Language, Meaning, New-Age-Speak, and Wittgenstein

Language, Meaning, New-Age-Speak, and Wittgenstein March 20, 2018

Living on California’s west coast, I often travel in social circles tinged with New Age spirituality and philosophies. While I also like to consider myself an explorer in these areas, sometimes the conversations and teachings start to grate like the proverbial fingernails-on-chalkboard. For years I’ve been meaning to sit down and try to articulate just what it is that bugs me about such New Agey-speak.


In grad school, I at one point read philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Blue” and “Brown” books. One of the few things I still remember was his analysis of language. Wittgenstein points out that words and language serve an “ostensive” function – that is, words are pointers to reality but are not reality itself. (For example, “table” is only meaningful because each of us have encountered a great many objects that people refer to as a table (even though the actual instances vary). By contrast, a word like “oasidfoisd” is useless because it doesn’t point to anything that we know.


In addition to the above, words that regularly “point” to objects or characteristics or experiences that have a strong emotional or inspirational quality, can eventually come to evoke that same quality even in the absence of the pointed-to phenomenon. This happens by the psychological principle of  “classical conditioning” – exactly the same principle at work in the famous Pavlov’s salivating dogs experiment.


Whether done deliberately or unconsciously, some celebrity teacher/ leader/ guru-types fall into the exploitation of the above by speaking or writing extensively using language that, through general experience, has been conditioned to evoke an emotional sense of profundity, wisdom, good-feeling, awe, inspiration, or other high-minded, desirable state, trait, or quality. Moreover, the celebrity effect can lead one to presume an uttered phrase or concept, if stated by an authority, must have meaning, even if it is not immediately apparent to the hearer. In fact, sometimes the perceived profoundity can be inversely proportional to a statement’s comprehensibility. (“Ooo man – I don’t get it, but that is deep!”)


Unfortunately, the same effect can also be used to evoke the negative – as is so clearly illustrated by the current political use of “dog whistle” language to rally crowds toward fear, hatred, and division, apart from any rational meaning.


Even when lofty words, phrases, and concepts are used with the intent to point to actual phenomena, said phenomena are often somewhat ineffable to begin with (spiritual experiences for example). This allows people to project their own meaning or interpretation to varying degrees. The trap then, is a classically conditioned predisposition to project this meaning or interpretation merely upon hearing the words – whether or not the pointed-to event or phenomenon is actually intended or even understood by the speaker.


As an example, the following is an excerpt from a recent book “Divine Alchemy” by widely regarded teacher Patricia Cota-Robles.  (Note: this is not intended to criticize or disparage the teacher – we all struggle when attempting to peer beyond the bounds of conventional reality. Yet it provides a helpful illustration of the above.)


“On December 21-22, 2012, through the unified efforts of Heaven and Earth, this planet was God Victoriously Birthed into the 5th Dimensional Crystalline Solar Frequencies of the New Earth, in the Realms of CAUSE. On those sacred and holy days, the Earth aligned with the Galactic Core of the Milky Way which brought her into the rhythmic pulsation of The Shift of The Ages. During that Cosmic Moment, our Father-Mother God Inbreathed all Creation up the Spiral of Evolution and into the next level of our journey back to the Heart of God. For Planet Earth, this meant Ascending into the initial embrace of the 5th-Dimensional Crystalline Solar frequencies of the New Earth. In that instant, the New Earth was Birthed in the Realms of Cause where everything and beloved Mother Earth reclaimed her rightful place in our Solar System.”


Now, I can’t presume to know what was going on in the mind of the teacher, and I must concede that this use of language may perhaps evoke a life-changing, breakthrough experience for some readers – but I am left pretty much in the dark. Perhaps it is due my own lack of suitable experience, but the above word-pointers do not point to anything that I can get a useful handle on.


Nevertheless, this article is not intended to discourage “edgy” thinking and exploration. Failing that, we could never advance or evolve as a species. The key point however is the importance of remaining aware of the distinction between language and reality. Words, language, stories, descriptions, theories, philosophies – all may define our culture and enable us to navigate and flourish within the reality of the world, but they are not reality itself. They are merely useful-but-imperfect, incomplete approximations of the same — maps but not the terrain — hopefully improving, but probably never complete.


Yet complete or not, language is the primary vehicle of our further evolution. So let us not use it in such a way that it divides, confuses, constricts, or intimidates others, but rather use it in a way that nourishes and uplifts us all.

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