Tag Archives: language

A Brief Response to Moore's Paradox

It is contradictory to simultaneously say “P and not-P”, but could someone coherently say “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining”? This odd little sentence is the heart of Moore’s paradox, what Wittgenstein thought was the most significant discovery G.E. Moore ever made as a philosopher. Moore’s sentence doesn’t strike me as obviously contradictory in the same way as “P and not-P”, but it is strange nonetheless. Presumably you would say “it is raining” when you can clearly see it is raining, so how could you not believe it? If you know it is raining such that you say it is raining, the rules of mental logic seem to suggest you should also believe it is raining, otherwise why say “it is raining”?. My solution to the riddle is that the claim about whether it’s raining is ambiguous between different criteria for satisfying the condition “it’s raining”. “It is raining” could mean that water is falling from the sky in a way that looks natural, or it could mean that natural precipitation is actually falling from the clouds. Why would you need the former locution? Suppose you work on a Hollywood set and you know that the artificial rain machines sometimes come on. All of a sudden it starts raining in the sense that water is falling from the sky in a way that looks natural (until you glance up at the giant machines). Now it becomes perfectly sensible to say “It is raining, but I don’t believe it is raining”. This in essence says “Water is falling from the sky but I don’t believe it is natural precipitation”. This is clearly a sensible thing to say in the circumstances.


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Book notice: Oliver Sacks' Seeing Voices

In Seeing Voices (1989), Sacks delves into the science of Sign language and the Deaf community in general.The Deaf (capital “D”) community is different from the population of hearing impaired persons, and signals the presence of a genuine subculture complete with its own unique language, history, challenges, and triumphs. Sacks explores the powerful and complex ways in which language learning impacts cognitive development. Deprived of the chance to learn a language,a child will grow up “dumb” relative to everyone else in regards to the complexity of their conceptual repertoire. Hence, most deaf persons who were considered “dumb” in previous eras were really victims of not having been taught a language, rather than victims of any “general” cognitive impairment. Furthermore, Sacks relates the struggles of hearing parents to choose between teaching them the arduous process of communicating in the hearing world or choosing the easier route of teaching them Sign. The dilemma is that the hearing and speaking skills take years to develop whereas the teaching of Sign is much more intuitive and happens faster, allowing for an expansion of vocabulary at a young age to provide a cognitive scaffold upon which to build more complicated conceptual schemes. The hearing and talking route takes longer and risks missing “critical periods” of development. Sacks was writing before the development and refinement of cochlear implants, which have only complicated the debate between the relative trade-offs of immersing oneself in the Deaf community with ASL or reaching out to the hearing world.

Sacks also explores the question of whether and to what extent “thinking” is possible independently of language. His conclusions are rather tentative because reports from late language learners is sometimes confounded by their developing “proto-linguistic” systems on their own. Thus, it’s difficult to know how to analyze the famous report of Theophilus d’Estrella that prior to learning a language he was able to formulate thoughts such as “the briny sea is the urine of a great Sea-God’. This report is interesting, but is confounded by the fact that he had devised “home-sign” from earliest childhood. Moreover, given the retrospective nature of the report and the limited sample of one, it’s difficult to verify that his memory of his pre-language days wasn’t contaminated by conceptual structures learned later. However, given the likelihood that “supernatural” thinking is hardwired, it wouldn’t surprise me that some capacity for abstract thinking is possible prior to language learning provided it is restricted to religious domains. In general though, Sacks concludes that learning a language profoundly impacts cognition and makes many of the uniquely human conceptual capacities possible, particularly the step in which a child learns that everything has a name.

Sacks’ book is rich with observations and insights into the Deaf community, as well as the interesting nature of Sign language itself, especially ASL. For a long time it was thought that ASL was not a real language, but merely “idiographic” and parasitic on English grammar. However, research by William Stokoe in the late 1950’s demonstrated that Sign languages have a complex “spatialized” grammar and are complete languages. All in all, Seeing Voices is one of the most interesting of Sacks’ books and well-worth reading if you are at all interested in the interplay between language and thought during child development.

