Previous: Words and ideasNext: the language-agencyContents

Society of Mind

19.1 the roots of intention

The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. —St. John

Language builds things in our minds. Yet words themselves can't be the substance of our thoughts. They have no meanings by themselves; they're only special sorts of marks or sounds. If we're to understand how language works, we must discard the usual view that words denote or represent, or designate; instead, their function is control: each word makes various agents change what various other agents do. If we want to understand how language works, we must never forget that our thinking-in-words reveals only a fragment of the mind's activity.

We often seem to think in words. Yet we do this with no conscious sense of where and why those words originate or how they then proceed to influence our further thoughts and what we subsequently do. Our inner monologues and dialogues proceed without any effort, deliberation, or sense of how they're done. Now you might argue that you do know what brings those words to mind — in the sense that they are how you express your intentions and ideas. But that amounts to the same thing — since your intentions, too, appear to come and go in ways you do not understand. Suppose, for example, that at a certain moment you find you want to leave the room. Then, naturally, you'd look for the door. And this involves two mysteries:

What made you want to leave the room? Was it simply that you became tired of staying in that room? Was it because you remembered something else you had to do? Whatever reasons come to mind, you still must ask what led to them. The further back you trace your thoughts, the vaguer seem those causal chains.

The other side of the mystery is that we are equally ignorant of

how we respond to our own intentions. Given a desire to leave the room, what led you to the thought of door? You only know that first you thought, It's time to go, and then you thought, Where is the door?

We're all so used to this that we regard it as completely natural. Yet we have barely any sense of why each thought follows the last. What connects the idea of leaving with the idea of door? Does this result from some direct connection between two partial states of mind, of leaving and of door? Does it involve some sort of less direct connection, not between those states themselves, but only between some signals that somehow represent those states? Or is it the product of yet more complex mechanisms?

Our introspective abilities are too weak to answer such questions. The words we think seem to hover in some insubstantial interface wherein we understand neither the origins of the symbol-signs that seem to express our desires nor the destinations wherein they lead to actions and accomplishments. This is why words and images seem so magical: they work without our knowing how or why. At one moment a word can seem enormously meaningful; at the next moment it can seem no more than a sequence of sounds. And this is as it should be. It is the underlying emptiness of words that gives them their potential versatility. The less there is in a treasure chest, the more you'll be able to put in it.