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Man thoughtfully fishing with a stick

Language is essential for sustaining consciousness. Without it, we go into a coma. (Image: Reusable Art)

In recent decades, a great deal has been made of the notion that language and object are not related. That is to say, a signifier (word) can never fully capture or embody the signified (object). From this position, philosophers and others (such as psychiatrists) then draw the conclusion that language is somehow useless or dangerously misleading.

A vague mysticism sets in where we assume that humans are condemned to live in a world we can never properly describe or even conceptually grasp. Unless we can master something like the knowledge-obliterating Buddhist technique of direct perception, we are forever divorced from reality and therefore must live our lives in a language-induced haze of unreality, error, and arbitrary subjectivity. There exists a widespread opinion that what goes on inside our heads has little or nothing to do with what goes on around us. Solipsism, the philosophical theory that all we can be sure of is the self, gains credence.

This is a catastrophic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In reality, language does not need to fully capture the signified; it is merely a pointer, a “do-for” or stand-in for what is being referred to. Different languages use different stand-ins for any given object, and in this sense, language and object are not related. Nevertheless, language and the world of objects are related in a more useful, more fundamental sense. In fact, in humans, language is an essential aspect of how we relate to the world.

Sensory-deprivation experiments make the point vividly. Once in the tank, the lack of sensory input (i.e. perception of objects) quickly removes thought (i.e. language) from the subject’s mind. Non-linguistic fantasy and dreaming, with their rich array of images, only slightly delay the onset of this situation. The resulting comatose state is living proof that language and object are indeed related in that external objects are required to generate language.

It is vital to grasp the significance of the fact that imagined or dreamed objects are not enough to stimulate the generation of language necessary to avoid going into a coma. The senses wire the real world directly to thought and language. Consciousness depends entirely on language, and language depends entirely on the real world.