“What we have forgotten is that thoughts and words are conventions, and that it is fatal to take conventions too seriously. A convention is a social convenience, as, for example, money … but it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth … In somewhat the same way, thoughts, ideas and words are “coins” for real things.” -Alan Watts
Take the word tree, for example. The word tree means the thing we refer to as “tree.” But it really only tries to mean that- that is, it does not actually mean or define the thing we are referring to when we say the word “tree.” Even the words, “the thing referred to as tree” does not come close to an “actual tree,” nor does it remove us from the limits of definitions or bring us a real understanding of “the thing referred to as tree.” Neither does the phrase “actual tree.” Do you see what I mean?
The word tree does not define tree, or determine what tree is. Even if we define the word tree, that definition points to other words and definitions that happen to fall into the same limitation or pitfall. For example, Dictionary.com says that tree is: “A plant having a permanently woody main stem or trunk, ordinarily growing to a considerable height, and usually developing branches at some distance from the ground.” Whereas I know what Dictionary.com means, those words do not make up what a tree is. But again, we are in the wordy pitfall, because me using the phrase, “what a tree is,” will not ever be what a tree really is, except insofar as it’s a concept pointing to something real. What the word tree points to is something that can only be experienced. Some might say it cannot ever be named: “Tathata,” means “suchness” or “thusness” in Sanskrit. Tahata refers to the indescribable nature of things- their essence.
But words not only attempt and fail to define; they can even prevent genuine experiencing. Concepts thus have an obstructive power. Names for real things like trees obscure and obstruct the experience of trees when words and their definitions act in the mind as if they are the thing they represent. It’s a very subtle act. It gains strength through education. We get deeper into word-games and complex meaning constructs and society begins to reward us the better they play such games. Genuine experiencing of things, (which we do all the time and which is its own reward) takes a secondary social position to conceptual games. Why does this matter? Because there is a social pressure exerted on people to continue to act as of the word tree meant “actual tree.”
This is what Alan Watts means by words as social conventions. Rather than being a purely individual experience, concepts like “tree” are socially constructed- and belief in them is socially enforced. Breaking from social conventions- whether those conventions be behaviours or concepts- means not only freeing ourselves from the individual psychological effects, but transforming one’s relationship to social meaning. The obstructive power of concepts is reinforced in social ways- and some concepts, like “self” and “happiness” are far more difficult to break away from, than are more innocuous concepts like “tree.”
Whereas the experience of a tree is full and satisfying, the concept of tree, no matter how complex, is relatively shallow and inaccurate. The concept of “tree” is incomparable to falling asleep under a large oak with your partner, staring up at an 800 year old sequoia, or climbing trees as a child. Conceptual objects have a “let’s get down to business” flavour, whereas the actual experience of things have a childish, playful aspect that needs no describing. How many teachers teach the “essence of tree” rather than “definition of tree” to their students? How many children know the “essence of tree” more so than their teachers? The essence of tree comes from being around trees and other people who have a sense of trees.
Other terms strengthen the power of concepts to act as if they were more than concepts. “Tree” is fairly straightforward. Think, however, of the word “true.” “True” refers not only to the thing referred to by the word, it also makes a statement about words themselves, since “true” is a word claiming to do the one thing words cannot ever do: to truly represent their objects. “True” claims to exclude itself from the pitfall of all concepts I am describing- their limitations and obstructive power. Because it is impossible to avoid this pitfall, words such as “true” end up playing a very important social function- and that is to maintain the definitional power of words in general. “True” is thus a “word about words” or a “concept about concepts” empowering our imagination about the languaged world in which we find ourselves. Words like “true” are an important part of the reason why words- and the entire conceptual framework of language- are mistaken to be accurate representations. Yet the word “true” is not any more true than the word “tree” is a tree.
Happiness is another word with complex and seductive definitions that act like they are real. Whereas “tree” only promises-yet-obstructs a full experience of trees, “happiness” has the potential to promise yet obstruct a full experience of happiness. Mistaking “happiness the concept” for happiness the experience is more deceptive and unfriendly than doing so for “tree.” It can be like a cruel joke. This is where the most career, status and materially focused westerners find themselves every single day. This is not new territory, but stressing the power of concepts is important, especially for words like happiness or truth, for it is entirely possible to “live for happiness” and “live for truth” yet still find oneself miserable and fraudulent. Furthermore, unlike “tree,” concepts such as “truth” and “happiness” invite others to define them in ways that suit their interests rather than ours…but this is a topic for another discussion.
Another powerful obstruction stemming from language is contained in grammar and structure of phrases. A perfect example is the phrase, “our experience of the world around us.” The phrase differentiates subject and object, where the subject carries out the action (in this case, “our experience”) and the object is the thing upon which the action is carried out (in this case, “the world around us”). Yet if this grammatical difference between subject and object is taken for reality, which it most often is, it can really mess with us. It sets up a perception- a delusion, really- where “us” and “the world around us” are two very different things. No other organism suffers this fate. This basic grammatical function- to separate subject and object, innocent as it may seem- can create a psychological error where people feel like they are separate from the rest of life: “Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination (Alan Watts).” Alan Watts spends a great deal of time talking about the power of this basic grammatical function, and the psychological error it sets up.
The final concept I want to discuss is the concept of self. If concepts like truth and happiness can obstruct the experience of truth and happiness, then imagine what power the concept of self would have in obstructing. What consequence? In the same way that “tree” proposes yet fails to be actual tree, “self” acts as if it is who I am, yet fails to actually be me. Almost all discussions about human beings make “self” the assumed starting point, without acknowledging the pitfall here described. Like the concept of tree, self attempts to define and make real something that can only be experienced- like this entire discussion, which of course is still plagued with the basic problem being discussed. In the sentence, “self is not who I really am,” the word “self” and the phrase “who I really am” both fall into the pitfall.
None of these statements overcome the basic problem with language I am discussing with the concept of “tree.” In fact this whole little essay is like a ball bearing rolling around a tin drum, believing it was the earth rolling around the heavens. Almost all genuine experiences are initially obstructed in this way. Moreover, others who are strongly obstructed often draw others in; those who are less obstructed can often see beyond others’ conceptual selves first. A sense of ‘tree” is better wrought by hanging around a group of children climbing trees, than by asking a tree specialist what he thinks a tree really is. The same holds true for seeking an experience of self. And whereas developing a genuine experience of actual trees is not strongly guarded by a thousand and one different arguments, developing a genuine experience of self is one of our culture’s greatest taboos.
If someone were to say, “It is true that Picasso was a great painter,” this is only true within a conceptual construct. An art historian could spend hours describing in interesting ways why Picasso is great, but the greatness of an actual painting by Picasso can only be experienced.