Two functions of language: coordinating action and maintaining social boundaries

The following is a twitter thread I wrote on May 17, 2022. I thought it deserved its own proper post. It’s not exactly easy to read, so if you find it interesting, but you struggle to make sense of it, please comment, start a conversation with me, and I’ll be happy to say more.

Communication is more closely related to action, to change, than to stability, timless truth.

An utterance that doesn’t move me can feel redundant, unnecessary.

An utterance that doesn’t convey movement, contrast, difference within itself can feel empty.

The biggest, grandest, most-encompassing attempts at communicating truth tend to have a hard time finding an audience that’s prepared enough to be ready to hear it, and still far enough away to be attracted to it as something that could help them along on their path.

Language can knit reference points together into previously unconsidered shapes, which is powerful but it also has a weakness: it relies on a distinction between elements that are relevant, which must be made explicit, and everything else.

There is very little you can say about everything, all and any of it, the entirety of reality, without breaking it down into examples and analogies, slices and perspectives. Human minds aren’t particularly efficient at working through implications across multiple levels.

The only mind mechanism known to me that is highly efficient at detecting inconsistencies and working through implications implicitly are emotions. They can come on with an impressive immediacy and quickly shake significant portions into better adapted positions. Impressive.

Moments of deep insight are hard to communicate because they originate as moments of experience, and the space of experience is extremely high-dimensional. “From over here I can see that…”, but we often can’t even confidently specify where that particular “over here” is located.

It’s so common for people to take psychedelics, have a deeply moving experience and come out of it saying something abstract like, “it’s all about love.” It may very well be, dear friend. But they don’t know what you mean. Unless they already knew.

Which leads me to the other application of language: it can mark and maintain the boundary of a place of belonging.

A cell wall and a musical key have in common that they maintain contraints that allow for their (chemical/musical) content to keep enacting characteristic relations among themselves. Language use accomplishes the same for social groups.

The action that is facilitated is 1. the continued enactment of a pattern and 2. the avoidance of enacting competing patterns pulling in different directions. “This, not that.”

Such boundaries can be created intentionally (see cults, companies) or emerge incidentally (see psychedelic culture, the waviness of online discourse, tiktok trends) and fuzzy mixes of both (see political discourse, scientific fringe movements).

That’s it, that’s the thread. I hope you enjoyed it.

Feeling confused but intrigued? Drop me a note. Let’s talk.

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