Dialectical Materialism (A. Spirkin)
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Consciousness and Language

Communication and understanding between people, epochs and cultures. From the very beginning human beings have been involved in social contexts of different degrees of complexity and they remain so, because this is the setting for both their labour and leisure, even when they think of themselves as isolated. Endless invisible threads link them with the life of the socium. The whole essence of the human being, including his consciousness, is communicative by its very nature. And this ability defines the essence of consciousness and also its vehicles, the individual and society. People are constantly afloat in an atmosphere of communication. They are eager to say something to each other, to learn or teach, to show or prove, to agree or reject, to ask or order, console, implore, show affection, and so on. Communication arose and developed with the rise of man and the formation of society in the process of labour. From the very first communication was a part of labour activity and satisfied its needs. As time went on, it was transformed into a relatively independent need to share, to pour out one's soul, either in grief or joy, or for no particular reason, a need that recurred day after day and was of vital moral and psychological importance to the individual. Communication is such a vital factor of existence that without it our animal ancestors would never have become people; without the ability to communicate a child cannot learn about, absorb culture and become a socially developed person. The depression caused by loneliness also indicates the exceptional importance of communication for human beings. Not for nothing is solitary confinement of criminals considered to be one of the severest punishments by most peoples of the world. In a situation where he can communicate a person acquires and sharpens his intellect, but in the opposite case he may even lose his reason.

A person needs communication, whatever state of mind he may be in, joyous or sorrowful. But grief or suffering, which need the consolation, sympathy or merely some distraction, are particularly hard to bear alone. A person may feel lonely and isolated even among his own family and have to make up for the lack of company with pets.

Communication is not only an essential condition of human existence; it is also a means of forming and developing social experience and restraint, which may be felt by the individual even outside the field of immediate communication. Even when isolated, he considers his thoughts and actions from the standpoint of what reaction they may evoke in others.

Historical progress has substantially changed the means of influencing people's minds and hearts. The speech in the forum or the senate, the conversations of the philosophers with their pupils, the sermon preached in church, the choir singing, the disputes between the Schoolmen, the speech of the lawyer and the public prosecutor, the professor's lecture, love letters, written proclamations, pamphlets, stirring speeches by revolutionaries have been replaced or supplemented by huge editions of printed works, by radio and television, the mass media. Now the streams of information circulate by means of qualitatively different channels all over the planet, gradually integrating the human race by means of information. A great wealth of forms of communication are available to people through the rich language of the arts, through songs, poetry, music, painting, stories and novels. And how infinitely rich are the forms of unspoken, intimate communication. A psychological response or lack of it is obvious in facial expressions, in posture, walk, gesture, voice modulations, the movements of the hands, those extremely mobile instruments for expressing states of mind. In the whole system of "body" language that people, particularly those with artistic natures, use with such success, the crucial role belongs to the eyes, through which we both generate and feel the radiance of the human spirit in all the diversity of its varying intensity and perhaps even depth. What can one read in a face that has no eyes?

Communication ensures continuity in the development of culture. Every new generation begins its work of learning from the point where the previous generation left off.

Thanks to communication the individual's thoughts and aspirations are not obliterated by time. They become em bodied in words, in images, they survive in legend and are passed on from century to century. Every person leans on the ancient genealogical tree. The motion of thoughts in people's minds is like waves breaking on the shore; they have the pressure of the whole ocean of world history behind them. Books are the present's passport to all previous culture. In the treasure-house of their native speech, generation after generation stores up the fruits of the deepest movements of thought and the history of events. The whole imprint of man's intellectual life is preserved in words, in written characters, by the invention of which the human mind resolved one of the greatest and most difficult of its problems. It embodied, it registered speech and thus acquired the ability to make its thoughts immortal. "What is written by the pen cannot be erased by the axe", says the folk proverb. Writing is a marvellous and inexhaustible fountain of knowledge and wisdom, a fountain that never runs dry though it is constantly in use. Communication goes on between specific living individuals and between epochs and also between different cultures.

Any consideration of the problem of communication inevitably raises the question of mutual understanding. When one talks about understanding, one usually thinks of comprehension of real things, cognition of the world around one. But what we are concerned with here is "communicative understanding", how people understand one another by communicating, how the present generation understands its predecessor, how the people of one culture understand other cultures. These are problems that have received little attention and yet are extremely important.