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An Extended Tractarian Argument for the Simplicity of Objects

I’ve been getting back into Wittgenstein lately. For my proseminar at Wash U we had to read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for a weekly assignment. I had never really studied it in depth before, but I now have a new found appreciation for early Wittgenstein. I’m fascinated by the metaphysical claims in the book. For example, 2.02-2.0212 might be charitably understood as endorsing the following reductio ad absurdum argument for the idea that any meaningful language must presuppose the existence of metaphysically simple objects:

1. Assume that a meaningful language does not necessarily presuppose there being metaphysically simple objects i.e. objects that are not composed of further objects.
2. Assume that in this language you can successfully refer to ordinary middle-sized objects (which are not simple).Accordingly, assume the statement “The cat is orange” is meaningful.
3. If “The cat is orange” is meaningful, it’s because, at the very least, in saying it a speaker presupposes that the cat is an object.
4. If (1) is true, and if the statement “The cat is orange” presupposes a distinct cat exists, then it also presupposes that the cat is a metaphysically nonsimple object (i.e. it is composed of further objects)
5. If statements about a cat presuppose that it is composed of further objects, and (1) is true, then those objects it is presupposed to be composed of are also presupposed to be nonsimple and composed of further objects, ad infinitum.
6. Thus, if (1) is true, the presuppositions built into the statement “The cat is orange” are infinite in complexity.
7. By the same reasoning, the presuppositions about the cat built into the opposing statement “The cat is not orange” are also infinite in complexity.
8. It seems natural to think that if talk about objects like cats has an infinite complexity in its presuppositions about how the cat is composed, then the statement “The cat is orange” can only be logically distinguished from the statement “The cat is not orange” if the most elementary parts of the presupposed infinite complexes of objects are different in some distinctive manner. [2.0201, 2.0211-2, 4.221]
9. By (1), the language is not committed to there being such things as “most elementary parts”; everything is composed of further things ad infinitum, for any posited basic entity would not be basic if it was assumed there were no basic entities. In other words, there would be no “substratum” for the regress to bottom out at; no substance [2.021]
10. Therefore, by (8) and (9), two opposing statements in the language about a complex object with infinite presuppositional complexity cannot be logically distinguished from each other simply on the basis of their elementary presuppositions because it seems strange to say two infinite complexes are different unless their (basic) members are different, but this is ruled out by (1), which assumes there are no basic members.
11. If two opposing statements are logically indistinguishable in the totality of their presuppositions, then they cannot refer to different states of affairs.[2.02331]
12. If two opposing statements cannot refer to different states of affairs, then the statements are not meaningful, for each statement could not be true or false.
13. The statements “The cat is orange” and “The cat is not orange” are obviously meaningful, so we must reject (1), since that is what got us into the infinite regress.
14. Thus, any meaningful language that refers to objects at all must be logically committed to the existence of metaphysically simple objects i.e. objects that are not composed of further objects.

Arguably premise (8) is the most problematic and controversial, for it might be begging the question. For this I don’t know how to repair the argument. Either you get it or you don’t. This might be a clash of intuition between people who have a gut feeling that it’s “parts all the way down” or that it bottoms out somewhere. I used to not have a strong opinion on this, but I am now inclined to think it bottoms out somewhere. I take this to be a logical fact, and not a fact of the universe, for only science can tell us what the actual bottom to reality is, be that quarks or whatever physics tells us. The intuition that reality bottoms out is driven by the inner logic of the idea of finite objects being composed of parts. It just seems downright strange, almost mystical, to say that a finite object like a coffee mug is composed of an infinite number of smaller objects. Surely it makes sense to say it is composed of a great many smaller objects, but I see no reason for thinking this amount infinite. Objects must bottom out according to the sheer logic of our ways of talking about composition. If this is right, then we arrive at a different interpretation of Wittgenstein’s argument for metaphysical simples than is commonly given. The concept of simple objects is not arrived at by seeing it in our language and then saying because language mirrors reality there really are metaphysical objects. Rather, the argument is transcendental in the sense that Wittgenstein shows that if we are going to talk about objects at all, we must presuppose metaphysically simple objects. So the Wittgensteinian point is not that language mirrors reality therefore simple objects exist (“One cannot, e.g. say “There are objects” 4.1272). The point is that language use logically commits us to the idea of there being simple objects when discussing objects. As Wittgenstein says, “Logic is transcendental” [6.13].


