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The embodiment of language

Alan Watts:

For the question "What is it?" is really asking, "In what class is it?" Now it should be obvious that classification is, again, a human invention, and that the natural world is not given to us in a classified form, in cans with labels. When we ask what anything is in its natural state, the only answer can be to point to it directly, suggesting that the questioner observe it with a silent mind.

C. J. Ducasse:

You learn the English word "pain" by being taught English, and you learn the biological process of pain by being taught biology, but you learn pain when you are stuck with a needle. It is possible to experience pain without knowing the English or the biology.

Elaine Scarry:

Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

Jon Kabat-Zinn:

See if you don't become more mindful by becoming more "bodyful."

Marco Iacoboni:

The main idea of embodied semantics is that linguistic concepts are built 'bottom up' by using the sensory-motor representations necessary to enact those concepts. Let me give you an example. When we talk, we often use expressions involving actions and body parts: the kiss of death, kicking off the year, grasping a concept, can you give me a hand with this, that cost an arm and a leg, and probably hundreds more. According to the embodied semantic hypothesis, when we say, hear, or read these expressions, we actually activate the motor areas of our brain concerned with the actions performed with those body parts. When you read or say 'the kiss of death,' your brain activates the motor cells you activate when you actually kiss someone.

Taking language too literally, however, is a disability. Douwe Draaisma:

Sherashevsky's thought, by contrast, was invariably childishly concrete and visual. Nor did he have any feeling for metaphor or poetry. That may sound odd in someone for whom words conjured up concrete images and associations. On closer examination it is easily explained. Metaphors can only be understood by reference to a meaning, but Sherashevsky merely saw pictures in the imagery. When, in a poem by Tikhonov, a peasant is said to be using a winepress to make a 'river of wine', Sherashevsky can see a red river flowing past in the distance. The meaning of the metaphor has been replaced by the picture.


Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, (1958), New York: Vintage Books, 1991. p 35.

C. J. Ducasse, The Belief in a Life After Death, p 65.

Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. p 4. Quoted in "Torture and Photography: Abu Ghraib." Andrew J. Mitchell. Radical Philosophy Review (Journal of the Radical Philosophy Association). Vol 8, No 1, 2005. p 11.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. p 116.

Marco Iacoboni. Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. pp. 92-93.

Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p 69.


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