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How language shapes our future

May 29, 2018

How the way we think is getting in the way of what we need to do.

Dualism has enabled amazing advances, but at what cost? Is it time – is it indeed possible – to break free of our cultural backgrounds in order to save the world? 

A review of Jeremy’s Lent’s 2017 book: The Patterning Instinct


Tropes we need and use but seldom see

The role of metaphors in communication is fascinating.  Language is sprinkled with metaphors we no longer notice, so familiar have they become. Indeed, sometimes it’s hard to decide if the colours and imagery in our language are still metaphorical or not. Take the word ‘familiar’: in the way I’ve just used it, it draws on the notion that we know our family more intimately than the rest of the world, hence it must have been used metaphorically at some point, before becoming associated with its modern (and now familiar!) literal meaning. Perhaps we can say that while it’s now literal, it still contains the vestiges of metaphor. On the other hand, ‘sprinkled’ is still clearly a metaphor in the way I used it in my initial sentence above. (As is “on the other hand”, of course… and so it goes on…)

Yes, language is full of metaphor: the on-the-face of it crazy idea that using what Aristotle called an ‘alien’ image allows us better to communicate the idea or story in question. But it works, and Aristotle said that creating an original metaphor is an act of genius. A more recent commentator, Denis Donoghue, claimed that the ‘essential character of metaphor is prophetic… [because it changes] the world by changing one’s sense of it’. (Metaphor, Denis Donoghue, Harvard, 2014). I think he is right: every new metaphor is akin to prophecy. Hence its importance in religious texts and in politics: including in any attempt to make the world a better place, or save it from becoming worse.

Families of metaphors

Linguistics professor George Lakoff investigated the role of metonymy in language and culture, and came up with a taxonomy of metaphors. In this, he identified a series of fundamental metaphorical notions which imbue the way we think and communicate in the West, without us barely noticing. For example, these include (he uses capitals to denote these ur-concepts) Orientation/Spatial metaphors such as HAPPY IS UP, SADNESS IS DOWN; HEALTH IS UP, SICKNESS IS DOWN; MORE IS UP, LESS IS DOWN; VIRTUE IS UP, DEPRAVITY IS DOWN; and FUTURE IS AHEAD, PAST IS BEHIND.

He identifies several other categories, for example Substance metaphors (MIND AS MACHINE; MIND AS A BRITTLE OR PLASTIC OBJECT; INFLATION AS A MATERIAL ENTITY…), and Container metaphors (THE VISUAL FIELD AS A CONTAINER; STATES OF MIND AS CONTAINERS…). So for example when we say “the ship sailed into view” we are unconsciously using the culturally shared idea that the visual field is a container which the ship can be inside or outside; when we say “he nearly cracked up from the strain” we are using a substance metaphor of brittleness and strain; and when we say “she was an upstanding person” we are using an orientation metaphor (up = virtuous). The point is: our language and culture are suffused with invisible metaphors which allow us to communicate readily and efficiently, and permit the shared development and understanding of a sense of where and how we live, and of complex ideas, plans and inventions. For further reading on this basic idea: Metaphors we live by, by Lakoff and Johnson, University of Chicago Press, 2003.

How shared patterns of thinking shape and limit our lives

This is not just of academic interest. Lakoff has used this to explore how the choice of language in the USA helped frame US policy and the political discourse around the response to 9/11. Initially, it was described – accurately – as a terrible crime. But within hours the phrase ‘War on Terror’ was being used. This, as Lakoff has pointed out, has no literal meaning (how can you wage war against an abstract and very broad concept?), but by framing the US response as a war against an intangible target, those responsible created a framework for unquestioning public support (it is unpatriotic to question a war we are fighting) and room for manoeuvre (the government can define – and redefine – its ‘enemies’ as it sees fit). So choice of language is inherently political, in favouring some options and limiting others.

Jeremy Lent, in his recent book The Patterning Instinct (Prometheus Books, 2017), goes much further than this. Lent – like most of us – is deeply concerned that in our treatment of Earth we are heading towards a tipping point, after which we may not be able to recover. Science and common sense tell us we need to take significant remedial action now, but we are not doing so quickly enough. The economic and political reasons for this foot-dragging have been well-rehearsed. But Lent goes further, and identifies some of the dominant tropes which guide public policy, public and private behaviour, and shows that they are themselves part of the problem.

His book is fluently written, and easy to read and follow. He writes in engaging prose,  and turns a good clear sentence within a clearly sign-posted structure. At 440 pages of text it is probably 80 pages longer than it needed to be, for me. I think he might have got his point across at least as effectively in a shorter version. But it is divided into digestible chapters of around 20 pages each – bite-sized chunks, small enough to fit into the interstices of the busy day. So the extra length is manageable. It draws on history, biology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, geography, ecology, political science, economics and literary criticism – and no doubt other disciplines too – to tell the story of human development over millennia. He refers – unobtrusively enough – to many hundreds of sources: the notes and further reading lists run to 100 pages.

Dualism: key to a version of progress, but a hindrance to sustainability

The key part of Lent’s argument is that the world has become dominated by a primarily Western approach to thinking, built on dualism: the differentiation of body from soul, earth from heaven, appearance from reality, being from becoming, ideas and concepts from tangible things, mind from matter, fact from value, mind from brain, being from nothingness, religious from secular, infinite from finite, God from people, and so on. Starting with the migration of people who spread the Indo-European language groups over 5000 years ago, he explains how and where this seems to have happened, and explores some of the why?, linking it for example to ecology, technology, religion, economic patterns and the adoption of agriculture and settled, surplus-producing societies.

