Boyer on Language

The sending and receiving of sophisticated messages set human being apart from all other forms of life. As humans, we take infinite pains to reflect on and interpret our experiences. We capture feelings and ideas with symbols and send them on to others through a process we call language. Language, in its many manifestations, is at the heart of understanding who we are and what we might become. What are the theories of the origins of language? How do symbol systems shape the values of a culture? How are language, through great literature, enriched the lives and enlarged our vision? What are the possibilities and problems introduced by the information revolution? Learning about the power of language in the human experience and becoming proficient in more than one language are, we believe, essential aspects of the integrated core.


Ed Cell’s Discussion Paper

7. Language: The Crucial Connection

We have proposed, as the starting point for your agenda, that you concentrate on the kinds of questions that are fundamental to personal development, namely, questions about self-knowledge, connectedness, and meaning. The idea is that they underlie all of the other areas of your liberal studies and they can be answered more fully through your work in these fields. No other area takes us quite so deeply into these questions about the fundamentals of being a person as does language. This is because we become persons by interacting in certain ways with other persons and language is the basis of this interaction.

Consider, then, that language varies from culture to culture, group to group, and academic discipline to academic discipline. Since language is basic to being a person, different languages result in different forms of being human. Further, since language determines the kinds of thoughts and feelings we can have, each discipline requires us to think and experience in terms that both focus and limit our attention. Questions that are basic to the language section of you educational agenda, then, will ask about how language affects both the person we become and the course work we engage in. What sorts of values are embedded in the language of a culture or of other social groups, and what sorts of questions and answers does the language of a particular field of study--and its social group--enable us to work with?

To see the fundamental significance of these questions we need to reflect further on the key role of language in functioning as a human being. It gives us self-awareness and the possibility of self-knowledge because it enables us to represent ourselves to ourselves. We can be creative because language empowers us to imagine beyond the here and now. We can shape our lives into an identity-providing story because we can think about our past and our future. Language connects us to others because it enables us to understand one another and to relate in ways that make us persons.

This last point is the one we need most to understand if we are to frame our questions about language most effectively. Few ideas have so powerfully illumined the nature of being human than that of George Herbert Meade and sociologists generally that we become a person only as we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others. It is from them that we learn what it means, in our culture, to be a person--to think, feel, and act in this particular way. Little by little, as we develop the language by which this meaning can be communicated and as we learn to behave accordingly, we understand that the other regards us as a person--gives us that special meaning in his or her world and treats us accordingly. The meaning of being a person with other persons is essentially moral in nature because morality comes down to a cultural understanding of what makes human life possible. The moral principle that we should never treat persons purely as objects, and thus as something less than human, is a good example. We grasp the ultimate significance of language, then, when we realize that, as persons, we are conceived in the minds of others and born in dialogue with them. Symbols are the stuff out of which we are made.


7.1 Kinds of Language and Kinds of Persons

Against this background, we can understand well that different languages result in different forms of being human--different thoughts, feelings, values, expectations, and ways of relating. Think, for example, of Japanese in which the term for the key emotion in Japanese life has no close equivalent in English. About the nearest we can come is dependency. Further, since a number of other feelings are closely tied to this one, they too cannot be translated very accurately into our language. Think, too, of values connected with face and, particularly, saving face. These, to be sure, are important to us but not in just the way or with the same degree of concern that they are in Japan. We cannot understand the Japanese way of life very well without close attention to these and other features of their language, nor can we understand their language without grasping how it is interwoven with their form of life.

Understanding how other languages and forms of life contrast and compare with our own gives us a deeper self-understanding. We can see this rather pointedly in the account given by Dorothy Lee of the greater freedom expressed in the language of the Wintu Indian of Southern California than in English. The Wintus, she notes, have no word for permit since they do not impose the kinds of restrictions that make permission necessary. Along these lines, she points out that Wintus say not that the chief rules his people but that he stands with his people, not that the mother takes her baby someplace but that she goes with the baby, and not that the boy has a sister but that he lives with his sister. Learning to relate in terms of ruling, taking, and having will result in a less free and respectful quality of living, Lee helps us to see, than thinking and acting in terms of standing with, going with, and living with.

Just as the language differences that determine different human possibilites are found between cultures so they also occur between groups. Here we may recall Carol Gilligan's account of the tendency among men to mean by "right" and "wrong" a fairness between essentially separate individuals, and a tendency among women to think of morality in terms of care between essentially connected persons. Gilligan's is one of a growing number of accounts of the tendency of the sexes to learn different languages. We also can relate her work to our earlier discussion of individualism as a way of seeing and the fact that we find this embedded in much of the language of our culture generally and especially in our capitalism and our work organizations.

Summary: What values and ideas about being human are emboddied in the language of our culture? How do these differ from those of some other language you have studied? What differences do you find in the languages of sub-groups within our culture? What differences between those of genders?



7.2 Wholeness and Living By Conflicting Languages

Because language differs from group to group, we find ourselves functioning as rather different persons or in different ego-states, as it is sometimes expressed. Most of us will find this especially apparent, and perhaps troubling, in moving between organizational life and that of our family or church or circle of close friends. It is commonly noted that work organizations tend to communicate in moral terms that are quite different from, and often at odds with, those we use in private life.

It takes us deeper, still, into this tension between the languages, or perspectives, of organizational and private life to consider our socialization into the organization and, especially, into its particular language. Only through socialization can we function effectively in the organization and enlarge our sense of self beyond our separateness. But socialization may go to the extreme of crowding out our individual point of view. We may come to perceive problems solely from the organizational perspective and make decisions purely in terms of organizational concerns and beliefs. This, as Chester Barnard contends, is the most powerful form of organizational control available.

Many theorists such as Tompkins and Cheney or John Kenneth Galbraith see this form of control as a grave threat to individual autonomy and dignity. They note that it is "unobtrusive" because it generally operates "behind our backs", to borrow Erich Fromm's phrase, and so tends to leave us unaware of how thoroughly our thinking and perceiving are permeated by the organizational view of things. To function as whole persons, we need to find a place for our individual point of view in our work life or, in other words, to balance our participant and individual identities.

We can illustrate this problem in terms of whistle blowing, in which an employee makes public the fact of an unsafe product or some other form of dangerous organizational practice. Consider the language used, some years ago, by James M. Roche, then Chairman of the Board of General Motors, in characterizing whistle blowing:

Some of the enemies of business now encourage an employee to be disloyal to the enterprise. They want to create suspicion and disharmony and pry into the proprietary interests of the business. However this is labelled--industrial espionage, whistle blowing or professional responsibility--it is another tactic for spreading disunity and creating conflict.

From the perspective embodied in this language, the employees' obligation is solely to the organization. Any personal sense of responsibility to society and to the ideals which employees hold as individuals is to be set aside in organizational life. If we think solely in terms of concepts that reflect a very narrow view of organizational responsibility, then we lose the ability to distinguish the moral difference between whistle blowing and industrial espionage in which information is stolen and sold to a competing company. Each is understood only in terms of damage to the organization.

We can avoid splitting our lives into separate worlds only by coordinating the use of languages that represent different dimensions of who we are. To retain some semblance of wholeness as a person we need to learn to function effectively in the group while yet remaining someone who is also more than a group member.


In what ways do work organizations or other groups use language-perspectives that accomodate or that override the personal ways of looking at things of their members? How, especially, is this true of the ethics involved? What is the effect on persons of living by language-perspectives that deeply conflict with one another?


7.3 Academic Language and Its Paradigms

Some of our questions about language, then, may focus on how it affects the person we and others become. But we may also find it profitable to ask how it affects some of the course work we engage in. Every academic discipline utilizes a language that embodies certain assumptions and tends to support certain theories as orthodox--theories, one frequently finds mainstream academicians maintaining, that any competent, right-minded practitioner cannot but agree to. Often, to be sure, there are dissenting groups within a discipline, especially as evidence begins to mount against the mainstream view or when there are ideologies to be served, but what they offer us are alternative assumptions and, quite often, competing orthodoxies. Newtonian physics, for example, rested on assumptions that time and space are absolute. Or consider that orthodox geography of the 30's regarded ideas about continental drift as beneath notice and orthodox ecomomic thought early in the same period was thoroughly wedded to supply side conceptions.

A powerful way of examining this role of language in your studies is to ask about the paradigms that are being used. A paradign is the defining instance of what we mean by a concept or belief or way of seeing. Think, for example, about the key experiences from which you draw your idea of what love is or what another person is really like or what America stands for. Think, too, of how Christianity relies on the events of the Exodus and the life of Jesus to symbolize the nature of God.

Just as our everyday thinking and judgment are guided by paradigms, so, too, is the thinking in academic disciplines. Thus, in behavioristic psychology of B. F. Skinner, the key to understanding why persons develop as they do is the example of repeating a behavior because it has previously led rewards from the environment, say, working hard on a paper because this previously has resulted in praise and high grades. This contrasts with the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers for whose thought the paradigm is occasions when persons are related to with care, empathy, and honest and draw on an inner motivation to develop their powers to care, create, take responsibility for their lives, and the like.

By understanding the paradigms at work, we discern the strengths and weaknesses, the scope and limitation of a point of view. The strength of any view is in dealing with events that are most like its paradigm, the weakness is in dealing with those most ddifferent from it. Thus Skinner appears much better able to deal with changes in habitual behavior than with those in a person's system of meaning. Rogers, in turn, throws a brighter light on learning to act in accord with one's nature than on learning from others what it means, in our culture, to be human. Concerning science, generally, it is an often noted fact that some experimental results are anomalous in the sense of just not fitting the theory in question. Despite this area of weakness, if the theory is well established it will be retained because of what it does predict well. Over time, the discrepancies may build up to the point that theory is changed and a new paradigm put in place.

An understanding of the governing paradigms in an area of study also reveals the kinds of answers it will and will not provide. Thus, if we use the language of behaviorism to ask about the nature of being a self, the answer will come in terms of behaviors that become habitual. If we ask how one becomes a self, the answer will speak of how behaviors get reinforced. The paradigm in use is one about conditioning and behavior and the answer must follow suit. There are no concepts in this language by which to discuss things that may take us beyond conditioning.

