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Tag Archives: Private Language Argument

How Normative Is the Greek Chorus? Spinoza, Rorty, Davidson and Sophocles

Geometry of Know

A passing comment recalled to me a certain conceptual break through. I was studying Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”which presents his theory of Triangulation while at the same time studying narratology, and looking into Bakhtin. For some reason discussion of mimetic and deitic elements suddenly struck me as revealing of the elemental Greek Tragedy structure (Hero, Chorus, Audience), and I realized that Greek Tragedy exemplified Davidson key epistemological point, that we attain objective knowledge due to our largely coherent, belief-veridical, intersubjective knowledge of others (with Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument playing an integral part). The Tragic Chorus formalized an essential epistemo-ontological ground, a necessarily reflective element within the field of the real which indicated to us something of what the real was, as if it were us. And just as quickly it seems, I realized that Davidson’s Triangulation was the same sort of argument  Spinoza put forth which grounded the “social” within the imaginary powers of an imitation of affects – E3p27 (we feel what others we take to be like us are feeling). That is, there is a bio-kinesthetic linking of affective capacities with perception ordering itself which allows affects to ripple through and across bodies in  a reportive, if imaginary way. The broadcastive behavioral forms of other things condition our own experiences, determining them along a causal vector, in a sense normatively and charitably making rational, affective wholes without which the world could not coherently exist.

The Normativity of Truth

Thought comes to mind about Rorty’s wonderful reversal of a decade of dispute with his ally Donald Davidson, wherein he realized that indeed there is a place for a Theory of Truth in Philosophy. His realization was that without a community of users, there is no language game, and a community requires normativity (presumably of use, behavior and experience). As he put it, Prescription precedes Description. It was here, in prescription, in normativity, that the powers of our descriptions lie. So to complete full circuit, if indeed Greek Chorus performs the middle (intersubjective) leg of Donald Davidson’s Triangulation of three knowledges, just how normative is the Greek Chorus?

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Augustine’s Own (Anti-)Private Language Argument

An Origin of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument?

I stumbled upon this proto-Private Language argument, even shorter than Wittgenstein’s. The more that I read Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, the more I get the feeling that Wittgenstein indeed had read this text fairly closely (I see many parallels in thought, including the tantamount notion that words are things defined by their use). These traces of familiarity make his vast misreading of Augustine at the beginning of PI all the more consternating:

Finally, the thousands of fables and fictions, in whose lies men take delight, are human devices, and nothing is to be considered more peculiarly man’s own and derived from himself than anything that is false and lying.

Milla denique fictarum fabularum et falsitatum, quarum mendaciis homines delectantur, humana instituta sunt. Et nulla magis hominum propria, quae a seipsis habent, existmanda sunt, quam quaeque falsa atque mendacia.

§39, Book II, De doctrina

One might not immediately recognized Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument here, but I provide the Latin because it may help. Augustine is speaking about the nature of signs and their necessary classification. He begins the paragraph with pictures and statues which he describes as superfluous to the truth of God (having in mind the arts of pagan Rome and Greece one supposes), and then in the cited passage he seems to have then turned to the myths and stories that go around these figures, narratives and tales. The passage ends with a nod to the useful significations of the sexes in dresss, and then the human systems of weights and measures, stampings and coins.

But what is not to be lost is the exact nature of the disqualification of the substance of human ficta et fabulae. Looking closely, there is nothing to a greater degree the propria of men. That is to say, particular to, peculiar of, but more importantly, the property of, or even especially the private property of men, than these narrative deceptions. And the reason for this is that men have them “a seipsis”, though themselves, to themselves. They are spun from, or as the translation above says, derived from, men themselves. They are, for Augustine, something like man’s Private Language, something that has its origin within the sphere of the human and a circulation solely among the human. But this is the kicker, this recursive privacy is due to their very mark of falsity and deception, their untruth. Augustine sets up an extreme, which at the limit posits a falsity working at the vector origin. That which men have in and through themselves as the sole cause is through the very nature of its privacy, or deprivation, false. (He elsewhere defines evil as a privation.)

Wittgenstein though has in mind not the story of how Zeus chained Prometheus, but the inner dialogue that is often assumed to be privately going on in someone’s head, not in English or German, but in some untranslatable form, utterly and categorically, private. Taken on as well are the private “objects” of such an imagined or subtly assumed language, whether they be private sense data of the world, or inner experiences such as a pain or a pleasure. Right here I want to concentrate upon the Beetle in the Box aspect of the Private Lanaguage argument. To repeat Wittgenstein’s own reductio ad absurdum:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!-Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says that he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

§293, Philosophical Investigations

Falsity and the Inner Beetle

Perhaps now we can see the parallel in argumentation. Because Augustine marks the falsity of human fabula through the very privacy of their origin, the same can be done to the supposed Private Language which Wittgenstein argues against. To draw the parallel explicitly, the beetle in the box is merely an insubstantial fabula in terms of reference. That is, because the word “beetle” has a function within the discourse of these imagined people the f actuality of the state of the beetle inside our heads (whether it be a sense datum of some kind of representation of the world or a pain, there is no fact of the matter of its state), ultimately plays no role in the justifiable functionality of the word, its public life. Thus the privacy of the imagined beetle is as Wittgenstein argues, “crossed out”, as a function of the truth of the discourse. The intersubjective (public) nature of discourse provides that any inner language that a person has a se ipso, in and through himself alone, will be marked by the very limit of falsity: when ceasing to make sense to others or oneself, one’s private objects simply dissipate as objects. As long as the person is using the language correctly, and can tell the difference between “getting it right” and not (which requires external criteria), this truth function of the language makes it not a proprium  of the man alone. Our thoughts can be translated, knowingly.

