Essay Thirteen Part Three: 'Mind', Language And 'Cognition' -- Voloshinov (And Others) Debunked
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As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.
The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.
This Essay seeks to challenge a well established and dominant set of ideas about 'mind', language and 'cognition', views which are widely accepted by philosophers, and cognitive scientists as well as revolutionaries and other assorted Marxists. I call this tradition the Platonic/Cartesian Paradigm.
However, many of the conclusions drawn in this Essay depend on much that has gone before at this site (particularly Essay Twelve Part One), and several other as yet unpublished Essays.
Moreover, the material below is far from complete; as I noted on the opening page of this site:
I am only publishing this material on the Internet because several comrades whose opinions I respect urged me to do so, even though the work you see before you is less than half complete. Many of my ideas are still in the formative stage and need considerable attention and time devoted to them to mature.
I estimate this project will take another ten years to complete before it is fit to publish either here in its final form or in hard copy.
At a later date, I will be returning to this Essay to add material on Vygotsky and Chomsky, as well as a handful others on the left who have written on this topic.
Even in its incomplete state, the reader will find that this Essay challenges the widely held set of views mentioned above -- i.e., those belonging to the Platonic/Christian/Cartesian Paradigm. These theories have in one form or another dominated 'Western' thought since Ancient Greek times, and that includes ideas about the nature of 'mind', 'consciousness' and 'cognition' held by the vast majority of Dialectical Marxists.
It is important to note that a good 50% of my case against this area of DM has been relegated to the End Notes. This has been done to allow the main body of the Essay to flow a little more smoothly. This means that if readers want to appreciate fully my case against DM, they will need to consult this material. In many cases, I have qualified my comments (often adding much greater detail and substantiating evidence), and I have even raised objections (some obvious, many not -- and, indeed, some that will have occurred to the reader) to my own arguments -- which I have then answered. [I explain why I have adopted this tactic in Essay One.]
If readers skip this material, then my answers to any qualms or objections they might have will be missed, as will my expanded comments, evidence and clarifications.
[Since I have been debating this theory with comrades for over 25 years, I have heard all the objections there are! Many of the more recent on-line debates are listed here.]
It is also worth adding that phrases like "ruling-class theory", "ruling-class view of reality", "ruling-class ideology" (etc.) used at this site (in connection with Traditional Philosophy and DM), aren't meant to suggest that all or even most members of various ruling-classes actually invented these ways of thinking or of seeing the world (although some of them did -- for example, Heraclitus, Plato, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius). They are intended to highlight theories (or "ruling ideas") that are conducive to, or which rationalise the interests of the various ruling-classes history has inflicted on humanity, whoever invents them. Up until recently this dogmatic approach to knowledge had almost invariably been promoted by thinkers who either relied on ruling-class patronage, or who, in one capacity or another, helped run the system for the elite.**
However, that will become the central topic of Parts Two and Three of Essay Twelve (when they are published); until then, the reader is directed here, here, and here for more details.
[**Exactly how this applies to DM will, of course, be explained in the other Essays published at this site (especially here, here, and here). In addition to the three links in the previous paragraph, I have summarised the argument (but this time aimed at absolute beginners!) here.]
This Essay isn't meant to be an academic study, merely an intervention in revolutionary theory. In that case, unnecessary technicalities have been omitted. For those who want more details, I have listed books and articles in the End Notes that further elaborate on, or which defend the approach adopted at this site. The reader must not, however, assume that I agree with everything contained in these other sources.
Throughout much of this Essay I have blurred the distinction we should normally want to draw between the meaning of a word and the sense of a proposition. A more pedantic deployment of this distinction wouldn't significantly alter many of the conclusions reached in the main body of this Essay, it would merely stretch further the patience of the reader.
[I have listed several different meanings of "meaning" here, and have outlined the rationale behind the distinction between meaning and sense, here.]
Finally, I begin this Essay with a brief some of the results of Essay Twelve. In that case, any readers who find what I have to say at the start somewhat controversial or unconvincing should, naturally, consult that Essay for supporting argument and evidence. [Part One of Essay Twelve has already been published; the unpublished material has, however, been summarised here.]
As of September 2017, this Essay is just over 206,500 words long; a summary of some of its main ideas will be posted at this site later in the year.
The material presented below does not represent my final view of any of the issues raised; it is merely 'work in progress'.
[Latest Update: 25/09/17.]
Anyone using these links must remember that they will be skipping past supporting argument and evidence set out in earlier sections.
If your Firewall/Browser has a pop-up blocker, you will need to press the "Ctrl" key at the same time or these and the other links here won't work!
I have adjusted the font size used at this site to ensure that even those with impaired vision can read what I have to say. However, if the text is still either too big or too small for you, please adjust your browser settings!
(2) Two Views Of Language And Mind
(a) Representation Versus Communication
(b) The Platonic/Cartesian Paradigm
(3) Wittgenstein And Revolutionaries
(a) Dialectical Doubters
(b) Distorting Mirror
(c) Marcuse's One Dimensional Thought
(d) Philosophy Goes To The Dogs
(4) Voloshinov And His Popularisers
(a) Occasionalism And Contextualism
(b) Word Meaning Versus Speaker's Meaning
(c) Coughs And Sneezes Spread Confusion
(d) Communication Breakdown
(e) The Meaning Of Words Vs The Sense Of Propositions
(f) "Theme" And Meaning
(g) Counting "Themes"
(h) Meaning And "Theme"
(i) Understanding And Translation
(5) Private Property In The Means Of Language Production
(a) Meaning? Private Or Social?
(c) No Translation Without Representation
(d) Homunculus Redivivus
(e) Understanding The Problem
(f) Murder On The Orienteering Express
(g) The Material Roots Of Thought
(6) "Inner Speech" And Psychosis
(a) Evidence -- Or Supposition?
(b) An 'Interface' Between Thought And Language?
(c) The Meaning Of "Meaning"
(d) Dialecticians -- Trapped In The Cartesian Paradigm
(e) Mind The Gap
(f) Bridging The Gap?
(g) Freudian Fraud
(h) Public Meaning -- Private Muttering
(i) One Conversation Does Not A Theory Make
(j) Imploding Ideology
(k) Language And Ideology
(l) Are Written Words Different?
(7) Science Fiction
(a) A Priori Dogmatics
(b) The 'Lamarckian' Origin Of Speech
(c) Harming Marxism
(e) Feather-Brained Ideas
(f) Animated Conversation
(8) Language: Social Or Genetic?
(a) The Retreat Of The Radials
(b) The 'Pentecostal' Origin Of Speech
(c) Harman's Theory
(d) Proto-Language -- Invention Or Inheritance?
(e) Meme Dreams
(f) Dialectical Combination?
(g) DM And Dialectical Miracles
(h) Language And Aphasia
(i) Human Exceptionalism?
(9) "Critical Realism" In Crisis
(a) Basket Case?
(b) An Unbalanced Account Of Causation
(c) Laws And 'Balances'
(d) 'Balances' And Brains
(e) Closet Platonists?
(f) 'Mental Causation' -- Or Care In The Community?
(g) The Humiliation Of Metaphysical Realism
(10) Chomsky Rules -- OK?
(a) 'Going Native'
(12) Appendix A -- Reviews Etc.
(a) Review Of Nowak And Highfield -- SuperCooperators
(b) Determinism Again
Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism
Abbreviations Used At This Site
Return To The Main Index Page
In this Essay I will be discussing in much greater detail certain aspects of the various theories of language, 'consciousness', and 'cognition' promoted both by DM-theorists and Traditional Philosophers. To that end, I will be concentrating on the work of Voloshinov and Vygotsky, but I will also consider others on the left who have written on these topics. In addition, I shall briefly examine the generally unfavourable reception Wittgenstein's work has enjoyed among revolutionaries. [This augments what I have already published here.] Finally, I will be appraising some of Chomsky's ideas in this area.
It is worth pointing out at the beginning what I won't be considering here: important as they are, I won't be addressing the following issues: (1) The relation between language and power, or (2) The connection between gender and language. Nor will I be covering (3) Regional dialects, (4) The standardisation of language, or (5) Examples of ideologically-compromised discourse, such as racist, reactionary, and sexist language. This isn't because I don't think these are important -- far from it. It is because several of them will be tackled in later Parts of Essay Twelve (when they are finally published). Finally, those that I won't be covering have already been adequately addressed in books and articles written by other on the left. Since I don't disagree with the substantive points they make on such issues, comment would be superfluous in an Essay that is already far too long.
Two Views Of Language
Representation Versus Communication
It was established in Essay Twelve Part Seven (not yet published) that a particular theory of language has dominated 'Western' (and, indeed, 'Eastern') thought for over two thousand years. This approach sees the primary role of discourse (in fact, in many cases, its only role) as representational, and thus that it acts solely as a vehicle for thought, and not as a means of communication. In fact, if discourse was ever seen as a means of communication, it was often regarded as a vehicle for communicating to others thoughts already arrived at independently of, and prior to social interaction and its linguistic form of expression.
In fact, language was originally considered (by priests, theologians and philosophers, for example) to be a gift of the 'gods', and thus a means whereby the latter could re-present their 'thoughts' to humanity -- or rather, to a 'chosen' few. Alternatively, the 'chosen' few could think 'divine' thoughts on behalf of 'the herd' (thoughts often expressed in esoteric, allegorical, poetic or figurative language), who would then deliver such profundities to 'expectant humanity' as if they had come from on high. As Umberto Eco points out (in relation to the 'western' Christian tradition):
"God spoke before all things, and said, 'Let there be light.' In this way, he created both heaven and earth; for with the utterance of the divine word, 'there was light'.... Thus Creation itself arose through an act of speech; it is only by giving things their names that he created them and gave them their ontological status....
"In Genesis..., the Lord speaks to man for the first time.... We are not told in what language God spoke to Adam. Tradition has pictured it as a sort of language of interior illumination, in which God...expresses himself....
"...Clearly we are here in the presence of a motif, common to other religions and mythologies -- that of the nomothete, the name-giver, the creator of language." [Eco (1997), pp.7-8. Bold emphases and links added.]
Language was thus a vehicle for the "inner illumination" of the 'soul'; a hot-line to 'God'. Unsurprisingly then, the thoughts concocted by countless generations of ruling-class ideologues almost invariably turned out to be those that 'coincidentally' tended to rationalise and 'justify' the status quo.
These ancient myths also suggested to such boss-class theorists that not only had the heavens been called into existence by language, but language -- The 'Word of God' -- now ran the entire show. But, the rather exclusive medium in which much of this was expressed wasn't just any old language, and it certainly wasn't the vernacular; it was a highly specialised language full of newly concocted, jargonised expressions, invented by these theorists in order to re-present the 'divine' order and 'god's' thoughts to humanity. Ordinary words based on the lives and experiences of ordinary working people were plainly inadequate.
Subsequently, in the work of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, for example, language was transformed into an important vehicle enabling the 'soul' to converse with itself (via "inner speech"), which prompted these and subsequent philosophers into imagining they could access 'divine' and/or eternal verities directly from thought alone.1 As noted above, 'languageless thought' was regarded as the means by which the 'select few' could draw close to 'Being'/'God' -- an idea that single-handedly motivated the 'problem' of the relation between the 'Knower' and the 'Known', which later re-surfaced as the main problematic of German Idealism (and, later still, reappearing in a supposedly 'inverted' form) in 'Materialist Dialectics') as a key component in the alleged relationship between 'Thought' and 'Being'.1a
In the work of early modern (and increasingly secular) theorists, 'consciousness' became a privatised, inner arena wherein the bourgeois 'Mind'/'Soul' -- acting now as a socially-isolated 'atom' --, could re-present to itself these 'divine' verities as well as the 'information' ('impressions', 'images', 'ideas') the senses supposedly sent its way -- in many cases with the former helping to shape the latter. Peter Hacker fills in the details:
"Although the ancients raised questions about our own knowledge of our perceptions and thought, and introduced the idea of an inner sense, they had no word for consciousness and they did not characterize the mind as the domain of consciousness. Aristotelians conceived of the mind as the array of powers that distinguish humanity from the rest of animate nature.... What is distinctive of humanity, and what characterizes the mind, are the powers of the intellect -- of reason and of the rational will. Knowledge of these powers is not obtained by 'consciousness' or 'introspection', but by observing their exercise in our engagement with the world around us. The medievals followed suit. They too lacked a term for consciousness, but they likewise indulged in reflection upon 'inner senses', arguably -- in the wake of Avicenna's distinguishing five such senses -- to excess.
"Descartes's innovations with regard to the uses in philosophy of the Latin 'conscientia' (which had not hitherto signified consciousness at all) as well as the French 'la conscience', were of capital importance. For it was he who introduced the novel use of the term into the philosophical vocabulary. He invoked it in order to account for the indubitable and infallible knowledge which he held we have of our Thoughts (cogitationes) or Operations of the Mind. His reflections reshaped our conception of the mind and redrew the boundaries of the mental. Thenceforth consciousness, as opposed to intellect and sensitivity to reasons in thought, affection, intention and action, was treated as the mark of the mental and the characteristic of the mind.
"The expression 'conscius' and the French word 'conscient', and the attendant conception of consciousness, caught on among his correspondents and successors (Gassendi, Arnauld, La Forge, Malebranche). So too 'consciousness' and 'conscious' caught on among English philosophers, churchmen and scientists (Stanley, Tillotson, Cumberland, Cudworth and Boyle). But it is to Locke that we must turn to find the most influential, fully fledged, philosophical conception of consciousness that, with some variations, was to dominate reflection on the nature of the human mind thenceforth. This conception was to come to its baroque culmination in the writings of Kant. In the Lockean tradition, consciousness is an inner sense. Unlike outer sense, it is indubitable and infallible. It is limited in its objects to the operations of the mind. The objects of consciousness are private to each subject of experience and thought. What one is thus conscious of in inner sense constitutes the subjective foundation of empirical knowledge. Because consciousness is thus confined to one's own mental operations, it was conceived to be equivalent to self-consciousness -- understood as knowledge of how things are 'subjectively' (privately, in foro interno -- inside the individual concerned, RL) with one's self.
"The ordinary use of the English noun 'consciousness' and its cognates originates in the early seventeenth century, a mere three or four decades prior to the Cartesian introduction of a novel sense of 'conscius' and 'conscient' into philosophy in the 1640s. So it evolved side by side with the philosophical use -- but, on the whole, in fortunate independence of it. For the ordinary use developed, over the next three centuries, into a valuable if specialized instrument in our toolkit of cognitive concepts. By contrast, as we shall see, philosophical usage sank deeper and deeper into quagmires of confusion and incoherence from which it has not recovered to this day." [Hacker (2013a), pp.11-12. (See also the more detailed comments on the history of this word: pp.15-19, as well as this paper by Hacker. (This links to a PDF.)) Italic emphases in the original; links added.]
"The term 'consciousness' is a latecomer upon the stage of Western philosophy. The ancients had no such term. Sunoida, like its Latin equivalent conscio, meant the same as 'I know together with' or 'I am privy, with another, to the knowledge that'. If the prefixes sun and cum functioned merely as intensifiers, then the verbs meant simply 'I know well' or 'I am well aware that'. Although the ancients did indeed raise questions about the nature of our knowledge of our own perceptions and thought, and introduced the idea of an inner sense, they did not characterize the mind as the domain of consciousness. Aristotelians conceived of the mind as the array of powers that distinguish humanity from the rest of animate nature. The powers of self-movement, of perception and sensation, and of appetite, are shared with other animals. What is distinctive of humanity, and what characterizes the mind, are the powers of the intellect -- of reason, and of the rational will. Knowledge of these powers is not obtained by consciousness or introspection, but by observation of their exercise in our engagement with the world around us. The mediaevals followed suit. They likewise lacked any term for consciousness, although they too indulged in reflections upon 'inner senses' -- in the wake of Avicenna's distinguishing five such senses, arguably to excess....
"The English word 'conscious' is recorded by the OED [Oxford English Dictionary -- RL] as first occurring at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when, like the Latin 'conscius', it signified sharing knowledge with another or being witness to something. In its early forms, it occurred in phrases such as 'being conscious to another' and ‘being conscious to something'. But sharing knowledge rapidly evolved into being privy to unshared knowledge, either about others or about oneself. So 'to be conscious to' quickly became a cousin to the much older expression 'to be aware of'. The form 'to be conscious to' was slowly displaced by 'to be conscious of'. 'To be conscious of something', of course, signified a form of knowledge. So like 'to know', 'to be conscious of something' is a factive verb -- one cannot be conscious of something that does not exist or is not the case. Outside philosophy, there was no suggestion whatsoever that the objects of consciousness, i.e. that of which one can be said to be conscious, are restricted to one’s own mental operations. One could be said to be conscious of what one perceived, or of some feature of what one perceived, of one's own or another's deeds -- both good and evil, of a pertinent fact (the lateness of the hour, the merits of a case) and of one's own or another's virtues or vices, and so forth. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that 'consciousness' came to be used to signify wakefulness as opposed to being unconscious. Thenceforth one could speak of losing and regaining consciousness. The common or garden notions of self-consciousness, i.e. either being excessively aware of one's appearance (a usage now lapsed) or being embarrassingly aware that others are looking at one, is nineteenth-century vintage. Being class conscious, money-conscious, or safety-conscious are twentieth century coinage....
"The expression 'conscious' was introduced into philosophy, almost inadvertently, by Descartes.It does not appear in his work prior to the Meditations (1641), and even there it occurs just once. In the Third Meditation, it occurs not in relation to knowledge of one's 'thoughts' or 'operations of the mind', but in relation to awareness of the power to perpetuate one's own existence (AT VII, 49; CSM II, 34). It was only under pressure from objectors to this single remark that Descartes was forced, in his 'Replies to Objections', to elaborate his ideas on knowing our own 'thoughts'. His developed position in the Principles and late correspondence was unstable. The expression and attendant conception, caught on among Descartes' contemporaries and successors (Gassendi, Arnauld, La Forge) and among English philosophers (Stanley, Tillotson, Cumberland and Cudworth). But it is to Locke, almost fifty years later, that we must turn to find the most influential, fully fledged, philosophical concept of consciousness that was to dominate reflection on the nature of the human mind thenceforth. The attendant conception was to come to its baroque culmination (or perhaps nadir of confusion) in the writings of Kant and the post-Kantian German idealists.
"Descartes used the terms conscientia, conscius, and conscio to signify a form of knowledge, namely the alleged direct knowledge we have of what is passing in our minds. What we are conscious of (which I shall call the 'objects of consciousness') are Thoughts, a term which Descartes stretched to include thinking (as ordinarily understood), sensing or perceiving (shorn of their factive force), understanding, wanting, and imagining. Because he held thinking to be the sole essential attribute of immaterial substances, he claimed that we are thinking all the time, waking or sleeping. He also held that consciousness of operations of the mind is indubitable and infallible. He argued that the mind is, as it were, transparent. For, he wrote (AT VII, 214; CSM II, 150), it is self-evident that one cannot have a thought and not be conscious of it -- although the thoughts we have in sleep are immediately forgotten." [Hacker (2012), pp.1-3. (This links to a PDF.) Italic emphases in the original. "AT" refers to one of the standard collections of Descartes's work, edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery; "CSM" refers to the more recent edition by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny. Even though some of the second passage of Hackers' repeats part of the first, I have quoted it since it adds significant extra details.]
[I have said much more about the Platonic/Cartesian Paradigm, making slightly different points, in Note 1.]
In general, this family of theories held that this 'information' was processed by 'the mind' employing one or more of the following principles: (1) A set of 'innate' ideas, (2) Privately applied rules or habits of mind, (3) A collection of (arbitrarily chosen) 'categories' and/or 'concepts', which were supposedly implanted in us by 'god', or which were necessitated by our psychological, 'logical', or, more recently, our genetic and evolutionary make-up.
[Many of these alternatives were discussed in more detail in Essay Three Part Two.]
Hence, on this view, language was primarily regarded as a means by which the inner microcosm ('consciousness') could be put in the right intellectual order so that it was capable of mirroring the outer macrocosm. Only then was language allowed to function means of communication. And, even then, language merely served to give expression to private acts of 'intellection' or 'meaning'. 'Social meaning' was constructed out of these individualised, atomised base units -- supposedly cobbled-together inside each individual, bourgeois skull. The social was thus an expression of the individual, not the other way round.
For Rationalist and Empiricist Philosophers alike, in the end, truth was to be found by the individual who examined the contents of her/his mind -- the difference between these two traditions now revolved around the stories their respective ideologues told in order to turn each subjectively framed picture into an 'objective' account of reality -- a 'reality' which, unsurprisingly, they now found rather hard to prove actually exists!1b
Give or take a few details and complications, this is largely how things remain to this day. The dualism of Mind/World, coupled with Representationalist theories of knowledge and cognition have kept 'western' thought permanently teetering on the edge of Idealism and Scepticism for more than two millennia. This predicament is not likely to alter this side of massive social change.
[The reason for saying that is detailed in Essay Three Part Two. Why it teeters on the verge of scepticism, at least as far as Dialectical Marxism is concerned, was explained in Essay Ten Part One.]
So, outside the Marxist tradition, language was seen secondarily as a means of communication --, and this was only so that the private thoughts of each Social Atom might be shared with other similarly placed Social Atoms.1c
This dominant paradigm holds that each 'mind' represents the world to itself first -- perhaps constructing a private language in order to do so, using "the light of reason", an inner "language of thought", or accessing a "transformational grammar" (now "unbounded Merge") and/or a "Language Acquisition Device" -- before it is able to convey its thoughts to other 'minds' in like predicament. Indeed, only because of such inner goings on could human beings be said to have any thoughts at all to convey. 'Thought', on this view, isn't therefore a social phenomenon, but a private, occult (hidden), and essentially individualised process.1d
And, that is why we find that in most modern forms of Cognitive Theory the 'mind' is pictured as a set of compartments, or processors, juggling with various 'representations' -- the latter hived-off to various 'modules' now (metaphorically) seen as specialised, deskilled psychological subcontractors of some sort, the bourgeois social division of labour now reproduced in the operation of the mental economy of each bourgeois citizen --, with every such individual and her/his 'consciousness' reduced to the sum of these fragmented parts.2
To be sure, the 'modern' view of the 'world' this approach attributes to each one of us is no longer that which was intended by the 'gods', it is now that which is contrived by our genes. As if to cap it all of late, 'Evolutionary Psychology' (henceforth, EP -- now the dominant intellectual force in this area) projects the origin of the inner bourgeois individual (which we are all supposed to carry around in our heads) tens of thousands of years into the mists of time, informing us that selfishness, individualism, male dominance, violence, the instinct to "truck and barter", and much else besides, are all hard-wired into our brains -- to such an extent that we would be foolish even to try to resist them.2a0
Once more, we see the status quo under-pinned by a new set of ruling ideas, this time dressed up in the language of Neo-Darwinism, Genetics and Cognitive Science.
Each and everyone of us is thus pictured as a perfectly selfish, social atom -- before we even begin to speak.
The bourgeois individual is indeed alive and well, and living in a skull near you!
Worse still, this particular set of ruling ideas aims to rule all our other ideas --, it even overshadows and dominates the doctrines invented by erstwhile revolutionaries, as we have seen, and will see again throughout this Essay.
Of course, as we also saw in Essay Three Part Two, the problem here is that if they were correct, each of these remarkably general theories would be trapped in the private world of its inventor, with no legitimate avenue of escape. Since no two theorists (or indeed human beings) can possibly share the same ideas, communication -- on this view -- would be impossible.2a
Naturally, this only undermines further the already insecure rationale that exists for adopting representationalism in the first place.
The end result of all this is that Marx and Engels's insight that language is the product of collective labour and communal life -- and thus that its primary role lies in communication -- has never seriously been considered, let alone adopted, even by those who claim to be Marxists!
[Unfortunately, we saw this was true of those claiming to be Marxists in general here; we will see further confirmation as this Essay unfolds.]
To that end, the ordinary language of the working class has been distorted, denigrated and depreciated by ruling-class thinkers from ancient times onward as part of a class-motivated assault on the vernacular.
The reason for this is plain; as Marx pointed out:
"The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases added.]
As Essay Twelve Part Two will show (in the meantime, see here), the reason for this denigration is quite simple: it is impossible for anyone (let alone Priests and Philosophers) to concoct metaphysical theories using only the vernacular.2b Hence, the vernacular had to be declared defective, a whole new complex and abstract terminology invented in its place -- so that a 'hidden world' lying behind or beyond 'appearances', accessible to 'thought' alone, could be conjured into existence. And, as we now know, this approach was prosecuted in order to provide an a priori 'justification' for class division, oppression, inequality and state power.3
Representational theories still dominate Philosophy, Psychology and Linguistics to this day, so it isn't surprising to see Marx's words amply confirmed in this regard, too:
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch...." [Marx and Engels (1970), pp.64-65. Bold emphases added.]
However, this Essay is mainly concerned with the ideas of those who at least give lip-service to the idea that language is a social phenomenon and serves primarily as a means of communication. To that end, I will begin with a brief look at how certain Marxists have received the work of the single most important modern champion of the social/communal approach to language: Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein And Revolutionaries
It was acknowledged in an Additional Essay that there are serious problems facing anyone who tries to combine Marx's and Wittgenstein's ideas. Naturally, this doesn't mean that such a synthesis cannot be achieved, but it does mean that if this is to happen it will require a much more secure understanding of both thinkers than has hitherto been apparent.4
[TAR = The Algebra of Revolution, or Rees (1998a); DM = Dialectical Materialism/Materialist, depending on context.]
Having said that, there is still a high level of distrust of -- if not resistance and/or open hostility shown toward -- Wittgenstein's ideas among revolutionaries. This surfaces in TAR, for example, in the following passage:
"The social root of these [postmodernist] ideas has been identified as the new middle class in retreat from the values of the 1960s. But the narrower intellectual source of [such] views is the intellectual climate in which postmodernist notions such as the idea that '"reality" is a purely discursive phenomena, a product of various codes, conventions, language games or signifying systems…'." [Rees (1998a), p.297.]
While it is true that Rees is quoting Christopher Norris here, his reference to "language games" is (intentionally or not) clearly directed at Wittgenstein.5
Nevertheless, the puzzled reader might wonder why there is no explicit mention in TAR of arguably the 20th century's greatest philosopher, when numerous second- and third-rate thinkers receive inordinate attention. This in a book seeking to make the dialectic relevant! That would be rather like, say, writing a history of modern Physics but forgetting to mention Einstein, Dirac or Bohr.
As noted above, revolutionaries in general have displayed a consistent level of hostility toward Wittgenstein's ideas, a stance that hasn't always been matched by a serious attempt to come to grips with his method -- or even to summarise it accurately!
For example, Cornforth [in Cornforth (1965)] openly misrepresents Wittgenstein's work solely in order to rubbish it. This is somewhat surprising since Cornforth had once been one of Wittgenstein's personal friends.
However, as is plain to anyone who bothers to check, Cornforth has confused parts of Wittgenstein's early work with that of Russell and/or Carnap, asserting that he adopted a "verificationist" stance to "elementary propositions" in the Tractatus, for example. This interpretation muddles Russell's empiricist approach to such propositions with the anti-metaphysical thrust of the Tractatus. Verificationism is completely foreign to that work. The simple objects of the Tractatus aren't objects of possible experience, but logical objects, as Wittgenstein himself clearly indicates. [Cf., 2.01-2.0211, 2.023, 2.024-2.031, 4.1272. (These refer to numbered sections of the Tractatus.)]5a
Cornforth must have known this, which perhaps explains why he offered no evidence to substantiate these wild allegations. Little wonder, either, since there isn't any; neither the word "verification" nor any of its synonyms occurs in the Tractatus, and the entire idea is completely at odds with Wittgenstein's own stated aims.6
Cornforth's depiction of Wittgenstein's Tractatus is a catalogue of errors and misrepresentations from beginning to end, to such an extent that it is doubtful whether he actually read that book! Or if he did, he plainly forgot much of what he read before he pun pen to misuse. In fact, it is abundantly clear that Cornforth relied on second-, or third-hand comments about The Tractatus, written by Positivists (such as Moritz Schlick), among others. In fact, Cornforth only quotes this book once in his five page 'summary' of it, and even then this reference is brief and relates only to the Preface.
Cornforth's discussion of Wittgenstein's later work is, thankfully, less unreliable. Although he manages to get one or two things right, he ends up confusing the method adopted in the Philosophical Investigations with that found in Oxford 'Ordinary Language Philosophy' (henceforth, OLP), that is, with the work of Ryle, Austin, Warnock, Strawson, Urmson and Hampshire, etc. Beyond a few superficial similarities, Wittgenstein's work bears no resemblance at all to "Oxford Philosophy". [On this, see Cavell (1971a) and Dummett (1960).]
Marcuse's One Dimensional Thought
An equally inept attempt to come to grips with Wittgenstein's work (and with OLP in general) is to be found in Chapter Seven of Marcuse's One Dimensional Man. [Marcuse (1968).]
[OLP = Ordinary Language Philosophy.]
Unfortunately, Marcuse made the mistake of referencing Ernest Gellner's notorious Words and Things [i.e., Gellner (1959)], which contains somewhat similar criticisms of Wittgenstein and OLP (note 2, p.141 -- i.e., note 136, here). Gellner's execrable book won't be examined in this Essay; however, concerning that scurrilous work, see Uschanov (2002) -- as well as the longer version of that paper available here. [See also Dummett (1960).]6a0
Marcuse begins with this hackneyed criticism of OLP and Wittgenstein:
"Austin's contemptuous treatment of the alternatives to the common usage of words, and his defamation of what we 'think up in our armchairs of an afternoon'; Wittgenstein's assurance that philosophy 'leaves everything as it is' -- such statements exhibit, to my mind, academic sado-masochism, self-humiliation, and self-denunciation of the intellectual whose labour does not issue in scientific, technical or like achievements. These affirmations of modesty and dependence seem to recapture Hume's mood of righteous contentment with the limitations of reason which, once recognized and accepted, protect man from useless mental adventures but leave him perfectly capable of orienting himself in the given environment. However, when Hume debunked substances, he fought a powerful ideology, while his successors today provide an intellectual justification for that which society has long since accomplished -- namely, the defamation of alternative modes of thought which contradict the established universe of discourse."
Added in a footnote:
"The proposition that philosophy leaves everything as it is may be true in the context of Marx's Theses on Feuerbach (where it is at the same time denied), or as self-characterization of neo-positivism, but as a general proposition on philosophic thought it is incorrect." [Marcuse (1968), pp.141-42. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site. Spelling altered to UK English. I have used the on-line text here, and have corrected any typographical errors I managed to spot. The same is true of the other passages from this book quoted below.]
I won't try to defend John Austin in this Essay, but Marcuse clearly failed to notice that when Wittgenstein said philosophy "leaves everything as it is" he was speaking of the discipline as he practised it, not as it has traditionally been pursued. Moreover, in view of the fact that Traditional Philosophy is little more than self-important hot air (on that, see Essay Twelve Part One), except negatively, it can't change anything, anyway.
Furthermore, Wittgenstein isn't advocating "conformism", as Marcuse alleges. It is no more philosophy's role to challenge the status quo than it is the role of, say, basket weaving to do so. Alongside Marx (who, it is worth recalling, had abandoned philosophy root and branch by the late 1840s), Wittgenstein would have argued that the point is in fact to change the world, not build non-sensical and incoherent philosophical theories about it. Change is the remit of political action, science and technology, not philosophy (even if individual philosophers might choose to involve themselves in the class struggle), as Wittgenstein conceived that discipline.
Moreover, one only has to read the many conversations that took place between Wittgenstein and those he gathered around him to see that he wasn't a political quietist. Nor was he unsympathetic to Marxism or, indeed, the gains made by the Russian Revolution [On that, see here.]
In fact, Marcuse along with the vast majority of Wittgenstein's critics (and, it is worth adding, many Wittgensteinians, too) misquote or misinterpret him in this regard. Here is what Wittgenstein actually said:
"Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it." [Wittgenstein (1958), §124, page 49e.]
From this it is quite clear that the word "everything" refers back to "the actual use of language". This is plain from the fact that he then goes on to mention mathematics ("It also leaves mathematics as it is"), which he wouldn't have added if "everything" were totally unqualified in the way that many suppose. So, philosophy leaves everything in language and mathematics as they are, but (by default) nothing else. Whether or not one agrees with Wittgenstein, this passage offers no support to those who characterise Wittgenstein as a conservative.
Incidentally, the most recent translation of the above passage reads as follows:
(1) "Philosophy must not interfere in any way with the actual use of language, so it can in the end only describe it.
(2) "For it cannot justify it either.
(3) "It leaves everything as it is.
(4) "It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it." [Wittgenstein (2009), §124, p.55e.]
If anything, that is even clearer. As I have pointed out elsewhere at this site:
Once more, it is clear that the word "everything", in Line 3, is restricted to "the actual use of language", and that can be seen from the next sentence. If "everything" were totally unrestricted, there would be no point adding the extra caveat in Line 4. Why inform us that Philosophy "also" leaves mathematics as it is if we have just been told it leaves "everything" as it is? If the meaning of "everything" in Line 2 is unrestricted, then mathematics can't be part of "everything", can it? So, either Wittgenstein was a sloppy stylist (who wants or admit that?), or he held rather odd beliefs about mathematics.
So, in Line 3, Wittgenstein is talking about "the actual use of language", not absolutely everything -- from politics to pottery, science to sociology, quasars to quarks! The continual use of "it" should have alerted commentators to this rather simple point (here coloured appropriately to assist the unconvinced see the light):
(1) "Philosophy must not interfere in any way with the actual use of language, so it can in the end only describe it.
(2) "For it cannot justify it either.
(3) "It leaves everything as it is.
(4) "It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it."
The red "it" clearly refers back to "philosophy", but it is no less clear that the purple "it" refers back to "the actual use of language", which means that "everything as it is" is correctly coloured purple, too.
Furthermore, there is this interaction between Norman Malcolm and Wittgenstein:
"[W]hat is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic etc., [and] if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any...journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends." [Letter from Wittgenstein to Malcolm, 16/11/1944, quoted in Malcolm (2001), p.93. Capitalisation in the original.]
[Here Wittgenstein is clearly referring Malcolm to his new conception of philosophy.]
This doesn't sound like the remark of a 'philosophical quietist', as he has often been portrayed by many on the left.
Now, in line with the traditional contempt shown by ruling-class theorists toward the vernacular and the thought of ordinary workers, Marcuse argues as follows:
"Throughout the work of the linguistic analysts, there is this familiarity with the chap on the street whose talk plays such a leading role in linguistic philosophy. The chumminess of speech is essential inasmuch as it excludes from the beginning the high-brow vocabulary of 'metaphysics;' it militates against intelligent non-conformity; it ridicules the egghead. The language of John Doe and Richard Roe is the language which the man on the street actually speaks; it is the language which expresses his behaviour; it is therefore the token of concreteness. However, it is also the token of a false concreteness. The language which provides most of the material for the analysis is a purged language, purged not only of its 'unorthodox' vocabulary, but also of the means for expressing any other contents than those furnished to the individuals by their society. The linguistic analyst finds this purged language an accomplished fact, and he takes the impoverished language as he finds it, insulating it from that which is not expressed in it although it enters the established universe of discourse as element and factor of meaning.
