Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Words are Deeds

Image from Jemima's Journal

"Words are deeds." This quote from Wittgenstein adorns the door of David Kaplan's office in the UCLA Philosophy department. But what does it mean?

Words are deeds because words change the world. They are not simply resounding sounds, nor are they merely matters of intention. When I ask you to pass me a pencil and you do, my words have altered the world. When I say words that call certain thoughts to your mind, my words have altered you. Of course, this also means your words can alter me. Indeed, over time words can transform us.

This is because we are, in the words of my friend Josh Charles, "captivated by language." It's not simply that we speak and listen, words are our world. Indeed, I believe that, at least on a conscious level, we even sense and emote through our words. My visual field is filled with a wealth of sensory information, but I hone in on part of it, and this happens in a large part by how I identify it. That is a person, that is a chair. These categories are linguistic. When I feel an emotion, say fear (at least if it is rational fear), it is not mere affect, but has semantic content. There is something which presents danger to me. Once again, categories. Language.

A further truth is that these words often shape us in ways we don't even realize. Words, in their fullest capacity, are not private entities. Neither you nor I, through our intentions, decide the meanings of our words, if that were the case we could not communicate. Instead, words are born out of community, out of interaction, and they therefore, in some sense, have a life of their own. This is why, if I say something insulting, it doesn't necessarily make it not hurt that I didn't intend it to be insulting. Words have their own power.

I've believed this for some time, but something has recently called to my attention just how true this is. My friends Judie and Josh1 began to criticize me for calling my female peers "girls." I'd talk about hanging out with a girl, being interested in a girl, etc.

"You mean a woman," they would say. So, out of respect for them, I started to work on calling my female peers women. I didn't really think much of it, after all, it was just a word. I didn't intend by "girl" to mean that they weren't mature, it's just how modern Americans talk. But a funny thing happened, as I made this change, and it took some effort, as overcoming any habit will, I found my psychology starting to change. The way I looked at my peers genuinely altered. They are adults, not children. What is more, it helped me to recognize that I am an adult. They are women. I am a man.

Again, there was no conscious attachment of "child' to my calling them "girls," but on some level my very use of that word shaped my world. The transition to calling them "women" had a similarly powerful effect.

So when you use words, think about them. They are far more potent than you realize. Words are your world. Words are deeds.
1. I would very much like to thank Judie and Josh for getting on my case about my choice of words.