Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Against Linguistic Quibbles

I've written a number of articles here about the relationship between linguistics and magick. More to the point, I've written that I think any such relationship is entirely based on personal thinking styles and cannot be generalized in any meaningful sense. In other words, linguistics can't tell us much about magick at all except in the context of your own personal work - and only then if you happen to be a linguistic thinker, which not all people are. Since I'm not a linguistic thinker, this has been obvious to me since childhood. But apparently, there are a lot of folks out there who believe otherwise.

Most available evidence suggests that language is descriptive, not prescriptive. This has been pretty well-established by science, as what is called the "strong version" of linguistic relativity has been pretty much disproved at this point. The words and sounds we use to communicate do not carry inherent meaning apart from usage, and the best studies showing the influence of language on thought has found only weak effects. One example of this that I posted on a while back is Jules Davidoff's study on the Himba people of Africa, whose language does not include separate terms for the colors blue and black. Davidoff discovered that, on average, Himba children had more trouble distinguishing between black and dark navy blue than English-speaking children.

A BBC documentary took that study and used it to argue that ancient people "couldn't see" the color blue. Which is just stupid. On top of that, the documentary was incredibly poorly done - somehow in scripting the show, the Himba's single term for blue and black got turned into a single term for blue and green, and the producers included some misleading graphics to "demonstrate" the effect. Which wasn't even the effect Davidoff observed. This got turned into the Business Insider article that I skewered in my piece by simply quoting Davidoff presenting his own work. And to be clear, Davidoff's study of linguistic relativity is the best one out there. The others are worse.


But popular culture loves the idea, and I don't really understand why. Like I mentioned in one of my previous posts, the film What the Bleep Do We Know? put forth the contention that the Incans literally could not see Pizarro's ships until a "Shaman" (no, there were no Laplanders in Mesoamerica) pointed them out - because they had never seen ships before! That's a particularly dumb version of "the ancients were idiots." The human mind just doesn't work that way, and it never has. More recently, the film Arrival at the very least implies that learning a language without past, present, or future tenses lets you see into the future.

It should be obvious that there's no language in the universe, regardless of its structure, that will suddenly make you psychic. I haven't read the original short story that Arrival was based on, but apparently the implication made by the film is not nearly as strong as in the original work. So Hollywood decided that people would like the film if it emphasized that idea. Maybe it's popular for the same reason as the "one weird trick" notion. "All I have to do is think the right series of words, and suddenly my magick will work." I hate to break it anybody who doesn't realize it yet, but magick is not that easy. You have to really engage and work with your mind to get results, not slide a few symbols around until you get it "right."

The latest of these linguistic quibbles I found online is regarding the words "daemon" and "demon." The poster was taking issue with people who say that "demon is the Christianized version of daemon, which originally meant 'spirit' but now means 'evil spirit.'" Now that is technically a mistake. "Demon" and "Daemon" are pronounced the same and etymologically are the same word. But the Christians did change the definition. Originally, demon/daemon did mean spirit. Christians decided that celestial spirits should be called "angels" instead, kept "demon" for chthonic spirits, and that the former were good and the latter were evil.

So even though it's wrong that "demon" and "daemon" were originally distinct etymologically, the only real annoyance that makes any sense is if somebody is throwing that bit of fake linguistics around trying to sound clever. The meaning is basically correct. In Christianity, "demon" now means "evil spirit" and angel means "good spirit." Words change with usage. I can talk about what I consider errors in the Christian cosmology - grimoire demons are chthonic spirits and grimoire angels are celestial spirits, since good and evil are relative terms rather than metaphysical principles - but the words used are only important when explaining this to other people. They carry no special meaning of their own.

Another example from years back was the debate over evocation and invocation. It is true that until the Golden Dawn came along the terms were close to synonymous. They both meant "to call up spirits." Invocation just had a second definition referring to prayer that evocation lacked. But the Golden Dawn decided that "evocation" meant to call a spirit into an external structure or object, and "invocation" meant to call a spirit into yourself. These days, that's the terminology that most modern magicians, including myself, use.

Those definitions are only about a hundred and twenty years old, but so what? We need technical terminology to discuss magick, and they work better than anything else I can come up with. There is a difference between calling a spirit into your sphere of awareness versus calling into a containment structure or an object like a talisman. You will see "invoke" and "evoke" used interchangeably in the old grimoires since they used to mean the same thing, so for example you could "invoke" a spirit into a crystal. But as long as you understand that, you should be good to go. Personally I think that it's helpful to make the distinction, and words change with usage. The older definitions are not "more correct" than modern ones in any meaningful sense.

Another example of this is the debate over "Goetia." As Jake Stratton-Kent pointed out in Geosophia, the ancient Greek definition of the term had nothing to do with grimoires like the Lemegeton, also known in modern parlance as "The Goetia." But where I think people get into trouble is when they try to argue that the use of the same term means that you should "really" approach the Lemegeton using your best approximation of ancient Greek methods rather than the methods given in the text. That's silly. It's pretty obvious to me that "Goetia" was applied to "working with demons" by Europeans who were looking at Greek texts without really understanding them. So they took a Greek word that refered to a particular method of working with underworld spirits and decided to use it for "working with demons."

