5. Language as Action

By Chris Chittenden

The distinctions set out below are referenced by both the Newfield Network and Newfield Institute approach to ontological coaching.

The ontological approach stems in part from a reasonably recent revolution in the philosophy of language that started in the last century with the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and was followed by philosophers such as J.J. Austin and John Searle. The upshot of their work, which is central to the ontological approach, is ‘Speech Act Theory’.

Speech act theory moved language out of the domain of merely describing the world and into the domain of action. Through language we took actions such as making requests, declaring promises and so on.

The ontological approach is founded on the claim that the use of language is one of the fundamental human actions.

It is our use of language that has allowed humans to shape our world in a way no other creature on this planet has been able to do. It allows us to plan, coordinate with each other and generate vast stores of knowledge. Yet, we generally do not give our use of language much thought in our everyday life. As author Christina Baldwin has said, “We live in story like a fish lives in water. We swim through words and images siphoning story through our minds the way a fish siphons water through its gills. We cannot think without language, we cannot process experience without story.”

Given most of us rarely, if ever, consider how we use language, it presents a huge opportunity to explore how its use impacts our experience of life. Take this simple example. Answer these two questions. What was the worst thing that happened to you today? What was the best thing that happened to you today? Now think about how those two responses made you feel. Think about what other thoughts came with those answers. Now consider where you tend to focus – good or bad – and what that means for how you experience life. Now consider what would happen if you did the opposite. How would life be like for you then?

These may be simple questions however they are all born of the way we use language. A shift in our usage can have a profound effect and life could be very different than it is.

The breakthroughs leading to the ontological approach have come from understanding the role of language in shaping our personal world in every minute of every day. It is the idea that language plays a far different role than passively describing our experience. Rather language is seen as playing a role in actively creating our experience.

Two Ontological Claims

One of the major early works relating to the ontological approach was by Rafael Echeverria in a series of papers with the overarching title ‘The Ontology of Language’. In those papers, he set out a couple of claims which highlight the role of language in the ontological approach.

1. Human beings are interpreted as ‘linguistic beings’.

This claim identifies that human beings owe their ‘beingness’ to the use of language. This is not to say that this is all human beings are, but rather language is the key to understanding the human phenomenon.

2. Language brings forth our reality.

Human beings live in a world where we constantly interact with other human beings through language. Through language we shape the future. How we say things and what we say will all have an impact on what will happen to us in the future. We also create our identity - how we are described by others and ourselves - through language.

Ultimately, human beings use language to build stories to explain how the world is for us and then paradoxically forget that we have done so and transparently see the world through those stories.

These two claims can bring forth a very different way of looking at the role of language in human life and lead to insights into interpreting the human condition and relationships not found without an understanding of the role of language as action.