Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, November 29, 2010

"...and each name gave birth to a new thought."

The pleasures that come from a medium used to its fullest, to the point where its very limitations become assets, are among the keenest I know. I've been struck speechless by watercolor still-lifes (lemons and oranges and cups of tea on a tablecloth), the precision of representation brought almost flush with the impossibility of representation. James Burke's Connections and The Day the Universe Changed are instances of exactly the sort of thing at which television can excel, and think they are still unsurpassed 20 years and more later.

This episode (transcripthere, but I recommend listening if you can) from NPR's Radiolab, is radio at its best. So much of radio is made up of language; here is a program devoted to the question of what language is and how it shapes us. (Of course, even more of radio is music, but I've written somewhat about that elsewhere and will again.)

To say there's been a bit of a backlash against "the linguistic turn" in some of the philosophical circles I frequent is something of an understatement. A great deal of that critique is well-taken. I got just as tired as anyone of too much emphasis on how something was said, as if this meant that one somehow couldn't get to what it was being said about. But I regard the current revival of realism as, in important ways, a new way of talking, and I am with Plato and Marx and Russell in thinking that metaphysics must go hand in hand with being clear about how we think.

There's an electrifying moment early in this piece in which Susan Schaller recounts the breakthrough moment she tells in her book A Man Without Words: her student, "Ildefonso," a man deaf from birth realizes for the first time what he's seeing when he sees people signing all around him. Until this moment he had not understood that "everything has a name." This is very close, as reviewers have of course remarked, to the famous moment Helen Keller recounts in her Story of My Life:
Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.(My emphasis.)
This story of language-as-nomenclature is the one that Wittgenstein has in his sights in the Philosophical Investigations. He begins with this citation of St. Augustine:
When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples; the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of the voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I heard words repeatedly used in their proper places in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.
This story, it will be noted, is extremely close to Schaller's example of Ildefonso, and Keller's of herself. Wittgenstein is quite right that it won't do to extrapolate an entire metaphysics out of this experience--as if a language was nothing but a complete inventory of the universe and the relationships of which the items on such a list are capable; such is, at root, the aspiration of the logical atomism which he had realized he had to abandon. But, as Wittgenstein would have said, just because it is a mistake does not make it a stupid mistake. The list of nouns we encounter in children's alphabet books, apple ball cat, really corresponds not just to an intuitive idea of language but to our first conscious encounter with it. Wittgenstein is right to say that use is, as it were, a broader concept than meaning (if we are thinking of lexical meaning at any rate), for in fact we begin to internalize use before we consciously seize upon meaning. But mightn't the reason "meaning" is so compelling a notion, and why "use" is, for all its liberating effects (a liberation which at least two generations of philosophers felt as a breath of fresh air), an extremely difficult conception to think through, be in part because to reach it we have to go back, so to speak, to before we learned "what language is?"

There's one further moment in this episode, out of so many, that I want to highlight. It is Jill Bolte Taylor's account of the "joy" that she felt after the stroke which knocked out her left brain, including all language function, for a long while. After this, during her recovery, she says, she lacked
that little voice that you know you wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says it Oh man the sun is shining. Well imagining you don't hear that little voice that says man the sun is shining you just experience the sun and the shining.
... It was all of the present moment.
She had no thoughts, Taylor says.
I just had joy. I had, I had this magnificent experience of I’m this collection of these beautiful cells. I am organic. I’m this, this organic entity.
....I lost all definition of myself in relationship to everything in the external world.
This condition she attributes largely to the incapacity she had for language; at least, we might say, it clearly correlates with this incapacity:
... Language is an ongoing information processing it's that constant reminder. I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I'm a single, I am a solid, I'm separate from you. This is my name...
I did not have that portion of my language center that tells a story: curious little Jill, me, Jill Bolte Taylor climbing the Harvard ladder, through language, loves dissection, cutting up things, that language was gone. I got to essentially become an infant again.
When Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich heard this, Krulwich remarked,
When you drop out of the “I”-ness of yourself or the story of yourself then you're left, she says at peace, I could argue that that's just stranded, that's stranded in the sunshine, in the wind, in the now.
And this is indeed the rub. Here is where every reductive account of religious experience bottoms out, and rightly. Are all our accounts of mystical union, of transcendental bliss, beyond-words joy, simply a function of having no words at all? Is the ineffable just a matter of lacking the capacity to "eff"?

One thing is sure; animals who lack words can experience agony as well as joy, and one does not need words to scream. Wordlessness per se then is no sufficient condition for bliss. To make such a reduction is to fall prey to the pre/trans fallacy; the resemblance between the unio mystica and Freud's "oceanic feeling" is not enough to establish an equivalence.

Since I mentioned Wittgenstein's abandoning aspects of his early logical atomism, I ought to emphasize that the continuity between the Investigations and the Tractatus is much stronger than often remarked. In both there is an emphasis upon practice, upon the point at which our account of things comes up short and must fall silent. This is the basis for Wittgenstein's semi-Schopenhauerian idealism, an aspect of his thought Russell never fully appreciated. This "mystical" element in Wittgenstein (early and late) did not protect him from despair, but sometimes gave him, he said, a "feeling of being absolutely safe," that nothing could touch him,not even death. A psychologistic reduction of logic would have been meaningless to Wittgenstein, and so too a reduction of such transcendental sense, because both of these are such that they cannot be made the object of scrutiny; one cannot stand outside them. He did not dispute that they had no "objective" sense; but this was because they came, as it were before sense.

This is of course where the anti-correlationism camp goes nuts, and this is the site of my own dicey heresy. Certainly, as Brassier or Meillassoux would contend, "beyond language" need not mean "beyond thought." Of course it is not true that "everything has a name," and if thinking and being are the same, this lies beyond what can be said; but the testimony of ancient philosophy is that it does not lie beyond experience.


  1. Do you think there might be a connection here with the myth of Orpheus, the singer, descending into Hades to find Eurydice? Or with Goethe’s Faust entering the realm of the Mothers?

  2. It's certainly an admissible parallel, Gary; and just the sort of thing I tend to focus on. The other analogy I think of off the top of my head is Plato's philosopher re-descending into the cave.

  3. Having listened to some of the programme what intrigues me is how the deaf man managed to spend up to the age of 27 without coming to know that people were talking. Can this be true? The Wittgensteinian idea of the difficulty for ostensive definition of communicating 'now go on' was brought out when she was trying to teach the man to sign and all he did was mirror what she did. In the case of the deaf man it may have been due to the very late date of first encountering the teaching situation. I recall that the history of 'wild children' shows that if they are over the age of 10 when brought into human contact they will never learn speech even though the organs are organically sound. The hard-wiring has become inflexible. She, the teacher, had to be very creative in order to create context shift i.e. from mirroring to response.

    The general philosophical question as to whether what is going awry in the abnormal may inform as to the structure of the normal i.e. getting it wrong is equivalent to failing to apply a rule. This is the empiricist trap.