We are usually unaware that language imposes constraints on how we perceive, think and act, even as it is central to all that we do. What language enables is clearly apparent: all the cultures, technologies and designs we humans have created are grounded in our ability to coordinate with each other as we plan, evaluate, and make or build. What language constrains and hides is far more difficult to see, yet there are clues in our experiences. In this presentation, I delve into those clues to provide grounds for reflections and conversations concerning how the vocabulary used in design conversations, and even more so in design theories, biases what designers can do and how they can do it. What, for example, do the distinctions—such as feedback, perspective, need, user, and even the word design—enable and constrain? What possibilities are made invisible by how we understand and use these words? This has consequences for ethical living and the appreciation and creation of beauty, as these depend on harmonising among both the obvious and the implicit, the visible and the hidden dimensions of our lives on this planet.
KEYWORDS: enabling constraints, languaging, distinctions and domains, consensual coordination of actions, cultural blindness
RSD TOPIC(S): Learning & Education, Society & Culture
Overview of Presentation
I considered using the more dramatic title “Language, our Gilded Cage,” but that would imply that we were feeling caged, and the problem is more that we are usually unaware that language imposes constraints on how we think and act, even as is it is central to all that we do. What language enables is clearly apparent: all the cultures, technologies and designs we humans have created are grounded in our ability to coordinate with each other as we plan, evaluate, and make or build, and we do so in a rich biodiversity of languages. What language constrains is far more difficult to see; it is like the proverbial water for fish. Language is our human niche, we live immersed in language (Maturana, 2006). It is an endlessly diverse, interesting niche that is compellingly rich and “real.”
Yet, language also enables reflection, it allows us to step out of our accepted ways and regard them from a new perspective. Furthermore, reflection enables us to envision and generate alternatives (Maturana & Poerksen, 2004). This is where design becomes key, especially designing while avoiding the hubris of assuming that the distinctions we have taken for granted are preordained.
To reveal that which is hidden, a brief explanation of how language, or better, the active form of “languaging” arose in our ancestors. Architecture did not begin with skyscrapers and cathedrals, neither did language begin as the complex social medium into which we are born. Language grew out of simple consensual coordination, which eventually led to distinguishing and naming (Maturana & Verdenzöller, 2008). Every distinction co-arises with the domain in which it is accepted as valid (Maturana, 1988). Thus, as we name, we create the domains or contexts in which those named things and ideas make sense. What we do not recognise easily is what falls between these named “chunks” of experience, nor do we readily see how else we could have thought or acted.
However, there are clues. If we know more than one language, especially if those are derived from different language families, we realise that some notions cannot be translated. The required words don’t exist in the other language, or if they do, their meaning is shaded differently. Further, we sometimes find ourselves incapable of expressing some nuance we sense, as there is no word for it. And, as is generally accepted, conversations entail not only the words used but arise as such in the flow of sound, expression, and gesture as a dance between the participants. Thus we do deeply know there is more to our experience than what avails in language.
Language chunks experience and how those chunks are usually taken as given and become attractors for the paths of further actions that are coherent with the particular distinctions made (Bunnell, 2020). As meanings coalesce within frames of relevance, other possible meanings are obscured. Some meanings are lost between the word’s chunks, in effect denying existence in formal language. In conversation, however, we can attend to the “betweens” by evoking a kind of conceptual peripheral vision attuned to changes outside our primary focus.
Another perspective that reveals that words are not inherently meaningful in themselves is the variability in what a given word means and how the meaning changes with context, situation, and time (Bunnell, 2021). Alternative meanings are evident in dictionaries and thesauruses, and we all have the experience of how the everyday meaning of a given word differs from that in a specialised field, and the meaning of the “jargon” also varies from field to field. Based on all these clues, we sometimes do sense there is more to the world and how we live than what avails in language.
How do we sense which meaning is intended in an utterance? Cognition is not limited to language. We have a deep heritage of systemic thinking, a heritage from our evolutionary past retained in our nervous system. (Maturana, Mpodozis & Letelier, 1995). Our insights, our “intuition,” or “gut feelings,” are how we may connote our current experience of systemic thinking that is not constrained to language.
Thus, we humans create and live in a languaging niche that is in constant individual and situational adaptation, which enables the development of both richness and precision in our understanding (Maturana & Mpodozis, 2000). Though we make cultural efforts, such as definitions, to try and coordinate our meanings of words. Our greater capacity for richness and precision in meaning arises through including systemic cognition.
So how does this all matter to design?
In general, and hence also for design, how we do what we do is changed through understanding how language both prejudices meaning and focuses on only some of the relevant dimensions of our relationship with our medium and with others. This, in turn, has consequences for ethical living and the creation of beauty, as these both depend on the dimensionality and flow of harmony. Indeed, I conjecture that the best designs have implicitly incorporated many systemic dimensions of understanding that go beyond how we speak and write about design. We can do, and do, designing in language while also including an awareness of what falls in the spaces between distinctions and that which matters in un-named dimensions.
What I am interested in pursuing, in collaboration with designers, is to explore the ways that the vocabulary used in design conversations, and even more so in design theories, biases what designers can do and how they can do it, as has happened in other fields (Vaz, 2022). What, for example, do distinctions—such as feedback, perspective, need, user, and even the word design—enable and constrain? What possibilities are made either visible or invisible by how we understand and use these words? Further, how do the models we generate based on these ideas blind us to what else may be important to how we design, and more, how our designs, once lived, guide our manner of living with each other and our earth?
- Bunnell, P. (2021). Stories and Alternative Stories. Constructivist Foundations 16(1): 084–087. https://constructivist.info/16/1/084
- Bunnell P. (2020). Reflections on Languaging. Constructivist Foundations 15(3): 152–155. https://constructivist.info/15/2/152
- Maturana H. R. (1988). Ontology of observing: The biological foundations of self-consciousness and the physical domain of existence. In: Donaldson R. E. (ed.) Texts in cybernetic theory: An in-depth exploration of the thought of Humberto Maturana, William T. Powers, and Ernst von Glasersfeld. American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) conference workbook.
- Maturana H. R. (2006). Self-consciousness: How? When? Where? Constructivist Foundations 1(3): 91–102.
- Maturana H. R., Mpodozis J. & Letelier J. C. (1995). Brain, language and the origin of human mental functions. Biological Research 28(1): 15–26.
- Maturana H. R. & Mpodozis J. (2000). The origin of species by means of natural drift. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 73(2): 261–310.
- Maturana H. R. & Poerksen B. (2004). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition. Translated by Wolfram K. Köck and Annemarie R. Köck. Carl-Auer, Heidelberg.
- Maturana H. R. & Verden-Zöller G. (2008). The origin of humanness in the biology of love. Edited by Pille Bunnell. Imprint Academic, Exeter.
- Vaz, N.M. (2022). Immunity and Intentionality. Accepted for Constructivist Foundations 17, No. 4.
I work and live on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱ wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Peoples, also known as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Pille Bunnell, American Society of Cybernetics, asc-cybernetics.org, email@example.com