The Universes: On Semantics and Learning
Mike Amnasan



I can't tell you what I was just thinking. As in Augustine's view of intuition, the associations I registered were too free of any repeatable limitations for me to verbalize the experience. Perhaps these associations were of diverging thoughts that have not departed my mind. The most handy example of something similar is the simultaneity of sense perception. Each sense perception is specialized and in that respect removed from the whole and yet also registered in the same moment. In the thought I'm speaking of there were different concerns, we might even say a universe of concerns none of which I can fully express. This complex event might be considered incidental in regard to what I have learned to value. I am now attempting to acquire a greater appreciation of something I cannot verbalize, meaningful associations I can't excite a recurrence of through keying words into a computer.

Semantic sensation is never original. It must always be familiar. Language does excite original sensations, as in the sound of a speaker's voice, but the semantic experience itself is never sound or vision, or any other sense perception of the material universe. Original experience of semantics would be like immediately comprehending a language we never heard before. This kind of appreciation is possible with music. Music we've never heard before can be immediately appreciated as music, but semantics, like memory, must always be a response to what is already familiar.

My concern is how to proceed. If I can only register verbally what has already become familiar through cognitive means, my work with language is not directed toward spurring meaning for the first time. Has there ever been a first time in regard to comprehending language? Is anything we read utterly strange, or is it rather strangely familiar? We may read something and make no sense of it, and later return to it and find familiarity as if we always should have been able to comprehend this particular passage. This parallels how we initially acquire language through a growing familiarity with the effects of verbal expression. We learn to fortuitously repeat limited effects. We grow to appreciate what we had already experienced albeit as incidental and free of the constraints of communication. Infants can distinguish between phonemes their parents, having learned a particular language, can no longer tell apart (Pinker 264), and meaning is similar in this respect. To understand how this can work we must put aside the notion that language makes meaning. If this were the case we would begin with a rather meager supply of semantics that we would not want to reduce by limiting what we come to appreciate. The verbal cannot originate anything we come to value as verbal expression. Perhaps this is true of all our senses; the original experience is what we take in from sensory organs that does not result in sense perception, sense perception being that which we perceive to the extent it is already familiar to us, already among the effects we are prepared to make. In this sense the original is not an object, but rather that which we are unprepared to value: particular and unique effects we do not register.

Perhaps I simply want to learn, having reaped benefits from what I have learned in the past by reducing the number of hard choices I must make or that are made for me. Does the construction work, through which I make a living, decide what sort of interests I can successfully pursue? If cognition is verbal then it must follow that we can only appreciate what language excites an interest in. If meaning originated in language semantics could not have the benefits I hope for. The use of language would be the limits of its effect, and all the incidental experiences that I accrue on a construction site, when I seldom talk, and much more rarely about what I'm now writing, would go for nought—or worse. My time on a construction site would suspend the cognition I long to learn from. What I then felt to be my most prized asset, the verbal, and all my work with the verbal, would be suspended as I endured a painfully irrelevant expenditure of time and energy. Furthermore my understanding of the world might be contaminated by prevalent views that re-inscribe my thoughts with unwanted expressions.

We can see that my disposition toward construction work is strongly impacted by my regard for language, and this involves study that is, in part, motivated by a desire to develop an understanding through which I can regard different aspects of my life as of mutual value. I want this view to be revised within different kinds of experience that I am never fully "conscious" of—even if some rehearsal of what I cannot register is, at this very moment, being performed as simultaneous events in my mind. Language is not only directed toward fortuitous limitations, but also toward realizing a universality that is always changing in its simultaneous instances of social expression, expression that we cannot oversee, or monitor in any way, but that our minds do, to some extent, incidentally receive. Mental activity may be full of simultaneous events some of which act like separate subjects we anticipate. It may be that these subjects, if we are removed from interactions that disrupt our expectations, must form into a consensus of what others will expect from us, and limit what we can expect of ourselves, selves that come to behave as sovereign beings constituted as a uniformity. Others become mere foils, since they can only be modeled after this consensus that determines what we are disposed to find.

Our only particular and unique experience is that purveyed through sense organs that introduce stimuli from the material universe—and yet language is often external, as in the example of lines of words on a monitor. How is it so very different? How can it be lacking in original experience if there is an external and physical text that we respond to in the material world? The answer is that our experience of physical language, whether as sound, or text, or raised dots in the case of braille, is not semantic, but a different kind of sense: vision, sound, touch. Even if vision, sound, touch, also respond only to what is already familiar they still form our sense perceptions of the material universe, while the semantic effect excited by language is never a direct expression of material reality.