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Conscious thought depends on language?

After I tell people that conscious thought depends on language, I am often faced with a scrunched up face, shortly followed by a “Huh? What does that even mean?”

A simple experiment will illustrate my point. Come up with a phrase and then say it very quietly in a barely audible whisper. Then, repeat the phrase and proceed to lower the volume until eventually you are talking to yourself without making a sound. Now, repeat the phrase in your mind, and pay close attention to whether and in what sense that thought is merely subvocal speech. What are the phenomenal differences between quietly whispering and thinking in words? In my own case, it seems plainly evident that a great deal of thinking is merely subvocalization accompanied by conscious access at the level of intentions and meanings. Developmentally speaking, we learn to talk before we learn to talk to ourselves. As Sellars, Heidegger and many others have emphasized, we start off in the public world and must learn to eventually consciously turn inwards and understand ourselves.

How is this possible? It is not just a matter of communicating at a low pitch. Conscious thinking is of course accompanied by consciousness. The subvocalizations are always accompanied by conscious access at the level of meanings. To be conscious of the syntactical elements and not the meaning is to break down the very function that language and thought evolved for.

What does it mean for subvocalizations to be “accompanied” or “accessed” by consciousness? That sounds kind of like spooky Cartesian thinking, right? In order to naturalization this notion, we must understand that subvocalizations are accompanied by what Julian Jaynes called the Analog I. The Analog I is what “does” the introspection. Jaynes thought it was similar to Kant’s notion of the transcendental ego, but I’m not a Kant scholar so I don’t  really know. The Analog I is an analogical construct that is generated at every point by what it is an analog of. An analogical construct exists purely in the operational sense. It is a functional process, not a thing.

What does the Analog I map onto? Simply put, it is an analog of our own body and what we can do with it. Because the bodily eye can perceive objects and separate them spatially and temporally (even when we are nonconscious, as blindsight and other phenomena clearly demonstrate), the mind’s eye can perceive thoughts and separate them spatially and temporally. The mind’s eye can also be cast out into the world as when we are consciously controlling our visual attention. Because the body can grasp and manipulate an object, the mind can grasp and manipulate an idea. Because the body can speak a sentence, the mind can think a sentence. And most importantly (and most controversially), because the body can understand the narratological milieu of social life and nonconsciously develop communication skills, the mind can act for a reason and think in terms of folk propositional psychology (belief/desire logic).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have done a brilliant job of explaining how these mind metaphors work. So has Raymond Gibbs. Check out the epic bibliography in the back of Lakoff and Johnson’s groundbreaking masterpiece Philosophy in the Flesh. There is just so much evidence supporting the idea that conscious thought and higher-order cognition depends on the prior understanding of language and narrative. I’ve always thought that the conclusions of that book have been swept under the rug. People say, “Oh, yeah, they found out that metaphor is important for thinking. That’s cool, but we already knew that, no big deal”. Almost everyone has failed to realize or discuss the radical nature of the book’s conclusion, particularly in respect to how philosophy and cognitive science is currently being done and the kind of language games being employed in the literature.