Everyone is surprised by the tricks of the conjuror, by the phenomena of telepathy, and so on. But only a few are surprised by the "miracle" of communication, of understanding achieved by the language of words, gesture, mimicry and various symbols, particularly understanding between present and past, and between cultures. At the common sense level mutual understanding through communication, the understanding of one epoch or culture by another seems to be a mere triviality to be taken for granted. We all understand what we say and what other people, epochs and cultures say to us. And when understanding is not achieved, we often blame language and speak of not being able to find a common language.

Attention was drawn long ago to the big difference between understanding the objects and processes of the external world and understanding human actions and words. To understand human beings and what they do we have to take into consideration their motives, the discrepancy between what they say and what they mean, we have to make allowance for the difficulties of detecting true motivation. One of the stumbling blocks to mutual understanding is the great diversity of individuals. Each of us contains a whole world. And this world is our particular world. In any specific context of communication a person usually uncovers only one aspect of himself. Understanding is further complicated by the generalised way we perceive each other, by our tendency to fit this perception into certain accepted and evolved general standards that ignore the unique in every individual. The individuality of people's experience and frame of reference also makes mutual understanding more difficult. The Sophist Gorgias once remarked that in the process of being perceived and expressed in words an object of thought disintegrates into a huge number of elements of thought and thus loses its integrity: complete mutual understanding is therefore, in principle, impossible. One often hears and reads, complaints about difficulties of communication between children and parents, between epochs and between cultures, between the healthy and the sick, particularly those who are mentally ill. A foolish person cannot fully express the thoughts of the intelligent. From the content of what he is told he absorbs only as much as he is able to understand. One could say that the degree of mutual understanding between people depends to a great extent on their cultural level, their power of insight. The history of culture offers numerous examples of how the power of genius increases through absorbing the meaning and tendency of the epoch, through tackling and solving the problems raised by the logic of life. Works of genius always embrace possibilities that have not yet been revealed. And the degree to which they are understood depends on the cultural level of the reader, the audience. As it climbs the spirals of history, humanity constantly improves the mechanism of mutual understanding, the content of the dialogue between epochs and cultures. Every new epoch, in acquiring more perfect ideas, also acquires new eyes and sees in the great works of the past more and more that is new, goes deeper into their intrinsic meaning. Many of Shakespeare's contemporaries probably regarded him as, at best, an interesting actor and little more. They did not see in him one of the supreme geniuses that humanity has produced, whose profundity has been consistently, century after century revealed by every new generation.

Intellect alone cannot give us understanding of a person, an epoch or a culture. There must also be shared experience, the ability to empathise with other people, epochs and cultures. Where is the guarantee that modern man fully understands the culture of the ancients, their writings, paintings, sculpture? The mere translation of the ancient Indian writings into Russian, for example, cannot provide it. To fully understand them one must enter into the socio-psychological context of each work, into the life, the everyday round, the culture of the people that created it and the historical epoch in which it was written.

The character of human relations depends to a great extent on this understanding of each other in the process of communication. If this is adequate, the result is an unambiguous relationship, regardless of whether that relationship is one of liking or dislike. Otherwise the relationship is blurred.

Argument or proof is an essential element in understanding. Blank assertion cannot understand itself or make itself understood. Another important element in mutual understanding is the ability to listen. Not for nothing do people say that the art of listening is as important as the art of speak ing.

Understanding takes place on an incredible number of different planes due to the fact that the whole fabric of language and any speech context are interwoven with threads of metaphor and imagery. For the same reason there is often an illusion of understanding, as opposed to a real understanding of what is being said. However, despite all the difficulties, mutual communication is built on a sound foundation of mutual understanding, without which there could be no rational contact between people, and social life would be inconceivable.

