Playing With the Structure of the World As Experienced: On Terrance McKenna’s “Syntactical Nature of Reality”

Terence Kemp McKenna (November 16, 1946 – April 3, 2000) American ethnobotanist, philosopher, psychonaut, researcher, teacher, lecturer, and writer.

By Adam J. Pearson

Do not confuse the moon with the finger pointing at the moon” —Zen Proverb

The food is not the menu” —Huston Smith

The map is not the territory” —Alfred Korzybski


Terrence McKenna once claimed that “the syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.” I am a big fan of McKenna’s insights in general, but I wonder if this statement goes a little too far.  I feel he is being a little mystical here, and maybe speaking about a spiritual language to the world, perhaps something along the lines of the Jewish Kabbalah or Hermetic Qabalah. However, I find that these words can shed some interesting light on the way language shapes our experience of the world if we interpret it a little differently, that is, as a description of how we can play with the structure of the world as processed through concepts simply by altering those very concepts.

To begin, both McKenna and French philosopher Jacques Derrida are keen on their insistence of the importance of signifiers, of symbols and words, in ‘mediating’ our experience of the world.  By ‘mediating,’ I mean giving us terms through which to make sense of what we see, hear, taste, etc. Certainly words are central to the way human beings experience the world; we don’t simply see a dog; we immediately label it “a dog” – we associate a name and a word with the sensory images we see. But I feel that if we reduce the nature of physical reality to words, we are making a vital error.  The dog is much more than its name, whether we call it ‘dog,’ ‘chien,’ ‘canis,’ or ‘inu’; it is a living, breathing creature, fully alive and vibrant and with its own being prior to it being called anything at all.

In short, I think we can distinguish between the world in two senses: (1) the preverbal or preconceptual world  and (2) the verbal or conceptual world. By the ‘preverbal or preconceptual world,’ I mean physical reality before it has been translated into labels, words, or concepts.  I mean the physical world before it is thought or spoken about, before we attach labels or words to it. When we are experiencing–seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching–the preverbal world, we have no idea what we are seeing; no names come to mind. Our mind is blank and there is nothing there but the object in front of us, just as it is, naked and bare of concepts or labels. It is this nonverbal or preconceptual experience that Zen invites us to recapture by silently sitting in meditation or practicing mindfulness; it is the same experience we first have when we are born into this world as infants.  Seeing without labeling or giving rise to concepts is the most direct experience of ‘physical reality’ that we can possibly have. The minute we start thinking and labeling, we have moved into what I call the ‘verbal or conceptual world.’

Rene Magritte’s famous painting, “The Treachery of Things” illustrates the point that the preverbal world is different from the verbal world. The pipe is not the same as our mental model or this painted picture of it; it has a reality of its own, a physical existence, that is prior to our names, concepts, and images of it. The being of a thing comes before its name; the preverbal world comes before the verbal world.

By the term ‘verbal or conceptual world,’ I mean the world as processed through language and concepts.  The views, opinions, thoughts, and concepts we hold in our minds change the way we see the world; they change the way that we perceive the bare sensations of the preconceptual world by giving them names and labels and telling us what they ‘mean.’  The words and concepts ‘mediate’ our experience of the world; it follows, therefore, that if we change the words and concepts we use, or the larger belief systems or paradigms that are built up out of them, we change the mediated world we experience. This is partly why the beliefs we hold and the breadth of our vocabulary are so important; they literally shape our perception of the world.

If we return to McKenna’s quotation, then, the term ‘syntactical nature of reality’ only seems to make sense if applied to the conceptual or verbal world.  It cannot be applied to the preverbal world. Why? Because the preverbal world is prior to or before words or their combinations into phrases and sentences (syntax) even arises.  The moment we start to use words, we are dealing with the conceptual world.  We are mediating and processing reality through concepts and language.  However, it makes sense to say that the conceptual or verbal world has a ‘syntactical’ nature; we could also say it has a ‘verbal’ or a ‘conceptual’ nature.  It is basically composed of the words and concepts we use to make meaning out of the preverbal world. Differently stated, it is made up of the mental representations or ‘signifiers’ we use to symbolize and think about and speak about the world prior to concepts.

To reiterate, as I see the matter, the words we use don’t create the world we live in; they mediate it. They build up a cognitive framework that we use to navigate through the world in a way that supports our survival. If we didn’t have this cognitive or linguistic framework, we would have no way to label ‘poison’ as distinct from ‘healthy food,’ for example. Such distinctions are, to say the least, terribly important. They keep us alive. If we want to experience the preverbal world, we cannot invoke a single word or concept. We must sit in silence, just as Zen practitioners do in zazen or seated meditation. When we are present with the preverbal world, when we are ‘there,’ we have no idea what we’re seeing or experiencing. The moment we know what you’re experiencing, the moment we invoke the names of things, we’re  mediating the preconceptual world with concepts and words again. We’ve moved back into the verbal world.

The way I interpret the second part of McKenna’s statement, namely, that “the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish,” is that it refers to our power or ability to ‘play’ with the structure of the conceptual world.  If we work with the words and concepts we use to mediate our reality, we change our perception of reality because the preverbal world is experienced through the interpretive matrix or cognitive ‘filter’ of language.  Once we understand how concepts, paradigms, and words shape our experience of the world, we can play around with these intermediaries of our experience to transform that experience, in effect, to modify the ‘world as experienced,’ the conceptual world.

Our words and concepts form our ‘map’ of the territory
of the preverbal world. By changing our map, we change
our experience of the territory. In this way, by playing with
words, concepts, and paradigms, we can play with the
very structure of the conceptual world — the world as
experienced through language.

The modern occult tradition of chaos magic championed by philosophers such as A.O. Spare and Peter Carroll exploits this insight to maximum effect; practitioners of the tradition play with and ‘swap’ paradigms (sets of beliefs and terminology) freely to change their perception of the world as well.  While astronauts explore space, these ‘psychonauts’ play with and reshape the structure of the conceptual world by playing with the concepts used to navigate it.  In closing, their message for humanity and general, and I would argue, McKenna’s as well, is that the words and concepts we use to make meaning out of the world are crucially important; they not only shape our perception but can potentially give us the power to modify our perception and the world we experience (conceptual world) at will.  To restate McKenna, if we know the words that our world is made of, then we can make of it whatever we wish.


2 thoughts on “Playing With the Structure of the World As Experienced: On Terrance McKenna’s “Syntactical Nature of Reality”

  1. I believe he meant vibrations from the words. Just a quick generalization but that should spark an idea or two.

  2. Vibrating glossolalia 🙂 …the sense I get out of it is that language always existed in potential, and then humans started using it. Thus the universe plugged into a higher or more novel potential within itself – giving us emotional vibrating linguistic power over reality.

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