As you read these words they arouse an immaterial universe simultaneous with your perceptions of material reality. A simplified version of what happens is this: the stimuli from your eyes travels along the optic pathway until it enters the region of the cerebral cortex associated with language.1 This linguistic region responds only to the familiar stimuli, the marks, that spur semantic sensations. Stimuli from the eyes passes on to the visual area of the occipital lobe where it excites the visual perception of the physical world. The visual follows hard upon the semantic so that you register both without any discernable interval and you cannot tell, from what you experience, that more than one sense perception is responding to stimuli from the eyes.

The preceding description is far from an exhaustive account of what happens when we are engaged by written text. Language could only have developed because our response to the stimuli from our ears, eyes, or the surface of our skin was never exclusively devoted to creating sense perceptions of the material universe. Our perceptions may be more of an afterthought. It is possible for a creature to have an eye, and to respond consistently to stimuli from that eye without the luxury of any visual impressions.2 Such behavior would not be derived from cognition minus sense perception, but rather a reaction lacking in a consistent impression that could become either reliable or doubtful.

When reading, we do not fix our attention on the series of characters in order to receive visual impressions that we then interpret, transforming the visual into semantic sensations. Sense perception does not work sequentially in that way. We do not see something, and then, after we have concluded seeing, hear a sound, and then take a turn at smelling.

Stephen Pinker, in The Language Instinct, refers to the linguistic as a sixth sense. When I read his book, I began to feel less trepidation in regard to proposing that semantics is the sense perception of, and creation of, an immaterial universe. Here was a respected linguist repeatedly returning to the idea that linguistics is a form of sense perception as I was. But this mutual appreciation was one version of myself, while I was also aware that I had a social identity, within a community of writers, as a construction worker writing about writing from a position of disadvantage. This identity presently determines what is expected of me more than anything I could say to the majority of those people who are familiar with what I write. Being able to cite Pinker may up my chances of convincing others that I am not merely avoiding, through intellectual exercises, the emotions, that fueled earlier writing. The proposal that semantics is a form of sense perception does not allow for creating new meaning as the direct result of innovative language, and what I am saying will not be understandable if approached with the expectations that we can create new meaning solely through unconventional grammatical constructions.

If semantics must be consistent like any other sense perception, and we can only read what we are already disposed to read, this is not to suggest that there are no surprises in reading, or that we all read the same, or that we should ideally read the same, or that we should always use words in a similar manner. It does not even necessitate that we must change our current expectations to learn, but rather that we must form new expectations. This is an important distinction since we tend to think of values as a set of values so that to change we must replace one set of values with another. Perhaps this is the path of least resistence, as in the example of fully adjusting to the demands of some vocation we want to succeed within—but, what if we want to gain the advantage of studying more than one discipline? The material for interdisciplinary study would be available even if there were no programs that encourage it. Perhaps the main concern, in this regard, is whether or not we can become proficient without limiting the focus of our interests. Can we learn, not only from close study with expedient results, but also through a delayed cognitive response that includes more material than we can consider within any close reading? In "The Love of Reading" Virginia Woolf speaks of "the process of after-reading." After a book is read it takes on a shape "held in the mind" (416). After-reading may occur days after the book has been set aside, and this later experience may become related to other experience; simultaneous mental events that were incidental at the time of reading may become appreciated as meaningful associations. We can see that the space-time of simultaneous events is non-sequential; intervening experience does not conclude previous events. Our appreciation of simultaneous events effects our conception of space-time, and even what is continuous through intervening events that need not determine the end of prior events. We have the example of sense perception in which case specialized processes occur simultaneously; we register very different senses in the same moment, and this simultaneity of perception may very well have developed from simultaneous mental processes we never register, processes as incidental to particular occasions as continuing to breathe.

In the case of my own life as a construction worker there is no way I could make useful contributions to philosophy or any other academic discipline if close reading, or some similar attention, was exclusively how we learn, and perhaps my confidence in being able to offer useful models is deluded. Within a fairly isolated effort I cannot tell the difference between adding to current understandings and my own ignorance of other people's efforts that I may simply repeat. I may expend time and energy in a direction others have long ago recognized the folly of. To some extent this is rhetorical in that I have found confirmation for my efforts in books I've recently read—but I do depend upon intuition to an extent that may seem sloppy to anyone who expects strong textual support for what I might propose.

