Language and Evolution: Homepage Robin Allott


What I want to emphasise is the unrecognised power of words. the value of the individual word. We take words - language - very much for granted, just as we take our eyes, our power of vision for granted. But both are tremendously flexible and wide-ranging powers - which have hardly been described in any complete way, never mind explained.The paper is intended to do two main things. to categorise and illustrate the power of words, the different roles which language plays. Second, to assess the relevance for each of the areas considered of the motor theory of language evolution and function. Language is a powerful instrument. It is used in many different ways and constitutes one of the principal forces controlling and forming human behaviour. Besides its most familiar and normally most discussed use, communication, language is important through its use in one's private thought, in science and in oratory, in poetry, in philosophy - and perhaps most remarkably in techniques of hypnosis.

The power of words is considered in six areas:

Communication: How is it that words effectively represent the world, and allow the perception of the world by one individual to be transmitted to another?

Science: How can words grasp the real (unseen and unseeable) causal structure of the world, allow this structure from generation to generation to be refined and strengthened?

Philosophy: How through the manipulation of words could one arrive at some final understanding of 'everything' (the ambition of the metaphysicians)?

Poetry: How, in poetry, does language succeed in stimulating complex thought or emotion, creating a pattern of words which is permanent?

Oratory: How can words mould the minds of individuals and form them into a group, and then control the action of the group?

Hypnosis: How can the words of the hypnotist take control of the mind of another individual and determine his actions and perceptions?

How can language succeed (generally) in each of these roles?


Communication is changing someone's mind, physically. The neural patterning is altered. In communication, however, the exact words don't matter. The words disappear from memory very quickly; the meaning remains. Let me repeat that: The important thing is not which particular words you use. It's the meaning that matters.Contrast with poetry, oratory and advertising where the individual words chosen matter very greatly.

Words crystallise our thoughts. Make our thoughts recoverable. Make the thought of others recoverable. How is it that words effectively represent the world, and allow the perception of the world by one individual to be transmitted to another?

What is the essence of communication? Information transfer is the result of communication but not the essence of it. Information theory as such has very little relevance for communication by speech. The theory is concerned with the external channels of communication, not with the meaning, the content of the communication. How do words operate to convey information? What is to be explained -specifically ? The fundamental question is how it is that we come to know the world in terms of words. How do words function as a grasp on the everyday world? How does language acquire this power? What do words do in this role? How do they do it? There is something to be explained!

One may say that the power of words in communication is a derived power: but what is it derived from? There have been attempted explanations, particularly in terms of words and language operating as a symbolic system.

If you think of language only as a symbolic system, this does not carry one much further. The idea of 'symbol', or 'symbolic system' is unclear. 'Symbol' loosely used is an academic word, a mystifying word, used by different people in many different ways and often with quite contrary senses. Using 'symbolic system' as pretending to be an adequate account of language is as unhelpful as those philosophers who use 'sense-data' and 'representations' as accounts of the process of vision, the process of perception. Listen to a child three or four years old using language articulately to express its wants, its opinions, its observations. There is something miraculous about the clarity and purposefulness of the speech of little children. Explain it simply as the functioning of a symbolic system? Arithmetic uses what is clearly a symbolic system, of numbers - much simpler in its elements than those of language. But little children do not automatically gain fluency in using arithmetic symbols as they do in using words. If words and language are in some way a symbolic system, they must be a very special type of symbolic system.

What could we mean by 'symbols' in relation to language? We are familiar with some well-known powerful symbols:

National symbols: Rising Sun, Hammer and Sickle, Swastika, Flags generally Religious symbols: Cross, Crescent, Chakra, Keys, Fish, Images, Icons Royal symbols: Crown, Orb, Sceptre Institutional symbols: Judges' wigs, Policemen's helmets, Military uniform and rank symbols Group symbols: Football colours, Blackshirts, Scout uniforms and badges Academic symbols: Mathematical symbols:+ - / = , symbols in chemistry and other sciences Warning symbols: Danger: radiation,electricity (zigzag, skull and crossbones], Traffic symbols (Red/Green, School crossing, Falling rocks, Sharp corner)

In these examples, the symbol has some obvious association with what it refers to or, in some way, forms part of the experience to which it relates. But if words are symbols, how does the word have an obvious association to its meaning? How does the word form part of the experience to which it relates? The explanation in terms of the motor theory is that the word is the product or reflection of the already established integration of motor control with the neural organisation of perception.

This can be explained more vividly in terms of what I would call 'the Cartoon principle'. The word is a cartoon of the thing or action. Words are cartoons of the world outside ourselves. A cartoon has a structural relation to what it is a cartoon of. The parallelism is between the motor program involved in the saying of the word, and the motor program involved in the action to which the word refers, or in the perception of the thing to which the word refers. This is directly linked to the evolutionary origin of language, as derived from the motor basis of language which made possible the cerebral integration of motor control, perception and language. Through its integration with the neural organisation of perception and action, language acquired the power to represent experience both of the external world and of the internal world of the individual.

The source of the power of words is their individual relationship to perception and action. It is through this relationship that words are effective in communication.


OED: "Science. A branch of study which is concerned with either a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truth within its own domain... The kind of knowledge or intellectual activity of which the 'sciences' are examples.

Language of course is not the only remarkable intellectual power which humans possess. Equally remarkable there is Mathematics, an independent power which together with language constitutes modern Science. Science is a system consisting of a network of theories expressed in words. The theories are framed in terms of named entities (time, space,energy, electron, field, galaxy, oxygen).The theories formulate laws which usually employ mathematical symbols to relate the entities in the particular branch of science to one another. Scientists typically communicate by means of words and symbols (mathematical, chemical, etc,). Science involves communication but is obviously a rather special type of communication.