The unity of language and consciousness. If we want to know more about communication between people, epochs and cultures, we must investigate the nature of the means of communication—language. Language is the highest form of thought expression, the basic means of controlling behaviour, of knowing reality and knowing oneself and the existence of culture. Without the gift of speech man could never acquire cultural values. Consciousness presupposes speech as its material reality in the form of gesture, sound, symbol, and so on. Speech may convey thoughts, feelings and volition in the process of mutual communication, because words are material and can therefore be sensuously perceived. Speech is language functioning in a specific situation of communication. It is the activity of communication and its recorded results. Russian speech, for example, embraces an infinite number of statements by specific individuals and all that has been written in that language. Language, on the other hand, is a specific vocabulary and grammar, expressed in rules and sentence patterns, which have been evolved historically and are national in character. But specific sentences, both spoken and written, belong not to language but to speech: they form the symbolic reality that constitutes the existence of language.

Speech is the material expression of thought. In speech the content of our intellectual world is objectified for others.

Speech fulfils several interconnected functions. It is both communicative and thought-creating, it is a means of influencing and of regulating. The communicative function is primary and predominant. Since thoughts in themselves are non-material, they cannot be perceived by the sense organs. They cannot be seen or heard, touched or tasted. The expression "people exchange ideas" is absurd if understood literally. No exchange of ideas actually takes place. The process of communication is effected in the form of mutual material influencing by means of words, which appears to be an exchange of thoughts. We do not convey thoughts by means of words; we evoke analogous thoughts in the mind of the person we are speaking to.

By means of speech a person can internally, in his mind, manipulate things, their attributes and relations, without touching them or seeing them. Man has made this tremendous advance thanks to language. It is customary to distinguish two aspects of the word: its meaning and the form of its existence. The first is a representation, an experience, an idea, a thought; the second is a sign or symbol. A word is a unity of meaning and symbol. What makes a word a word is its meaning. A word represents not only the meaning of a thing but the thing itself. A symbol is the material object, process, action that performs the role in communication of representing something else, and that is used for obtaining, storing, transforming and conveying information. When we speak of the meaning of symbols, we have in mind the information about things, their properties and relations, which is conveyed to us by means of corresponding symbols. Meaning is the reflection of objective reality expressed in the material form of a symbol. Meaning comprises conceptual, sensuous and emotional components, volitional motivations, and requests, in brief, the whole sphere of consciousness.

The basic sign system is a normal, everyday language. Non-linguistic signs may be classified as copy-signs (photographs, fingerprints, fossils of plants, animals, etc.), signs as symptoms (shivering as a symptom of illness, a cloud as a sign of approaching rain), signs as signals (traffic lights, bells, applause, etc.), and signs as symbols. Consciousness is woven out of innumerable threads, which form a complex web of symbols, a complete and specific world.

Symbolisation is a specific act of consciousness. It permeates all its levels and is expressed in generalisation of that which symbolises the object and that which is symbolised. For example, a flag is not simply a strip of cloth of a certain colour but a piece of cloth with certain attributes: colour, shape, etc. What is a symbol? It is a certain object, action, process, word or outline, the meaning of which lies in the fact that they express something, that they contain, as it were, another object or phenomenon. A symbol is a phenomenon which may express a certain meaning not directly but in a formalised manner. For example, justice is symbolised by the Goddess Themis. Consequently, a symbol is not just a sign. In its external form it already contains a notion, an image that it symbolises. A symbol has an expressive function and, thanks to the embodiment of a sensuously concrete content, it indicates something that in itself it is not. The use of special symbols, and particularly the invention of artificial systems of formulae, yields huge advantages for science. Symbol systems in scientific thought perform the function of formulating conceptual images. They contribute to the progress of scientific cognition in its eternal movement towards an object and in the creation of a true picture of the world. For example, the use of signs or symbols from which formulae are made up enables us to register a connection between thoughts in abbreviated form, to carry out communication on an international scale. Artificial sign systems, including the formalised and code languages used in technology, in interpreting machines, are a supplement to the natural languages and exist only on their basis.

Everything known to humanity is in some way named, given a symbol or sign. People have acquired a permanent need to know the names of things. Even when they acquire no information from the name of a certain person or object, they feel a certain satisfaction in knowing what she, he or it is called and often show intense curiosity concerning names, for example, the name of a girl we happen to meet, or the name of a plant or a distant star, although it tells us very little.

Because of the unique individuality of things and human conditions, every word in a certain context has certain shades of meaning, or even a whole range of different meanings. Its sense differentiations are as varied as the shades of colour in a peacock's plumage.

