WHEN WORDS LOSE MEANING: is reality contained in language?

Apr 29, 2021

In 1543, Andreas Vesalius dissected a corpse, thereby inaugurating a scientific attitude toward the human body. This new attitude taught us to stand aside from our identification and connection with the body and see it as a lifeless subject of inquiry. Such an approach brought obvious vital advances in science and medicine, but it also came at a cost. In the 20th century, philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida did for language what Vesalius had done for the human body. Their careful dissection of language laid bare formerly hidden assumptions and revealed the ways that language shapes our thinking. 

We are joined on the podcast by Dr. Bret Alderman Ph.D., author of Symptom, Symbol, and the Other of Language: A Jungian Interpretation of the Linguistic Turn. We discuss alienation and dissociation that results from the Promethean project to deconstruct language and its meaning. 

Foucault, Derrida, and the other postmodernists contributed valuable insights to our understanding of the role of language in determining our assumptions. Still, their desire to sever the meaning of words from those things that words represent is symptomatic of a profound dissociation from our embodied, instinctual selves. Jung was aware of the perils inherent in such a project. “This rupture of the link with the unconscious and our submission to the tyranny of words has one great disadvantage: the conscious mind becomes more and more the victim of its discriminating activity, the picture of the world gets broken down into countless particulars, and the original feelings of unity, which we integrally connected with the unity of the unconscious psyche, is lost. This feeling of unity, in the form of correspondence theory and the sympathy of all things, dominated philosophy until well into the seventeenth century.”

The ideas of the postmodernists have permeated culture in ways that are not always obvious. Current movements to redefine certain phenomena as social constructs are evidence of the inroads these philosophies have made. Though there are benefits to looking at this world this way, these ideas may also be giving rise to a “rootless consciousness.”

Here’s the dream we analyze:

There are tarantulas stuck on my skin the way ticks would be. They are big and hairy. Strangely the tarantulas are hidden in small boxes, which hang on my body. So their legs are digging into my skin, but I can’t see them unless I remove the boxes. My mother is helping me to remove the spiders, but they keep coming back. They don’t crawl upon me but rather seem to be born from my skin. All of a sudden, my mother is gone, and I’m alone with some spiders still hanging on me. I can’t remove them myself because I’m too scared to touch them. I am terrified and helpless.”


Dr. Bret Alderman Ph.D. Symptom, Symbol, and the Other of Language: A Jungian Interpretation of the Linguistic Turn. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0815359136/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_9HK34JAF7WEVYR1JQS5V

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. (Movie). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWbqBNKZ-aU


Learn to Analyze your own Dreams:  https://thisjungianlife.com/enroll/

You can contact Dr. Bret Alderman Ph.D. at https://www.aldermancoaching.com/


  1. Simcha

    Is this a sequel to the April 1 podcast ?

    What about Foucault’s “Madness and Civilisation” ?

  2. LAB

    I’m a bit surprised that Alderman sees a big tension between the current trend of postmodernist critique and the consideration of nature or things intrinsic to people (he refers to this around 8:30 in the episode). I actually noticed that people are increasingly using essentialist arguments to exaggerate the very importance of language in our daily reality. For instance, you hear a lot of people on the far American left talking about “the Black experience” or “the Western perspective,” as if all people in a racial group or the western hemisphere experience, think, and live in the world the same exact way. These arguments about the supposedly intrinsic nature of human racial groups are wrong for a number of reasons, not the least of which because they disembody people from physical, lived reality to an extent. I hope that makes sense! Very interesting episode.

  3. Mamie Krupczak Allegretti

    Great and interesting episode! I often think that one of the big tasks in life (maybe the biggest) is to somehow find balance between having to live in the world with all that entails (and which causes splitting in ourselves) and following our own individuation process. How do we heal the splits? To what extent CAN we heal the splits? Our awareness of them is the beginning of the process. But this episode got me thinking about many things and my husband and I had a great discussion on whether we can have experience without language. I also thought about the dissociations happening now in education. For example, many of us teachers are teaching online to students who don’t show their faces online and who never speak. It is causing a lot of frustration and feelings of meaninglessness in teachers who are wondering if anyone is out there in cyberland. Are the kids learning anything? To whom am I talking? Why am I doing this? Many teachers are now retiring or quitting because they don’t like this method of relating to students. So, it’s another way that technology is forcing us to understand how relate to others. Thanks for this episode! Maybe we need a part 2!!!

  4. Taline Kavoukian

    Interesting discussion. Postmodern thinking is an iterative process between language, thought and experience. The idea of language as construct is helpful in taking a critical stance on how individuals think, social mores, political ideals and systems, etc. And, it is an idea born from experience, showing the way to new language, new ways of thinking and new experiences. I would like to hope that it is a way to evolve as humans and as a society, and that we can all agree that the meaning inherent in our struggles is for a just and equitable society for all. All language is political, and it is important to have an awareness of who language serves.

    The binary of gender is a construct, and questioning this construct allows individuals the freedom to express their gender without being ostracized or being boxed into a binary. Individuals with gender dysphoria naturally feel that they are the opposite gender of how they naturally present. So which is more natural?! Questioning the construct of gender and what is natural allows us to understand that language is not inclusive enough. And that opens a path to a more just and equitable society .

    NB Hermaphrodite is a dated term implying dated judgmental and harmful attitudes: “intersex” is politically correct.

  5. Justin Ayres

    Suggesting Russ Lockhart: Words as Eggs.

  6. William

    Very thought-provoking discussion! Always great to experience your brainstorming.

    Greetings…germane to the subject might be a quote by Gregory Bateson from Steps to the Ecology of Mind.

    The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works, and the way people think.
    Gregory Bateson

    Bateson was true admirer of Jung’s and highly recommends Jung’s Septum Sermones ad Mortuos, Seven Sermons to the Dead. (see pp. 461 and 489 in the aforementioned book)

  7. Laura

    I’m late to this party but still want to add something!

    I enjoyed this episode and resonated with much of it, particularly the idea that denying the reality of biological sex cuts us off from the unity of the species — now, across space, as well as throughout time — not to mention the unity of mammals.

    There was one moment in the discussion that really struck me — which I found surprising, a little disappointing, but above all interesting: the proposal that theories of fatphobia deny the reality that a thinner female body is more sexually attractive for evolutionary reasons. This proposal was accepted by everyone on the podcast with a speed and readiness that caught my attention, considering it’s far from scientifically sound as an assumption. We don’t even need to go too deeply into evolutionary biology to put this assumption in question — the mere fact that around the globe now and historically there are human societies that find a fatter female body more sexually attractive is enough to tell us that ideals of female thinness are not ‘natural’ or biologically determined. I think it would be interesting to return to the topic of fat on the podcast and explore it with a little more of your customary rigour and reflectiveness, perhaps giving some thought to why this proposal was accepted so readily and with such apparent relish or satisfaction, as though the (questionable) theory being put forward vindicated some underlying feeling…


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