What specifically has to be explained about the role of words in Science? It is how words used in science are able to grasp the real (unseen and unseeable) causal structure of the world, and allow understanding of this structure to be progressively refined and to be transmitted from one generation of scientists to the next.

An essential feature of science is the theory. What is 'a theory'? The OED shows how the term has been used:

A conception or mental scheme of something to be done or of the method of doing it (1597). A scheme or system of ideas as explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena. (1638) Mental view (1710).

The original meaning of theory (THEORIA) was 'viewing', 'a sight'. Science is a mode of perception. A theory is a systematic perception of a realm of scientific facts. In Science, words are used to name new entities (positron, gene) or to relate the results of new investigations to previously-named entities. In Science, words are being extended or narrowed to cover a different range of scientific experience.

The history of science has very largely been bound up with the systematisation and extension of observation. Scientists have extended perception beyond normal, everyday limits. This has been made possible by the development of new or improved instruments: Telescopes, Microscopes, Measuring Instruments, Cameras, Television (from Space), Computer graphics, Models (DNA), NMR, PET, X-rays, Radio waves.

There has been a continuing shift in science from immediate perception to remote, abstract perception. Besides the new or improved instruments, a key factor has been the vigorous exercise of scientific imagination, usually visual imagination. Eminent examples are Copernicus (the solar system), Newton (the falling apple and the falling moon),Einstein (gravity and relativity theory by way of visual imaginings of trams, lifts, measuring rods). The role of visual imagination in the progress of science has been investigated. Jacques Hadamard in 1945 undertook a famous inquiry among American mathematicians to find out their working methods. This produced the striking conclusion that nearly all of them (with only two exceptions) tackled their problems neither in verbal terms nor by algebraic symbols, but called on visual imagery of a vague, hazy nature. Einstein himself wrote: 'The words of the language as they are written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought ... which relies on more or less clear images of a visual and some of a muscular type.'(Note 2) Most of the creative scientists, who have described their working methods, seem to have been visualisers.

But even if the advance of science necessarily depends on the extension or intensification of perception, the use of visual imagination, it still remains the case that words, language, play an important role. The classic discussion of the relation between language and scientific progress is in Kuhn's (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Note 3). In his view, scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group. Neither scientists nor laymen learn to see the world piecemeal or item by item. Both scientists and laymen sort out whole areas together from the flux of experience. The current form of a science depends upon discovering what isolable elements the members of the particular scientific community may have abstracted from their more global paradigms and deployed as rules in their research. Textbooks aim to communicate the vocabulary and syntax of a contemporary scientific language. The Copernicans who denied the traditional title 'planet' to the sun were changing the vocabulary, the meaning of 'planet'.

There can be no scientifically or empirically neutral system of language or concepts. The practice of normal science depends on the ability, acquired from exemplars, to group objects and sensations into similarity sets which are primitive in the sense that the grouping is done without an answer to the question, 'Similar with respect to what?'. That sort of learning is not acquired by exclusively verbal means. Rather it comes as one is given words together with concrete examples of how they function in use; nature and words are learned together; learning from problems to see situations as like each other, as subjects for the application of the same scientific law or law-sketch. For a given science, there is a disciplinary matrix, the common possession of the practitioners of the particular discipline,composed of ordered elements. Kuhn remarks that if the student of Newtonian dynamics ever discovers the meaning of terms like 'force', 'mass', 'space' and 'time', he does so less from the incomplete definitions in his text than by observing and participating in the application of these concepts to problem- solution. He has to acquire the same gestalt as other members of his specialists' group, a time-tested and group-licensed way of seeing.

But whilst in these ways scientific knowledge is systematised and preserved, it is also necessary that there should be a mechanism for scientific change. Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently. To make the transition to Einstein's universe, the whole conceptual web whose strands are space, time, matter, force and so on, had to be shifted and laid down again on nature whole. This need to change the meaning of established and familiar concepts is central to the revolutionary impact of Einstein's theory. the scientific revolution as a displacement of the conceptual network through which scientists view the world. A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. A science's reorientation is a process that involves 'handling the same bundle of data as before, but placing them in a new system of relations with one another by giving them a different framework'. Others have emphasised its similarity to a change in visual gestalt: the marks on paper that were first seen as a bird are now seen as an antelope. There is even evidence that these same characteristics [those involved in scientific discovery] are built into the nature of the perceptual process itself.

Though Kuhn's account agrees with other evidence that the origin of scientific advance is in perception, not in words or in verbal analysis, nevertheless science is dependent on words both for communication between scientists and for the preservation of the content of science over time. Scientific progress reflects in words changes in scientific perception. The words used in science are not arbitrary. Many of the words in the scientific lexicon are those familiar from ordinary uses of language. The first scientific words were ordinary words, water, sun, light, sound. The progress of scientific language has taken three forms: the first has been to add to or define more sharply the content, the reference, of ordinary words used in scientific contexts; some of the greatest progress has come from this e.g. extension or closer definition of words such as rest, motion, force, weight, heat, light. The second type of change in scientific language has taken the form of borrowing from other languages (particularly Greek and Latin); the words borrowed have been ordinary words in the original languages but have been given a special application in scientific use. The third type of change in scientific language has been the creation of new words for new observational complexes; even these words are not arbitrary. They are chosen to fit the existing network of scientific words and to give some indication of their application or meaning. The most arbitrary words in science are adapted from the surnames of scientific discoverers: Newton, Ohm, Watt, Pascal, Hertz, Volt, Maxwell, Henry.Most of these words refer to forces etc. which are not visible and are outside the range of ordinary human experience. Nevertheless, they have been chosen so as to maintain links with pre-existing structures of ideas or prior scientific experience.

