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The Operated Jew and the Thinking Machine

In support of the thesis that much of the Behaviorist inspired thought-experiment horror (Zombies, Swampmen, Inhumanly raised Marys, even soulless Chinese Speakers and HAL’s), in the field of Philosophy of MInd, is really a philo-sociological issue, and issue between the difference between a person and a thing, and the concordant fears of what might erupt if Behavior otherwise experienced to be coherent and “human” suddenly were exposed to be something both “less” and “more” than these, a reference: 

Eric Santner writes in his wonderful, My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity, of the story “The Operated Jew” which represents the very repressive projections which are involved in the case of such fears, the fear that what is more than perfect, seamless, is hiding a filth, flesh, or mechanism. 

“Published in 1893, “The Operated Jew” tells the gastly story of a Jewish medical student, Itzig Faitel Stern-a stock character in nineteenth century anti-semetic literature-who undergoes a series of surgical and orthopedic procedures in his efforts to transform himself, body and soul, into a true German…(113)

 “…The story culminates in the scene of Faitel’s wedding banquet, when, under the influence of alcohol and, it is suggested, anxieties about exposing his uncircumcised penis to his Christian bride, Othilia Schnack, Faitel’s body and soul regress back to their preoperative Jewish condition. The advent of the breakdown is signaled by the repressed linguistic repletion compulsion: “Those people who have a good ear could already hear could already hear now a few ‘Deradángs! Deradángs!'” Eventually Faitel’s entire “assimilation” comes undone:

‘Those people who remained behind watched with horror as Faitel’s blond strands of hair began to curl during the last few scenes. Then the curly locks turn from red to dirty brown to blue-black…His arms and legs, which had been stretched and bent in numerous operations, could no longer perform the recently learned movements, nor the old ones…Everyone looked with dread at the crazy circular movements of the Jew…Klotz’ work of art lay before him crumbed and quivering, a convoluted Asiatic image in wedding dress, a counterfeit of human flesh, Itzig Faitel Stern (Panizza, “The Operated Jew”)’ (115).

What lies beneath the surface of Behaviorist tellings of what constitutes “consciousness”, in the fears of those who protest that there must be something more than mere behavior, I suggest is something this most human of projective fears and capacities, that acceptable articulations will become malignant “speech particles”.   


White and Black Lists: Evolution and Rule Following


A Prospective View Towards Thinking about the nature of Proscription

It is said that one of the primary weakness of the early concept of evolution as adaptation to an environment was the idea that the environment was prescribing changes in an organism or species, that is telling them how to be. What it seems has become clear is that the environment is not prescribing (that is dictating, or determining) the prescriptions of DNA and then phenotypes, but only proscribing, limiting. This means that the development of organisms follow their own prescriptions (rules) only to the extent that the environment proscribed those products. Hence the environment could not tell an organism how to be, but could only tell it how not to be (that DNA/phenotype combination is fatal before reproduction).Now if we extend this metaphor down into chess, taking cue from Wittgenstein example of language game and rule following, we come up with, initially, a very distinct prescriptive environment (the “white list” as one can call it). The game of chess is for the most part composed of move possibilities that are prescribed, i.e. these are the things you can legally do. I think it would be possible to say as well that these hard prescriptions (for instance, the rules of how a pawn moves), are also complemented with softer prescriptions (for instance, one should try to control the center of the board, or one should castle early, or should maintain pawn chain integrity, or even more basically, one should protect one’s King and attack your opponent’s). If we remain at the level of the strict rules though (which is simplest), what we do when we learn chess, is internalize these rules. The prescriptions of chess become our prescriptions for our movements in chess. Our knowledge of those prescriptions is shown in our behavior. But, and this is important, moment to moment we can not just assume that our knowledge or employment of those prescriptions is correct. This is where prescriptions become proscriptions. If one attempted a move, one might be told: “No, that’s not how the knight moves,” or “No, that puts your King in check,” or even, “No, its my move”. In this way, the prescriptions of chess rules, as the environmental domain of your behaviors, communicated by your partner or an official, become proscriptions, that is limitations. What one does with such negative feedback is correct one’s understanding of one’s prescriptive aim, perhaps selecting a different rule to apply, or applying a rule in a different way.

