Language is a Clever Trap by Carey Smith

Language is a clever trap. Although it is unavoidable and can be used for liberation, we must develop skills to avoid the trappiness of the trap.

Language abstracts our physical surroundings into words. These words can be set within the flow of time, providing us with the concepts of past, present, and future. Words make possible such cognitive activities as plans and goals, memories, critical analysis, etc. With our vivid imaginations and the abstractions words provide us, we have built civilizations!

Gregory Bateson makes a distinction between the physical landscape our bodies inhabit, and the mental landscape in which language originates. The physical landscape is a world of things and is governed by forces and impacts. It is how it is, no matter the words we use to describe it. The mental landscape is a world of relationships and patterns, and is governed by differences and distinctions. The mental landscape is a world of explanation, of metaphor (and what is language if not metaphor?). The mental landscape maps the territory of the physical landscape (and in doing so, there is always something left out.) It is the information that is different that makes the map. But it is merely a map. In the mental landscape, there are no things.

We’ve been admonished to remember that the map is not the territory any more than the menu is the meal. G. Bateson also points out that the name of the thing is not the thing. As Juliet asks, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Describing inanimate objects with words is not so confusing, but using words to describe processes and relationships is a bit more tricky, and lures us deeper into the trap. What does “courage” mean? What about “hope” or “faith”? And there are our culture’s presumed dichotomies: right and wrong, good and evil, justified and immoral. These dichotomies have become effective traps for reducing populations and degrading land, i.e., in the form of wars—all logically and rationally justified using grand words to describe peculiar abstractions unique to a dominant and dominating culture of humanity. As G. Bateson points out, “right” and “wrong” are attributes of relations between items, not attributes of the items themselves, though some people impose upon the world this premise.

G. Bateson also asserts: “If we want to be able to talk about the living world (and ourselves), we need to master the discipline of descriptions and references in this curious language that has no things in it but only differences and relationships. Only if we do so will we be able to think sensibly about the matrix in which we live, and only then will we recognize our affinity with the rest of the world and deal with it ethically and responsibly. Not only do we misread and mistreat meadows, oceans, and organisms of all kinds, but our mistreatments of each other are based on errors of the general order of not knowing what we are dealing with, or acting in ways that violate the communicative web.”

Making distinctions deepens understanding in an abstract way. It seems to tie into innate human desires. We actively create our reality. We can remark, “This is what I felt,” and no matter what explanation or description follows, the “fact” of the sensation remains the same. The description, the metaphor, is as likely to enhance understanding as it is to create further confusion. I’m not sure what point there is in describing feelings or sensations which have no handy descriptive words, which have no need for explanation—after all, linear cause and effect is an oddity. As G. Bateson points out, “our senses can only tell us at best what was so a moment ago. We do in fact read the causal sequence backwards.” Maybe the point in attempting explanation is to share experiences, to realize that the limits the prevailing logic places upon our understanding of the world we inhabit are unnecessary, to enable us (as a culture) to realize (as in to make real) other choices, to enable different realities, founded on human desires and our ability to be actively responsible—and free—to make our own choices.

We use language (necessarily originating in the mental world) to describe the physical world. In fact, our language is so thing oriented that we tend to thing ize words that aren’t concrete nouns. “The future”, “skills”, “tomorrow”—these words are all treated as things, and yet they are not; they are processes. This alters our perceptions of what is “real”. (The root of the word “real” comes from a word that means “thing”.) Sometimes we can mistake cause and effect in physical relationships (I drop a rock on my foot; as a result, it hurts) for those in logical arguments, where linear process is not valid. This often leads us to reach conclusions that we should not (Native Americans do not have souls; therefore, as good Christians, we can kill them for being on “our” land and still get into heaven).

Anything said is said by an observer….with a blind spot—to an observer…with a blind spot. Remember this! Reality is tenuous; it is what we make it. We have a greater hold on the air that fills our lungs than the reality that is perceived by our senses and processed through our brains and shared through language. We can perceive the physical landscape, but as we make try to make sense of it, we alter the reality that we perceive. We can attempt to be as objective as possible, but as G. Bateson points out, “Being objective means to look very hard at those things which you choose to look at. …All experience is subjective.” We cannot rely on ourselves to generate any kind of undeniable “truth”. And yet, we make that attempt and convince ourselves we have succeeded.

G. Bateson calls this our epistemology. “Your machinery of perception, how you perceive, is governed by a system of presuppositions I call your epistemology: a whole philosophy deep in your mind but beyond your consciousness.” He states, “The propositions ‘I look’ and ‘I see’ have a sort of validity different from that of any conclusion about the world outside my skin. ‘I see a sun rising’ is different than ‘There is a sun.’ The extrapolation of perception to the outside world is always unsure and must be supported by faith.”

