WHAT DOES LANGUAGE CREATE?

Early in the 19th Century there was a quiet revolution in the still-young field of physics. An English scientist named Michael Faraday (1791-1867), inventor of the electric motor and discoverer of benzene, proposed a remarkable reversal of conventional thinking. That reversal was described by a modern physicist as follows:

 According to Faraday, rather than looking upon the potential field of force that could be exerted by a bit of matter on other matter…as a secondary derivative property of that matter, one should rather consider the continuous field of potential force as the elementary feature.

 He then viewed the “discrete particle” aspect as a secondary, derivative property.  According to the field theory proposed, the real stuff of the material world is the abstract (i.e. not directly observable) aspect associated with the potential field of force of matter.

 This view challenged a prevailing philosophic stand, presently known as “naive realism,” which asserts that only that which we human beings directly perceive to be there, outside of us, is the reality from which a true description must follow.  Faraday’s abstract approach, on the other hand, took the fundamental reality to be at a level underlying that of human precepts.[1]

It took over a hundred years for the true genius of Faraday’s view to be appreciated. It was not until the development of quantum field theory in the 1930’s and 40’s that the view that fields might be the “real stuff of the world” began to be accepted among physicists, to the point that, today, “According to quantum field theory, fields alone are real. They are the substance of the universe and not “matter.” Matter (particles) is simply the momentary manifestations of interacting fields which, intangible and insubstantial as they are, are the only real things in the universe.”[2]

 But what are these elusive phenomena called fields? We cannot observe them directly, even with the most sophisticated of instruments. We recognize them only by their effects. Newton, observing an apple falling from a tree, introduced the field, gravitation, which he took to be, as Faraday put it, a secondary derivative property of matter. Later Einstein postulated that the gravitational field was not a property of matter at all, but the result of space-time curving in response to matter. Thus gravity for Einstein was not a force, but a medium, an agency through which something is accomplished.

 The other field with which we are most familiar is magnetism, the presence of which we infer from, for example, iron filings lining up in rows instead of scattering themselves randomly.

 The dictionary defines a field as

  • an area or division of an activity
  • the sphere of practical operation outside a base
  • a space on which something is drawn or projected
  • a region or space in which a given effect exists
  • a complex of forces that serve as causative agents in human behavior
  • a particular area in which the same type of information is regularly recorded.

 Synonyms for field are: realm (as in the realm of science), sphere, province, or clearing.

 A prominent modern physicist has said:

 Although we know a great deal about the way fields affect the world as we perceive it, the truth is no one really knows what a field is. The closest we can come to describing what they are is to say that they are spatial structures in the fabric of space itself. [3]

 For purposes of our work, we can take a probability-based definition of a field as “an area of the world where some things are more likely to happen and/or others are less likely to happen.” Thus in a magnetic field, iron filings are more likely to line up than they are in the absence of such a field. In the gravitational field of earth, objects are more likely to fall down and less likely to float than they are in outer space, where the gravitational field is weak or non-existent.

 More recent thinking in quantum physics, chaos theory, and elsewhere has led us to believe that fields are far more pervasive than was previously thought. Field theory may also account for the impact of “soft” phenomenon such as culture, vision, commitment, etc. in human behavior.

 The philosopher Martin Heidegger said “Language is the house of being – in it [humanity] dwells.” Being itself is without form and, according to Heidegger, exists outside of time[4], so if the position regarding being and language is correct, then language must also be outside of time.

 This is a counter-intuitive position – we use language every day, and clearly we use It in time, in that we use it to describe things and actions that exist in time, whether present or past. There is, however, another, less common kind of language that occurs in the present, but neither describes or refers to any thing. According to Heidegger, when Being interacts with Time, Being occurs as presencing, so we can say that this kind of language, occurring in the Present, presences. Said slightly more understandably, this kind of language brings something into Being (existence) that did not exist before it was spoken (languaged).

 While this may sound theoretical and obscure, instances of this type of languaging are not uncommon. When a clergy person or judge says “I pronounce you married,” a marriage occurs in that utterance – what was two unmarried people becomes by that speaking alone a married couple. Other examples include “you’re hired,” “you’re fired,” “guilty,” not guilty,” etc.

 In each of these cases it Is what J. L. Austin termed a speech act (in this case a declaration) that creates an alteration in being – someone who previously would have said “I am single” now says “I am married,” for example.

 To return to our discussion of field theory, and continuing to use the declaration of marriage as a case in point, the declaration creates a field in which certain things are more likely to happen (filing joint tax returns, living together, etc.) and other things are, presumably less likely (dating other people, making unilateral life decisions, etc.). Thus, a declaration is a linguistic act that creates a field in the same way that a magnet is a physical object that generates a field.

 In the instance of language, the field that is created can be called a “context,” or a “possibility” which must then interact with the physical world in order to have an effect. Again the analogy to magnetic fields is persuasive – a magnet will have no effect unless it interacts with a metal like iron, and the presence of the field will be known by its effect. Thus Heidegger’s dictum that “there is no being without being-in-the-world.”[5] The means by which a declaration of a context or possibility comes into the world is a class of speech acts called performatives,” including requests, offers, invitations, demands, promises, etc. In our example, the marriage vows and other commitments serve this purpose.

 A simpler example can be seen in the following instance: Fred invites George to lunch at noon next Tuesday at a particular restaurant, and George accepts the invitation. Prior to this simple conversation, “lunch next Tuesday at noon at Chez Canusee did not exist. After the conversation, it exists as a future created by a request (Fred’s invitation) and a promise (George’s acceptance), to be fulfilled (manifested in reality) several days hence. In the field created by that conversation, some things are more likely to happen – George and Fred putting the date into their respective diaries, each leaving his office at a time determined by the distance to the restaurant, both showing up at the appointed place and time – that would not otherwise have happened, and other things are less likely – either man scheduling a meeting for that date and time, for example.

 The development of this ability to create a field by means of language can have world-changing effects – when John F. Kennedy committed to sending a man to the Moon and bringing him back safely by the end of the decade of the 1960’s he set in motion events that not only outlived the speaker who generated the field, but changed the world profoundly. Similarly for utterances of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and others we consider world-changers.

[1] From Ideas of the Theory of Relativity by Mendel Sachs, 1974 (emphasis added)

[2] Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, 1979

[3] Michael Talbot, Beyond the Quantum, 1986

[4] “Nowhere among things do we find being.  Everything has its time.  But being is not a thing, is not in time.” – On Time and Being

[5] Being and Nothingness

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