There is no absolute prescription/proscription distinction at the descriptive level, because the proscriptive rule “You must not move your King into a line of attack,” can be alternately prescriptively described as “You must always move your King, when moving it, to a square of safety .” The distinction I think lies in a another way. One internalizes prescriptions and makes them rules for action, yet because we are ever unsure if our prescriptive understanding is optimal, we are ever ready to revise our prescriptions for action before the occasion of a proscriptive limitation. The proscriptive “no” is an event, a moment when whatever line of reasoning or rule application meets up with a limitation which causes us to revise our direction. (It can be anything from an outright impossibility of an action, “No, you can’t make that move,” to an unexpected consequence of a rule-following action, “Damn, it was stupid to castle so early when my pawn center was under such attack”. But while the proscriptive occasion is an event, the prescription of rules (the “white list”) is global. It contains a universizing aspect within a game, capable of being applied in multiple circumstances. It is simply uneconomic to make a “black list” because the list could be infinite. Instead we have a complex system of prescriptions that are alternately selected and/or revised under occasions of limitation. Just as an species is a series of “adaptive” prescriptions before an infinite “black list” which simply signals certain prescriptions to recombine.



Amanda’s “Private Language”

Pace Wittgenstein?


Wittgenstein argued, in a rather slick and convincing way, that there is no such thing as a “Private Language”, a language that in principle cannot be learned by anyone else. He argued that logically the kinds of internal, untranslatable rule followings that anyone might do privately, can only be at most the impression of following rules, and only become, or are called language, when we are able to translate them, setting out the difference between merely thinking you are following a rule, and actually following a rule. When we are able to say, yes that is following a rule, it is then that we grant language status.

Some selections from his Philosophical Investigations which are relevant:

If the distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘seems correct’ has disappeared, so then as the concept of correct. It follows that the ‘rules’ of my private language are only impressions of rules (259).

My impression that I follow a rule does not confirm that I follow that I follow the rule, unless there can be something that will prove my impression correct. And the something cannot be another impression–for this would b “as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true” (265).

The proof that I am following a rule must appeal to something independent of my impression that I am. If in the nature of the case there cannot be such an appeal, then my private language does not have rules, for the concept of a rule requires that there be a difference between he is following a rule and ‘He is under the impression that he is following a rule’.

Amanda, an autistic who painfully, to many observers, did not possess the capacity of intelligent thought, claims to have a Language of her Own, what she calls her “native language”, one that is not symbolic, and allows her to have “conversations” with water or sounds. She scolds others for having to wait for her to learn their language, before they granted her personhood. Is her Language a Language? Or is she just one more conceptually confused Cartesian? In making this video testament, is she somehow “translating” her language, and relieving it of its potential “private language” status.

This is the transcript of her written text from the film:

The previous part of this video was my native language. Many people have assumed that when talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message in it designed for the human mind to interpret.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all part of my surroundings. In this part of the video The water doesn’t symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as “being in a world of my own”. Whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am “opening up to true interaction with the world”. They judge my existence, awareness and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to. The way that I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all but it is a way of thinking in its own right.

However the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language, no matte how we previously thought or interacted. As you heard I can sing along with what is around me. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication. I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being and since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much they doubt that I am a real person as well.

I would like to honestly know how many people if you met me on the street would believe that I wrote this. I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves that are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing. We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don’t speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe that they don’t exist. In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in world where how close you can appear to a specific one of them determines whether you are seen as a real person or an adult or an intelligent person.

And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying, because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.

Amanda Baggs

Amanda’s point is that it is absurd to regard the very narrow band of relevance that which “neuro-typical” people consider “communication,” their “language” as the defining aspect of thought; she claims that she is communicating, and indeed languaging, with a much broader spectrum of differences, that those that “neuro-typical” do. In a sense, she claims to have a language of another order. She resists the idea that if she only pays attention to the “right objects” and ignores the “wrong objects” she is thinking (or languaging).

