Monday, 13 April 2015

Judgement And The Handover Of Language

Some forms of amoebae can discriminate between different strains of their own species. Quite how they sense the difference isn't altogether clear, but what should be obvious is that  no judgements are involved. To make a judgement requires reasons and it would therefore be absurd to suppose that single celled creatures have reasons for their behaviour. If microorganisms could reason, then perhaps we too would have reason to replace some of the highest ranking members of our legal system with bewigged protozoa.

Philosophers and psychologists quite commonly talk of "perceptual judgements". Presumably they do not mean to suggest that the capacity to see the difference between ultramarine and cerulean blue relies on the exercise of reason. So one could surely be forgiven for questioning the value of their tacit support of such a misconception.

Judgements are evaluative, and value is a thoroughly abstract notion for which only humans are sometimes prepared to die. It might be argued that many creatures value things — their lives and those of their kin, for example, or the food they eat. Many animals are certainly prepared to do or a great deal to ensure their own survival and that of their offspring. But is this because they know the value of life or is it merely instinct? Are instincts judgements? Judgement must surely be the very opposite of instinct.

Judgements are deliberative and to this extent all judgements require rational grounds. Judges make assessments and take careful (usually) account of evidence. Judgement is a disciplined practice that only the well trained can perform. Nobody is born a judge, but babies are certainly born perceivers — not highly skilled perceivers granted, but perceivers nonetheless and some of their perceptual skills are remarkable. In a study of of the crying "melodies" of French and German newborns it was discovered that babies mimic the speech patterns of their mothers. And a 2009 study found that newborns develop expectations of rhythmic beats that bring about a measurable neurological response when the continuity of the beat is violated.

From where does the capacity to make judgements derive, and moreover, how did it emerge in the first place? The first answer is straightforward. In order to make judgements — to reason — we need the categories and concepts but most especially the logical structures of language. Without these sophisticated procedural techniques, reasoning is impossible. Nonverbal creatures have highly sophisticated perceptual skills but they do not manipulate concepts. We know this because we know how demanding it is to learn concept manipulation: language. Every parent knows that the judgements of infants stand in stark contrast to their perceptual skills.

The emergence of judgement — of the concepts of good and bad for example, is less clear. But here is a speculative hypothesis. Our ancestors were making stone tools as long ago as 2.5 million years. Stone tools are time consuming to produce, they require extremely sophisticated skills and their materials can only be sourced in certain places. Unlike tools, behaviours are ephemeral — they disappear in the moment of production. An utterance can be produced but it cannot be exchanged. Tools, on the other hand, are artifactual tokens that endure and as such they are fungible: they can be exchanged. 

There is nothing about exchange itself that requires anything more than perceptual skills. To be a perceiver is to be capable of offering or accepting one thing that is indiscriminable from another. What makes tools different is that they have a dual identity. A stick used as a weapon is no longer merely a stick. But when a stick is not being used as a weapon it doesn't necessarily revert back to being a stick. If it is kept, it remains as a potential weapon: a tool.

I contend that this aspect of possession of useful artefacts is the very basis of language. It is the instrumental root of all of our skills of symbolisation (as well as numerous handy metaphors). Many animals use symbolic communication, but only humans exchange artefacts and only humans attribute value to them. To value something is not simply to be disposed to protect it. To value something is to know what one would (or would not) be prepared to exchange for it. Language emerged through our practices of exchange, of transactions and betokenings. I suggest that language is a product of the hand.