My own social identity, and also my ability to think of learning as a greater appreciation of what is already cognitively familiar, are at stake in, to some extent, replacing sequential models with those of combined influences, the influence of simultaneous expectations I can never be fully aware of. Often when I write, I key words into a computer as a one-time event that does not work well for later verbal communication—even with myself! Though writing did excite an experience that I believed I was fully expressing, the words I laid down failed to spur a strong recurrence of that experience the following day. Perhaps there were events occurring within cognition that were registered as successful writing—but I was learning a new emphasis on the familiar, at the same time as I was making language, and I was not only reading the effect of what I was keying into my computer. I don't mean to suggest that this considerable cognitive delay is the only way we learn in regard to language. Certainly there are occasions in which learning is derived from a close focus on a passage that is difficult to comprehend without repeated readings in which significant aspects of language begin to emerge, and it may seem that we are bringing meaning into "consciousness." But even this instance of close attention requires a non-linguistic, cognitive response to make the already familiar appreciable.

If we cannot learn without others, and if, as I believe, reading is not sufficient in itself for changing verbal expectations, how can this learning even occur sitting alone before my computer monitor? I do not know the kind of physical incidents and the frequency of those occasions required to learn. We may even learn from anticipating upcoming social events in regard to which our participation will be expected, events that we have not yet entered. One important element is that others we learn from do not have to be proven. We do not unlearn if we find that we gained a new appreciation of a subject through misreading what someone said—or at least misreading what we later came to believe they felt they were saying. We may conclude that we need to anticipate others more in line with what we come to believe they meant, or we may continue to look for the unintended meaning beneficial to our own study. The social stimui that infuse cognition with original experience may not be traceable, especially more enduring influences that occur over a greater lapse of time. Since language is only acquired through cognition, new linguistic expectations, that have a broad influence on our thinking, cannot be the immediate result of verbal interactions.

We must be disposed to anticipate what we read before we are engaged by language to receive semantic sensations. If this is true then we cannot become self-taught through isolated reading. Having said that, I should point out that I am not talking about having rallied all our senses to participate in a social occasion like a classroom discussion, and then later on, after we arrive home, reading similar texts. Even the expectation that we may benefit by repeatedly reading a difficult passage must be learned as a change in what we are able to appreciate. If rereading is sufficient for comprehension (that is, there are no unfamiliar terms or an unconventional use of a word that requires us to turn to other sources like a dictionary or the instruction of a professor familiar with the author) we must still somehow realize that the components of what we are reading are already familiar, and that we must adjust our expectations when what we were initially looking for is not discovered.

When I speak of isolated reading, reading in regard to which I have not become well disposed toward a text by any prior social occasions, what I then need to read effectively is the expectations of others to disrupt my satisfaction with the values I was trying to read with. An important consideration here, is whether new expectations, that allow me to comprehend more, displace previous values or become simultaneous with previous values, adding to the mix. Both possibilities occur. The latter case does not involve displacing one social logic with another felt to be superior, but simply developing the expectations through which to read a text that my life has not prepared me for. I may then discover what was already, incidentally, familiar to me.

I am trying to anticipate sufficient social involvement to lead to expectations of further participation with what could be regarded as incidental aspects of my own mind. My social position, is, and must be, one of inferiority in relation to material I have already assimilated. Despite whatever mutual effort I am working toward, social inferiority is still an important aspect of my efforts. I may feel that as my physical body, alone in an unsympathetic universe, the vulnerability, the loss of control over the sensations of my skin, my face, my mannerisms and my speech if I speak out in a classroom or within some other public event. This physical experience disrupts my sense of being a coherent whole "conscious" of who I am, and these occasions have always had this effect on me, but earlier in my life I felt this disruption as revealing weakness, and perhaps it does, but it is the weakness of risking a social life.

Poor beginnings left me too confident in my own mental resources in comparison to the culturally-deprived interactions I was limited to. Like Nietzsche's mosquito "feeling within itself the flying center of the world" (42), isolated efforts tend to return me to an exaggerated sense of "self-importance." There is nothing within cognition and semantics to prevent me from being highly successful at meeting my own expectations, and imaginary others as well—though I will, at the same time, feel a nagging suspicion that something is missing. I have become deceived in regard to the expectations of those others who I anticipate impressing. Augustine states "If I am deceived, I am" (33), and it seems that he is talking about being deceived in a social context. If I realize that I have been deceived in anticipating the expectations of others I am a social being learning from the effect of rallying my senses to deal with the vulnerability of interacting.

Paradoxically it would seem that we exist, as social beings, because we are not in full control of our body, our appearance, voice, mannerisms, what anything we express means. Judith Butler states, "If one always risks meaning something other than what one thinks one utters, then one is, as it were, vulnerable in a specifically linguistic sense to a social life of language that exceeds the purview of the subject who speaks" (87). If we have no disruptive memory of interacting with others, we not only do not "exceed the purview of the subject who speaks," we slip into a false consensus of what the language we use means.

