“Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” – Martin Heidegger (1971)
I think Heidegger way over estimated the man/language relationship – at least how it is currently configured. It seems to me most people are simply oblivious of the language they are using. For example, as it is that time of year, take the phrase “New Year’s Resolutions.” Most of the people making them do so in the form of proclamations, not resolutions. They are likely to protest as proclamations bring to mind tri-corner hats, parchment, and calls of “Hear ye, hear ye.” Yet this is for the most part what most people do, even if only in their own minds. They may insist they mean resolution as in “firmness of purpose” and “definite or earnest determination,” and my question is, of/for what? It appears to be to try and do what did not work the last (x number of times) they tried it.
If language were a thoughtful master of men (and women), we servants of language might have seen that contained within the word “resolution” is the idea “re-solution.” Which is what is really needed: a new solution to our situation rather than a re-dedication to an old one. After all, you clearly already have the resolution (as in determination/motivation). What you want/need are New Year’s Solutions or better stated, New Solutions This Year. Repeat that idea in your mind for a minute. Does it take your thinking in a new direction? While this is not necessarily a solution in itself, (individual results may vary), conceiving of something in a new way necessarily changes it. With sufficient changes, entirely new qualities emerge.
How about taking an etymological (word origins) approach to the word “resolution”? It comes from the 15th century Latin resolutio meaning the “process of reducing things into simpler forms.” So a New Year’s Resolutio would be a process, not a declaration, an investigation, not a proclamation. Instead of saying “My resolutions,” as if they were things among your many unused possessions, you would investigate what your disliked habit, or lack of a desired one, is made of. Maybe objects, actions, images, ideas, emotions or some combination of these. Find out. Also, what works (and what doesn’t)? What is it in its simplest form? What does that point to as next to do? Notice how this shifts your attention. In this process, you become a kind of scientist, investigator, detective. Try out these different roles (and others). They will increase your perspectives.
Taking the etymology back further, the origin of resolutio is the Latin word resolvere meaning “to loosen, undo, settle,” and the root of that is solvere meaning “to loosen, free, release, dissolve.” The reader has undoubtedly noticed the word “solve” in this root. How does doing a New Year’s Solve change your thinking in contrast to a New Year’s Resolution? Moreover, what comes to mind thinking about loosening a disliked habit instead of resolving to overcome it? Or releasing a desired habit into your life instead of trying to force it into existence? Each of these are simply different ways of conceiving of ideas, yet what a difference. Keep in mind that a familiarity with one does not rule out another, nor make it any more useful or truthful (though you are unthinkingly inclined to do so). That is, you need to actually engage in resolutio to experience the resolvere.
Some might describe this as “word magic,” and in a sense they are right. One source of our human ability to adapt and change is to reconceive existing ideas by re-languaging them – whether they are considered difficulties or desires. Yet in our everyday language, we tend to use the most common, conventional, and convenient terms. An advantage of this is we feel we can communicate with and understand each other. A disadvantage of this is that our thoughts, if they can actually be called that, are mostly like everyone else’s thoughts. (Except for those unthinking troglodytes over there. We are exactly the opposite of them.)
If language were truly our master, we would be guided to the processes that find the simpler form of things and allow us to loosen, undo, release and dissolve our difficulties and fulfill our desires. Yet we are not even the masters of ourselves, as our annual New Year’s Resolutions evidence. On the other hand, as the cliche goes, in this brief exploration of the word “resolution” you very likely experienced a new thought, perspective, or additional idea about your New Year’s Re-solutions. Whether this has released something, freed up your thinking, or simply loosened a few conventional ideas, it is a demonstration that we can, if we are interested and willing to make the effort, make some significant use of language.
So, re-solve to have a Happy New Year!
PS – If you want a do-over, or need more time, the next New Year is January 31, 4712 (That’s 2014 to you Gregorians). Year of the Horse, of course.