Thursday, August 11, 2016

Language and thought

Some people believe that all thoughts and concepts are language-based; others see language as playing a less crucial (or central or primary) role. This issue came up during a discussion of my recent essay at The Electric Agora on Wittgenstein's (mainly non-verbal) antics, though the essay itself was not concerned with this particular question. There are a lot of potential confusions here, a few of which I will try to disentangle as I put my point of view.

How one answers this question depends on how one frames it and what exactly one means by 'thoughts' and 'concepts' (specifically, how broadly or narrowly one defines them). But it also depends on what we mean by language. Are we talking about natural language, that is, human languages as they are in all their complexity? Or are we talking about language in a looser, more general sense?

Wittgenstein, for example, talked about an imagined primitive language that a tribe of builders might use. Clearly he is not concerned directly with actual human languages here (i.e. natural language, as the term is usually understood) but rather with the basis of the meaningfulness of language in general, of any possible language. Whatever he talking about, it is certainly not the complex thing (or set of systems or suite of behaviours) which is normally called natural language and which our brains are specifically primed to acquire. Or, if he is talking about it, it is in very oblique terms: telling a story about an imagined simplified language to demonstrate something about how these actual complex languages came to – or can – have semantic content.

If you wanted to understand how language gets meaning surely you would want to look closely at how children acquire language. Speculations about how language itself developed are something else again. But whatever Wittgenstein is doing, he is not doing science and he is not suggesting an hypothesis about anything.

His general point seems to be that language is a social thing and that meaning arises through social interaction. But who is disputing this? (The main target of Wittgenstein's criticism seems to be certain philosophical ways of thinking, and to some extent his earlier self.)

He is not using the term 'language' in its usual sense to refer to natural language (i.e. to existing human languages). But if – unlike Wittgenstein – you are using the word 'language' in this way, then the idea that all thought and concepts are language-based is very implausible.

As I wrote in a comment...

"The brain’s language modules (contentious term but I am just using it to mean “brain systems involved directly in linguistic processing”) interact with other modules, and constitute only a part of the total cerebral activity which is associated with conscious experience. It seems a bit forced to characterize the multiple and various conscious experiences not associated with linguistic processing as ‘not-thought’.

"[One commenter] talks about “thoughts of a significant kind” [as being language-based]. This needs further unpacking, but at least the qualification is there."

Having language makes us special, that's for sure.

My comment continued:

"... [T]he capacity for complex language changes the nature of ‘thinking’ in radical ways. This relates to the capacity for abstraction. I see a link between natural language and artificial languages (like mathematics). Certain non-linguistic animals can count and maybe subtract in an intuitive kind of way, and may enact certain processes which could be represented in terms of formal logic. But building and using explicit abstract systems can only be done by humans, and I think these formal systems are modelled to a large extent on natural language. Even ordinary natural language involves a high degree of abstraction. It is a big deal and a game-changer.

"I think some philosophers have erred, however, in pushing what I see as an extreme line on the question of language and thought. I am thinking in particular of the views of a couple of my teachers. As an eighteen-year-old undergraduate I was given what I now believe was a false perspective on language and thought in philosophy lectures and tutorials. It took me years to work my way out of it.

"I don’t think I entirely agree with Brendan Larvor’s criticisms of philosophical practice. [Larvor is an academic philosopher working in the U.K. who was cited in my essay and who finds fault with the argumentive practices of philosophers, seeing them as designed primarily to silence opposing voices.] I was not so much bullied as persuaded. But there was a definite sense of cultishness; an unspoken understanding that “We have this special [curiously ineffable] insight which is denied to others.”"

And you'd have to say, I think, that much of this cultishness drew – and continues to draw – on Wittgenstein's later work, including his discussion of imaginary 'languages' and use of the (arguably ill-defined) concepts 'language games' and 'forms of life'.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Philosophical performance

Whether we like it or not – and whether we like to admit it or not – we all too often find ourselves on a communicational battlefield where the performance of bewilderment, contempt and nausea combine with other forms of shaming and ostracism to play a major role in determining who prevails.

My latest piece at The Electric Agora, Wittgenstein's Antics, is about some of the non-verbal methods which people use to promote themselves and their ideas and get their way. The focus is on philosophical head-clutching and similar antics which not just Ludwig Wittgenstein but many other philosophers have been prone to. [That's Karl Popper in the photograph.] The topic is amusing, sure, but serious questions can be asked about the causes, the functions and the consequences of these general patterns of behaviour.

And, by the way, an interesting discussion developed in the latter part of the comment thread on the extent to which thought is necessarily language-based.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Feel free to breathe

[Latest post in my Google+ Collection, Language, Logic, Life.]

Feel free to walk, however, and breathe. (No wonder the sign attracts graffiti.)