Learning requires an infusion of original experience from the material universe and, however much we may discount other aspects of learning, while paying close attention to a text, reading, alone, will not likely allow us to comprehend aspects of a text we were not already disposed to understand any more than it will allow us to exceed our own consensus of what the language we use will mean to others. The semantic universe of each individual is private, and yet the disposition to appreciate incidents of cognition differently than we have previously is not. In that respect the potential of our minds is not entirely our own, in that relying exclusively on our own values is a form of deprivation, a reliance on a false consensus. Isolated reading and writing can locate us within this deprivation; vision is relegated to locating words, as the verbal appropriates the eye, and other forms of sense perception become distraction or incidental to reading.

I exaggerate. Our other senses do, and must, remain significant while we read. The historical examples that Martin Jay provides in Downcast Eyes suggest that a greater attention to text can result in the denigration of vision as the purveyor of "truth," but, as Jay points out, this need not result in the denigration of vision as a rich experience. I don't know that reading and writing as a form of sensory deprivation has ever been studied, or how it could be researched since anyone isolated in their efforts, in the manner I'm suggesting, would not succeed in drawing attention to himself, and so, for me, this must remain autobiographical, a concern I will return to.


When walking down a street we can register both the sight and sound of people passing by and the traffic in the street. We can the feel a breeze on the skin, the pressure of a backpack over one shoulder, and the contraction of muscles, all at the same time, and this simultaneity of sense perception is essential to our being—even though we do not require equal focus on all possible forms of sense perception. Speech is very different from written language in that, though the semantic experience is no different in kind from that excited by written language, the sound of a voice and even background music may be considered enhancing. Taking a walk and enjoying a view may be considered an occasion for conversation, as also may be the excitement of participating in a classroom discussion. When reading, we can begin to realize that the sensations excited by language are not vocal, but rather sensations unique unto themselves.

When studying some subject at home we do not want to be distracted by noises coming from a neighboring apartment—but we still hear. In this case we may be preparing for experience within a classroom, and take advantage of the different space-time of semantic experience to prepare for expectations that may not be reflected in our immediate surroundings. It will not likely help our solitary preparations to anticipate greater involvement with the people next door—and yet in a sense we do want this simultaneous experience to tell us of other lives as we study, other lives that are not a diminishment of what we are presently involved in. We should not be lulled, while studying, into believing that life loses significance at the periphery of our immediate experience of a particular text.

I cannot monitor all my influences—but this is not to suggest that I do not appreciate what others have written. I would quote more often if it worked out for me, but I edit so much that cited passages tend to become progressively arbitrary over the course of writing—and I am also effected by undo tension associated with citing. Citing can be promotional in giving credit where credit is due. It can call attention to other authors and works that may be of interest to the reader, and perhaps more importantly it keeps others in the foreground as a constant reminder that critical writing is not an individual effort. And yet despite these important reasons to quote others, in my own experience in community colleges, citing was introduced as having two major concerns.

The first was plagiarism: stealing another's ideas. The second was the need to provide textual evidence to confirm the worth of anything we propose. I particularly remember fliers handed out in each class defining plagiarism and warning against it—though I never knew who orchestrated the distribution of this cautionary note. My introduction to citing told me that we were being watched to ensure that we did not get away with committing serious infractions, and this emphatically warned of our full responsibility in regard to recognizing when we were borrowing ideas, and to make sure that we did not misrepresent any viewpoints we paraphrased. These may be valid concerns, but not ones that I feel should be forefronted in a way that turns the novice, unfamiliar with the terrain, into a solitary being watched for possible infractions, since citing should call attention to the first person plural of critical writing, the others we cannot fully separate from our own experience of learning.

I remember, as a teenager, lying drunk on my back, in the back yard of my parents' tract home. I was too inebriated to do much more than move my head from side to side, through which I could see the stucco back of the house, and the garage which, among other things, sheltered my father's automotive tools (the trade he taught in a local high school). Letting my head roll in the other direction, I could see the redwood fence at the back of the yard. Looking straight ahead I saw the sky, representing my freedom to seek out a being identical to myself. I felt my drunken stupor to be of little disadvantage for this impossible task; I felt myself to be different to the bone from all others. Even if my difference felt undeniable within a tract home development in the San Gabriel Valley, it was an impression formed in relation to a very small number of people, a tiny perspective within the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles. I didn't have sufficient evidence to confirm or deny what I firmly believed—and I never would even if I expanded the world I took an interest in. My disposition was not due to a lack of similarity to others, but rather that I saw them much as I regarded myself as an isolated being. I could not see others as having simultaneous, and sometimes incongruous qualities. I was poorly disposed toward critical abilities in that they were not expected of me or anyone else. Semantics remained a mysterious by-product of physical language.