The meaning of a word is "minimum knowledge", which probably refers only to certain attributes of the object rather than reveals its essence. For example, when we seek the meaning of the word "water", we do not reveal its physico-chemical nature, we do not explain the content of the given scientific concept (that is the task of physics and chemistry); we merely indicate that this is a liquid that is transparent. Many words may be used in a figurative sense. For example, the word "water" is sometimes used to refer to a lack of substance in a lecture, an article, a book, and so on.

Although the sense organs are directly influenced by speech, speech in itself, its material fabric, is something that cannot be consciously perceived. A person is not conscious of the word itself, just as he is not conscious of the light rays by which he perceives a thing. Speech is concentrated entirely on the object. In relation to reason, which perceives things, events in their conceivable reality, it is neutral. We are confronted with a word or sentence and in our heads there arises a whole world of things and events. A person only begins to notice words when he ceases to understand their meaning. Or he may specially fix his thoughts on the material envelope of the word for purposes of analysis, etc.

It would be wrong to intellectualise speech altogether, relegating it merely to the role of a vehicle for thought exchange. Speech performs an emotional, expressive and regulative-volitional function. Its emotional content is ex pressed in rhythm, pause, intonation, in various kinds of interjections, in emotionally expressive vocabulary, in the whole range of lyrical and stylistic devices. As a means of expression speech, including gesture, facial expressions and so on, ties in with the whole complex of expressive movements.

Thought is always mental activity in any language. If a rational being from another planet were to visit the Earth and describe all the languages that exist today and in the past, it could not fail to notice their astonishing resemblance in logical structure, which is determined by the structure of the unified Earth system of thinking. If a given thought is expressed in English, Russian or French, despite the differences in linguistic form, the content of all three sentences remains the same. The structure of a language is formed under the decisive influence of objective reality, through certain unified standards of thought, through the category structure of consciousness. But at the same time these unified universal standards of thought are materialised in thousands of different linguistic ways. Every national language possesses its own structural and semantic specifics.

It is sometimes alleged that people speaking different languages perceive things in different ways: that language determines the character of perception. People classify things, their properties and relations according to existing linguistic categories. Language, we are told, is responsible not only for the content but also the structure of thought. Different peoples analyse the world in different ways, the structure of the language entirely determines forms of thought and behaviour and every language possesses its own philosophy.

Actually, language has only a relative independence, its own internal logic. Whereas the categories of consciousness as a whole have a universal character (otherwise contact between different groups would be impossible and translation would also be an impossible task), the basic means of expressing these categories are extremely varied. At present there are more than 3,000 languages on the globe. This shows the complexity and contradictory nature of the connections between consciousness and speech. In its structure, speech is not simply a mirror reflection of the structure of the world of things, their properties and relations; it is also a reflection of the individual's intellectual world. It cannot therefore be fitted on to thought, like a hat onto a head. Language influences consciousness in the sense that its historically evolved forms, the specific nature of its semantic structures and syntactical peculiarities endow thought with different shades. We know that the style of thinking in German philosophical culture differs from that of the French, for example. Each style took shape under the influence of the peculiar features, including language, of the two respective peoples and their national cultures as a whole. On the other hand, any absolutising of the influence of speech on consciousness leads to the mistaken assertion that consciousness is determined not by the object, the objective world, but by the way it is represented in language.

To sum up, by means of speech we communicate something to a person, we inform him of our thoughts, moods, feelings, motives. We share the content of our intellectual world. Consequently, speech carries a certain intellectual content, which must pass through language and come to terms with its structure. Otherwise this content, if not rendered meaningless, will assume an amorphous shape which we shall be unable to examine as something with a definite quality. The linguistic form is not only a condition for conveying the thought content; it is primarily a condition for the realisation of that content.

The relationship between consciousness and speech is not simply coexistence and mutual influence, but a unity in which consciousness plays the decisive role. As the reflection of reality, consciousness "moulds" the forms and dictates the laws of its existence in the form of speech. Consciousness is always a verbally expressed reflection: if there is no language there can be no consciousness. And no deaf mutes or blind-deaf mutes who have received even a little training would deny this general principle: they have their own special language. And only out of ignorance can it be maintained that these people think barely on the basis of visual images.