"Paying respect to the prevailing variety of meanings and usages, to the power and common sense of ordinary speech, while blocking (as extraneous material) analysis of what this speech says about the society that speaks it, linguistic philosophy suppresses once more what is continually suppressed in this universe of discourse and behaviour. The authority of philosophy gives its blessing to the forces which make this universe. Linguistic analysis abstracts from what ordinary language reveals in speaking as it does -- the mutilation of man and nature." [Marcuse (1968), pp.142-43.]
From this it is quite plain that Marcuse prefers the obscure and impenetrable jargon that ruling-class hacks regularly inflict on their readers to the language of ordinary workers, and it isn't hard to see why. Indeed, as was alleged above, Marcuse all but concedes that it is impossible to derive the empty theses of Traditional Philosophy if theorists confine themselves to the vernacular. [On this, see Essay Twelve Part One.] And that is why he complains that the language used by Wittgenstein, and others, has been "purged" of the very jargon upon which traditionalists like Marcuse dote -- which "purge" is in fact a move in the right direction since it would prevent them from even attempting to perform their verbal tricks. Arguing in this way, Marcuse plainly disagrees with Marx himself:
"The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases added.]
It is also worth pointing out that, again like many others, Marcuse has confused ordinary language with "common sense". As we have seen, these two aren't at all the same. [On that, cf., Hallett (2008), pp.91-99.] Moreover, Marcuse is wrong in what he says about "eggheads" -- in fact, in all my years of studying OLP (to date, at least 40 years), I have yet to encounter anything that remotely suggests this reading. It isn't surprising, therefore, to find that Marcuse fails to quote, or even cite, a single passage in support of his wild allegations.
Furthermore, neither the OLP-ers nor Wittgenstein raised objections against other uses of language, they simply point out that it is a serious error to suppose one can answer questions about knowledge, perception, time, space, thought, action, etc., by using words in technical, or in other odd ways (a point Marx also made).
As Hanjo Glock notes:
"Wittgenstein's ambitious claim is that it is constitutive of metaphysical theories and questions that their employment of terms is at odds with their explanations and that they use deviant rules along with the ordinary ones. As a result, traditional philosophers cannot coherently explain the meaning of their questions and theories. They are confronted with a trilemma: either their novel uses of terms remain unexplained (unintelligibility), or...[they use] incompatible rules (inconsistency), or their consistent employment of new concepts simply passes by the ordinary use -- including the standard use of technical terms -- and hence the concepts in terms of which the philosophical problems were phrased." [Glock (1996), pp.261-62. See also this quotation, and my comments in Essay Thirteen Part One, as well as those I have posted at Wikipedia (here and here) concerning the use of technical terms in science.]
And, as Peter Hacker also pointed out:
"For two and a half millennia some of the best minds in European culture have wrestled with the problems of philosophy. If one were to ask what knowledge has been achieved throughout these twenty-five centuries, what theories have been established (on the model of well-confirmed theories in the natural sciences), what laws have been discovered (on the model of the laws of physics and chemistry), or where one can find the corpus of philosophical propositions known to be true, silence must surely ensue. For there is no body of philosophical knowledge. There are no well-established philosophical theories or laws. And there are no philosophical handbooks on the model of handbooks of dynamics or of biochemistry. To be sure, it is tempting for contemporary philosophers, convinced they are hot on the trail of the truths and theories which so long evaded the grasp of their forefathers, to claim that philosophy has only just struggled out of its early stage into maturity.... We can at long last expect a flood of new, startling and satisfying results -- tomorrow.
"One can blow the Last Trumpet once, not once a century. In the seventeenth century Descartes thought he had discovered the definitive method for attaining philosophical truths; in the eighteenth century Kant believed that he had set metaphysics upon the true path of a science; in the nineteenth century Hegel convinced himself that he had brought the history of thought to its culmination; and Russell, early in the twentieth century, claimed that he had at last found the correct scientific method in philosophy, which would assure the subject the kind of steady progress that is attained by the natural sciences. One may well harbour doubts about further millenarian promises." [Hacker (2001c), pp.322-23.]
Comrades like Marcuse are welcome to this monumental waste of ink and paper (to which Hacker alludes) -- and that comment applies even more so to 'dialectical philosophy', which is definitely the poor relation of this long detour into nowhere.
What of this, though?
"Moreover, all too often it is not even the ordinary language which guides the analysis, but rather blown-up atoms of language, silly scraps of speech that sound like baby talk such as 'This looks to me now like a man eating poppies,' 'He saw a robin', 'I had a hat.' Wittgenstein devotes much acumen and spare to the analysis of 'My broom is in the corner.'" [Marcuse (1968), p.143.]
But, does Marcuse take Hegel or Engels to task for their use of "The rose is red" (on that, see here and here), or Lenin for his employment of "John is a man"? Not a bit of it! In fact, Marcuse misses the point of using such simple language: If we can't get this right, we stand no chance with more complex propositions or bodies of text. Indeed, as we have seen (for example, here, here and here), dialecticians can't even get "John is a man" right! [Which rather makes my point for me, one feels.]
However, Marcuse has an answer to this:
"To take another illustration: sentences such as 'my broom is in the corner' might also occur in Hegel's Logic, but there they would be revealed as inappropriate or even false examples. They would only be rejects, to be surpassed by a discourse which, in its concepts, style, and syntax, is of a different order -- a discourse for which it is by no means 'clear that every sentence in our language "is in order as it is."' Rather the exact opposite is the case -- namely, that every sentence is as little in order as the world is which this language communicates." [Ibid., p.144.]
[Except, and as noted above, Hegel doesn't always do this! His criticism of the subject-predicate form uses just such simple sentences.]
But, if the above were indeed so -- if "every sentence is as little in order as the world is which this language communicates" then the ordinary words and sentences Marcuse himself uses aren't "in order", either, which means we can't take what they say at face value. [But, is there another, deeper significance to his words?] We have already seen that attempts to argue that ordinary language is in some way (or in any way) defective back-fire on those who unwisely wander down that path. But, here we encounter the same reckless bravado, for if Marcuse's words aren't "in order", what can they possibly mean? As Marcuse notes on the same page:
"Thus the analysis does not terminate in the universe of ordinary discourse, it goes beyond it and opens a qualitatively different universe, the terms of which may even contradict the ordinary one." [Ibid., p.144.]
Except that here, the tables are turned on Marcuse, for if we analyse his words, and are able to follow his argument, we see that (if he were correct) his words would imply the opposite of what he intended -- that is, our ability to comprehend what he says shows that his words are in the "right order" and hence we can understand him after all! And yet, as soon as we do understand what he is telling us, we immediately see that his words aren't in fact in the "right order" -- for he tells us that none are! --, and thus that they make no sense. [Yet another ironic 'dialectical inversion', one feels.]
Then we encounter this hackneyed complaint; Marcuse (quoting Wittgenstein):
"The almost masochistic reduction of speech to the humble and common is made into a program: 'if the words "language", "experience", "world", have a use, it must be as humble a one as that of the words "table", "lamp", door."' We must 'stick to the subjects of our every-day thinking, and not go astray and imagine that we have to describe extreme subtleties...' -- as if this were the only alternative, and as if the 'extreme subtleties' were not the suitable term for Wittgenstein's language games rather than for Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Thinking (or at least its expression) is not only pressed into the straitjacket of common usage, but also enjoined not to ask and seek solutions beyond those that are already there. 'The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.'
"The self-styled poverty of philosophy, committed with all its concepts to the given state of affairs, distrusts the possibility of a new experience. Subjection to the rule of the established fact is total -- only linguistic facts, to be sure, but the society speaks in its language, and we are told to obey. The prohibitions are severe and authoritarian: 'Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language.' 'And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.'
"One might ask what remains of philosophy? What remains of thinking, intelligence, without anything hypothetical, without any explanation? However, what is at stake is not the definition or the dignity of philosophy. It is rather the chance of preserving and protecting the fight, the need to think and speak in terms other than those of common usage -- terms which are meaningful, rational, and valid precisely because they are other terms. What is involved is the spread of a new ideology which undertakes to describe what is happening (and meant) by eliminating the concepts capable of understanding what is happening (and meant)." [Ibid., pp.144-45.]
Marcuse has worked himself up into a right old lather here, all the while missing the point. Once more, Wittgenstein was speaking here of his new approach to philosophy, which, if correct, would mean that traditional forms-of-thought, beloved of characters like Marcuse, are nothing more than elaborate or insubstantial "houses of cards". Wittgenstein is certainly not arguing against "anything hypothetical", or against "explanation" in other areas of theory (for example, in science -- indeed, in this area, he developed a novel account of what it is to reason hypothetically). Once more, in his haste to malign Wittgenstein, Marcuse only succeeded in aiming his blows at thin air.
And, far from the following being true, the opposite is in fact the case:
"It is rather the chance of preserving and protecting the fight, the need to think and speak in terms other than those of common usage -- terms which are meaningful, rational, and valid precisely because they are other terms. What is involved is the spread of a new ideology which undertakes to describe what is happening (and meant) by eliminating the concepts capable of understanding what is happening (and meant)." [Ibid.]
The obscure terminology that litters the pages of Traditional Thought, and particularly the impenetrable jargon Hegel inflicted on humanity, actually prevents us from understanding the world. As pointed out in Essay Twelve Part One, the influence of Traditional Philosophy must be terminated in order to facilitate the advance of scientific knowledge in general, and Marxism in particular. [Here, of course, I am very loosely paraphrasing Kant.]
Marcuse's failure to get the point is further underlined by this blindingly irrelevant comment:
"To begin with, an irreducible difference exists between the universe of everyday thinking and language on the one side, and that of philosophic thinking and language on the other. In normal circumstances, ordinary language is indeed behavioural -- a practical instrument. When somebody actually says 'My broom is in the corner,' he probably intends that somebody else who had actually asked about the broom is going to take it or leave it there, is going to be satisfied, or angry. In any case, the sentence has fulfilled its function by causing a behavioural reaction: 'the effect devours the cause; the end absorbs the means.'" [Ibid., pp.145-46.]
Marcuse plainly didn't know -- perhaps because of his characteristically sloppy research --, that when Wittgenstein used the sentence "My broom is in the corner" [Wittgenstein (2009), §60, p.33e] he was in fact criticising a view he himself had adopted in the Tractatus -- about (i) The nature of logically simple names, (ii) The idea that a fact is a complex, and (iii) The thesis that analysis can reveal logical form, etc. [Wittgenstein (1972), 2-3.263, pp.7-25, and 5.5423, p.111. On the background to this, see White (1974, 2006). On Investigations §37-61 (the relevant sections), see Baker and Hacker (2005b), pp.112-42, Hallett (1977), pp.112-39, and Hallett (2008), pp.33-41.]
So, Wittgenstein was here advancing a profound criticism of his earlier way of seeing things. Now, whether or not one agrees with Wittgenstein (before or after he changed mind -- or even at all!), the issues he raises aren't of the everyday "behavioural" sort that Marcuse seems to think; they concern the logical nature of propositions and how they can be used to represent the world (that is, if they can). These are hardly trivial.
But, there is more:
"In contrast, if, in a philosophic text or discourse, the word 'substance,' 'idea,' 'man,' 'alienation' becomes the subject of a proposition, no such transformation of meaning into a behavioural reaction takes place or is intended to take place. The word remains, as it were, unfulfilled -- except in thought, where it may give rise to other thoughts. And through a long series of mediations within a historical continuum, the proposition may help to form and guide a practice. But the proposition remains unfulfilled even then -- only the hubris of absolute idealism asserts the thesis of a final identity between thought and its object. The words with which philosophy is concerned can therefore never have a use 'as humble ... as that of the words "table", "lamp", "door"'.
"Thus, exactness and clarity in philosophy cannot be attained within the universe of ordinary discourse. The philosophic concepts aim at a dimension of fact and meaning which elucidates the atomized phrases or words of ordinary discourse 'from without' by showing this 'without' as essential to the understanding of ordinary discourse. Or, if the universe of ordinary discourse itself becomes the object of philosophic analysis, the language of philosophy becomes a 'meta-language.' Even where it moves in the humble terms of ordinary discourse, it remains antagonistic. It dissolves the established experiential context of meaning into that of its reality; it abstracts from the immediate concreteness in order to attain true concreteness." [Ibid., p.146.]
Once again, as we have also seen, it is in fact the obscure jargon, which litters Traditional Philosophy, that undermines clarity of thought. In which case, it is no surprise to discover that, far from constituting a "guide" to practice, dialectics has been roundly refuted by it. [On that, see Essay Ten Part One.]
Moreover, as far as 'abstraction' is concerned, Marcuse just helps himself to this word without any attempt to explain the obscure 'process' that supposedly underlies it -- or, indeed, show how it is even possible to 'abstract' anything at all. [On this, see Essay Three Parts One and Two.]
"Ordinary language in its 'humble use' may indeed be of vital concern to critical philosophic thought, but in the medium of this thought words lose their plain humility and reveal that 'hidden' something which is of no interest to Wittgenstein. Consider the analysis of the 'here' and 'now' in Hegel's Phenomenology, or...Lenin's suggestion on how to analyze adequately 'this glass of water' on the table. Such an analysis uncovers the history in every-day speech as a hidden dimension of meaning -- the rule of society over its language. And this discovery shatters the natural and reified form in which the given universe of discourse first appeals. The words reveal themselves as genuine terms not only in a grammatical and formal-logical but also material sense; namely, as the limits which define the meaning and its development -- the terms which society imposes on discourse, and on behaviour. This historical dimension of meaning can no longer be elucidated by examples such as 'my broom is in the corner' or 'there is cheese on the table.' To be sure, such statements can reveal many ambiguities, puzzles, oddities, but they are all in the same realm of language games and academic boredom." [Ibid., pp.147-48. I have corrected several serious typographical errors in the on-line version of the last sentence.]
As we will see in Essay Twelve, Hegel's crass analysis of spatial and temporal indexicals (i.e., "here" and "now") is hardly a reassuring advert for the 'superiority' of DL over FL. Moreover, we have already seen what a mess Lenin got himself into with his 'analysis' of glass tumblers, using DL. In which case, the alleged 'banalities of ordinary language' are much to be preferred over the irredeemable confusion that has for two centuries oozed out of Hegel's Hermetic House of Horrors, clogging the minds of comrades like Marcuse. Indeed, science has about as much to learn from this backwater of Neoplatonic Mysticism as it has from dowsing or crystal gazing.
[FL = Formal Logic; DL = Dialectical Logic.]
It is also revealing to discover that Marcuse has an unhealthy interest in what is "hidden"; revealing because we have also seen that it is a cornerstone of ruling-class ideology that there is a "hidden" 'reality' lying behind "appearances", which is accessible to thought alone and which is more real than the world we see around us. Marcuse here shows that even though he pretends to be a radical, he is nonetheless a philosophical conservative, happy to ape the thought-forms of the last two-and-a-half millennia of boss-class theory. [On that, see these comments from Essay Two.]
"The therapeutic character of the philosophic analysis is strongly emphasized -- to cure from illusions, deceptions, obscurities, unsolvable riddles, unanswerable questions, from ghosts and spectres. Who is the patient? Apparently a certain sort of intellectual, whose mind and language do not conform to the terms of ordinary discourse. There is indeed a goodly portion of psychoanalysis in this philosophy -- analysis without Freud's fundamental insight that the patient's trouble is rooted in a general sickness which cannot be cured by analytic therapy. Or, in a sense, according to Freud, the patient's disease is a protest reaction against the sick world in which he lives. But the physician must disregard the 'moral' problem. He has to restore the patient's health, to make him capable of functioning normally in his world.
"The philosopher is not a physician; his job is not to cure individuals but to comprehend the world in which they live -- to understand it in terms of what it has done to man, and what it can do to man. For philosophy is (historically, and its history is still valid) the contrary of what Wittgenstein made it out to be when he proclaimed it as the renunciation of all theory, as the undertaking that 'leaves everything as it is.' And philosophy knows of no more useless 'discovery' than that which 'gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question.'" [Ibid., p.149.]
Here, Marcuse unambiguously nails his colours to the mast, for he is perfectly happy to assume the role Traditional Philosophers have always arrogated to themselves (i.e., of possessing unique access to the aforementioned, hidden Super-Truths, available to thought alone, but oddly enough not to scientists), even though these Super-Theorists have yet to solve a single problem in over 2500 years (as Peter Hacker pointed out). In fact, they have yet to agree what a 'solution' would even look like -- or even what the right questions are! Marcuse makes no attempt to defend this age-old view of Philosophy, except he appeals to the fact that it has always been regarded this way. So much for his radical credentials! But, how is it that pure thought is able to gain such easy access to this 'hidden world'? No good looking to Marcuse for an answer to that one; he is mysteriously silent about it.
[On this aspect of Wittgenstein's work, see Fischer (2011a, 2011b).]
Once again, Marcuse has a 'reply':
"This intellectual dissolution and even subversion of the given facts is the historical task of philosophy and the philosophic dimension. Scientific method, too, goes beyond the facts and even against the facts of immediate experience. Scientific method develops in the tension between appearance and reality. The mediation between the subject and object of thought, however, is essentially different. In science, the medium is the observing, measuring, calculating, experimenting subject divested of all other qualities; the abstract subject projects and defines the abstract object." [Ibid., p.150. Bold emphasis added.]
This appears to be an echo of Marx's claim:
"Vulgar economy actually does no more than interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations. It should not astonish us, then, that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations in which these prima facie absurd and perfect contradictions appear and that these relations seem the more self-evident the more their internal relationships are concealed from it, although they are understandable to the popular mind. But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided." [Marx (1981), p.956. Bold emphasis added.]
[I have dealt with this view of science in Essay Twelve Part One; the reader is directed there for more details. In addition, the distinction Traditional Philosophers have drawn between "appearance" and "reality" was heavily criticised in Essay Three Part Two.]
Even so, as if to confirm an earlier allegation (that the jargon and thought-forms of Traditional Philosophy have thoroughly compromised the brains of far too many Dialectical Marxists), Marcuse provides us with yet more evidence, presenting his readers with this prize example of academic gobbledygook:
"In contrast, the objects of philosophic thought are related to a consciousness for which the concrete qualities enter into the concepts and into their interrelation. The philosophic concepts retain and explicate the pre-scientific mediations (the work of everyday practice, of economic organization, of political action) which have made the object-world that which actually is -- a world in which all facts are events, occurrences in a historical continuum." [Marcuse (1968), pp.150-51.]
How Marcuse knew all this a priori psychology (about what is or what isn't related to "consciousness", or what does or does not enter into "the concepts" and their "interrelation") he unwisely kept to himself. But, this is just par for the course; as we have seen, every single dialectician does likewise: they impose their dogmatic theories on reality and on human 'cognition' in a thoroughly traditional manner, all the while claiming that this is precisely what they aren't doing!
"The separation of science from philosophy is itself a historical event. Aristotelian physics was a part of philosophy and, as such, preparatory to the 'first science' -- ontology. The Aristotelian concept of matter is distinguished from the Galilean and post-Galilean not only in terms of different stages in the development of scientific method (and in the discovery of different 'layers' of reality), but also, and perhaps primarily, in terms of different historical projects, of a different historical enterprise which established a different nature as well as society. Aristotelian physics becomes objectively wrong with the new experience and apprehension of nature, with the historical establishment of a new subject and object-world, and the falsification of Aristotelian physics then extends backward into the past and surpassed experience and apprehension." [Ibid., p.151. Emphasis in the original.]
Marcuse is right here; as we will see in Essay Thirteen Part Two, the sciences gradually separated themselves from Traditional Thought as scientists took the material world increasingly into consideration in the formation of theory, progressively (but not completely) abandoning the Super-Scientific approach championed by this Ancient Tradition. [Of course, the situation is far more complicated than these brief comments suggest. A useful summary of the approach I intend to take about the relation between theoretical and experimental science can be found in Lerner (1991) -- although the reader mustn't assume I agree with everything Lerner has to say.] But, the separation Marcuse mentions is in fact to the detriment of Traditional Thought, which now reflects, in a more pure form, ruling-class thought, an approach to a priori theory Marcuse unwisely sought to emulate.
"...However it is fair to say that the most abstruse metaphysics has not exhibited such artificial and jargonic worries as those which have arisen in connection with the problems of reduction, translation, description, denotation, proper names, etc. Examples are skilfully held in balance between seriousness and the joke: the differences between Scott and the author of Waverly; the baldness of the present king of France; Joe Doe meeting or not meeting the 'average taxpayer' Richard Roe on the street; my seeing here and now a patch of red and saying 'this is red;' or the revelation of the fact that people often describe feelings as thrills, twinges, pangs, throbs, wrenches, itches, prickings, chills, glows, loads, qualms, hankerings, curdlings, sinkings, tensions, gnawings and shocks." [Ibid., pp.151-52.]
However, the point of all this is that unless we are capable of understanding the logic of simple language like this we stand no chance with the impenetrable jargon Hegel and other philosophers inflict on their readers.
Now, while Marcuse makes a more substantive point (that the sort of analyses one finds in early Analytic Philosophy (concerning, say, Russell's Theory of Descriptions -- which was the point of him mentioning Waverly and the King of France, by the way) are even more jargonised than Traditional Metaphysics), he failed to cite any examples. Be this as it may, the technical language employed by Analytic Philosophers is easy to translate or paraphrase in more ordinary terms. The same can't be said for the gobbledygook that holds Marcuse in its thrall. [Concerning the latter, these comment of Chomsky's are entirely apposite.]
"In cleaning up this mess, analytic philosophy conceptualizes the behaviour in the present technological organization of reality, but it also accepts the verdicts of this organization; the debunking of an old ideology becomes part of a new ideology. Not only the illusions are debunked but also the truth in those illusions. The new ideology finds its expression in such statements as 'philosophy only states what everyone admits,' or that our common stock of words embodies 'the distinctions men have found worth drawing.'" [Ibid., p.152.]
The two quotations at the end of this passage are taken from Wittgenstein and John Austin respectively. Wittgenstein's point is that the theses philosophers concoct are very often misconstrued rules of language. As such, language users readily acknowledge their triviality once they have been stated clearly (since they use these rules every day) -- as I have shown in Essay Twelve Part One.
Moreover, Austin's comment is in the past tense, and doesn't refer to the future. New distinctions are always possible.
But, what about this?
"What is this 'common stock'? Does it include Plato's 'idea,' Aristotle's 'essence,' Hegel's Geist, Marx's Verdinglichung in whatever adequate translation? Does it include the key words of poetic language? Of surrealist prose? And if so, does it contain them in their negative connotation; that is, as invalidating the universe of common usage? If not, then a whole body of distinctions which men have found worth drawing is rejected, removed into the realm of fiction or mythology; a mutilated, false consciousness is set up as the true consciousness that decides on the meaning and expression of that which is. The rest is denounced -- and endorsed -- as fiction or mythology." [Ibid., p.152.]
The point is that unless the expressions Marcuse lists (Plato's "idea", Hegel's "Geist", etc.) can be paraphrased in ordinary language, they can't be used to help draw a single distinction (in that word's ordinary sense), to begin with. As we have seen, metaphysical jargon like this is devoid of meaning (or, rather, it can only be 'explained' in terms of yet more empty jargon) and serves only to confuse those who take it seriously. However, Marcuse's point about poetry is misplaced, too, since neither Austin nor Wittgenstein would have wished to deny its literary merit. I suspect this point has been lumped in here because of Marcuse's penchant for making unfounded and sweeping allegations about a tradition in modern philosophy he plainly struggled to comprehend.
Once more, Marcuse has an 'answer':
"Analytic philosophy often spreads the atmosphere of denunciation and investigation by committee. The intellectual is called on the carpet. What do you mean when you say....? Don't you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don't talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you. We shall teach you to say what you have in mind, to 'come clear,' to 'put your cards on the table.' Of course, we do not impose on you and your freedom of thought and speech; you may think as you like. But once you speak, you have to communicate your thoughts to us -- in our language or in yours. Certainly, you may speak your own language, but it must be translatable, and it will be translated. You may speak poetry -- that is all fight. We love poetry. But we want to understand your poetry, and we can do so only if we can interpret your symbols, metaphors, and images in terms of ordinary language.
"The poet might answer that indeed he wants his poetry to be understandable and understood (that is why he writes it), but if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place. He might say: Understanding of my poetry presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behaviour into which you want to translate it. My language can be learned like any other language (in point of fact, it is also your own language), then it will appear that my symbols, metaphors, etc. are not symbols, metaphors, etc. but mean exactly what they say. Your tolerance is deceptive. In reserving for me a special niche of meaning and significance, you grant me exemption from sanity and reason, but in my view, the madhouse is somewhere else." [Ibid., pp.155-56. Typo corrected.]
Readers will look long and hard, and to no avail, in the writings of Austin or Wittgenstein for a single passage that even remotely resembles this mendacious caricature of their view of poetry. Nowhere do they insist (or even imply) that what a poet has to say should be translated into ordinary language, which is, of course, why Marcuse failed to quote either of them to that effect.
However, unless Marcuse and other metaphysicians are capable of making themselves clear (and actually manage to do just that), they haven't in fact succeeded in saying anything determinate. The onus is therefore on them to make their ideas and theses comprehensible. Marcuse blames Analytic Philosophers for pointing this out, as if it is their fault that he and others like him speak and write in riddles. But, that makes about as much sense as blaming the boy -- in the famous story by Hans Christian Andersen -- for pointing out that the Emperor was naked!
At this point, Marcuse compounds his errors by turning his fire on ordinary language (again, in a thoroughly traditional manner):
"But critical analysis must dissociate itself from that which it strives to comprehend; the philosophic terms must be other than the ordinary ones in order to elucidate the full meaning of the latter. For the established universe of discourse bears throughout the marks of the specific modes of domination, organization, and manipulation to which the members of a society are subjected. People depend for their living on bosses and politicians and jobs and neighbours who make them speak and mean as they do; they are compelled, by societal necessity, to identify the 'thing' (including their own person, mind, feeling) with its functions. How do we know? Because we watch television, listen to the radio, read the newspapers and magazines, talk to people.
"Under these circumstances, the spoken phrase is an expression of the individual who speaks it, and of those who make him speak as he does, and of whatever tension or contradiction may interrelate them. In speaking their own language, people also speak the language of their masters, benefactors, advertisers. Thus they do not only express themselves, their own knowledge, feelings, and aspirations, but also something other than themselves. Describing 'by themselves' the political situation, either in their home town or in the international scene, they (and 'they' includes us, the intellectuals who know it and criticize it) describe what 'their' media of mass communication tell them -- and this merges with what they really think and see and feel.
"Describing to each other our loves and hatreds, sentiments and resentments, we must use the terms of our advertisements, movies, politicians and best sellers. We must use the same terms for describing our automobiles, foods and furniture, colleagues and competitors -- and we understand each other perfectly. This must necessarily be so, for language is nothing private and personal, or rather the private and personal is mediated by the available linguistic material, which is societal material. But this situation disqualifies ordinary language from fulfilling the validating function which it performs in analytic philosophy. 'What people mean when they say...' is related to what they don't say. Or, what they mean cannot be taken at face value -- not because they lie, but because the universe of thought and practice in which they live is a universe of manipulated contradictions.
"Circumstances like these may be irrelevant for the analysis of such statements as 'I itch,' or 'he eats poppies,' or 'this now looks red to me,' but they may become vitally relevant where people really say something ('she just loved him,' 'he has no heart,' 'this is not fair,' 'what can I do about it?'), and they are vital for the linguistic analysis of ethics, politics, etc. Short of it, linguistic analysis can achieve no other empirical exactness than that exacted from the people by the given state of affairs, and no other clarity than that which is permitted them in this state of affairs -- that is, it remains within the limits of mystified and deceptive discourse." [Ibid., pp.156-57. Emphases in the original.]
This once again reveals Marcuse's contempt for ordinary workers and their forms of discourse. To be sure, their use of language can be corrupted in the way he says, but for every class compromised sentence that can be uttered in ordinary language, there exists its negation. That is why socialists can say things like "Women aren't inferior", "Jews aren't sub-human", "Capitalism isn't fair", "Gays aren't perverts!", etc. [More on that, here. This topic will be taken up again in detail in Essay Twelve Part Seven.]
Despite this, it is a bit rich of Marcuse pointing his class-compromised finger at ordinary language when the traditional approach to Philosophy which he champions is itself a clear expression of ruling-class forms-of-thought. Hence, concerning what Marcuse has to say:
"[H]is (i.e., Marcuse's) words are an expression of the individual who speaks it, and of those who make him speak as he does, and of whatever tension or contradiction may interrelate them. In speaking his own language, Marcuse also speaks the language of his masters, benefactors, advertisers..." [Edited misquotation of Marcuse (1968).]
it is worth asking: What makes Marcuse think he can rise above such social forces?6a01
At this point, it is important to recall Marx's comment:
"The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life." [Marx and Engels (1970), p.118. Bold emphases added.]
It seems, then, that Marx didn't share Marcuse's contempt for ordinary language. And no wonder; by the time he wrote The German Ideology, he knew philosophy couldn't change the world. The working class is essential to that end. Holding the vernacular in contempt is not, therefore, a good place to start.
"Where it seems to go beyond this discourse, as in its logical purifications, only the skeleton remains of the same universe -- a ghost much more ghostly than those which the analysis combats. If philosophy is more than an occupation, it shows the grounds which made discourse a mutilated and deceptive universe. To leave this task to a colleague in the Sociology or Psychology Department is to make the established division of academic labour into a methodological principle. Nor can the task be brushed aside with the modest insistence that linguistic analysis has only the humble purpose of clarifying 'muddled' thinking and speaking. If such clarification goes beyond a mere enumeration and classification of possible meanings in possible contexts, leaving the choice wide open to anyone according to circumstances, then it is anything but a humble task. Such clarification would involve analyzing ordinary language in really controversial areas, recognizing muddled thinking where it seems to be the least muddled, uncovering the falsehood in so much normal and clear usage. Then linguistic analysis would attain the level on which the specific societal processes which shape and limit the universe of discourse become visible and understandable." [Marcuse (1968), p.157.]
Marcuse again mistakes the point of Wittgenstein's method; it isn't just aimed at clearing up "muddles", but at showing that the distorted language of Traditional Philosophy can't deliver any results at all -- that is, other than profound confusion. The last 2500 years of wasted effort is testimony enough. In which case, we have no choice but to turn things over to scientists and sociologists -- or, better still, to historical materialists who haven't sold their radical souls for a mess of boss-class pottage.
"The range and extent of the social system of meaning varies considerably in different historical periods and in accordance with the attained level of culture, but its boundaries are clearly enough defined if the communication refers to more than the non-controversial implements and relations of daily life. Today, the social systems of meaning unite different nation states and linguistic areas, and these large systems of meaning tend to coincide with the orbit of the more or less advanced capitalist societies on the one hand, and that of the advancing communist societies on the other. While the determining function of the social system of meaning asserts itself most rigidly in the controversial, political universe of discourse, it also operates, in a much more covert, unconscious, emotional manner, in the ordinary universe of discourse. A genuinely philosophic analysis of meaning has to take all these dimensions of meaning into account because the linguistic expressions partake of all of them. Consequently, linguistic analysis in philosophy has an extra-linguistic commitment. If it decides on a distinction between legitimate and non-legitimate usage, between authentic and illusory meaning, sense and non-sense, it invokes a political, aesthetic, or moral judgment." [Ibid., p.159.]
Indeed, and the political viewpoint (I will say nothing of its aesthetic or moral facets) of such an analysis is the same as Marx's when he (and not just the OLP-ers) alleged that Philosophy is based on linguistic distortion and confusion. Although, of course, this wasn't Wittgenstein's aim; it most certainly is the present author's. But, this just shows that linguistic analysis doesn't have to be as Marcuse depicted it.
"It may be objected that such an 'external' analysis (in quotation marks because it is actually not external but rather the internal development of meaning) is particularly out of place where the intent is to capture the meaning of terms by analyzing their function and usage in ordinary discourse. But my contention is that this is precisely what linguistic analysis in contemporary philosophy does not do. And it does not do so inasmuch as it transfers ordinary discourse into a special academic universe which is purified and synthetic even where (and just where) it is filled with ordinary language. In this analytic treatment of ordinary language, the latter is really sterilized and anesthetized. Multi-dimensional language is made into one-dimensional language, in which different and conflicting meanings no longer inter penetrate but are kept apart; the explosive historical dimension of meaning is silenced." [Ibid., pp.159-60. Italic emphasis in the original.]
Marcuse, of course, says all this from the standpoint of his own "academic universe", which was long ago compromised by thought-forms dominated by ruling-class ideology. But, he is wrong about linguistic analysis, and particularly about those forms practised in the Wittgensteinian tradition. Not only has the latter motivated a wider application of his method to the Arts (Poetry, Drama and Literature -- on that, see Perloff (1996)), but also to Sociology, Politics and History (particularly the History and Sociology of Science). Admittedly, much of this has unfolded since Marcuse rushed into print, but that just shows how peremptory and parochial his accusations were. [More on this in Essays Twelve Part Seven and Thirteen Part Two, when they are published.]
"Wittgenstein's endless language game with building stones, or the conversing Joe Doe and Dick Roe may again serve as examples. In spite of the simple clarity of the example, the speakers and their situation remain unidentified. They are x and y, no matter how chummily they talk. But in the real universe of discourse, x and y are 'ghosts.' They don't exist; they are the product of the analytic philosopher. To be sure, the talk of x and y is perfectly understandable, and the linguistic analyst appeals righteously to the normal understanding of ordinary people. But in reality, we understand each other only through whole areas of misunderstanding and contradiction. The real universe of ordinary language is that of the struggle for existence. It is indeed an ambiguous, vague, obscure universe, and is certainly in need of clarification. Moreover, such clarification may well fulfil a therapeutic function, and if philosophy would become therapeutic, it would really come into its own." [Ibid., p.160.]
Marcuse has in fact made a valid a point here, as I have argued elsewhere. Having said that, the above defect is easily rectified. As noted earlier, unless we understand such simple talk, we stand no chance with more complex exchanges. What is more, we would be fools to look to those whose ideas don't work anyway, or which imply that change is impossible.
"Philosophy approaches this goal to the degree to which it frees thought from its enslavement by the established universe of discourse and behaviour, elucidates the negativity of the Establishment (its positive aspects are abundantly publicized anyway) and projects its alternatives. To be sure, philosophy contradicts and projects in thought only. It is ideology, and this ideological character is the very fate of philosophy which no scientism and positivism can overcome. Still, its ideological effort may be truly therapeutic -- to show reality as that which it really is, and to show that which this reality prevents from being.