Daniel Hutto is another brilliant contemporary researcher who has amassed a mountain of evidence and theoretical reasoning to support the idea that theory of mind and folk propositional attitudinal reasoning depends on exposure to the right kinds of narrative practice and social interaction seen in human child-parent relationships e.g. the grammatical logic of agent-based storytelling and predication. The evidence that metarepresentational thinking depends on mastery of the appropriate sociolinguistic skills is overwhelming. Studies of congenitally deaf people who never learned a language until adulthood are particularly striking examples of what kind of “mental paradigm shift” happens when you learn that every thing has a name, including yourself. Realization of this opens up entirely new ways to perceive and interact with the world. Developmental psychologist and evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello says that language allows you to do at least three things:

  1. parse the world into events and participants;
  2. view complex events from various perspectives that connect either more or less well with the current joint attentional scene; and
  3. create abstract constructions with which they can view virtually any experiential phenomenon in terms of virtually any other (action as objects, objects as actions, and all kinds of other conceptual metaphors)

It seems then that we can construct a plausible naturalistic account of conscious thought and how it develops in childhood without losing sight of its experiential richness, its “interiority” or private nature, and its remarkable complexity. My dualist friends would probably still object to this account of thinking, but I don’t think anything could satisfy them.


Check out this excellent Radiolab podcast about this very idea: Voices in Your Head


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

Does Understanding Need Language?

Jon Cogburn is a great professor because he always inspires me to work on really cool problems. Yesterday was the first day of his graduate seminar on animal cognition and he already suggested an awesome topic for my term paper: Does Heidegger’s account of understanding require language? Since we are reading Brandom, and Brandom uses a similar contrastive approach whereby humans are understood as being discontinuous from animal minds in virtue of linguistic-inferential doings, I will defend Brandom by defending Heidegger’s argument (which Brandom himself is heavily indebted too). I think I am also going to use Charles Taylor’s account of constitutive self-interpretation and Tomasello and Clark’s account of linguistic constructionism to demonstrate the way in which language modifies understanding so as to create world-richness. And this account will be structured by a holistic, usage-based (rather than formal) model of language acquisition wherein the syntactical abilities of young children are primarily item-specific with only little ability for systematicity.  Here is an abstract I whipped up last night:

Heidegger appears to contradict evolutionary science when he claims that whereas humans are “rich” in world, nonhuman animals are “poor”. Calling him a “linguistic chauvinist”, scholars often commit Heidegger to a view of understanding that is “equiprimordially” grounded in linguistic practice or “cultural discourse” (construed broadly). In this paper, I will argue that this interpretation is mistaken because it overlooks the prepredicative or prethematic level of understanding common to all organisms, what Heidegger calls the hermeneutic as-structure, in distinction to the apophantic or assertorial as-structure. Moreover, scholars often commit Robert Brandom to a similar “linguistic chauvinism” beset with the same problems associated with Heidegger’s views on animals. In this paper, I will show (1) how understanding does not require language and (2) how language significantly modifies understanding so as to “enrich” the world. Doing so will relieve the pressure on both Heidegger and Brandom’s theory of mind and language.


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy

The Significance of Language for World Construction


When Heidegger says that language is the house of being, what does he mean? Perhaps the best way to look at such a statement in terms of what Charles Taylor calls a “constitutive” theory of language, as opposed to an instrumental theory. On the instrumental view, language is seen purely as a tool for communication which can be more or less “added” onto existing cognitive architecture without necessarily changing the way in which the animal perceives or understands the earth. In contrast, the constitutive view claims that the possession of complex language fundamentally changes the way in which an animal approaches the earth, in effect, generating a new dimension of significance above and beyond brute functional instrumentality. In other words, a constitutive view sees language as providing the cognitive scaffolding for world construction. Living in a world is different from coping on the earth. To illustrate the difference between “having” a world and not having a world, let us examine the phenomenon of social bonding.

