Language and Reality

It often sounds to me as if there is a disconnect between the sciences and critical theory, and I think that much of this can be attributed to how scientists and critical theorists view language. Scientists often think of language as a poor substitute for reality, while critical theorists view language as the only means through which we know reality. These are such vastly different points of view that dialogues between scientists and critical theorists often fail because while they are using the same words, such as reality, they have two very different things in mind.

From the structuralists onwards, language has taken a place of primary importance in the world of critical theorists. Language forms our experience of ourselves and the world, and is thus the vehicle by which we experience the world. When I read articles by critical theorists, and they are speaking of reality, it feels to me like they are speaking of this reality created by language – the reality of the subjective and objective mixed together to form a network of words that encompasses all we can express. Within this context, it makes sense that they are interested in identities that cannot be spoken of, forbidden dialogues, and overarching narratives. These are how they think all humans construct reality.

Scientists, at least in my experience, have a much different relationship with words. Richard Feynman summarized this point of view best when he tells a story about his father. His father told him the word for “bird” in several languages, oiseau in French, pajaro in Spanish, and vogel in Dutch. Feynman’s father asked him if he now knew anything about birds because he knew more words for it, upon which the young Feynman realized words do not constitute reality. This seems like the viewpoint of most scientists. Words are messy, clumsy, awkward constructs that do not capture reality in any meaningful way, but they are necessities of human communication. For scientists, mathematics captures reality much more accurately, but it is still imprecise and filled with error.

This is the fundamental difference – critical theorists believe that words and symbols not only represent, but in fact create reality. Scientists, on the other hand, believe that words and symbols poorly represent reality at best, and that to mistake the word for the objective fact is to commit a serious error. This has led to many misunderstandings on both sides, particularly when critical theory tries to analyze science. Such analysis rely on the words scientists use, and often assume that scientists are using words naively while supporting a larger narrative structure; however, scientists mostly use words operatively. The assumption is that words are a poor way to capture reality, so they assign a word to operate as a place holder, and while that word might draw the attention of a critical theorist, a fellow scientists will likely treat the specific word as having very little meaning.

This also leads to very different attitudes towards political activism, which critical theorists and those influenced by it concentrating efforts on the change of language as a means of social progress. For many scientists, it does not matter what the issue is called, but whether or not there are real behaviors and policies in place for the change to occur. Both points of view make valid points, but both can also generate problems when taken dogmatically. To assert that language completely constructs reality is to lose touch with the blunt facts of our existence which even the most hardened critical theorist takes for granted, while to assert that language has no role in shaping our view of reality is to be blinded to the social and psychological harm generated by social narratives.