In last week’s article, we looked at Ferdinand de Saussure’s pioneering work on the structure of languages — a field which he called Semiology but is nowadays more commonly known as Semiotics.
As we explored in that article, this work of Saussure is a treasure trove of interesting insights into the structure and nature of language but today we are going to investigate one particular application of Saussure’s work by the integral philosopher Ken Wilber and explore what Semiotics can tell us about the meaning of spiritual experience.
A Recap of Semiotics
For Saussure, as we saw in the previous article, the basic linguistic unit is called a sign. This sign is made up of a signifier and a signified.
The signifier is the physical aspect of the word — the sound vibrations you make when saying it or the ink on the page or the pixels on the screen — this physical aspect of the word is Saussure’s signifier.
The signified is what comes to mind when I say the word or when you read the word; it is the mental concept that the word invokes. If I say the phrase pink elephant then you hear the physical sound and it magically conjures up the concept of a pink elephant in your mind. This is the miracle of language.
This mental concept is called the signified and together the physical word (the signifier) and this mental concept (the signified) make up what Saussure calls the sign.
Now these components of the sign — the signifier and the signified — are separate again to what Saussure calls the referent. If I say the word cheese, you hear the word and it invokes the concept of cheese in your mind. But all of this is separate to cheese as you experience it in reality. Cheese is different to your concept of it. This becomes obvious when you try to find a pink elephant or a unicorn out in the world — these are signifiers that have signifieds but do not have referents.
It’s all arbitrary
Saussure goes on to say that both signifiers and signifieds are arbitrary. The signifiers are arbitrary because the word can change — the physical element of the sound will vary if you’re in Melbourne or Minnesota or if you’re speaking English or Russian. The signifier varies but it invokes the same signified.
And then the signified varies because the conceptual landscape is different depending on when and where you are — in English the words sheep and mutton are distinct concepts whereas in French they are both captured in the word — mouton. So the way language cuts up the world varies across languages and across time.
Language as a web of relations
And this brings us to the big insight of Saussure — meaning doesn’t occur because language is a system of names. Meaning occurs because language is a system of relations and differences. It’s the context that the words are found in that determines their meaning. If I just say the word bark to you, I could be talking about the outer layer of a tree’s trunk or I could be talking about the sound that a dog makes. Or if I say it in a Boston accent like — Bach — you might question whether I was referring to the German composer or referring to the tree’s trunk
The point is that meaning doesn’t arise independently. It emerges out of the nexus of relations and differences. The relationship between the words in a sentence and the sentences around it differentiates out the meaning of that word you are referring to. Language isn’t a naming system but a web of relations and differences.
And so when you think about where meaning comes from through this lens you see that it doesn’t come directly from the world of experience as it would if language was simply a system of names. In this the case the word bark would be inherently connected to the outer layer of a tree’s trunk without variation across context and culture.
And so what Saussure realised was that meaning arises out of the relations between signs and all the different languages emerge through a unique meandering evolution. Language is not an objective map of the world but an emergent culturally conditioned collection of relations and differences.
The statement “meaning is culturally determined” sounds a bit dicey and it can stir all the feverish nightmares of relativism but that’s only partially true. Despite this contextual dependency, language is not a self-contained system cut off from reality; the signs of a language are still pointing to referents in the world of experienced reality, otherwise language would be useless.
It’s just that the nature of this connection between signs and referents is fluid. There was no word for the colour orange in English until the 1500s. That doesn’t mean that orange didn’t exist, just that it wasn’t a part of the interplay between the English language and the experienced reality of the British at that time. As the fruit orange became popular in Britain from the 1300s onwards, the word for the fruit was transposed onto that fraction of the light spectrum. The fluid language differentiated a new aspect of the experienced reality that before was on the borderlands between the concepts red and yellow.
The Referent of Great Price
Okay so with the recap complete let’s get to the juicy part. You see there is an assumption with the way we’ve been talking that we are all accessing the same reality. If you were to point out the colour orange to a 14th century English person, they would still see what you are pointing to — you are working with the same hardware and so it is easy to communicate what you mean by the colour orange.
But you would run into a new set of problems if you tried to communicate orange to a blind person. What was missing in the 12th century Brit was a sign — they had neither signifier nor signified for the colour orange. But you could teach them this quite easily because you both had access to the same referent.
But what happens when you teach someone a signifier and a signified but they don’t have access to the same referent? There’s a great story told by the great spirituality author Anthony de Mello about just this scenario:
A man born blind comes to me and asks, “What is this thing called green”? How does one describe the color green to someone who was born blind? One uses analogies. So I say, “The color green is something like soft music”. “Oh”, he says, “like soft music”. “Yes”, I say, “soothing and soft music”. So a second blind man comes to me and asks, “What is the color green?” I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch. So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles. One is saying, “It’s soft like music”; the other is saying, “It’s soft like satin”. And on it goes.
The blind men in this story already have a signifier — they know the word green. But they have no signified for this word and so they come to the protagonist and ask him for a signified and he obliges. And each of them go away happy in the belief that they now know what green is. They have a signifier and they have a signified.
But because they don’t have a referent, they cling tightly to their respective signifieds and so it culminates in the comical climax of violence.
The blind men are married to this narrow concept of green.
