What You Think, You Become By Valerie Smith

Language is thought, reality, and in some cases, even deceitful. The analysis I am about to write takes a look at Anne Berthoff’s “Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning” to dive a little closer into what Berthoff means by using language to assign meaning to thought. Then, I will use Berthoff’s essay as a sort of Segway from language as thought to language as reality since what one thinks is also what one sees in reality. After showing language as a dependent factor of thought and reality, I will show how powerful rhetorical language is as a political strategy to control the masses. In doing this, I will connect back to Anne Berthoff’s ideas as a way to teach students to question thought and reality so rhetoric as a political strategy can no longer deceive the masses.

Anne Berthoff disagrees with empirical researchers statement on language is a code. On the contrary, Berthoff believes language is more of a way of thinking. She states, “If you start with a working concept of language as a means of making meaning, you are recognizing that language can only be studied by means of language,” (745). Berthoff is saying that language is the foundation for meaning; therefore language can only be studied by studying language. If this is true, then it is evident that all meaning is assigned to us individuals by language. Language is the foundation for meaning. Without meaning, we are unable to even think or be conscious of ourselves. Berthoff proves empirical researchers wrong about language. It is not a code of a bunch of symbols placed together to say something. It is much bigger than that. It is the grounding basis for all human thought and existence. Martin Heidegger says in his book The Thinker as Poet, “What is spoken is never, and in no language, what is said.” Heidegger says language is never what is said. Berthoff would disagree: language is not only spoken, it is thought, felt, and handled with emotion. It is what our thoughts are. Language is therefore larger than a system of codes or symbols used to communicate. To further support this idea, Albert Camus says, “I’m going to tell you something: thoughts are never honest. Emotions are,” better correlates with Berthoff’s argument as language is even larger than being spoken or communicated (Notebooks 1951-1959).

Albert Camus

Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action hits the nail on the head as he agrees with Berthoff:

We like to forget the kind of relation that really prevails between the verbal and the nonverbal. In being a link between us and the nonverbal, words are by the same token a screen separating us from the nonverbal—though the statement gets tangled in its own traces, since so much of the ‘we’ that is separated from the nonverbal by the verbal would not exist were it not for the verbal…

He is saying that verbal and nonverbal communication are the same when it comes to language as it can be thought, felt, or even spoken. This shows that Burke and Berthoff agree with each other on the meaning of language.

Kenneth Burke

However, language can be more than thought, too. If it is what we are always thinking at anytime of the day, then it is also our reality. Jumping back into Albert Camus Notebooks 1951-1959, Camus says:

Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.

This larger and rather detailed quote on a walk Camus is describing to us transfers us from thinking of language as thought to also being reality. By saying, “flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world”, Camus is showing us that are thoughts can take us to another reality, hints the word “world”. He is arguing that by being alone and at peace in your mind, you can control the world around you. He is not speaking literally; he is saying our thoughts control our reality by the use of language. Language controls thought and by controlling thought, it also has a grasp on reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein backs up this idea as well by saying “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” (The Limits of My Language Mean the Limits of My World). If Wittgenstein has limits to his language, he has limits to his thoughts and also his reality. René Descartes once famously said, “Cogito ergo sum” translating to “I think therefore I am.” In other words, he thinks himself into existence, as Camus and Berthoff argued previously in this analysis. Since he is conscious of himself, he exists. Therefore thought is equal to reality and language is equal to thought. Again, this idea can best be summarized by what Henry David Thoreau says: “What a woman thinks of herself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, her faith,” (Walden). Forget that it is what a woman thinks. What everyone thinks of his or herself tells us what we individually believe in.

