The Boston University Anthropology Department writes that “Language is the hallmark of our species. It is upon language that human culture itself depends.”1
Language is what we use to describe the world. Language is about 100,000 years old and today there are around 6000 languages around the world.2
In this article I’ll explore 4 perspectives on language and reality including famous literary figure Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World, The Doors of Perception), the eminent consciousness explorer Terence McKenna, Linguist and author Dianna Slattery, and Linguist Walter Ong.
Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception was a book about his experience with mescaline. Throughout the course of the book Huxley writes about language, perception, and reality.
His perspective was that language is a double edged sword – it allows us to benefit from the accumulated records of other people's experience, but it is also easy to take for granted our linguistic constructs for actual things. He viewed language as indispensable and what separates us from other animals, however he said that it is all too easy to take language for granted and to live in a world of generic labels or explanatory abstraction.3
Terence McKenna called language “the most unique of human activities” in Food of the Gods.4 He talked about language, reality, and science in his talks and his books.
His perspective was similar to Huxley’s in that we live in a sealed linguistic reality and that the world is held together by small mouth noises. McKenna’s perspective was interesting because he related it to science, knowledge, and ultimately the pursuit of truth.5
McKenna did commentary on the limits of science sporadically. I did a more thorough analysis of the limits of science in the essay I wrote The Search for Truth, and last week I also wrote an article that explored 15 Perspectives on the Limits of Science.
Ultimately McKenna believed that we were here to appreciate rather than to understand, and I would agree.6
Diana Slattery's book Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness explores language, reality, and psychedelics. She had a strong influence from the philosopher Terence McKenna. Her book received praise from people like enthnopharmocologist and professor Dennis McKenna, scientist Bruce Damer, author and radio host Lorenzo Hagerty, author Michael Winkelman, emeritus professor Thomas Roberts, and others.
Her perspective is that reality is fundamentally linguistic and we live in a linguistic coating of human abstraction. She also discusses others who share the same view such as Mark Pesce, Ralph Abraham, and Terence McKenna.7
Both Diana Slattery and Terence McKenna acknowledged the problem of only having language to reflect upon itself.8 Linguist and emeritus Professor Walter Ong said similar things in his book Orality and Literacy. The book is about the difference between oral and literate cultures, the effects of transitions in communication technology, and the human mind.
Walter wrote that one cannot describe a primary phenomenon by starting with a subsequent secondary phenomenon without great difficulty.9 In other words, a fully literate person cannot without great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like.10
In reflection of this topic, traveling is an experience most of us have had. When we travel to other countries, we can experience the power of language in shaping human consciousness.
That’s all for today’s article, if you enjoyed it feel free to leave a comment below or share.
Check out Jason Silva's short video on Slattery, McKenna, and language.
- Under linguistic anthropology (2018): http://www.bu.edu/anthrop/about/what-is-anthropology/
- How old is language? https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/language-in-the-mind/201502/how-old-is-language
How many languages are there in the world today? http://www.education.rec.ri.cmu.edu/fire/naclo/pages/Ling/Fact/num-languages.html
- The Doors of Perception, p. 16, 59.
- Food of the Gods under the heading “Catalyzing Consciousness.”
- McKenna had many quotes on language and reality.
Example of quote on linguistic reality: https://thoughtofvg.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/on-words-and-lost-meaning/
Small mouth noises: https://psychedelicsalon.com/podcast-141-contemplating-a-visual-psychedelic-language/
- Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness, Kindle Location 520, 521, 765.
- McKenna said that "there's a transcendental realm above langauge but its hard to talk about. Source: https://terencemckenna.wikispaces.com/A+Conversation+with+Terence+McKenna+and+Ram+Dass
Slattery said similiar things in Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness, Kindle Locations 457-458.
- Orality and Literacy, p.13.
- Orality and Literacy, p. 12, 31.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception: Includes Heaven and Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.
McKenna, Terence. Food of the Gods. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.
Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Slattery, Diana. Xenolinguistics: Psychedelics, Language, and the Evolution of Consciousness. California: Evolver Editions, 2015. Kindle Edition.