How language changes our thoughts, and how to use this to our advantage

Scanning the newspapers or watching the news on television, we see snapshots of lives which are unfamiliar to most of us. They are inordinately wealthy, living profligate lives, surrounded by people whose achievements we feel far exceed our own. But what exactly is it which divides us and them? Selective perspective. In these figures, we see a homogenised ‘otherness’ to which we consign those whom we feel to be culturally beyond us, and to them we give the name ‘celebrity’, for example. It’s important to remember that this is a divide which is created by viewing the phenomenon through a certain perspective, and by doing so, we remove ourselves from them as much as we remove them from us.

By separating us from them, we make the unconscious prognosis that their life is simply unachievable. We have categorised them as the ‘otherness’, and we are not ‘other’, we are what we are. The symptom of this taxonomy of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is wholly curable. We must remember that taxonomical terms are human convention.

When we consider other people to be ‘rich’ or ‘poor’, ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’, ‘famous’ ‘or ‘unfamous’, we are categorising them. The object of categorising, however, is wholly arbitrary. Terms like ‘rich’ or ‘interesting’ are imposed by a set of values which are relative to the perspectives of each individual. When we discuss objects in the world, we have to have a shared understanding of the thing we are talking about. Therefore, when we talk of ‘wealthy’ or ‘interesting’, we share the viewpoint that ‘wealthy’ is an otherness in a relevant way. Meaningfully, this means that everyone who uses a relative descriptive term must all draw a distinction of the thing being discussed as an ‘otherness’; in this case, ‘wealthy’ must be an ‘otherness’ for all who apply the term. The corollary of this is that the further our social or cultural group is from the thing we call ‘other’, the more distant it becomes, and the less it feels like a part of our life. This is how the triple divide of lower-middle-upper class can effect our thinking.

One thing which is very important to understand about descriptive terms in particular is that we think THROUGH them. What we think about the world and other people changes depending on what words and phrases which are in our vocabulary. Tiffany Watt Smith explains this perfectly. As a historian of emotions, one interesting thing she has uncovered is how emotions can be exclusive to certain cultures and vocabularies (CLICK HERE for a very interesting Ted talk from her). She also explores the fact that emotions have changed almost entirely over time. For example, people don’t die from nostalgia any more (but little more than 100 years ago it was far from unheard of to die from home sickness). She explains that people feel an emotion more strongly if they have a name for it (such as the Russians, who have a word to describe ‘a maddening dissatisfaction which feels like it was blown in by great winds’).

What her important findings tell us is that our relative descriptions of the world will make us feel different about the world. We should take care to be mindful of the vocabulary we apply when describing the world, our selves, and also others, because it qualifies their values and our mobility. The philosopher Karl Jaspers famously believed that philosophy should do its best to return to the subjective (like Kierkegaard), however, the objective world would subsume our identity, and therefore remove us from our subjective form of identity in favour of us being a part of that which is the ideology of the objective world.

The obvious solution to this is in surveying the vocabularies of the world and crafting our language to fit us best. We can remove ourselves from using relative descriptions such as ‘poor’ or ‘rich’ whenever possible. If we cease to create an unconscious ideological divide between ourselves and others, we unconsciously contain ourselves more on a veritable ‘level playing field’.

One other thing which can be done is to create our own objectivity. We must understand that a true state of objectivity is never wholly achievable through a shared language. When we assume the use of an objective idea or word, what we are truly assuming is the idea derived from a single mind, culture, or social group. This is then used by larger numbers of people, and it is morphed into a relevant form to the new speaker by assuming the idea. To understand an idea properly, we have to create some form of personal relevance. Therefore, to understand something, we must make it a part of us, at least temporarily. We can then choose to reject it, but it will always leave some form of an imprint. We mould ourselves to our experiences, and uses of language are also individual experiences.

Further, we can choose to condition objectivity ourselves. This is the exact function of culture, on many levels. Ideas are placed into the world and then assumed, subsumed, or rejected, by people and cultures. We understand that our ideas are subsumed by the objective form of the world, like in vocabulary spreading. What we must do is craft the ideas and relative descriptions which we feel will benefit us as people and groups. That way we can move society and individuals towards better selves. We have seen this done already, such as in viral hashtags on social media. We also see how modern gender politics is changing people’s vocabularies for the better. It is also true that we assume the language of others quite naturally. It is therefore true that we should speak like the people we wish to be, and we will eventually assume the position of personhood relevant to that better self we speak like.

This is one of the reasons why so many celebrities and silicone valley entrepreneurs, for example, have taken to mantra meditation and vipassana meditation. Deliberately spending twenty minutes chanting or projecting love and good will shall obviously make us more loving, good willed people. Amy Cuddy provides another good example of this. In her famous Ted Talk, she told us to assume a strong pose in the mornings, and showed how much more confident it would make us as people (CLICK HERE). It’s simple- behave, speak, or act in a certain way deliberately, and it will eventually become a part of who you are. Cuddy famously says ‘fake it until you make it’.

One thing to consider here is that a major amount of our thinking is in fact done unconsciously. As Sam Harris said in his podcast with Robert Wright, ‘thoughts think themselves’. What he means is that the majority of ideas we have emerge from our unconscious cogitations. The more we think or mull over an idea, word, or thought consciously, the more the brain will mull it over unconsciously to produce new ideas. When talking about how to think about things, the phrase ‘bed-bath-bus’ (three ideal places for ideas to naturally spring up) has been attributed to many people (read about it HERE), and is a perfect example of how to utilise unconscious thought. Malcom Gladwell even cites Chris Langan as applying this idea in Outliers. Langan says that he thinks about his writing repeatedly and deeply before bed, and when he wakes up, the idea is often in his head.

Lets piece this together now. The objective world as the truly objective world is separate from our objective worlds, which are relative to our perceptions. It is conditioned by the descriptions we give it, the feelings and emotions we have, and the ideologies by which we live our lives. We can adopt the language of this objective world, but it is always better fit to somebody else, or less fitting to us because ideas and words are conditioned to shared, not individual values. What we must then do is choose the ideas and words we wish to live through. One example of doing this is the increasingly popular move to stop saying ‘should’ (READ HERE). We then make a deliberate effort to say these words and project the thoughts we wish to be subsumed by. Our unconscious mind will make sense of it all and tailor our identities to it. You may consider that when you see a British Royal on the television again, instead of thinking ‘that duchess has a £3,000 hat, far nicer than my £30 hat’, we identify simply that she has a hat. Try being more inclined to project the things you don’t want to be as the ‘otherness’, rather than limiting your social mobility by the modality of ‘otherness’. Success, for example, is not an ‘otherness’, it is another part of that same ontological plane.

In my earlier post about Seneca (READ HERE) I wanted to look at how choosing who we are in the eyes of others changes our personal identity by seeing what other people see. Here, I hope to have started to address how the language we use changes us too.

3 thoughts on “How language changes our thoughts, and how to use this to our advantage

  1. Some have postulated that language structures thought. Thus, people who think in Chinese have trouble understanding how an American, who thinks in English, thinks. Languages across the globe are quite different. An interesting idea.


    1. I think there is definitely something in the idea. I think some more work needs to be done towards separating where language describes thought and where language describes culture, but I think we can learn more about how to live and think when we understand this better.


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