Also, the word 'refrain' has a slightly quaint or archaic air. I heard it – usually accompanied by 'please', as here, or by a sarcastic 'kindly' – a lot in my childhood. Even then it sounded a bit old-fashioned.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Beauty, beauty, everywhere...

[My latest piece in the Google+ Collection, Language, Logic, Life.]

"We believe everyone is beautiful." [Beauty salon sign]... Beauty in everyone, maybe, but everyone beautiful?

I could go on about this. If sincere it would suggest a grievous lack of professional judgment; if insincere, an attempt at cynical manipulation. A charitable reading might be that it is an assurance that the customer will be treated with respect no matter how unbeautiful she is.

But the main problem is clearly that such an attitude (or pretended attitude) drains the word of meaning. Not only do good-looking people need ordinary-looking and indeed ugly people around to set off their beauty, they need such people to exist in order for their beauty to have significance or value; or indeed for the word 'beautiful' to have any meaning at all.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cats and dogs and binary thinking

[This is a slightly modified extract from an essay of mine on attitudes to cats and dogs and binary thinking which appeared last month at The Electric Agora.]

There are cat lovers and there are dog lovers, and there is a widespread assumption that behind this distinction lies something that goes beyond arbitrary preferences and reflects our deeper natures. A temptation to amateur psychologizing kicks in here which I am going to resist. But clearly dogs and cats themselves inhabit quite separate moral universes.

Earlier this year, in a piece in the Washington Post, Gene Weingarten touched on a crucial difference between cats and dogs from a social-interaction-with-humans (i.e. from a psychological or if you like ‘moral’) point of view. He is talking about a stray kitten he adopted:

"I haven’t yet learned how to discipline him effectively, because unlike dogs, who accept punishment with appropriate shame and learn from their errors, cats do not seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility or atonement. Barnaby does not regard getting yelled at, or being put on timeout, as an occasion for attitudinal adjustment. If anything, he regards it as an opportunity for reprisal."

Weingarten is highlighting here a fundamental difference between cats and dogs in terms of their behaviour. Dogs are eager to please their human overlords. Cats please themselves.

Recognizing this, it’s not implausible to think that our preferring one to the other might say something important about us. A good many people (myself included) are tempted to play this game and to see themselves as tending to the feline or alternatively to the canine end of an imagined feline/canine axis.*

Of course, this is just one example of the binary thinking upon which so much human thinking and behaviour is based. The same type of thinking also lies behind all those “there are two kinds of people” sayings, some of which can be quite witty and apparently insightful. (For example, the interestingly self-referential proposition that there are two kinds of people, those who divide people into two categories and those who don’t.)

But, of course, this kind of thinking (based on unconscious, ‘quick and dirty’ brain functions, rather than on conscious reflection) is notoriously crude and inadequate to represent the real nuances and complexities of the social world. In the end, it probably tells us more about how our brains are designed, generically speaking, than about the world in general.

Many philosophers and psychologists have written about binary thinking. Even linguists. In fact it may be that all thinking is binary at some fundamental level. But binary thinking at the level of human judgments is problematic to say the least.

Some of us have this affliction worse than others. I am a pretty bad case, always wanting instinctively to take sides – on anything it is possible to take sides on. For me, all this drawing of lines is about orientation, a kind of mapping of logical space: me, not me; and, beyond that, good and bad forever, ad infinitum. Of course, my critical sense kicks in too – some if not all of the time.

* For what it's worth, I started out as a dog person but drifted catwards over time.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Slowly reorganizing

A new piece of mine on our attitudes to cats and dogs has just appeared at The Electric Agora.

I am slowly reorganizing my internet activity. No drastic changes. This site will continue as usual as will Conservative Tendency, but I have recently set up three Google+ Collections to which I will gradually be posting old (often revised) material from here and elsewhere as well as new material. (The intention is to cross-post most of this material – the new material at any rate – to one or other of my blogs.)

The three Collections are: Social and Political Reflections; Jewish Identity; and – just opened – Language, Logic, Life (

Monday, April 18, 2016

Language and manners

Rules and conventions relating to language and to broader aspects of social life sometimes seem arbitrary and trivial. They may be fairly arbitrary but they are not trivial. In my latest piece at The Electric Agora, Linguistic Prescriptivism and Manners, I look at the difference – and continuities – between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language and manners generally.

In the latter part of the essay I look specifically at dining customs (including some provocative 'rules of eating' suggested by AA Gill). A commenter made the point that – in contrast to non-human social species – fairly strict eating rules have always been a feature of properly-functioning human communities. We know, for example, that hunter-gatherer societies have been characterized by complex food and eating rules involving order and restraint. Unfortunately rules and restraints related to eating are now in disarray in most Western countries. This matters.