Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Who are we? A view from linguistics.


Our sense of who and what we are determines how we relate to the world. In a prior post I stuck a little toe into the great sea of language to illustrate a point of significance regarding the matter of identity. Today I want to further the discussion by beginning with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (26 November 1857—22 February 1913). He is known as the founding father of semiotics—the study of signs and symbols as elements of communication behavior. His concept of the related chain of sign/signifier/signified/referent, forms the core of this field of study. In brief, Saussure noted that something signified (a thing) is represented as a sign (a coded language form) by a signifier (a person) in terms of references to the thing. For example: the color black (a thing) must have a reference or contrast to something different from black (perhaps the color white) to be signified or detected. Once signified in a differentiated way from the referent, the signifier can then create a sign (the word “black”) to represent what has been signified.

If there is nothing signified, the entire language chain collapses since a sign can’t be established. We can’t create a language form other than to sign what is missing. For example if there is no thing to be signified the best we can do is to create a sign called no thing or nothing, to signify the lack of a thing. Since nothing is signified, the validity of a signifier is brought into question. Then we would have a no-signifier. In essence the principle of signifier and signified must come and go together in matching cases. Nothing signified, no signifier. Something signified, signifier. That awareness is the beginning of language and communications and broadly acknowledged throughout the realm of linguistics.

This chain is quite similar to the Zen chain of causation in the following way: thing, thought, thinker; No thing, no thought, no thinker. To remove any one of these, causes the chain to collapse. For example a thinker only has meaning in reference to what a thinker does: thinks. If there is no thinking then the meaning of thinker is meaningless. Remove a thing and there is nothing (no thing) and thus no thought. The central Zen question concerns the identity of “thinker.” Is a thinker who we imagine our self to be? The ordinary presumption is yes: we are a thinker who thinks thoughts. Rene Descarte established this seeming fact with his now famous, “I think therefore I am.” But this is an impossibility since when we stop thinking we don’t disappear even though the thinker does, thus the real us, and a coming and going thinker must be two different matters.

What Saussure brought to the realm of language formation, Zen brings to the realm of identity formation. And the conclusion of Zen is that we—the true you and me are independent of a vacillating signifier/sign we call an ego. Our true identity is solid and doesn’t move because while things change, the referent is no change since we are not an objective thing. Instead we are a subjective non-thing. And how is this awareness established? Through the Zen practice of not thinking which reveals the true, never-leaving you and me. The image of us (sign) is meaningless without something signified (thought), thus there is no signifier, which is a central premise of Zen: no self (at least in sign form). Our true non-sign self arises when there is no thought. We are the one signifying the lack of thought as well as the presence of thought. We see either the presence or the absence of thought and it takes both signified thought in reference to no thought for either to have meaning and this is true of all things, which must have a referent of difference to be signified. In physics that principle is called relativity, and in Buddhism it’s called dependent origination.

In the end, the self/no self-referent reveals the interconnected fabric of us. The sign (self image/ego) can be seen to move and gyrate and the real us (no self) never moves, and this in turn reveals a fabricated and discriminate mind (thoughts and emotions) and a real not-to-be-found indiscriminate true mind. The first is based on changing conditions/things (and is thus not substantial) and the second is based on the lack of things, which is unconditional and therefore substantial. Consequently we are both real unconditionally and not real (based on conditions) at the same time. One part is born, grows big (unfortunately too big some times), decays and dies. The other part (the real us) is never born, doesn’t decay and lives forever. Unfortunately the common-coin self-understanding is just the sign/symbol, which we label ego and unless we go to extraordinary means we rarely discover the real person that we are.
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