How relevant for scientific language is the account given in the motor theory of the origin of words? The ordinary words used in science (including borrowed words) carry with them their primitive 'cartoon' contours - e.g. muscle-spindle, tangent, foot, bacterium, wave, mammal, digit, scale. Scientific concepts are anchored to the structures of ordinary sense, of 'commonsense', by words such as these and, of course, function- words in science [ and, or, all, from, to etc.] are the ordinary function-words. Other than new words for forces, particles etc. where there can be no ordinary perception of the objects or actions involved, the sound-shapes of words in science have the same origin as the sound-shapes of ordinary words. The process of narrowing or extending the meanings of scientific words is much the same process as takes place with ordinary words; children extend or narrow the meanings of words as their experience widens. It seems justifiable to conclude that there is continuity between the development and use of ordinary words in ordinary communication and the development and use of the more specialised words in science. For both sets of words, the power of the words derives from their links with perception and action.


Science has been successful, philosophy on the whole has not. This makes the question of the power of words in philosophy different from that of the power of words in science. Uncertainty about the nature and objectives of philosophy adds to the difficulty.

OED: That department of knowledge or study which deals with ultimate reality, or with the most general causes and principles of things

Views about the nature and achievements of philosophy vary widely. Some authors have been reasonably optimistic, others extremely pessimistic, others think that although little has been achieved so far,philosophy may yet find some fruitful line of progress. Below are a few examples of each tendency.


An enlightening and satisfying interpretation of the universe. 'Completely unified knowledge', in contrast with the 'partly unified knowledge' of science (Spencer)(Note 4). The mind's insight into what knowing is.(Hegel)(Note 5)


A futile battle between combatants clad in impenetrable armour. The spectacle of philosophers quarrelling endlessly over the same issues.(Rorty) (Note 6) The scandalous fact that after more than 2000 years philosophers are still unclear about what philosophy is. (Ambrose) (Note 7) The way these cusses slip so fluently off into the 'Idea'... etc. .. and undertake to give a logical explanation of everything which is so palpably trumped up after the facts. (James) (Note 8)

A middle view:

There is no reason to believe that philosophical enquiries their very nature, inconclusive.This was a remediable fault of philosophers, due to premature system-building and impatient ambition, which left them neither the inclination nor the time to assemble the facts, impartially and cooperatively, and then to build their unifying theories, cautiously and slowly, on a collective, and therefore secure, base. (Austin) (Note 9). There is no hard-and-fast line between scientific and metaphysical problems. All our scientists are describing the same world but in many different languages. Put their descriptions into a single language, which will reveal the common features of the world. (Note 10)

What could be plausible objectives for philosophy?

- to accommodate the human mind in the conceptual structure of science? - to unite subject and object? - to unite mind and brain, mind and body? - to understand understanding?

But where, if one pursues one or other of these objectives, should one put language, the role, the power of words in philosophy? Until comparatively recently, philosophers paid surprisingly little attention to the role of language, even though philosophy relies on language and the analysis of language more than any other intellectual pursuit. Hegel himself made only scattered and unimportant references to language, In Descartes, as Merleau-Ponty has pointed out, "its mediating role may pass unnoticed ... Descartes nowhere mentions it. .. never even mentions language as the condition of the reading of the cogito." (Note 11)

In this century, philosophers have become 'sensitised' to language, though often in only limited respects, not recognising the total dependence of all philosophising on the use of words, and the objective of philosophers as being essentially to create a unified structure of words.

The concern with language has taken various forms. Wittgenstein's early and later work was preoccupied with language. The central question of the Tractatus is: How is language possible? How can a man, by uttering a sequence of words, say something? "One is often bewitched by a word. For example, by the word 'know'". (note 12) Though finally he was pessimistic about the potential of philosophy: "It can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is 'purely descriptive'

Another manifestation of a new interest in language was the development of the 'ordinary language' school (chiefly in Oxford). The guiding idea of this was that ordinary language is more subtle and less confused than the earlier linguistic philosophers had supposed and something could be learnt from the study of use in ordinary language of key terms in philosophy. Our common stock of words embodies [ connections and distinctions] .. likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you and I are likely to think up in our armchairs of an afternoon - the most favoured alternative method (Austin) (Note 13). But he [Austin] accepted that even although 'as a preliminary' the philosopher must track down in detail the ordinary use of words, in the end he will always be compelled 'to straighten them out to some degree'. (Note 14)

A parallel line of thought (Ryle) was that many of the problems of philosophers derive from their own misuse of ordinary terms in language; the misuse of words like 'know' and 'mind', 'believe', 'doubt', 'infer' and so on. (Note 15) Misconstructions and absurd theories would be revealed and many so-called philosophical problems would disappear. And others thought that a concern with language was irrelevant(Popper): "Language is no more than a kind of spectacles through which one looks at the world: "one shouldn't waste one's life in spectacle-cleaning or in talking about language". (Note 16) Another view emphasised the likely need to reform the basic terms of philosophy. According to Feyerabend, our everyday language itself incorporates theories; we can hope to make advances in such tangled fields as the mind-body problem only if we are prepared to recognise that there may need to be wholesale changes in our ordinary modes of using such expressions as 'thought' and 'sensation'... (Note 16)

