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The Nature of Consciousness Part 2: Language and Consciousness

“At any particular moment during our waking hours (and sometimes during sleep) there are certain things that we would intuitively like to say are in our consciousness. These things appear to be only a very small part of the total range of material to which our minds have access. E.g., the vast amount of material stored away in our memories can be evidently recalled–brought back into consciousness–only a little at a time.”

So says Wallace Chafe, from Berkeley. We can consider the oft-used analogy of the unconscious as that part of the iceberg under water, with conscious thinking and language as the tip of the iceberg above water. But is language a separate medium from thinking?

This is a very old question and consideration, but I have come to believe in relationship far more than in dualistic thinking. Which is to say, language must necessarily be the externalized mode of thinking, in the form of a relationship; not separation. But we can take away from Chafe’s words that language is a limitation, a constrained externalization of the unconscious. Yet it cannot be otherwise because language is, at least for the human being, the externalized mode of thinking.

Of course these externalizations are relative. People in a third world country might not have a version of the words “Google,” “Starbucks,” or “Texting.” Their experience does not provide for such a word. And I believe that language is structured by our experiences. This is to say, you cannot have any word, say “taco,” without having some prior experience of “taconess.”

This is why language is always changing and increasing, in accord with our growing experience. This says to me that the unconscious is elastic, perhaps with infinite capacity for externalization. And yet, that externalization is somehow determined by form. Language has so far been the form taken on by thought.

Consider your computer. Your computer has enormous amounts of data stored in its memory (images, music, text, video, etc) but it can only be presented through one screen. Consciousness functions similarly. You have theoretically an infinite amount of content in the unconscious, but it can only be externalized in a limited form, over time. You could not experience yourself completely in one moment–you would go out of your mind! Just like your computer cannot play all your songs, show all your videos/movies/pictures, and bring up all your documents at once, because it would probably freeze and crash, so too, you cannot experience all of your memories, your emotions, your thoughts, your sensations, and your intuitions at once, because you would go insane. Language is the medium towards a semblance of sanity, at least for now. And it too comes with its traps…

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