Critical Discourse Analysis,

General Semantics,

E-prime & Faith

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Language plays an important and much understated role in determining our relationship to ourselves, and the world. The neurological structures for language learning and use are formed long before we actually learn to speak. In infancy we unconsciously and unassumingly adopt language, picking it up with incredible speed and ease. We learn through trial and error what other people really want or mean when they use a word in a given context and so we are unwittingly conditioned to accept the meanings of certain words and statements including the assumptions that we think support them. But as we mature, we also come to question and reject some of these assumptions.

A new level of understanding can be achieved when we become aware of the power of language. In a sense, we might argue that language possesses ‘magical’ properties that not only define what we see as real and true, but that can also radically transform perception and understanding. When we pay close attention to these properties or propensities of language, we empower ourselves to see and create new possibilities, new ways of being and relating. We can rid ourselves of feelings of powerlessness and ignorance that are, in a sense, byproducts of the way we use (or misuse) language, ineffective ways of communicating, and a refusal to take responsibility for our ‘interpretations’ and the ‘meanings’ we consciously or unconsciously bring to situations. These meanings determine how we act.

Nowhere is such an examination of language more appropriate and more empowering than when we turn towards our own experiences, to explore how we infer and confer meaning and to differentiate between the meanings we create and the meanings handed to us by other people or our culture. An understanding of the way language works can help to unearth a creative power we seldom acknowledge. This power is the foundation for transformation, which, in contrast to change (which is incremental and based on what existed before), has been defined as the creation of an entirely new realm of possibility.

In other words, acknowledging the choice implicit in our use of language, the selection of words the way we arrange them into sentence, the narratives we create to describe, define, explain and/or justify, allows us to examine and acknowledge the interests, assumptions and expectations generating those choices and what appears possible to us.

A cautionary note: I am by no means suggesting that we are entirely free to construct whatever meaning we want. If we want to be happier, freer and more effective in our communication, we need to take responsibility for the meanings we create and the actions we undertake in response. We also need to pay close attention to the meanings other people create or bring to their lives.

Acknowledging the responsibility inherent in our choice of words and the way we arrange them to represent situations empowers us to open up to possibilities that are not available when we insist that our interpretations are the only correct or possible ones.

There are certainly ethical constraints on our freedom to interpret reality as we see fit. For instance, individuals may use or abuse language to literally blot out any undesirable awareness. In his novel 1984, George Orwell offers a frightening example of the way a totalitarian regime imposes constraints on language to deprive people of the ability to articulate their opposition. The adagio ‘reality is what you make of it’ seems to make sense but does not take into account the deeper significance or interests motivating our choices.

Greater awareness and attention to the function and uses of language can help to alert us to the way it can be used to deceive, conceal, distort, manipulate or generalize. This awareness provides a means of differentiating authentic concerns, feelings and expectations from superficial, inauthentic and false ones. This in turn allows us to articulate with increasing clarity what we genuinely want and need and to reconcile ourselves with others whose understandings and aims may appear to conflict with our own.


Words & Names


Creation begins, according to some accounts, with an act of ‘naming.’ Naming, in the Judaic tradition, is first and foremost something akin to an ontological act — to name does not merely assign a label to what already exists in its own right; the act of naming is more akin to a creative act, in which what is named also acquires meaning, location, purpose, value and other qualities.

This attention to the connections between naming and creating suggests an ancient awareness of the power of language, of our use of symbols, as something that defines us and determines how we experience the world.

The power of words is exemplified by what happens when we don’t have a word or name for a particular object or experience. The Himba language has no words for the color blue and members of the tribe appear unable to distinguish between blue from green although they are perfectly able to differentiate between very subtle nuances of green. This suggests a very crucial link between language and perception; without the word blue and without a distinct category for colors in what we refers to as the ‘blue’ wavelength or spectrum of light, the color blue is either not noticed or lumped together with other colors in a way that makes it ‘invisible.’

In sum, words are more than names for objects or experiences existing in an ‘objective world out there’; on the contrary —the words we use are pregnant with meaning, meaning supported by beliefs and assumptions and expectations formed over the course of our lives, inherited from our culture and so on. This is implicit in the way we learn: in early infancy we begin to explore our surroundings, looking keenly at other people to see what they are making of their experiences. Much of what we think we know about the world is therefore based on conjecture.

