Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Bewitched by Language

Towards the end of his life, the Austrian British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." In his earlier and perhaps most famous work, "The Tractatus Logico Philosophicus", Wittgenstein expressed the view that language is a kind of "picture" of the world that frames and encapsulates experience. He remarked: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Wittgenstein later rejected the metaphor of language as a kind of picture of the world preferring instead to focus on the ways in which different usages of language lead us into philosophical confusion.

One of the leading and certainly one of the most prolific scholars of the work of Wittgenstein is Peter Hacker. Hacker does an outstanding job of illuminating and elaborating on Wittgenstein's analysis and of exposing numerous conceptual confusions that continue to beleaguer not merely philosophy but cognitive neuroscience also. He is not without his critics of course, but having encountered his work after first arriving at several of the same conclusions through the theories of Donald Brook, I find a great deal of Hacker's theorisation to be extremely congenial. Nonetheless, there are times when I think his emphasis on language leads him astray. The following passage is from his book "The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature." (2013)

It is because we can think, that is reflect, that we can have an "inner life". Animals who lack language do not. They are conscious, and are conscious of features of their surroundings; they have and pursue ends; they feel pain and pleasure; but that does not suffice for an inner life. They cannot reflect upon their experience, cannot think thoughts and reflect upon them. They cannot dwell, in joy or sorrow, upon their past experiences. They cannot reason, reflect upon reasoning or weigh its conclusions. They have no imagination, and cannot fantasize, wonder about possibilities or imagine how things might have been. This is one kind of reason why we should not follow Cartesians in identifying having a mind with mere consciousness or conscious experience. Only if one can think thoughts and reason from what one thinks, imagine things and dwell upon what one imagines, enjoy and suffer experiences and reflect on one's joys and sufferings, can one be said to have a mind. Only creatures with a mind can be said to have an inner life.

Consider the following. Otto is a nonverbal human child who likes to play with toys and to act the part of different animals and individuals. Otto is a gifted mimic. He can draw and likes to watch animated cartoons. He also likes to play hide and seek and is very skilful in hiding himself in unexpected places. He likes to make things with Lego and modelling clay and commonly invents fantastical figures and participates in and understands sophisticated and elaborate forms of pretend play.

None of these skills requires language. Prior to the acquisition of language, many human infants show clear competence in many of these skills and it is implausible in the extreme to suppose that these could not develop further with practice and in the continued absence of language. In light of this evidence it is clearly mistaken to argue that an individual such as Otto has no imagination and cannot fantasize.

If it is true, as Hacker rightly acknowledges, that nonverbals can "have and pursue ends" then it falls on Hacker's shoulders to explain how these ends can be had and pursued in the absence of mind. If an end cannot be thought of, then how exactly can it be had? It makes no sense to say that a language user has her ends absentmindedly or mindlessly and that she cannot communicate them when appropriately prompted. Nor does it makes sense to say the same of a nonverbal. Hacker seems to be of the opinion not only that nonverbals are incapable of communicating their ends but that they are unaware of their ends too.

To pursue a goal is to be capable of calling it to mind, moreover, it is to be capable, at least in principle, of communicating it. If language were the only form of creaturely communication, then Hacker would be right to regard language as exclusive to mindedness. But language is by no means the only form of communication.

Ends and goals are typically things that we think of, that are "called to mind", that we "have in mind" or "on our mind." If we forget our goals we have to retrace our steps until we are reminded of them. These are not linguistic skills (although they may be assisted by language), they are procedural skills that presuppose memory and the ability to recall past events.

Hacker would probably want to point out here that many acquired efficacious behaviours need not be the result of having anything in mind. Such behaviours are not goal-directed and thus do not threaten to undermine Hacker's thesis. But if a nonverbal agent performs an action with the aim of eliciting a response on the part of another perceiver, then it is reasonable to suppose that it must have an end in mind and must, at least in principle, be capable of performing or otherwise publicly representing this anticipated outcome. Communicative actions are intentional precisely because they are driven by goals but not all communicative actions are verbal and nor are the goals that drive them.

To be "put in mind" of an earlier event or to "bear something in mind" is to have a memory but it is not necessarily to have a word, concept or utterance at the ready. And when sufferers of global aphasia lose their linguistic abilities they do not lose their ability to imagine or to fantasize (although these capacities may also be diminished as a consequence of the same affliction causing the aphasia). So whilst I agree with Hacker that it is impossible for a nonverbal to reason, to make judgements or to draw conclusions, I think it is mistaken to suppose that nonverbals are necessarily incapable of imagination or fantasy.

As we have already seen, acquired behaviours need not always involve mindedness. Hacker draws a line at the capacity to use language, but I hope the preceding evidence and arguments are persuasive in explaining why I think Hacker remains to some degree under the spell of language. If Hacker were to spread his net a little further to include nonverbal communicative practices, then I think his theorisation would benefit significantly.

Wittgenstein was right to give up on his notion that the limits of our language are the limits of our world. If instead he had claimed that the limits of our communicative capacities are the limits of our world, then perhaps this would have left us with a far more revealing and enduring picture of what it actually is to be a minded creature.


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