Language, concepts, confusion

I sometimes feel like I have to re-learn things that once came to me naturally. One such thing is rational thinking. Maybe I´m giving myself too much credit when I say I have to re-learn it, maybe I was never as good at it as I thought. What I have to re-learn, though, is the confidence that logical thought leads to correct conclusions, or that logical thought is even possible.

A few years ago everything seemed to dissolve. It´s like I wasn´t sure anymore of the meaning of words. I felt like I couldn´t make any definite statements anymore. Instead of saying “I feel lonely” I would have wondered if what I feel can really be described as loneliness. This would have come with a sense of being an impostor. Did I even have the right to claim such expressions for myself? I felt like if I got it wrong and said something untrue that would be some kind of lie, crime, philosophical sin.

Rationally seen, this is a matter of statistics: Which feelings, sensations and thoughts does the majority of people label as “loneliness”? Maybe you can give this a philosophical edge and ask how much freedom you should have in using language, if you can use words at will and in unusual ways. If you could, if you felt like it, use the word “loneliness” in the way other people use the word “hunger” and still be right in saying you´re lonely when your stomach growls.

Language, for all I know, is a mere convention. We might as well call things by different names. So in a way my question was meaningless. Calling something “loneliness” which other people wouldn´t call loneliness is, from this point of view, not a sin but a simple error – like using a wrong word in a foreign language.

This argument doesn´t take away my deep sense of mystification and confusion, though. I wasn´t concerned with signifiers, but with the signified. I think I tried to explain this some time before: When I thought “I feel lonely” I was wondering if how I felt was how lonely people feel. “Lonely people” were a definite group,  and there were strict rules as to who could be part of it. And that was true for every feeling, every statement about my inner life. Those groups were looming over me like angry judges, and if I tried to become part of a group whose membership I didn´t deserve I was treated as an impostor, a liar, someone who undeservedly wanted to gain the benefits of being part of that group.

I think I had started to think in a psychological way. In order to explore the human mind scientifically you need strict definitions of the words you use to describe it. The words used to describe mental processes, though, are often derived from everyday language. Shame, guilt, fear. When I was younger I could use these words without thinking much about it. Now, though, I constantly have second thoughts: Is what I feel really guilt? Or is it – JUST! – shame?

I think these definitions are not so much derived from actual scientific studies in psychology. They come from books and articles written by psychotherapists, from self-helf materials, from blogs and forum entries by patients. This is a problem in itself, as apparently the only vocabulary I had left signified concepts of mental illness. The idea that my inner life could be described in a different fashion was alien to me.

I don´t think I´ve ever perceived myself as normal. But before I anxiously submitted my use of words to the use suggested in psychotherapeutical and “emotional healing” literature I had no qualms about describing my feelings. I could use words like fear, shame, guilt, self-loathing and depression in an informal way, feeling deeply serious about it and at least I still had the satisfaction of being expressive.

Insight therapies are all about talking. They were not, though, at least in my case, about me just telling my story. I said something, and often I was interrupted in order for me to clarify something, like a word. Or Dr. Stoneface took what I had said and expressed it differently, or, as I thought sometimes, not at all. I sometimes feel like psychotherapy is some kind of word-policing, language-policing, where the way you describe your inner and outer life is corrected until it corresponds to reality as the therapist perceives it. It is less absurd than it sounds, language shapes consciousness and once you´ve learned a certain jargon it´s hard to unlearn. The words in question, after all, all signify complicated, abstract entities. Shame is an abstract entity. Narcissism, the Ego and the Id are even more abstract. They don´t exist anywhere inside of you. They are mere concepts, and yet in therapy they are treated as real. Shame, at least, is something you can feel. Words like narcissism, Ego and Id are purely derived from theory.  Theories you can buy into or not.

I think I lost my ease and also my joy in writing fiction when I lost my innocence in language use. Athena once told me I´m not cut out for science, I´m an artist. It was not very much of a compliment, and I think it isn´t true, either. What was implied, in our complicated private world of meaning, was that I didn´t understand the truths I spoke through my writing, that I was accidentally right, but that understanding these truths would devastate me and make me unable to write. She, of course, was the scientist, braver, more stoical, breathing clarity. Maybe it was this statement which ruined writing for me. I want to know what I´m saying. I´m lost in a labyrinth of confusion, though, and I need to find my way back to clarity. What I need to re-learn, maybe, is not so much the technique of rational thinking, but the definite truths that can be derived from it.


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