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Irving J. Lee - When to "keep still."

When to "keep still."




Author: Irving J. Lee


Date: Oct. 2005


From: ETC.: A Review of General Semantics (Vol. 62, Issue 4)


Publisher: Institute of General Semantics


Document Type: Article


Length: 1,898 words




Main content:




On Silence




WHAT IS ASKED may seem pointless, but the experience of many students of language in its relation to life facts indicates that the procedure is effective. This is a plea for participation.




Pinch your finger. Say no words. Notice the experience. Do it again. Notice that something happened on the silent level. You had a direct experience which may be described verbally in many ways. But whatever might be said in words would not be what you felt by the pressure of the pinch. You should continue to remain silent so that you may become more aware of what goes on inside-your-skin. The nature of that inside feeling, of whatever happens, of whatever comes to awareness is not an affair of language, but is in its entirety an un-speakable matter. This may seem obvious, but unless it is sharply realized that what was felt belongs to the realm of silence, that it is quite different from what may be said in the realm of discourse, we shall miss a most important factor in the process of proper evaluation.




Pick up an object, a pencil or a book. Turn it over in your hands. Handle it. Drop it to the floor. Say nothing as you go through these operations. Look at the object. Now say the word "book." Notice that what you said was not the object itself. What you handled is not words. You might write with the pencil, but you could not write with the word pencil You could drop the book to the floor, but you could not drop the word "book" unless the word was objectified by being written on paper. You must see that you are dealing with two distinct levels, one verbal, one silent.




Stand up and walk the length of your room. Notice the movements of your feet. Say nothing about what you are doing. Don't even talk to yourself "inside." Merely realize that you are engaging in a form of physical action. After walking, sit down. The action is now ended. Is it clear that the walking took place on a level that was non-verbal, that you merely did something? Now you might try to describe the process of walking, the way your legs move, the shifting positions of your body, the character of the action as you felt it. Regardless of the clarity or complexity of what you have just said, that description will not be on the silent level of the actual walking. No matter how you walked, that action will not be on the level of what you said. Whatever you may say about your behavior, the behavior itself will be different.




In short, the "feeling" of the pinch, the objective pencil or book, the action of walking and sitting belong to a silent universe, while anything said belongs to a verbal universe. It must be clearly understood that what was called "a pinch," "a pencil," and "walking" are matters which exist on un-speakable levels, very much different from whatever exists on speech levels. Students who are in any doubt about this point should reread the preceding paragraphs and follow the directions before going on.




What is the importance of this emphasis on the difference between the silent and the verbal?




In the first place, it must be realized that our lives are lived on the silent, objective levels, that whatever we "think," "feel," and "do" happens as such silently, and that only as a secondary matter does talk come in. Actual living happens silently and is first in importance before speech. When you sit down to dinner hungry, you are primarily interested in the silent food before you. The digestive system, blood stream, etc., could not be nourished by words, but only by life facts capable of being digested. As Emerson says in "New England Reformers,"




    The sight of a planet through a telescope is worth all the course in


    astronomy; the shock of the electric spark in the elbow outvalues


    all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an


    artificial volcano are better than volumes of chemistry.




Language enters to serve auxiliary functions as a convenience at a different level of life. Whatever use that language serves will be a use quite different from the use to which the food is put in the stomach. Experiences of anything are primary in human living. And whatever may be said of them does not appear as a part of that silent living.




Secondly, objective levels, objects, feelings, happenings, actions, etc., are infinitely diverse and complex in their characteristics. So full of particulars are they that their fullness can never be reached by words. The classic example of the inadequate coverage of speech appears in the futile attempt to describe the taste or color of something to one who has never had a similar direct experience. To know a taste or color it is necessary to go beyond the words to the experience itself. Though the tasting or the seeing may be immediate and seemingly simple, the full perception is so inconceivably complex that one cannot get to it by words alone. It can be reached only as a first-order direct effect of the experience. The same may be said of objects. One may pick up an object and say "This is a book" without recognizing the false-to-fact character of what was said. The object appears as an absolute individual full of countless characteristics and it is not words and never can be; to speak as if they are "identical" may be described as delusion. Further, to say that it is a "book" is to say something that does not correspond to the totality of the object. Whatever is said is not "all" that can be said. The manifold uses, interpretations, characteristics of the silent objects and first-order experiences with which we become acquainted are ever so infinitely complex and diverse that talk cannot exhaust them. A feeling of this may be at the bottom of Maeterlinck's view in Treasure of the Humble:




    It is idle to think that by means of words, any real communication


    can ever pass from one man to another. From the moment we have


    something to say to each other, we are compelled to hold our peace.




And in the Book of Job (ii:13):




    So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven


    nights and none spoke a word unto him: for they saw that his grief


    was very great.




For us, even more important is this: an understanding of this silent universe will help dissolve the false-to-fact character of our limited, too-often dogmatic talk.