The emphasis in England and the United States on the role of language in philosophy was unwelcome to most Continental philosophers. So Van Breda: "the thesis that the sole point of contact with that reality which philosophy wishes to understand is language is entirely inadmissible. To say that the reality we wish to understand is conceptual reality is still more objectionable" The philosopher wants to understand not conceptual reality, but the world in which we live, in all its complexity". (Note 17)

But if an approach by way of language is impracticable or undesirable, what alternative is there? The other more traditional approach was in terms of perception, analysis of the ways in which we come to know the world. This approach also was widely thought to have reached a dead-end with Kant's Critique; the 'thing-in-itself' is unknowable. All we have access to are the categories into which our experience must fall; we cannot escape from ourselves to achieve any real knowledge of the world. More recently, Merleau-Ponty and Konrad Lorenz have suggested ways of escaping from the Kantian dilemma. Merleau-Ponty's rallying cry has been 'Back to perception' in terms of a body- subject involved in perception. (Note 18) Lorenz as a biologist formulates the answer to the Kantian dilemma in the following terms:: "The cognitive apparatus is itself an objective reality which has acquired its present form through contact with and adaptation to equally real things in the outer world The 'spectacles' of our modes of thought and perception, such as causality, substance, quality, time and place (the Kantian categories) are functions of a neurosensory organisation that has evolved in the service of survival. What we experience is a real image of reality, albeit an extremely simple one, only just sufficing for our practical purposes". (Note 19)

Both of these responses to Kant seem valid. The philosophical impasse of perception is resolved by the evolutionary and historical convergence of the organisation of the perceiving subject and the real perceived world. For Kant, human understanding 'prescribes its laws to nature' - but evolution, developing nature, had much earlier in biological history 'prescribed' to the human mind its categories and functioning, to accord with the real world. The integration of perception, action and language, combined with the true knowledge of the external world which the evolution of the cognitive and visual apparatus has made possible, opens the way to a new pursuit of philosophical truth through language. For the human race, the Kantian forms of understanding have, as a result of evolutionary development, become embodied in our neurological and physiological structures. The perceiving subject and the perceived object are equally real. Knowledge derives from the interaction between them.

Language is not 'the sole and essential point of contact for the philosopher with reality' - and the most pressing contacts with reality impose themselves without any intermediation of language. Nor is language an abstract rational structure but one built on human neurophysiological structure. Language is validated by perception and action, not the other way round. Language, as a flexible instrument designed to match the open-endedness of human experience, perception and action, can be a reliable medium for exploring, recording and developing man's knowledge of the external world and of his own nature.

Philosophy has in the past aspired to the certainty and success of science (particularly mathematics. Nowadays philosophy has to take account also of the striking successes of the physical and biological sciences. The essential problem of philosophy is the problem of the whole of which we are part, our bodies and brains as part of nature. Philosophy can advance as science increasingly tackles the physiological and neurological foundations of human behaviour. Ultimately 'understanding the mind may not be as intricate as our vanity hoped or our intellect feared' (Llinas) (Note 20) Without a new input from the brain sciences, philosophy, a discipline founded on language and on the manipulation of the meaning of words and sentences,is in practice in no better position to explain its primitive concepts,e.g. 'meaning', than it is to explain the nature of the colour 'red'. Philosophy cannot by verbal manipulation arrive at any deeper understanding of 'mind', 'thought', 'belief', 'knowledge', The power of words in this context will come from their reality as neural patterning, with a real relation to the processes or states to which the words refer. On this approach, the word 'consciousness' is a real neural organisation which has a real relation to the neural organisation (activity?) which is seen as constituting consciousness.


Defining poetry satisfactorily has proved as problematical as defining philosophy satisfactorily. There are some not very satisfactory academic definitions. So the OED: The expression of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination or feeling, in appropriate language, such language containing a rhythmical element and having usually a metrical form. There are unfortunately marked gradations of the poetic; verse may have poetic form without poetic content or force. However, even if definition is difficult there is the consolation suggested by Nemerov: "If poetry is almost impossible to define, it is extremely easy to recognise in experience." (Note 21)

Poets themselves have often attempted to say what is important to them in poetry, what they mean by poetry. The following is a small selection of poets' views:

Or est poème ce qui ne se peut résumer. On ne résume pas une mélodie. La puissance des vers tient à une harmonie indéfinissable entre ce qu'ils disent et ce qu'ils sont.. L'alliance mystèrieuse et extra-juste des idées ou des mots. Je m'abandonne à l'éternel allure; lire, vivre où menent les mots. Mes mots viennent de loin. (Valéry) (Note 22)

The labyrinthine communings of words. Above everything else, poetry is words, and words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds. Words are indications, not definitions. In poetry,the word seems to operate as a unity of all its powers.

That momentary peace which is a poem. The whole aim of a poet is to produce something which is complete and will endure without change. Poetry is both perception and the thing perceived. Poetic form far from being a mere public convention is the personal and organic made objective and accessible: giving form to the living stuff of the imagination.

Poetry like science is the process of discovering: how to make words fulfil the human being and the human being fulfil word. A complex perfection associable with nothing less complex than truth. We write in order to understand, not in order to be understood: the poet's relentless compulsion to know himself. The structure of poetry is an exact presentation of the nature of human perception.

