Terence McKenna and Aldous Huxley on Language
January 17, 2021
Terence McKenna was a consciousness explorer and philosopher who often talked about the limits of science and the role that language has in human knowledge and perception.
According to Boston university, language is the hallmark of our species, and is our most defining feature.1
Literary figure Aldous Huxley also wrote about language in length in his book The Doors of Perception.
“To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born - the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things…”2
“We can never dispense with language and the other symbol systems; for it is by means of them, and only by their means, that we have raised ourselves above the brutes, to the level of human beings. But we can easily become the victims as well as the beneficiaries of these systems. We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through the half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts eerie given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some genetic label or explanatory abstraction.”3
Terence McKenna was enthusiastic in the way he studied language. On the philosophy of language in his books and his talks he focused on speech, the pre-literate world, the act of signification, the perceptual effects of literacy, information technology, the impact of transitions in communication technology, the evolution of language, culture, and the imagination. In a talk he said, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about language and how what a limited tool it is, and yet how our whole world is held together by nothing more than small mouth noises. And its incredible, the entirety of global civilization is held together by small mouth noises and symbolic notation of same, which have an even more rarefied level of abstraction.”4
Terence said, “I don’t believe that the world is made of quarks of electromagnetic waves, or stars or planets, or any of these things. I believe the world is made of language and that is the primary fact that has been overlooked.”5
Ultimately Terence thought that we were here to appreciate rather than to understand, and I would agree.6
What are your thoughts on language and human culture? Leave a comment below.
2. The Doors of Perception, p. 16.
3. The Doors of Perception, p. 59
4. 1:38 of the following video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNrur6zXmEY
5. Archaic Revival, p. 161
6. This is a clip from Terence McKenna talking about how he thought we were here to appreciate rather than to understand https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIsK65Hc3nM
McKenna, Terence. The Archaic Revival. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.