Friday, August 25, 2006

Ineffable Knowledge

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber writes:
A critique more suited to our postmodern times is that the whole idea of trying to tease out unspoken assumptions from our language is untenable, relying as it does on the notion that there exists an objective reality that we can apprehend independently of language.
I've pondered this particular issue a lot in the past, that objective reality is always interpreted through the lens of language, and have a question: What about procedural memory? There are clearly things that I know, and that exist objectively, which are either difficult (or impossible) to articulate. I first noticed this when trying to teach someone a kata; words are insufficient in describing how you shape your hand "just so" for a spearhand. Another example is cooking; I can't find any words to adequately describe the change in the pattern of bubbles on the surface of boiling sugar that lets you know that all the water has evaporated. Even if I could articulate these things in some fashion, its clear that my knowledge of the "how" of these things is not being mediated by language. This would seem to indicate that there is at least a subset of reality which can be apprehended independent of language. Nor is it clear that this is limited strictly to procedural memory. For example, in The Principles of Mathematics Bertrand Russell goes to great lengths developing a set-based theory of numbers, only to arrive at the conclusion that the phrase "a term" is axiomatic and cannot be further defined. People understand "a term" (or something close to it) without the mediation of language. All of which makes me think that its tricky, rather than "untenable", to try to understand and rectify language, since there are objective concepts that can be used as a firm foundation for such an endeavor.


Blogger ballastexistenz said...

I'd go so far as to say that anything that can be apprehended only by language is abstractified, not real. I find it bizarre that some people are so caught up in words that they would even come up with a concept such as the one quoted, where it's assumed that reality can only be apprehended through language. I'm finding it hard to even come up with a sufficient refutation to that notion about language, because as far as I'm concerned language is something that reality gets clumsily translated into after the fact, not something I use to comprehend anything around me that isn't language-based in itself.

The idea of a world that only existed insofar as it could be language-ized sounds like a reflection of a shadow of a tiny fragment of the world. It sounds incredibly constrained. It in fact sounds totally unbelievable. But I can't figure out how to prove "This couldn't possibly exist" because I have so much trouble understanding how anyone could think it does.

8:42 PM  
Blogger GG said...

Part of the issue, I think, is that people have taken a good idea about how language influences perception and gone a little bit wild with it. Consider two phrases with which you're undoubtedly familiar, "disabled person" and "person with a disability". The listener's perception of the object can be influenced by these phrases; one puts the disability first and one puts the person first. So in that sense the listener's perception of reality is being mediated by language. But its a jump to go from that observation to the position that analysis of language is useless because there's no undergirding reality.

9:17 PM  
Blogger ballastexistenz said...

Or in many disability rights contexts, it's pointed out that "person with a disability" implies that there's a "thing" called "a disability" that resides solely within a person's body, and has little to do with the complex interaction between body and environment. While others have criticized person-first language by saying that it reinforces negative (and medicalistic, and individual) views of disability, and even views that disability is incompatible with personhood (because we don't have to say "person with manhood" in order to reinforce that a man is a person and more than just a Y chromosome and a set of dangling bits between his legs). ;-)

I suspect it would be more realistic, yes, to say that language can influence the way people think of things in whatever their symbol-system for thought is (whether language or otherwise), which in turn, to varying degrees, can influence perception.

I'm sure there are actually tie-ins between the "language is the only human way of apprehending the world" school of thought, and the way that people are seen whose use or development of language or symbol is highly unusual. Autistic people, for instance, learn best through very-non-symbol-mediated channels ("implicit learning", possibly similar to your "procedural memory", certainly relying more on "perceptual" than "higher-order" processes as those processes are delineated by non-autistic cognitive scientists -- perhaps this explains my continuing astonishment at people who are from my perspective highly mired in symbol), and for a long time this has been taken as an inability to learn (or think) at all, and any learning (or thinking) we do engage in is explained away as bizarre and even defective. It's only been recently that anyone's been saying, "Hey, if it serves the functions of thinking and learning, call it thinking and learning." I have a strong suspicion that our failure to use standard language/symbol-based stuff in standard language/symbol-based ways, and people's very language-centric views of humanity, combine to form prejudices like that one.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Timothee said...

How does language apprehend and organise the world though??

10:53 AM  

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