"In the totalitarian era, the therapeutic task of philosophy would be a political task, since the established universe of ordinary language tends to coagulate into a totally manipulated and indoctrinated universe. Then politics would appear in philosophy, not as a special discipline or object of analysis, nor as a special political philosophy, but as the intent of its concepts to comprehend the unmutilated reality. If linguistic analysis does not contribute to such understanding; if, instead, it contributes to enclosing thought in the circle of the mutilated universe of ordinary discourse, it is at best entirely inconsequential. And, at worst, it is an escape into the non-controversial, the unreal, into that which is only academically controversial." [Ibid., p.160.]
This is a rather glib sales pitch, but like all advertising it should be taken with a pinch of salt, for, as we have seen, the only thing that Philosophy succeeds in generating is "mutilated" and distorted language, compounded by confusion, coupled with non-sensical and incoherent thought.
Marcuse continues in the same vein in Chapter Eight of his book, except his target is Analytic Philosophy in general, and not so much Wittgenstein. In that chapter, he focuses on how Analytic Philosophers have handled "Universals". I do not propose to deal with this chapter in any great detail since I have said more-or-less all I want to say in Essay Three Parts One and Two. However, a few paragraphs require comment:
"The commitment of analytic philosophy to the mutilated reality of thought and speech shows forth strikingly in its treatment of universals. The problem was mentioned before, as part of the inherent historical and at the same time transcendent, general character of philosophic concepts. It now requires a more detailed discussion. Far from being only an abstract question of epistemology, or a pseudo-concrete question of language and its use, the question of the status of universals is at the very centre of philosophic thought. For the treatment of universals reveals the position of a philosophy in the intellectual culture -- its historical function." [Ibid., p.161. Italic emphasis in the original.]
We saw in the aforementioned Essays, that far from dealing with genuine universals (i.e., general terms/concepts), Traditional Philosophers and DM-theorists in fact turn them into the Proper Names of Abstract Particulars, destroying their capacity to express generality. How does Marcuse manage to avoid this bear trap? The answer to that one is that he doesn't. Because of his adoption of traditional forms-of-thought, he blunders right into it:
"Contemporary analytic philosophy is out to exorcize such 'myths' or metaphysical 'ghosts' as Mind, Consciousness, Will, Soul, Self, by dissolving the intent of these concepts into statements on particular identifiable operations, performances, powers, dispositions, propensities, skills, etc. The result shows, in a strange way, the impotence of the destruction -- the ghost continues to haunt. While every interpretation or translation may describe adequately a particular mental process, an act of imagining what I mean when I say 'I,' or what the priest means when he says that Mary is a 'good girl,' not a single one of these reformulations, nor their sum-total, seems to capture or even circumscribe the full meaning of such terms as Mind, Will, Self, Good. These universals continue to persist in common as well as 'poetic' usage, and either usage distinguishes them from the various modes of behaviour or disposition that, according to the analytic philosopher, fulfil their meaning." [Ibid. p.161.]
For Marcuse, these universals aren't general terms, they are Proper Names of the aforementioned Abstract Particulars, which vacates them of whatever generality they might once have had. [The disastrous consequences that has on our ability to say anything at all were discussed at length in Essay Three Part One.]
We will leave to one side whether or not these 'terms' persist in common usage since Marcuse offers no evidence that they do. To be sure, ordinary speakers use words like "mind", "self" and "will" all the time, but it is open to considerable doubt that when they do so they are referring, or even alluding, to such artificial 'Universals'. Certainly, Marcuse offers no evidence (or argument) that they do. And it is far from clear that anyone else has managed to do so, either -- least of all those who lionise Marcuse's work.
In fact, we can draw the opposite conclusion: since ordinary speakers say general things about whatever it is that they wish to say such things about (for example, "The boss is a crook", "Tony Blair is a war criminal", "The Nile is longer than any other river on earth", "Fighting austerity is socialist priority", or even "Anyone with half a mind should enter politics, since that's all you need"), they plainly do not refer, or even allude, to the Abstract Particulars Marcuse focussed upon. If they did, they wouldn't be able to make such general points.
It could be objected that Marcuse does offer his readers an argument in support of the claims he makes about ordinary speech, namely this:
"However, this dissolution itself must be questioned -- not only on behalf of the philosopher, but on behalf of the ordinary people in whose life and discourse such dissolution takes place. It is not their own doing and their own saying: it happens to them and it violates them as they are compelled, by the 'circumstances,' to identify their mind with the mental processes, their self with the roles and functions which they have to perform in their society. If philosophy does not comprehend these processes of translation and identification as societal processes -- i.e., as a mutilation of the mind (and the body) inflicted upon the individuals by their society -- philosophy struggles only with the ghost of the substance which it wishes to de-mystify. The mystifying character adheres, not to the concepts of 'mind,' 'self,' 'consciousness,' etc. but rather to their behavioural translation. The translation is deceptive precisely because it translates the concept faithfully into modes of actual behaviour, propensities, and dispositions and, in so doing, it takes the mutilated and organized appearances (themselves real enough!) for the reality." [Ibid., p.162. Several typos corrected.]
Here, Marcuse undoubtedly advances a substantive point about what he thinks ordinary folk mean by their use of "mind", etc. However, instead of looking at how we/they actually employ this word, he imposed an a priori interpretation and structure on it. [For an illuminating lecture on how such words are used, readers are encouraged to watch this video of Peter Hacker speaking on the topic.]
This is doubly unfortunate since one of the books that Marcuse lists in his 'rogues gallery' is Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind [i.e., Ryle (1949)], which shows a far greater sensitivity to our complex use of psychological vocabulary than anything Marcuse (or other dialecticians) have yet managed to cobble together -- indeed, as we will see as this Essay unfolds.
I won't bang on, but I will end with just two more examples (one taken from Chapter Eight, and one from earlier in the book):
"The 'whole' that here comes to view must be cleared from all misunderstanding in terms of an independent entity, of a 'Gestalt,' and the like. The concept somehow expresses the difference and tension between potentiality and actuality -- identity in this difference. It appears in the relation between the qualities (white, hard; but also beautiful, free, just) and the corresponding concepts (whiteness, hardness, beauty, freedom, justice). The abstract character of the latter seems to designate the more concrete qualities as part-realizations, aspects, manifestations of a more universal and more 'excellent' quality, which is experienced in the concrete.
"And by virtue of this relation, the concrete quality seems to represent a negation as well as realization of the universal. Snow is white but not 'whiteness;' a girl may be beautiful, even a beauty, but not 'beauty;' a country may be free (in comparison with others) because its people have certain liberties, but it is not the very embodiment of freedom. Moreover, the concepts are meaningful only in experienced contrast with their opposites: white with not white, beautiful with not beautiful. Negative statements can sometimes be translated into positive ones: 'black' or 'grey' for 'not white,' 'ugly' for 'not beautiful.'
"These formulations do not alter the relation between the abstract concept and its concrete realizations: the universal concept denotes that which the particular entity is, and is not. The translation can eliminate the hidden negation by reformulating the meaning in a non-contradictory proposition, but the untranslated statement suggests a real want. There is more in the abstract noun (beauty, freedom) than in the qualities ('beautiful,' 'free') attributed to the particular person, thing or condition. The substantive universal intends qualities which surpass all particular experience, but persist in the mind, not as a figment of imagination nor as more logical possibilities but as the 'stuff' of which our world consists. No snow is pure white, nor is any cruel beast or man all the cruelty man knows -- knows as an almost inexhaustible force in history and imagination." [Ibid., pp.168-69.]
This is in fact a faint echo of Hegel's reference to what I have called "Spinoza's Greedy Principle" [SGP] (in Essay Eleven Part Two) -- i.e., "Every determination is also a negation". However, this is an unreliable principle (even where any sense can be made of it!), not least because it confuses what we do with words with the means by which we do it. Of course, that move is about as brainless as confusing, say, a holiday with the aeroplane you might board in order travel there, or even a map with a trek in the hills! [The serious weaknesses of the SGP are detailed in Essay Three Part One. They will be fully exposed in Essay Twelve Part Five, but they are connected with the points I have made here.]
Ignoring for the moment the fact that Marcuse confuses concepts with words, it isn't even true that:
"the concepts are meaningful only in experienced contrast with their opposites: white with not white, beautiful with not beautiful. Negative statements can sometimes be translated into positive ones: 'black' or 'grey' for 'not white,' 'ugly' for 'not beautiful.'" [Ibid.]
Colour concepts are meaningful, among other things, because of the colour octahedron [this links to a PDF] not because we have met in experience "not-white" (or whatever). If someone has no understanding of colour words, they can swim in "not-white" all day long for all the good it will do them. Much the same can be said about the mastery of other words.6a
But, the above errors are connected with much deeper logical issues. This brings us to the final passage from One Dimensional Man that I propose to examine:
"In the classical logic, the judgment which constituted the original core of dialectical thought was formalised in the propositional form, 'S is p.' But this form conceals rather than reveals the basic dialectical proposition, which states the negative character of the empirical reality. Judged in the light of their essence and idea, men and things exist as other than they are; consequently thought contradicts that which is (given), opposes its truth to that of the given reality. The truth envisaged by thought is the Idea. As such it is, in terms of the given reality, 'mere' Idea, 'mere' essence -- potentiality.
"But the essential potentiality is not like the many possibilities which are contained in the given universe of discourse and action; the essential potentiality is of a very different order. Its realisation involves subversion of the established order, for thinking in accordance with truth is the commitment to exist in accordance with truth. (In Plato, the extreme concepts which illustrate this subversion are: death as the beginning of the philosopher's life, and the violent liberation from the Cave.) Thus, the subversive character of truth inflicts upon thought an imperative quality. Logic centres on judgments which are, as demonstrative propositions, imperatives, -- the predicative 'is' implies an 'ought'.
"This contradictory, two-dimensional style of thought is the inner form not only of dialectical logic but of all philosophy which comes to grips with reality. The propositions which define reality affirm as true something that is not (immediately) the case; thus they contradict that which is the case, and they deny its truth. The affirmative judgment contains a negation which disappears in the propositional form (S is p). For example, 'virtue is knowledge'; 'justice is that state in which everyone performs the function for which his nature is best suited'; 'the perfectly real is the perfectly knowable'...; 'man is free'; 'the State is the reality of Reason.'
"If these propositions are to be true, then the copula 'is' states an 'ought,' a desideratum. It judges conditions in which virtue is not knowledge, in which men do not perform the function for which their nature best suits them, in which they are not free, etc. Or, the categorical S-p form states that (S) is not (S); (S) is defined as other-than-itself. Verification of the proposition involves a process in fact as well as in thought: (S) must become that which it is. The categorical statement thus turns into a categorical imperative; it does not state a fact but the necessity to bring about a fact. For example, it could be read as follows: man is not (in fact) free, endowed with inalienable rights, etc., but he ought to be, because be is free in the eyes of God, by nature, etc." [Ibid., pp.110-11. Italic emphasis in the original.]
We have already seen that dialecticians en masse have bought into a defective theory of predication, so it is no surprise to see Marcuse following suite. His claim that the traditional logic of subject (S) and predicate (p) "conceals rather than reveals the basic dialectical proposition, which states the negative character of the empirical reality" may or may not be true --, but if it isn't, then that is all to the good since "reality" has neither a "negative" nor a positive "character". In fact, it is only because Marcuse has limited himself to a very narrow range of examples that his assertions might seem (to some) to be plausible. As was noted in Essay Three Part One:
For example, how would the following be classified?
H1: Every sailor loves a girl who reminds him of anyone other than his mother.
H2: Anyone who knows Marx's work will also know that he is second to none in his analysis of all the economic forces operating in Capitalism, and most of those constitutive of other Modes of Production.
H3: Any prime factor of an even number between two and one hundred is less than a composite number not equal to but greater than fifty.
H4: Some who admire most of those who do not despise themselves often avoid sitting opposite any who criticise those who claim membership of the minority break-away faction of the Socrates Appreciation Society.
H5: Today, Blair met some of those who think his policy in Iraq is a betrayal of his few remaining socialist principles.
Are these universal, particular, negative, or positive? Are they judgements or propositions? But these are the sort of propositions that feature in mathematics and the sciences all the time (to say nothing of everyday speech -- excepting perhaps H4). Indeed, the serious limitations of the restrictive old logic, with its incapacity to handle complex sentences in mathematics, inspired Frege to recast the entire discipline in its modern form over a hundred and twenty years ago. [On this, see Essay Four.]
Some might object that these aren't the sort of "judgements" with which 'traditional logic', or even Hegel, concerned itself/himself, but that is precisely the point. It is only because Marcuse, along with other dialecticians, has relied on a bowdlerised form of the (already antiquated) Aristotelian Logic extant in Hegel's day that his argument even seems to gain its slender toe-hold.
However, let us assume for the moment that Marcuse's analysis is impeccable. Even then, what Marcuse alleges would still be incorrect:
"In the classical logic, the judgment which constituted the original core of dialectical thought was formalised in the propositional form, 'S is p.' But this form conceals rather than reveals the basic dialectical proposition, which states the negative character of the empirical reality. Judged in the light of their essence and idea, men and things exist as other than they are; consequently thought contradicts that which is (given), opposes its truth to that of the given reality. The truth envisaged by thought is the Idea. As such it is, in terms of the given reality, 'mere' Idea, 'mere' essence -- potentiality.
"...Or, the categorical S-p form states that (S) is not (S); (S) is defined as other-than-itself. Verification of the proposition involves a process in fact as well as in thought: (S) must become that which it is. The categorical statement thus turns into a categorical imperative; it does not state a fact but the necessity to bring about a fact. For example, it could be read as follows: man is not (in fact) free, endowed with inalienable rights, etc., but he ought to be, because be is free in the eyes of God, by nature, etc." [Ibid.]
Clearly, this argument depends on "men and things" each having an essence, which Marcuse simply takes for granted. Of course, to mystics like Hegel and Aristotle, it seemed clear that "men and things" do indeed have an "essence" (which was for them something that had been decided upon by 'god'), but this is just another example of ruling-class ideology dominating their thought.
But, even if that allegation were itself incorrect, what is Marcuse going to say about propositions like the following?
M1: Human beings are mortal.
M2: Tables and chairs are often made of wood.
Do these "oppose" the "truth of reality"? Are we to assume that humans are 'really' immortal, and that they oughtn't be like this -- i.e., mortal? Or, that ordinary objects are in 'reality' are non-material, and that there is an 'imperative' here which means that we should all struggle to make them material? If not, Marcuse's analysis can't be relied upon to reveal 'the truth' even about mundane matters of fact -- which shouldn't surprise us in view of the preceding paragraphs -- that is, considering the defective logic Marcuse appropriated and then put to misuse in order to arrive at most of his rather odd conclusions.
Finally, if what Marcuse asserts were correct:
"consequently thought contradicts that which is (given), opposes its truth to that of the given reality",
then this 'thought' would itself 'contradict' reality. And, if that were so, it would mean that in reality there are no such 'contradiction' -- otherwise Marcuse's own comments wouldn't represent things as they 'really are'. As we have seen many times already, Diabolical Logic like this soon self-destructs.
It is time we left this prime example of boss-class confusion, and turned instead to consider several others who have drifted off into deep waters.
Philosophy Goes To The Dogs
A more recent swipe at Wittgenstein comes from my old friend Ben Watson (in a book that is openly contemptuous of academic standards -- a dismissive approach that Marx himself would have criticised, to say nothing of Lenin):
"Take Ludwig Wittgenstein. Deprived of the benefit of Trotsky's optical materialism, his commitment to Aristotelian formal logic drives him into madness…. Wittgenstein's 'play of the imagination' is incipient schizophrenia, the confusion of reality with symbolic systems used to represent it…. The 'logical' analytic philosophers, whose attempt to live in the flatland of symbolic representation, drove themselves crazy." [Watson (1998), p.121.]
To be fair, the first set of dots in the above passage conceals the omission of a long quotation from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations -- which Watson then, unfortunately, proceeds to misrepresent, as we will see.
[FL = Formal Logic; AFL = Aristotelian Formal Logic; LOI = Law Of Identity; LOC = Law Of Contradiction; LEM = Law Of Excluded Middle; HM= Historical Materialism.]
The reference to Trotsky's "optical materialism" is no less unfortunate. As was demonstrated in Essay Six: If we are more accurate/honest, Trotsky's "optical materialism" rather more closely resembles 'Dialectical Myopia'.
Even so, the presence of these relatively minor flaws shouldn't be allowed to detract from the book's more serious errors.
First, as far as logic is concerned, Wittgenstein was a Fregean (even if he adopted a critical but deferential stance toward the latter's work).7 In fact, Watson is invited to try to find a single reference in Wittgenstein's entire corpus (of over five million words) that commits him to AFL.8
Second, far from confusing symbols with reality, Wittgenstein was in fact one of the few leading Philosophers in the entire history of the subject consistently to strive to do the opposite, arguing that most of what passes for Traditional Philosophy is guilty of this very failing (a point that has been reiterated throughout this site). Hence, it is a little rich of Watson to raise this particular point when he himself is an avid fan of dialectics, whose theorists constantly do precisely what he accuses Wittgenstein of doing (substantiated here and throughout this site, but especially in Essays Three Parts One and Two, and Twelve Part One).
Finally, and with respect to the passage referred to quoted above (from the Philosophical Investigations, aimed at discussing the LOI), Watson has clearly missed the point. On the very same page, Wittgenstein himself admits the following about his earlier approach:
"My symbolic expression [in the Tractatus] was really a mythological description of the use of a rule." [Wittgenstein (1958), p.85e, §221. (This links to a PDF.)]
Now, even the most superficial reading of the Philosophical Investigations will reveal that Wittgenstein is arguing against the mythology surrounding our use of symbols -- including his own earlier misdemeanours in this respect --, that is, against what I have called the "fetishisation of language".9
This is one reason why Wittgenstein himself took the LOI to task in both his earlier and later periods. On this issue, he argued that those who regard this 'law' as a particularly deep sort of truth misconstrue a rule for the use of certain symbols/words as if it were a scientific or metaphysical truth about reality. Indeed, and as we have seen, this is precisely how Trotsky, for example, misinterpreted the LOI, even if, following Hegel, he declared this 'law' always false -- or, perhaps, both false and true, or, at least, not always unconditionally true. It is this tradition that Wittgenstein sought to undermine: a pattern of thought that Hegel, Trotsky and other DM-theorists share with card-carrying defenders of a ruling-class view of the world.
One of the main aims of Wittgenstein's method was to show that philosophical theses (like those that are based on a traditional reading of the LOI, the LOC, and the LEM) were predicated on a systematic misconstrual of rules of language as if they were substantive truths about the world. To be sure, Wittgenstein might not have concurred with the following observation, but it is worth making all the same: such rules become fetishised when alienated forms-of-thought encourage theorists to mistake contingent features of language for necessary relations, objects or processes in reality (i.e., with those underlying, mysterious "essences").
Hence, what had once been the product of the social relations between human beings (i.e., language) became inverted and then systematically misconstrued as the real relations between things -- and, in the case of the LOI, the real relation between "a thing and itself" -- or, between two or more events/states of affairs, respectively.
Of course, this misidentification had always been taken seriously by Traditional Thinkers, and not just over the LOI. Because of this it was easy for them to project this error back onto nature to give spurious 'objectivity' to their theories about 'Ultimate Reality'. In the 'Ideal' world they had thereby conjured into existence, the socially-sanctioned relationships between words were mistaken for the real relationships between things, or even those things themselves. The material world was now interpreted through this distorted and idealised view of language in such a way that contingent features of discourse were regarded as objective features of that 'Reality'. In this way, these distorted linguistic forms came to determine the fundamental nature of 'Reality', which was in fact just a reflection of fetishised discourse like this. [We saw this was also the case with Marcuse, above, and we will see it several more times throughout the rest of this Essay.]
Even though dialecticians have tried to distance themselves from Idealist moves like these with the invention of scientific-sounding 'philosophical reasoning' -- by means of which they attempt to argue that the LOI, the LEM and the LOC are empirically false while being, in some sense, 'ideally'/'abstractly' true -- this move merely reduplicates the problems with which they began, as we saw in Essays Four, Five, Six and Eight Part Three.
If, for example, the usual interpretation of the LOI (as a 'necessary'/metaphysical truth) is in fact the result of a confusion over the use of certain symbols, then the standard DM-criticism of that 'Law' will only ever be self-defeating. That is because the latter critique is directed against a mythological representation of a rule of language, and not against an empirical falsehood (or even an 'ideal'/'abstract' truth). Indeed, as we saw in Essay Six, such a ham-fisted 'attack' on the LOI cannot succeed because it is aimed at a linguistic mirage; hence an 'attack' like this will always backfire on those similarly held in thrall to this mythological picture. That is because this wring-headed approach undermines the meaning of the language used in this area -- e.g., words such as "same", "equal", "exact", "identical", and "different". The result is that anyone foolish enough to stray down that route will only ever succeed in vitiating their own use of these words.
And this is precisely what we witnessed earlier in connection with Trotsky's (and derivatively, Hegel's) 'analysis' of the LOI; any attempt to undermine that 'law' cannot fail to undercut the application of the words used in that very 'attack'.
Hence, a misplaced assault on the LOI is forced to employ linguistic symbols whose own identities are simultaneously both called into question and not called into question. That is, this approach aims to show how limited this 'law' is, but its execution requires this 'law' to be valid so that the symbols it uses don't change while the argument is being prosecuted. In which case, the argument is entirely misconceived, since, if, per impossible, it were valid all the words an erstwhile critic must use would (as phenomenal objects) cease to be identical from moment to moment, otherwise the following hackneyed 'dialectical' criticisms of the 'equality' of two letter "A"s would fall flat:
"[T]he first of [the universal Laws of Thought], the maxim of Identity, reads: Everything is identical with itself, A = A…." [Hegel (1975), p.167.]
"In this remark, I will consider in more detail identity as the law of identity which is usually adduced as the first law of thought.
"This proposition in its positive expression A = A is, in the first instance, nothing more than the expression of an empty tautology." [Hegel (1999), p.413.]
"Abstract Identity (a = a…) is likewise inapplicable in organic nature. The plant, the animal, every cell is at every moment of its life identical with itself and yet becoming distinct from itself….The law of identity in the old metaphysical sense is the fundamental law of the old outlook: a = a." [Engels (1954), pp.214-15.]
"The 'fundamental laws of thinking' are considered to be three in number: 1) The Law of Identity… [which] states that 'A is A' or A = A…." [Plekhanov (1908), p.89.]
"…Hegel elucidates the one-sidedness, the incorrectness of the 'law of identity' (A = A)…." [Lenin (1961), p.134.]
"The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality 'A' is not equal to 'A'." [Trotsky (1971, p.63.]
"Formal Logic starts from the proposition that A is always equal to A. We know that this law of identity contains some measure of truth…. Now…when we go to reality and look for evidence of the truth of the proposition: A equals A…we find that the opposite of this axiom is far closer to the truth." [Novack (1971), pp.32-33.]
"Formal Logic asserts: 'A is A'. Dialectical Logic is not saying 'A is not-A'…. It says: A is indeed A, but A is also not-A precisely so far as the proposition 'A is A' is not a tautology but has real content." [Lefebvre (1968), p.41.]
"The Law of identity is usually expressed in the form, A is A. That is, each thing is identical with itself." [Somerville (1946), p.183.]
"The Aristotelian conception of the laws basic to correct thinking may be stated as follows: 1. Law of Identity: Each existence is identical with itself. A is A…." [Somerville (1967), pp.44-45.]
"Classical, Aristotelian logic takes as its fundamental premise the Law of Identity, the statement that a thing is identical with itself. Expressed in a formula: A is A…. In Aristotle's formal logic A is A, and never non-A. In Hegel's dialectics A is A as well as non-A." [Baghavan (1987), pp.75-76.]
"The biggest contradiction of all lies in the fundamental premises of formal logic itself…. The basic laws…are:
1) The law of Identity ('A' = 'A')…." [Woods and Grant (1995), pp.90-91.]
"Dialectics, or the logic of motion, is distinct from formal or static logic. Formal logic is based on three fundamental laws:
"(a) The law of identity: A is equal to A; a thing is always equal to itself." [Mandel (1979), p.160.]
"The laws of logic are based on two main propositions. The first is that of identity or of self-conformity. The proposition very simply states: 'A is A,' that is every concept is equal to itself. A man is a man, a hen is a hen, a potato is a potato. This proposition forms one basis of logic." [Thalheimer (1936), pp.88.]
"[In FL] things are defined statically, according to certain fixed properties -– colour, weight, size, and so on. This is denoted by the expression 'A is equal to A'." [Rees (1998a), p.272.]
If two such letters are "never equal" to one another, then complex sentences stand no chance.
In practice this means that no one -- not Hegel, not Engels, not Plekhanov, not Lenin, not Trotsky, not Mao... -- would have access to identically the same message that they had committed to paper the previous day, let alone those written by others seventy, eighty, or one hundred and eighty years earlier, since, on this account, there would be no such thing.
But, critics who have arrived at the same conclusion as Trotsky (or Hegel) about the LOI must clearly have done just what their theory says cannot be done. They must have access to the exact message one or both had committed to paper -- which message now tells them there can be no such thing!
Clearly, this undermines any conclusions such critics might draw -- but not the LOI. Indeed, that 'law' (or rather this rule of language) will have just been used, and must always be used, in this charade aimed at to deriving this self-defeating result. Hence, their own implicit (or explicit) use of identity -- in this instance, involving the identity of symbols, meanings and use of language over many generations -- to criticise the 'law' under scrutiny counts as a practical refutation of that very criticism! With that, this attack on the LOI self-destructs, which is, of course, part of the reason why so many 'dialectical theses' so readily collapse into incoherence -- as, indeed, we saw in Essay Six. [The "relative stability" defence is defused here.]
As Wittgenstein noted, we can't get outside language (and we can't even try) in order to state 'philosophical verities', which masquerade as particularly deep 'philosophical truths' about discourse, let alone about 'Reality'.
By implication, this can't be done either with the more radical aim of undermining the application of fundamental rules of language (such as those expressed the LOI). Anyone attempting to do this will find that they first have to employ these self same rules in order to undermine them, which will, naturally, fatally damage that attack. And, that is why theorists can't even try to challenge logical features/rules of language like these.
[This is a summary of three much longer arguments found here, here and here (where I also respond to one or two obvious objections).]
Nevertheless, in a later part of the same book, Watson offered his readers the following thoughts:
"The radical democracy of Voloshinov's linguistics is a model for any theory of the superstructure. It stems from the fact that he does not abstract speech from its actual use in society. This is the very opposite of philosophers who build a system by wondering what it means to stare at their desk. It is a slap in the face for cretins who think it is clever to read Wittgenstein." [Watson (1998), p.334. Bold emphasis added.]
However, if these "cretins" have read their Wittgenstein with the same 'careful' attention to detail that certain comrades have devoted to the same task (no irony intended) then this epithet is plainly well-deserved. To hammer the point home, Watson very helpfully provided his readers with an example of Voloshinov's careful use of ordinary speech in this further quotation from his book:
"The separation of word meaning from evaluation inevitably deprives meaning of its place in the living social process (where meaning is always permeated with value judgement), to its being ontologized and transformed into ideal Being divorced from the historical process of Becoming….
"Meaning -- an abstract self-identical element -- is subsumed under theme and torn apart by theme's living contradictions so as to return in the shape of a new meaning with a fixity and self-identity only for the while, just as it had before." [Voloshinov (1973), pp.105-06, quoted in ibid., pp.334-35.]
Now, I'm sure Watson can clearly recall the last time he heard ordinary folk talking like this at work, down the pub or even on the picket line, discussing how the bosses are always "ontologizing" their jobs, or downsizing them so that the number of operatives is no longer "self-identical" with whatever it had been a month earlier. In fact, observers of everyday conversations regularly note how it is nigh on impossible to stop working people constantly talking about "ideal Being", "theme" and "Becoming".
Indeed, and on a personal note, I can vividly recall selling revolutionary papers alongside Ben in XXXX in the late 1980s -- how we happily shouted catchy slogans about "Being", "Becoming" and "theme". We certainly sold a record number of papers as a result.
Cheap debating points? Perhaps so. But, Watson will need to research his work a little more carefully if he hopes to substantiate the allegations he levelled against Wittgenstein -- or, indeed, if he wants to establish his claim that Wittgenstein is at all representative of twentieth century Analytic Philosophy.
In fact, Wittgenstein's method was, and still is, largely ignored by the vast majority of Analytic Philosophers (and by practically all professional Philosophers).10 Even when his approach was slightly more 'in vogue', as it were, only a tiny minority of Analytic Philosophers fully embraced it. One reason for this is that in his later work Wittgenstein insisted on using the vernacular wherever possible -- unlike, one might add, Voloshinov or Hegel -- and, dare I say it, Watson. Another reason is that his method reveals how confused and useless Traditional Philosophy is -- which approach would bring the entire subject to its long overdue end.
In that case, naturally, the fact that professional Philosophers almost en masse ignore Wittgenstein's method is no more surprising than the fact that members of the UK Royal Family aren't prominent Republicans.
An apposite quotation from Larry Laudan (although aimed at French Philosophers) springs to mind, here:
"Foucault has benefited from that curious Anglo-American view that if a Frenchman talks nonsense it must rest on a profundity which is too deep for a speaker of English to comprehend." [Laudan (1977), p.241. I owe this reference to Kitcher (1998), p.55. Link added.]
If Foucault's name and the phrase "a Frenchman" are replaced by "Voloshinov" and "a sort-of-Bolshevik", respectively, then this might help explain what prompted Watson to write a 400-page book eulogising similar "profundities", and worse.
Finally, this almost unseemly dismissal of a fellow comrade's work in fact finds ample justification in the subtitle Watson gave his book (Art, Class and Cleavage): viz.: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix. A dog's dinner of a title, for sure -- but a genuine slap in the face for those who think it clever to confuse revolutionary socialism with the intellectual equivalent of rabies.
Voloshinov -- And His Popularisers
This brings us to Voloshinov. Recently, his work has been discussed by a number of comrades: John Parrington, Marnie Holborow, Sean Doherty, Dave McNally, and Chik Collins.11 Because what Voloshinov 'appears' to have said about language flatly contradicts much that is contained in these Essays -- and in view of several of the unfavourable things said about his work above -- detailed comments about his work are clearly in order.12
Occasionalism And Contextualism12a
Marnie Holborow summarised one of Voloshinov's main insights in the following way:
"A fundamental element of Volosinov's critique of abstract objectivism is his view of language being able to generate new meanings…. This generative quality arises from the fact that language is inseparable from its context and its users…. The meanings and different connotations for a word or a piece of language are constructed by the speakers, who give each utterance their particular evaluative accent.
"Let us take an example…. [:] I'm hungry conjures up a general concept. When, however, we look at different contexts in which the phrase might be used, we see how the evaluative accent changes everything. A child saying this to her mother might be indirectly a request for the mother to get her something, an enquiry about what there is to eat, or a statement that she just feels like something to eat. One adult saying it to another might mean that it's time for lunch and be a suggestion that they go somewhere to eat…. In each case the context is not merely the gloss on the meaning but constitutes different meanings -- different in every aspect…." [Holborow (1999), p.28. Bold emphasis added. Italic emphasis in the original On Holborow's spelling of Voloshinov's name, see here.]
But, when Holborow says that the sentence "I'm hungry conjures up a general concept", it isn't at all clear what she means. What precisely is "general" about it? Unless we suppose, perhaps, that several people utter this sentence all at once as part of a synchronised plea for food, say -- or one person suffering from a multiple personality disorder comes out with it -- no generality seems to be implied here at all.
Perhaps Holborow meant that this sentence when considered in isolation from an occasion of its use possesses certain non-specific general features -- or, that maybe the sentence itself might suggest them to us. What these are Holborow unfortunately failed to say; nor does she indicate why they are general, or, indeed, why they are concepts, as opposed to propositions, requests or orders, for example.13
Moreover, Holborow's claim that utterances have an "evaluative accent" is puzzling, too, since it is unclear what evaluation has to do with the type of request she herself considered. Had she interpreted such a plea (i.e., "I'm hungry") as the equivalent of something like: "I like food", or "Food is sacred" -- or even "Food is theft" -- her point might have been a little clearer. But, what sort of "evaluative accent" does a plain and simple request for food possess or suggest? Again, Holborow failed to tell us. [To be sure, Voloshinov does make some attempt to say; his comments will be examined presently.] Even less obvious is how an "evaluative accent" could affect the meaning of any of the words used -- as opposed to altering what a speaker might consequentially, or incidentally intend to convey by means of them. As we shall see, these two are not at all the same.
Of course, Holborow is simply summarising Voloshinov's view:
"Any word used in actual speech possesses not only theme and meaning in the referential, or content, sense of these words, but also value judgement: i.e., all referential contents produced in living speech are said or written in conjunction with a specific evaluative accent. There is no such thing as a word without evaluative accent." [Voloshinov (1973), p.103. Italic emphasis in the original.]13a
Voloshinov then proceeded to connect "evaluative accent" with "expressive intonation", but he failed to say why these are in any way "evaluative". The same can be said of Holborow. To be sure, Voloshinov quoted a long passage from Dostoyevsky to clarify his point, adding:
"All six 'speech performances' by the artisans [in the quoted passage from Dostoyevsky -- RL] are different, despite the fact that they all consisted of one and the same word. The conversation was conducted in intonations expressing the value judgements of the speakers. These value judgements and their corresponding intonations were wholly determined by the immediate social situation of the talk...." [Ibid., p.104.]
But, is this true of every utterance? If it is, then Voloshinov neglected to include the data establishing this fact; it isn't too clear if subsequent commentators have provided any since.
Despite this, what Voloshinov says is highly implausible in itself. What, for instance, is the "evaluative accent" of this response (and many more like it):
Questioner: "What can you tell me about the River Nile?"
Respondent: "It's longer than The Thames."
NN: "I went on the demonstration this afternoon."
MM: "I heard it was quite big."
Maybe these do contain "evaluative accents"; who can say? But, until we are told what an "evaluative accent" is, little more can be done with such vague claims.
Nevertheless, Holborow also argued that different contexts of utterance (or, is it the different "evaluative accents" of each utterance?) constitute entirely new meanings each time, which are "different in every aspect". Once more, Holborow failed to explain how the same words could take on these new meanings in this way. To be sure, different connotations can be suggested by prosody (i.e., intonation, rhythm, or stress, etc., as Voloshinov himself noted). For example: "I'm hungry" suggests something different from "I'm hungry". But, even then, these words do not change their meaning. Once more, what changes here is what a speaker might hope to convey by the use of familiar words accentuated differently. Otherwise, speakers might just as well say "I'm cold" and 'mean' the same as others might 'mean' by using "I'm hungry".
It could be that an injudicious choice of examples has distorted Holborow's conclusions, since the sentence "I'm hungry" uses an indexical expression (viz., "I'm") -- that is, this particular sentence depends for its incidental import on one of its words being relativised to a time, a speaker, a place and possibly also an occasion.
On the other hand, from what little else the above passage says, it is reasonably clear that Holborow probably doesn't have this aspect of sentence/word use in mind -- i.e., pointing out the obvious fact that as each individual utters the words "I'm hungry" the "I" could relate to someone new, changing the import of what was said by adverting to a different speaker. This is because the mere fact that one person might utter it one minute, and another the next, does not warrant the conclusion Holborow draws that these words convey a different meaning "in every aspect", each time.
