We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we can describe.
I need help with understanding this quote and what it's trying to convey.
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The quote (which has been altered slightly from the original) seems to have first appeared in Joseph Jaworski's book Synchonicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, whose first edition was published in 1996.
It is explained better by quoting the whole paragraph it is contained in:
As I considered the importance of language and how human beings interact with the world, it struck me that in many ways the development of language was like the discover of fire—it was such an incredible primordial force. I had always thought that we used language to describe the world—now I was seeing that this is not the case. To the contrary, it is through language that we create the world, because it's nothing until we describe it. And when we describe it, we create distinctions that govern our actions. To put it another way, we do not describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe.
Jaworski seems to connect this to Buddhist philosophy. Another answer shows that similar things are discussed in the Talmud. And this also seems very similar to the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic relativity. I have no idea whether Descartes ever said anything resembling this.
First, I'd like to start with a couple thought experiments and analogies. None of these are meant to be offensive in any way, but merely to explain a point. Please comment with any suggestions on how to improve them.
Let's say you see a person walking on the street of a minority race. What do you think? Try taking the Race IAT, a test which asks you to match pictures of white children with sad/destructive words and pictures of African-American children with happy words. Don't feel bad if you came out with difficulties doing so; most people do, even those who themselves are in a minority group. (Read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink for an interesting discussion of this.)
Now, imagine that same person walking towards you, hand in their pocket. What do you do?
Another scenario. Consider discussing politics with a kid. Let's say they ask you about a topic which you have strong feelings about. How do you talk about opponents to your position? How do you talk about people who agree with your position?
Another scenario. Imagine you have been working on a research project for years, slaving over it, agonizing over it. Future funding is dependent on it. You've been finally doing some of the end experiments, and you're getting some weird results that don't fit with your hypothesis. You redo them, and they still don't come out the way you'd like. Do you shelve the research and not publish? Do you redo the experiments again? What are your thoughts?
Another scenario, a less divisive one this time. Tell yourself you're really thirsty. It's a hot day, and you really need a drink. Picture warm sunny beaches, deserts, baking heat, humidity. Think about this for a bit. Odds are, when you're done, you'll actually feel thirsty.
We do not describe the world we see, we see the world we describe.
The world we describe in our minds affects how we see things. We see everything through a lens - our biases, perceptions, thoughts, all affect how we act and see the world. That's exactly what this quote is describing.
Everyone (or at least most people) know that they are biased, in some way or another. That bias affects how we see things. It's why we should be thoughtful when looking at anything. How much of what you're thinking is colored by your perceptions? Are you really thinking about this with an open mind?
That's what this quote is talking about.
Note also that I'm pretty sure this quote was not said by Descartes. This site provides several citations for when it was said. The earliest source for which there is any support is the Talmud:
“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”— Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.)
However, this too is uncertain.
Descartes presents ideas like Zen koans. Thinking about the questions they raise can change the way you think.
When we see, what do we see? We know more about optics and neurology than Descartes did, but the puzzle remains--how does an arrangement of light beams turn into sensory perception, experience, and ideas? What makes a thing beautiful to one person and ugly to another? How much of what you've already seen influences how you interpret what you see?
How do we tell other people what we've seen? We can show someone what we saw with a photo or a video, but we can't transfer all the associations we attach to it. Painting attempts to do so, but there is a chasm between what we see in our mind's eye and what we can express. Images, words, music, dance, they all try and fail to pull ideas out of our head and put them in another's.
Putting aside art, how do we communicate? We agree on a lexicon, a toolbox, a set of symbols that have meaning, like the letters of an alphabet. We assemble them into words or shapes or sounds. We pretend that we have described a thought, but it is a crude semblance. Yet, that is the best we can do. It is what we must do.
After learning the code, we focus on our goals. We stop thinking about how we speak. We simply speak. We hear what we expect to hear. We see what we expect to see. To trade our thoughts better with our group, we think more like our group. We can only describe what we understand, what we have the vocabulary to say, and what our audience is prepared to hear.