We are all mystics, just as we are all artists and judges and scientists. The mystical side of us tries to transcend the limits of thought and language by resolving all the tensions found within our experience.
Mysticism accepts no division between thoughts and things, inside and outside, scientific explanation and poetry. From the mystical standpoint, every thing that exists belongs in every one of those categories. Every human experience fuses sensation and emotion, the practical and the beautiful, reaction and action and inaction. We simultaneously see beauty in things, create beauty in things, and are things of beauty.
Mystics embrace all things
So they can gaze beyond them—
Through the window
Of space and time,
Through the window
Of thought and language,
In a direction
That thoughts and photons
What we are, our communities tell us, are objects at particular places and times. We can sense the colors that the world shows us, feel its warmth, and taste its saltiness. We can react in pain, feel sorrow, and be buoyed by optimism. We can name some of these sensations and feelings, and connect them into useful bundles, while overlooking and ignoring many more.
We also have knowledge of the objects beyond sensation and feeling. We can study the sun, not only feel its warmth. We can touch another’s face, and remember the years that we have shared. We can hold hands, and can hope together for more years to come. Layer upon layer, our stories weave space and time together, the warp of physical objects supporting the threads of events.
The beginning of wisdom may be questioning and wonder, but the maturing of wisdom is the ability to find value, beauty, and belonging in the least significant grain of sand upon the beach.
We are “persons” who can know that we are parts of everything, and that there is something for us to be parts of. We can think or talk about every thing, yet know that we cannot think and talk about everything. We value infinite contradiction because it reminds us that we are capable of knowing and talking, yet limited by our thoughts and language. The use of language to demonstrate the limitations of language affirms the existence of a thoughtful self.
What I am
Is an endless procession
Words and thoughts.
Creator of space,
Creator of time,
An epic story
Of joyful acts
And unconsoled weeping,
And penitent rejoicing.
A boundless circle
Affirming and denying,
Point of origin
And final resting point.
I am spirit—
Object and subject,
Creator of self.
What I am is a moment through which language flows. I am a tributary for the flow of language. Nearly everything I value would be impossible without language, including my consciousness. I am a creator and creation of language. As I explore the universe of things, try to peer outward from its boundaries, and stare inside its every point, I glimpse my own reflection in the mirror of language. What I see is what I am and think and say. Seeing my own reflection is not a matter of knowing where to look, or how to look, or when to look, but of realizing that I am looking.
The word “I” attempts to name the one who must exist un-named whenever naming occurs. “I” attempts to name the one who must exist un-thought whenever thinking occurs—even thoughts about me, for “I” am not “me.” I am distinct from any things that can be thought or said about me. I am the possibility of thinking and talking about any thing in the universe.
What I am is a being capable of using language, but who I am is the story that I tell with language. I am this story and the telling of it. I am this flow of experiences and thoughts, this drama of these actions and emotions, this person in these relationships and communities. Every word that travels through my mind, or through my mouth, or through my pen, continues my conversation with the universe, with God, and with myself. Using language is ancient ritual coming to fulfillment in new creation. “Who am I?” is answered by the telling of the story that I am and choose to tell, using those rituals. Who I am is the stream of words and thoughts and deeds that I am becoming.
Praise for Beyond Language
“This Heraclitean-like exploration of language, time, science, relationship, law, and transcendence—written in succinct prose capped with spare, arresting poetry—will lead a reader to self-reflection and to an enriched awareness of reality’s elemental but expansive force. The author’s generous humanity evinces—and evokes—a sense of gratitude ‘for all that is.’”
—Patrick Jordan, managing editor emeritus, Commonweal
“Walker fought in Vietnam, completed his PhD in philosophy, trained and practiced law in New York, and retired to work pro bono on behalf of social justice. Beyond Language is his first excursion into literature and poetry. Its key theme is that literature and fine art enable us to explore the limits of the verbal pathways we construct to communicate as social beings, and thereby to understand what exists beyond language. The book itself is an artistic accomplishment.”
—K. Sayre, professor emeritus, University of Notre Dame
“Part philosophy of language, part deep personal meditation, Beyond Language is a profound and sensitive exploration of the omnipresence and potency of words. Words define us personally and communally. Through words we encounter systems of law and worlds of artistic expression. Walker teaches us that only through words can we grasp what it is to be human and to seek to approach the infinite.”
—Frederick M. Lawrence, secretary and CEO, The Phi Beta Kappa Society, and distinguished lecturer, Georgetown University Law Center
“As a philosopher, law professor, and researcher in artificial intelligence, Vern Walker has examined more closely than most how we use language to perform real work in the world. In this fascinating book, Professor Walker extends his view beyond language. Combining poetic expression and analytic prose in this work of experience, knowledge, and beauty, he employs ‘language to demonstrate the limitations of language,’ the most important work language can perform.”
—Kevin D. Ashley, author of Artificial Intelligence and Legal Analytics: New Tools for Law Practice in the Digital Age
About the Author
Vern R. Walker has spent his professional life studying the use of language. A doctorate in philosophy provided the general foundation (in philosophy of language, theory of knowledge, and logic). His law career provided expertise in a specialized language (8 years practicing law, and nearly 30 years teaching it). For the last three decades, he has also developed artificial intelligence applications for processing the language of law (natural language processing). He is the author of many articles on language, meaning, argument, and reasoning in both law and philosophy.