There is no case for the view that consciousness and speech live parallel, independent lives and come together only at the moment when a thought is uttered. They are two aspects of an integral process: by carrying on speech activity a person thinks; by thinking he carries on speech activity. Think before you speak, says popular wisdom. If there is a thought in our consciousness, it is always contained in a word, although it may not be the word that best expresses that particular thought. And on the contrary, if we remember a word, a thought occurs in our consciousness together with that word. When we are inspired by an idea, when a person has a thorough grasp of a certain thought, it "comes out of his head" clothed in suitable words.

In its search for the truth human thought cannot bypass the barriers of language. Language is not the external vestment of thought, but the element in which thought actually lives. Naturally, the relation between language and consciousness should not be oversimplified, for example, by comparing thought to the contents of a vessel, the vessel being language. This comparison won't work, if only because the "linguistic vessel" is never empty, despite the not infrequent emptiness of its contents. Moreover, the individual's actual intellectual content does not exist outside the "vessel of language". Language is never exhausted by the outpourings of thought, and thought is not detached from language at any stage of its existence. Thoughts are not converted into language in such a way that their intellectual uniqueness disappears.

The history of science records many attempts to identify thought and language, to reduce the one to the other. These attempts are still being made today. They are expressed, for example, in such statements as "reason is language" or "all philosophy is grammar". The notion of language as a highly abstract structure that consists of a system of universal rules (universal grammar) generating linguistic sentences, fits in very well with the universal nature of thought, and this leads some people to identify formal linguistic universals with the categorial structure of thought.

Consciousness reflects reality, but speech symbolises reality and expresses thought. Speaking is not yet thinking. This is a platitude and it is only too frequently confirmed by life. If the mere act of speaking indicated thought, as Feuerbach once remarked, the greatest chatterers would be the greatest thinkers. Thinking means knowing, cognising; speaking means communicating. In the process of thinking a person uses verbal material and his thoughts are formed, moulded in speech structures. The work that is needed to formulate thoughts in speech is performed more or less subconsciously. When thinking, a person works on the cognitive content and is aware of it while the speech envelope of thought may remain outside the control of consciousness or be controlled only on the general plane. Thought should not be imagined as a kind of "cloud suspended overhead", which opens and rains down words. One cannot agree with the assertion that the relationship between language and thought has formed in such a way that, on the one hand, there is thought, or ideas, i.e., that which goes on in consciousness and is observable only introspectively, while, on the other hand, there is the semantic structure, the primary filter through which thoughts must pass before they are embodied in sound. Speech serves not only to express, to convey a thought that has taken shape. Thought is both formed and formulated in speech.

In the process of communication the unity of consciousness and speech appears to be "self-evident". But is it possible for mind to exist without being expressed in words? Processes of consciousness that are not externally expressed take place on the basis of so-called internal speech, which in its turn is realised in the form of internal dialogue. Speech had to arise and mature as something external in order to become something internal. When we think silently, we often unconsciously rehearse certain thoughts in our minds. Internal speech is soundless. It is a kind of inhibited and abbreviated form of external speech. Meditation, which takes place in the form of internal speech, is always a kind of dialogue with oneself. Such speech performs only an imaginatively communicative role and its basic function is that of an instrument for forming and developing thought. Internal speech is distinguished from external speech not only by its function but also by its structure. Since internal speech is aimed at itself, it leaves out everything that can be taken as understood.

Is thought possible without speech? We emphasised above that there was an indissoluble unity between consciousness and speech, and this is true as a general rule. But if it were possible to express everything in words, why should there be expressive movements, the plastic arts, painting, music? And how do matters stand in relation to scientific theoretical thought? As Einstein told us, at certain moments in the mechanism of his cogitative activity ordinary words, as pronounced and written, played no decisive role. He was able to think in more or less clear images of physical reality: the sea in motion symbolising electromagnetic waves that cannot be visually perceived, physical forces operating in a manner similar to the work of muscles, and so on. And how does the act of thought take place when a person is swept towards the light of truth on the "wings of intuition" and not by means of the "rope ladder" of logic?

