Language Imperialism

by John Rowan



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            Imperialism wants to take over.  It not only wants to invade the territory, it wants to pacify it.  It hopes to rule, and never to be challenged.  It seems to me that there are people in the world who want to use language in this way.  They mainly inhabit academia, and I would like to keep it that way, but they obviously have ambitions to move outside academia and get to all of us.  Of course language is important, of course we couldn’t get very far in human intercourse without it, but there are many other things in the world beside language.  And the basic point is that it is we who have to use – and sometimes invent – language, not language that has to invent us.

            The language people are clever.  They start off with the seemingly obvious and socially acceptable case, expressed for example by Caryl Emerson:

Individual consciousness is a socio-ideological fact.  If you cannot talk about an experience, at least to yourself, you did not have it. (Emerson 1983, p.255)

But even this is not quite so simple and acceptable as it sounds at first.  There are such things as wordless experiences.  As Stanislav Grof (1992) and Frank Lake (1966) have explained many times, we have experiences long before we have words.  We have experiences during the birth process, and even before that, which can affect our later life in substantial ways.  Anyone who doubts this has only to read the excellent and very clear book by Alessandra Piontelli (2002).

            Here is Kenneth Gergen, one of the great and well-known purveyors of the language story, telling it his way:

Confidence and the sense of authenticity are born of communal participation as opposed to grounding in 'the true' or 'the real'. (K Gergen 1997, p.734)

So it is communal participation that give us confidence and the sense of authenticity.  How strange it is then that the great theorist of authenticity, Martin Heidegger, always contrasted being authentic with following Das Man, usually translated as The They, or in other words, communal participation.  And how strange that philosophers like Heidegger (1996) talk quite readily about the true and the real, as if they were things that had to be thought about and struggled with and taken seriously.

            I look out of the window and see real trees, real clouds, real houses.  But listen to the way Mary Gergen sees it:

Language seems almost magical.  Only through its powers to name can we identify our experiences and our persons.  There are no social structures that bear upon us beyond this linguistic order.  All that exists is within it. (M Gergen 1997, p.217)

This does sound almost magical, and certainly quite silly.  Are we really to say that an infant – and  remember the word means ‘without language’ – cannot identify its experiences?  Are we really to say than an infant can’t tell the difference between being happy and being angry?  Or being in pain and just being miserable?  It seems obvious to most of us that the real order precedes the linguistic order by quite a margin.

            And of course it is not just about infants.  It is also about poets and creative people generally – and we are all poets at times, some of us more than others.  Creative people are named as such because they create.  Poets create new language, new forms of speech, new ways to see and experience the world generally.  They are by no means limited to what is there already, simply rearranging it like furniture in a room.  But that is not the way the language imperialists see it.  Listen to Felicity Nussbaum, for example:

Individuals construct themselves as subjects through language, but individual subjects – rather than being the source of their own self-generated and self-expressive meaning – adopt positions available within the language at a given moment.  (Nussbaum 1988, p.149)

What an extraordinary thing to say: but Nussbaum is just one of many commentators endorsing such a position.  It is as if language came first, and did not have to be invented.  Actually I seem to remember some research with an ape, which found that even the ape could invent new phrases, created rather than simply adopted.  Be that as it may, certainly people can do this, even at an early age.

            It would be tedious to give example after example to prove the point, so let us content ourselves with just two more.  The first one comes from Edward Sampson, who I suppose must count as one of the stalwarts of this amazing movement:

...  all meaning, including the meaning of one's self, is rooted in the social process and must be seen as an ongoing accomplishment of that process.  Neither meaning nor self is a precondition for social interaction; rather, these emerge from and are sustained by conversations occurring between people. (Sampson 1993, p.99)

So now it is the self that emerges from conversations!  But according to Daniel Stern (1985) babies have a self from the beginning – they don’t have to wait to acquire one until they can talk!  All the research on babies – now an enormous quantity of material – shows again and again how resourceful and how capable they can be.  Any recent book on developmental psychology will confirm this.  See also Rowan (1988).

