Frames /sing


The Buzz of Wittgenstein’s Builders

honey_bee_dance: “Can an Insect Speak? The Case of the Honeybee Dance Language,” Eileen Crist



Eileen Crist argues that the Honey Bee Dance in fact fulfills some very important, perhaps conclusive, criteria of what make a language, a language. It is: rule-governed, complex, flexible, symbolic and performative. Leaning on philosophers of language Wittgenstein and Austin, she suggests that much of how language operates and can be defined, is also expressed in Honeybee dancing.

What is missing, if anything, is the notion of intention, of intended meaning, and hence the possibility of disbelief on the order of a listener. This notion of agency and description is what seems ot priviledge human speakers, making of their messages an expression of something more than cog-working-reactions.

In particular she references an intriguing experiment, one in which the hive bees seem to “disbelieve” the report of an unlikely food source (in the middle of a lake):

An ingenious scientific experiment speaks to this dimension of a shared background for the success of a performative. Ethologist James Gould rigged a set-up where a honeybee danced for a rich source of food ”purported’ to be found in the middle of a lake. After placing food in a boat at the danced location he observed that no recruits arrived. Thinking that maybe the bees were reluctant to fly over water, he controlled the experimentby placing food all the way across the lake on the opposite shore.

When this location was danced in the hive, the bees flew across the lake to Social Studies of Science get to the food. The authors do not interpret these results, but suggest that they are unexplainable in mechanistic terms (Gould & Gould, 1984: 281). This experiment is intriguing for, at face value, it ought to count as a case that invalidates the informative and enjoining efficacy of the dance. And yet it creates exactly the opposite impression: it bolsters the regard of the dance as linguistic behavior, for in resonance with language-use, it intimates an interpretive and interactive context in the reception of the message, rather than a deterministic link between the provided coordinates and subsequent visit to the location. The experiment insinuates that the bees are not automatically caused to visit a location, but act more in line with interpreting the dance’s message. In short, if the dance causes the foraging that ensues, then the bees fail to arrive at the boat site; but if the dance is meaningful for the bees, then their failure to arrive at the boat site is a success.

What blocks the interpretation of this result as a failure of the dance’s efficacy is the perception of the dance as a performative act. The unstated, but open to view, understanding is that dancing about food in the middle of a lake misfires, because the appropriate existential conditions to follow up the dance’s message do not hold. A ‘report’ about a resource is liable to comparison against a familiar landscape; if the report fails to be credible in the face of such a comparison, then it is simply disregarded. The existential prerequisites for the success of the particular speech act are not in place. For the Goulds there is something astonishing about the bees ignoring dances about food in the middle of a lake. Given the implications of this finding, such a response is not surprising: within the reasonable bounds of its interpretation is the potential imputation of disbelief to the attending bees. Yet amazement is not simply corollary to the possibility of honeybee mind. It is also an apropos response to the possibility of a form of life comparable with human existence, a form of life that may share certain ‘et cetera clauses’ with us. The suspicion of some level of commensurability surfaces, even as it is too awkward to acknowledge.
“Can an Insect Speak: The Case of the Honeybee Dance Language”, Eileen Crist (pages 23, 24)

If the essentials of the lake experiment hold in other examples, that is bear up the seemingly conceptual aspect of their kind, do not honeybee dances form a kind of epistemological report, something to be “believed” or “not believed” solely due to its conceptual form (food souce = middle of a lake)?

Can one, at the level of Wittgenstein deny the language status of honeybee dances? Is not the honeybee dance quite like Wittgenstein’s otherwise fantastic Language of the Builders from Philosophical Investigations, a primative language form as simple as it is “complete”?

From PI:

2. That philosophical concept of meaning has its place in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.

Let us imagine a language …The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words ‘block’, ‘pillar’, ‘slab’, ‘beam’. A calls them out; –B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language.

8. Let us now look at an expansion of language (2). Besides the four words “block”, “pillar”, etc., let it contain a series of words used as the shopkeeper in (1) used the numerals (it can be the series of letters of the alphabet); further, let there be two words, which may as well be “there” and “this” (because this roughly indicates their purpose),that are used in connexion with a pointing gesture; and finally a number of colour samples. A gives an order like: “d—slab—there”. At the same time he shews the assistant a colour sample, and when he says “there” he points to a place on the building site. From the stock of slabs B takes one for each letter of the alphabet up to “d”, of the same colour as the sample, and brings them to the place indicated by A.—On other occasions A gives the order “this—there”. At “this” he points to a building stone. And so on.

18. Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (eight) consist only of orders. If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.

19. It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.—Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.—–And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.






2 responses to “The Buzz of Wittgenstein’s Builders

  1. Susan Mix May 19, 2008 at 11:12 am

    That was so interesting, I read it twice.

  2. kvond May 19, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Thank’s a sincere compliment. It is interesting when the attribution of “language” starts getting spread in directions which do not follow the evolutionary “tree”. Insects, complex animals about as far from “human” as one might imagine, strangely organize in ways that touches what communication may be.

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