Beyond Language is a short, but remarkably deep expedition across the landscape of words and language. This exploration reveals the hidden truth that devoted users of words will come to recognize. Our words are at once narrow and expansive, barely adequate to convey any true definition of thoughts, feelings or objective reality, yet simultaneously capable of transforming us beyond the borders of conventional knowledge.
Author Vern R. Walker uses “roadmap” as a metaphor to describe the terrain of words. He takes the reader on a journey across space, time, thought, and meaning to arrive at a metaphorical, philosophical, indefinable, and ultimately unreachable destination. When he speaks of unfathomable subjects (e.g., “definition of God” or “comprehension of the limits of space and time”), when his words, as they must, fail to bring exactitude to indefinable concepts, then the medium, profoundly, is the message.
It is through Walker’s careful use of words that we grow in our appreciation of their power as well as their limitations. He illustrates this paradox by juxtaposing his own prose and poetry. In every chapter, Walker “transliterates” his prose essay into a poem that recapitulates his message in the art form that by its nature transcends common parlance. His poetry helps take the reader a little closer to, if not beyond, the edges of common language and thought, shedding greater light on his thesis. Walker brings us to the borders of knowledge and entices us to step beyond the known and the knowable into the uncharted sea beyond words. It is there—in the universe of unknowing—that transcendence lies.
Walker bases many of his assertions about the nature of language on a slightly anachronistic observation of societal norms that are increasingly challenged by the recent dystopian trend in society. His views are all the more compelling, and more poignant, in a time where common understandings of language and definitions are under attack. He suggests that:
Everyday thinking and science have so far succeeded well by dividing the “outside” world from “inside” minds, “objective” from the “subjective”—and then by measuring the “objective outside” and discounting the “subjective inside.”
That seems no longer to be the case when there is no consensus on the legitimacy of science itself, or of the authenticity of events that once were accepted as factual (e.g., presidential elections). Walker’s thesis may be belied by our brave new world of “alternative facts.”
As difficult as it may be to find common language to agree upon past events, the process gets even more challenging when endeavoring to predict future outcomes. Broad acceptance of a shared reality is an essential part of communication. In a sense, Walker is chillingly prescient when he says:
Predicting is a complicated enterprise … with many things that can go wrong. If observations are sloppy, or measurements are faulty, or inferences incorrect, then actions can be ineffective or even harmful.
Never was this truer than with the calamitous response our nation and the world has had to the COVID-19 virus. Walker, himself, emphasizes that such dichotomies of thought are not a new phenomenon:
When predictive error can be costly, we spend a great deal of time arguing about it. And everyday thinking and science are often at odds. At one time in the past it was everyday thinking that the sky is a dome, the earth is flat, where the sun travels daily around the earth.
Truly, we still fall victim to flat world thinking.
In one section of the book, Walker describes the power of language in developing morality and law. He states:
Communities therefore invent practices and words that help channel their members’ actions, give their members goals, and evaluate methods of achieving those goals. … We design such concepts to promote future survival and protect past achievements. … Whatever the origin story for a set of laws, natural events and human desire create new pressures to change them. … Struggles over laws become contests over the laws governing law-making and enforcement. To the extent that we resolve disputes peacefully, we resolve them using words and concepts, within the practice of argument.
There was a time when numerous common sense declarations of principles, community understandings of language, meaning, and facts might have gone relatively unquestioned. Just how delicately balanced many of those suppositions were is now abundantly clear as the tipping point has been reached and assumptions upon which many communal norms were based have been challenged, subverted, and cast aside. As a result, it’s no longer a given that we will indeed survive, or that past achievements will be maintained. Part of the problem is that what is considered to be an existential planetary threat by some is irrelevant to others (e.g., global warming), or that what is thought to be social progress by one segment of the population is looked at as an abomination by another (e.g., abortion rights). Disputes are increasingly left unresolved as words no longer serve us as they did when there was a base level understanding about what constituted “truth.” Peaceful discourse has too often been replaced by violence. The struggle over law and the power to govern law-making has recently led to restrictions to thwart access to the voting booth.
Note well, Walker focusses on the theory of language at its best, with little of the pessimism that I am voicing in response. As an artist, a writer, and a creative person I take heart in these words by Walker:
… artistic communities show us the limits of language by creating the indescribably beautiful. Art is the emphatic assertion, over and over, that there is more in experience than language can name and thought can understand. Artists refuse to consent to the fiction that thought and language capture all there is.
Walker’s words, that both define and deny the possibility of defining, are equally applied to things as to words themselves (e.g., beauty, justice, Universe, God, and the word we blithely utter to connote self—“I”). Ultimately, these words all have no boundaries, and therefore no meaning. Yet, ironically, we continue to use them in hope of moving closer to their boundaries and meaning. Ultimately, there is no distinction between God and I—which, as the author might suggest, makes no sense and, at the same time, makes perfect sense.
Beyond Language is a compact and intriguing treatise that, like a poem, delivers a message that is greater than the sum of its parts. In this book, where definition ends we are challenged to move beyond words to probe for additional and ultimately unreachable knowing. These words inspire. They elevate our thinking beyond the common place. They challenge us to contemplate the ineffable. In that sense Walker’s words are like prayer.