The reality of the mental space

Bruegel, de Toren van Babel
(Bron illustratie:

(Yesterday I published a Dutch column on this website, which was enthusiastically picked up by some non-Dutch-speakers. Therefore I have translated the text into English.)

Every now and then you have questions that arouse wonder. Earlier this week, this question suddenly occurred to me:

Does language exist?

Can we deny an affirmative answer to that question? Obviously language exists! It is also a weird question, because is that question itself not asked in a language? A denial of the existence of language, pronounced or written down, therefore amounts to a paradox or even a contradiction.

And yet…

Where does language reside, if it exists at all? And I do not mean the material expressions of language, such as books, poems, conversations, songs, letters, etc. I mean: where does language in itself exist? Nowhere, or everywhere? Does language exist in people’s minds? If we dissect the brain, we won’t find language there. At most we can locate the brain areas where language is processed, but even then we have not established that language exists and if so, where.

You could say: language exists in a mental space, the same space where ideas, goals, hopes, information, desires and many other things reside that seem to have no objective or material reality, but the existence of which we cannot deny without harm or without taking seriously the reality in which we live.

But where does that mental space reside?

We live in that mental space, we are able to share that space with others, but at the same time that space is also within ourselves. It is not a material thing but encompasses and permeates the reality wherein material things reside. Perhaps we can say that material reality is one of the possibilities of that mental reality. The mental reality is indeed real, if we mean by “real” something like: animated with the ability to produce effects, the ability to bring about something in the material reality of everyday life.

An example: all Disney fairytale characters are ideas, or characters in a conceived and thus mental reality. Nevertheless, Disneyworld is a physical space built and structured around this mental reality. Or rather: it is a physical part, a realized physical possibility of the encompassing mental space. Moreover, for some, this physical space of Disneyworld in turn builds, shapes and structures their own mental space: who can still read or hear the fairy tales about Cinderella or Snow White without thinking about the characteristic Disney princesses?

The mental space therefore is real and to be reckoned with, and is able to absorb and influence the physical space via us, humans. Just think about hypochondriacs. Their mental space consists partly of ideas about their physical condition. They imagine things, illnesses, ailments, which they believe cause them to physically suffer, when in fact nothing is wrong with them physically – until they not only feel sick but eventually start to show physical symptoms of the ailment they “imagined”. So imagination does have a causal influence.

The mental space cannot therefore be denied with impunity or declared to be an outright fiction. Language also has causal power: one word can make a person float on clouds or knock him down in deep darkness. Words have causal effects in our everyday reality, they change states of affairs and create facts: a municipal official who declares a man and woman to be married creates a new reality that has social and legal consequences that cannot be denied without causing great problems.

At the same time, words do not exist, at least not in any objective or material sense. In fact, words that are pronounced are mere sounds: sounds that are produced when air is transported from the trachea through the movement of the vocal cords. Just as the roar of a lion or the sounds of dolphins and whales are “mere” sounds to us, so our spoken language is “mere” sound to those same animals. A sound can only be called something like a “word” or “sentence” or “statement” or “saying” when that sound has meaning to us. Without meaning, a word is just meaningless sound.

But where does that meaning reside? Does that meaning really exist? Can the meaning be separated from the use of the words? Can we write the meaning down apart from the word to which it refers? Or is that question empty, because meaningless?

Oh, and by the way, what I wrote above about language can also be applied to God…

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