Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, September 08, 2006

Question: If, as I argued yesterday, a private language is possible, which is more fundamental, private languages (in the sense I explained -- whether Wittgenstein would accept this sense of the phrase "private language," I don't know) or public languages?

The alternatives can be formulated, as follows:

Public language is fundamental. All human beings speak public languages. These, in turn, provide both the model and the materials from which we might, for specific purposes, develop private languages.

Private language is fundamental. In order to assist themselves in remembering and thinking, individual people sometimes develop systems of signs. Other individuals then sometimes succeeded in interpreting these systems of signs, sometimes with the help of the author, sometimes not. It's worthwhile to mimic other people's signs, among other reasons, because a good deal of work goes into developing efficient, functional sign-systems, and a person who mimics someone else's signs can avoid some of this work. (Also a less-talented individual, by mimicking a more-talented individual, may acquire a better system of signs than he could design himself.) Inter-personal communication is a side-effect of mimesis of sign-systems; of course, it may also become a purpose, even the primary purpose, but it is non-essential.

Intuitively, the private-language-is-fundamental account is easier for me to grasp, but against this is the consideration that writing, which is more suited to inter-temporal and thus self-to-self communication, is clearly less fundamental to human behavior than speech, with respect to which the memory-assistance or thought-reinforcing function of language is less obvious than the communication function. That is perhaps not decisive, however...

A subversive suggestion: aside from speech, another motive for vocal utterance is the expression of wordless admiration: the "awww!" that people stereotypically utter while watching fireworks is banal but nonetheless illustrative. Perhaps man first made utterances to himself in order to heighten aesthetic experience? Perhaps poetry is prior to language? (Our aesthetic sensibilities, by the way, do not lend themselves to apparent Darwinian explanation-- that's part of the reason why an account of the origins of language in aesthetic terms feels subversive...)


  • There certainly are evolutionary accounts of aesthetics, as you might expect me to observe. I wish I could remember the source of the most recent one I read in which it was linked to a hypothesis regarding early gene-meme coevolution and ultimately a Baldwin Effect result.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:14 AM  

  • No doubt there are; I'm sure I could come up with some myself if I thought about it for a few hours. All you need to do is to think of some reason why having a sense of beauty could be functional, and voila, it's an evolutionary account of aesthetics! There are a great many counter-examples: people who were leave good jobs and good families to go be starving artists, etc. But there are always ways to explain those away. I daresay evolutionist accounts of aesthetics would have a hard time passed a Popperian falsifiability test, but maybe it's unreasonable to set so high a bar: it's a young science, after all, isn't it?

    But what I had in mind I think is really more that aesthetics is subversive of materialism. We can account for certain kinds of perception: sight, hearing, smell, etc. We can give detailed physical accounts of how they occur (even if there's a certain last-step failure: why does green (the physical phenomenon, a certain wavelength of light) look green (the internal experience)? is not explained by a physical description of the eye, no matter how detailed. But why is there beauty?-- now that is a mysterious question; a criterion seems to appear, for which a material basis is elusive.

    However, all this is rather speculative...

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 1:26 PM  

  • The green bit is covered by the controversy over qualia - see Carruthers' Phenomenal Consciousness for a realist physicalist account of qualia. Dennet is not a qualia realist (though he *is* an intentional realist). In Carruthers' side of that line can you find folks like Fodor and Searle. On Dennett's you find the Churchlands, Akins and pretty much any intentional irrealist.

    As for ineffible beauty, well, folks like the Churchlands just explain away the concept of beauty, but folks like Dennett (and, I think, Minsky) remain realist with respect to those kinds of experiences (that Dennett is a qualia irrealist doesn't mean he's an experiential irrealist, as much as people have tried to paint him that way). Most folks seem to have an account of some sort regarding things like love and beauty. At the end of the day, though, they're vague and will perhaps always remain that way because those are some of the most complex and elastic concepts in human experience.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:10 AM  

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