Tuesday, 21 May 2019

On The Impact Of Language On Sensations

Henri Bergson points out that language gives a fixed form to the fleeting sensations that we experience. Here’s an excerpt from his book Time and Free Will (Chapter 2, “The Idea of Duration”):
Our simple sensations, taken in their natural state, are still more fleeting. Such and such a flavour, such and such a scent, pleased me when I was a child though I dislike them to-day. Yet I still give the same name to the sensation experienced, and I speak as if only my taste had changed, whilst the scent and the flavour have remained the same. Thus I again solidify the sensation; and when its changeableness becomes so obvious that I cannot help recognizing it, I abstract this changeableness to give it a name of its own and solidify it in the shape of a taste. But in reality there are neither identical sensations nor multiple tastes: for sensations and tastes seem to me to be objects as soon as I isolate and name them, and in the human soul there are only processes. What I ought to say is that every sensation is altered by repetition, and that if it does not seem to me to change from day to day, it is because I perceive it through the object which is its cause, through the word which translates it. This influence of language on sensation is deeper than is usually thought. Not only does language make us believe in the unchangeableness of our sensations, but it will sometimes deceive us as to the nature of the sensation felt. Thus, when I partake of a dish that is supposed to be exquisite, the name which it bears, suggestive of the approval given to it, comes between my sensation and my consciousness; I may believe that the flavour pleases me when a slight effort of attention would prove the contrary. In short, the word with well-defined outlines, the rough and ready word, which stores up the stable, common, and consequently impersonal element in the impressions of mankind, overwhelms or at least covers over the delicate and fugitive impressions of our individual consciousness. To maintain the struggle on equal terms, the latter ought to express themselves in precise words; but these words, as soon as they were formed, would turn against the sensation which gave birth to them, and, invented to show that the sensation is unstable, they would impose on it their own stability.
According to Bergson, the language that we use to analyze and describe our feelings leads to a distortion of the same feelings. We discern a certain kind of feelings as violent love or a deep melancholy because our immediate consciousness is overwhelmed by our language.

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