Coordinating Language and Experience

Coordinating Language and Experience

How should we understand the relationship between the contents of human experience and their articulation in language? Must mastery of a language be taken for granted before any particular experience is even available as a possible object of consciousness? Or is it the case that the notion of a pre-linguistic experience is perfectly intelligible?

This first pass, from Joseph Sittler, draws a soft/moderate line. Sittler claims that language serves only as a sufficient condition for some experiences. Language can broaden our field of experience, but he remains silent as to whether some experiences might still remain available to us prior to our induction into language.

We sometimes suppose that people look upon the world and find it beautiful and then look for a language with which to adorn what they behold. I think that is true, but it also works the other way. Sometimes we are partly blinded toward this world, and then someone puts the beauty of which we had not been aware into a gorgeous line. Thereafter we behold it in a new way. We go not only from beholding to language, but we may go from the beauty of language to the enhancement of beholding.

from Gravity & Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsburg, 1986), 84.

In contrast, this second remark, from George Lindbeck, takes a harder line. Here language is a necessary condition for any experience.

There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. …In short, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.

from The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster Press, 1984), 34, 37.

It’s the categorical character of Lindbeck’s claim that makes it such a provocative one. But even if we don’t follow him all the way down that road, and leave open the door to the possibility of there being some pre-conceptual thoughts/pre-linguistic experiences, it’s still the case that a greater linguistic repertoire does expand one’s intellectual, emotional, and volitional capacities. That much should be uncontroversial. Either way, as Lindbeck has labored to demonstrate, this is a question of considerable theological consequence.

All that to say, the following clip offers a serviceable introduction to a version of this same question, though without an eye to its theological horizons. I wanted to share it here anyway because it’s still taking a crack at a question of interest across the humanities and beyond. It comes from the School of Life youtube channel. I won’t endorse all their productions, but I watched this one all the way through.


To take us back to theology. If this thesis has any traction, it should give us reason to reevaluate the (in)dispensability of our inherited theological lexicon whenever we come to asking whether any given term has lost all cultural currency, and therefore should be dropped from our active vocabulary, or whether it remains the best tool at our disposal for bringing to experience its intended referent. Can we really do without talk of, say, confession and absolution, or would our world be made hellishly smaller without them?

If this seems like a topic of interest to you, you can dive deeper into this line of inquiry with the help of Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, (Belknap, 2016).

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