Language as Magic
The theory that language and other symbolic representations of things can have magical properties is far from new. In this article, we will explore various theories of language as magic. In order to be clear: to say that language is magic is to say that using language (or symbolizing a non-existing state) has the capacity to bring about that which would otherwise be impossible. This is the standard of magic- not magic tricks- but real magic- to accomplish that which no other thing can accomplish, to do what is impossible for anything else. We will discover that throughout history, men and women have intuited the magical nature of language, but have responded to their intuition by making a variety of mistakes. We will explore the mistakes that have been made, and in doing so we may finally understand whether their intuition is right.
Today, the notion that language is magic is being popularized by various iterations of the “law of attraction” theory, whose fundamental ideas spread like wildfire after the “The Secret” was published. Despite the diminished interest or outright rejection of the book itself, many still accept its basic premise: “Whenever you think about, talk about, write about, or make images of something or some experience, you increase the likelihood that that experience will happen.”
The explanation of the mechanisms involved in the law of attraction, however, involves a series of psuedo-scientific invocations of terminology that is only designed to be meaningful within its field of study. For example, the law of attraction is said to work as a result of the fact that, since thoughts are made of so-called “pure energy,” energy of a certain kind is attracted to other energy of the same kind. Even if it were possible to talk about physical energy in a meaningful way outside of a formalized and mathematically sound theory (barring colloquial uses of the word), the theory already fails to work, because the energy corresponding to Bill thinking of a new Porsche would be more likely to attract other energy corresponding to Jeff thinking of a new Porsche, not to the energy corresponding to a Porsche. Bill and Jeff would then be attracted together, and probably talk about how they read the Secret or watched some youtube video and make a picture board of all the things they want. But they would not have a Porsche.
It has been theorized by anthropologists that the first symbolism involved creating images of that which was desired, which was, in the case of early humans, things to hunt. This is why essentially all of the oldest cave paintings consist of images of wild game being surrounded, hunted,and killed by humans. Apparently, early humans, despite their inability to articulate their beliefs and reasons, felt strongly enough that something like the law of attraction was at work that they put the effort into painting rather than activities directly related to survival or even enjoyment.
The most primitive symbolism was used by only a small class of people- call them magi, or wizards, or witches, whatever, they went by different names at different times and places- who intentionally maintained that their ability to make symbols was a secret, symbols became magical in a different way. The modern words we use to refer to the kinds of symbols this class of people used are rune, glyph, and spell. The double meaning of the word spell is so well-know it is almost never given a second thought, but to S-P-E-L-L is, according to the magi, to create a pattern of magic by combining a set of symbols. Of course, they had to be smart about the spells they cast, because they realized the magic wasn’t real- they just used it as a tool to manipulate others.
For example, some people figured out certain things long ago, but didn’t know how they worked, they could just do them: take, for example, a guy who figures out by accident that if you put potassium (which he doesn’t know is potassium) in water, it blows up. Say a spell, blow something up using some powder that you know how to make but you have no idea what it is, and ta-da, people think you’re a wizard. Some other will-be mage might figure out how to electrically charge his sword before battle. These guys aren’t going to give away the secrets to their powers, they are going to pretend it’s a magical ability invoked by spells. This is a short version of the origin of stories about wizards and mages and witches and so forth.
Another form of symbolic “magic” involves protection through deception. In some ancient tribes, people were told not to venture into the forest at night, for there was a monster there who would kill them; nobody had survived an encounter. The tribe would regularly bring back limbs and fingers to prove the monster was real. Every time the monster was around, a smoke signal would go up to warn everyone. Boys were trained to become warriors to gaurd from the monster. Around age 13 a boy would be abducted, taken to the warrior’s hut, the others would leave, and then the monster would come into the hut, scaring the boy senseless, until the monster revealed itself to be one of the tribe warriors. The symbol smoke plume was designed to deceive non-warrior members the tribe into staying indoors after a scout had noticed warriors from other tribes venturing close; thus, the deception was performed for the safety of the tribe. The limbs and fingers were from battles with the neighboring tribes. Apparently, the tribe leaders thought that tricking their own people with the idea of a monster would be more effective at saving lives than simply telling them a neighboring tribe was coming, which might cause them to attempt to fight.
Finally, there are occult religions that believe in the magical properties of language, the most prominent of which is Kabbalah, according to which God himself used written language to create: “At the very beginning the King made engravings in the supernatural purity.” The evolution of the world we experience, according to Kabbalists, manifests our of the symbols created by God. The meaning, the order, even the relative geometric orientation of the symbols, which is said to represent the Tree of Life, is of prime importance to Kabbalists. In Kabbalah, it is not clear whether the symbols created by humans have any magical significance. It is almost as if, for the Kabbalist, we simply do what we do, and then examine what we’ve written, and see that God’s magic is already in the writing, without us having even tried.
But now let us consider what we actually experience. What do symbols do? Symbols, by themselves, mean nothing, neither written nor spoken. The meaning is not IN the this word or, if you say this word out loud, in this sound. Furthermore the meaning of the listener/reader may not match the meaning of the speaker/writer. Why not? Where IS the meaning?
Is it in your brain? If I put myself into an fMRI machine and said the word, “word”, and you did the same, different parts of our brains would activate. There is no 1–1 correspondence between words and brain activity. Loosely speaking, the brain contains what is called a lexical subsystem that is responsible for organizing information about the various ways that we choose to represent our experiences- whether through writing, speaking, or sign language. But these neural pathways are not symbols. They are neural pathways. If they were symbols, we would not be able to use them, because there would be no machinery (like the brain) for selecting among them appropriately according to the context. If neural pathways were symbols, they would resemble a dictionary without definitions.
Is meaning found in dictionaries? After all, the very function of dictionaries is to make meanings explicit. But if you gave an English dictionary and a simple sentence like “The dog jumped through the hoop.” to a person had no knowledge whatsoever of English except, say, how to pronounce its words, that person would first look up the meaning of “the”. Then, that person would look up the first word used to define “the”, and so on and so on until eventually they got back to where they started, on the page containing the definition of the word “the”, which they arrived at in order to understand the definition of the last word in the hierarchy. This is what Douglas Hofstadter calls a Strange Loop, and it is how semantics work. Meaning, when analyzed, is just the way that things connect to and disconnect from each other.
It’s misleading to think of a Strange Loop as a thing. A Strange Loop is a way of seeing the relationships between things. It does not exist until you perceive it. That the meaning of words comes from the semantic/logical space between them does not imply that there is some heavenly realm in which the words exist and their relations are fixed (which is the mistake the Kabbalists made). To say that the Strange Loop doesn’t exist until you perceive it is merely to say that nothing is aware of it until it is perceived, and it is a product of action rather than a producer of action.
And now we have reached the crux of the matter. Regardless of the theory you make about language, it is only one of many effective actions in this world. Action is the driver of change, and language can be the driver of action, but it can also replace action through armchair activism. Language may be magical- after all, thousands of years ago, our ancestors engaged in hunting magic by painting wild game on cave walls, and now there is pre-prepared beef available cheaply on every city corner. But the real magic of language is the power it has to inspire, to evoke feelings, and bring people together.