Some years ago I prepared a talk that was never delivered in full. Recently I rediscovered my notes and they seemed worth pulling together into a sequence of posts. So, here it starts.
The Limits of Language
A good place to start is with a brain-teaser that’s even older than I am.
You are a prisoner in a room with two doors and two guards. One of the doors will guide you to freedom and behind the other is a hangman – you don’t know which is which.
One of the guards always tells the truth and the other always lies. You don’t know which one is the truth-teller or the liar either.
You have to choose and open one of these doors, but you can only ask a single question to one of the guards.
What do you ask so you can pick the door to freedom?
This little puzzle, which you can find at this link (do not click if you want to work out the answer for yourself – I’ll be including it at the end of the last post anyway), contains the three elements we are going to be most concerned about: reality, minds (or selves) and language. It won’t have escaped your notice, though, that in the puzzle all of these are rather simplified: they’re basically binary. Two doors and two guards.
Our reality is more spectral both in the sense of ghostly and along dimensions rather than in boxes. Our minds are more subtly diverse. Our language is capable of infinite variations. But it’s a good lead in because in the puzzle we have to do in simple form what we are constantly seeking to do in more complex ways with words in the real world of things and people: relate to others and develop a useful model of the world as it is. And all of these endeavours have a great deal to do with identity in the sense of who we think we are and our assessment of others as well.
Language though is anything but a straightforward ally in this endeavour. Graves was very suspicious of it:
There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But concluded that we couldn’t stay sane without it:
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
. . . . .
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
And a system of psychotherapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: ACT), which draws on many traditions of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, shares this same suspicion about language and seeks to undermine our simple confidence in it in various ways. For instance they point out that it can lead to such circular and irresolvable torments as:
This statement is false.
You have only to ponder that for a few seconds to realise there is no way out!
What have the Bahá’í Writings to say about language?
People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.
Language is cast here in terms that summon up the idea of ‘veils’ as used in the sense of things that come between us and the truth.
Let not names shut you out as by a veil from Him Who is their Lord, even the name of Prophet, for such a name is but a creation of His utterance.
Obviously names are not all there is to language. ACT uses language to cover all symbolic activity. In which case names are an important subset of that category as they are used to label everything we know, can imagine or conceive. They are also, in one of their main aspects, the most concrete part of our vocabulary and you would think the least treacherous of all!
When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.
And what is true for things outside us is even truer for what lies inside:
LXXXII. Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.
The same would apply to those other aspects of our character referred to by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, i.e. the inherited and the acquired (if we assume that the soul is the innate part).
To describe this, and the view of many spiritual traditions, as radically different from any conventional worldly view would be an understatement. Language is seen as potentially dangerous even lethal. Bahá’u’lláh wrote:
The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.
The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.
And as if that were not enough:
. . . the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endure a century.
If I had more spiritual insight I might well be reduced to silence forthwith. I am certainly forced to give serious thought to my speech and why and how I use it. I am also forced to revise my view of silence, something not much valued in our culture.
What can silence do? What happens when we still the chatter of the prosy mind?
Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.
It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .
Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .
Next time the issue of self and identity.
 This post does not focus at all on some central and important aspects of this theme, for example the Word of God, backbiting, the new etiquette of expression including consultation, and criticism because that would be cramming too much in and I have already dealt with two of them in detail elsewhere (see links above) and others more incidentally.
 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (TB) Haifa 1978: page 58.
 Epistle to the Son of the Wolf: page 176.
 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422.
 Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh
 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 56.
 Kitáb-i-Íqán: (KI) UK 1982 page 123-124)
 This is of course not to argue that we should not meditate upon the Word of God but indicating that to do so effectively we will need to still the distracting chatter of the mind.
 Paris Talks pages 174-176.