Monday, May 22, 2006

Mental Masturbation on Language and Rationality

Listening to NPR while jogging last week around the glimmering sunny Lake Lagunita (Lake "Lake"), Tom Wolfe mentioned his belief that human rationality, the very essence of humanity, came about with language, the ability to communicate sparked reason, sparked civilization, sparked humanity.

This sparked a chain of random fun ideas, on Wittgenstein's (I believe old Wittgenstein as opposed to new Wittgenstein) concurrence that reason is only possible with language and thus truth is inherently unknowable (echoing Humean empiricism) because language is necessarily imperfect (echoing the proof by Godel that even the language of math is necessarily imperfect and certain ideas must be inexpressible in any mathematical system, echoing Church and Turing on the inherent incomputability of some things), and then reminded of W-'s explanation of how Habermas' reconciles post-modernism with objective reality by saying that reality is objective, but the imprecision of language and the necessity of language to perceive reality makes our perception of reality necessarily subjective.


Anonymous said...

Your post would make sense if it weren't written in "language." I have comprehended it at a base level.

Anonymous said...

if human rationality came from ability to communicate; if ability to communicate sparked reason, what about all the other animals that have abilities to communicate too? what degree of reasoning is there? what about civilization? why or why not?

HoBs said...

Yeah, it is writting in "language." Part of the fun and the bullshitty ness of it, and a sign of bad writing.

Though such overly flowery pretensious language makes me respect Tom Cruise in a weird sort of way. An article about director J J Abrams written by Tom Cruise in Time magazine also uses lots of pretensious words, and the sheer amateurishness of this makes me believe that Tom Cruise in fact did write it, and though that makes him a bad writer, at least he knew those pretensious words. (Or it was just the genius of a skilled writer doing all that for him.)

HoBs said...

Yeah, actually as to the other animals that can communicate, that was my first criticism of Wolfe's assertion as well.

Though civilization (comes from cities and specialization) and Wolfe argued (and I agree) that specializing and things like farming requires a great deal of shared knowledge to achieve, and thus requires language.

As for other animals, there have been a couple recent nytimes articles to suggest that language really is unique (or isn't) depending on how you interpret it.

One study (just a couple days ago) was of monkeys who use certain calls to signify danger (one kind of call for Eagles which leads to monkeys freezing so tehy can't be seen, another call for Panther which leads to run like hell) or something like that. So these are just simple rules, a la pavlov, so not exciting, but what excited bio-linguistic researchers is that combining these calls into "words" maybe leads to different behavior. But the article quoted many skeptics as well.

The other recent study (a couple weeks ago) was of birds, and a test of whether birds could recognize recurssive structures as described in Chomsky normal form (A necessary feature, Chomsky argues, to allow for sufficient complexity in language). The study played bird songs, and tested to see if birds could distinguish ABABAB and AAABBB (non recurisve patterns) with AABB and AAABBB (recursive patterns). The study found that birds could in fact identify recursion, though here again critics (like Chomsky) were not convinced.

Anyway, the point is that language is hard, and though animals have simple means of communication, the evidence is mixed as to whether that constitutes language. Or if it does constitute language, it is one too primitive to achieve the rationality Wolfe is arguing for.

Anonymous said...

while regular readers of your blog would be unfazed by your use of unnecessarily graphic phrases like "mental masturbation", (which is even worse and more psuedo-intelligent and colloqial than "brain fart", "brain diarrhea" or other equivalents that involve the bowels), the use of "mental masturbation" just for the somewhat catchy / shock effect seems inappropriate for someone in your position now. you may develop a somewhat odd and unwelcome reputation as the sketchy young professor who shoots (pun intended) for cheap shock value phrases. especially when your future colleagues and students stumble upon your website before or after meeting you.

it's probably worse 'before', cause this would be their first impression instead...and boy, would this fill their heads with preconceptions when they finally meet you (for better or for worse...)

HoBs said...

on "mental masturbation"

yeah, i thought about it for a while. in any case, i won't be teaching for well over another year, and so anyone finding it will have to be a very dedicated reader anyway.

i guess as a matter of principle such things shouldn't matter, but as a matter of practicality, it is something to think about.