How Language Creates and Destroys Our Existential Notions of Reality
Scientific Psychology considers human existence to be subject to laws similar to those of the natural world. From this perspective, personality comprises a relatively stable set of variables which change little over the lifespan. This positive approach pervades much of our thinking and results in individual and collective attempts to understand why people do certain things or behave in certain ways. Pick up any book or magazine article and it will become clear that searching for definitive answers to understand questions of human psychology pervade everyday experience. However, this perspective is only one way of making sense of the human condition. An alternative is an existential perspective.
Existential writers reject the application of scientific reductionist principles in understanding the nature of human existence. They argue that we cannot posit a nature or essence on a human being and then make conclusions or deductions because the focus is on ‘existence’. Existence from this perspective is seen as dynamic, evolving and not subject to quantitative measure or analysis. Cooper (2003:10), for example, highlights this, saying ‘The aim of existential philosophy, then, is to develop a deeper and more complete understanding of this existence – the irreducible, indefinable totality that you, me and others are’.
But what does this mean in practice? How can we recognise where we objectify others’ behaviour and our own and, in doing so, deny our existential nature? One way is to reflect on the language we use to make sense of our experiences. This often indicates, and indeed perpetuates, how we develop a fixed view of ourselves and others.
Imagine a conversation between two people who have just met socially sharing information about themselves. What questions might we expect them to ask and what predictions might we make about their answers?
Typical questions might be ‘So what do you do?’, ‘Where do you work?’ Upon getting to know each other better, they might explore each others’ values, relationships, aspirations etc. On the face of it, this might indicate a reciprocal self-disclosure about each other based on developing trust and intimacy. However, how might their language indicate how they inhibit their capacity to see the indefinable totality of each other? How might their language create fixed notions of themselves and deny their existential nature?
Often, language used to retrieve or share information indicates a fixed notion of reality. A key indicator of this is where nouns are used to describe experiences. Someone might talk of their ‘work’, ‘relationship’, ‘love’, ‘social life’ etc. When nouns are used to describe experiences which, in reality, are open to change, modification, changing expectations, different perceptions etc, they set up expectations about the nature and essence of the experience. The ‘relationship’ becomes fixed and imbued with values, expectations, beliefs and assumptions of what is appropriate, desirable or ‘should be’. ‘Work’ becomes solid with parameters and structure around it, thus limiting its potential to evolve, change and be subject to changing perceptions.
Consider your own experiences and the extent to which you use fixed nouns to explain them, when in reality, they are evolving, dynamic exchanges. They are co-created through our changing interactions and perceptions with them. In making our experiences fixed, we disallow the opportunity to change our perceptions of what they and we are. Thus, instead of allowing a ‘relationship’ or ‘work’ to be open to infinite creative possibilities, it becomes limited because we have expectations of what it should be in the first place.
How do you overcome this difficulty and actively engage with the unfixed notion of yourself through use of language? Firstly, I suggest you reflect on the language you use and the extent to which nouns explain your interactions. Interactions may be between people but also the interface between your perceptions and ideals or beliefs. Secondly, exchange those nouns for verbs and consider how this might expand your notion of choice in how you create your reality. Thus, replace ‘relationship’ by ‘relating’, ‘love’ by ‘loving’ and ‘work’ by ‘working’ etc. The use of verbs immediately expand your potential to ‘unfix’ your notion of reality and open up the possibilities to create something new – time and time again. This shift allows you to live in the question rather than the answer. The use of verbs also allows us to be with the ‘otherness of other people’ rather than a self-reflexive encounter with our own stereotypes and prejudices.
Ref: Cooper, M. (2003) Existential Therapies. UK: Sage