Others besides poets have discussed the nature of poetry as an aspect of language. So Jakobson:

"Nowhere is the direct interplay of sound and meaning more salient than in poetry. In fact, poetry is the most important focus of linguistic creativity. Any science of language must find a proper place for the mutual implication of the two comparable universals: Language and Poetry. ... The passion of the linguist and poet Edward Sapir for the work of the poet and linguist Gerard Manley Hopkins, and particularly for his 'almost terrible immediacy of utterance', a power spontaneously bound with a 'wild joy in the sheer sound of words'. The magical power which is associated with sound per se." (Note 24)

Some of the more thoughtful reflections on poetry were by Saint- John Perse in accepting the Nobel prize for literature:

"Du savant comme du poéte, c'est la pensée desintéressé..Car l'interrogation est la même qu'ils tiennent sur un même abîme, et seuls leurs modes d'investigation diffèrent. Au vrai, toute création de l'esprit est d'abord 'poétique' au sens propre du mot. De la pensée discursive ou de l'éllipse poétique, qui va plus loin, et de plus loin? Et de ce nuit originelle où tâtonnent deux aveugles-nés, l'un équipé de l'outillage scientifique, l'autre assisté des seules fulgurations de l'intuition, qui donc plus tôt remonte, et plus charge de brève phosphérescence? La réponse n'importe. Le mystère est commun. Aussi loin que la science récule ses frontières, et sur tout l'arc étendu de ces frontières, on entendra courir encore la meute chasséresse du poéte.

Mais plus que mode de connaissance, la poésie est d'abord mode de vie - et de vie intégrale. Le poéte existait dans l'homme des cavernes, il existera dans l'homme des âges atomiques parce qu'il est part irréductible de l'homme....Se refusant à dissocier l'art de la vie, ni de l'amour la connaissance, elle est action, elle est passion, elle est puissance, et novation toujours qui déplace les bornes....C'est d'une même étreinte qu'elle embrasse au present tout le passé et l'avenir, l'humain avec le surhumain, et tout l'espace planétaire avec l'espace universel. L'obscurité qu'on lui reproche ne tient pas à sa nature propre, qui est d'éclairer, mais à la nuit même qu'elle explore et qu'elle doit d'explorer : celle de l'âme elle-même et du mystère où baigne l'être humain." (Note 25)

Poetry seems to be a universal, One can respond to some extent to poems in other languages, to judge what they have in common, to form some view on where the power of words in poetry comes from - even if we necessarily do not feel their force as completely as we do that of poems in our own language. It is interesting to compare European poetry with poetry in a very different tradition, the Japanese haiku. (Note 26) Haiku is a special very short poetic form in three lines, the first having five syllables, the second having seven, and the third again five. Haiku uses the simplest words, chiefly names of things in dynamic relationship. A haiku does not express ideas but puts forward images reflecting intuitions(Suzuki) It aims at identification with the object - mind-pointing at an object without mentation. The haiku has close links with the Zen tradition. It shares with other arts qualities belonging to the Zen aesthetic - simplicity, naturalness, directness, profundity - and each poem has its dominant mood: isolation, poverty, impermanence, mystery. Haiku is an object of meditation, drawing back the curtain on essential truth. What we may call a zenic haiku is one that causes enhanced perception. Ikegami (Note 27) says that the view of haiku is very close to the notion of language as a 'primary modelling system'; it reflects one of the important theses of Zen Buddhism. 'Do not reason with words'; it presents situations in which the frame offered by language is of no help to be able to grapple with the reality which may be hidden behind the screen of language.

Despite the notorious difficulty of translating poetry, it seems to me that, after allowing for the Zen element in haiku, the effect as well as the description of the nature of the haiku given above is very similar to that of many types of European lyric poetry and to the practice and approach of European poets. The Japanese view of haiku is close not to academic views of poetry but to what poets themselves have thought to be the nature of poetry.

There can be no doubt that poetry is powerful and that the power of poems comes from the power of the words which form the poems - but what can be said about the source of the power of poetic words? There is the general power of words which I have referred to in earlier sections of this paper: Words crystallise our thoughts, Make our thoughts recoverable, Make the thought of others recoverable; but in poetry the particular words chosen matter much more than they do in the case of words for simple communication. Poetry calls upon the full content, the total complex, of each word.

A poem is a structure of words which persists. In prose what matters is the meaning, which can be represented in a variety of verbal formulations. In reading prose, what remains in our memory is not the particular words used but the meaning, and if asked we may reproduce the meaning in words quite different from those of the original text. In poetry the meaning matters but so also do the particular words used. The poem operates by creating a sound- structure which preserves the actual words Rhyme locks the words of a poem together, as do repetition and rhythmic patterning or assonance and alliteration. The network of words which forms the poem preserves in it the 'iceberg' words, the words which go deep into the conceptual and emotional structure of the individual.

The particular word, on the motor theory of language origin and function, was not an arbitrary formation, with an arbitrary relation to its meaning but a structure derived from and parallel to the elements forming the structure of the percept or the action. The word is a specific pattern of neural organisation directly related to neural organisation involved in perceiving some specific object or performing some specific act. The effectiveness of language results from the transmission via articulated sound of a pattern of neural organisation from the speaker to the hearer, who reproduces in his own neural organisation an order, a structure, homoeomorphic with the pattern in the speaker.

A poem is formed of carefully selected words and is thus a representation of a particular pattern of brain organisation. The words are not simply a linear string but a multi-dimensional structure where all the words forming the poem interact. A poem resembles in this way patterns in music, the combination of melody and harmony. Recall the poet's phrase quoted earlier: 'the labyrinthine communings of words'. Because the poetic form preserves the selected words, the success of the poem flows from the power of the individual words, the power of the 'iceberg' words.