Further, as a point of interest, Augustine’s vector of falsity falls right across the register of our modern praise of originality. Something that has its origin solely  in the genius of a person, authored only there, made up, is only so by virtue of its falsity. The way that we conceive of the human subject as “cut off” in various positive ways often characterized by their independence and creativity (not to mention “taste” or commercial desires) is linked to this notion of the self as the origin of precious determinations. Our esteem of the Picasso, the Mozart is founded upon a sense of private invention, what we call “originality”. But what would be an originality so complete so as to be utterly private and unsharable? The very sharability of products of genius belie a certain communicability and therefore sharing of origin. Perhaps the ultimate falsifier, the schizophrenic, in the sense that mental events become unreadable, is taken to be utterly private. But we know that this is not so (for we have Schreber’s incredible account, and Artaud, and Holderlin and so very many others). So what is the ontological status of something that is only, as Augustine’s says, a “proprium hominis”? Perhaps we want to say,  just that feeling of hesitation that Joyce might have between a word and then another, that uncrossable ford, that ephemera of pace — but wait, we have shared it now, something of it, a bit (the absolute category collapses). In the end, something of the ontological status of a thing results from its lack of its privacy, until ontology itself fades as privacy increases.

Spinoza also takes up this notion that the privacy of the mind – insofar as it is seen to be cut off from the world that it is an expression of – exhibits imaginary knowledge which is fragmentary and confused…pictures on pictures. These false ideas he says are false only in the sense of a privation (something ultimately traceable back to Plotinus through Augustine’s appropriation of Neo-Platonism). Their partiality becomes an expression of their impotence to act. The utterly unique idea (private) is the utterly impotent one. And the strength of an idea is founded upon its public, that is, communicable nature. So it follows for Spinoza that even the most confused idea or imaginary relationship, insofar as it has something positive about it – the reality it has – has such not due to its falsity but rather its proportion of adequacy.

There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false. E2p33

Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate, or mutilated and confused, ideas involve. E2p35

A Braid of Genetic Privacy

I am not so sure how comfortable I am with the categorical foreclosure in this line of reasoning, which is to say, there is some sense in which I do feel that there is Private Language (one wants to say private distinction, or distinctions which are recursively organized). But this is nothing more than the historical substantiality of genetic progression, which in Spinoza would be simply the reality of the modes, and in Augustine perhaps the reality of the fall. There is a sense in which when we are translating others indeed there is a horizon of rational holism which follows the truth/ontology argument that all three philosophers present. If you are thinking something, or even feeling something,  it is our mutual engagement with the world and with each other which makes the origin of this “something” not a private thing solely of the person. Its very status as something depends upon this mutuality of coherence, cause and origin, conferring complete ontology to it (and supporting all three arguments). But there is a different sense in which each person is a genetic unfolding of experiences and distinctions in time, one and then the other. This configuration through its very difference from my own (or the general consensus of others) is what presents its ultimate value (and perhaps danger). Here, the “origin” is not truly only in and through the person, but a braiding of a particular line of historical developments and the mutuality of world, onto which a distinct line of expression is fed back. These distinctions, their tempo’d unfolding of differences which constitutes an difference in itself, are the portion of the originality of expression which is valued, no aspect of it in principle untranslatable and knowable, the totality of it lost to time (and not subject).

Example: A man tells a story about a young girl caught in a parallel universe with white rabbits or Red Queens, and the ontology of it shines through. The originality serves as origin somehow through the sharing of origin. Should it have been the contingent or creative change of a Red King and not a Red Queen (a difference we might want to attribute solely to the privacy/decision of the author), this factuality is a ‘nothing’ without the relation to the rest of the piece, and the rest of the words and images in use. It becomes an insubstantiality, a difference without difference, an evaporating falsity, until there is a communication of differences. The origin of the difference becomes parsed between the history of the genetic author who “decided” it, and the great wealth of internal and external determinations, the subsuming author but a piece, a difference among differences.

Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”

Here is an on-line copy of Donald Davidson’s remarkable 1991 essay “Three Varieties of Knowledge”. As far as contemporary philosophical essays go, it is perhaps the finest, far-reaching essay in my memory. In terms of style it employs a jargon-free, clear language approach reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s straightforward  problem solving (without the hypnotic aphoristic gloss over of aporias). In terms of content, here is a Davidson’s powerful concept of Triangulation, and the application of the Principle of Charity in the context of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument. Here is the rational, yet still historically contingent process of growing knowledge, guided by communal relations. I find there to be much of Spinoza in this, and a nexus point between both Continnetal and Analytic Schools. I urge you to read this elegant, modest and yet resounding essay. I have the distinct impression that despite the 18 intervening years, philosophy has not caught up with the full consequences of Davidson’s subsuming argument.

page: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. [click on each photo there to enlarge]

At this point, this important essay is not easy to find, but is published in Subjective, Intersubjective and Objective, an excellent collection. This, and The Essential Davidson  would give you a great proportion of his bridge-building thought.

I apologize for the messy margin notes, and underlines as I didn’t imagine that others would be reading this copy, but I feel that this is an important essay, significant enough to post here for those just coming in touch with its arguments and view of the world. If you want some sense of the kinds of arguments that stem from this essay, look to my The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation.

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?