Language, Models and Reality


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In the beginning was the word…” The first line of the Gospel of John is a phrase many readers will be familiar with, and one that uses the metaphor of ‘the word’ to represent God—an idea philosophers, scientists, theologians and thinkers continue to debate. What happens next is that all things come to be, life, and light shining through darkness. But first, of all things, was the word. Why choose ‘the word’ as a metaphor? Could it be because words and language are the most vital model we have for understanding and reshaping our reality? Or is there more to it than that?

 

In an earlier post, I talked about words and language as a model – an imperfect representation of something else that is in some way useful. Language is the basis of our own individual, internal reasoning or ‘way of thinking’ because it enables us to describe the world around and within us. We create definitions that convey the form, breadth and identity of everything. We compare and contrast, form relationships and make associations to help better understand our world and form our internal frames of reference.

 

Language also forms the basis of our interactions with our environment and the people within it. We use it to communicate complex social structures and our place within them, to understand and to be understood, to resolve disputes, and to provoke action. Language as a model is so powerful that words alone can move human beings to feel fear, anger or disgust; it can be the catalyst for positive change or can start wars. Through storytelling we share our experiences of the world as we see it, as well as our vision of what might be possible. Language can not only describe but also shape our reality, manipulating other peoples’ idea of the truth. But in order to do that effectively and with intent, we need to be confident that the way we interpret language is consistent with those whom we seek to influence.

 

Pattern Language

Gordon Pask, eminent Cyberneticist, did a tremendous amount of work on conversations and ‘Conversation Theory.’ One important conclusion, paraphrased, is that in order to understand we must agree. For example, if we can agree the meaning and context of the word ‘green,’ I will understand what you mean when you say ‘green’. That both of us use a word ‘green’ is not enough – many cultures would include colours I see as ‘blue’ with their definition of green – we must agree on the precise meanings of words in order to fully understand. Although this sounds like a simple concept, our experience of language in a variety of organisations tells us it is not always one meaning that is assured, leading to conflicts, costs and wasted time and effort.

 

If we are not to assume linguistic agreement – and we should not – we must establish it through conversation. Through ongoing conversations in our social groupings over time we form our own unique languages to facilitate our lives together, building a sense of community, culture and identity for ourselves.

 

Christopher Alexander, a master of the architectural world, describes the notion of a ‘Pattern Language’: In a town with a living language, the pattern language is so widely shared that everyone can use it. When the language is shared, the individual patterns in the language are profound. We have, of course, our own pattern language at InnovationArts – you will be getting a sense of some of it through these blog posts – and find different pattern languages in every organisation with whom we work. Chances are you can identify a pattern language in your own organisation and see clearly how it is distinct from other organisations you’ve encountered, as well as how it differs from the pattern language of your own family and social circle.

 

Patterns in language are always simple – complex patterns cannot survive the slow transmission from person to person. They are also comprehensive, covering the whole of life as we know it. In this way, we are able to reflect and interact around form, scope, identity and our relationship to our environment – let’s call it ‘context’ – and take a stance as to where we fit. As a group of individuals we use language to model our ‘reality’.

 

Language and Reality

Let’s come back to models. When we talk about reality, we are talking about the things we know to be true. Language, dialogue and conversation give us the potential to build and share our knowledge. But how much of our ‘knowledge’ really is the truth and how much, at best, is just a model that is good enough for now?

 

We exist in a constant cycle of observation, reflection and interpretation, and as we change our perspectives our language adapts. The words we use are fundamental in articulating our view of reality and in turn become a living, evolving component of the complex systems in which we operate. The opposite can also be true: when you want to change ‘reality’ and have a new beginning, what better place to start than with ‘the word’? By intentionally shaping our pattern language we can use it to achieve our ambitions – personal, organisational and societal.

 

By thinking about language as supporting not ‘reality’ but ‘possibility’, it will help you understand why at Innovation Arts we aim to be scrupulous in the way we use language in all our work, and the powerful role words play in influencing the possible.

 

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