Categorical Denial: How Words Can Shape What We See


Research into the way different languages divide up the visible color spectrum tells us a lot about the effect of language on perception. When the capacity to remember specific colors is tested using people of different language backgrounds, the way colors are linguistically divided across the visible spectrum of colors impacts the ability of the person to remember the colors.[1] In other words; the words we are taught to categorize the things we see actually affect our ability to see and remember them. What we capture or not in our verbal net often depends on the nature and shape of the categorical boundaries embedded in our language.

The undertones of assumption embedded in linguistics have enormous implications on our ability to perceive and respond effectively to reality and to form an accurate sense of self-awareness. The point here is that words can be a source of clear vision and a memory aid, but they can also be a source of subtle and deceptive blindness unless we clearly understand the standards by which their meaning is established.

Assumptions subtly built into the structure of verbal languages can shape what it is that we see rather than reveal what truly is. These assumptions can hide what would otherwise be visible if reality was the sole standard that shaped the meaning of our words. Our words are often used in a feeble attempt to define reality rather than reality as the source that defines our words. We also sometimes believe and perpetuate these verbal deceits both knowingly and unknowingly.[2] Our unwitting assertions can actually fool us into thinking we know something we do not. They can also hide what would otherwise be visible and useful as a navigation aid. This false vision is the very essence of deception.

Even though many of us would acknowledge that we see a limited scope of the nature of reality, we still sometimes behave as if our limited view is more complete than it is. To understand how unfounded linguistic assumptions shape our vision we can examine the typical cultural use of word “life”. There is no doubt biological life and awareness exist, but to believe with certainty that we know the nature of the border between life and non-life, awareness and non-awareness, is an assumption.

Perhaps it is built on our bio-centric perspective, perhaps it is intellectual laziness or perhaps it rides on the winds of unquestioned cognitive tradition; whatever the case, to divide life from non-life along biological lines is arbitrary when we really think about it. While biological and non-biological seem to be an accurate division based on reality, we do not have enough information about the nature of reality to be so sure of where life resides, and where it does not.  When we accept ideas as truth it can artificially box what we see into categories at the same time it obscures possibilities that would otherwise be visible, which is the very essence of categorical denial.

[1] For an understanding of the history of this research as well as a more recent example of this read “The Linguistic Relativity of Person Cognition: An English-Chinese Comparison” by Curt Hoffman, Ivy Lau, and David Randy Johnson Click here for a pdf version.

[2] For some exploration on why we might use words for so many deceptive reasons read “The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life” by Robert Trivers

4 responses to “Categorical Denial: How Words Can Shape What We See

  1. Very true and very well put.

    • Thank you. I am glad you find it useful. I find it is sometimes very difficult to break through the barrier of category when trying to build nourishing social relationships because we are so confused as a species. I would imagine I am the barrier at times…

  2. Pingback: Wag the dog… on thought and language « ConversationalWordsmith

  3. Pingback: Wag the dog… on thought and language | Carol Louise Wilde

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s