According to de Mello and Wilber this is what’s going on with religious conflict. The sages have made contact with a novel referent. We, the commonfolk, see the fruits of this new experience in the sage and it fascinates us; we see that they have tasted something that is the cure for our ills and naturally we want to know what that is. And so we ask the wise person to tell us about it.
And so the wise person comes up with a signifier and tries to mould the signified to be as close to the referent as possible but of course the entire thing is as futile as explaining green to a blind person.
The irony is that they know this and they try to warn people about it but to no avail. The first line of the Tao te Ching says:
“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.”
That is to say — the sign is not the referent. The signifier and the signified are not the referent. The referent cannot be put into words any more than green or the sound of a clarinet can.
It is easy to forget this disconnection between the sign and the referent when you live in a society where everyone has the same faculties. And this is where the example of the blind man is so illuminating.
Let’s say you lived in a land where everyone is blind. Every single person lacks the gift of sight. All except one. You can see a rich panoply of colours but nobody else can. Imagine the loneliness, imagine how much you would want to share this with them. When everyone experiences colour, we take it for granted but if nobody did then it would be the most salient thing in the world.
And what happens then is that you get a society of blind people who are fascinated with the idea of sight. The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas was such a man. He worked on the masterpiece of medieval philosophy the Summa Theologica from 1265 until the year of his death in 1274. But a few months before his demise, something happened to Aquinas that caused him to abandon this magnum opus. He had a spiritual experience that made his life’s work as absurd as a blind man writing books about the colour green. When Aquinas’s assistant Reginald of Piperno begged him to continue his work he replied:
“I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw.”
Aquinas’s experience of the spiritual referent made his previous writings on the sign meaningless.
Of course this is a bold claim — what it boils down to is this: the spiritual sages are experiencing something that we aren’t. This goes against the intellectual grain of reductionist modernity.
The kneejerk reaction is to dismiss this claim and to say that these are religious people and what they are saying is irrational. I don’t see any Tao and you don’t see any Tao so what would lead us to believe that these guys aren’t just talking mumbo jumbo? How is this different from the myths about angels and demons? It’s a hangover from the irrational past.
This line of argument is what Ken Wilber calls the pre/trans fallacy. It’s the confusion between things that are prerational like religious dogmatic beliefs in fanciful tales and things that are transrational such as Tao and Nirvana.
Think about all the people who were raised in religious contexts but have grown up to realise that they only believed this because the people around them did and there were consequences if they didn’t believe. They look back on their religious time as a prerational delusion. They believe that they are seeing reality clearer now.
Reductionist modernity is more than willing to appreciate this as a valid. But when it comes to imagining something beyond the rationalist worldview, alarm bells are triggered.
In his interview with Tim Ferriss, Jordan Peterson discussed the work of psychedelic researcher Rick Strassman and why Strassman left the field:
Jordan Peterson: And so that’s partly why things are deeply mysterious. I mean, Rick Strassman, he terrified himself right out of the DMT research as far as I could tell, because all his subjects came back and said, “Well, I went somewhere else and saw aliens.”
He’s like, “Well, it was a dream.” “No, sorry. It wasn’t a dream. It was way more real than any dream. In fact, it was actually more real than life.” Well, what do you do about that?
Tim Ferriss: Especially when it’s every subject, or almost every subject and not one —
Jordan Peterson: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. No one knows what to do with that. We don’t know what to do with that at all. And yeah, I mean, it’s beyond comprehension.
The subjects of these experiments have the same experience as the atheist — they believe that what they have experienced is more real than their previous reality. They have experienced some novel referents and they put words on it like aliens and the void but as we have seen these are mere signifieds. We might be tempted to reply we don’t see aliens. But what’s overwhelming is the fact that it seems to occur with predictable regularity in the subjects.
And when that happens we should stop for a moment before we try and argue about UFOs and conspiracy theories and we should consider the possibility that their signifier may be misleading us but that they are trying to point to an experience of a referent that is outside the range of common experience.
You see this exact same thing happening in religion. There was an interfaith dialogue in Thailand a few years back between Buddhists and Catholics. When the priests of each tradition met it was very unfruitful. The Catholic priests had their set of signifiers and signifieds and the Buddhist priests had theirs and never did the twain meet.
But what’s interesting is that when the monks met, they got on like a house on fire. Their signifiers and signifieds were different but because they had experienced the same referents they were able to map-over their language — just as a Frenchman and an Englishman can map over the word green to the word vert. The priests lacked personal experience of the referent. They hadn’t experienced green so they were like the blind men arguing over whether green is soft like satin or soothing like music. They mistook the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.
What we can see then is that if apply Semiotics to the question of how we are to make sense of spirituality we get a very illuminating hypothesis: that what’s going on in spirituality is a case of developmental mismatch.
Most of us are working off signs that might as well be unicorns and dragons for all the experience we have of them. As Wittgenstein warned, our intelligence has fallen under the bewitchment of language and we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we know what we are talking about.
What this application of Semiotics also tells us is that when the referent has been experienced then a fruitful discussion on spiritual experiences can happen. When the referent green is a common part of our experience, it is much easier for us to investigate it scientifically. When the referents for terms like Tao or Christ-consciousness or Nirvana have been experienced, then a fruitful discussion and investigation into them can be launched.