Again, words change with usage, and they change over time. It's likely that the ancient Greek methods had little to do with the later grimoire methods. The fact that grimoire magicians co-opted the ancient Greek term to mean something entirely different does not imply any sort of continuity between the two practices. Whether or not the Greek methods work for grimoire spirits is another question entirely - it's still real magick, just a totally different style than what the authors of the grimoires intended - but my point is that the word doesn't have anything to do with it. If anybody tells you that you're doing magick wrong because you don't use the ancient Greek methods for Lemegeton operations is operating under a flawed set of assumptions.

I think it's about time we admitted that the semiotic features of language are not all that important for magical operations. You can do totally effective magical work without worrying about the pedigree of the words you use, or the meanings that they had hundreds and even thousands of years ago. The key is just to make sure that anyone you're talking with understands your terminology in order to avoid confusion. That's the only time it's going to make much of a difference.

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5 comments:

Robin Bohumil said...

I really like this post Scott, and I agree but probably take it a step further. I may not understand completely, but how do any a priori or external forces avoid being caught by your argument? Some 'spooky action' responsible for the changes we're willing, whether it's a spirit or a fake English accent, which vowel pronunciation we use, which language, which symbols, whether the book we are reading from is an expensive leather bound numbered edition, or a cheap reprint.
Now obviously all of these can impact how we respond internally, mentally, physically, emotionally and so on, but how to connect any of that to a spooky action doing stuff is when I swerve inevitably toward a much more 'mind only' view. It's all in our minds, but our minds are really big of course as our friend Lon likes to mention. Thanks for the thought provoking break from work :)

Cat Vincent said...

Yeah, but Karma and Tulpa are both totally restricted to their original meaning...

(Language evolves. That's kind of the point.)

Sam Narriman said...

Thanks for touching on a very important point, Scott. Another supporting example is the case of opposing cosmic forces in Indo-Iranian mythology which went to turn into Asuras (evil demons) and Devas/Suras (good spirits) in the Vedic tradition and Ahura Mazda (the supreme being of goodness) and divs -- daeva in the Avesta (evil demons) in Zoroastrianism. Etymologically, Asuras and Ahura are the same, as are dives and devas (related to the word "divine"), but in practice, Zoroastrians have spiritual experiences in glorifying Ahura Mazda similar to those of Vedic practitioners worshiping the devas.

Scott Stenwick said...

@Robin: Personally I think that is entirely different than what you are talking about here, because the existence of external entities is a whole other thing. I can easily envision a model where states of consciousness triggered by words that happen to be significant to us activate our own psychic powers, connect with external entities, or some combination of the two (which is how I tend to see things). Without a direct "consciousness measure" it's hard to demonstrate which of those paradigms is correct.

So far I can demonstrate (1) I can shift probabilities beyond chance using magick, and (2) P(Me) is less than P(Me + Spirit) in just about every experimental case. It could always be some weird and convoluted way that my personal psychic powers manifest, but since you generally want to work "as if" the spirits are actual whether or not they are (as per Liber O), I find it more parsimonious to just go with that until I have definitive evidence to the contrary.

@Cat: As far as I know, I never have written that the definitions of those two words can't evolve. I never weighed in on any of the Tulpa debates. What I have said about karma is that the New Agers use a different definition of it than the one found in Buddhism, and that I don't like the ramifications of using it. Clearly, though, the definition I don't like is what mostly gets used in the west. I would probably say the same thing about Tulpa - I don't like how the term has evolved, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

@Sam: Yes, it's not unique to Christianity. Religions commonly come to power and decide that spiritual forces associated with the previous paradigm are "evil." As I see it, the whole thing is silly social posturing.

Scott Stenwick said...

Also, with respect to debates over karma and tulpu, one of the things I don't like about how those terms are used in popular culture is that they don't increase precision, they obscure it.

Karma in Buddhism is a very specific concept - an effect directly follows from a cause. The New Age usage, though, is just mushy. I do "good stuff" and other unrelated "good stuff" happens to me, or I do "bad stuff" and "bad stuff" happens to me - with "good" and "bad" poorly defined. In terms of technically describing magick, the whole idea is pretty useless.

Likewise, when people use tulpa to mean the same thing as "telesma" or "servitor," it's not clear to me what is being gained in terms of communication. It just sounds like what people are looking for is yet another synonym for something we already have terms for that just "sounds cooler" - a proliferation of terms for the same thing really doesn't help with understanding, because the implication is that the word is supposed to communicate some essential difference.

Compare that with "invocation" and "evocation." The two words were originally mostly synonymous, but the Golden Dawn decided to relate them to two specific magical approaches that have some clear differences. So the distinction is meaningful and useful.

But to be clear, just because I don't find some popular usages helpful, I'm not saying they're "wrong" in any objective sense, or that people should be told not to use them, or anything like that. That's really what I'm trying to get at.