We acquire language by learning what words mean when they are used in specific contexts and our understanding of words and names is heavily dependent on those contexts; where we heard a word, how it was used, what we believe someone else meant or intended, whether we agree, etc. etc. Just take the word ‘God’; to some people, ‘God’ is the name of an invisible, supernatural, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent deity. To others, God is a word for the ‘creative force’ underpinning existence. For others, God is a sort of father figure watching over us from a white cloud where he listens to our prayers and grants our wishes. Yet others define God as an aspect of the human mind, a category of human experience characterized by feelings of transcendence and of the numinous.

These examples suggest a need to examine the meaning of words and statements rather than taking them at face value. To do so is to forgo the opportunity of examining the relationship between the meanings we infer, the choices we make based on these inferences, and the outcomes we experience as real and true. It is, in other words, to forgo an inquiry into our response-ability.

In the following pages we will examine various aspects of language with the help of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), General Semantics (GS) and E-prime (EP). Each of these departs from its own unique understanding of language and each highlights different functions and possibilities implicit in our use of language.




Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) has been defined as a detailed description, explanation and critique of the ways discourse influences socially shared knowledge, attitudes and ideologies. CDA seems particularly suited to understanding the relations between language and power, and specifically the production and challenge of social inequality.

Power, as it is understood here, refers to the possibility of exercising influence or control over people. Besides the elementary recourse to threat or force, subtler and more effective exercises of power employ persuasion, omission, dissimulation or manipulation to influence cognition and behavior.

Such exercises of power may be exposed when investigating or challenging institutional forms of control, and are particularly evident when moral norms, tradition or history are invoked to justify or legitimize policy. Examples can be found in court, enshrined in law books and religious texts. The beliefs, assumptions, ideological commitments and expectations underpinning such exercises of power are not necessarily clear, and are often encoded within particular interpretations of the ‘real’ and ‘true.’

Claims about what is ‘real’ or ‘true’ are seldom universally accepted. They are, more often than not, based on highly unique experiences, assumptions, hypotheses, beliefs, preferences or expectations all of which are inevitably also expressive of the interests and concerns of particular individuals or groups relative to their very own social, historical and political conditions. Consequently, disagreements tend to erupt between individuals or social groups with different interests and experiences and compliance must often be enforced by police and military, or imprinted through the education system, advertising and propaganda.

CDA proposes that uses of language must be understood relative to the broader sociohistorical and political context. For instance, language defining particular types of behavior as morally evil or unhealthy can only be fully understood by examining the motives of the speaker relative to the behavior in question and relative to their interests or concerns about the person or group whose behavior is subject to judgment.

Such questions expand significantly the scope for inquiry into the motives and relations underpinning various uses of language. They may therefore prove very useful as a means of identifying common interests and needs or exposing abuses of power.


General Semantics


GS has been defined as modern open applied epistemology. Epistemology is sometimes defined as how we know what we know. According to Alfred Korzybski, we know what we know through the process of abstracting using our brains and nervous systems. The problems inherent in this type of abstraction are perhaps best understood when we examine language as a kind of ‘map.’ In the same way that maps have features corresponding to what the mapmaker finds useful, language can be considered accurate to the extent that its structure corresponds to features of a terrain that are of interest to the speaker.

Crucially, maps cannot accurately reproduce all the features of any given territory; certain features are omitted for pragmatic reasons or because they are irrelevant or extraneous. Different maps may exist for the same territory. In short, maps only provide rudimentary knowledge of terrains, but we can examine them to learn about the mapmaker and his interests, concerns and way of seeing.

We grow up and live in a world comprised, in large measure, of maps. For many territories we have only maps, no first-hand experience. Nevertheless, we quite frequently treat our maps as if they were accurate. Why do we use inaccurate maps? Korzybski would say as follows:

We live in a world of process, change and dynamic structures, yet we map it with static words. The same word may stand for a person, thing or activity year after year, while what it stands for may change, grow and transform. We do not name the process, the development, the flux — we speak in static terms and learn to perceive and think that way.

More to the point, our maps reflect highly unique knowledge, understanding and attitudes towards the terrains they represent. Some maps articulate a consensus about a terrain and are therefore used by a wide range of people. Other maps tend to represent the interests of only small groups of individuals with their own unique interests and aims.

Indeed, the maps we use may not actually refer to ‘physical objects or situations’ that we can validate by some objective, mutually acceptable means; some maps represent highly subjective terrains, for instance, the human psyche.

The maps we use may also define us in the eyes of others. Michel Foucault argued: ‘...If you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick.’ In other words, for merely using a different map, a person may be perceived as abnormal or sick. And the only reason for this may be our inability to understand their map.

