteem the interpretation, the linguistic, the conscious understanding, the cognitive change…while I think this is an important part of therapeutic change it is not enough by itself. Doubtless there are others who esteem the automatic, non-reflective processes as they occur in the flow of relationship, regarding them as more natural, more “in the here and now,” more foundational, more real. But I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far. You’ve got a guy like Proust who spends half his life living it, the other half remembering it and turning it into literature. Derrida discusses how writing has historically been regarded as an artificial and parasitic form of speech, rather than an entirely different form of expression. The internet isn’t necessarily a less real form of communication, but it’s also not a substitute for or a simulation of other forms.

    So is this what you think about Rogers: that he makes himself the ideal listener and reflecter, the ideal parent in linguistic exchange, but he doesn’t attempt to introduce anything new into the exchange that the client can work on? And that by being so passive the therapist doesn’t participate in a real two-sided conversation?


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 April 2007 @ 1:20 pm

  5. So is this what you think about Rogers: that he makes himself the ideal listener and reflecter, the ideal parent in linguistic exchange, but he doesn’t attempt to introduce anything new into the exchange that the client can work on? And that by being so passive the therapist doesn’t participate in a real two-sided conversation?

    I’m not sure I would put it that way, but it catches some of what I think about Rogers. I think that it is at least in the way that Rogers is taught (which is different, of course, from how Rogers was) which I am responding to. The therapist is to constantly clarify and help the client come to understand their own experiences, but to do so through mirroring, paraphrasing, summarizing, etc. to keep the client articulating their own experience. This is fine and helpful often, but I think that there is a place for interpretation (and as has been noted often, every mirroring, paraphrase, etc is really an interpretation too…a directing of experience, so that there is no such thing as “non-directive” therapy) and that it needs to be acknowledged up front that the therapist’s “horizons” are going to impact what they respond to and how they hear the client’s world. I think that acknowledging this does make it more of a two-sided conversation than Rogerian therapy (as taught) typically allows for (which is ironic given the place of the relationship within Rogerian therapy). But I like a lot of what Rogers brings to the table.


    Comment by Ron — 18 April 2007 @ 2:48 pm

  6. Good, that’s helpful. I’ve got Rogers’ book sitting over on the shelf, so I should open it up. I’ve also got Kohut’s book The Analysis of the Self, which I may be conflating with Rogers. Kohut’s use of “idealizing transference” seemed to call for a purely reflective parental role in treating narcissism. I should revisit that book too.

    We’ve alluded previously to the idea that asking questions about what hasn’t been said is to open up for exploration the nonverbal meanings (repressed, tacit, automated, coming-into-awareness). This opening-up is an implicit interpretation to be sure. For the therapist to offer explicit interpretations is to contribute substantively to the conversation. It’s partly a reflection, but it’s also new material both for automated conversation and for conscious self-awareness.

    Maybe it would be useful to return to Hegel’s distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness in thinking about the “automated” versus “analytic” registers. Certainly when we converse we’re conscious, but we’re focusing on the coversation itself, on the relationship as it constructs dialogue around various topics of mutual interest. But when we get into interpretation we focus on the participants in the conversation and the processes and structures that are in play. We’re reflecting the other back to himself, and also we’re self-reflecting. This too is conscious, but it’s also self-conscious — self-as-subject being conscious of self-as-object. There’s a separation within the self, and also a time lag between the immediacy of conversation and subjecting that conversation to analysis. If both registers are conscious, maybe that makes it more likely that interpretation would cross over from one register to the other, from self-conscious scrutiny to the automated in-the-moment relationship.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 April 2007 @ 3:34 pm

  7. Ron and John, where is the self, the I,me, in this interaction. Is the self a stable thing from which expression flows?

    I remember when we were starting out with treating kids with developmental disorders that I was surprised to discover that chid psychology treated chidren as essentially not yet having a ‘personality’. Yet, each child is so obviously a unique individual. When digging into it I also found that there is no consensus on what comprises adult personality though there are umpteen different tests to determinge personality types…


    Comment by samlcarr — 19 April 2007 @ 8:33 am

  8. Sam –

    That’s a good question. The postmodern Christian community seems to lump individualism in with the other ills caused by modernism. Deleuze & Guattari proposed that the ego has become grossly oversized because of societal restrictions on free expression and creativity. In exploring parameters of a postmodern therapy I’ve been looking at relational difficulties rather than locating problems within the individuals. We’ve not talked at all about resolving personality disorders or neuroses, or of exploring the inner psyche.