1. Prospectively,  if one accepts that in making and following the rules of “grammar and semantics” one is just forming more beliefs, more conditions of actions to be taken, then the narrowness of what one may define as a “language” is subsumed in a larger category. Temple Grandin, an autistic who has a doctorate in animal science, claims to be able to most functionally “think in pictures”. Is this “rule following”? Is it a “language” (it depends on your definition: you would like one definition, I might like another). A rule-governed process of the formation of beliefs that help one cope with the world seems to me to be a “language” despite not having all the prerequisites that one might like to impose to make it officially a language. That what would be perhaps because both symbolic/grammatical languages, and perhaps autistic picture languages fall under the same category, the dominant form masking a larger process of interpretation.

2. From a Wittgensteinian, rule-following, Private Language point of view, it Wittgenstein is motivated to deny the logical inability of others to “know” our sensations or thoughts (the notorious Problem of Other Minds), because in order to have them, we must be following rules; and the only thing that qualifies that our rule-following is not just seeming to follow rules, but actually following rules, is our rule oriented interactions with others.

But if we grant Temple Grandin her “thinking in pictures”, the homolous argument would be: when Temple Grandin designs something in her mind, using pictures, the only thing that keeps her from only seeming to design stuff in her mind, and actually designing stuff, is her interactions with others. When in fact this is absurd. What keeps her from only seeming to design stuff, and actually designing stuff, is that when she makes it, it works (with or without the language use that surrounds it). Wittgenstein’s denial of private language (and with it private knowledge of states) is based on the logical grounds of what constitutes “rule-following”. He claims that “private rule-following” has no way of accessing whether it is rule-following or not. This simply does not seem to be the case. The way that it is assessed seems to be the experience of coherence, and the outcome of preditions of future states.

In speaking of concrete example, how does Wittgenstein’s in principle concept of a Private Language fair? All “in principle” falls to analysis of real context. Amanda claims or at least implies, that if she hadn’t bothered to learn our language, she still would have had a “language”. The question would be: Is this language, having learned ours or not, in principle learnable? What would be the standard that it had been learned? She does seem to imply that it can be learned, but it is hard to understand what such a learning would consist of. The bottom line of course is that Wittgenstein’s distinction between only thinking one is following rules and actually following does not exist as a point of logic, but is only a position we take towards our own interpretations. I sense that because Wittgenstein wants so desperately to make “knowledge” public” (that is non-Cartesian) he is seduced into the factuality of this distinction: that there is a real difference between the two, rather than merely an operative and provisional one. The “subjective” experiences that Amanda would have, sans our language, are something more than what Wittenstein calls “characteristic accompaniments”. They are not adornments to “rules”, but of which they consist. And the correctives of whether she is “rule following” or not, is simply the interaction with reality.

3.Amanda’s main aim is not whether her “language” is categorized as “language”, but the way that that categorization conditions her status as a “person” (with attendant rights; and she has physically and emotionally suffered real consequential abuse from not having that status), and as a thinking being. There is an entire framework of moral, legal and cognitive assumptions that follow on with “language” status. Her point is that if she had not learned what she calls “our language” her social status, the status of her thoughts and feelings would be held at a very low level, perhaps just above animal. She is claiming (and a good Wittgenstein might like to argue with her), that if she had not ever learned this language, or more subtly, if she lived in an pre-computer age, she would still have had all these thoughts, or at least thoughts to this level. Her claim to her own “language” is really a moral claim.

And taking up this point. If history had made it such that we never knew what Amanda was “thinking”, because she just went around humming and tapping things, what is the philosophical, and therefore ethical or moral status of that “thinking”? And is there a framework that allows us to include that self-described capacity as “personhood” and “thinking” without ascribing to it “language” status. When Amanda Baggs describes herself, she rejects the idea that she is an impaired person. Yes, there are many things that she cannot do, but from her point of view, there are many things that she can do, which neuro-typical can’t (or won’t). What is the philosophical, and therefore moral status of this claim? Or is she, as matter of logic, necessarily only impaired? Do we simply extend our “citizenship” as in some modified and diluted manner to others, (not just to animals, infants or autistics, but to “blacks” and “jews” and “sunni”) or do we change how we concieve of personhood altogether?


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.