Perhaps this is too hasty? If so, it is worth considering Holborow's claims in more detail. She might be claiming that different tokens of the same type utterance "I'm hungry" could be used to say different things, and that the meaning of each of these speech acts is entirely dissimilar, since the occasions of utterance cannot fail to vary:
"A child saying this to her mother might be indirectly a request for the mother to get her something, an enquiry about what there is to eat, or a statement that she just feels like something to eat. One adult saying it to another might mean that it’s time for lunch and be a suggestion that they go somewhere to eat…." [Ibid., p.28.]
Anyway, what Holborow then goes on to say doesn't seem to be at all correct:
"In each case the context is not merely the gloss on the meaning but constitutes different meanings -- different in every aspect…." [Ibid., p.28. Bold emphasis added.]
Holborow cannot seriously be suggesting that words have new meanings ("different in every aspect") each time they are uttered. If she were, then these particular words (i.e., "I'm hungry") would be of no use to anyone, since no one would be able understand what they meant from occasion to occasion.
Well, perhaps these 'new meanings' could be inferred from the intentions of each speaker, or from the context of each utterance? But, in that case, Holborow's own suggested translation (i.e., that "I'm hungry" means "It's time for lunch", or whatever) would surely be subject to the very same equivocation, in that it, too, would be occasion-sensitive and in need of its own translation -- just as each of these new translations would, as well, and so on. Naturally, this would mean that the supposed translation (i.e., "It's time for lunch") could itself mean "I'm bored with this conversation", or "I can't see the point of this", or..., which in turn could mean, "I wonder what's for tea", or "I can't make out what she is saying", which themselves could mean…, and so on.
Indeed, when Holborow wrote:
"A child saying this to her mother might be indirectly a request for the mother to get her something, an enquiry about what there is to eat, or a statement that she just feels like something to eat. One adult saying it to another might mean that it's time for lunch and be a suggestion that they go somewhere to eat…" [Ibid., p.28.]
maybe she really meant something different, too? Given her own intentions, she could have meant by the above: "I think Voloshinov is correct and I want you to agree with me". In that case, "I think Voloshinov is correct and I want you to agree with me" and:
"A child saying this to her mother might be indirectly a request for the mother to get her something, an enquiry about what there is to eat, or a statement that she just feels like something to eat. One adult saying it to another might mean that it's time for lunch and be a suggestion that they go somewhere to eat…" [Ibid., p.28.]
must be synonymous!
If intending something can change the usual meaning of words to the extent that totally different passages and sentences become synonymous, then each and every one of our words/sentences could mean anything whatsoever. Hence, in this case, not only would "I'm hungry" mean the same as "It's time for lunch", it could mean the same as "I think Voloshinov is correct and I want you to agree with me" -- as well as "I'm not the least bit hungry". Who can say?
Furthermore, the (above) employment here of these very same words (by me, RL) implies that all three passages must now mean: "I (RL) disagree, and think Voloshinov is seriously confused", since that is what I intended to convey by this passage of text. This implies that all three sentences must mean at least two or more totally different things!
I have now used four sentences to mean "I (RL) am right and Holborow is wrong". Hence, if Holborow were right, these must all mean the same thing (viz.: "I (RL) am right and Holborow is wrong"), even while all these (now) five sentences could mean something entirely different if someone else used them to advertise, say, the sale of a garden gnome on E-Bay.
In that case, by extrapolation, these words could now be led by the nose to mean anything whatsoever -- and hence, nothing at all. [That is, these words would have no intrinsic meaning.13b] Of course, since I (RL) intended that all these passages should end up this way (i.e., that they should mean nothing), that must mean my use of these sentences indicates that they do indeed mean nothing. So, when I use Holborow's words, they mean what I want them to mean, not what she intended -- i.e., nothing at all!
Is anyone convinced by any of this? They should be if they agree with Holborow -- or, perhaps even with Humpty Dumpty from Alice Through the Looking Glass.14
It could be argued that the context of utterance will in fact rule out many of these fanciful 'translations'; unfortunately, as we will see, this isn't even remotely correct.
Once more, therefore, if the words "I'm hungry" do in fact mean the same as "It's time for lunch", why do we need the translation? As competent speakers of English (or whatever language in which this sentence is expressed), we would all know what this sentence says. For example, who (saving small children and those ignorant of the English (or whatever) language) needs to have the word "puppy" translated as "infant dog"? Indeed, only someone with a rather poor grasp of their native tongue would need to have a perfectly ordinary sentence translated into another perfectly ordinary sentence (unless, of course, the former contained a coded message of some sort), for them to be able to understand it.
Again, if all such sentences required translation, then why not also any that are offered as their 'real' meaning? If we need to be told what "I'm hungry" really means, how can we be sure we understand "It's time for lunch"? Perhaps, as already noted, the replacement/translated sentence means something else, too? On the other hand, if the replacement sentence "It's time for lunch" is already understood, and needs no further sentence to make its import clear, why isn't this the case with "I'm hungry?" Why is the first in need of translation and not the second?
It is worth stressing here that I am not denying that speakers can often intend to convey a message that it is time for lunch by saying "I'm hungry"; what is being questioned is whether such an intention can change what the words "I'm hungry" actually mean.
Of course, Holborow isn't trying to translate one sentence into another; she is offering an analysis of the various uses toward which we put language -- amplified by the observation that discourse is context-dependent. This topic is examined in more detail below.
The fact that several speakers can intend to produce different effects by the use of typographically identical words/sentences depends on the words used having relatively fixed meanings already. If this weren't so, then with respect to a particular utterance (i.e., each physical speech act), any words would do. The child in Holborow's example could say: "My socks are wet" and 'mean' that she wants her mother to get her some food -- or that her mother should join the Foreign Legion, or that this week's TV Guide has been delivered, or that her goldfish had just died, or, indeed, anything whatsoever. If context determined the (public) meaning of our words, all of these would be possible.
Nevertheless, Holborow failed to consider the most obvious and plausible option here: What if "I'm hungry" is in fact being used to communicate the same thing each time, or most of the time? What if it is being used to indicate that the speaker is indeed hungry (period)? In that case, wouldn't we be tempted to say that a perfectly ordinary act of communication has occurred? Isn't this how we ordinarily address and comprehend each other? Why is this so mysterious? Why do we need to be bamboozled into thinking otherwise? Why do we need to eulogise the work of someone (i.e, Voloshinov) who has made something that is patently obvious seem hopelessly obscure?
Even on Holborow's account, we certainly can't rule out the possibility that "I'm hungry" might be being used to say the same thing many times over. On the other hand, if this possibility could be ruled out, and anything could mean anything (dependent on context), no one else would be able to indicate, for instance, that it was time for lunch by the use of the words "I'm hungry" -- including Holborow and her own translated suggestion to that effect! This is because, if meaning were that sensitive to each occasion of use -- to the extent that the meaning of what had been said changed in "every aspect", each time --, then no one else could ever utter "I'm hungry" and mean "It's time for lunch". In fact, no one else could ever make the point that has just been made by me in the last sentence, using the same words in just that way in any other sentence! Once used, the meaning of any given set of words, or sentences, would have been used up, so to speak, and any words uttered thereby would have to be forever sealed away in the archives never to see the light of day again.
Presumably, therefore, we aren't being asked to suppose that once these words have been used in this uncontroversial manner to indicate that the speaker was indeed hungry, no other speaker would ever be able to use them this way again. Holborow cannot possibly mean that. But, if not, what is the force of her claim that each utterance changes meaning in "every aspect"? If in this clear, everyday example this doesn't happen, and at least two utterances of the same token words can (and do) have the same meaning (i.e., "It's time for lunch"), what can Holborow possibly have meant by what she herself said?
However, let us suppose for a moment that Holborow is right, and "I'm hungry" does mean something different each time, and that the context, aims and intentions of speakers can actually change the meaning of any of the words used. In such circumstances, as was argued earlier, who would then be able to say what such words actually meant? Certainly not the person uttering them; any attempt to explain his/her own meaning (even if this were 'internally voiced') would surely be subject to the very same equivocation. The words used to do just that would also have to change in meaning upon being uttered -- or, rather, any of the explanatory words employed to that end would themselves be sensitive to such changes on each new occasion of use. Still less would hearers of these words be able to say what they meant; they could now only guess what these elusive meanings might be, or might have been -- and, incidentally, whose own guesses would in turn be subject to the same sort of equivocation/re-interpretation, too.
In that case, if the meaning of every word is occasion-sensitive, then so is that of any word that appears in a putative translation or explanation of it -- including Holborow's.
To be sure, what someone intends to achieve by what they say does affect how we interpret the aims and intentions underlying what they have just said, but this can't affect what the words they use mean.
Why this is so will now be examined in more detail in the next sub-section.
Word Meaning Versus Speaker's Meaning
As seems clear, Holborow failed to distinguish speaker's meaning from word or sentence meaning. What a person intends to achieve with his/her words is surely distinct from what those words mean. If this weren't so then we would have to admit that the sentences listed below, for example, all meant the same if they were aimed at making the same point.14a So, if someone uttered these sentences with, say, the intention of alarming their listeners, then that would imply that they all meant the same -- that is, that they would all be synonymous!
V1: "Move, and you're dead!"
V2: "Your house has just burnt down!"
V3: "Those pickets will stop you strike-breaking!"
V4: "The Nazis know where you live!"
V5: "Margaret Thatcher is your biological mother!"
V6: "Tony Blair really admires you!"
T1: "I want to alarm you!"
T2: "Holborow is wrong about meaning being sensitive to intended effect and/or occasion of use."
Consider, for example, V1 and V2: if these were uttered with the aim of alarming whoever they were directed at, then they would both have to mean "I want to alarm you!", if Occasionalism were true. In that case, presumably, "move" and "your" from V1 and V2 must now mean "I" from T1; "and" and "house has" from V1 and V2 must mean "want to" from T1, and so on. If not, then what precisely is implied by this view of meaning?
In fact, all the above were written with the intention of showing that Holborow's ideas on this issue are misguided. Does that, therefore, imply that "Those pickets will stop you strike-breaking!", for example, means, "Holborow/Voloshinov is wrong about word meaning being sensitive to intended effect and/or occasion of use", if the use of both of these sentences have the same aim? Is this true of all the rest? Does the sentence "Those pickets will stop you strike-breaking!" mean the same as "The Nazis know where you live!" --, whose meaning actually is: "Holborow is wrong about meaning being sensitive to intended effect and/or occasion of use"? On the account under review here, V3 must mean the same as T2.
This alone shows that context cannot narrow down the options, ruling certain 'translations' out as fanciful, for all of the above (and more) could be (and were, here) used with the same intention (expressed in T2), and in the same surroundings, even if all of them are totally dissimilar and seemingly unrelated.
Worse still: if these sentences are synonymous, it must be possible to use them all interchangeably. So, the next time someone wants to tell you that Tony Blair admires you, all he/she has to do is say "Your house has just burnt down!", and if they want to inform you that the Nazis know where you live, all they need do is utter "Margaret Thatcher is your biological mother!" -- or even "Holborow/Voloshinov is wrong about meaning being sensitive to intended effect and/or occasion of use". If the occasion of use means that these are synonymous, then all this, and more, must surely be the case. And if that is so, it isn't easy to see how any conceivable context of utterance (short of the highly fanciful) would be able to tell you that when someone says "Those pickets will stop you strike-breaking!" they really mean "Your house has just burnt down!".
Of course, all of the above are written, not spoken, examples of word use, but this can't form the basis of a successful response to the above objections. [Anyway, Holborow's reported utterance (i.e., "I'm hungry") was written, too, as was Voloshinov's.] But, the same points could have been made verbally, so they do not depend specifically on the written word. There is surely no significant philosophical or linguistic difference (at least with respect to the meaning of words) if, say, V1-V6 were printed as part of a hard copy of this Essay, or if they were recorded and then played back as part of a speaking book, or even yelled in public in the main square by the Town Crier at noon.
It could be maintained that there is a difference. Voloshinov was at pains to distinguish the living, interactive use of language between speakers, and the written word. That particular objection has been neutralised here.
Someone might now object that the above examples are highly fanciful/contrived and hence they cannot be used against Voloshinov or Holborow. But, this isn't so. Sentences like these are uttered every day. Anyway, the real point is that according to Voloshinov and Holborow any sentences uttered with the aim of alarming hearers (and who can deny that this happens many times a day around the world?) will all have the same meaning. The actual choice of examples is therefore irrelevant.
Despite this, it could be argued that the circumstances surrounding the utterance of each of the above sentences (i.e., V1-V6) would all be different, and although they would all mean the same in the abstract, their "theme" would be different, and thus their concrete meaning would be different, too.
However, even if this were the case, any theory that had the consequence that in the abstract, V1-V6 all meant the same (even if we knew what an 'abstract meaning' was!) would still be subject to the objections advanced above. Moreover, as we will soon see, Voloshinov is hopelessly unclear what he means by "theme", and his commentators are no less unclear, too. In that case, an appeal to "theme" to rescue this theory would be about as helpful as a 'solution' to a conundrum that had been written in the language of the Voynich Manuscript.
Coughs and Sneezes Spread Confusion
In fact, this theory implies that a cough, for example, would actually mean the same as a sneeze if it was intended to make someone jump -- and that a child's cry was synonymous with an alarm bell if both were aimed at waking up the child-minder.15
Perhaps more significantly, given this view, it would be possible for plain gibberish to have the same effect on an audience that a perfectly ordinary sentence had on those who heard both, and hence for these two to mean the same. In which case, we should have to admit that a nonsensical string of letters, such as:
V7: "BBB XXX ZZZ QQQ TTT"
had the same import as:
V8: "Your cat has just voted Tory",
if both were aimed at puzzling the hearer.
[Or, indeed, if both were intended to annoy and/or perplex supporters of Voloshinov's 'theory' of meaning, and succeeded in doing one or both of these.]
Moreover, if, as Voloshinov argues, sentence and/or word meaning (not speaker's meaning) were dependent on context and occasion of use then words divorced from all contexts should have no meaning at all.16 So, for instance, the sentence "Voloshinov is correct about meaning and theme" would mean nothing until someone actually uttered it in a particular context with a specific intention. But, if it had no meaning, why would anyone choose to utter it? Why would anyone select such a meaningless string of words? They might just as well say something genuinely meaningless like: "BuBuBu" --, which, on this theory, should gain a sense from being uttered with a special aim in mind. But, wouldn't they rather utter "I'm hungry" in order to mean "Voloshinov is correct about meaning and theme"?17
Again, someone could object that this ignores Voloshinov's distinction between "theme" and meaning. That response will be dealt with presently.
Alternatively, Voloshinov's theory seems to imply that interlocutors must ascertain each other's aims and intentions before they can be expected to grasp what was said. This would then involve the latter in having to link aspects of any utterance (which, we must recall, are as yet meaningless to each hearer) -- that are relevant to that end in that context -- to an indeterminate number of possible meanings. But, if the said utterance has no meaning until it is interpreted (or even until it is uttered!) what is there that hearers could latch on to in the local environment that might help them do this?18 It is little use replying that speakers and hearers accomplish this every day, since on this view it would be impossible for them to do it. To be sure, we often make an educated guess when we encounter the odd things we sometimes hear, but this typically takes place against a background that consists of little other than meaningful words we already comprehend. But, if all the words we read or heard were meaningless before we interpreted them, or even before they were uttered, we would surely be like those trapped in a foreign land, confronted by a language we had never encountered before.18a0
In fact, we would normally say that interlocutors communicate because they possess a common language, which benefits from a shared vocabulary with reasonably settled meanings, and which both parties already understand. What they do not normally do is revise language during every conversation. And yet, it seems that they must do this if Voloshinov were correct.18a
And, we certainly can't appeal to past experience to help out here; that is, interlocutors can't rely on a previous use of the same words in the same contexts to ascertain what is intended in or by their current employment, for Holborow and Voloshinov tell us that any and all words have completely different meanings each time they see the light of day. Not only that, but the circumstances surrounding the vast majority of (if not all) utterances are completely novel, too.18b
Nevertheless, each new context brings with it new meanings, according to Voloshinov and Holborow. These novel connotations would not only have to be supplied by both parties to a conversation, they would have to coincide for each of the parties to that conversation if communication is to succeed. But, how might this be achieved if neither interlocutor understands what is said in advance of it being said, or if neither party has experienced exactly these circumstances before? Indeed, given the fact that no two human beings are completely alike, nor have they even remotely shared the same experiences, this theory implies that no act of communication would ever succeed. [Much more on this later.]
In fact, anyone overhearing such a conversation, and not knowing the aims or intentions of interlocutors, wouldn't understand what they had overheard, either -- if Voloshinov were correct. In general, this is patently incorrect. We readily understand things not addressed to us. We might sometimes miss the point of why it was said (just as we might not always grasp every single detail (if, say, some of the individuals mentioned in such a conversation were unknown to us)), but that is an entirely different matter.
More difficult to explain, however, is the fact that hearers would have to express to themselves in their own language (i.e., in their own idiolect, or "inner speech") the aims and intentions of their interlocutors. This would involve them in representing these in a language that wasn't itself subject to the same constraints.
Let us call such a language (i.e., one that is comprehensible without recourse to any further occasion-sensitive protocols) an "immediate language".
Hence, a language understood without the need for any further processing would be an immediate language. But, if such an 'internal' language is indeed immediate, then language itself at some point must be occasion-independent -- namely, just here, internally. And yet, if some language is internally immediate, why not the language we use 'externally'? [The only possible reason for denying this would seem to be that the hypothesised language here is 'internal' to an individual. That option will be considered, and neutralised, presently.]
Conversely, if a hearer's own 'internal language' is also occasion-sensitive -- that is, if it isn't an immediate language, after all --, then an infinite regress must ensue as interpretation upon interpretation is layered on top of each incoming message, and each subsequent translation (and translation of a translation of a translation…) is rendered into that individual's inner, inner, inner..., idiolect.
As already noted, this theory would mean that a word in fact possessed no meaning at all (i.e., no intrinsic meaning) until someone deigned to give it one by using it. But, if that were the case, no one would be able to ascertain whether or not they had settled on the same meaning as that which has/had been latched on to by any of their interlocutors. Not only that, any attempt to resolve even this quandary would itself stall until a decision had been made (in no language at all, presumably!) whether or not each party to a conversation meant the same by the phrase "same meaning", let alone any of the other terms on offer.
And how might that minor miracle be achieved, for goodness sake?19
On the contrary, if a hearer hasn't already grasped what is said to him/her, the assumed (internal) process of interpretation cannot even begin. That is because hearers wouldn't be able to distinguish what was meaningfully communicated to them from irrelevant or pointless remarks -- or, for that matter, from gibberish and incidental noises. If they had to decipher words directed at them based only on contexts of utterance and/or on the aims and intentions of speakers, then they would also have to be able to ascertain which aspects of those contexts were relevant to that end (as noted earlier). [As we have seen, "context of utterance is itself hopelessly vague!] But, that would involve them in understanding the said utterance first. Otherwise, anything could be counted as 'relevant'. If we are to interpret the aims and intentions of fellow speakers successfully, they must address us in terms we already understand so that we can layer on top of whatever they say any additional gloss we deem appropriate -- as we try to discern the intentions of our interlocutors, and as each occasion demands, or otherwise. It cannot work the other way round. We do not divine what others intend by a sort of magical, languageless intuition, which subsequently enables us to put meaning to their words. That is why we do not have to wait to ascertain the point of someone uttering, say, "The BNP is a Nazi Party" before we understand it. Once more, we must first grasp what is said if we are to figure out the point of someone saying it. Hence, the point behind the present author's inclusion of this sentence about the BNP (which was in fact to argue that Voloshinov is wrong in what he says) has nothing at all to do with what those words mean. [Although, my intentions certainly affected what I meant (speaker's meaning) to achieve by using them.]
In fact, it is quite easy to see that Voloshinov's suppositions aren't viable since we already understand the exemplary sentences from earlier (i.e., V1-V6) before we know their context of utterance, or the point/purpose anyone might intend by uttering them:
V1: "Move, and you're dead!"
V2: "Your house has just burnt down!"
V3: "Those pickets will stop you strike-breaking!"
V4: "The Nazis know where you live!"
V5: "Margaret Thatcher is your biological mother!"
V6: "Tony Blair really admires you!"
Moreover, because of our facility with language, and our socialisation, we also know, or can form an educated guess concerning, the sorts of contexts in which such sentences could plausibly feature/be uttered, and it is this that helps us interpret the aims and intentions of others when they arise.20
Of course, we do this with such ease that we do not notice it, just as we can, for example, walk without noticing how we do it. And that is why we feel we can exclude (as highly unlikely) most of the fanciful interpretations (advanced above) of what the hypothetical child, for example, might have meant by "I'm hungry". That is also why readers who have made it this far can easily comprehend sentences like V1-V6 whether or not they are aware that these sentences are totally fictional and have no context other than the spurious ones provided here, or mentioned earlier. And it is a safe bet that that won't have affected the reader's understanding of these perfectly ordinary sentences. This fact would be totally inexplicable if linguistic meaning were context-dependent.
The seeming plausibility of Voloshinov and Holborow's examples (or, indeed, any imaginative interpretation put upon them) trades on a facility possessed by all competent language users: that is, of being able to understand sentences independently of their context of utterance -- saving, of course, those that have indexical features (etc.). And this still remains the case even when a reference to the context of utterance could help hearers ascertain the aims and intentions of their interlocutors. That is why it isn't necessary for Voloshinov's readers to know the contexts surrounding his particular use of language in order to understand him; indeed, it is because they already grasp the words he chose to use that they can recognise in general the types of contexts in which the examples he cites might plausibly occur (should they want to do this), as well as the sorts of aims and intentions they might reveal/express. That is also why the implication that sentences like V1-V6 have the same meaning strikes us as completely bizarre, and why we can see that, despite the fact that uttering any or all of them could have the same effect, or arise from the same intention, they don't have the same meaning.20a
Finally, it is also why we can all see that inscriptions like those in V7 (i.e., "BBB XXX ZZZ QQQ TTT") are totally meaningless, despite the fact that V7 could have had the same effect on someone as a meaningful sentence, and be employed to the same ends. Even though V7 has a use -- for example, to make the very point that it is meaningless21 -- it is nonetheless mere babble. Using it to make that very point does not show that its meaning is that it is meaningless. Plainly not, otherwise it would have no meaning by meaning that -- indeed, in that case, its meaning would be that it had no meaning!22
As we will see later in this Essay, despite what they might appear to say, the reason why theorists like Voloshinov (and, it seems, the other comrades mentioned above) find Occasionalism so attractive is that they have accepted the traditional view that 'acts of meaning' are 'inner mental events', private to each individual. Quite apart from the fact that this theory sits awkwardly with the belief that language is a social phenomenon, if it were true it would actually prevent -- not facilitate -- communication. Indeed, since this view of meaning is plainly based on the representational model, it is hardly surprising that it undermines communication.
Now, there are places in Voloshinov's work where he sort of half recognises this, but his grasp of this idea isn't secure enough for him to appreciate that he has only succeeded in undermining it by many of the other things he says about meaning -- or, indeed, vice versa.23
Naturally, this isn't to deny that languages change, nor is it to reject the idea that the spoken word is part of a living system of inter-communication -- and neither is it to repudiate the view that context (among other things) affects speaker's meaning --, nor even that social parameters/forces have a decisive effect on the development of language. The above comments are merely aimed at reminding us that whatever its is that lends to sentences the sense they have (and to words their meaning), it cannot be context of utterance. Speaker's meaning is parasitic on much more fundamental aspects of the social nature of language -- those that Voloshinov and the other comrades mentioned above appear not to have noticed. What these features are have been hinted at throughout this site (especially here). Other important logical aspects of language will be considered below.
The Meaning Of Words Vs The Sense Of A Propositions
As pointed out in Note 29 and Note 86, Voloshinov and the other comrades mentioned above seem to have ignored the important distinction between the meaning of words and the sense of indicative sentences. This is in fact a failing they share with the majority of Philosophers who have written on this subject --, that is, up until just over a hundred years ago. Beginning with ideas that were first seriously mooted in Frege's work, Philosophers working in the Analytic tradition have generally (but not unanimously) maintained the opinion that an account of language that ignores the above distinction is radically flawed.24
This observation, of course, isn't based on supposition, nor is it mere dogma. We all recognise it to be the case when we are reminded of it. Even competent speakers of a language would fail to comprehend what was said to them if it contained words they had never encountered before; and they would remain in that state until the meaning of these words had been explained to them. In stark contrast, all of us readily understand sentences we have never heard before (saving, of course, those that contain such novel words). This indicates that word-meaning and sentence-sense can't be the same, otherwise this wouldn't happen.
For example, the words in the previous paragraph could be reassembled in different combinations, and, providing each new arrangement satisfied certain syntactic and pragmatic constraints, they would be readily understood by most competent speakers of English. However, if the names "Tony Blair" and "Leon Trotsky" were mixed up to give "Leon Blair" and "Tony Trotsky" no one would know who was being referred to -- even if they knew who the original characters were.
Moreover, if the following sentence were uttered:
V9: "Tony Blair's wrist watch has been eaten by a Koala Bear",
the vast majority of English language speakers would understand it even though that sentence (in all probability) has never been written, spoken or heard before by anyone in human history; and they would comprehend it without knowing whether it was true or whether it was false, since they would know under what circumstances it would or could be either one of these. In short, they would understand its sense. [This theme is expanded upon greatly in Essay Twelve Part One.]
Contrast V9 with the following:
Now, it is highly likely that most English speakers have never encountered this word before. Even though it contains familiar letters, no one would understand it until its meaning had been explained to them, or they looked it up in a dictionary.25 If this word appeared in a sentence, that sentence would similarly remain incomprehensible until this word's meaning had been clarified -- unless, of course, it had been worked out by means of an educated guess, perhaps.
This difference between how we read, receive or understand words and sentences shows that the sense of the latter and the meaning of the former are distinct logical features of our use of language.25a
All traditional, ancient, and most modern 'theories of meaning' founder on this fact alone.26
Nevertheless, this isn't an obscure feature of language, something that only those who study Linguistics or Analytic Philosophy are aware of. All of us appreciate its validity (and recognise its force) when it is pointed out to us since we depend on it to communicate everyday of our lives. We all understand sentences we have never seen or heard before, and we all fail to comprehend words we have never previously encountered. The fact that this distinction had been ignored for thousands of years (and is still largely ignored today) by Traditional Theorists shows how divorced from ordinary life -- and how obsessed with atomistic theories of language -- such thinkers had (and have) become (and this is so for reasons examined in Essay Twelve (summary here)).26a
Naturally, this means that serious errors were introduced into thought by previous generations of Philosophers, who not only ignored they disdained the vernacular, preferring instead a fetishised view of language.27
[Again, why this is so and why it is significant are explained in more detail in Essay Twelve Part One.]
Moreover, any portrayal of language that tries to explain the meaning of words and the sense of sentences by an indiscriminate appeal to speaker's usage (i.e., to what a speaker idiosyncratically intends to convey or achieve by employing certain sentences or words) would similarly fail to account for the phenomenon noted above. If the sense of a sentence were (generally) based on the use to which a speaker might (idiosyncratically) put it, then competent speakers of a language wouldn't be able to understand any sentences they had never heard before -- just as they now fail to comprehend novel words they have never previously encountered. If the idiosyncratic use of words determined meaning, and if intentions/contexts determined the sense of sentences, word meaning and sentence sense would be all of a piece.28 In that case, language users wouldn't be able to understand both words and sentences they had never met before, rather than just the former. Since most of the sentences we encounter are novel (while the words they contain are not), we would in such circumstances fail to understand anything said to us until everything had been explained (but which explanation would also need explaining..., and so on --, and for the same reason).
A plausible account of language must be able to relate the clear distinction we draw between the sense of sentences and the meaning of words to our capacity to form and comprehend novel sentences -- the senses of which are related (sometimes systematically, sometimes not) to the manner in which their constituent words have been conjoined (etc.), coupled with the meaning of the words used. It must, therefore, connect the senses of sentences to rules of syntax, which in turn must be related to something other than idiosyncratic use.29
It is here, perhaps, where the weakness of Voloshinov's 'theory' is most obvious: the confusion of the meaning of words with the sense of sentences.30 Again, as already noted, he isn't alone in taking this wrong turn; it is a major failing of all Traditional Theories of language (and many modern ones, too).
Oddly enough, this atomistic approach to discourse also plagues accounts of language written by several prominent Wittgensteinians -- including, it seems, practically every 'Wittgensteinian' who is also a social scientist.31
"Theme" And Meaning
At this point, it could be objected that Voloshinov's theory of language isn't susceptible to the above criticisms. That is because of (1) The distinction he drew between meaning and "theme", (2) His insistence that written words and spoken words are subject to different criteria, and because of (3) His opposition to what he calls "abstract objectivism".
(2) has already been discussed (here), so I will consider (1) first.
Unfortunately, Voloshinov's comments on "theme" are far too sketchy and confused for anyone to be able to say what he actually meant by this word! To compound matters, Holborow, Parrington and Doherty provide us with little help in this regard, either; indeed, Parrington doesn't even use the term!
Nevertheless, Voloshinov had this to say about "theme":
"Let us agree to call the entity which becomes the object of a sign the theme of the sign. Each fully fledged sign has its theme. And so every verbal performance has its theme.
"An ideological theme is always socially accentuated. Of course, all the social accents of ideological themes make their way into the individual consciousness (which, as we know, is ideological through and through) and there take on the semblance of individual accents, since the individual consciousness assimilated them as its own. However, the source of these accents is not the individual consciousness. Accent, as such, is interindividual....
"The theme of an ideological sign and the form of an ideological sign are inextricably bound together and are separable only in the abstract…." [Voloshinov (1973), p.22.]
"A definite and unitary meaning, a unitary significance, is a property belonging to any utterance as a whole. Let us call the significance of a whole utterance its theme…."
[Added in a footnote: "The term is, of course, a provisional one. Theme in our sense embraces its implementation as well; therefore our concept must not be confused with that of a theme in a literary work. The concept of 'thematic unity' would be closer to what we mean."]
"…The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation ('historical' here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part.
"It follows, then, that the theme of an utterance is determined not only by the linguistic forms that comprise it -- words, morphological and syntactic structures, sounds, and intonation -- but also by extraverbal factors of the situation. Should we miss these situational factors, we would be as little able to understand an utterance as if we were to miss its most important words. The theme of an utterance is concrete -- as concrete as the historical instant to which the utterance belongs. Only an utterance taken in its full, concrete scope as an historical phenomenon possesses a theme. That is what is meant by the theme of an utterance.
"...Together with theme or, rather, within the theme, there is also the meaning that belongs to an utterance. By meaning, as distinguished from theme, we understand all those aspects of the utterance that are reproducible and self-identical in all instances of repetition. Of course, these aspects are abstract: they have no concrete, autonomous existence in an artificially isolated form, but, at the same time, they do constitute an essential and inseparable part of the utterance. The theme of an utterance is, in essence, indivisible. The meaning of an utterance, on the contrary, does break down into a set of meanings belonging to each of the various linguistic elements of which the utterance consists. The unreproducible theme of the utterance 'What time is it?' taken in its indissoluble connection with the concrete historical situation, cannot be divided into elements. The meaning of the utterance 'What time is it?' -- a meaning that, of course, remains the same in all historical instances of its enunciation -- is made up of the meanings of the words…that form the construction of the utterance.
"Theme is a complex, dynamic system of signs that attempts to be adequate to a given instant of generative process. Theme is reaction by the consciousness in its generative process to the generative process of existence. Meaning is the technical apparatus for the implementation of theme. Of course, no absolute, mechanistic boundary can be drawn between theme and meaning. There is no theme without meaning and no meaning without theme. Moreover, it is even impossible to convey the meaning of a particular word…without having made it an element of theme, i.e., without having constructed an 'example' utterance. On the other hand, a theme must base itself on some kind of fixity of meaning; otherwise it loses its connection with what came before and what comes after -- i.e., it altogether loses its significance….
[Quoting Marr] "'But was such an all-meaning word in fact a word?' we might be asked. Yes, precisely a word. If, on the contrary, a certain sound complex had only one single, inert, and invariable meaning, then such a complex would not be a word, not a sign, but only a signal. Multiplicity of meanings is the constitutive feature of a word. As regard the all-meaning word of which Marr speaks, we can say the following: such a word in essence has virtually no meaning; it is all theme. Its meaning is inseparable from the concrete situation of its implementation. This meaning is different each time, just as the situation is different each time. Thus the theme, in this case, subsumed meaning under itself and dissolved it before meaning had any chance to consolidate and congeal. But as language developed further, as its stock of sound complexes expanded, meaning began to congeal along lines that were basic and most frequent in the life of the community for the thematic application of this or that word.
"Theme, as we have said, is an attribute of a whole utterance only; it can belong to a separate word only inasmuch as that word operates in the capacity of a whole utterance…. Meaning, on the other hand, belongs to an element or aggregate of elements in their relation to the whole. Of course, if we entirely disregard this relation to the whole (i.e., to the utterance), we shall entirely forfeit meaning. That is the reason why a sharp boundary between theme and meaning cannot be drawn.
"The most accurate way of formulating the interrelationship between theme and meaning is in the following terms. Theme is the upper, actual limit of linguistic significance; in essence, only theme means something definite. Meaning is the lower limit of linguistic significance. Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality -- the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme. Investigation of the meaning of one or another linguistic element can proceed, in terms of our definition, in one of two directions: either in the direction of the upper limit, toward theme, in which case it would be investigation of the contextual meaning of a given word within the conditions of a concrete utterance; or investigation can aim toward the lower limit, the limit of meaning, in which case it would be investigation of the meaning of a word in the system of language or, in other words, investigation of a dictionary word.
"A distinction between theme and meaning and a proper understanding of their interrelationship are vital steps in constructing a genuine science of meanings. Total failure to comprehend their importance has persisted to the present day. Such discriminations as those between a word's usual and occasional meanings, between its central and lateral meanings, between its denotation and connotation, etc., are fundamentally unsatisfactory. The basic tendency underlying all such discriminations -- the tendency to ascribe greater value to the central, usual aspect of meaning, presupposing that that aspect really does exist and is stable -- is completely fallacious. Moreover, it would leave theme unaccounted for, since, theme, of course, can by no means be reduced to the status of the occasional or lateral meaning of words." [Ibid., pp.99-102. Italic emphases in the original.]31a
It would, of course, be unfair to criticise Voloshinov too much for the sketchy nature of these comments since he admitted his ideas were provisional. He was prevented from developing them into full, or even fuller coherence by the fact that he disappeared during the Stalinist purges, which began soon after he wrote his book.