    Still, there’s no question that individuals interact idiosyncratically with the world and with other people. Even the school shooter in Virginia framed his last rant in terms of the others who forced him to do what he did. Not that I agree with him, but it makes you wonder whether things might have turned out differently had this guy dealt specifically and directly with interpersonal stuff. It sounds like he gave off all sorts of signals to people around him that he was disturbed — unlike some of the more surreptitious mass murderers who seem to fly under the radar pretty successfully. I believe, though, that picking up on the theory of self will need to be part of my personal agenda and something to be addressed collectively in this blog. And certainly the locus of change in therapy has to be centered in the client, not in the social world he lives in.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 April 2007 @ 1:27 pm

  9. It’s interesting that you referred to ‘the shooter’ as he seems now to have been dubbed. From what little we know he seems to have been a loner and to have consistently faced rejection from his peers. The rich vs poor stuff in the bits of his rant that I saw made me wonder too whether there wasn’t also something political about this case.

    Still, I agree that the therapist can’t do all that much about changing a person’s society. The concentration has to be on getting a person to be able to understand themselves-others and to also successfully negotiate their social world from ‘within’.

    In that process the person may change and one would hope that the change is not just on the surface but springs from deep inside.

    The idea of tracing in Derrida I found to be fascinating. Process relies on prior process. The correspondence becomes blurred. The direct/indirect nature of the tracing makes it a very nebulous concept. In order to really do something therapeutic with it it will have to be a bit clearer.

    How much do you think that you would be able to aim for or even predict the results of the therapeutic process?


    Comment by samlcarr — 19 April 2007 @ 2:49 pm

  10. In that process the person may change and one would hope that the change is not just on the surface but springs from deep inside. In these posts I’ve been thinking less about deep personal change and more about changing the interface of self with others. Part of the underlying rationale is that failures in establishing and maintaining relationships lead the person to rechannel desires for affection, affiliation, sex, etc. back into the self. So if the therapist can unblock the social channels, maybe the self gets less disturbed. Language, posture, gaze, etc. are primarily interpersonal rather than individual, so the interpersonal sphere seems like a prime place to intervene. And the therapist-client relationship establishes an interpersonal sphere in which the relational issues can play out.

    How much do you think that you would be able to aim for or even predict the results of the therapeutic process? Honestly, I don’t know. Part of the issue is deciding what the aim of therapy is. Is it problem solving or personal happiness and success? Or is it self-knowledge and the establishment of at least one interpersonal relationship in which the client feels accepted and understood? Maybe it’s all about the process and not about the results. This question is part of the issue of the Which Machine? post.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 April 2007 @ 5:28 pm

  11. Haven’t read the comments…but…

    “Here is freedom for man to see. Feeling is man a libation pouring. Here is freedom for man to feel. Expressive waters flowing from God. To hear, see and smell as one. Curving and swerving of a turning river. Rounds and sounds of a speaking mouth. Rights and rituals of a squaring hand. All are these the coloured shadows. Of a whiteness, a far-reaching freedom.” – Me.


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 May 2007 @ 8:26 pm

  12. Also, my prof. once said: “Drawing is as natural to us as speaking.” Which implies a lot, too. It means we aren’t describing some objective reality outside ourselves, at least not entirely. It means we are making something appear in the world.



    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 May 2007 @ 8:29 pm

  13. Jason –

    Nice — creation as free flow finding the compatible contours of the world. Drawing, like language, is a way of channeling the unconscious into structure. While you could say that there’s a kind of grammar and syntax to the plastic arts, I think it’s metaphorical. Though it might flow from the same source, drawing isn’t the same as speaking/writing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 May 2007 @ 8:58 pm

  14. Truly…each art has its own language, and some of them inter-refer quite often.


    Comment by Jaosn Hesiak — 15 May 2007 @ 11:00 pm

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