Monday, 23 August 2010

All by Itself?

Science is catching up with the arts!

We are told artists have ‘never doubted’ that language itself shapes thought; and that now the scientists are beginning to accept this old idea (see Mark Abley’s review of Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, TLS 13/08/2010). However, to support this view we are given some ambiguous reasoning:

…he sets out to undermine the environmental determinism of linguists who deny that culture plays any role in the fundamental aspects of thought.

…he wants to show that the prevailing academic consensus is mistaken, and that it is wrong to conceive of an innate universal grammar that possesses sufficient power to render trivial all difference in languages.

Within the constraints given by nature, culture plays a critical role in the way languages function.

And then later…

…mathematical reasoning in Japanese, gestures in Aymara and concept formation among Korean children all support Deutscher’s main point: that languages exert a significant influence on human thought.

Environmental determinism is an unfortunate phrase since it suggests the role of external environmental factors, with its echoes of the Skinnerian Behaviourism of the 1950s, which believed in an adaptive model, of stimulus and response, through which we learned a language. I assume he means the bio-linguistic approach, referred to in the second paragraph.

A little wobbly terminology, and then a very large claim indeed: the redundancy of culture. No doubt there are linguistics who reduce everything to biology; just as there are social scientists who reduce everything to the social environment. However, is this the dominant view in linguistics, or philosophy? If so, it is easily dismissed – does biology account for the differences between the thinking of a 21st century Russian biologist and a 5th century Siberian shaman? Of course, as in so much of intellectual discussion, it all depends on the definition of terms. Here, what does the author mean by, “fundamental aspects of thought”, or “critical role” and “significant”?

If by “fundamental” he means the underlying structures that produce language, then we are into the realms of controversy. For the work of Chomsky and his followers, which this book appears to attack, suggests that language is just another, although very special, product of the body. Chomsky himself has speculated that language may have its own language organ (his view that the mind may be modular, with different mental organs for different faculties). That is, there is a biological structure that provides the mechanisms for general language formation; from out of which a particular language will be acquired, depending on the individual’s home country. If this theory is accepted, to say culture affects the “fundamental aspects of thought” is equivalent to saying that culture (or the environment, if we want a better analogy) affects the “fundamental aspects” of our bodies; that is, it is responsible for our liver and our intestines… Of course, our physical and intellectual development is affected enormously by our environment: the richer the conceptual and physical culture the more likely the child will grow up healthier and more cognitively able. However, the environment cannot create a child’s head or torso. Can a culture create our language faculty (or even ordinary languages), from out of itself?

So languages are different, few would disagree, but what is meant by trivial differences, in the quote above? I assume the author wants his analysis to explain language at the “fundamental” level – its actual formation in the mental structure of the mind. But his use of language is poor and confuses the theory he attacks; for the differences between languages are real, but it is the underlying structure that is the same. Relative to this underlying structure I imagine linguistics would say that the differences between languages are trivial. In the same way a scientist might say the differences in body size compared to the similarities across the species is trivial. This is not the same as saying the differences between languages (or cultures) are unimportant, and do not affect the way people think and act.

It is not a trivial empirical claim that in some cultural tradition people interpret motion in terms of contact; or… that they attribute beliefs and desires in terms of criteria of rationality and normativity with a holistic perspective, in their efforts to evaluate actions. (Noam Chomsky)

Or consider the difficulties of translation, even of the European languages. Few great writers would say that the differences between Spanish and German don’t matter, and that they don’t affect the meaning and reception of a poem or novel. Also, the attempts at a science of linguistics doesn’t imply more depth than other intellectual endeavours:

Dostoevsky’s insights into the human condition are as deep as those of Darwin, but they have a radically different status. As Chomsky puts it: “We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” Literature and science are complementary rather than in competition, and domains which lend themselves to scientific investigation are few. (Neil Smith)

What is going on with Deutscher and Abley? It would seem, as Chomsky suggests, in New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, that there are different approaches to the same problem - what is language and how is it used -, although each deals with it at a different level of explanatory force. However, Guy Deutscher (and the many others who disagree with the bio-linguistic approach) appear to want to attack the theory in toto. But the problem is the ambiguity of terms – for example what is significant influence? Does it mean the source of our linguistic capacity or does it mean our everyday use of French or Romanian, or our academic use of mathematics and logic? If it refers to these examples the question answers itself. Only a fanatic determinist would deny these differences…. Do we scent that favourite academic trick, the straw man?

As the piece develops so does the ambiguity increase – is it language or culture, or both, that plays a critical role in thought? If language itself, or, as the review implies, specific languages, the question then becomes: what motive force does an individual language have. How does it generate mental constructs that form our thoughts and our paragraphs? If it is not linked to biology it must exist all by itself. Can this be true? Do languages really exist independently of our bodies and the culture? This view seems a form of 19th century German Idealism, rather than modern day science (the view associated with Hegel and Fichte, amongst others, of the independent power of ideas and the mind to create our world).

A person’s own language will be sandwiched between their biology and their culture; and will be influenced by the environment. All three will heavily condition use. Given the work of the last 50 years it seems unlikely that our mental process are not biological in origin; a point that the third paragraph appears to accept ‘Within the constraints given by nature' (thus my suspicions of a straw man). But what that means in actual daily practice is another story altogether. Elizabeth Taylor and Albert Einstein were genetically pre-programmed to have a head, legs and arms, and a functioning mind. Although all these attributes were pre-ordained at the point of conception, no-one would have been able to predict the actual results, which to a significant degree would be determined by their upbringing and their culture. Would Einstein, with all his levels of intelligence and creativity intact, have discovered the general principles of relativity, if he had been born into a Bavarian peasant family in 1826?

Also, on a more mundane level, think about how we live from day to day. Most of our contact is only partially verbal, and relies on interpretation and reflex; often culturally conditioned: it takes time to adjust both to the language and the mores of a foreign country. And this is the problem. How do you separate out the effects of culture from the workings of Portuguese and Spanish? The shift in meaning between culture in the first paragraph and language in the last highlights the difficulty. In his classic The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Emile Durkheim showed how the ritualised behaviours of religion could shape a person’s thoughts, through the force of repeated custom and habit; exercised by his society. If this is true, and habits and customs, society’s rituals, do shape our cognition, the influence attributed to language could actually be the result of culture. That is, in order to discover the mechanics of a particular language, and what influence it has on a person’s thought, you would have to isolate it both biologically and culturally. Is this possible? Moreover, most of our thinking doesn’t involve language at all – only the final product comes out in a verbal or numeric format.  So by concentrating on individual languages you may only be concentrating on the most extreme manifestations of their use, where the rules and conventions are created within the language itself; thus the example of mathematical reasoning above.

Within these causal factors how much independent life does an individual language have? For most of the 20th century, contrary to what the reviewer believes, the consensus has been that language has a large autonomy – think of Wittgenstein and his followers who believed they had solved philosophy: what were previously thought to be philosophical problems were actually problems of language; tidy these up, and philosophy vanishes. And then think of Foucault: we are caged within vast language systems…. The excitement of discovering the power of language has been irresistible! And this has led to great art and much scientific and philosophic insight. However, the question remains: has its autonomy and power been overvalued? Have the scientists been reading too much Joyce and Proust?

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