OED: The art of speaking eloquently. Fluent, forcible and appropriate expression. 'Oratory which relates to the moving of passions' (Jonathan Swift).

Oratory is designed to persuade, to provoke action and reaction. For perceptual theorists, persuasion operates by altering the person's perception of any object or of his attitudes. Advertising can be seen as a subvariety of oratory. In oratory words - language - are obviously powerful. Examples of successful oratory are hardly necessary: Khomeini, Luther, De Gaulle, Churchill, Hitler, Danton, John Wesley. Given the power of oratory, there is something to explain. How does the orator through the power of words succeed? How can words mould the minds of individuals and form them into a group, and then control the action of the group? What is the power derived from?

A number of elements in successful oratory can be identified. Oratory uses some of the techniques also found in poetry: sound patterns (assonance, alliteration, repetition); strongly marked rhythmic patterns. Words are grouped into memorable phrases, slogans. As in poetry, the formal patterns of speech are used to emphasise and to preserve particular words in the minds of the hearers - what in relation to poetry I have called 'Iceberg' words. Repetition and rhythmic patterning lock in specific words, words carrying a powerful emotional or associational charge. There are notorious or famous examples: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer: Blood, sweat and tears: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

Oratory also uses techniques which in their effects resemble the rather different ones used in hypnosis to hold the hearers' attention, for example gesture accompanying speech. In oratory, the movements of the speaker - the gestures - reflect, are patterned on the action patterns of the speech, of the individual words. Under emotional stress, words prescribe action. The motor programs spill over from articulation to bodily movement. The speaker makes himself into the marionette controlled by his words. Perception of his movement reinforces the effect of his words on the hearers. The powerful rhythms, powerful words and gestures often are coupled with powerful visual symbols:National symbols: Swastika, Rising Sun, Hammer and Sickle, Flags; Religious symbols: Cross, Crescent; Group symbols: Blackshirts; Military symbols.

The effect of successful oratory is literally to change the minds of the crowd, to change the neural patternings of the hearers. Oratory achieves this through the combination of words (powerful words associated with forceful action and concrete perceptions) + harmonised action (gestures deriving from the words) + visual symbolic context (flags, slogans). Arthur Koestler emphasised the power and dangers of oratory. "Man's deadliest weapon is language. He is as susceptible to being hypnotised by slogans as he is to infectious diseases... The individual is not a killer, but the group is, and by identifying with it the individual is transformed into a killer. This is the infernal dialectic reflected in man's history of wars, persecution and genocide. And the main catalyst of that transformation is the hypnotic power of the word. The words of Adolf Hitler were the most powerful agents of destruction at his time." (Note 28)

Apart from the use of words in hypnosis, oratory offers perhaps the most vivid illustration of the power of spoken words, power in a literal sense. On the motor theory of language origin and function, the source of this power is the individual relationship of words to perception and action. Supported by the other elements described, the words used by the orator create images in the minds of the hearers and implant patterns of action. They are able to do this because words are not empty symbols but neural patterns derived from the motor programs associated with action and perception.


OED: An artificially produced state in which the subject appears to be in a deep sleep, without any power of changing his mental or physical condition, except under the influence of some external suggestion or direction.

The definition is unsatisfactory but provides a starting-point. The power of hypnotism is undoubted as is the role of words in the process. What is to be explained is how the words of the hypnotist can take control of the mind of another individual and determine his actions and perceptions. Their use in inducing and controlling the hypnotic state constitutes the nakedest demonstration of the power of words.

Accounts of the process of hypnosis drawn from a variety of sources are in close agreement. (Note 29) The induction of hypnosis requires little training and no particular skill. A tape recording often is sufficient and may be fully as effective as an experienced hypnotist. Very often the patient is simply sitting in a chair, while the doctor speaks to him giving suitable suggestions. Any procedure that produces momentary clouding of consciousness can be used to activate responses to suggestions; the effect is enhanced when the subject is drowsing or about to fall asleep.

One of the first users of hypnotism, Braid, concluded that concentration on a single focus of attention was a major factor in the situation. Perhaps influenced by his own practice as an ophthalmic surgeon, he looked for the essential nature of 'animal magnetism' (as it was then called) primarily in eye-fatigue, and later, in fatigue of the 'inner or psychic eye' as he put it. Later experimenters agree that it is the positive focusing of attention that is important in hypnosis. Various devices to produce the necessary concentration (and fatigue) are used: a rotating picture of a spiral is popular or arrangements of mirrors and fixation points, flashing lights, or non-visual methods such as attention to breath sounds.

Once the necessary concentration of attention has been achieved, ordinary inductions begin with simple suggestions that will almost inevitably be accepted by all subjects and involve passive concentration on verbal formulas. There are a number of standard verbal formulas and standard exercises: 'your right arm is heavy' 'your right arm is warm' 'your heartbeat is calm and regular'. Gradually the suggestions involve increasing distortion of perception or memory accompanied by suggestions of visual fatigue, taking advantage of eye strain during fixation.

When hypnosis has been induced, the subject typically will ignore all stimuli but the hypnotist: "You will pay attention only to my voice". A peculiar quality of speech seems helpful in making hypnotic suggestions - the voice quality monotonous and repetitious, intense, insistent and simple. The most effective verbal formulas take the form of vivid word-pictures of concrete images that are easily imagined.A continuous stimulation by words associated with a particular act will bring about the act, whether the words are those of the subject himself or of some other person. In terms of hypnotic responsiveness, some suggestions such as those of eye closure and feelings of heaviness, warmth and relaxation are effective with most individuals. The attitude of passive concentration is maintained - a casual attitude, with any goal-directed effort to be avoided. Suggestions are best given in an indicative rather than an imperative form: not 'Lift your hand' but 'It is becoming light ... the fingers are beginning to rise .. they feel like balloons as they float into the air'.