When interacting with other members of the troop, a worldless animal will react appropriately in terms of dominance and submission, “understanding” perfectly the way in which some responses towards members of the troop are appropriate and others are not. For the worldless animal, there is a normative dimension for behavior in response to certain objects, but the “depth” of the interaction bottoms out purely in terms of whether or not the response is appropriate according to largely unconscious standards and mores driven through evolutionary development. In contrast, linguistic animals operate with highly refined cognitive skills which worldless instrumentality simply does not afford. Two examples are perceptual interpretation (perceiving events in terms of higher-order dimensions of intelligibility) and socially complex emotional responses (love not lust, anxiety not fear, etc.). A worlded animal can look at an event of social bonding and explicitly understand the situation as a display of love, with all its implied content. This perceptual judgement brings with it a higher-order normative dimension such that the interpretative gloss is not only explicitly understood in terms of possible sets of articulations (“They are so happy together”, “That love won’t last”), but also, in terms of a narrative. Narrative allows for a perception of the social bonding event in terms of a story (“I wonder how they met”, “They must be new lovers”, “What a charming old couple”, etc.). Moreover, such narratives are structured in terms of certain metaphorical dimensions (“Love Is a Journey”, “Love Is a Rose”, etc.) which are possible only in virtue of linguistic discourse.

With narrative comes the possibility of higher-order perceptual interpretation filtered in terms of possible articulations structured in accordance with a logical space of reasons. If we see two people wearing a tuxedo and a wedding dress, there is a limited number of rational narratives in which to fit that event into a cohesive story according to public background knowledge. While the ultimate result of a worlded perception and worldless perception is the same (the execution of appropriate behavior in response to stimuli), there is a semantic-perceptual depth for worlded animals that simply isn’t available for nonlinguistic creatures. Through the use and understanding of explicit language, humans are able to go above and beyond normal animal communication e.g. a cry indicating a danger. For humans, language provides more than just the possibility of communication, but rather, the possibility of interpretative perception filtered in terms of explicit object recognition (“I can see that that couple is in love“), semantic depth (love implies a range of emotional responses which are richer in content than mere affection, fear, aversion, etc.), and explicit narrative formation (“That couple must be getting married because they are all dressed up”).

Moreover, with language comes the possibility of self-interpretation in light of partially expressed articulations structured by social narratives. While the worldless animal’s self-understanding bottoms out in terms of unconscious dispositions for behavior in light of appropriate social norms and evolutionary instinct, the worlded animal’s self-understanding is rich in virtue of being an understanding of self qua self, that is, in terms of personality, having a name, being a moral agent, etc. In other words, because a human child is more or less taught to understand and interpret itself in terms of being an individual self (at least in Western countries), the self-understanding engendered through social discourse allows for genuine subjectivity qua subjectivity. For example, if the child is good at sports, language provides a possible set of articulations which can be internalized by the child in accordance with its self-interpretation (“I am a good sports player”, “I want to  be an athlete when I grow up”). If we reflect closely on these normative dimensions, we can see an enormously complex web of social language games being played in accordance with possible sets of self-interpretations structured by historical and cultural development. The most obvious example is of course religion and the possibility of self-interpretation as a child of God or as a member of a Christian community. Such a self-interpretation structures human life from the ground up, affecting almost all dimensions of personal experience. Without language, self-interpretation is impossible.

Accordingly, I hope this post has demonstrated the significance of language for world construction.

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Heidegger on the Essence of Humanity

In his essay  “The Way to Language” (Basic Writings 2008), Heidegger opens by saying,

Man would not be man if it were denied him to speak — ceaselessly, ubiquitously, with respect to all things, in manifold variations, yet for the most part tacitly — by way of an “It is.” Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language. (397-8)

There is a lot to unpack in these two sentences. One could make the claim that his entire philosophical system is here condensed into a magnificently concise formula.

To begin, let us dig out the concept of an understanding of being, that is, an understanding and use of  “It is” grammar. That is a scarf. You are beautiful. I am self-conscious. Through linguistic scaffolding we tacitly understand what it means for an object to be, and moreover, we tacitly understand what it means to interpret the world in terms of entities, things, objects, etc. Furthermore, as Heidegger points out, metaphors and figurative thought structure or “carve up” the experienceable world in terms of such entities, things, objects, etc. We reify object-hood into almost everything. Time is spatialized, seen and understood in terms of geometry and motion; “Time flies“, “Time is crawling to a halt” (Here we might see, following Heidegger who was following Husserl, where Derrida gets his conception of “spacing” and “becoming-space” of time and the “become-time” of space. Bergson made the same basic point about time as well, but in a more eloquent fashion).