Gregory Bateson and his daughter Mary Catherine provide some food for thought when it comes to metaphor and its use in language and perception. M. C. Bateson: “Human beings have, for centuries, used metaphors in thinking about time that also describe objects in space. …Metaphors like these allow people to see pattern in their lives, brave beginnings and despairing falls, changes in direction, brief crescendos, and long sections of monotony. Wherever there is pattern there can be framework for meaning.”

G. Bateson: “ It is because a metaphor has multiple parts that we can use it to think with. …Of all available metaphors, the most central and salient, available to all human beings, is the self. Here I mean not only the psychological construct of the ‘self,’ but the entire being, psyche and soma, for each of us is the meeting place of Creatura [the landscape of consciousness] and Pleroma [the physical landscape]. Central to the net of metaphor through which we recognize and respond to the world is the experience of the self and the possibility of reference to it.”

Landscapes of consciousness have varied throughout history, as language reflects. For example, the Greek word “augoeides” refers to one’s personal spirit guide, and in Greek culture of the time, it was well accepted that one would at some point in one’s life acquire a spirit guide to provide direction and insight. The word genius also tells of a past time where it was known (assumed to be a fact) that a spirit would descent upon a person and gifts of art would pour forth (this word is also the root of the word genie). What would our current logic look like if these words were a part of our common dialect today? Our culture and available words affect our perceptions. If one were to hear a voice talking to them having grown up in Greek culture, it would seem normal. In our culture, it is a sign of psychosis.

Personally, I am well aware of the physical landscape in which I live, but before encountering the distinction of the physical and mental landscapes, I had not given much thought to the mental world, this landscape of consciousness. What kind of map can I construct for myself to navigate with? How can I explore—what questions do I ask, and if I am answered, will I recognize it as such? I want to be quite clear: my map is solely for me, for the me of now. Your map is solely for you. Billy Graham may think his map is quite clear for all Southern Baptists, but he is mistaken. Our maps are not the territory. Our maps provide us a tool to navigate and understand, but they are limited in this role.

We can explore the landscape of consciousness using the perception faculty of our mindbody, and understand it without translating it into words. “Understand” might not be the right word; perhaps “experience”. We can incorporate the experience as an answer to a (possibly inarticulated) question. G. Bateson defines a question as a state of readiness to receive a certain piece of information. I live my life as a continual question. As living questions, we are in a state of readiness for certain pieces of information, and we can interact with all else, also in a certain state of readiness. Perhaps that is what “living in the present” means, or contains—the readiness to experience and to perceive, with an equal readiness to create and provide abundance (also information, as it is difference which makes it onto the map, and creating the new is certainly creating a difference).

Language is a clever trap, and creating our own escape hatches and trap doors seems necessary. Can we use the benefits of language, while not cutting ourselves short? One escape hatch is nonbelief. I’m no nihilist, but I do not cling to belief about much of anything. I have what are referred to as “temporary truths”—my worldview according to the me of now, and that worldview is subject to constant change. (And if there were any point in thanking goddess for that skill, I would be doing so.) Believing in nothing as real enables all to be possible, an original meaning of “skepticism”. It allows for perceptions to be acknowledged without placing them into recognizable categories, such as right and wrong. It allows for an easier time of living in the now. As Larry Richards points out, “Beliefs are viewed as the anchors that keep us centered, but the word ‘belief’ points to truth.” He asks, “Instead of our beliefs, what are our passions?” Richards also says that if we don’t want “truths” like war, we should think of them as temporary, and I might add, not a product of being human, but of living in the increasingly oppressive paradigm we perceive ourselves to be stuck with.

Humans find themselves at the interface between the physical world and the mental world. In fact, we may say that humans with our tools ARE the interface. Language is our primary tool, but I think imagination and dreaming, our abilities to abstract and adduct, and our subsequent self awareness and consciousness complement language in our tool box.

Our access to words influences our perceptions. How can we perceive what we do not have the words to filter our experiences through? It riles me that we have a multitude of words to describe commodities, but none for the feeling I get when I feel intensely alive—fully in awe of life and in love with myself, small part of it that I am. Or the feeling that I am inspired, breathing the breath of the holy spirit. Or what about the kinds of orgasms that are so intense it feels like heaven’s about to crack open? Why do those words not exist? Our words seem to have hypnotized us into thinking this—the reality we’ve been taught to perceive—is the one and only reality, and the ways in which we’ve been taught to perceive it are the only valid ways of processing our perceptions. If we and our language do indeed have that much influence, why not alter our perceptions by dropping the veil of comprehension, and instead, wander around in this timeless eternity of now, acknowledging our direct perceptions?