Once the hypnotic state has been established, by the fixation of attention plus suggestions of relaxation, there seems to be nothing more to hypnotism than the words used. It can only be the individual words of the hypnotist that produce the bizarre actions and perceptions of the hypnotic subject. Experts agree that both in the induction of hypnosis and in subsequent suggestions to the subject, the hypnotist should speak in a low, unemotional voice, intense but without emphasis; the effects are not achieved by the kind of pantomime, emphatic speech etc. that may form part of the orator's art.

So how do the individual words used by the hypnotist produce such striking effects? . There have been many attempts at explanation but there is no generally accepted satisfactory account. Often would-be explanations merely describe without explaining. Two lines of thought however look more promising: monoideism and ideomotor action. Monoideism means that the (proprioceptive) stimulus emanating from a simple idea (pure-stimulus act) plays continuously on the neuromuscular equipment of the organism; this stimulation evokes the act of which it is the 'mental equivalent'. The psychologist Hull, in a paper 'Interpretation of hypnosis', said that the essential feature was the elimination, through relaxation and the concentration and fatigue procedures, of all ideas competing with those offered by the hypnotist. Removal of sensory competitives would, in his terms, ' give the continuous stimulation emanating from the symbolic processes (ideas) of the experimenter a kind of right of way to the control of the subject's movements'. (Note 30)

William James developed an account of 'ideomotor action' on lines similar to those earlier proposed by Lotze. Lotze had suggested that the mental image of a definite movement had attached to it as a necessary result the appearance of that definite movement. James termed 'ideomotor response'. the experience that when the subject vividly imagines moving his body he has a marked tendency to do what he is thinking. 'Every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object. We think the act and it is done.An anticipatory image of the sensorial consequences of a movement is the only psychic state which introspection lets us discern as the forerunner of our voluntary acts. Movement is the natural immediate effect of feeling'. James went on to suggest how one may experience this for oneself: "Try to feel as if you were crooking your little finger, whilst keeping it straight. In a minute it will fairly tingle with the imaginary change of position; yet it will not sensibly move, because it's not really moving is also a part of what you have in mind. Drop this idea, think of the movement purely and simply, with all brakes off, and presto! it takes place with no effort at all." (Note 31) More recently, in his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty based his accounts both of perception and of language on the unity of the body- subject. He speaks about 'a motor presence of the word'. For him, the word is first of all 'an event which grips my body. When I read the word 'warm' my body prepares itself for heat and so to speak, roughs out its outline.' (Note 32)

Both monoideism and ideomotor action, as applied to hypnosis, would suggest that the hypnotist succeeds by inducing in the subject ideas of action or perception which, in the absence of competing ideas, are translated into movement or apparently actual perception. But this leaves a gap: how do the words used by the hypnotist produce the movements or percepts? The motor theory provides the link by proposing that the structures of the words the hypnotist uses are derived in fact from the structures (the motor programs) which constitute the actions or percepts. As the subject hears the words of the hypnotist, the words create in the subject motor programs appropriate for the actions or percepts. In the absence of any competing neural patterning, the motor programs are automatically executed. The words operate as direct instructions to the muscles. Recent research on bird-song has illustrated the close link there can be between auditory patterns and the neural motor system. In a paper 'A motor theory of song perception' Kelley reported that the motor neurons of the syrinx which produce song responded when the bird was listening to song from another bird. (Note 33)


A few ideas left over from the main discussion:

Words: This has been an attempt to identify, analyse and explain the power of words. One might ask: Why the power of words and not the power of language? There are several reasons: 'language' is much less specific, a vaguer concept, than words but at the same time there has been much more discussion of the function, structure and philosophy of language than there has been of words. The new point made in this paper is that each word has a power deriving not from convention or authority but from its sound structure. However, the significance of language as such in the evolution and development of human beings and human societies has been immense but needs, and has received, separate treatment in other papers.

Motor theory of language: How far, for each of the areas considered in this paper are the views and the experience of practitioners consistent with the motor theory of language evolution and function? If words, in these different roles, are powerful because of the origin of language by modelling on the motor system and the link to perception, what next? Where does this lead? Where should this lead? Where it should lead is to a complete revision of ideas about the functioning of poetry, the mode of operation of hypnosis, the impact of oratory, the direction of development in philosophy. In due course practitioners in these different fields may find the ideas in this paper useful.

Philosophy: Academic philosophy is generally fragmented with many academic philosophers heading down ever-narrowing cul-de- sacs. What is needed is a switch from partial philosophies to total philosophy - as philosophy once was. This would not be the old metaphysics, a manipulation simply of verbal concepts and conceptual neologisms but a philosophy which takes full account of the human brain and the human body. The way forward in philosophy is through neurophilosophy (Patricia Churchland), the integration into the thought of philosophers of the ever-growing neurological understanding, reinforced by new methods for observing and measuring the activity of the brain in real time in its production of language, formulation of actions, generation of emotions.

Science: In Science, both the words and the measuring (instrumental) techniques are needed. E=MC^2 means nothing unless there are the words Mass, Energy and Speed of Light correlated with the formula; the mathematical symbols have linguistic meaning.There is no hard-and-fast line between scientific and metaphysical problems; the words act as Cartoons for complexes of the scientific experience, the iceberg words in Science (in this science and poetry approach one another as St. John Perse proposed). All scientists are describing the same world but in many different languages; the need is to put their descriptions into a single language, which will reveal the common features of the world, make possible an enlightening and satisfying interpretation of the universe.

