Can We Understand Meaning Without Language?

Is language fundamental to our understanding and interpretation of experiences? Can something be experienced as meaningful without our participation in a language-world and its structures of meaning? Would we even consider something an experience if we couldn’t make sense (i.e., create a meaningful unity relying on meaning structures we inhabit) of that “something” we encountered? Here is a quote with some insightful thoughts about these questions by hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer from his monumental work “Truth and Method”.

“Indeed, language often seems ill suited to express what we feel. In the face of the overwhelming presence of works of art, the task of expressing in words what they say to us seems like an infinite and hopeless undertaking. The fact that our desire and capacity to understand always go beyond any statement that we can make seems like a critique of language. But this does not alter the fundamental priority of language. The possibilities of our knowledge seem to be far more individual than the possibilities of expression offered by language. Faced with the socially motivated tendency toward uniformity with which language forces understanding into particular schematic forms which hem us in, our desire for knowledge tries to escape from these schematizations and predecisions. However, the critical superiority which we claim over language pertains not to the conventions of verbal expression but to the conventions of meaning that have become sedimented in language. Thus that superiority says nothing against the essential connection between understanding and language. In fact it confirms this connection. For all critique that rises above the schematism of our statements in order to understand finds its expression in the form of language. Hence language always forestalls any objection to its jurisdiction.”

Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method

The way I see it is this: when we are very young, before learning any language, we already engage in interactions with our surroundings, and we learn from these relations. There is a layer of understanding and interpretation we explore in this purely physical way. Indeed, were this not the case and in the absence of a broad-ranging hard-wired instinctual “programming”, we would lack the ability to adapt our behaviour for several years! However, once we learn a language, any language (including complex sign languages), we enter a new world of meaning structures. This world shapes our thought without our realizing it, and, just like in a good fairytale, legend or myth, once the hero embarks on his journey and leaves home, he will never be the same. There is no turning “back”, even if he returns – the journey has changed him.

keep exploring!

3 thoughts on “Can We Understand Meaning Without Language?

    1. Thanks for your comment, I hope you will enjoy reading some of his works. I find Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics very interesting, especially his exploration of the phenomenon of understanding.

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