Maps can also be confusing for another reason; human experience entails a significant degree of concern with gradations, probabilities and degrees of intensity. But the binary logic of language easily transmutes such nuances into polar extremes, either-or structures such as good/evil, for/against, win/lose, us/them, etc.


Causality clauses in Language


Language and grammar provide multiple ways of encoding beliefs about causality. Our statements, explanations and justifications cannot be separated from our beliefs and assumptions about causality and free will.

Consider, e.g., the question of a murderer’s ‘culpability’, i.e. the degree to which someone accused of murder can truly be considered to have acted deliberately, with awareness of what they were doing and what the consequences might be, and to have had the possibility of altering his actions or the situation to produce a different outcome (hence response-ability). The only way we can establish culpability and therefore “moral” responsibility is by making inferences about an individuals motives, their state of mind, and what they might have perceived as possible or necessary in a given situation.

Attempts to understand the choices other people make inevitably invoke a great deal of imagination; we try to imagine how we might behave in a similar situation under similar conditions. They also invoke our beliefs about human nature, the way things work, and therefore our beliefs about causality and free will. For example, we may presume that people are always free to choose or that at least some degree of choice is available to us all; we can always do something or do nothing.

But as the huge literature on free will suggests, the matter is by no means settled and many people believe that free will is an illusion. The point is however, that our beliefs about free will and causality must inevitably impose on our judgments. This is one reason why we tend to judge others in a different way than we judge ourselves; we tend to ascribe more freedom to those we condemn, but we know more about the context and motives underpinning our own choices and therefore tend to be more lenient in judging ourselves.

Language invokes causality in many different ways and causality appears to impart meaning and intent. We may as a consequence find ourselves trapped by the meanings we create until such time as we are prepared to acknowledge that the words we use to explain a given situation or event also impart meaning to it. We can radically alter our understanding of a situation or event when we make a distinction between what happened and the meaning we have created.


What is E-prime?


"In the spring of ’76 I enrolled in an epistemology class at the University of Kansas, primarily because Korzybski had spoken favorably of this branch of philosophy and I wanted to learn more. […] On the first day of class the instructor, J. Michael Young (1944–95), gave me the first of many lessons in the difficulties of general semantics. He asked the class, ‘What is salt?’ One student replied ‘sodium chloride.’ Another replied ‘a white crystalline powder.’ Another replied ‘a food flavourer.’ Eventually, and dramatically, the instructor notified us that we had only reported what we do with salt and what salt is made of. None of us had reported, however, what salt IS."

(Lewis, 1995)

E-prime treats all instances of the verb “to be” (including hidden instances) as suspect: it requires that we examine all claims about what ‘is’ to clarify who thinks or says something ‘is’, why, and under what conditions.

E-prime proposes that we can and should take responsibility for our judgments and state them openly. The method provides a simple and effective means of questioning and challenging statements about the ‘nature’ of events or situations, the motives involved and how things work, in short, the absolute certainty implicit in any statement about the ‘isness” of things. For instance, in the sentence “drugs are bad” the verb alerts us to a claim about the nature of a group of substances called drugs. E-prime proposes that we need to ask; what does the word ‘drug’ actually mean, and under what conditions can the use of ‘drugs’ be considered ‘bad.’ Thus, we may ask: what differentiates ‘drugs’ from ‘medicines’, ‘poisons’, ‘sacraments’ or ‘magical substances’? Under what conditions ‘are drugs bad,’ for instance, what types of uses and in what situations may the use of said substances produce the outcomes we refer to as ‘bad’? And why do we refer to these outcomes as ‘bad’?

The outcome of this type of inquiry can help us to refine our understanding of the matter at hand; the same substance may be interpreted in different ways depending on how its use by specific people or groups leads to specific outcomes. These appearances or meanings may be contested for no other reason than that they represent different perspectives informed by different concerns or interests, experiences and assumptions. Each of these perspectives may be upheld as objective truth, complete in itself, thereby invalidating all other perspectives. E-prime provides exactly the type of questions that allow us to achieve a far greater degree of accuracy and understanding of an issue and the interests and concerns informing opinion on it.


Listening and hearing


We have examined a number of ways of analyzing language, each providing different avenues to understanding and engaging with others. Ideally, in my opinion, we should strive to apply the proposed methods whenever and wherever we encounter language, including, and especially, in examining our own thoughts, feelings, truth claims, explanations and justifications. But overly strict adherence to these methods may place unnecessary constraints on our use of language, depriving us of the ‘poetic license’ we call upon to express our deeper feelings and intuitions and making us overly critical, even pedantic, in our listening to others.