            So finally let us listen to the wisdom coming from Michael Sprinker, who is noted as one of the early proponents of this point of view:

Every text is an articulation of the relations between texts, a product of intertextuality, a weaving together of what has already been produced elsewhere in discontinuous form; every subject, every author, every self is the articulation of an intersubjectivity structured within and around the discourses available to it at any moment in time.  (Sprinker 1980, p.325) 

So here we have it: the disembodied text is God.  It is the text that produces thought; it is the text which produces the self; it is the text which produces the whole world.  In the Beginning was the Text!  If this sounds like an exaggeration, read the quote again.  The self has now disappeared altogether: in its place we have intersubjectivity, and the intersubjectivity itself is dependent upon discources.  Without the text, we have nothing.

            And so if Heidegger calls his book ‘Being and Time’, we can only snigger behind our hands, because there is no Being and no Time, there is only the text.  I have to say at this point that the whole enterprise seems to me misconceived.  And of course if we take away all forms of basis, and substitute for that these discourses and these texts, there can then be no basis for that theory either.  What we get is a baseless theory.  So let’s give it up.

            There are still trees outside my window, the clouds are still there, and so are the houses, and now I can see some flowers too.


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Emerson, Caryl (1983) 'The outer word and inner speech: Bakhtin, Vygotsky and the internalization of language' Critical Inquiry 10 245-264

Gergen, Kenneth J (1997) 'The place of the psyche in a constructed world'  Theory & Psychology  7/6  723-746

Gergen, Mary (1997) ‘Life stories: Pieces of a dream’ in M M Gergen & S N Davis (eds) Toward a new psychology of gender  London: Routledge

Grof, Stanislav (1992) The holotropic mind   HarperSanFrancisco

Heidegger, Martin (1996) Being and Time (ed. Joan Stambaugh) Albany:SUNY Press

Lake, Frank (1966) Clinical theology  London: Darton, Longman & Todd

Nussbaum, Felicity (1988) 'Eighteenth century women's autobiographical commonplaces' in S Benstock (ed) The private self  London: Routledge

Piontelli, Alessandra (2002) Twins: From fetus to child  London: Routledge

Rowan, John (1988) ‘Primal Integration’ in J Rowan & W Dryden (eds) Innovative therapy in Britain   Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Sampson, Edward E (1993) Celebrating the other: A dialogic account of human nature  Boulder: Westview

Sprinker, Michael (1980) 'Fictions of the self: The end of autobiography' in J Olney (ed) Autobiography: Essays theoretical and critical  Princeton: Princeton University Press

Stern, Daniel N (1985) The interpersonal world of the infant  New York: Basic Books


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John Rowan is the author of a number of books, including The Reality Game: A guide to humanistic counselling and therapy (2nd edition) (Routledge 1998), Ordinary Ecstasy: The dialectics of humanistic psychology (3rd edition) (Routledge 2001), Subpersonalities (Routledge 1990), The Transpersonal in psychotherapy and counselling (Routledge 1993), Discover your subpersonalities (Routledge 1993) and Healing the Male Psyche: Therapy as Initiation (Routledge 1997).  His most recent book, co-written with Michael Jacobs, is  The Therapist's Use of Self  (Buckingham: Open University Press) 2002

He has co-edited Innovative Therapy in Britain (Open University Press 1988) with Windy Dryden, and The plural self: Multiplicity in everyday life with Mick Cooper (Sage 1999).  There are chapters by him in many other books on psychotherapy.  He has had six books of poetry published.  

On the Editorial Board of Self & Society, the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, the Transpersonal Psychology Review and the Counselling Psychology Review, John is a founder member of the UK Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners, and is a past member of the Governing Board of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, representing the Humanistic and Integrative Section.  

He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (member of the Psychotherapy Section, the Counselling Psychology Division, the Transpersonal Psychology Section and the Consciousness and Experience Section), a qualified individual and group psychotherapist (AHPP and UKCP), a chartered counselling psychologist (BPS) and an accredited counsellor (BACP and UKRC).  He is a Fellow of the BACP.  He has been leading groups since 1969, and now practises Primal Integration, which is a holistic approach to therapy.  

He and his wife live in North Chingford, London: he has four children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage.