Thursday, January 12, 2012

I You They

So much about how we think can be found in the structure of our language. I often think that I should have studied linguistics, but I think that about so many fields of study, and my problem is that I never could make up my mind.

But let me not get away from my point only two sentences in. What I've been thinking about a lot lately, since I'm rather odd, is how language contributes to our sense of identity. In particular, I have been thinking about first, second, and third person (I/we, you/you, he/she/it/they, respectively), and how this separation reflects the way we divide the world.

When I say "I", what do I mean? Do I mean my physical form? My mind? Something else? It's not exactly clear cut. Religious folks I've known tend to say it's the soul, but that word is pretty meaningless. It just opens up whole new worlds of things that need to be defined (e.g., what is a soul). The soul is what we call the thing that we are, but it doesn't define it.

When I refer to myself, I clearly do not mean my physical form. I am not talking about my body. I can refer to the body as something that belongs to me, as I just did. It is my body. So who is this "me" that owns the body? Is it my pattern of thoughts? My set of memories? No, again, these are all things that I can describe possessively. They are my pattern of thoughts, my memories. So what am I?

Language doesn't serve particularly well here because the language itself is built upon the assumption of the division between first, second, and third persons. But the best I can define myself is: I am the thing that experiences the world subjectively. It is not a perfect definition, but I think it captures the idea. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the generic "I" (as opposed to the "I" I use to refer to my actual self) as Sum. I will refer to the second and third person as Es and Est, respectively (I always knew taking Latin would be useful at some point!).

So what are you? What is Es? That is a little easier. Es is the thing to which Sum directs its output. Sum speaks to Es. Es's experience is not important to the definition of Es, since Sum is, in any given situation, the only thing with a subjective experience. When I speak to you, I am Sum and you are Es, at least from my vantage point.

Est, then, is anything else. Est is not necessarily involved in the conversation but can be referred to within the conversation.

Ah yes, the conversation. The division into Sum, Es, and Est reveals the importance of conversation to language. Don't give me that look now. You know, the one that says, "Well, duh, you Laputan nudnik!" What I mean is that we usually think of it the other way around, that language is necessary for conversation. But in truth, it goes both ways: conversation that is needed for language as well. Any use of language assumes a conversation, even if one is speaking to oneself (occupying both the Sum and the Es, in my invented argot).

As I've written before, language is one of the many tools with which we force a continuous reality into categories in order to better understand and communicate it. This kind of abstraction, though, always introduces a degree of imprecision. Sum, Es, and Est do not truly exist as separate things. They are merely categorizations. There is no hard line of division between you and me and the air between us. Each flows into the other, so that there is no "other". The Sum, Es, and Est are different parts of the same thing, which is everything.

Again, language itself fails me whenever I get to this level of thought precisely because its utility is the opposite of what I am trying to communicate. But my point is that language creates hard edges in the continuous reality. Not points out or accentuates, but creates. There is no division. We impose one because it is more efficient for our brains to function by pattern recognition, and pattern recognition requires categorization. When we make assumptions about the nature of reality based upon these decisions - when we refer to Sum, Es, and Est as if they really exist and base theories of reality upon them, we are building upon abstractions of reality rather than a view of reality itself.

Okay, enough for now. I have no idea how comprehensible to anyone else this might be. If I could ever organize my meandering thoughts into something coherent, I'm sure I could write a book -- not that anyone would necessarily want to read it, but I could write one.

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