Even so, it is worth pointing out that Voloshinov supplied his readers with little or no evidence to substantiate this distinction between "theme" and meaning (or, indeed, much else that is dogmatically asserted in his book). In fact, readers will find no experimental results, observations, surveys, tables, graphs or figures (or even so much as a single reference to other studies which record or report such data/information!) in support of a single substantive conclusion in the entire work. That fact alone ought to worry comrades who regard Voloshinov's book as a major contribution to the Science of Linguistics.
However, the fact that it doesn't should surprise no one who is familiar with the a priori and dogmatic nature of 'dialectical philosophy'.
In like manner, Parrington, Holborow and Doherty offer little (or any) empirical evidence to back-up their claims that Voloshinov's ideas are worthy of scientific merit -- or, indeed, for allaying the concerns of those who might be tempted to conclude that his ideas have been imposed on reality, contrary to what we are told dialecticians never do.32
Anyway, given the nature of what Voloshinov actually said, no evidence could ever have been, or could ever be found to support his claims. That is because, by definition, "theme" is totally inaccessible since it is essentially occasion-sensitive. This means that not only is "theme" inaccessible to scientific enquiry, it is inaccessible to each and every party to a conversation -- since, as Voloshinov himself admits, "theme" is affected by the microscopic differences between cases:
"[T]heme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation ('historical' here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part." [Ibid., p.99. Bold emphases added.]
In that case, "theme" can serve no part in effecting communication, even if we knew what "theme" was. [Those who think we do know what "theme" is are encouraged to continue reading, after which their premature feelings of confidence should emerge somewhat..., shall we say, shaken.]
If the above is indeed the case, it might well be wondered how anyone could possibly tell whether an utterance does or does not have a "theme". If something is intrinsically unique, has a transient nature and is ephemeral in the extreme, how might its existence even be detected, let alone confirmed?32a
In fact, in the place of supporting evidence Voloshinov presented his readers with what looks suspiciously like a Transcendental Argument to demonstrate the existence of "theme".33
Ex hypothesi, that is all he could have offered anyway, since whatever evidence there might have been for the existence of a particular "theme" must have (of necessity) arrived far too late on the scene for it to be of much use to anyone. A split-second delay would be far too long to wait, if, as Voloshinov says, even microscopic changes alter "theme". Hence, by the time any of this elusive 'evidence' became apparent, the alleged "theme" would have changed, or would have disappeared. Naturally, this means that it would be impossible for anyone to confirm this aspect of Voloshinov's theory. Even film, video or recorded evidence would be of no use; these couldn't possibly preserve the microscopic details surrounding the original utterance.34
Indeed, it is unclear whether it is possible for anyone to begin to form the faintest idea of what such confirmation might even look like. That is because the "object" of a sign, which is the "theme" (according to the first paragraph of the long passage quoted above) is intimately connected with the unique, occasional use of certain signs. In that case, such an "object" plainly cannot be identified, let alone studied independently of singular events like these. Since these are in principle unrepeatable they are uncheckable, and if that is so, no scientific investigation would be able to confirm this aspect of Voloshinov's theory. What could be measured, observed, or tested in such circumstances, anyway? Even if there were anything, how might test results be confirmed if the "object" studied is irreducibly unique and ephemeral in the extreme?
This situation isn't at all like the experiments carried out in High Energy Physics, for instance, where things happen extremely quickly, too. There, such events are reproducible since they aren't unique, and they aren't occasion-sensitive. With "theme", this isn't the case. Hence, not only did Voloshinov not provide any evidence to support his claims, none could have been offered by him -- or by anyone on his behalf, for that matter, now or ever.
What then are we to make of claims like these?
"Finally, for me there could be no question of superimposing the laws of dialectics on nature but of discovering them in it and developing them from it." [Engels (1976), p.13. Bold emphasis added.]
"The dialectic does not liberate the investigator from painstaking study of the facts, quite the contrary: it requires it." [Trotsky (1986), p.92. Bold emphasis added]
"Dialectics and materialism are the basic elements in the Marxist cognition of the world. But this does not mean at all that they can be applied to any sphere of knowledge, like an ever ready master key. Dialectics cannot be imposed on facts; it has to be deduced from facts, from their nature and development…." [Trotsky (1973), p.233. Bold emphasis added.]
"'[The dialectic is not a] magic master key for all questions.' The dialectic is not a calculator into which it is possible to punch the problem and allow it to compute the solution. This would be an idealist method. A materialist dialectic must grow from a patient, empirical examination of the facts and not be imposed on them…." [Rees (1998a), p.271. Bold emphases added.]
"A consistent materialism cannot proceed from principles which are validated by appeal to abstract reason, intuition, self-evidence or some other subjective or purely theoretical source. Idealisms may do this. But the materialist philosophy has to be based upon evidence taken from objective material sources and verified by demonstration in practice...." [Novack (1965), p.17. Bold emphasis added.]
"Marxism, therefore, seeks to base our ideas of things on nothing but the actual investigation of them, arising from and tested by experience and practice. It does not invent a 'system' as previous philosophers have done, and then try to make everything fit into it…." [Cornforth (1976), pp.14-15. Bold emphases added.]
As we have seen (in Essay Two), comrades who say such things, or who assent to them, quite happily do the exact opposite in the very next breath, and readily impose their ideas on nature, just like Voloshinov.
Furthermore, even if there were some corroborating evidence, it would surely have to be expressed in linguistic form, at some point. In that case, it would itself be subject to the very same strictures applied to its own "theme" and meaning, and so on ad infinitem. How would it be possible to identify the "theme" of any sentence expressing/reporting this evidence, or confirm whether or not it even had a "theme"?35
In addition, if the "microscopic" details surrounding an "utterance" are essentially unique then within nanoseconds of an "utterance" ending those involved in the conversation would be at a loss themselves as to what its "theme" had been --, that is, if it indeed had one. [Or, even if they knew what they were looking for!] In fact, even as the sound waves carrying each utterance were travelling between speaker and hearer the "microscopic" details surrounding the original speech act would be altering, changing the "theme", or perhaps even losing it forever. Worse still, during vocalisation the "microscopic" details proximate to each and every nascent speech act would be changing diachronically. This means that, while a speaker was speaking, the theme of what he or she was in the act of saying would be altering -- unless, of course, we are to suppose that each "theme" is timed to coincide with the beginning and end of each speech act.36 Indeed, unless "themes" were timed to begin or end miraculously like this, it would mean that each utterance must possess an indefinite number of "unitary themes", depending on how fast its originator spoke, how many micro-phonetic parts it contained, or how often a speaker coughed, sneezed, or was interrupted during in a conversation. Of course, anyone with a stammer would be doubly handicapped.36a
It could be objected that this is all rather unfair since Voloshinov speaks of a "unitary theme" belonging to each utterance, and he tells us that the "theme" of an utterance is "indivisible".
However, what these phrases actually mean will, of course, depend on how we count utterances. Voloshinov appears to believe that "themes" and utterances can be paired-off, one-one. In fact, something like this would have to be the case, otherwise the ascription of a "unitary" and "indivisible" "theme" to an utterance would be entirely empty. If so, it might look as if "themes" can be individuated by the utterances they 'accompany'. But, that can't be right since "themes" are circumstance-sensitive, which implies that any particular type utterance could in fact be the expression of countless different themes at different times for each of its tokens, as the "microscopic" details (etc.) surrounding them varied. We saw as much above with respect to the sentences Holborow discussed:
"Let us take an example…. [:] I'm hungry conjures up a general concept. When, however, we look at different contexts in which the phrase might be used, we see how the evaluative accent changes everything. A child saying this to her mother might be indirectly a request for the mother to get her something, an enquiry about what there is to eat, or a statement that she just feels like something to eat. One adult saying it to another might mean that it's time for lunch and be a suggestion that they go somewhere to eat…. In each case the context is not merely the gloss on the meaning but constitutes different meanings -- different in every aspect…." [Holborow (1999), p.28.]
Here, each token utterance of the type "I'm hungry" means something entirely new. If so, they must presumably have different "themes". Indeed, as Voloshinov himself says:
"The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation ('historical' here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part." [Voloshinov (1973), p.99. Bold emphasis added.]
Since we are not allowed to consider the meaning of type utterances (the idea is foreign to Voloshinov, it seems -- but, meanings might be part of what he refers to as the "self-identical" aspects of an utterance; p.100), Voloshinov's theory appears to indicate that token utterances of a certain type are in fact pairable with an indefinite number of "themes" according to circumstances.36a1
Conversely, the 'same' "theme" could be expressed by different type utterances. Voloshinov does not explicitly rule this out, and even though it seems to be inconsistent with some of the things he said it is implied by other things he wrote. [On this, see Note 36a1, and below.] So, the "theme" above (if it is one!), expressed by the child's desire for her mother to get her some food, could in fact be expressed in a number of different ways. The child could say any of the following (each expressing or instantiating the same "theme"):
P1: "Please get me some food."
P2: "I'm starving/famished/ravenous."
P3: "Is it nearly time for dinner?"
P4: "I want a biscuit/apple/burger/banana/pizza…"
P5: "I want to eat something."
P6: "My tummy's rumbling."
P7: "My stomach thinks my throat is cut."
And so on. In fact there are countless ways this hypothetical child might express the very same "theme".
These possibilities now raise serious questions about how the pairing of "themes" and utterances is supposed to work. More pointedly: Which "theme(s)" is/are to be paired with which utterance(s) if, in theory, an utterance might represent a 'different' theme at different times, and the 'same' "theme(s)" might be expressed by different utterances at same or different times? Indeed, how are we to rule out the possibility that one utterance could in fact express two or more "themes" at once (which seems to be a viable option since two or more "themes" -- as allowed for by the theory -- could be expressed by one and the same utterance on different occasions of use)?36b
P8: "I'm hungry,"
could indicate that the one saying it wanted feeding as well as expressing a veiled criticism of the one not doing the feeding. In that case, it would have two "themes" -- if, of course, this is what a "theme" is!
Someone uttering P8 could thus mean (i.e., speaker's meaning), "Get me some food" and "I think you are a rather poor carer." Indeed, there might be other "themes" 'themed' by this one sentence on the same occasion (such as "I'm more important than him/her, so feed me first", "You always treat me worse than him/her", or "You are my employee, do as I say!", and so on).
To be sure, one or more of the above could in principle be ruled out by a suitable definition or stipulation. It could then simply be baldly asserted that each token utterance was paired one-one with exactly one "theme". Unfortunately, that would mean that whenever the 'same utterance' was produced, the 'same' "theme" would have to be present, as a matter of definition. That would, of course, make a mockery of the occasion-sensitivity of "theme"! Either that, or it would mean that (despite appearances to the contrary) no utterance was actually repeatable since each would be identified and/or individuated by its own unique and unrepeatable "theme" -- which fact would superglue each utterance to a unique set of circumstances. Indeed, this latest observation seems to be consistent with some of the things Voloshinov says:
"[T]heme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance." [Voloshinov (1973), p.99. Bold emphasis added.]
Unfortunately, he then went on to say:
"The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation ('historical' here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part." [Ibid., p.99. Bold emphasis added.]
In that case, it seems reasonably clear that Voloshinov wouldn't have pointed out that "The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used…" if the same utterance hadn't in fact been used -- otherwise, the second "it" would dangle with no referent. This indicates that, confused as he was, Voloshinov wanted to appeal to the possible use of the same type utterance, tokened in new circumstances, all the while clinging on to the idea that each utterance is totally unique! With the best will in the world, it is not easy to see how any of this is feasible --, nor is it easy to figure a simple way out of this dialectical thicket. It is even less easy to see why anyone (least of all the comrades mentioned above) would voluntarily propel themselves right into centre of this impenetrable briar patch.
On the other hand, it could be argued that "theme" might be identified by the 'thought' conveyed by each utterance. However, that option would itself risk becoming bogged down in a metaphysical dispute over the precise nature of 'thoughts' and how they too might be individuated! Anyway, we have already seen (in Note 23) that Voloshinov had himself ruled this escape route out:
"In point of fact, the speech act, or more accurately, its product -- the utterance, cannot under any circumstances be considered an individual phenomenon in the precise meaning of the word and cannot be explained in terms of the individual psychological or psychophysiological conditions of the speaker. The utterance is a social phenomenon." [Ibid., p.82. Italic emphasis in the original.]
Nevertheless, if we ignore this intractable problem for the moment, the question would still remain: How do we individuate 'thoughts' except by reference to the utterances they supposedly accompany, or instantiate?37 But, that just loops the discussion back in on itself. The whole point of the volunteered response outlined in the previous paragraph seemed to be aimed at trying to identify or individuate a "theme" by means of an accompanying 'thought'. It now looks as if this can't be done without defining a 'thought' in terms of utterances that are themselves supposedly identified by a "unitary theme". But, that in turn seems to mean that "themes" may be individuated only if they have already been individuated!
Maybe we could pair-off 'thoughts' with type utterances? Unfortunately, this would only serve to undermine "theme's" context-dependency, since the same utterance would implicate the same 'thought', and hence the same "theme", and that would just loop the discussion back to where it was at the end of the last paragraph.
Perhaps an appeal to meaning might help? But, again, if meaning is parasitic on "theme", we are no further forward. Maybe the physical properties of an utterance -- that is, the sound patterns associated with specific sets of vibrating atoms or molecules -- could supply the principle of individuation for "unitary themes"? Unfortunately, criteria of individuation for sets of already identical atoms and molecules (distinguishable only by an appeal to even more problematic spatial and temporal coordinates, scalar energy and vector fields) aren't all that easy to construct (as we have already seen). But, even if they were, this would still be of little help. That is because those criteria would have to be expressed in linguistic form, too, which would in turn attract the very same difficulties that bedevilled the alleged "theme" they supposedly accompanied!
This doesn't look like a very promising way out of this dialectical black hole.38
Furthermore -- and returning to an earlier theme (no pun intended) --, if utterances are to be individuated by means of circumstances, and the latter are still microstate-sensitive, a finite set of words could conceivably represent a potentially infinite (or indefinitely large finite) set of such token utterances (since there seems to be no upper limit on the different circumstances surrounding each utterance if any one of the latter is paired-off with one of the former), all with their own "unitary themes". Hence, and once more, the question, "What time is it?" might in fact mean countless different things because of the indefinite set of surrounding circumstances that might accompany/occasion each of its utterances, all of which would presumably instantiate their own "themes". Naturally, this would seem to imply that since the meaning of "What time is it?" isn't fixed by context-independent considerations (according to Voloshinov), it could exemplify any number of such "unitary themes", as the micro-details of each nascent utterance required -- including those indicated or suggested during vocalisation, or those attendant upon that utterance while it was in the process of being registered in a hearer's 'consciousness', and so on.
Consequently, unless far more clearly defined criteria are provided (by those sympathetic to Voloshinov's ideas) for counting, distinguishing, or identifying utterances and "themes" (etc.), it seems impossible to decide whether there are in fact countless "unitary themes" pairable, one-one, one-many, many-one, or many-many, with utterances (interpreted as identifiable spoken tokens, etc.) --, or whether there exist more complex sets of functional relations between utterance tokens and "theme" tokens, or between utterance types and "theme" tokens, and so on ad nauseam.
Having said that, it is worth pointing out that the difficulties we face trying to comprehend what Voloshinov could possibly have meant are largely the result of the confused way in which he expressed himself. For example, on the topic in hand (i.e., the individuation of "theme"), he had this to say:
"The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation…." [Ibid., p.99.]
From this, it looks like Voloshinov thought that an utterance could be individuated by its "theme":
"The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance…." [Ibid.]
On the other hand, he clearly thought that "theme" was dependent on concrete circumstances:
"The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation…." [Ibid.]
But, he also appears to have believed that concrete circumstances were expressed by "theme":
"The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance." [Ibid.]
In addition, it looks like Voloshinov thought that not only was "theme" unreproducible, so were utterances:
"The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible." [Ibid.]
And yet, as noted above, he then spoke about utterances being repeated:
"The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used…." [Ibid. Emphasis added.]
So, an utterance is and isn't repeatable, hence its "theme" is and isn't unreproducible, too!
[More on this in Note 36b.]
Moreover, when Voloshinov said:
"The meaning of the utterance 'What time is it?' -- a meaning that, of course, remains the same in all historical instances of its enunciation" [Ibid., p.100.]
it also looks like he believed that meaning is fixed, after all, but only when the same utterance is produced, something he had just said couldn't happen!
Unfortunately, the bemused reader will search in vain in the articles written by the aforementioned comrades for any help in comprehending what on earth Voloshinov was banging on about!39
Meaning And "Theme"
Again, it could be objected that the above seriously misrepresents Voloshinov in that it ignores the clear distinction he made between meaning and "theme":
"A definite and unitary meaning, a unitary significance, is a property belonging to any utterance as a whole. Let us call the significance of a whole utterance its theme. The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation….
"It follows, then, that the theme of an utterance is determined not only by the linguistic forms that comprise it -- words, morphological and syntactic structures, sounds, and intonation -- but also by extraverbal factors of the situation. Should we miss these situational factors, we would be as little able to understand an utterance as if we were to miss its most important words. The theme of an utterance is concrete -- as concrete as the historical instant to which the utterance belongs….
"Together with theme or, rather, within the theme, there is also the meaning that belongs to an utterance. By meaning, as distinguished from theme, we understand all those aspects of the utterance that are reproducible and self-identical in all instances of repetition. Of course, these aspects are abstract: they have no concrete, autonomous existence in an artificially isolated form, but, at the same time, they do constitute an essential and inseparable part of the utterance. The theme of an utterance is, in essence, indivisible. The meaning of an utterance, on the contrary, does break down into a set of meanings belonging to each of the various linguistic elements of which the utterance consists. The unreproducible theme of the utterance 'What time is it?' taken in its indissoluble connection with the concrete historical situation, cannot be divided into elements. The meaning of the utterance 'What time is it?' -- a meaning that, of course, remains the same in all historical instances of its enunciation -- is made up of the meanings of the words…that form the construction of the utterance.
"…On the other hand, a theme must base itself on some kind of fixity of meaning; otherwise it loses its connection with what came before and what comes after -- i.e., it altogether loses its significance…." [Ibid., pp.99-100. Bold emphasis alone added.]
From this it could be argued that Voloshinov actually acknowledged many of the points made above, and consequently they cannot be used against him. Unfortunately, however, there are other things he said that undermine this 'sympathetic' interpretation of his intentions:
"A definite and unitary meaning, a unitary significance, is a property belonging to any utterance as a whole. Let us call the significance of a whole utterance its theme….
"…The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation ('historical' here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part….
"Together with theme or, rather, within the theme, there is also the meaning that belongs to an utterance. By meaning, as distinguished from theme, we understand all those aspects of the utterance that are reproducible and self-identical in all instances of repetition. Of course, these aspects are abstract: they have no concrete, autonomous existence in an artificially isolated form, but, at the same time, they do constitute an essential and inseparable part of the utterance. The theme of an utterance is, in essence, indivisible. The meaning of an utterance, on the contrary, does break down into a set of meanings belonging to each of the various linguistic elements of which the utterance consists….
"Theme is a complex, dynamic system of signs that attempts to be adequate to a given instant of generative process. Theme is reaction by the consciousness in its generative process to the generative process of existence. Meaning is the technical apparatus for the implementation of theme. Of course, no absolute, mechanistic boundary can be drawn between theme and meaning. There is no theme without meaning and no meaning without theme. Moreover, it is even impossible to convey the meaning of a particular word…without having made it an element of theme, i.e., without having constructed an 'example' utterance….
"Theme, as we have said, is an attribute of a whole utterance only; it can belong to a separate word only inasmuch as that word operates in the capacity of a whole utterance…. Meaning, on the other hand, belongs to an element or aggregate of elements in their relation to the whole. Of course, if we entirely disregard this relation to the whole (i.e., to the utterance), we shall entirely forfeit meaning. That is the reason why a sharp boundary between theme and meaning cannot be drawn.
"The most accurate way of formulating the interrelationship between theme and meaning is in the following terms. Theme is the upper, actual limit of linguistic significance; in essence, only theme means something definite. Meaning is the lower limit of linguistic significance. Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality -- the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme…." [Ibid., pp.99-101. Bold emphases added; italic emphases in the original.]
In this extract, while Voloshinov distinguished "theme" from meaning, he also identified them, saying that:
"A definite and unitary meaning, a unitary significance, is a property belonging to any utterance as a whole. Let us call the significance of a whole utterance its theme…." [Ibid., p.99. Bold emphases added.]
"Unitary meaning", "unitary significance" and "theme" are one and the same here.40 To be sure, Voloshinov later acknowledged that words (etc.) possess fixed meanings, but he had already torpedoed that idea by his prior equation of meaning with "theme" (since the latter isn't fixed). Moreover, he added the following:
"…The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme….
"…Moreover, it is even impossible to convey the meaning of a particular word…without having made it an element of theme, i.e., without having constructed an 'example' utterance….
"…Meaning, on the other hand, belongs to an element or aggregate of elements in their relation to the whole….
“…Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality -- the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme….
"...Therefore, there is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to a word as such. In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers; that is, meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding…." [Ibid., pp.99-102. Bold emphases added.]
All of these appear to make fixity of meaning a rather empty notion for Voloshinov -- that is, if meaning is indeed occasion-specific and context-dependent, or if it can change with each utterance (and cannot be ascertained apart from them), or, indeed, if it is speaker-relative.
It could be objected that this still misrepresents Voloshinov in that he is quite clear that while there is no clear boundary separating these two notions, at the extreme end of this continuum, they are entirely different:
"The most accurate way of formulating the interrelationship between theme and meaning is in the following terms. Theme is the upper, actual limit of linguistic significance; in essence, only theme means something definite. Meaning is the lower limit of linguistic significance. Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality -- the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme…." [Ibid., p.101; italic emphases in the original.]
But, according to this, without an association with "theme", meaning "means nothing". Moreover, we are given no clues as to how meaning can slowly appear along this alleged continuum. Is, therefore, meaning like, say, the temperature of a metal bar as it is being heated from cold to warm, and then to hot? But, what would be an example of a 'tepid' sort of meaning? An utterance that was mumbled? Or, one that was cut-off in mid-stream? Or, one that was uttered between two distinct surrounding circumstances or locations, on the run, as it were? Indeed, what sense can be made of half a meaning, or 25% of one?
Hence, although Voloshinov does try to distinguish "theme" and meaning, the other things he says identify them, as pointed out above. For example:
"A definite and unitary meaning, a unitary significance, is a property belonging to any utterance as a whole. Let us call the significance of a whole utterance its theme. The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation…." [Ibid, p.99. Bold emphases added; italic emphases in the original.]
Of course, this quandary isn't helped by the fact that we still haven't got the faintest idea what "theme" is!
Understanding And Translation
The above might still be regarded as a little unfair to Voloshinov, for he went on to connect "theme" with "understanding":
"The distinction between theme and meaning acquires particular clarity in connection with the problem of understanding….
"Any genuine kind of understanding will be active and will constitute the germ of a response. Only active understanding can grasp theme -- a generative process can be grasped only with the aid of another generative process.
"To understand another person's utterance means to orient oneself with respect to it, to find the proper place for it in the corresponding context. For each word of the utterance that we are in process of understanding, we, as it were, lay down a set of our own answering words. The greater their number and weight, the deeper and more substantial our understanding will be.
"Thus each of the distinguishable significative elements of an utterance and the entire utterance as a whole entity are translated in our minds into another, active and responsive, context. Any true understanding is dialogic in nature…. Understanding strives to match the speaker's word with a counter word….
"Therefore, there is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to a word as such. In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers; that is, meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding. Meaning does not reside in the word or in the soul of the speaker or in the soul of the listener. Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener produced via the material of a particular sound complex. It is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together. Those who ignore theme (which is accessible only to active, responsive understanding) and who, in attempting to define the meaning of a word, approach its lower, stable, self-identical limit, want, in effect, to turn on a light bulb after having switched off the current…." [Ibid., pp.102-03. Bold emphasis added; italic emphasis in the original.]41
Here, meaning is no longer linguistic (i.e., it no longer belongs to the use of a word), it is essentially psychological, and is now a feature of the interaction between at least two minds. In that case, meaning isn't:
"the lower limit of linguistic significance. Meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality -- the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme…." [Ibid., p.101.]
Nor is it what we were earlier led to believe:
"The meaning of an utterance, on the contrary, does break down into a set of meanings belonging to each of the various linguistic elements of which the utterance consists. The unreproducible theme of the utterance 'What time is it?' taken in its indissoluble connection with the concrete historical situation, cannot be divided into elements. The meaning of the utterance 'What time is it?' -- a meaning that, of course, remains the same in all historical instances of its enunciation -- is made up of the meanings of the words…that form the construction of the utterance." [Ibid., p.100. Bold emphases added.]
Meaning has now become:
"the effect of interaction between speaker and listener produced via the material of a particular sound complex. It is like an electric spark that occurs only when two different terminals are hooked together. Those who ignore theme (which is accessible only to active, responsive understanding) and who, in attempting to define the meaning of a word, approach its lower, stable, self-identical limit, want, in effect, to turn on a light bulb after having switched off the current…." [Ibid., p.102.]
[As we will see later, Voloshinov has clearly run-together several different meanings of "meaning"! In fact, as Note 23 shows, if Voloshinov were correct, inter-subjective understanding would be impossible.]
Nevertheless, even if we ignore these serious difficulties for now, the above passages still can't help us in our understanding of Voloshinov's theory, since we are now entirely unclear about both "theme" and meaning!
Moreover, if understanding were in fact dependent on translation, that would compound the problems facing Voloshinov's theory even further. That is because a listener would have no way of knowing whether his/her translated words accurately represented the "theme" that his/her interlocutor had (in fact?) intended, or had associated with their own words when they were uttered, or, indeed, were associated with what they had said by the 'concrete circumstances' of their utterance. Instead of having merely to understand a speaker, a hearer would now have to unravel an intrinsically inaccessible and un-reproducible "theme" before understanding could even begin!
Worse still, the "theme" associated with an utterance (according to the 'definition' we were given) is totally unique; it cannot have been experienced by that individual, or by anyone else, for that matter, in all of human history -- ever. How then could anyone use this totally unique "theme" to assist in the understanding of someone else's words? Naturally, this means that far from assisting linguists and/or psychologists find a solution to the 'problem' of understanding, the introduction of this radically obscure notion ("theme") isn't just a hindrance, it presents them with an completely insurmountable obstacle, the equivalent of throwing an anvil at a drowning man.
Furthermore, if all understanding involves translation, then speakers themselves would fail to understand even their own words. As seems reasonably obvious, if translation is to be successful, it must represent that which is to be translated in a medium that is already understood. But, if this prior understanding itself requires still further translation (which it must do if, given this theory, all understanding requires translation), then that just introduces yet another infinite regress, with translation upon translation stacking-up in order to facilitate each episode of "understanding".
Translation has to take place in some language or other, which according to Voloshinov must itself be "theme"-dominated, and hence occasion-sensitive. That being the case, these translations would now depend on resources which are themselves intrinsically inaccessible, and would relate to speech-acts and surrounding circumstances that are themselves sensitive to changes that take place every microsecond (according to Voloshinov). Moreover, since no speaker has access to any of their own past "themes" (or any at all!) to assist him or her in this endless "theme"-hunt, they would be searching for the terminally ephemeral by means of the psychologically unattainable.
Consequently, on this account, speakers would fail even to understand themselves!
In that case, the following would be impossible:
"Thus each of the distinguishable significative elements of an utterance and the entire utterance as a whole entity are translated in our minds into another, active and responsive, context. Any true understanding is dialogic in nature…. Understanding strives to match the speaker's word with a counter word…." [Ibid., p.102.]
If such "counter words" have any meaning, they must also have a "theme", and if that is so, hearers will fail to understand these words, and they will do so for the above reasons. Furthermore, even if the "theme" of an utterance were in fact accessible to speaker and hearer alike, only a minor miracle would make the "theme" of a listener's "counter word" coincide with the "theme" of the original utterance. Either way, and once again, understanding and communication would fail.41a0
Conversely, if understanding a particular translation required no further acts of understanding or of translation (that is, if the regress outlined above were short-circuited somehow), it would then be pertinent to ask why translation was introduced to account for understanding in the first place. If at some unspecified point we succeed in comprehending our own 'translated' words un-mediated, as it were, by any further acts of translation (as this short-circuited variant would have it), why can't we do this directly with the words others direct at us right away? Why can't we just understand them? Not only would this prevent the above regress (and the subsequent attempt to block it on an ad hoc basis), it would be in conformity with what we already mean by "understanding" (as will be demonstrated below).
Private Property In The Means Of Language Production
Meaning? Private Or Social?
The only conceivable reason for accepting the sort of psychologistic detour we met above (which appeals to what appear to be occult acts of 'inner translation' to account for understanding and our use of language) would seem to be that comprehension is a private mental process that we accomplish directly by means of "inner speech", or some such.
Now, we don't have to appeal to the definitive case mounted by Wittgenstein against the possibility of there being a "private language" to oppose this approach to 'cognition'; Voloshinov's own precepts rule it out, for he declares that:
"Meaning does not reside in the word or in the soul of the speaker or in the soul of the listener. Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener produced via the material of a particular sound complex." [Ibid., pp.102-03. Bold emphasis alone added.]
In that case, it is difficult to see why Voloshinov (or, indeed, any of his epigones) found he had to appeal to translation in order to account for our ability to understand one another, when, given his own theory, it drops out of the picture. If anything, our understanding accounts for translation, not the other way round -- otherwise, as noted above, the individual concerned wouldn't know whether or not she/he had translated a given "sound complex" correctly.
Having said that, an earlier allegation that there is a tension in Voloshinov's work -- whereby, on the one hand, he wants to see language as a social product or phenomenon, while, on the other, his ideas about "understanding" suggest that he has fallen prey to the traditional picture (i.e., that language and our capacity to understand it depends on 'inner acts of intellection') -- that allegation now seems correct itself.41a
Here is what Voloshinov says, for example, about "understanding":
"Idealism and psychologism alike overlook the fact that understanding itself can come about only within some kind of semiotic material (e.g., inner speech), that sign bears upon sign, that consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs...understanding is a response to a sign with signs." [Ibid., p.11. Italic emphasis in the original.]
"In the first instance, to understand means to refer a particular inner sign to a unity consisting of other inner signs, to perceive it in the context of a particular psyche....
"Self-observation (introspection) is the understanding of one's own inner sign.... We do not see or feel an experience we understand it. This means that in the process of introspection we engage our experience into a context made up of other signs we understand. A sign can only be illuminated with the help of another sign." [Ibid., pp.35-36. Italic emphases in the original.]
This is unfortunate since, if it were the case, human beings couldn't even begin to "understand" anything. That is because we aren't born with 'signs' in our heads (or in our 'consciousness') -- unless we assume that a baby has 'innate' signs in her/his 'psyche'. Hence, if understanding is indeed a function of the relation between signs, as Voloshinov says, it couldn't happen. After all, "a sign can only be illuminated with the help of another sign"; if we have none to begin with -- manifestly -- the process of "illumination" cannot even begin. [On this, see Note 23.]
Despite this, it is rather odd to say that our heads are full of "signs" --, or, perhaps that "consciousness itself can arise and become a viable fact only in the material embodiment of signs" -- since Voloshinov isn't too clear what he means by "sign". Hence, not much can be done with this peculiar idea of his. [However, I will return to this topic later.]
Anyway, the above comments at least pin Voloshinov's flag to the traditionalist mast: understanding for him is (in the "first instance") an inner, private affair. Despite his other gestures to the contrary, he has clearly failed to break decisively with Platonic, Christian, and Cartesian mythology. Plainly, this is one "ruling idea" that has alighted and set up home in yet another radical "psyche". [Alas, far too many other comrades seem to have caught the same bug.]
One response to the above might run along the lines that hearers have to (in Voloshinov's words) "orient" themselves toward a speaker's utterance, which must also involve the translation of the latter's words into the listener's own idiolect (or perhaps into their own "inner speech", as Voloshinov indicated above). Quite apart from the fact that Voloshinov offered no empirical evidence to substantiate this bizarre idea (that we accompany the speech of others with strings of our own words -- i.e., "inner speech", or "counter words" -- in order to comprehend our interlocutors), any parallel dialogue like this would actually get in the way of our attending to what was being said. It would be rather like having to put up with an irritating 'inner i-Pod' -- one that we could never ignore, turn down or switch off, while we struggled to listen to what was being said to us.41b
Even if such an 'inner running-commentary' actually took place, it still wouldn't explain how we succeed in understanding anything said to us, for it would clearly fail to account for our immediate comprehension of the words (the "signs" that appear in "inner speech") that these 'inner i-Pods' themselves constantly pump into our 'inner ears'. If all understanding requires such "inner speech", the constant din of this inner nuisance would surely have to be accompanied by an even 'inner inner i-Pod', ('inner, inner speech') if it, too, is to be comprehended, and so on, ad infinitem.
On the other hand, if we directly understand our own individual 'inner i-Pods' without recourse to any further such devices (that is, if this infinite regress is terminated at the first stage, once more), then what reason could there be for not stopping it one stage earlier still? Why may we not understand each other's words directly and dispense with these spooky 'inner voices'/'inner signs'? If we understand "inner speech" directly, then why not 'outer' speech?
[As we saw above, the only reason for supposing that we can't understand 'outer speech' directly without the intercession of these 'inner voices' -- the latter of which we can comprehend directly without any further intercession by an 'inner, inner voice' -- is that, for Voloshinov, understanding is an individualised, hidden, 'inner process'. On this, see the next section.]
Furthermore, the mere correlation of two parallel streams of language (wherein an 'inner' dialogue supposedly accompanies its 'outer' correlate, as one or both are processed in the Central Nervous System [CNS], one presumes) doesn't establish that the one is the translation of the other, any more than talking aloud in English while a Russian film is on TV counts as translating it. And this remains the case even if the one doing the talking actually understands Russian. Hence, even if we could comprehend "inner speech", it wouldn't establish that a successful translation had been accomplished by means of it. The latter would count as a translation of the former only if the words they contained had the same meaning (and presumably the same "theme") as those which they sought to translate, but since (according to this theory) no two utterances can have the same "theme" (and thus not even the same meaning), then these annoying 'inner voices' would be no use at all (even if they existed!). Just like the antics of an incompetent translator, this ghostly charade would get no translation right, since there is, on this view, no such thing to be had!
The sensible theorist, therefore, will switch this annoying device off -- or, perhaps better still, question its existence from the get-go.42
No Translation Without Representation
As noted earlier, the only apparent reason for rejecting the above objections would have to predicate itself on the belief that "inner speech" is immediate to 'consciousness', and is therefore instantly comprehensible -- simply because it is "inner". This view in turn trades on the idea that when something is inside our heads (or is part of the CNS, perhaps), a sort of internal, ghostly viewer/listener takes over and does the translating and/or understanding (directly and without further translation), for us. There is no other way to comprehend the untoward metaphors Voloshinov and others use here.