This is not only because the process of conceptual thought is constantly interspersed with imagery that does not need any verbal forms. Thinking in images may be profoundly conceptual because images may perform the role of symbols richly endowed with conceptual content. Generally speaking, no one has yet been able to prove by facts that thought takes place only by means of the natural language. This has only been stated, but experience tells us otherwise. However, thinking in images takes place only as an exception or in the form of components woven into the fabric of ordinary cogitative activity, and this does not rule out the general principle of the unity of consciousness and speech. We know that the possibilities of thought are inseparably bound up with the possibilities of the given language: a poor vocabulary is a sure sign of mental poverty. This is natural enough. A person can operate only with the accumulated knowledge that is established in the semantic aspect of language. Primitive man, whose consciousness was meagre, used only a few dozen words, whereas the average person today has an active vocabulary of between 3,000 and 5,000 words and major writers use more than 10,000. Nevertheless, poverty in the intellectual sphere does not spring from a poor vocabulary, but on the contrary, a poor vocabulary is the result of superficial thinking, due to lack of culture, social experience and social relationships.

One of the convincing arguments for the principle of the unity of thought and words is to be found in clinical facts, which tell us that mental disorders have an effect on speech.

In ordinary consciousness the process of communication appears to be very simple, something which may be taken as a matter of course. But the expression of consciousness in words is often an extremely complex problem and not every speech formulation of thoughts is the best possible one. We often feel that what we have said does not adequately express what we are thinking. We reject one word as not fully expressing our idea and substitute another. The content of thought regulates the means of its verbal expression. A person sometimes cannot recall a word or name, although it's "on the tip of my tongue'. But everything that is well thought out is expressed clearly. A fine thought is devalued by being poorly expressed. There are two kinds of nonsense: one comes from a lack of thought and feeling concealed by words, the other, from an overabundance of thought and feeling lacking the necessary words to express them.

Realisation of the process of thought in the forms of language involves both the agony of intellectual creativity and the agony of search for adequate means to express it. Sometimes an idea that suddenly dawns on the consciousness may for a time, as Mayakovsky put it, "writhe languageless". Thought must overcome certain external material, which is sometimes resistant to thought.

We know that language contains the rudiments of obsolete forms of thought. In order to comprehend the world of today we use words created by the world of yesterday. Language influences consciousness also in the sense that it exercises a kind of coercion, "tyranny" over thought, directs it along certain linguistic channels, forces constantly changing, individually unique, emotionally coloured thoughts with their endless shades and nuances, into general linguistic patterns, thus placing a kind of fetter of universality on thought. Sometimes it throws thought to the mercy of cliches and hackneyed phrases.

The more unusual our experiences, the more difficult it is to express them by socially evolved, schematised symbolic means. Platitudes are more easily expressed; they are like a standard flow of metal, which comes freely into the ready-made cliches of language. Thoughts, emotions and speech, all have an individual character. When we speak of the language of Pushkin, Shakespeare or Gogol, we usually have in mind the linguistic means and specific ways in which these writers used them. One may judge a person by many signs, including the nature of his speech, the way he talks. There is a close connection between the way of thinking and the way of expressing thought. If, for example, we study the creative methods of any writer we soon come to the conclusion that persistent and painstaking work on the form in which thought is expounded is also work on perfecting and sharpening the thought itself. A basic rule for almost any writer is to rewrite, revise, insert and generally rework his manuscripts. Dostoyevsky stressed that the greatest ability of a writer is his ability to cross out.

Speech is a powerful means of influencing human psychology. And this function is among its oldest. A well-turned phrase can sometimes stop soldiers in flight and snatch victory from defeat. A word may be a medicine relieving human sufferings, or a poison that causes great pain. Language therefore has much power to influence. We all believe in the power of words. They may make a person cry, weep or laugh. Words can kill a person and also console him in his grief. In ancient times, when everything was permeated with faith in the magic of words, and even today, words have been known to exert a kind of mysteriously powerful influence and are so used by skilled psychiatrists in healing their patients.

The aim of verbal communication is not only understanding and agreement but also the desire to suggest something to somebody else, to convince, to teach, to influence that person and guide his actions. There exist between people so-called volitional relations, which are expressed in the form of orders, instructions, prohibitions, permissions, obedience, disobedience, and so on.

Influence on consciousness by means of speech takes place not only in the narrow framework of bilateral communication; it is also exercised on the scale of the social group and of whole countries and humanity in general.

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