The ambiguity of language leaves a lot of room for error, but it also opens up a space for ‘creative interpretation,’ for dissimulation, for acting on what we feel rather than taking people literally. We need this freedom to maintain our flexibility. Unfortunately, this makes language a highly imprecise tool of communication and opens it up to a variety of abuses; deception, omission, deliberate ambiguity, insult, stigmatization, falsification, generalization, ridicule, stereotyping, cynicism, double entendre and lies are all ways in which language can be used to obscure or distort truth, to cast doubt on others, to isolate them or deflect attention.

CDA, GS and E-prime provide highly effective tools for seeing beyond the literal meaning of language to finding out what is really intended, and it is the discovery of what is really intended that empowers us to consider where we stand with respect to the speaker and what he or she is saying. 

Moreover, these analytical methods point to the necessity of developing awareness of our own thoughts and feelings and how these impact our understanding of others. Acknowledging the choices we make as interpreters of other people and situations empowers us to take responsibility for the resulting outcomes.

And there is another sense in which awareness of our own choices empowers us; language is the foundation of all human reasoning and cognition. In other words, language plays a major role in mediating consciousness itself. Think of the term consciousness as a catch all for everything going through our minds; stop the commentary and consciousness still exists, but there is nothing ‘happening.’ It is only when the mind becomes active that something is actually going on in consciousness. 

This insight sheds some light on the origins of duality: when we use language, we experience consciousness as a process distinct from the body. As Martin Buber argues in Ich und Du, the moment we awaken to ourselves as distinct beings coincides with the moment we begin to define ourselves as other than, as distinct from our surroundings, our mother, and the world. These distinctions become part of our consciousness and are thereafter reinforced through our use of binary opposites like ‘mind and body’, ‘up and down’, ‘here and there’, ‘nature versus nurture’, ‘us and them’, ‘subjective and objective’, ‘true or false’, etc.

These descriptive terms seem inoffensive, but think of the many ways in which they are invoked for ideological purposes:

  • In medicine, mind may be treated as separate from body. In medical psychiatry, for instance, mental suffering is treated as a ‘disease of the brain’ a sort of chemical malfunction that can be remedied with the aid of pharmacological interventions. The subjective experiences of individuals with mental health problems are treated as having no history and bearing no relation to the circumstances of a person’s life.

  • Likewise, the nature versus nurture debate continues to be a source of conflict with those who view nurture as playing a more important role in development pitted against those who view human behaviour as something unchanging, a product of hundreds of thousands of years of genetic mutation.


These are but two examples of the many ways in which dualistic thinking prejudices us against an understanding of the unity and continuity of life.

In Entheogens, Society & Law I proposed that experiences of an ‘original’ undifferentiated state unmediated by language is fundamental to understanding religious and mystical accounts. Religious and mystical texts dealing with this unmediated state and its cataclysmic disruption are littered with symbolic references to birth.

An interesting perspective has become available to us through entheogenic ‘religious’ and/or ‘healing’ practices; the therapeutic potential of such practices appears to correlate to their propensity as catalysts of a sort catharsis for the psychodynamics of birth and separation. Such ‘rebirthing’ appears to entail the possibility of integration of traumatic material from these primary formative experiences. Such integration appears to be promoted by recollection of the original unbroken unity, as probably experienced by the vast majority of us while still in the womb, when we are literally one with our ‘creator.’ It is my firm opinion that such recollection is precisely what is referred to in mystical texts like Kabbala (Tikkun Olam) and in the Sufi practice of Zhikr, the recitation of the names of God to remember the ‘oneness of all things’. These practices explain the lack of clear-cut boundaries between religion and healing in traditions predating the advent of ‘modern’ science with its rigid adherence to mind-body dualism.






General Semantics:

Critical Discourse Analysis:

John Grinder & Richard Bandler:

The Structure of Magic I & II


Critical Discourse Analysis:


Entheogens, Society & Law, p.47


General Semantics:


Entheogens, Society & Law, p.48


Entheogens, Society & Law, p.51

The Mindscapes of Alan Moore:

Lewis, S. (1995)

What is Salt?
[online] [last accessed 26 June, 2011]

James Hatley

Naming Adam Naming Creation

David Abram,

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