In the third place, when you realize the complexity of un-speakable levels, you may not be so eager to "burst into speech." It is easy to say something about anything. It is not so easy to be conscious of the limited, partial character of what is said. Verbal levels represent abstractions of some details from the fullness of the silent objects, actions, and experiences. This consciousness of abstracting whenever one talks will be more readily acquired when one stops to notice the silent levels. The acquisition of this habit is most difficult. Existing educational procedures somehow generate habits of speaking as the primary human function, so that students too readily speak without awareness that the first-order experiences about which they speak are unreachable by words. To train students to be silent, to know they live on a level comparable to the level of "things" goes contrary to conventional training. And yet training in silence seems to be the most practical means by which to become aware that there are un-speakable realms in actual living. One must learn to be silent outwardly as well as inwardly. Students should learn to look at objects and actions while closing their lips with one hand. To see what is going on and to evaluate it properly without identification we must be silent. There must come a consciousness that as soon as we speak we shall be leaving out differences and emphasizing similarities. Learning to point with a finger will keep the silence. Looking and pointing are silent means of expression, analogues of the silent world. Silence on the objective levels may well be the first step to the achievement of a consciousness of abstracting and of the realization that there is much more in our world than we normally take cognizance of.




In the fourth place, one of the more immediate beneficial results of acquiring the habit of silence is the development of an awareness that study and analysis are on-going, never finished. When once this is understood, the student develops a creative outlook; more and more of the limitless content of the world about him comes into view. Silence gives opportunity for observation. There is time to see what there is to be seen. Arguments, debates, conflicts are quickly generated when the objects, situations, people are known only in part but thought and talked about otherwise. The habit of silence gives one time to look first before speaking. And that looking is, after all, the creative source of what we know as science, art, technology, etc.




The experience of those who have learned silence on the objective level reveals a heightened development of critical attitude. Constant and continuing use of silence when writing or speaking may develop sharply the memory of characteristics left out, no matter what the subject under consideration. Statements are not the un-speakable world; the demarcation of the two levels automatically suggests that statements will leave some things unsaid, some characteristics omitted. Inquiry, investigation, further searching--these are the hall-marks of useful criticism. Students will learn, once silence is fundamental in their reactions, to ask questions: "What do you mean?" "Does that statement cover all?" "Where was the abstracting?" Questions inevitably lead to further search and more talk and an understanding of the limited reasons for whatever conflicts arise.




Our eagerness to make statements on matters which may be foreign to our experience or knowledge may well be a major source of the superficiality of so much speech-making and writing. Students too readily take what they hear and see as the full expression and the complete experience, instead of sharply realizing that too often those statements are merely introductory to the matter in question. As Walter Lippmann has said in his book Public Opinion, "For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see." The achievement of silence should reverse this unnatural pattern. Looking at the silent world, we must first be silent. For unless we have learned to observe the vast panorama, "the great blooming buzzing confusion of the outer world," we shall pass over too much that we might know about.




It is important to point out that "we do not repress or suppress ... the bursting into speech; a gesture of the hand to the labels reminds us that words are not objects, or actions, or happenings, or feelings." (1) Lapsing into silence will have a jarring effect, which is not to repress but to make for the realization of an important evaluation mechanism in which we must be trained, if we would avoid the harmful effects of speech which becomes false-to-fact when too little is considered. (2)




Phatic Communion




Silence must be regarded as a methodological device of first importance when it functions to induce delay, to aid the inspection of life facts, and to achieve a non-allness orientation. But there are occasions when we do not wish to keep still, when we talk for the sheer joy of talking...








1. Alfred Korzybski. Science and Sanity, (4th Edition, 1958). Lakeville, CT: Institute of General Semantics.




2. For the substance of the material on "silence," see Science and Sanity, pp. 34-35, 399-400, 416-417, 476-477, 481-485.




* Excerpts from Language Habits in Human Affairs, Second Edition, by Irving J. Lee, edited by Sanford I. Berman, published by the International Society for General Semantics, Concord, CA, in 1994, available from the Institute of General Semantics.


Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2005 Institute of General Semantics








Source Citation




MLA 9th Edition:




Lee, Irving J. "When to 'keep still'*." ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 62, no. 4, Oct. 2005, pp. 424+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A138483277/LitRC?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=f066eb1b. Accessed 4 Mar. 2023.




APA 7th Edition:




Lee, I. J. (2005). When to "keep still"*. ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, 62(4), 424+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A138483277/LitRC?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=f066eb1b




Chicago 17th Edition:




Lee, Irving J. "When to 'keep still'*." ETC.: A Review of General Semantics 62, no. 4 (2005): 424+. Gale Literature Resource Center (accessed March 4, 2023). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A138483277/LitRC?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=f066eb1b.








Lee, I.J. (2005) 'When to "keep still"*', ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, 62(4), 424+, available: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A138483277/LitRC?u=googlescholar&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=f066eb1b [accessed 04 Mar 2023].




March 4, 2023 | Permalink


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