If so, intimate proximity seems to be the factor that renders such speech automatically comprehensible. In contrast, speech that is 'outer' somehow prevents, or at least does not facilitate, understanding (in the "first instance -- p.35.).43 In that case, it looks like the mere fact that such speech is inner means that it is capable of being grasped directly without the need for another even more inner, inner 'meta-translating' device to act as the next intercessor in the chain. But, as noted above, if "inner speech" is indeed speech, presumably it too must be occasion-sensitive. And yet, if that is so, the elusive "theme" associated with each inner representation of the utterances encountered in 'outer speech' will be even more inaccessible than the "theme" allegedly associated with its intended outer correlate. And, as noted above, short of a minor miracle, there is no way these two speech episodes could have identical "themes", given the strictures Voloshinov placed on "theme".
If, on the other hand, "inner speech" isn't occasion-sensitive (and thus has no "theme") then we are owed an explanation as to why it should be called "speech" in the first place, and why (in the second) this use of "signs" is exempt from -- while their outer correlates are still subject to -- occasion-sensitivity. Indeed, if "inner speech" isn't itself occasion-sensitive, then how could it help translate "theme" accurately if the "theme" of 'outer speech' is occasion-sensitive? And, if "inner speech" has no "theme" then how might it be understood? 43a
Indeed, "inner speech" cannot be understood if it has no "theme". This is just my view, it is Voloshinov's:
"…The theme must be unitary, otherwise we would have no basis for talking about any one utterance. The theme of an utterance is individual and unreproducible, just as the utterance itself is individual and unreproducible. The theme is the expression of the concrete, historical situation that engendered the utterance. The utterance 'What time is it?' has a different meaning each time it is used, and hence, in accordance with our terminology, has a different theme, depending on the concrete historical situation ('historical' here in microscopic dimensions) during which it is enunciated and of which, in essence, it is a part.
"It follows, then, that the theme of an utterance is determined not only by the linguistic forms that comprise it -- words, morphological and syntactic structures, sounds, and intonation -- but also by extraverbal factors of the situation. Should we miss these situational factors, we would be as little able to understand an utterance as if we were to miss its most important words. The theme of an utterance is concrete -- as concrete as the historical instant to which the utterance belongs. Only an utterance taken in its full, concrete scope as an historical phenomenon possesses a theme. That is what is meant by the theme of an utterance." [Voloshinov (1973), pp.99-100. Bold emphases alone added.]
And yet, Voloshinov situates understanding in the psyche, which means the "signs" comprising "inner speech" must have a "theme" of the own:
"In the first instance, to understand means to refer a particular inner sign to a unity consisting of other inner signs, to perceive it in the context of a particular psyche....
"Now in what form do we receive the psyche, receive inner signs, for observation and study? In its pure form, the inner sign, i.e., experience, is receivable only by self-observation (introspection)....
"The fact is, after all, that inner sign is the object of introspection and inner sign, as such, can also be outer sign. Inner speech could indeed be given voice....
"Self-observation (introspection) is the understanding of one's own inner sign.... We do not see or feel an experience we understand it. This means that in the process of introspection we engage our experience into a context made up of other signs we understand. A sign can only be illuminated with the help of another sign." [Ibid., p.36. Italic emphases in the original.]
But, as noted above, if the "signs" comprising "inner speech" do attract a "theme" of their own, then understanding must fail:
[E]ven if we could comprehend "inner speech", it wouldn't establish that a successful translation had been accomplished by means of it. The latter would count as a translation of the former only if the words they contained had the same meaning (and presumably the same "theme") as those which they sought to translate, but since (according to this theory) no two utterances can have the same "theme" (and thus not even the same meaning), then these annoying 'inner voices' would be no use at all (even if they existed!). Just like the antics of an incompetent translator, this ghostly charade would get no translation right, since there is, on this view, no such thing to be had! [This has been quoted from here.]
The traditional account (i.e., one that holds that 'thinking' (etc.) takes place 'inside the head') is in fact derived from the mystical notion that 'consciousness'/the 'soul' can be likened to a sort of internal viewer of, or listener to the contents of the 'mind'/brain -- somewhat similar to the way a cinemagoer watches a film in an auditorium, only far more intimately. This metaphor implies that 'consciousness' operates like a sort of linguistically-challenged, sub-, or quasi-human 'entity', a social atom located somewhere in the cerebral, psychological or verbal universe. In Voloshinov's work, as we have just seen, this re-surfaces as the "psyche", a sort of semi-passive, mute 'inner couch potato', whose only job, it seems, is juggling with and comparing whatever "signs" manage to drift its way. [It is "semi-passive" since it looks like this ghostly head-lodger isn't permitted to translate "inner speech" into speech that is even more inner so that it can understand the original "inner speech", in order to forestall the infinite regress alluded to above.] This ethereal, internal individual certainly doesn't seem to indulge in any practical activity; no one imagines it jogs about inside the skull, finds employment in a mitochondrial power plant, or agitates neurons into working-to-rule. It certainly enjoys no social connections of any sort.
Alternatively, this trope might suggest that whether or not inner 'consciousness' possesses its own 'inner, inner language', it need never use it because plain and simple "inner speech" can be understood directly with no need of further acts of intercession. In that case, this 'inner spectator' would be a sort of taciturn but highly intuitive (if not magically gifted) 'inner couch potato', since it wouldn't need to translate "inner speech" into something even more 'inner' in order to comprehend it.
Indeed, it would appear to be an 'inner projection' of ourselves, just as 'god' is our 'outer projection'.
One or other of these alternatives would have to be the case if translation is to stop at some point, and this semi-passive 'lodger in the head' is to 'understand' things directly (and then 'explain' them somehow to us -- perhaps we have 'inner ears', too?) without the need for still more 'inner, inner, inner...' intercessors.43b
On either account, the connection between the use of language and understanding has been severed -- which result seems to be contrary to Voloshinov's own stated aims. That is because, even given this approach, language drops out of the picture, since, at some point, "translation" must be effected in a non-linguistic form or medium, 'intuitively', as it were. Understanding has in the end to be divorced from the use of language to avoid the infinite regress of ever 'inner, inner couch potatoes', required by this theory in order to facilitate the entire process. Comprehension thus becomes a non-linguistic, sui generis, feature of our private 'mental' lives. But, if comprehension works like this (i.e., if it is in the end 'inner', direct and immediate), then the motivation to provide an explanation for it by postulating such 'inner processes' vanishes. If we all understand one another in such a direct way at some point, why postulate the need for "inner speech" to assist us? Other than serving to confuse, what possible role can it play?
So, even on this account "inner speech" does no work; at some point we all seem to just understand one another.43c
[Any who think this misrepresents Voloshinov should consult Note 23, and then think again.]
Once more, if 'inner understanding' is itself sui generis and spontaneous, needing no further acts of intercession, why can't everyday 'outer' understanding work in the same way? What possible reason could there be for an internal device of this sort to provide an inner sanctum where language is finally processed. Indeed, what is the point if, in the end, we end up with an explanation of understanding that simply reduplicates the 'problems' associated with whatever it was meant to replace, and which mystifies the phenomenon into the bargain (by locating it in a hidden and inaccessible realm)? What is gained by an appeal to an 'inner' process that works just like the outer one for which it was supposed to provide some sort of account? If the immediate understanding of one human being by another is indeed a 'problem' (which therefore requires a philosophical and/or scientific 'solution'), why is the reduplication of that very same 'problem' in an occult, 'inner' sanctum deemed a significant advance? If in the end understanding is something we just do (if it is a basic fact about all of us), then why do we need to burrow away inside our heads to find a more basic process that merely reproduces the very thing that needed 'explaining' in the first place: the intelligent use of language by humans who in the end typically understand one another immediately?43d
At this point, and as noted in several other Essays (for example, here and here), the atomistic nature of this traditional line-of-thought should be obvious for all to see, for the 'explanatory' core of this approach to language presents us with what looks suspiciously like an isolated individual -- beloved of bourgeois ideology -- lodged inside each head. This oracular, cranial squatter -- who differs from the Cartesian 'soul' in name alone -- is, on this account (and not surprisingly), far removed from the affairs of communal life. Such a speechless atom would have no need of a public language -- nor would it require socialisation. Its 'discourse' (if such it may be called) cannot in fact be social, it is manifestly 'inner' and private.
Nevertheless, private property in the means of speech production sits rather awkwardly with an avowedly Marxist account of language.
If we continue the above these, we encounter another, but related, problem: even if the 'representational' view of language were correct, how could language actually represent things to this 'inner spectator'? Voloshinov talks as if "signs" (or at least their comparison) can do this all on their own as we internally compare signs (which seem to carry their meaning on their faces, as it were), but, who it is that views these inner "signs" is left a complete mystery -- unless, of course, we postulate an 'inner eye', or an 'inner observer' to fit the bill.
Anyway, how can sounds or words communicate anything to a mere viewer of pictures (or, indeed, a hearer of sounds)? Surely, they could only do this if this 'inner watchman' was already a language user, and possessed 'inner, inner eyes' or 'inner, inner ears' of her/his own -- along with an 'inner' social life, whereby these skills were first acquired.44 If our 'outer' social life and our 'outer' eyes and ears aren't enough, then how can these 'inner' sense organs take up the slack? In what way are they superior?
In fact, and to the contrary, as pointed out above, an 'inner spectator' like this is nothing more than a little man/woman "in the head", with no family, friends or acquaintances, entirely self-taught and self-educated.45
Naturally, the metaphor used earlier (i.e., that of the cinemagoer/head-lodger) itself suggested this 'inner spectator' interpretation, but even if this analogy were inapt, how else are we to make sense of these "inner representations" to 'consciousness'? What is the point of using the word "represent" (that is, if we interpret Voloshinov's own words in this way) if there is no one to whom things are represented? If this word means what we ordinarily take it to mean (that is, if we do not misrepresent its meaning, or fail to regard it as the transitive verb that it is), then this account clearly depends on yet another homunculus theory of the mind.45a
Here is Voloshinov's metaphor (which suggests he accepted his own version of the homunculus 'theory'):
"Individual consciousness is not the architect of the ideological superstructure, but only a tenant lodging in the social edifice of ideological signs." [Voloshinov (1973), pp.12-13.]
So, instead of having to endure an interminable i-Pod inside our skulls, we would all seems to have an invisible internal friend who sifts through the myriad of sensory inputs the CNS sends his/her/its way, all of which are then 'represented' to this 'friend' so they can be communicated somehow to each of us. This inner invisible companion must, of course, explain everything to us --, presumably by 'whispering' in our 'inner ears', making use of inner "inner speech" -- since we seem incapable of understanding anything without him/her/it intercessing on our behalf.46
Naturally, this means that there would have to be at least two of these 'cerebral squatters' inside each skull: one to do the explaining and one the listening. Worse still, each of these homunculi would themselves have to have similar, but smaller 'friends' in their minds/brains/heads to 'whom' things are likewise 'represented', and so on. We might then wonder how we ever manage to hear anything above the ensuing din, as this potentially infinite body of jabbering Russian Dolls went about their cacophonous daily business.47
Figure One: The Human Psyche?
Understanding The Problem
On the other hand, if understanding is made manifest by our competent use of language (alongside associated skills and performances) in a public domain, then an appeal to the intercession of "inner speech" to facilitate it is unnecessary. Indeed, we don't need to anthropomorphise the brain/mind/CNS in this way in order to account for our ability to comprehend one another, since, of course, there is nothing here that needs accounting for.48
The contrary supposition (i.e., that "inner speech" is indeed essential to understanding) is clearly motivated by a powerful set of ideological illusions, chief among which is the belief that unless something is internalised it cannot be understood. This by now familiar representational view of language and thought is itself based on the idea that it is mere proximity and immediacy that renders "inner speech" directly comprehensible to 'consciousness'. That is, it is the inner manipulation of signs and/or symbols (or their physical and/or psychical correlates) that constitutes understanding, as opposed to 'outer' communication, behavioural competence and social interaction that does. [On this, see below.]
It is also plain that the traditional picture is itself motivated by yet another set of inappropriate nominalisations and reifications of everyday words -- words that ordinarily express or exhibit our intellectual and/or linguistic skills, dispositions and states --, compounded by their consequent fetishisation.48a
This traditional approach runs along the following (highly abbreviated) lines: if 'consciousness', 'language' and 'the understanding' are in fact objects and/or inner processes (and who can doubt this if they have names?), or if the former (three) are based on the latter (objects and processes), a successful theory (especially if it is to be 'scientific' and 'philosophical') must account for their inter-relationship.
However, these 'inner entities' have been conjured into existence by the simple expedient of 'naming' them -- which plainly divides and then separates them by objectifying them. Because of such moves these separated 'items' now require a 'theory' to re-connect them! Enter Traditional Philosophy and contemporary Cognitive 'Science'.49
But, this is an attempt to find a 'solution' to a bogus problem. Bogus, because the original distinction between these 'internal objects and processes' was motivated by these inappropriate linguistic moves, and nothing more. Attempt because it is impossible to complete the task this pseudo-problem presents those who invented it or who now try to wrestle with it since these entities (i.e., 'consciousness', 'language' and 'the understanding', etc.) are figments of the imagination motivated by the reification and fetishisation of a handful of concepts and words.50
As any competent user of the language may readily confirm, this isn't how we already use words like "understand", "think" and "to be aware"; we do not employ them to name inner objects and processes. This is shown by the fact that we ordinarily decide, for instance, whether someone has understood what is said by an appeal to outer criteria; we do not examine the contents of their heads, or try to access their mental imagery. If this is what we mean by "understanding" (that is, if we apply this word successfully on the basis of outer criteria like this, which are associated with publicly checkable performances, skills and achievements (as opposed to hidden and mysterious inner 'processes'), then the employment of this word to depict what goes on inside our heads will be seen for what it is -- the Platonic/Cartesian Paradigm in all but name.
Naturally, this last set of bald assertions needs some defending -- but, fortunately, very little.
Undeniably, language has developed and grown as result of the material interaction between human beings and the world. Manifestly, this didn't take place as a result of the occult deliberations of an obscure, inner ethereal entity (i.e., "consciousness", or "thought") beloved of tradition. That observation isn't just consonant with a Marxist view of the social nature of language and of human beings, it agrees with everyday linguistic and social practice. When studying the social and intellectual development of humanity, for example, archaeologists and historians would make no progress at all if they attempted to consider the machinations of these mythical inner objects and processes.51 What they do (what we all do), of course, is examine the conditions under which our ancestors lived -- the social/political forms these took --, their struggles, writings, inter-relationships, means of production and relations of exploitation, etc., etc. In addition to this, the study of artefacts, inscriptions, buildings, coffins, possessions, property relations, class structures, and so on, would add detail where necessary. This is what constitutes a materialist study of the past (and of the present, for that matter). If language is connected with our social development, then a materialist account of discourse and comprehension need take no heed of these hidden, 'inner objects and processes', even if sense could be made of them.
'Inner processes' like these aren't forever hidden from us because they are particularly well-concealed, and difficult to locate or inspect; there is in fact nothing there to study -- or, rather, it makes no sense to suppose there is -- and this is so for reasons given above (which are further elaborated upon below).
The contrary supposition that there are such occult (i.e., hidden) goings-on is fostered by yet another inappropriate use of language, itself a result of the influence of an archaic tradition, the Platonic/Christian/Cartesian Paradigm -- and nothing else. Apart from a crass misuse of words, coupled with this mystical tradition, there is nothing to suggest that such 'inner processes' exist. Indeed, that is why it was asserted above that these mysterious 'inner objects and processes' are immaterial (in both senses of that word); they couldn't feature in a material account of anything since they do not exist (or rather, once again, no sense can be made of the supposition that they do). In our practice we take no heed of them; our material use of language and our shared behaviour show that such 'objects and processes' are chimerical.51a
The social nature of language implies that individuals aren't free to attach their own private meaning to words so that these become the meaning of those words -- least of all a meaning that runs counter to the open and public application of terms like "understand", "thought", and "to be aware". This is partly because whatever personal gloss might be put on any such words -- as is the case with other social products, such as commodities --, their meaning/value is fixed by outer, not 'inner', material conditions. [This topic will be examined in more detail below.]
Hence, despite his disclaimers, Voloshinov's theory not only depends on just such a reification of language, it relies on an anthropomorphisation of the mind/brain. That is, it depends on a inner projection of outer social categories onto the aforementioned fictional, 'inner couch potato' -- i.e., onto what is, in all but name, the Cartesian Soul.
These seemingly dogmatic assertions will now be defended.
Murder On The Orienteering Express
To summarise: In connection with Voloshinov's claims about translation and "orienting" ourselves to another's speech, it is worth noting that unless listeners could confirm that they had translated their interlocutor's words into their 'own language' correctly they would be in no position to say whether or not they had successfully "oriented" themselves toward that speaker. But, how could they do that without already having understood what was said to them? Otherwise, any translation is going to seem right -- in which case we cannot talk about "right" (to paraphrase Wittgenstein).51b
Hence, the 'theory' of understanding being examined here implies that there must be a correct pre-translation of a speaker's words into the "inner speech" of his/her hearers if they are to "orient" themselves to that speaker aright. Hence, the claim that speakers have to "orientate" themselves to one another, if they are to understand what is said, is the reverse of the truth. They would in fact have to understand the words spoken to them before orientation could even begin (otherwise, on this 'theory' the supposed translation would itself be incomprehensible). In that case, the appeal to translation and orientation to account for understanding is an empty gesture, since it, too, would require the pre-existence of the very thing they had been introduced to explain -- i.e., the inter-subjective understanding of language.
Once again we see that the idea that understanding is a mysterious 'inner process' in need of scientific 'explanation' underlies this traditional approach to language, and because of that our capacity to understand one another suddenly becomes a 'philosophical problem'. But, there could be no philosophical problem concerning 'the understanding' that required for its resolution the application of a some sort of linguistic or psychological Superscience.51c That is because we should already have to be expert in the use of the word "understanding" even to be able to comprehend the formulation of the 'problem', let alone grasp its supposed 'solution'.
Naturally, this isn't to suggest that most scientists and philosophers don't find 'understanding' problematic, but that 'difficulty' is a direct result of conceptual confusion.
This can be seen from the fact that if scientists, for example, didn't already comprehend the word "understanding", they would be in no position to put together a single coherent sentence that expressed even the suspicion that there was a problem concerning 'understanding', to begin with -- nor would they be able to comprehend any of the proposed 'solutions'.
And that goes for Philosophers, too.
That is why the difficulties theorists claim to find with the use of words like "understanding" (and a host of other related terms) can be attributed to conceptual confusion; if they weren't already masters of this word, its application and associated vocabulary, they couldn't function as educated or competent adults. The fact that they find these concepts 'problematic' when they theorise about them -- as opposed to when they use this word along with its associated terms correctly every day -- shows they are conceptually confused. 'Problems' only arise when an attempt is made to interpret these terms theoretically (i.e., 'philosophically'), as the supposed names of these mysterious 'inner processes' (etc.).
Either that, or they are being deliberately disingenuous.
It could be objected here that the mere fact that we are competent users of certain words doesn't mean that understanding and communication aren't problematic. Human beings, for example, used words like "water" successfully for centuries, but it is ridiculous to suppose they understood its nature (i.e, it chemical structure or why it behaved the way it does) just because of that. In this case, the difficulty for scientists is to give a scientific account of how human understanding works; this task is thus one of providing a scientific/materialist theory of the way we internalise, or make sense of what is said to us (etc.). To give an analogy: able-bodied people can walk, but that doesn't mean that they know how they manage to do this (i.e., what muscles they use, etc.). And yet that doesn't prevent scientists from studying the physiology of walking in order to discover its underlying mechanism, etc.
Or, so an objection might go.
Alas, the above analogy is lame. First of all, our capacity to walk is plain for all to see, as is the existence of water. That capacity (and that substance) weren't conjured into existence by inappropriate nominalisations and reifications, as is the case with the internal processes assumed to be identical with, or constitutive of understanding. Second, we do not use walking in order to comprehend our ambulatory skills, but we have to understand something before it can become part of the explanation of anything -- and that includes the supposed 'inner processes' associated with understanding itself, as well as the nature of water. That requirement cannot be bypassed or circumvented. In short, we have to be experts at using language intelligently in order to grasp the supposed 'problem', let alone its alleged 'solution'. But, in this respect we already know all there is to know about the use of the word "understanding", and its related vocabulary. If we didn't, we would certainly fail to comprehend the original 'problem' or any proposed 'solution'. This isn't the case with walking or with the study of the chemistry of water. [Naturally, that fact doesn't prevent anyone studying the physical concomitants of walking, or the chemistry of water.]
So, the insistence that we need a theory of how 'understanding' works (as part of a scientific or philosophical account of 'the mind') was, as a matter of fact, first motivated by a series of linguistic false moves, and nothing more. As noted above, traditionally, the phrase "the understanding" (and related concepts/expressions) were interpreted as the names of inner processes (as part of the Platonic/Christian/Cartesian tradition), and that was in turn motivated by the nominalisation of verbs like "to understand", "to think", "to imagine" (etc.). This means that the only evidence that there are such 'inner objects and processes' is a series of spurious nominalisations and incautious reifications!52
It is worth emphasising this point since most theorists either ignore it or fail to recognise its significance: the only 'evidence' that there are any wild geese here that need chasing is this spurious set of nominalisations. Hence, this phoney 'chase' depends solely on the idea that if there are such names, there must be objects and processes (in nature, or in our heads) which answer to them. [We have met 'word-magic' like this several times before, in other Essays at this site -- particularly here, and here.]
In fact, to call a philosophical investigation of this sort a "wild goose chase" would be to slander wild geese -- at least they had the decency to exist before they were chased!
The Material Roots Of Thought
Again, it could be objected that something physical must be responsible for our understanding if we are to base it on real material processes. In that case, as materialists we have little choice but to attribute the capacity to form thoughts (etc.) to processes at work in the CNS -- mediated by practice, subjectivity, and ideology, etc. Such thoughts and processes are emergent features of complex structures that have evolved as result of our intelligent use of language -- which are themselves materially/dialectically-grounded in our social and economic development. In that case, the nominalisations referred to above needn't imply that a single 'entity' answering to a given name is responsible for all, or even most of our psychological abilities, processes, states or skills. It could be the case that a series of (suitably complex, dialectical) processes in the brain (mediated by the other features mentioned above) underlay the original emergence of 'consciousness', and thus of understanding (etc.), from its material base.52a
Or, so it could be maintained.
Despite this, it is worth re-iterating the fact that the only 'evidence' to suggest that there are 'processes' at work in the brain/CNS (etc.), which underlie 'consciousness' and 'the understanding' (etc.), are these nominalisations and reifications. In fact, apart from tradition (i.e., the dominant Platonic/Cartesian Paradigm), the idea held by revolutionaries that there must be such 'processes' is itself motivated by the misguided belief that materialism somehow requires it.53
[I examine the evidence that is usually put forward that purports to show that there are such processes in the CNS (etc.) in Note 53.]
To be sure, some might want to argue that if mental events had no material/dialectical base, that would leave it open for others to postulate a non-material platform for human 'consciousness', which would clearly have untoward and unwelcome Idealist implications.
Of course, Idealists are going to argue for an immaterial mind whatever we say. But, in order to avoid the implication that their theory leaves room for immaterialism, materialists have simply assumed they have no choice but to postulate just such a 'material foundation' for thought in hypothetical processes in the CNS (but which aren't reducible to them), etc. However, what this material base could possibly be is seldom spelled-out in any detail. And no wonder! Given Lenin's 'definition' of matter, it isn't at all clear whether any such account could ever be given.54
Be this as it may, HM doesn't in fact require such a (metaphysical) theory of 'consciousness'.55 That, of course, hasn't stopped dialecticians from wanting to impose their version of this Ancient Paradigm on hypothetical processes and structures in the brain, 'the mind', or the CNS -- despite the constant refrain that they never do this. Nevertheless, this imposition involves them reading into the phenomena the view that 'consciousness' is an "emergent property" of the CNS -- dialectically linked to increased neural complexity, social development and practice -- in order to support the idea that there is (or could be) a 'scientific' or dialectical theory of 'mental phenomena' not reducible to the "crude" operation of mere "matter and motion".55a
There is no little irony here: in order to avoid Idealism, DM-theorists have spirited ("divined") into existence several highly obscure 'concepts' (which, by shear coincidence, turn out to have been borrowed from Traditional Metaphysics and Neo-Platonic Mysticism, thus imbuing their ideas -- even here -- with an impeccable ruling-class pedigree). But, these 'concepts' readily collapse into LIE since they, too, are dependent on the derivation of a set of psychological truths from the (altered/distorted) meaning of certain words. In trying to avoid Idealism, DM-theorists have simply slipped right back into it!
[This process is explained in detail in Essay Twelve Part One and here.]
[LIE = Linguistic Idealism.]
Unfortunately, few branches of science are as suffused with conceptual confusion as Psychology (and that comment doesn't just apply to DM-theories of cognition). It is highly doubtful, therefore, whether Voloshinov's attempts to clarify matters will greatly alter this state of affairs (despite the plaudits of his epigones).56
'Inner Speech' And Psychosis
It could be objected here that while Voloshinov himself provides no evidence in support of his claims, there is evidence that substantiates what he says, and John Parrington's article, for instance, has summarised some of it for us.
Evidence -- Or Supposition?
However, when we examine the assembled 'evidence' we find it is indirect and allusive, at best. In fact, Parrington's 'evidence' is perhaps more accurately to be described as mere supposition. As he himself admits (but note once again the Cartesian language!):
"The problem with studying inner speech is that it is impossible to observe directly using objective scientific methods, hidden as it is within the mind of the individual. However, much valuable information about [inner speech's -- RL] character has emerged by using some ingenious indirect methods….
"…An excellent attempt at describing what inner speech would sound like if we could actually hear it is James Joyce's Ulysses….
"…A study of literature may seem a strange way to investigate the workings of the mind, but Bakhtin believed that novels 'permit readers to see things that are obscured by the restraints on expression in other applications of language.'…
"…[M]atters become necessarily more speculative once we start to consider some of the possible concrete mechanisms whereby social change is translated into change in consciousness itself. Part of the problem will always be our inability to access inner speech directly. However, it should be clear from Voloshinov's work, as well as that of Bakhtin and Vygotsky, that a wide range of sources can be used successfully as an indirect source of information about our thought processes…." [Parrington (1997), pp.134-35, 141, 143. Bold emphases added. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
But, if we can't access "inner speech" directly, how do we know it even exists? Worse still: Do we have any idea what the phrase "inner speech" could possibly mean? Are we to imagine that cells or neurons in our heads hold conversations with each other? Must we suppose that certain "modules" in the brain chat amongst themselves over the synaptic fence? Does the brain give lectures to the spinal chord?
Is Parrington perhaps referring to sub-vocal movements of the larynx? That is, to 'outer speech' with the volume turned way down?56a0
In fact, Parrington finds he has to refer to James Joyce's Ulysses to provide his readers with a vague sort of idea what "inner speech" is. But, if we all know (from introspection?) what "inner speech" is, we should hardly have to be told. Anyway, Parrington's own phrasing indicates that few of us (if any) know what this mysterious 'inner process' actually is. This can be seen from his use of the prefixing clause: "if we could actually hear" "inner speech". He wouldn't have needed to add that rider if we all knew what to listen out for, or what he was talking about.
In addition, it is also worth asking how Parrington knows that certain novels reveal "inner speech" to us. All he says in support of this odd idea is this:
"An excellent attempt at describing what inner speech would sound like if we could actually hear it is James Joyce's Ulysses…." [Ibid., p.135. Bold emphasis added.]
But, if he has never heard "inner speech", and no one else has, how could he possibly know that certain novels can reveal anything to us in this regard? Apparently, Parrington's only evidence that the above novel (along with its many cryptic allusions to everything under the Sun?) can serve as an accurate (scientific!?) source is based on a belief expressed by Bakhtin (a non-scientist!) about novels in general. Exactly how Bakhtin himself knew that certain novels record "inner speech" is no less mysterious. No doubt, as Lenin said of Hegel, Bakhtin must have "divined" it.
[Several detailed comments about Vygotsky's work will be added at the end of this Essay at a later date. Until then the reader is directed to Chapter Ten of Williams (1999) -- 'Vygotsky's Social Theory of Mind'.]
Perhaps then, Parrington is alluding to soliloquy, or to other vocal/sub-vocal ramblings? If he is, then we already understand what these are, and we have direct access to them (unlike "inner speech"). Moreover, and better, we don't need to be referred to examples taken from obscure "stream of consciousness" novels to tell us any more about these phenomena, nor need we appeal to indirect evidence to identify them (again, unlike "inner speech").
If so, Parrington can't be referring to soliloquy (etc.). Perhaps he is alluding to the thinking we all supposedly engage in while awake, or while reading (say)? If so, why call this "inner speech"?
Maybe, then, Parrington referring to the low mumblings that certain individuals produce as they read? But, not everyone mumbles sub-vocally to themselves when reading. In fact, speed readers don't mumble at all. Even so, and once again, we already know what this is, and we have direct access to it (unlike "inner speech").
Nevertheless, this 'inner dialogue', about which we are all supposedly aware -- or half aware --, which allegedly accompanies our waking moments, is perhaps Parrington's best candidate so far. But, we can all hear (in the sense of "attend to") this commentary, so it can't be "inner speech" either, or Parrington wouldn't have had to labour this point quite so much. We'd all know what he was on about if this were the right candidate.
More pressing however is this question: how does this approach to 'inner speech' manage to avoid undermining belief in the social nature of language?
Gilbert Ryle's comments are oddly apposite here (since they were based on a firm and unequivocal commitment to the social nature of language):
"This trick of talking to oneself in silence is acquired neither quickly nor without effort; and it is a necessary condition of our acquiring it that we should have previously learned to talk intelligently aloud and have heard and understood other people doing so. Keeping our thoughts to ourselves is a sophisticated accomplishment. It was not until the Middle Ages that people learned to read without reading aloud. Similarly a boy has to learn to read aloud before he learns to read under his breath, and prattle aloud before he prattles to himself. Yet many theorists have supposed that the silence in which most of us have learned to think is a defining property of thought. Plato said that in thinking the soul is talking to itself. But silence, though often convenient, is inessential, as is the restriction of the audience to one recipient.
"The combination of the two assumptions that theorizing is the primary activity of minds and that theorizing is intrinsically a private, silent, or internal operation remains one of the main supports of the dogma of the ghost in the machine. People tend to identify their minds with the 'place' where they conduct their secret thoughts. They even come to suppose that there is a special mystery about how we publish our thoughts instead of realizing that we employ a special artifice to keep them to ourselves." [Ryle (1949a), p.28. Bold emphasis and link added.]
Although Voloshinov gives lip service to the social nature of language, his commitment to 'inner speech' only succeeds in undermining that commitment (as we have seen at the above link). It seems that Parrington's approach does likewise.
Be this as it may, Parrington then proceeds to tell us that one of the major features of "inner speech" is:
"...its predicative (subject-less) character. A child talking to itself 'already knows' what he or she is talking about and therefore there is no need for naming the subject…. Inner speech must be even more telegraphic and abbreviated, and probably uses words that are highly personally coded -- that is they have a private meaning for the person who is using them, which may be different from their accepted social meaning." [Parrington (1997), p.135.]
Here, he is drawing on a limited contrast between "inner speech", soliloquy and the ramblings of children. While all of these are "predicative" to some extent, "inner speech" is perhaps even more so -- or, so he tells us. But, the subjectless nature of such 'language' here isn't unique to any of them. Conversations between two or more people often take much for granted, including the subject of discussion. Many are "predicative", and many are coded (think of Cockney Rhyming Slang, 'rap', etc.). So, it seems that "inner speech" is much like "outer speech" in this regard, too.56a
This, of course, only deepens the mystery; if "inner" and "outer" speech are no different, at least in this respect, why all the fuss? And how is it possible for the allegedly "private meanings" of certain words to engage with, or be captured by, "inner speech" and thus be of any use? If certain meanings and certain words are private, even though no one can hear the 'speech' that is supposed to encapsulate them (otherwise Parrington would have appealed to that phenomenon as a fact, and thus wouldn't have bothered with all that "indirect" evidence), what linguistic function could they possibly serve? How could 'private meanings' even be recorded (imprinted) if no one has access to them, and no one can hear them?56b
Anyway, it is reasonably clear from other things that Parrington says that he is alluding to something much deeper than mere soliloquy, as he himself notes:
"…[I]nner speech is the link between thought and language…. [T]here is a gap between thought and words…inner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped…." [Ibid., p.135.]
If "inner speech" stands between "thought" and language, then it can't be identified with any meaningful use of language, let alone any that is exhibited in soliloquy.
However, Parrington is rather coy about what this 'something' actually is. Even so, he does refer his readers to studies that Vygotsky completed several generations ago (pp.133ff.), but he failed to direct them to more recent research carried out into this obscure phenomenon (it if is one!) -- for example, that supposedly relating to children.57
Even if Parrington had done this, we would still be no further forward, for we still have absolutely no idea what "inner speech" is; until that daunting problem -- in fact it is a pseudo-problem, as we have seen, and will see -- is resolved we are in no position to decide what would even count as evidence for or against 'its' existence. If we haven't a clue what we are looking for, any evidence gathered could, for all anyone knows, relate to something else, or, indeed, to nothing at all. As noted in Essay Six: you can look for your keys if you don't know where they are, but not if you don't know what they are.
Moreover, it is unclear how Vygotsky himself was able to study something that Parrington elsewhere declares no one can directly experience. If Vygotsky had in fact succeeded in listening to the "inner speech" of children as they spoke to him, as they conversed with others or as they babbled to themselves, then this would make "inner speech" look pretty direct, and hence unproblematic, since it would be a clear example of these children learning to soliloquise, or, indeed, to ramble aloud. Such phenomena then, if that is what Vygotsky observed (or was referring to), wouldn't count as "inner speech" -- at least, not as Parrington seems to understand the term.58
All this is, of course, in addition to the serious philosophical difficulties (outlined earlier) associated with "inner speech".
An Interface Between 'Thought' And Language?
Putting these annoying quibbles to one side for now, Parrington clearly wants to read more into "inner speech" than even the dearth of 'evidence' he presents permits, for, as we saw above, a few pages later we are informed that:
"…[I]nner speech is the link between thought and language…. [T]here is a gap between thought and words…inner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped…." [Ibid., p.135.]
How Parrington knows that "inner speech" is such a link he once again failed to say. [It is to be hoped he isn't trying to impose yet another thesis on the brain/'mind'!]
The question now is: Is "inner speech" even a linguistic phenomenon? If it is, how could it be an interface between language and 'thought'? If 'thought' and language absolutely require such an intermediary, and "inner speech" is indeed a linguistic phenomenon, then there would have to be an analogous link between 'thought' and "inner speech", too. On the other hand, if "inner speech" doesn't itself need such an interface with 'thought', why then is one needed between ordinary 'outer' language and 'thought'? Alternatively, if "inner speech" isn't a linguistic phenomenon, why call it "speech" and credit it with other linguistic features, such as meaning and predicativity), in the first place?