He identifies the origins of monotheism in the core metaphor of duality, and shows how this embedded the seemingly inescapable duality of right and wrong, good and evil – and the intolerance this engendered. He also argues that dualistic cognitive approaches enabled much of the progress on which the modern world has come to depend for our welfare. A key phase of that journey was obviously the Western Enlightenment, at the core of which was the idea of deconstruction and natural rules, and Lent reminds us of the importance of figures like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.

Bacon’s own use of metaphor is instructive. As someone with a high level responsibility for state security in early seventeenth century England, he was all-too-familiar with the mechanisms of torture in interrogation, including over religious beliefs (that intolerance again), and he used metaphors of torture (nature on the rack) to describe how man must master nature by better understanding how nature works. Bacon is often seen as the originator of modern experimental, empirical inquiry. In doing this, he helped establish two core metaphors which have underpinned Western economic and political life ever since: MASTERY OF MANKIND OVER NATURE, and NATURE AS MACHINE.

Clearly, the Scientific Revolution and all that followed, has brought us many advantages. Lent is no Luddite, and he acknowledges these. But in telling the story of how – because of the dominant role of the West in world affairs over the past few centuries – its metaphors have infiltrated much of the world, including our multinational institutions, he also reminds us that there are other tropes available. He makes much of the various cultures which view the world in a more holistic (non-dualistic) way. He points out that not seeing nature as separate, or a machine, or as something to control, but rather as an indivisible part of the whole along with ourselves, would likely be an advantage in correcting the way the NATURE AS MACHINE metaphor has run amok and led to dangerous climate change – not to mention the desperate levels of inequality, violence and suffering embedded in the status quo, for all its successes.

And this is the fundamental problem he wishes to illuminate: that climate change, environmental degradation and all sorts of deep social inequalities are making the prospects of sustainable human life on Earth increasingly bleak, and that our dominant tropes are preventing us from reacting adequately. For example, our continued dependence on the ideas of MANKIND MASTERING NATURE and NATURE AS MACHINE, is preventing us from thinking outside the box. He suggests that by adopting more holistic tropes – WE ARE INTIMATELY PART OF OUR ENVIRONMENT; LIVES ARE MUTUALLY DEPENDENT, perhaps – we might release ourselves from this blinkered state. Indeed, he thinks we have to do so.

Big picture writing

This is a book full of riches. Like other “sweep of history” books (e.g. Lent references Jared Diamond’s classic Guns, Germs and Steel, which he much admires) it offers the non-specialist reader a glimpse at the wealth of multi-disciplinary knowledge which can be marshalled by those with the access, intelligence and time, to illuminate big questions and consider big answers. It felt like a privilege to be a beneficiary of Lent’s research  and reflection.

Perhaps, like Guns, Germs and Steel (and some of Stephen Pinker’s work, of which Lent is critical) it errs at times on the side of seeking evidence for its arguments, rather than arguments based on the evidence. Pretty much everything in the book is adduced in support of his thesis, even though the world seen on such a scale is surely far too messy for that. Lent is comfortable with sweeping statements, some of which I wonder about. Picking a couple at random: “For the most part, extremes of inequality in these great agrarian civilizations [4000 years ago] came to be regarded as the normal condition”; or “in Neo-Confucian thought, the […] divide between science and spiritual meaning is nowhere to be found” – really, how do we know with such certainty?

And the book’s sweeping thesis inevitably raises inconvenient questions along the way which nag at the reader even as he continues to read with great interest. If monotheism gave rise to fundamentally intolerant societies, as Lent argues, how is it that Western societies are so comparatively free? If monotheism is such a differentiator, how is it that mystical Christian works are so similar to mystical Buddhist works; how is it that my personal reading of Christ’s teachings sees so much empathy and encouragement to scepticism there?

But any book devised on such a scale is bound to be open to such questions, and especially one written by someone on a mission to help save the world. Overall, this is a really useful entry point for readers interested to know how our cultural conditioning determines (or very strongly influences) how we see the world and our place within it. We know this already, but Lent helps explain it, and he also shares the important insight that a global human society limited by an increasingly homogenous set of tropes and values is – to use a Substance metaphor – likely to be brittle, rather than resilient. Because resilience requires diversity of thinking.

Where next?

Lent’s final chapter attempts a solution. What’s needed is a Great Transformation, and thus a Herculean effort on the part of us all to see beyond – or step outside – our inherited world view. This will be – or rather, this is already proving itself to be – very hard. That is the nature of culture and values: they are self-reinforcing unless a crisis undermines them. Unfortunately, I fear this will be too difficult, and we will pass the tipping point before the survivors are galvanised into enough change. I hope I am wrong. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves and to the world of which we are part, to understand why we seem to be stuck in a rut heading towards – if not a cliff edge – a very steep downward slope. In addition to the familiar political and economic reasons why we are finding it so hard to change course, The Patterning Instinct is extremely helpful in reminding us that there are deep-set cultural reasons, too. Even if we shy away from tackling THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION in one go, perhaps we can contribute by taking account of Lent’s ideas as we try to address the various social and political and environmental and economic and spiritual issues in which we each try to make a small difference – and thus enact the Great Transformation one step at a time.

When I tried to purchase this book at London’s most famous and largest bookshop recently, the assistant told me their only copy had been sold, and it was therefore out of stock. In other words, their purchasing policy for The Patterning Instinct was to maintain a stock of only one volume. That is a real shame: it’s an enjoyably instructive text which they ought to be marketing more positively. I recommend it to all students of “Why?”

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