If language is what we think and what is in control of our reality, then it is obvious that language controls everything. Once someone knows this, they hold a great power. Sometimes, this power can fall in the wrong hands. It could fall into the hands of someone so power-hungry, that he or she will want to control the reality of the world in a literal sense. For example, Adolf Hitler. Adolf Hitler was able to manipulate the entire population of Germany into killing off approximately 6 million Jews. Some blame this on Aristotle’s ethic of expediency, while others blame it purely on his way of spoken language. Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Hitler’s “Battle” written in 1957 states, “What are we to learn from Hitler’s book? For one thing, I believe that he has shown, to a very disturbing degree, the power of endless repetition.” Burke is saying that Hitler’s intentional and deliberative rhetoric combined with repeating himself is what served as a large part in persuading the Germans to kill the Jews. Steven Katz says, “The writer (Himmler’s Final Solution) shows no concern that the purpose of this memo is the modification of vehicles not only to improve efficiency, but also to exterminate people,” (The Ethic of Expediency, 257). In summary, Katz is saying that Himmler wants to modify a vehicle to speed up the process of killing Jews. However, Himmler uses rhetoric to treat Jews as insects or pests in need of extermination. By modify the vehicle to speed up the process of killing them; Himmler is treating Jews as if they aren’t human. It is this type of deliberative rhetoric that allowed Germany to get away with the holocaust for so long. With the use of language, as Berthoff has argued, thoughts and ideas were made into reality. Unfortunately, this was a tragic and horrific tragedy. Karl Marx argues the same thing but in place of the holocaust, he argues against the reality of religion: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” (Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right). In saying that religion is an opiate of the masses, Marx is arguing that someone made up religion to control those who are already oppressed by society’s upper class. The upper class made up religion to give the masses of people in the lower classes something to believe in. In a way, it is a lie to believe that there is a reward after this life: eternal paradise, when in actuality, everyone lived there lives as servants who just die in the end. This is another example of language being used as a way to control someone else’s reality. To further elaborate on this point just a little bit more, let’s take a look at a piece more modern and recognizable to the adolescent crowd today: John Green’s Looking for Alaska. One of the main characters, a young girl named Alaska, says:

But Dr. Hyde was telling a different story, one that I’d skipped. ‘Karl Marx famously called religion ‘the opiate of the masses.’ Buddhism, particularly as it is popularly practiced, promises improvement through karma. Islam and Christianity promise eternal paradise to the faithful. And that is a powerful opiate, certainly, the hope of a better life to come. But there’s a Sufi story that challenges the notion that people believe only because they need an opiate. Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the street of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take the bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.’’”

Ultimately, this argues against language as a means of controlling others. Coincidentally, this is exactly what Anne Berthoff wants for students of composition.

Anne Berthoff believes language to be more than just the empirical researcher’s symbols and code. She argues that language is way of thought. Thought is a way of making our reality. Therefore, language is reality. However, dangers accompany this powerful knowledge. She wants her students to be aware of this by questioning all thought and reality. Berthoff says, “the teacher, by means of careful sequence of lessons or assignments, can assure that the students are conscious of their minds in action, can develop their language by means of exercising deliberate choice,” (747). By understanding language as thought and reality, the students can understand the meaning behind everything he or she questions. She also says, “Looking and looking again helps students learn to transform things into questions; they learn to see names as ‘titles for situations’ as Kenneth Burke puts it,” (753). This is ultimately what Anne Berthoff wants for her students. This is also what I hope to teach my students: language is powerful because it is thought and reality. Therefore, one must learn to control it properly.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E. “Is Teaching Still Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning.” College English 46.8 (Dec. 1984): 743-55. Rpt. in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. 2nd edition. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 329-343.

Burke, Kenneth. Language As Symbolic Action. University of California Press, 1968.

Camus, Albert. Notebooks. Ivan R. Dee; Tra Edition, 2010.

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. Speak; Reprint Edition, 2006.

Heidegger, Martin. Thinker As Poet. Ohio Press University, 1974.


Katz, Steven B. "The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust". National Council of Teachers of English, 1992. Vol. 54 Issue 3, Print.

Marx, Karl. Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Empire Books, 2013.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Major Works: Selected Philosophical Readings. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009.

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