More problematic, however, is the fact that the occurrence of episodic bouts of "inner speech" -- if they aren't examples of soliloquy, etc. -- would normally be regarded as clear evidence of a psychotic personality disorder in the one so afflicted. Given what little we are told, such inner voices would be a sure sign, not of a fluid interface between 'thought' and language, but of a deranged or split personality. Small wonder then that Ulysses seemed to some to be so apposite. What next? The 'memoirs' of Charles Manson or Peter Sutcliffe?
The Meaning Of Meaning
Nevertheless, if we reconsider the following words, they might help us understand what Parrington really means:
"…[I]nner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped, based on the emotional, practical and social experience of the individual…." [Ibid., pp.135-36.]
But, what sense of "meaning" is this? Is Parrington speaking about linguistic meaning? If so, it would be of little use in helping us understand Voloshinov, for according to him:
"Meaning does not reside in the word or in the soul of the speaker or in the soul of the listener. Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener produced via the material of a particular sound complex." [Voloshinov (1973), pp.102-03. Bold emphases added.]
Plainly, such an "interaction" cannot reside in the head of either interactor. Hence, if Parrington is trying to make Voloshinov's ideas clear, contradicting him is hardly a good place to begin!
[However, as we have seen (here and here), the source of this difficulty lies in the fact that Voloshinov can't seem to make his own mind up whether meaning is a social phenomenon or whether it is a private, 'internal' affair. Parrington has obviously inherited this confusion, too.]
Of course, part of the problem here is the fact that the word "meaning" itself has many different meanings; here are just a few:
(1) Personal Significance: as in "His Teddy Bear means a lot to him."
(2) Evaluative Import: as in "May Day means different things to different classes."
(3) Point or Purpose: as in "Life has no meaning."
(4) Linguistic Meaning, or Synonymy: as in "'Vixen' means 'female fox'", "'Chien' means 'dog'", "Comment vous appelez-vous?" means "What's your name?", or "Recidivist" means someone who has resumed their criminal career.
(5) Aim or Intention: as in "They mean to win this strike."
(6) Implication: as in "Winning this dispute means that management won't try another wage cut again in a hurry."
(7) Indicate, Point to, or Presage: as in "Those clouds mean rain", "Those spots mean you have measles", or "That expression means she's angry".
(8) Reference: as in "I mean him over there", or "'The current president of the USA' means somebody different at most once every eight years."
(9) Artistic or Literary Import: as in "The meaning of this novel is to highlight the steep decline in political integrity."
(10) Conversational Focus: as in "I mean, why do we have to accept a measly 1% offer in the first place?"
(11) Expression of Sincerity or Determination: as in "I mean it, I do want to go on the march!", or "The demonstrators really mean to stop this war."
(12) Content of a Message, or the Import of a Sign: as in "It means the strike starts on Monday", or "It means you have to queue here."
(13) Interpretation: as in "You will need to read the author's novels if you want to give new meaning to her latest play", or "That gesture means those pickets think you are a scab."
(14) Import or Significance: as in "Part of the meaning of this play is to change our view of drama", or "The real meaning of this agreement is that the bosses have at last learnt their lesson."
(15) Speaker's Meaning: as in "When you trod on her foot and she said 'Well done!' she in fact meant the exact opposite".
(16) Communicative Meaning: as in "You get my meaning", or "My last letter should tell you what I meant", or "We have just broken the code, hence the last message meant this...."
(17) Explanation: as in "When the comrade said the strike isn't over what she meant was that we can still win!", or "What is the meaning of this? Explain yourself!"
(18) Translation, or a Request for
Translation -- as in "What does 'Il pleut' mean in German?"59
This isn't to suggest that these are the only meanings of "meaning", or that several of the examples listed don't overlap. [For example, items (4) and (17) intersect, as do (5) and (11), and (9) and (14), as well as (4) and (18).]
From what little Parrington says, it looks as if he might have meant (i.e., "intended") senses (1), (2), and, of course, (15).
Nevertheless, it seems reasonably clear that many of the problems confronting Parrington, Holborow and Voloshinov's accounts of language arise from their failure to notice that this apparently simple word (i.e., "meaning", and its cognates) is in fact highly complex. Because these comrades have conflated several different connotations of this word, their ideas naturally create confusion instead of dispelling it -- as we have seen.
However, and once more: In this they are in good company: most Traditional Philosophers have done (and still do) the very same thing.60
Mind The Gap
Earlier we had occasion to quote the following passage from Parrington's article:
"…[I]nner speech is the link between thought and language…. [T]here is a gap between thought and words…inner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped…." [Parrington (1997), p.135.]
The first thing that strikes one about the above comment is that Parrington appears to think that thought and language are distinct, so that the former can exist without the latter. This might be to misinterpret him, but he does invite misinterpretation when he says such things. [On this, see here.]
Now, although Parrington asserts that there is here a "gap", he neglected to show that there is indeed one. Worse still, he failed to explain what a supposition like this could possibly mean. For example, might such a "gap" be measured in centimetres, seconds, or missing teeth? If not, what sort of "gap" is this? Is it a literal "gap" (like the space that exists between the platform and trains in certain underground stations), or is it metaphorical (like a gap in someone's memory)?
Well, perhaps he is alluding to an explanatory "gap"? But, if so, there is no such thing. If, per impossible, there were, it would 'close' even before it 'opened'. This is because the supposition that there is such a "gap" would have to be expressed in the same medium either side of the supposed divide -- in thought and in language --, thereby 'closing' the alleged "gap". Plainly, the thought that there might be such a "gap" and its linguistic expression are one and the same.61
To some, these claims might seem somewhat dogmatic, if not perverse and wrong-headed. Hence, it could be argued that if there is an objective gap between thought and language, the above constraints on its explanation, even if correct, are surely irrelevant. The gap either exists or it doesn't -- or so the argument might go.
However, any who doubt the claims made in the last but one paragraph are invited to say to themselves: "There is a gap between thought and language" and then repeat the same 'thought' without using any words at all! Upon doing that (or, in fact, upon failing to do it!), they will soon see there is no such "gap".61a
Indeed, it is worth reminding ourselves that the deflationary argument presented above was originally aimed at countering the idea that there is an explanatory gap in our knowledge, and it sought to establish (indirectly) that our mastery of language shows that no such "gap" exists -- in the sense that the supposition itself made no sense, not that it was empirically false. This is largely because the formulation of the thought that there is such a "gap" and its linguistic expression are one and the same, as we have seen.62
All of this is quite apart from the fact that the supposition that there is a "gap" is itself based on the idea that the words used to describe 'either side' of it are the names of 'internal objects and processes'. In turn, the existence of these 'internal objects and processes' is based solely on this nominalisation! Because of this, 'language' and 'thought' have now been separated -- thus producing this spurious "gap" -- by the simple expedient of inventing artificial names like these, and nothing more! Hence, the "gap" Parrington refers to is a consequence of this linguistic false step.
Or, so things at least seemed to the traditional theorists who invented this way of depicting the 'mind' (even if they might not have put it this way!). Plainly, this meant that these spurious entities ('thought' and 'language') needed to be 're-connected'.
[However, this is just as empty a supposition as thinking that the word "God" and the word "Satan" imply there is a gap between these two! What two?!]
From this knotted web of confusion out popped the 'philosophical problem' of the 'gap' between 'language' and 'thought' -- and, indeed, between 'mind' and brain!
In that case, all we have here is yet another spurious 'problem' that has arisen from a crass use/distortion of ordinary language -- and nothing more.
Again, as Marx noted:
On the other hand, if the words "language" and "thought", for example, do not actually name, or refer to any such objects and processes, then the assumption that there is a "gap" between the things they supposedly denote is baseless.
[On this, see Note 61. The idea that all words are names was debunked in Essay Three Part One.]
In which case, not only is there no "gap", there are no (named) objects or processes here to form one. As should now seem clear, here as elsewhere, this "gap" has only opened up because of the literal interpretation of an inapt metaphor -- compounded by yet another distortion of language.62a0
Nevertheless, it could be objected that this doesn't even begin to deal with the scientific problem of the relation between language and thought. Hence, it could be pointed out that Parrington might have meant that there is a gap in the current scientific explanation of the connection between thought and language, one that Voloshinov's ideas help close. That appears to be why Parrington said the following:
"However, this still leaves us with the question of the concrete mechanisms whereby this process takes place." [Parrington (1997), p.136.]
From this it seems that the supposed "gap" might be a euphemism for our profound lack of knowledge of the physical, mental or psychological mechanisms/causal links, or indeed "mediations", that connect 'thought' and 'language'.
But, a few lines earlier Parrington had already declared that:
"Language, therefore, is not just an expression of otherwise independent and fully formed thought, but rather is a necessary form of the thought's realisation." [Ibid., p.135.]
This appears to mean that our only handle on thought is purely linguistic. This further seems to suggest that Parrington himself half accepts the view that (1) thought isn't in fact an aspect of the 'mind' that can be isolated independently of its linguistic expression, and that (2) there is thus no "gap" between thought and language, after all.
[However, things aren't quite this simple. On that, see Note 61, again.]
Nevertheless, there are other things that Parrington says which suggest he failed to appreciate the significance of the above admission. As we found with "meaning", the word "thought" (and its cognates) is more complex than most theorists acknowledge. Again, it is only when philosophers try to theorise about this 'concept' (and thus restrict the meaning of the word "thought" to what goes on in our heads) -- as opposed to when they use language normally to express their thoughts and to understand the thoughts of others -- that confusion arises.62a
If so, there is no object or 'mental process' here called "thought";63 any supposition to the contrary can only have been prompted by yet another inept linguistic reification. Moreover, what is true of "thought" is also true of "language" (and for the same reason). In which case, there aren't two objects or processes here (inside or outside the head) for there to be a "gap" between, or for science to study.64
The fact that Parrington has been misled -- as have so many others -- by a series of spurious reifications like this is confirmed by the way he poses the problem: it is only if thought and language are understood as literally two sorts of objects/processes that a "gap" could emerge between them (even if this is just an explanatory "gap"). Otherwise, his use of this word is surely metaphorical.
Bridging The Gap?
Be this as it may, traditionally, several competing media have been proposed as carriers of thought, or which are capable of bridging the alleged 'gap' between these two nominalised 'entities' ('thought' and 'language'). For example, (1) Some hold that one side of this 'divide' consists of material processes and events, while the other side comprises the mental and/or psychological concomitants of language/thought. (2) Another view sees mental processes linked to words (or proto-words, or semantic structures) physically represented (somehow) in the brain (as 'concepts', or "signs" (Voloshinov's view)), or in some other inchoate form. There are of course many other possibilities. Indeed, while there are parts of Parrington's article that suggest he might have favoured the second of these options, others indicate that he might in fact have preferred the first.
Whichever set of functional inter-connections Parrington accepts, both of those mentioned above are motivated by the inappropriate metaphors already highlighted --, i.e., those that represent the contents of our heads as 'objects' or 'processes' of some sort, which stand in specific (if changing) relationships with one another. So, on one side of the "gap" we might have material events and/or processes; on the other, 'mental' or 'psychological events'. Alternatively, one side might consist of 'mental events' ('thoughts'), while the other is comprised of 'internal representations' of linguistic expressions (in the 'mind', or in 'consciousness') etc., etc.65 Even so, wherever the boundary between these disparate entities is imagined to fall, and whatever supposedly lies either side of it, Parrington seems to believe that "inner speech" can be slotted neatly into the resulting "gap".
"…[I]nner speech is the link between thought and language…. [T]here is a gap between thought and words…inner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped…." [Ibid., p.135.]
But, the "gap" itself appeared out of nowhere as a result of the reification of a metaphor (which pictures thoughts as objects or processes), and nothing more.
Well, is there anything to recommend this (traditional) view over and above the (inapt) metaphors and nominalisations from which it emerged? It seems not --. or if there is, Parrington was remarkably quiet about it. In that case, if there is nothing to recommend this picture other than the linguistic distortions/misapplications outlined above, maybe we should re-direct our attention to the motives of those materialists who think there is, or should be, something that fills this "gap".
Perhaps these motives arise from a genuine desire to find a materialist-sounding explanation for 'consciousness'? This might involve, inter alia, an attempt to go behind the social conventions that already exist for expressing our thoughts and talking about them, in order to trace their material roots in the CNS (etc.). But, why would anyone want to go behind social convention in order to account for human thought? It would seem that only the politically naive or those with overtly anti-socialist aims and intentions would want to do this. In that case, have those Marxists who have toyed with these ideas been duped once again into accepting an alien-class agenda, and the adoption of a ruling-class view, not just of nature, but now of the 'Mind'? It isn't easy to resist that conclusion in view of the Idealist implications of this approach, outlined earlier, and again below.66
However, the problem with attempts to go behind convention lies not so much with the ideological compromise this introduces (on that, see Essay Twelve Part One, and here), but with the fact that those who venture in this direction are forced to employ words they already comprehend as competent language-users as if they didn't! Or, they have to use words which now have to be interpreted/used in odd ways in order to convince themselves that there is a 'problem' here, and hence that there is such a "gap", to begin with.
But, this worry (and this alleged 'problem') has only arisen because of the misuse of these very same ordinary words, again, as Marx noted:
Indeed, those so minded have to persuade themselves that there is a 'scientific problem' about the reference of these transmogrified 'concepts', when the ordinary terms used to set the 'problem' up weren't referential to begin with. That is because these ordinary words do not in fact represent anything, they merely facilitate description and communication (based on criteria available/applicable in the public domain). In effect, as has been pointed out in many of the Essays at this site (and as Marx indicated), such theorists fall prey to the idea that scientific-sounding philosophical 'problems' can be manufactured to order by the simple expedient of misusing ordinary language.
The upshot is that this set of linguistic moves involves a distortion of the very medium it had been intended to explain (i.e., language), turning the word "thought", for instance, into a name, when it functions typically as a verb (or, predicatively, as a descriptive, not a referential, term). We have encountered this dodge several times before; this is just the latest unfortunate (but almost universally misconstrued) example.67
Hence, in order to motivate this 'scientific' enquiry, a 'problem' had first to be created where none before existed. [And, it is worth recalling that it had originally been motivated by assorted mystics and priests.] In order to do this, it had to be shown (or, rather, it was merely hinted at and insinuated -- it was never demonstrated) that our ordinary words and phrases relating to our psychological lives (e.g., verbs/compound verbs, like "to think", "to be aware", "to understand", etc.) were limited, defective, contradictory or misleading -- or at least that they were superficial, non-'philosophical', pre-scientific, or they merely reflected 'folk psychology'. To that end, these perfectly ordinary expressions are torn from their usual contexts and turned into the names of metaphysical objects, containers or processes, so that these 'private objects and processes' could be re-located inside our heads -- opening up the very "gap" that traditional theorists, and others, then spent the next two thousand four hundred years trying (unsuccessfully) to close or bridge!
An alternative strategy turned ordinary words into the names of the 'inner' psychological attributes of that all-wise, all-knowing, constantly jabbering, surrogate in-house theatre critic (i.e., "inner speech", mentioned earlier, which serially explains the stream of life to each of us in terms we instantly understand, since we are apparently too dim to comprehend such things for ourselves) -- a source we implicitly trust, that has our inner ear at all times, and to whose own "speech" we must, and always do, attend if we are to grasp what others say to us -- but whose own "speech" is readily comprehensible and has no need for its own 'inner, inner' intercessor. [This is, of course, the Platonic/Christian/Cartesian soul in all but name.]
In all this it was just assumed that because we are all familiar with these ordinary psychological words in their normal everyday contexts, a radical change in their use won't affect their meaning. Either that, or it is simply taken for granted that part of the meaning of ordinary words -- i.e., whatever it is that helps us use them in normal contexts -- can be transposed without alteration into entirely novel contexts. Plainly, the intention here was to investigate perfectly normal phenomena (like our ability to think) when no literal sense can be made of the novel use of language necessary to usher in these 'problems' -- without, of course, conjuring into existence that super-loquacious, 'inner' invisible intercessor again.
In effect, language was taken on a trip -- it went "on holiday", to paraphrase Wittgenstein.68 Words were uprooted and flown off on a mystery tour, dressed in outlandish -- nay garish -- clothing so that they looked entirely alien and 'problematic'. While away on the merry jaunt they are encouraged to do outlandish things -- they became 'metaphysically drunk', as it were, encouraging all manner of strange ideas and goings-on -- and they found themselves in totally alien surroundings. This linguistic vacation 'allowed' theorists to derive immaterialist, if not ghostly Idealist conclusions from it -- theories which were (unsurprisingly) conducive to a ruling-class/mystical view of the human 'condition'/'soul'.68a
Even so, never questioned (and seldom justified) is the spurious legitimacy that this 'linguistic mystery tour' conferred on the metaphysical and super-scientific theories that were 'derived' from it over the centuries. Indeed, this is just one more reason why ruling-class ideas become the ruling ideas -- and they rule, alas, Marxist thought, too. Few comrades even so much as question this picture! In fact, this is one area where right-wing ideologues and Marxists share common ground (even if they severally paint the same picture using different metaphors, and employ them in different ways).
Worse still: not only did the more recent 'bourgeois twist' give life to the 'rational economic mind'. it opened up the metaphysical space for ruling-class ideas about humanity and nature to dominate and distort our ideas about ourselves and hence our relation to the 'status quo' -- receiving spurious 'scientific' support dressed-up these days in Neo-Darwinian finery.68b
Unfortunately, this 'virus of the mind' -- the metaphysical approach to language and 'mind' -- seduces far too many erstwhile materialists into thinking boss-class, immaterialist, individualistic thoughts of their own. Not so much divide and rule, then, as: duped and ruled.69
Whatever merits the philosophical-sounding arguments in favour of such an alien approach to language and 'mind' possess, the results seem clear enough: This distortion of language (i.e., the transmogrification of all words into names designating abstract entities, concepts, ideas, essences, substances, processes or events) amounts to its fetishisation -- i.e., the distortion of social forms of communication, so that what had once been a result of the relation between human beings (language) is transformed into the real relations between things, or into those things themselves -- or, indeed, into linguistic forms that represent these things 'in our heads'.69a
And, this is all the more unimpressive when Marxists are co-opted to this end.70
Apart from this, there is little to recommend the traditional approach.71
On the other hand, perhaps Parrington meant by "thought" something pre-linguistic. [Indeed, it seems he does.] Alternatively, maybe he holds that the "mind" is a sort of 'container' in which "mental entities" mill around, occasionally bobbing to the surface from time to time in 'conscious' linguistic forms --, or even that they do so disguised as "images", "feelings" or "emotions"?72
Parrington's reference to Freud's "unconscious" (pp.139-40) suggests that he does indeed incline in this direction. If so, this is bad news.73 The nature of the "unconscious" is obscure, at best -- despite the totally undeserved fame Freud enjoys for having 'discovered' 'it'. In fact, it is now clear that other ruling-class theorists had already concocted this notion decades, if not centuries, earlier.74
It is highly doubtful whether scientific knowledge will be advanced much by the use of fictional notions like this -- which are themselves the product of further linguistic distortion/fetishisation.
However, since Parrington didn't outline his ideas in this area in any great detail, little more can be said about them.
Public Meaning -- Private Muttering
Despite the above dead end, what sense can be made of the following claim?
"Inner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped, based on the emotional, practical and social experience of the individual." [Parrington (1997), pp.135-36.]
This idea is connected with his earlier comments on something else Parrington found in Voloshinov:
"A related feature of inner speech that Voloshinov pointed to was that it is more concerned with 'sense' rather than 'meaning'. In this definition, meaning is the dictionary definition of a word, for instance cat: 'a furry domestic quadruped'. Sense, on the other hand, refers to the whole set of psychological events aroused by a word, such as the personal memories of your own pet and its mannerisms, the feel of its fur and so on. It contains activities, impressions and personal meanings, not just accepted social definitions. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense." [Ibid., p.135.]
From this it looks like Parrington is interpreting/translating Voloshinov's word "theme" as "sense".75
[Incidentally, in what follows, since Parrington is using "sense" in a different way to my use of typographically the same word, in order to prevent confusion I will use "senseRL" to distinguish the latter from the former, but only in this section. (My use of "sense" is explained in Essay Twelve Part One.) I use the senseRL in the following way: it expresses what we understand to be the case for the proposition (or indicative sentence) in question to be true or what we understand to be the case for the proposition in question to be false, even if we don't know whether it is actually true or whether it is actually false, and may never do so -- the comprehension of which allows us to understand that proposition before we know whether it is true or whether it is false. More on that here, too.]
Unfortunately, the above passage is rather unclear. If the "sense" of a linguistic expression relates to aspects of an individual's personal recollections, intimate feelings and idiosyncratic associations, which each user brings to language, then how are we to understand the following?
"A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense." [Ibid., p.135. Bold emphasis added.]
This passage tells us that a word "acquires its sense from the context in which it appears" (emphasis added), not from the contingent associations a speaker attaches to it.
Perhaps Parrington meant by "context" the immediate framework of a speaker's life, her memories, associations and 'values', as well as the social situation in which she might find herself -- or even a 'dialectical' combination of these and other related considerations?76
But, how does any of this relate to the public use of language, which is its primary function? Private associations may add flavour (or "tone", as certain Analytic Philosophers have called it) to some of our words, but they cannot affect their linguistic meaning, as we have already seen. Or, rather, they can no more do so than, say, a person's idiosyncratic view of money can affect its public, economic value.
Even so, it is reasonably clear from what Parrington does say that for him the linguistic meaning of words is (at least implicitly) the dominant factor here. For instance, unless the word "cat" meant (linguistically) what it actually does mean, the correct images, feelings, associations (etc.) wouldn't be prompted in the 'mind' of the individual using or hearing that word (that is, if any are). If everyone associated what they liked (or what their psychological make-up initiates) with any of their words, and this was the deciding factor influencing linguistic meaning, then the word "cat" could conjure up a dislike for fish fingers, fond memories of the last time they joined a strike, their hatred of Norman Tebbit, or, indeed, anything whatsoever.
Of course, Parrington doesn't deny this; in fact, he says:
"A related feature of inner speech that Voloshinov pointed to was that it is more concerned with 'sense' rather than 'meaning'. In this definition, meaning is the dictionary definition of a word, for instance cat: 'a furry domestic quadruped'. Sense, on the other hand, refers to the whole set of psychological events aroused by a word, such as the personal memories of your own pet and its mannerisms, the feel of its fur and so on. It contains activities, impressions and personal meanings, not just accepted social definitions. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense." [Ibid., p.135. Bold emphasis added.]77
But, he couldn't have argued this way -- i.e., that the word "cat" conjured up the sorts of associations he mentions -- if a particular user failed to employ the word as the rest of us do, that is, to talk (typically) about cats. If so, the public meaning (use) of any word must be primary, even for Parrington (and Voloshinov). With that observation, Parrington's entire case is completely undermined; if public meaning (use) in fact governs 'outer' and "inner speech" (if, that is, the latter exists!), then contingent idiosyncratic associations must drop out of the picture as far as linguistic and communicative meaning are concerned. The contingent associations Parrington lists are parasitic -- or derivative --, at best. Naturally, that is why when someone talks about cats, for instance, what they say will readily be comprehended by anyone who knows how to use the word "cat" without having the associations Parrington mentions, or without ever having owned a cat.
Of course, the sheer ordinariness of the word "cat" obscures this point. Anyone who remains unconvinced should try arguing as Parrington does with less common words/phrases -- such as "eggplant", or "oxbow lake" -- or, indeed, attempt to spell out the "sense" of any verb, preposition or conjunction in this way (and good luck with that one!). In fact, and on the contrary, provided that prospective users understand the (linguistic) meaning of these words (i.e., provided they know how to use them properly), no personal associations would be needed in order to employ them successfully, or, indeed, grasp what is communicated by means of them.
Despite this, it isn't difficult to show that "sense"/"tone" [henceforth, S/T] cannot attach to all words, or even to words in general -- as they appear in the public domain --, and for this to function as a primary determinant of meaning in the way that Parrington and/or Voloshinov seem to think. Here, for instance, are several words that don't possess an S/T: "and", "if", "but", "was", "inadvertently", "sense", "tone", "word", "idiosyncratic", "theme", "meaning". [The list is, of course, endless.]
Perhaps someone might object that such words do possess an S/T for them; their very mention conjures up all manner of associations and feelings. Naturally, there is no way of refuting this contention -- or, indeed, of confirming it. And there is no way to determine whether or not the 'same' S/T occurred each time such words were employed by the same user, even when they appeared in unusual sentences, clauses or phrases -- like the one in the last paragraph, namely: "Here, for instance, are several words that don't possess an S/T: 'and', 'if', 'but', 'was', 'inadvertently', 'sense', 'tone', 'word', 'idiosyncratic', 'theme', 'meaning'".
But, even if each of these words did possess an S/T for such an objector, the images, feelings and associations they conjured would be a result of that objector already having understood these words -- with their usual import -- otherwise they would fail to prompt the correct images, feelings and associations. Indeed, if this weren't so, they could in fact induce the wrong images, feelings and associations (if, that is, any sense can be made of the use of "wrong" in such a context).
[Anyone who thinks this misrepresents what Parrington is trying to say should check out Note 78.]78
Of course, two different words would be synonymous if they engendered the same associations. If this were possible, "Marx" and Hitler" would mean the same! But, would any of this affect who it was that those two words named? "Socialism" and "fascism" could be synonymous in the same way, too. Would a single Marxist accept this equation? Hardly. This shows that the public, linguistic meaning of words isn't affected by the idiosyncratic associations anyone brings to language. And that is because, the contingent feelings or associations an individual attaches to words depend on those words being used to identify the alleged object of those feelings correctly, and they can only do that if they are employed in the same way as the rest of us use them.78a
Again, this isn't to deny that idiosyncratic S/Ts might be associated with many (perhaps all of) the above words, only that this feature of our allegedly 'private' lives cannot affect the public meaning of words.
Nevertheless, with respect to the idea that there might be a 'dialectical' interplay between public meaning and private S/Ts, which determines the import of the words we use, consider the following sentences:
C1: I inadvertently killed your cat.
C2: London is the Capital of the United Kingdom.
If Parrington and Voloshinov are right, then whatever images, feelings and associations C1 conjures up, they would clearly be specific to the present circumstances of this Essay. That is, they would be connected with the reason why C1 was chosen, which was, in turn, for it to serve as an illustrative example criticising this aspect of dialectics! But, that fact doesn't alter C1's senseRL. That is why we would all be able to understand C1 before we knew whether or not it was true (or before anyone knew what the present author was or wasn't seeking to do or accomplish by means of C1).
Of course, C1 contains several terms whose reference is indeterminate: Whose cat? Who is the one claiming to have killed the said cat? Which cat? When? And so on. [Naturally, C2 doesn't face any of these problems.] .Clearly, although C1 itself may well be understood, its precise import would have to wait on the clarification of indeterminacies like these. But, one thing it won't have to wait upon is the pooled S/Ts of anyone hearing it or reading it. The components of C1's actual senseRL are clearly unrelated to the pooled S/Ts of its constituent words. The S/T of individual words drops out of the picture if C1 is to be understood by both originator and recipient. The senseRL of C1 depends on the reference and/or use of the indeterminate terms it contains -- and the latter are surely independent of anyone's 'feelings', 'associations' and 'values'. That being so, there doesn't appear to be a hook here for any sort of 'dialectical' interplay to latch onto.
Nevertheless, even if it were still maintained that all the words in C1 possessed their own individual and/or idiosyncratic S/Ts (which contributed 'dialectically' -- perhaps, orchestra-like --, to give the S/T of the whole) for whoever it is that might be still be objecting along these lines, this would still be irrelevant to the content expressed by C1. If each speaker associated a content of their own to each utterance (and the latter were linked to the S/Ts idiosyncratically connected with the words used), then it plainly wouldn't be the same content that is entertained by their interlocutors (coincidences to one side). Each would have their own set of S/Ts which would be different from anyone else's. Including their own on each occasion!
In which case, no shared content could ever be conveyed or received, and that would completely undermine the idea that language is a social phenomenon, acting primarily as a means of communication. The fact that we do succeed in communicating countless times each day shows that S/Ts have little, or no, linguistic, communicative role to play.78b
Now, readers of the above words may or may not disagree with their import, and some may continue to maintain that S/Ts (as understood by Parrington) are central to their comprehension and use of language. However, such individuals may do so only after acknowledging that they will have succeeded in understanding the above contentious thoughts without having a clue what S/Ts their author -- RL -- attributed (or did not attribute) to, or associated with, any or all of them. Upon doing that, of course, such erstwhile contrarians would then be disagreeing with themselves, for then it would be plain that they had grasped those words -- even while dissenting from their content -- when that act itself could only have succeeded because the meaning of the author's words isn't dependent on a single S/T being attributable to any or all of them.
In addition, die hard S/T fans (if such there be) would also need to explain, for example, what Parrington himself meant by S/T without access to his emotional state, biography or predilections.
Of course, no one else would be able to comprehend even that long overdue explanation without performing the same miraculously psychic trick on the words of these die-hards contrarians themselves.
One Conversation Does Not A Theory Make
Oddly enough, Parrington and Holborow both quote a passage from Voloshinov's work which they seem to think provides an important insight into the entire nature of language and communication:
"How does verbal discourse in life relate to the extraverbal situation that has engendered it? Let us analyse this matter, using an intentionally simplified example for the purpose.
"Two people are sitting in a room. They are both silent. Then one of them says, 'Well!' The other does not respond.
"For us outsiders this entire 'conversation' is utterly incomprehensible. Taken in isolation, the utterance…is empty and unintelligible. Nevertheless, this…colloquy of two persons…does make perfect sense…." [Voloshinov (1987), p.99; quoted in Holborow (1999), p.29, and Parrington (1997), p.127. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]79
Parrington then points out that while this communicative episode might be given an indefinite (potentially infinite?) number of interpretations, Voloshinov was able to reduce these to manageable proportions by arguing that:
"…[they] must take place within the particular space where differences in a word's meaning can be registered, namely between two speakers in a particular social context." [Parrington (1997), p.127.]
Undoubtedly, "Well!" could (and probably does) have a different (speaker's) meaning to users and hearers alike on different occasions of use. But, Parrington's response will not do. In any social context, the word "Well!" could mean practically anything. If we are to zero in on only one of these out of the many, we would already have to understand our interlocutors, or risk a high probability of guessing wrong.
As we have seen above, it is central to Voloshinov's theory that "theme" and meaning are (radically) different in each social situation for any given utterance, and thus that they vary between conversational interactions. If we estimate that the entire human population (capable of uttering this word in their own tongues) is approximately five billion, the number of unique pairs of conversationalists selectable from this set is roughly 1.25x1019. [This is 125 followed by seventeen zeros!] Hence, in any given 'social situation' comprising just two people, we would have the potential for at least that number of different meanings as either one of them uttered this word. If we now generalise across all actual and/or conceivable 'social situations', and expand the scope this scenario to include the many different audience sizes there are (ranging from one to many millions) this already huge number would escalate beyond all comprehension. Finally, if we add to this all the different words that could be uttered in all languages, in all circumstances, the resulting numbers would soon become unmanageable.
Unfortunately, the magnitude of even that astronomical set of diverse 'meanings' would itself become insignificantly small if we re-introduce Voloshinov's other vague notion (i.e., "theme") -- which is, we are told, unique to each moment (let alone each "social context") -- and which, according to him, supposedly determines meaning (as far as can be ascertained, that is!).
Moreover, if we now assume that the average conversationalist lives for approximately forty speaking years (averaged across all populations, reduced to account for sleep, etc.), and that each 'theme-instant' lasts just one second, then any one utterance of "Well!" by each speaker (and in the ear of each hearer) could take on approximately 1.3x109 [13 followed by eight zeros] different additional meanings, if said at any one of those instants. If we now recall that for Voloshinov the microscopic details surrounding any utterance affect its "theme", then a second would probably be far too long. Consequently, the number of 'meanings' available to the average speaker in a lifetime, while not infinite, would be, on this view, excessively large. Naturally, this would mean that the chances of any speaker accessing the 'correct' meaning of any of their interlocutors' words would be vanishingly small. Voloshinov's disarming reassurance that speakers and hearers lock onto each other's meanings isn't the least bit convincing, therefore, especially since his theory leads one to suppose that no one would ever manage to do this because of the baleful influence of Occasionalism and "theme".80
Quite apart from this, the idea that the consideration of one-word sentences like this warrants conclusions about the general use of language across an entire population (and throughout all of human history) is bizarre in the extreme! Indeed, the fact that the above comrades based their scientific-sounding conclusions on this one example (which is itself a laughably weak evidential base (i.e., it is a one-word sentence)) is quite astounding.80a
Nevertheless, Parrington and Holborow failed to consider more revealing scenarios for the use of single-word sentences, such as the following:
M1: Several comrades are on a picket line. The Police fire tear gas. A canister is heading toward a group of pickets. Comrade NN spots it and shouts (for the first time in his life): "Incoming!"
Are we really expected to believe that "incoming" is only comprehensible to one or two in this group -- maybe only those who know the biography, likes, dislikes and preferences of the one who shouted this? Or, that only those with the requisite 'associations' will dive for cover? Do we really have to appeal to "private meanings" to explain the subsequent scattering of these workers? Do these pickets have to sift through the countless likely social settings they might or might not have encountered in the past before they hit on the correct reading of this warning, and then proceed to act?
If the answer to these is "No", as surely it must be, then it is safe to conclude that just as one militant does not make a movement, one conversation doesn't make a theory.
Indeed, if we were to consider more complex conversations, the completely bizarre nature of the idea under consideration here would become even more apparent.
Now, it could be argued that this is grossly unfair to Parrington and Holborow in that the argument above (i.e., that which depends on those unmanageably large numbers, etc.) ignores what Parrington himself says:
"…[they] must take place within the particular space where differences in a word's meaning can be registered, namely between two speakers in a particular social context." [Ibid., p.127.]
Hence, it could be pointed out that an interlocutor's knowledge of the social circumstances -- these perhaps including conversational and situational assumptions or implications about which only those party to this conversation are aware, or which form part of the tacit knowledge each speaker brings to any setting -- would reduce the possible interpretations of this word to manageable proportions.
Admittedly, the fact that people do utter one-word sentences and succeed in communicating in such circumstances does seem to support Parrington and Holborow's case. However, since it isn't in dispute here that acts of communication do indeed take place, this is of little help. It is how and why conversationalists manage to do this that is up for grabs.
Despite this, it could be felt that Voloshinov does in fact narrow down the options when he argues that a close, even microscopic scrutiny of the word "Well!" won't help us understand this "conversation". Voloshinov then goes on to say:
"Let us suppose that the intonation with which this word was pronounced is known to us: indignation and reproach moderated with a certain amount of humour. This intonation somewhat fills the semantic void of the adverb well but still does not reveal the meaning of the whole.
"What is it we lack, then? We lack the 'extraverbal context' that made the word well a meaningful locution for the listener. This extraverbal context of the utterance is comprised of three factors: (1) the common spatial purview of the interlocutors (the unity of the visible -- in this case, the room, the window, and so on), (2) the interlocutors' common knowledge and understanding of the situation, and (3) their common evaluation of that situation.
