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- Hajakujo

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Sunday, November 14, 2010


Words, far from being too definite, are rather too indefinite - language is a by-product of our evolution of an extremely powerful capability to model the world, and thus manipulate it. Thus it is NOT a tool for communication - if anything, language is a hindrance to communication when it comes to concepts which we can know intuitively such as emotion. Only when we communicate abstract concepts, fixed, distant and eternal, are we really at an advantage using language. Even then, we must go to so much trouble to fix our definitions for mutual understanding, that a conversation without such fixing can be worse than useless. It isn't just that you don't know the terms from my field, but that the terms I use work from other metaphors. My perspective on the world, my model of it, is not yours and you can only communicate with me to advantage if you build a ground truth from the same metaphors. If this seems too rigid, if it seems that in your life you manage to communicate about your ideas quite well, remember that you live in a world where homogeneity of thought has been increasing for milennia. Try to imagine communicating your most sophisticated ideas to a Guarani indian. Or even just a randomly selected immigrant of different educational background.

Of course all this doesn't include so-called 'peripheral' forms of communication when using language, such as intonation, prosody and body language. These are actually deeper, closer to our true meaning (unless we dissemble). However pure prose, dissociated words, are fixed meaningless symbols manipulated to address real meanings.

Probably music is closer to an expression of our 'felt' reality than words.



Brian said...

Read Steven Pinker - The Stuff of Thought, for an illuminating examination of language and thought.

Ibichka said...

Someone said it earlier than you, but only because he was also born earlier :) "The thoughts that are expressed to me by music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary too definite" - Mendelssohn.

Your post brings me to my memory all those untranslatability problems of inter-cultural (and sometimes even intra-cultural) communication. Such a delicate endevour has the translator and how little valued it is. There is a heavy cognitive task there.

Great post.

Ben Cowley said...

Hey, I was actually paraphrasing Mendelssohn but I couldn't remember who it was I was paraphrasing, so I didn't cite him. I know all about the heavy burden man, localising a game for 5 countries! Goddamn...

Ben Cowley said...

I wanted to have the comments that Brian and I made on Buzz listed here, so the following is it:

Ben Cowley -
Steven Pinker is a tool who said that music is auditory cheesecake. And his model is inextricably bound in the thinking of the linguistic hemi-sphere - a machine model composed of dead parts, unwittingly sidelining the holism that actually constitutes our experience of the world.
But I'm sure his book is very good...thanks :D
Nov 15

Brian Carugo -
Well, everybody's got their little ways, haven't they?

Holism isn't a way of being, it's a way of looking. Doesn't constitute our anything, though it may describe it. Everything is holistic, because everything is related to everything else when you count enough indirect connections. Does that mean reductionism is the only method left to try to explain anything with more than 1 part? Is holism just unfinished reduction? Or is holism the only answer to computational irreducibility? If the nature of human understanding is reductive, if the only way to understand complex systems is to break them down to less complex components, what role has holism got beyond a place marker for computational irreducibility? If the nature of nature is reductive, if there is no such thing as a system whose behaviour amounts to more than the sum of all of the interactions of all of it's component parts, which I don't believe there is, well, I'm not quite sure what I want to ask here, but it's something to think about.

Don't hate on Pinker, he's alright
Nov 15

Ben Cowley -
Yeah, I dont know enough about Pinker to hate him, he gets some deserved flak for the cheesecake comment but apart from that I'm sure he's very smart...

My comments should be understood in light of this book (which the blog summarises quite nicely if you dont want to read the whole thing):

Basically, there is an essential difference between 'mapping' the world, which is what we do with language and reductionism, and experiencing the world, which I called a holistic way of being in the world and you may want to call something else. The bit about religion in that review should be suitably ignored as the blog author's own little agenda...
Nov 15

Chris said...

I spent quite a while struggling with the lack of foundation to language - but an important realisation for me in recent years is that the kind of problems you talk about here are only really awkward for people who prefer abstract language use (such as you and I, and probably any of our blog readers). Those who lean towards concrete language use have few problems as long as they are in their natural milieu - and thus despite the lack of foundations we can still communicate.

The problem seems worse than it is when you conceptualise it as complete schemes of ideas, because these personal ideolects are thoroughly unique and when you think of this as the basis for communication it sets up a kind of linguistic panic. But we don't communicate by matching our ideolects, but by making moves in the manner of Wittgenstein's language-games, or (as you intimate here) by constructing metaphors in the manner of Walton's prop-oriented make-believe.

The problem with language, much like the problem of knowledge, only seems as bad as the individual's need for foundations naturally suggests. If you feel the need for bedrock beneath these things, it can become highly problematic (it was for me in my 20s), but once you start to come to terms with non-foundationalism a lot of apparent problems turn out to be simply fluid circumstances.

All the best!

Ben Cowley said...

Hi Chris,
when your work is interdisciplinary, multinational and academic, it is quite a problem!
But I dont mind the problem, I'm rather more interested in the nature of how it comes about.

It is interesting to me how our two perspectives illustrate our outlook - if you see it as an issue of people and their ways, when you say that "Those who lean towards concrete language use have few problems as long as they are in their natural milieu", I would see that as an example of a system more closely aligned to its roots. The language of these people is safer (partly) becuase it cleaves closer to the ground of language, embodied experience.

It was a revelation to me recently that all language ultimately links back to the body. Even words describing non-exitant things:
virtual => vir tus
immaterial => materia