Language, sensorimotor metaphors & ill-defined questions

Playing seriously with words, it turns out that to comprehend an idea, or to “grasp” it, recalls the same action as to firmly hold a thing, namely, to grasp that thing. We might say we “understand” something when are placed under its full influence and power, namely, when we stand under it. To “see” means both to perceive with your physical eyes as well as to discern or deduce after reflection, expressing comprehension. This simple observation offers a provocative hypothesis about the origins of human language as necessarily embodied language, in which the meaning of abstract ideas emerged from sensorimotor metaphors.

In poetry -the highest expression of human language- actions, images and words are intensely and intimately intertwined. The poet, while trying to express and impress a whole complex personal experience on the reader, faces a unique and practically impossible task. The reader, failing to understand all that is behind the poet’s words, is provided with an image of it, one that is tangible and distinct enough that ideas seem to be extended like objects in space. From this point of view, words and sounds are neither the cause nor the effect of meaning. They are part of it. They form it in terms of space and time by means of images and rhythm, respectively. We express ourselves by means of words and think in terms of space. The interweaving of our sensorimotor capacities, our conception of time and space, and the unfolding of language is patent.

These reflections, despite shedding some light, raise more questions than those they may answer. This is because of the ill-defined nature of our endeavour, namely, to reduce what is irreducible: the manifestation of human consciousness into a computational problem. This can nevertheless be a departure point from to succeed in opening the doorways of meaning. Nothing prevents us from enquiring about the measurable nature of ideas as conveyed in language forms, despite then being left with nothing but their quantitative correlates devoid of any true qualitative element.

Ironically, the very same thing that we had sought to eliminate in the first place, and strove to keep out of the picture during our scientific detour, is precisely what we expect to emerge and what we fail to see fully at the end. Perhaps by attempting such impossible feats we shall become more aware of the necessity to lessen the duality (and the obscure confusion) between quality and quantity. Paraphrasing Bergson, it seems that language borrows from text and sound the meaning on which it feeds and restores it to them in the form of a dynamic structure which it has stamped with its own freedom. As the philosopher would put it, instead of seeking to solve the question, we shall show the mistake of those who ask it.