Evolution: Given the power of words, and their functioning in language, and given language as the faculty so sharply separating humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, a new understanding of words and language must have great relevance in assessing the human race's past, present and future. Should we be preparing an obituary for the human race [see the dinosaurs] or should we attempt to assess an evolutionary future which language and the intellectual capacities deriving from language make possible?


1. See Allott 1985, 1989
2. Hadamard and Einstein. Quoted by Koestler p. 149 in Koestler 1978
3. Kuhn 1970. pp.7, 43 47, 85, 102, 128, 144, 149, 182, 189, 190, 191, 200
4. Spencer see Passmore p. 41
5. Hegel p. 90 (what knowing is)
6. Rorty pp. 1, 2
7. Ambrose in Rorty ed. p. 153
8. James in Passmore p. 109 'these cusses' (letter to his mother 1867)
9. Hampshire in Rorty quoting Austin p. 243
10.Whitehead in Passmore p. 338
11.Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception p. 402
12.Wittgenstein p. 57 On Certainty (bewitched by a word), p. 18 Blue and Brown Books, in Malcolm p. 902
13. Austin quoted by Shapere in Rorty p. 282
14. Austin quoted in Passmore p. 451 (from A Plea for Excuses Proc. Arist.Soc.) 1961
15.Ryle 1949 and in Magee p. 132 (not concerned about perception)
16.Popper in Magee 1971 pp. 169-171, 173 (language as spectacles)
16.Feyerabend in Passmore p. 526
17.Van Breda in Rorty p.325
18.Merleau-Ponty p. 174 ff. in Phenomenology of Perception and p.499 in Passmore
19.Lorenz in Behind the Mirror p.7 ff.
20.Llinas in Blakemore and Greenfield p. 355
21.Nemerov pp. 599, 601
22. Valéry:
Sewell, B. 1952. Paul Valéry: The Mind in the Mirror. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes.
Varieté III. Gallimard. 1953. p. 280, p. 44, p. 178, pp. 74-75
Tel Quel I. Gallimard. 1971. p. 32, p. 176, p. 180, p. 182, p. 190, p. 217,
p. 35 'Names have definitively alighted upon things'.
p. 52 J'ai pitié de nous tous, ô tourbillons de poudre!'
Tel Quel II. 1971. Gallimard. p. 63, p. 65, p. 80 (quoted in POW), p. 128 gestes,
In Pierre Trahard Le Mystère Poétique Paris: AG Nizet 1970:
(an interesting book]
p. 159 C'est le langage même dont Valery revêt sa pensée. 'Je m'abandonne à l'éternelle allure: lire, vivre où mènent les mots. Leur apparition est écrite.Leurs sonorités concertées. Leur ébranlement se compose d'apres une méditation antèrieure, et ils se précipitent, en groupes magnifiques ou purs dans la resonance'. (from Poésies p. 62]
23. In Scully, James. 1966. Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. p. 25 W.B. Yeats (cold winds)p. 54 Robert Frost (the gold in the ore), p. 106 Marianne Moore (the personal and the organic), p. 149 Wallace Stevens (poetry is words), p. 159 Hart Crane (labyrinthine communings), p. 164 (a single new word), p. 165 (living stuff), Auden p. 188, Dylan Thomas p. 194 (momentary peace), p. 195-197 (in love with words etc.)
Skelton, Robin. 1978. Poetic Truth. London: Heinemann.
p.1 (word as unity of all its powers), p. 127 (poetry and perception)
24.Jakobson and Waugh pp. 234, 270
25. Saint-John Perse (1970) Allocution au banquet Nobel pp. 241-245.
26. Haiku:
Blyth, R.H. 1942. Zen in English literature. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press.
Suzuki, D.T. 1959. Zen and Japanese Culture. New York: Bollingen.
Stryk, L. & T. Ikemoto. trans. & eds. 1977. The Penguin Book
of Zen Poetry.London: Allen Lane.
Wood, B. 1957. Zen Dictionary. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
27.Ikegami pp.17, 22
28.Koestler 1978 pp. 15-17.
29. Hypnosis sources:
Barber, T.X., NP. Spanos and J.F. Chaves. 1974. Hypnosis, Imagination and Human Potentialities. Oxford: Pergamon.
Tart, C.T. ed. 1969. Altered States of Consciousness. New York John Wiley.
Chertok, L. ed. 1969. Psychophysiological Mechanisms of Hypnosis. Berlin: Springer.
Shor, R.E. and M.T. Orne. eds. 1965. The Nature of Hypnosis. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Barber, T. 1969. Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach. New York: Nostrand, Reinhold.
Orne, M.T. and A.G. Hammer. 1976. Hypnosis. Encyclopaedia Britannica
Völgyesi, F.A. 1966. Hypnosis of Men and Animals (2nd edition). London: Bailliere, Tindall and Casson.
Braid in Völgyesi p. 12.
30.Hull, C.L. 1965. Interpretation of Hypnosis. in Shor and Orne eds. pp. 179-182
31.William James. 1890. The Principles of Psychology: Volume 2. [1950 reprint New York: Dover.], pp. 522-523, p. 527
Lotze, H. 1894. Microcosmus. Trans. B. Hamilton & E.E.C. Jones. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Vol. 1, p. 234
32 Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception p. 235
33 Kelley, D.B. 1986. A Motor Theory of Song Perception. Trends in Neuroscience 9: 149-150.