Some answers will prove more helpful than others, some paradigms will furnish a more apt point of reference than other standard instances, but each may well have something to contribute. If our understanding is always relative to the language-perspective from which we achieve it, we can none-the-less come to see something from a chorus of perspectives and thus experience it more richly, with greater wholeness, and with less reliance on cliches. Moreover, our greatest advances come from the application of paradigms to subjects for which they initally seem ill-suited but which they lead us to see in new ways. Thus the behavioristic paradigm of behavioral change, when applied to questions about the self, has contributed to the idea that we are what we do and that even our knowledge of ourselves is deeply dependent on how we find ourselves behaving.

Change in language, then, gives us power to see things in new ways. Thus, there are two levels of creativity in all academic disciplines. Whether the area is psychology, physics, literature, or art, it is one thing to use the language available in creative ways but quite another to change the forms of expression of the language itself. Compare, for example, the great work done by utilizing the expressionist style of painting with the creation of this style itself. Our study of psychology, literature and the rest will be a bit superficial if we do not ask about the nature and origin of the language each employs.


What paradigms are at work in the disciplines you have studied? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are these paradigms being challenged? If so, on what basis?


7.4 Dealing With Issues and Embracing a Language

We have been talking about the power of language in making possible our humanity and in determining the particular sorts of meaning by which we live. Let's now consider how very difficult it is to take the full measure of this power because, like the glasses through which we see, language is largely transparent. Its effect on us is hard to take notice of. We experience, think, and feel by means of language. Even to think about it we must use it. It shapes whatever awareness we have of it. It is precisely in being ever-present that its presence is nearly beyond our attention.

The point is that many of life's important issues involve questions of language and this easily escapes our notice. Think, for example, of the question whether there are absolutes and, if so, what they are. Beliefs are regarded as absolute when their truth is taken to be beyond question, beyond differences in cultures or in centuries, and beyond any limitations in the perspective of those who hold them. Absolute truth, of course, also implies that the falsity of opposing beliefs is beyond question. How, then, should we assess the many claims to absolute truth by a wide range of individuals and groups around the world today, including, for example, Muslim, Christian, and other fundamentalists, or still others who hold that homosexuality is evil or that women should be obedient to their husbands. We can answer this only by adoting a particular language, one which has the concept "absolute" or one which lacks this concept. In some languages, people can, and do, think in terms of absolutes, in others, they cannot. Then, too, people who think in terms of absolutes will disagree about what they are, depending on that to which their language gives this status. Does life lend itself to black and white judgments? Some languages assume that it does, others that it does not.

The basic question, then, is "what reasons there are for using one language rather than another?" Those rejecting the idea of absolutes, for example, commonly cite what they see as the inhumane treatment of non-believers that is often justified in these terms. Those embracing this concept in some form usually argue about the moral degeneracy they associate either with relativism or with the absolutes of other believers. The question of divine revelation often enters into these discussions but this, too, is a concept available in some languages but not others. We can scarcely understand our world today without careful attention to what languages people use and why.

Issues surrounding abortion also involve questions of what language we choose to live by. In this case, the basic question is not whether to use a particular concept but what to apply it to. If we ask, say, whether an embryo is a person, we cannot answer by studying the embryo. The issue is, given the nature of the embryo, should we apply the concept "person" to it. Reasons, again, concern the consequences of using language in one way or in another. They include the effects of these languages on our feelings of reverence for life, on our sense of a woman's ownership of her own body, and on our belief about women's proper roles in society and marriage.

This is similiar to the situation in a court of law in which the facts of a case are agreed to but there is disagreement about whether, given these facts, the legal concept involved should be extended to cover them. Such decisions give further definition to the concept in question and are referred to a precedents. Thus someone may be tried for reckless driving and there may be agreement about their personal condition at the time, the condition of the road, the speed at which they were travelling, and so on and yet it may be unclear about whether this should be judged to be recklessness. The prosecuting attorney will argue the similarity of the case to previous instances of reckless driving, the defense will bring out the differences. The defence will also point to similarities to cases in which the person was found not guiltly, the prosecution replying in terms of the differences.

We see in this an example of language as a system of classification and of how these classifications affect our judgment and experience. Thus, if we classify the embryo as a person we draw attention to its similarities to those we all recognize as persons and to the dissimilarities to things we think of as non-persons. If we think of the embryo as a non-person we direct attention to its dissimilarities to persons and its similarities to non-persons. Either way, we are apt to wonder why others do not see what we see.

The importance of dialogue is to remove this blindness to another way of seeing and, while disagreement will doubtless remain, the terms of disagreement may become more respectful. In deciding how to respond to perspectives different from our own, we are deciding on our sense of what it means to be human--again a question of the concepts by which we choose to live.


What differences in language-perspective do you find in issues you have studied? What reasons can be given for and against adopting the language employed on each side of the issue in question?