Moreover, abstract ideas and psychological states are understood in terms of object metaphors and everyday embodied coping, with Love being a Journey, Time being Money, Knowing being Seeing (“I see what you mean”), etc. For a more extensive and thoroughly researched expose of such embodied metaphors, see the great work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, from whom I typically borrow superb linguistic examples.

The point being (no pun intended) is that our understanding of being — our interpretation of things and objects as things and objects, our explicit, linguistically structured object recognition, our use and understanding of “Is” grammar, our ability to point out objects and abstract mental states to other persons through language and symbolism — constitutes the phenomenological particularity of human existence. This cognitive trick seems to be uniquely human in its “ceaseless ubiquity”.Heidegger thus calls the essence of human language use and understanding its “rift-design”, with rift meaning “to notch” or “to carve”. The familiar expression is that language allows us to carve nature at its joints, to, in a sense, turn Nature’s squiggles into well-ordered Cartesian geometry. And as Heidegger says, “The rift-design is the totality of traits in the kind of drawing that permeates what is opened up and set free in language” (408).

We now have a concept of our understanding of being, of the “open freedom” of linguistic cognition, and accordingly, we can see that “In manifold ways, by unveiling or veiling, showing brings something to appear, lets what appear be apprehended, and enables what is apprehended to be thoroughly discussed (so that we can act on it)” (401).

Thus, we have our conception of Dasein, the linguistic animal, for whom “Language is the house of Being because, as the saying, it is priopriation’s mode”. Here, we have what is perhaps the best clue for understanding Ereignis and its relation to Being and Time‘s more simple vocabulary of “being” and “the understanding of being”, which rendered our experience of the world explicit, as opposed to the tacit or “absorbed” coping of typical mammalian behavior. Dasein’s full existential structure is constituted by the “as-structure” or “well-joined structure” of the rift-design i.e. the linguistic “carving” of the experienceable world in terms of complex webs of background knowledge concerning objects, ideas, people, events, etc. and how they interrelate.

As a side note, it is this feature of Heideggerian thought which led me to become dissatisfied with Hubert Dreyfus’ insistence that Dasein’s nonrepresentational and “non-mental” absorbed coping is the total story insofar as Dasein is average. On the contrary, as the rift-structure indicates, and as John McDowell attempts to demonstrate in Mind and World and in his recent exchange with Dreyfus in Inquiry, human experience is thoroughly “conceptualized” in terms of linguistic “object carving”. This is the nature of propriation, of letting things be shown as things, of opening up a space of linguistic freedom wherein interpretational perception “lets beings be seen (as beings)”. The close etymological relationship of Ereignis — propriation — to “owning” can thus be made sense of in terms of the reifiction of objecthood, of unity and “well-joined structure”, onto the world, thus allowing the world to self-subsist in terms of “objectivity”. Thus, Heidegger says that

If by “law” we mean the gathering of what lets everything come to presence on its own and cohere with all that belongs to it, the propriation is the most candid and most gentle of laws…[and moreover] Propriation is the law, inasmuch as it gathers mortals in such a way that they own up to their own essence. (416).

In moving from the early Being and Time notion of “understanding of being”, later Heidegger, borrowing from Hölderlin, was simply trying to be more poetic when he shifted vocabulary from his earlier “paths”. But the basic structure of Dasein’s intentional uncovering of objecthood, its being-directed-towards worlds of referential significance, its direct behavioral resonance to the external environmental niches, both constructed and natural, remains the same throughout Heidegger’s career. Thus, “Inasmuch as language grants this very thing, the essence of man consists in language.”

And, finally, as Alan Watts so nicely puts it, “There is too little recognition of the vast difference between the world as described and the world as sensed, too little recognition that what we describe in the physical universe as separate things are of the same order as areas, views, aspects, selections, and features — not data but capta, grasped rather than given.”


Filed under Heidegger, Philosophy, Psychology