Living in language allows us temporary and multiple realities. As Richards states, “Recollection does not have to be in the past. Memory can be a strategy for adapting in the always changing present. …Clocks do not have to be external and fixed. Crafting time can be a strategy for generating alternatives and creating choice.” We have a biological time that moves in rhythms that are not the same as those on a clock. Time is something we take for granted as “real,” but is not. It interferes with our own natural rhythmic cycles if we have lives that must adhere to the time clock. This is an example of multiple realities, a layering of realities, like in a hearty sandwich.

Our words and the actions they invoke affect our abilities to live as the mammals we are on a very primal level. Susan Parenti, a teacher at the School for Designing a Society, states: “Our culture takes necessities (like shelter, food, etc.) and makes them property. Property in our culture is violently defended.” What a different culture we would reside in if this were not the case! Can you imagine everyone in our communities having enough without question as to whose property is being used? It is our use of the particular current language that shapes these views of reality, and it is we who continue to hold up the prevailing logic as true by how we choose to act each day. If we want a different reality, continuing to make the choice to repeat history ad nauseum is not going to enable that to happen. As it is, many people feel trapped, permanently in a rut. I don’t want to see the ice caps melt any more than the next mother, but what to do?

A hefty part of this, I assert, is using our imaginations to develop solutions that are beyond what has ever been tried before. It is examining our long held “truths”, and parting with that which does not make sense. Our current paradigm seemed to work well in the 1950’s, when our country was abundant with wealth and resources and hope for the future. It does not make sense now, and we innately know that. However, instead of using the tools in our toolkit (language, intelligence, imagination), and focusing on what matters, humans in our culture tend to busy themselves with work, school, shopping and screen. This is a problem. As M. C. Bateson notes, “We often face the choice between following scripts that are no longer adequate and doing without.” The task before us is to imagine and REALize a culture which invites unborn generations into a life worth living. We are inventing the future. As Kurt Vonnegut admonished, “We should be careful what we pretend because we become what we pretend.”

I agree with G. Bateson’s summation of our collective future: “What we believe ourselves to be should be compatible with what we believe of the world around us. …[We] should be in step with how we conduct our civilization, and this should in turn be in step with the actual workings of living systems. …We know only a little bit about the direction in which the changes are taking place, but nothing about where the changes will end up. We have to have in mind not an orthodoxy but a wide and compassionate recognition of the storm of ideas in which we are all living and in which we must make our nests …as best we can.”

M. C. Bateson concludes: “Our minds are cluttered with obsolete metaphors. …In the search for new metaphors we will need to emphasize the way lives mesh, transmitting direction and power. …The decisions we make cannot be those of ‘economic man,’ rationally and shortsightedly pursuing self interest, but those of an artist, composing a future of grace and truth. We will need new kinds of listening and looking to be open to new styles and harmonies. …Perhaps the arts can teach us how to include both individual fulfillment and a greater harmony within a single composition.”

Inventing a future at first seems to be a daunting task. For those of us raised in passivity, from tv watching to regurgitating known facts in public schools, creation is something foreign and challenging. However, using our creativity to enhance our own lives and make our desires for beauty known and common is a gift we should give ourselves—need to give ourselves. We create this world and its injustice whether we actively make choices or not, because we never escape from choice. So why not make choices that invite a reality worth living?

Personally, I find this outlook on life terribly and awesomely exciting and empowering. I enjoy asking myself: “What are my desires? How can I make them my reality?” I enjoy looking at systems that I disagree with, finding their soft underbellies, and finding ways to encourage their obsolescence by creating dynamics which encourage others to escape this oppressive reality. There is no better time than the now we find ourselves adrift within to have these conversations.


I have been an occasional student at the School for Designing a Society in Urbana, Illinois, for this past school year. I have not ever before encountered a place of such intellectual and creative stimulation. For most, it is not common in our everyday lives to have conversations that matter—conversations that ask us to formulate our desires and ask what actions we may take to realize them. And yet, this is the focus of the school, with an emphasis on composing experiments, composing ourselves, and bringing into the light a society worth putting our efforts into.

I have been most interested in language, as I am a writer, and have been thrilled at the opportunities of new interaction with a subject I thought I knew plenty about. As teacher Susan Parenti says: “We want to address language: how we speak and how language speaks us. Inherited linguistic patterns form one of the strong arms of a social system, often hiding and justifying oppressive structures while ruling out the creation of alternatives to these. This strong arm is frequently left unexamined or considered to be of minor importance. In this school, while studying a subject, discussing an event, making a decision, we will squint nervously at the language used, prodding each other into moments of created eloquence.”

More information about the School for Designing a Society can be found at:


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