I felt an inexpressible internal conflict that formed me into a mysteriously complex center, of little value to others; they were mere foils for my troubled outlook. I felt that only I had a complex inner world incongruous with my behavior and I regarded this lack of the ability to act as a coherent whole as a terrible fault. I felt such disquiet, such a need to rail against everything that made me feel small. I was beleaguered by the anxious suspicion, barely registered, that in richer circumstances it was possible to perform a more varied life, a life in which projects in common with others could displace the need to continually recreate an isolated self, reacting to oppression in my mind.

Should I include autobiography? It may reflect the limits of my social experience, and in that respect I often feel torn between first person and first person plural. Finding it difficult to settle on a pronoun is probably similar to a discomfort with citing, a lingering weakness, a fear of leaping confidently into a position of equal standing with those who I might quote. I want to describe my simultaneous experience as a construction worker, even if it is an inferior position from which to participate in a mutual critical effort. Should I tell you of running to the underground MUNI in the dark of morning, while pulling a dirty sweat shirt over my head, because I lingered too long reading over this I'm working on? We don't really know how important this personal information might be if thrown into the mix of critical writing. Perhaps the singular, where a plural is wanted, carries with it an overblown sense of the subject writing, which should be dissipated within a mutual effort in which having been influenced by others is strongly highlighted and rightfully so, and I'll return to that soon.

Sheet Metal work, my only income, has been recently altered by the growing aesthetic preference for exposed duct, and this has created a tension between the traditional building trades emphasis on hanging duct as fast as possible (duct that will be hidden above a ceiling) and producing the sculpture of visible duct work important to the appearance of the finished building. The use of the eye for hanging duct is restricted by the need to get the duct up quickly, the need to quickly handle the duct into aesthetic lines. We are unlikely to see it painted within a finished building—which is just as well in that the finished vision will not include the heavy, galvanized air-tunnel, physically hoisted in a dusty, gutted building, a richer physical experience than keying words into a computer as I'm doing now.

One benefit of this work, an unexpected one considering that it would seem to prevent me from pursuing the interests that I find more compelling, is that it involves using multiple sense perceptions in an exhaustive manner. Construction work can be a personal measure of the value of what I have been writing in that it involves the potential threat of viewing aspects of my life as mutually exclusive and harmful to the realization of some hypothetical life more suited to my abilities. This is something I am not likely to forget while writing, and perhaps exhaustion has come to displace the tragic view of looking at myself unsympathetically as if from outside the construction site, from a campus, or anywhere else from which the view of myself as a social being will be an expression of limitations, a small circumscribed place in society that my desires should perhaps be shaped to fit. Where the tragic view prepared me to pursue the seemingly impossible, as an embrace of the unnatural (my solitary life passed before me as is said occurs before death), exhaustion has taken the place of my previous tragic view, becoming a universal exhaustion. Even though I may be a poor scholar, we are exhausting our abilities.

It may be that I am inclined to make pronouncements without doing the research required to substantiate my claims—of doing the wrong work! This is the modus operandi I am most likely to be accused of, and that I feel a need to justify in that I find that if I always need textual evidence to back up whatever I propose, I cannot maintain momentum—at least at this time in my life. This doesn't mean that anything I say comes out of the blue, but rather that I don't keep track of influences, especially since there tends to be considerable delay, and a great deal of intervening experience before I arrive at what I may eventually express with some confidence. I might then speak of this universal exhaustion as a universal delay, a disjunctive interval, in which my efforts do not come to a sudden a halt when I must turn my attention to construction work. Construction work itself has more meaning as part of simultaneous projects like that which I'm now working on.

Works Cited

Augustine. The Essential Augustine. Ed. Vernon J. Bourke. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech; A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Inside the Animal Mind. Episode Three: "Animal Consciousness." Nature Video Library. Produced by Green Umbrella, Thirteen/ WNET New York and the BBC, 2000.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes; The Denigration of Vision In Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1965.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Harper, 1995.

Woolf, Virginia. "Virginia Woolf: The Love of Reading." A Bloomsbury Group Reader. Ed. S.P. Rosenbaum. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993. 415-418.


1Steven Pinker states that "[Gazzaniga's coworkers] found that all the areas that have been implicated in language are adjacent in one continuous territory. This region of the cortex, the left perisylvan region, can be considered to be the language organ" (307).

2In the documentary Inside the Animal Mind a man, and also a monkey, both suffering from blind sight, are shown to respond correctly to visual stimuli on their right side, visual stimuli that they do not register having seen.


Issue Two Table of Contents