"At the time the colloquy took place, both interlocutors looked up at the window and saw that it had begun to snow; both knew that it was already May and that it was high time for spring to come; finally, both were sick and tired of the protracted winter -- they were both looking forward to spring and both were bitterly disappointed by the late snowfall. On this 'jointly seen' (snowflakes outside the window), 'jointly known' (the time of the year -- May) and 'unanimously evaluated' (winter wearied of, spring looked forward to) -- on all this the utterance directly depends, all this is seized in its actual, living import -- is its very sustenance. And yet all this remains without verbal specification or articulation. The snowflakes remain outside the window; the date, on the page of a calendar; the evaluation, in the psyche of the speaker; and, nevertheless, all this is assumed in the word well." [Voloshinov (1987), p.99. Italic emphases in the original. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
There are several points in Voloshinov's argument that are worthy of comment:
(1) In the above, any words that might have been spoken in the build-up to this 'conversation' were omitted. And yet, it is only on the basis of such shared words (had he heard them) that Voloshinov would be able to tell us that these two conversationalists had over-lapping knowledge, beliefs, evaluations and attitudes, as well as a joint appreciation of the surrounding circumstances of this conversation and knowledge of one another. Now, if these two had been total strangers, the whole scene could, and probably would have taken on a completely different complexion. Hence, Voloshinov is acting like the author of a novel; he is supplying the reader with an almost 'god'-like view of the recent biography, thoughts, beliefs and intentions of his characters. So, all the 'shared background details' are in fact part of Voloshinov's imputations and assumptions, not those of these two fictional individuals. No wonder then that he can pack so much into this one word and into this one scene; it is his word, his scene, and his understanding of both that is on show here, not theirs.
(2) The above scenario was clearly tailored to fit the purpose Voloshinov intended for it, where two interlocutors shared much in their current surroundings and background knowledge. But, this isn't always the case. Many conversations are between total strangers, and yet communication is, nonetheless, typically successful. Even those that take place between friends and acquaintances aren't always so well coordinated or tightly constrained. In that case, very little of substance can be inferred from this special case.
(3) Even so, given the circumstances depicted by Voloshinov, this one word might still mean many things. All we have to do is introduce a few more details, and what might seem to Voloshinov to be the clear-cut implications of the use of this one word will soon become the opposite. So, let us assume that (a) Speaker A had heard earlier that morning that her daughter was going to visit that afternoon, and that (b) Speaker B was planning on going to the beach -- both, weather permitting. In that case, "Well!" said by A could (speaker's meaning) mean any one of the following: (i) "That's torn it!" My daughter will have to cancel!", (ii) "Oh dear! I do hope my daughter will be safe driving!", (iii) "Drat! I was so looking forward to seeing her!", (iv) "The weather forecaster is an idiot! He predicted sunshine today!" (v) "Darn it! This means I can't do any gardening this afternoon!", and a host of other things. All the while B could take it to mean (i) "That's our plans out of the window!", (ii) "She [i.e., A] means I can't go to the beach. I'll show her!", (iii) "She wants my opinion, but what do I know...?", (iv) "She keeps saying that! What the hell does she mean!", and a host of other things besides.
So, apposite though Voloshinov's comments are with respect to the surrounding circumstances in which conversationalists can be imputed to hold some things in common -- in this special case --, this thought experiment isn't much use in helping us understand meaning in language in general. Naturally, that is because one word cannot on its own tell us much, whereas full sentences can. And that is partly why Frege's context principle (introduced earlier -- on that, see Note 24) is far more fruitful in this respect than anything Voloshinov committed to paper.
[It is also worth pointing out that Voloshinov wrote in sentences, not single words. So, even he had little faith in his own theory!]
Another dubious notion that makes its appearance in Parrington and Holborow's work (which they both appropriated from Voloshinov) is that all words are somehow ideologically coloured, or compromised.81 As Holborow puts it:
"Voloshinov's starting point is the ideological nature of all signs, including language. He defines a sign as that which 'represents depicts or stands for something outside itself' (Voloshinov 1973:9). This correspondence is an essential feature of all signs…. Sign systems exist side by side with material reality, not independently of it.
"'A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality -- it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore it may distort that reality or be true to it, or it may perceive it from a special point of view…every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation…. The domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs. They equate with one another. Wherever a sign is present, ideology is present too….' (1973:10…)
"The quality of signs to represent, to 'reflect and refract another reality', to interpret, is what gives them their conceptual potency and makes words the very stuff of ideology…." [Holborow (1999), p.25; quoting Voloshinov (1973), pp.9-10.]82
However, when Voloshinov says that:
"A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality -- it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore it may distort that reality or be true to it, or it may perceive it from a special point of view…", [Voloshinov (1973), p.10.]
it isn't too clear whether he means that there are several of these 'realities' which are "reflected or refracted" [henceforth R/R] -- or only one 'reality' that is R/R-ed in different ways.83
But, if he were right, Voloshinov's own use of signs could have (must have?) distorted things, too, so what his words have R/R-ed might not be (cannot be?) really real -- if we must use this unfortunate way of expressing things. In that case, it would seem that Voloshinov himself might have misrepresented and/or distorted the subject of his own thesis by the use of yet more of these inherently unreliable 'signs'. If so, Voloshinov's own words can't be trusted to tell us the truth!
If exception is taken to this, then how might we decide whether or not we can trust Voloshinov's words? It seems we can't, since, in order to do so, we too will have to use yet more of these dubious 'signs'!
And yet, if there is no way of deciding, what sense is there to the claim that 'signs' might be misleading? Isn't that very thought (expressed in 'signs') itself misleading? If it is, then there is no good reason to accept it. If it isn't, then Voloshinov is wrong anyway.
Either way, the rational thing to do is reject this gratuitous slur on innocent 'signs'.
Alternatively, if Voloshinov is saying that everything (both 'sign' and the things allegedly 'signified') is capable of distortion, then the conclusion that there is no such thing as reality is no less suspect, in view of the fact that we have to use yet more 'signs' to R/R that particular conclusion. But, in that case, exactly what are our 'signs' R/R-ing? Even worse, how do we even know there are any 'signs'? And attempt to reassure that there are must itself be expressed in 'signs', and hence must of necessity distort things! Indeed, isn't the inherently unreliable 'sign' "reality" itself entirely bogus when used in such circumstances? So, given what he says, the contrast Voloshinov wished to draw between reality and our distorted images of it cannot in fact be drawn, for on his own account Voloshinov had to use several untrustworthy 'signs' to make that very point. That being so, there is (for him) no 'reality' against which anyone could compare or contrast even the mildest of distortions with what 'signs' supposedly R/R -- nor could he truly report them even if there were any!
Naturally, this means no distortion can have taken place -- at which point this theory self-destructs, once more.84
Unfortunately, Parrington and Holborow are silent on this issue. This isn't surprising since any comment they might wished to have made about what Voloshinov could have meant (this side of their using some form of telepathy that doesn't employ 'signs') will have distorted what he actually had to say -- always assuming, of course, there is such a thing as "What Voloshinov actually had to say" to begin with!
It could be objected that Voloshinov in fact said the following:
"A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality -- it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore it may distort that reality or be true to it, or it may perceive it from a special point of view…." [Voloshinov (1973), p.10. Bold emphasis added.]
Hence, not all 'signs' distort reality, and that might still be true of the words/'signs' used by anyone trying to report what Voloshinov really said. So, the above comments are completely misguided.
But, how are we to tell which signs do the one and which do the other? Which are distorting and which aren't? It seems we can't possibly decide, since we are forced to use yet more suspect 'signs' while trying to exonerate only some of them.
Ignoring whatever else we might think of the fetishisation of 'signs' explicit in the above quoted passage (which seems to suggest that 'signs' are agents that control us!), it is worth pursuing the above difficulties a little further.
It isn't entirely clear what it means to suggest that every use of 'signs' is ideological -- if this is what Voloshinov indeed meant (and our attempt to depict what he said doesn't thereby distort the "reality" he sought to depict about ideology itself!).84a
Once more, if every use of 'signs' is potentially distorting, it is difficult to see how any 'signs' could be employed to R/R reality -- or, indeed, what the word "reality" itself could possibly mean -- or, worse, how it would be possible even to report this 'fact' accurately. If words -- operating as 'signs' -- are irredeemably ideological, then how might they be used correctly to refer to anything at all? Presumably, this could only happen if some uses of 'signs' weren't ideological, that is, if in some circumstances they did indeed truly R/R reality -- as opposed to merely expressing ideological/class interests -- so that we might give some sort of content to the supposition that on other occasions they do in fact distort reality. But, if every use of words is ideological, then, naturally, we can't appeal to this contrast (as already noted) -- and neither could we trust even that assertion, for it, too, would be ideological, and hence of suspect import (and so on).
Of course, it could be argued that ideology doesn't distort reality, it merely inverts it. However, Voloshinov's own metaphor (i.e., R/R itself) implies distortion, whatever else Marx meant by his use of this word. [However, on that see Note 83.] Moreover, Voloshinov himself declared that signs can distort "reality":
"A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality -- it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore it may distort that reality or be true to it, or it may perceive it from a special point of view…." [Voloshinov (1973), p.10. Bold emphasis added.]
Finally, the idea that words are 'signs' is itself rather odd. Certainly, words can appear in signs (for example, on a placard or badge saying "Victory to the Miners!"), and in certain circumstances they can feature as signs themselves (as when the word "red" might be coloured red to make a point in, say, a psychological experiment), but words cannot be signs. The reasons for saying this are rather complex, and are outlined in Note 85.85
Language And Ideology
In addition to the above, it is also worth pointing out that language itself can't be ideological. As I argued in Essay Four Part One (see also Essay Three Part Two):
Admittedly, ordinary language may be used to express the most patent of falsehoods and the most regressive of ideas, but it cannot itself be affected by "false consciousness" (and this is not the least because the notion of "false consciousness" is foreign to Marx; on that see here), nor can it be "ideological".
Without doubt, everyday sentences can express all manner of backward, racist, sexist and ideologically-compromised notions, but this isn't the fault of the medium in which these are expressed, any more than it is the fault of, say, a computer if it is used to post racist bile on a web page. Ideologically-tainted ideas expressed in ordinary language result either from its misuse or from the employment of specialised terminology borrowed from religious dogma, sexist beliefs, reactionary ideology, racist theories and superstitious ideas. This isn't to suggest that ordinary humans do not, or cannot speak in such backward ways; but these are dependent on the latter being expressed in ordinary language, but are not dependent on that language itself.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that this defence of ordinary language isn't being advanced dogmatically. Every user of the vernacular knows it to be true since they know that for each and every sexist, racist and ideologically-compromised sentence expressible in ordinary language there exists its negation.
This is why socialists can say such things as: "Blacks aren't inferior"; "Human beings aren't selfish"; "Wages aren't fair", "Women aren't objects", "Belief in the after-life is baseless" -- and still be understood, even by those held in thrall to such ideas, but who might maintain the opposite view. If ordinary language were identical with 'commonsense' -- and if it were ideological (per se) in the way that some imagine -- you just couldn't say such things. We all know this to be true -- certainly, socialists should know this --, because in our practical discourse we manage to deny such things every day.
In this regard, it is as ironic as it is inexcusable that there are revolutionaries who, while they are only too ready to regale us with the alleged limitations of ordinary language -- on the grounds that it reflects "commodity fetishism", "false consciousness" or "static thinking" --, are quite happy to accept (in whole or in part) impenetrably obscure ideas lifted from the work of a card-carrying, ruling-class-warrior like Hegel. Not only are his theories based on alienated thought (i.e., mystical Christianity), his AIDS was a direct result of a systematic fetishisation of language.
[AIDS = Absolute Idealism.]
Despite what Voloshinov says, those who "ignore theme" are probably well advised to continue doing just that -- that is, should we ever be told what the dickens "theme" actually is!86
A Priori Dogmatics
While Voloshinov's book is ostensively about the Philosophy of Language, its main aim seems to be to advance the Science of Linguistics.87 However, by pitching his work in both camps, Voloshinov managed to replicate many of the metaphysical confusions that have crippled 'Materialist Dialectics' -- chief among which is the complete absence of any evidence substantiating his many bold claims. Indeed, Voloshinov's book has little else in it other than a priori assertions and dogmatic theses about meaning, understanding, evaluative import, "theme", "consciousness", and so on.87a Hence, far from resembling a work of science, Voloshinov's book reads more like traditional philosophical dogma. For instance, there are none of the following (which one would expect to find in a scientific report, book or paper): experimental detail coupled with graphs, tables, diagrams, photographs, charts, spread sheets, primary data, mathematical analysis, etc., etc.
Naturally, this means that Voloshinov's work succeeds in doing what Traditional Philosophy has always done -- that is, it confuses a priori thesis-mongering with science itself.
[I examine some of the 'evidence' others have offered in support of Voloshinov's theory, below.]
The 'Lamarckian' Origin Of Speech
On a related topic, despite the fact that most of what Parrington and Holborow say undermines the role that language plays in communication -- reinforcing the view that language serves to 'represent' things to us in our heads (even if this process is filtered through our own idiosyncrasies, attitudes, social situations, prevailing ideologies, etc., etc.) --, they appear to believe that human beings developed language because of a "need to communicate". This is how Holborow puts it:
"The genesis of language is in human labour…. Communication is not therefore just one of the functions of language; on the contrary, language presupposes both logically and de facto the interaction among people. Language only arises from the need to communicate with other humans. It is quintessentially social." [Holborow (1999), p.20.]
"Crucially labour...developed within a co-operative and social context. It was this that led, through the need to communicate while engaging in co-operative labour, to the rise of the second specifically human attribute -- language." [Parrington (1997), p.122.]88
While I do not wish to question the role that co-operative labour has played in the development of language and thought (quite the opposite, in fact), several other aspects of these two quotations seem highly dubious, especially the idea that human beings invented language because of a "need to communicate". To be sure, we use language to communicate, but the claim that it arose because of a specific need to communicate is highly questionable -- that is, except for Lamarckians.
Of course, the word "need" is ambiguous itself. We use it in a variety of different ways. Consider just a few of them:
N1: That cake needs more sugar.
N2: This strike needs widening.
N3: You need to put oil in your engine.
N4: We need a pay rise.
N5: The giraffe needs a long neck to browse tall trees.
N6: That drunk needs to go home.
N7: Plants need water.
N8: The state needs to be smashed and the ruling-class needs overthrowing.
N9: Tony Blair and George W Bush need prosecuting as war criminals.
N10: Comrades need to shout louder on paper sales.89
Precisely which of the above senses of "need" these two comrades intended is unclear -- several of them relate to what can only be called felt needs, or conscious needs (e.g., N4, and possibly N2), expressed perhaps as part of an agent's aims, goals or intentions. Others refer to the causal concomitants or prerequisites of a flourishing organism, successful revolution, strike, comeuppance for Bush and Blair, paper sales and well-run engines -- all of which are largely, if not totally, unfelt. Some, of course, cannot be felt.
Nevertheless, it is patently obvious that human beings couldn't have invented language as a result of a felt "need to communicate" (unless, that is, we assume they could think before they developed language -- which idea would naturally imply that thought isn't a social phenomenon, dependent on collective labour), since such a need would presuppose the very thing it was aimed at explaining. The idea that this type of necessity mothered that sort of invention would imply that the first human beings to talk had earlier formed the thought: "I/We need to communicate" (or something equivalent in their assumed proto-language). Clearly, such a felt need to communicate could only be expressed if language already existed. On the other hand, if the thought (or its equivalent) that supposedly motivated the "need to communicate" wasn't in fact linguistic, then little content can be given to the notion that human beings once possessed such a need without being able to give voice to it. Indeed, how would it be possible to form the thought "We need to communicate" if the individual, or individuals concerned had no idea (as yet) what communication was. That would be like saying that we can (now) form the thought "We need to schommunicate" when none of has a clue what "schommunicate" means. In fact, it is worse than this, since we are already sophisticated language users and can not only conceive of certain possibilities we can give expression to them.
It could be objected that such a need might be a biological one (analogous to that which is expressed in, say, N5). There are two problems with this response. First, reference to the biological needs of organisms to explain the origin of adaptation is Lamarckian, not Darwinian. Secondly, and far worse, this alternative in fact completely undermines the view that language is a social phenomenon.89a
In reply to this it could be argued that revolutionaries have in fact given a Darwinian (but not a Lamarckian) explanation of the origin of language. A relatively recent article written by Chris Harman, for example, demonstrated that such an account of human development -- augmented with ideas drawn from Engels's work -- provides Marxists with an adequate, materialist theory of the origin of language and culture, and one that is based on a "need to communicate".89b
Unfortunately, there are serious difficulties with Harman's explanation of the origins of speech. For example, after outlining the increasing dependence that our human ancestors had on social organisation and the use of tools, he argued as follows:
"Natural selection would bring about…evolution in the direction of ever larger, denser and more complex neural networks, capable of directing and learning from intricate motor functions of the hand and of using minute changes in gesture or voice to communicate….
"A cumulative process would soon have been underway in which survival depended on culture, and the ability to partake in culture [based?] upon a genetic endowment that encouraged the combination of sociability, communication, dexterity and reasoning power….
"The development of labour and the development of communication thus, necessarily, go hand in hand. And as they both develop, they both encourage the selection of those new genes which made people more adept at both: the more agile the hand, the larger the brain, the [larger the] larynx that made a wider range of sounds.
"Such developments do not involve just quantitative changes. As the growth of labour, the growth of sociability and the growth of language reinforced each other, encouraging the selection of a whole range of new genes, new networks of nerve cells would emerge in the brain, making possible whole new ranges of interaction between people and the world around them….
"So there has to be a recognition of how quantity turns into quality, of how through successive changes animal life gave birth to that new form of life we call 'human', which has a dynamic of its own, shaped by its labour and its culture not by its genes…." [Harman (1994), pp.100-02. Bold emphases added.]
There are several highly dubious things Harman says here about which I will comment later, but for present purposes I will simply draw attention to his use of DM to defend/buttress his position. It is abundantly clear that Harman is relying heavily on Engels's first 'Law' (i.e., Q«Q) to plug a gap he thinks he has spotted in standard Neo-Darwinian theory in this area.89c This allows him to smuggle into his own account an inappropriate but revealing teleological slant (indicated by most of the words and phrases highlighted in bold in the above passage). Of course, it could be argued in his defence that these supposedly "teleological" expressions are metaphorical, or they are merely rhetorical flourishes; but if that is the case, and they are replaced by more 'neutral' terms, Harman's account falls apart alarmingly quickly. Why that is so will now be explained.
The problem with the highlighted parts of the above passage is that they suggest that evolution has a goal that has already been decided upon by the operation of Engels's first 'Law', when the latter is coupled with natural selection. In order to see this compare it with a similar but far less complicated example: the formation of ice or steam. Just as a sufficient quantity of heat will change water into steam, Harman's use of this 'Law' suggests that the accumulation of small quantitative changes (in the genetic code, the development of the CNS, social organisation, etc., etc.) would automatically produce 'consciousness' and culture.90 Given Q«Q, and the water/steam analogy, the outcome of evolution appears to have been written into the fabric of the universe from the very beginning (that is, it was stitched into the laws that apparently govern everything -- laws which clearly include Engels's Q«Q). That is why Harman's account makes it seem as if this 'Law' -- which also 'determines' the inevitability of water boiling when heated sufficiently -- must have 'determined' the ineluctable development of language and thought. Apparently, so this story seems to go, gradual increases in the complexity of the CNS (etc.), linked to, and emergent from, the development of collective labour, guaranteed that 'thought' would 'emerge' at some point in the life of our ancestors, as quantitative changes in their biological makeup and social organisation "passed over" into qualitative changes in their 'minds' (etc.). This is the only explanation there can be for Harman's cavalier use of words like: "natural selection would bring about", and "they both encourage", which clearly suggest agency in nature. Otherwise, why use such terms?91
It could be objected to this that: (1) DM-theorists do not claim that such developments were "determined", or that there is anything inevitable about the whole process, and that (2) DM-theorists insist there is a dialectical interplay between an evolving organism (or population of organisms) and its environment -- leading, in this particular case, to the development of 'consciousness' and language.
The second of these volunteered responses is by now well-worn, even threadbare. When faced with (what others see as) a problem in their theory, dialecticians almost invariably refer us to the "dialectical interplay" between this or that object/process, neglecting to give the details. Naturally, this works for them as a handy 'get-out-of-a-theoretical-hole-free' card, in ways reminiscent of the use of the word "miracle" in 'Creation Science', which is no less dishonest for all that.92
In support of Point One above it could be argued that the development of language was in fact dependent on countless contingent events, so it can't have been inevitable. Now, this would have been an effective response had Harman himself not already holed it well below the waterline with the following comment:
"…[I]n fact, everything is not 'contingent'. In certain conditions, both in the biological world and in history, certain things are likely to happen…." [Harman (1994), p188, n.73.]
With the best will in the world, it isn't easy to see how Harman's rejection of universal contingency could in any way be supported by his claim that some events "are likely to happen", since part of what we mean when we use the word "contingent" is that the events so described are "likely to happen" (or otherwise, as circumstances dictate), not that they must occur and are thus "inevitable". Contingent events are those that are neither necessary nor impossible; so they range from the highly unlikely to the highly likely. In that case, anything that is "likely to happen" already counts as contingent! Exactly how the above words substantiate Harman's rejection of contingency is, therefore, something of a mystery. Hence, his use of terms that are practically synonymous with "contingency" doesn't in any way help the reader understand how his dismissal of contingency can succeed. Indeed, if "everything is not contingent", then it must be necessary and thus 'determined'!92a
In fact, Harman needs a "must happen" here to counterpose his rejection of contingency -- i.e., something like the following:
"...[E]verything is not 'contingent'. In certain conditions, both in the biological world and in history, certain things must happen." [Harman (1994), p.188, n.73, deliberately misquoted!]
Admittedly, the inclusion of that particular phrase comes with a price tag attached: the use of "must" would expose the teleological nature of the whole argument. This modal qualifier ("must") clearly implies the operation of some sort of will, direction, intelligence, logical consequence, necessity or purpose in nature. Hence, the open presence of this sort of claim:
C1: Natural selection must in the long run bring about language and consciousness,
would be a dead give-away. Even though Harman evidently requires (and clearly assumes) the truth of C1, it is obvious that he couldn't risk using a "must" here for fear of undermining Darwinism -- which many still think removed teleology from nature, or at least from our depiction of it, when the opposite is the case.93 In the end, what Harman actually opts for is much stronger than a mere "will happen". However, the problem is that since he has already denied contingency in the above passage, he, for one, can't assert that language developed as the result of a series of contingent events, without contradicting himself.
In fact, as was asserted above, Harman's rejection of contingency meshes nicely with the necessitating force behind Engels's first 'Law' (i.e., Q«Q). So, just as water has no 'choice' but to turn into steam at 100oC (this change is entirely 'determined' by antecedent events, or so the story goes), similar concomitants must have necessitated the origin of language (even if the latter are more 'dialectically' complex in this case). Harman might not like to use such words himself, but they are nonetheless apt summary of his position for all that.94
In order to confirm the accuracy of this 'revisionary' interpretation of Harman's reasoning, we need look no further than several other things he says. Near the beginning of his article, we find this dismissal of the many "just so" stories that supposedly litter Neo-Darwinian writings (an epithet Harman clearly borrowed from Stephen Jay Gould):
"The sparsity of reliable information makes it very easy for people to make elaborate, unsubstantiated conjectures about what might have happened, with no facts to confirm or deny them -- the modern version of the 'Just so' stories Rudyard Kipling wrote for children nearly a century ago. All sorts of writers on human evolution make hypotheses of the form, 'And, so, perhaps, we can explain the descent of certain apes from the trees by their need to do X'. Within a couple of paragraphs, the 'perhaps' has gone, and X becomes the origin of humanity.
"This method is the special hallmark of sociobiologists…. It is a method Marxists have to reject." [Harman (1994), p.87.]95
But, unless there has been a misprint here, Harman's rejection of these "likely stories" (which were, and often still are triggered by an appeal to what researchers perceive to be the needs of organisms, even if that is hidden beneath several layers of inappropriate metaphor and analogy; more on this below) -- his rejection must also count as a repudiation of Engels's appeal to the "need to communicate". In a pre-linguistic group, the assertion that there was a felt "need to communicate", which led to the development of language, would itself be just another "just so story", but with added DM-spin. On the other hand, if the said need weren't a felt need, it would represent a damaging concession to Lamarckism.96
However, even if this weren't the case, Harman is fooling himself if he thinks that sophisticated Neo-Darwinians and sociobiologists attempt to explain the development of life in such crude quasi-Lamarckian terms. Little wonder then that he quoted so few references in support of this allegation.97
If Marxists are to confront successfully the arguments of knowledgeable Sociobiologists and Evolutionary Psychologists, something much less insubstantial than Engels's first 'Law' will need to be wheeled out of the Dialectical Dungeon, and then kick started. Unfortunately, this 'Law' seems to be the only solid argument that Harman has to hand to prevent his own account sliding back into at lest this aspect of the crude sociobiologist camp (with its own "just so" tales -- Gottlieb (2012)) -- the idea that distinctly human behaviour traits somehow "emerged" from a background of increasing material complexity, but which can't be reduced to it, being one such. [More on this in Essay Three Parts Three and Five (not yet published).]
Ironically then, because Harman buttressed his account of human origins with his own "just-as-Hegel-and-Engels-say-so-story", he ended up tail-ending the fabulous tales concocted by sociobiologists, which he rightly castigated. To compound matters, Harman pointedly failed to substantiate this part of his story with any evidence of note (nor did he address the fatal weaknesses that afflict Engels's shaky Q«Q 'Law' -- detailed in Essay Seven Part One).
We can see this more clearly if we examine how Harman justified the following 'leap' in his argument:
"Only if you see things in this way can you explain why our species was already endowed with the capacities 35,000 years ago to develop a whole new range of technologies." [Harman (1994), p.100. Bold emphasis added.]
Apart from a dire warning that the consequence of not seeing "things in this way" risks slipping Marxist theory back into an idealist, "postmodernist", mechanical-materialist and/or sociobiological swamp, this is all Harman had to offer in support of his own distinct DM-ideas.
Now, while the Dennetts, Cronins, Pinkers, and Dawkins of this world might not object to much of the secondary evidence Harman marshalled in support of his account of human origins, they would surely take exception to the use to which he puts it. This evidence is in fact consistent with much of what these theorists would argue anyway (particularly all the material about genes). However, Harman presents us with no new facts from Psychology, Anthropology, Anatomy, Physiology, Linguistics, or any other branch of science, for that matter, to substantiate his own "just so story" -- that 'consciousness' is an "emergent property" of matter.97a Or, indeed, that there is such a thing as 'consciousness' to begin with (so that it is capable of "emerging" from anywhere -- on this see Note 65). Or, that there are such things as "emergent properties" (that aren't themselves dependent on a quirky misuse of language, or, which are based on speculative forms of science fiction). Or, that language itself is genetically-based. Or, that Darwinian change can account for it. Or even, that DM has anything useful to add to our knowledge in this area -- or, indeed, anywhere else, for that matter.
Thus, if Harman is to be believed, the only thing that dialecticians can offer in order to counter theories that are inimical to Dialectical Marxism (in this respect) is a way of "seeing things" -- albeit augmented by the convenient ability DM-fans have of being able to "grasp" a-contradiction-a-day (mentioned earlier), "emergent" no doubt from the quantitative repetition of Engels's rather poor quality 'Law'.
Now, any response to the above that was itself based on a further appeal to Engels's first 'Law' would be to no avail. That 'Law' cannot bear the weight constantly put upon it by DM-theorists; it is certainly incapable of countering the detailed arguments that sophisticated sociobiologists have constructed in support their own ideas. Waving it about as some sort of talisman does Marxism no favours -- especially when we discover that this 'Law' is fundamentally flawed to begin with.
The harsh words Harman reserved for Chris Knight (a reference to whose work provided the only support for his contention that sociobiologists depend on "just so stories") -- whether deserved or not -- might well now be directed back at his own account: by resting the whole credibility of this area of Marxism on such wafer-thin support, he invites not just disbelief, but easy refutation.
If you are going to take on sophisticated anti-Marxist theories with little more than an appeal to Engels's first 'Law', and a hope others will "see things" your way, all the while lambasting them for their reliance on myth and fable, excoriating them for their lack of corroborating evidence, deprecating the supposed reactionary consequences of their ideas, speculating about how they simply reflect the "mood of the times", it isn't a good idea to do so with an account that is contradiction-friendly itself, overtly Lamarckian, supported by little or no evidence, remarkably badly-stated and reliant on a few fairy-tales of its own.
The wise course of action here would be to admit that we just do not know how language developed, and neither does anyone else -- and we will probably never know. But, that doesn't mean we have to accept Adaptationist and/or Nativist accounts of the origin of discourse just because the majority of theorists apparently do, and neither should we make the slightest concession to their ideas. In fact, it is disconcerting to see how many of the latter Harman is prepared to take on board, adapting to other reactionary Neo-Darwinian ideas in this area along the way.98 This is despite the fact that such theories have little to recommend them beyond an over-use of metaphor, tailor-made, ideologically-biased mathematical models, convoluted, teleological language, and wild extrapolations from an impoverished evidential base.99
Returning to the following:
"The genesis of language is in human labour…. Communication is not therefore just one of the functions of language; on the contrary, language presupposes both logically and de facto the interaction among people. Language only arises from the need to communicate with other humans. It is quintessentially social." [Holborow (1999), p.20.]
"Crucially labour…developed within a co-operative and social context. It was this that led, through the need to communicate while engaging in co-operative labour, to the rise of the second specifically human attribute -- language." [Parrington (1997), p.122.]
Earlier, we saw that Parrington and Holborow were simply reproducing Engels's comment that language arose as a result of a "need to communicate". Oddly enough, these two failed to quote the following words of Engels's -- a quirky passage that is often overlooked by those who regard him as a great philosopher/scientific theorist:
"Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the labour process is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly-developed animals need to communicate to each other does not require articulate speech. In a state of nature, no animal feels handicapped by its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily understand any language within their range of concept (sic)…. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that in many cases they now feel their inability to speak as a defect…. Let no one object that the parrot does not understand what it says…. [W]ithin the limits of its range of concepts it can also learn to understand what it is saying. Teach a parrot swear words in such a way that it gets an idea of their meaning…; tease it and you will soon discover that it knows how to use its swear words just as correctly as a Berlin costermonger. The same is true of begging for titbits." [Engels (1876), pp.356-57.]
Contrary to what Engels asserts, we shouldn't want to concede that animals understand our use of language (or, indeed, that they grasp the import of swear words, for instance) simply because parrots, for example, are capable of making certain sounds, or just because some humans are overly sentimental and believe that their pet dog can "understand every word they say". If understanding were attributable to animals solely on the basis of vocalisation, then we might have to admit that, for example, the ability most of us have of repeating foreign words upon hearing them means that we too understood the language from whence they came, when quite often we do not. [For example, although I can read both Hebrew and Greek, I actually understand very few words of either language.]
But, even in such cases we would still be viewing other languages from our standpoint as sophisticated users of our own language, which means that the dice have already been heavily loaded (so to speak) in our favour. Because of this, we often make an educated guess concerning the meaning of any new (foreign) words we might encounter, based on knowledge of our own language. Moreover, we do this against a background of shared behaviour and a common culture that links us, directly or indirectly, with all other human beings. The same cannot be said of parrots, dogs and horses.
We should, I think, only want to count someone (or something) as having understood what is said (or what was said to it) if it possessed a sufficiently detailed verbal and behavioural repertoire, at the very least. If, for example, such a 'proto-linguist' couldn't form new sentences from their 'vocabulary', if they were incapable of negating any of their words, or couldn't cope with word-order change, if they were unable to refer to anything proximate to or remote from their immediate surroundings, if they couldn't identify or specify any of the implications of what they said, or of what was said to them, if they were incapable of reasoning (hypothetically) both with truths and falsehoods, failed to appreciate stories and/or fiction, if they couldn't respond to humour, or engage in self-criticism, if they were regularly perplexed by new sentences they had never encountered before (even those that contained 'words' drawn from their own repertoire), if they couldn't follow or give instructions, and so on, then I think most of us would have serious doubts about their capacity to understand the target language.100
On the other hand, had Engels said the following to one of his parrots: "Swearing isn't allowed here because it represents the language of oppression" (to paraphrase Trotsky) -- and the parrot had stopped swearing as a result (or had deliberately sworn even more!) -- we might be a little more impressed with his claims.
Despite this, Engels's ideas don't seem to hang together even on their own terms. If language and understanding are the products of social development (augmented by co-operative labour), they most certainly do not. Indeed, Engels even says:
"Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the labour process is the only correct one....
"First labour, after it and then with it speech -- these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man...." [Engels (1876), pp.356-57.]
If so, at a minimum, how could an animal comprehend our speech without also having gone through the same social development and engaged in the same sort of collective labour with human beings?
It could be argued that animals have, and still do work alongside human beings. Think of the phrase "work horse", and the use to which dogs are put in guarding, sledging, hunting and the herding of sheep, to say nothing of the work done by oxen, donkeys, camels and pigeons, to name but a few. However, without wishing to minimise the use to which human beings have put many animals, this hardly counts as collective labour (any more than the use of wood in buildings counts as collective labour contributed by a tree), but more closely resembles the use of living tools. The differences between human and animal labour do not need to be itemised to see that this line of defence won't work. Which Marxist wants to argue that an ox, for example, shows any desire to communicate, or that a donkey or a pigeon shows any sign of verbalising its aims and intentions? But, if their efforts counted as collective labour, we should be prepared to argue that these animals do indeed show signs of a "need to communicate".
Moreover, Engels appears to think (somewhat inconsistently) that mere proximity to human beings is sufficient to engender (in certain animals) the "need to communicate". If this were so, then manifestly an ability to use language can't have been the result of collective labour. Surely, in humans (on Engels's own admission) the "need to communicate" arose out of collective labour, not from mere association. In the passage above, Engels seems to think that this "need to communicate" is a free-floating force when it comes to animal behaviour, which can somehow be divorced from its connection with cooperative human labour, and hence cross the species boundary. This explains why he also appears to believe that mere association with human beings creates such a "need" in these animals, too. To be sure, the behaviour of domestic animals is different from that of those belonging to the same (or similar) species in the wild, but if mere proximity to human beings could account for language, then we should expect cats, cows, donkeys, camels, oxen, sheep, goats, rats, mice, gerbils, fleas, lice and bacteria to be able to communicate with us, or with one another (to say nothing of viruses).101
Conversely, if animals were able to talk or understand us then language cannot be a social phenomenon, nor would it be the result of co-operative labour. It looks, therefore, that Parrington, Holborow and Harman (among others) have ignored this glaring inconsistency in Engels's account.
However, in wanting to deny that there is a significant gulf between humans and our closest relatives among the Apes, or Ape-like ancestors, Engels and Harman were clearly laying a foundation for their own theory of descent -- i.e., one based on the idea that a change in quantity leads to a change in quality (and vice versa).101a
In order for this 'Law' to work, DM-theorists would have to argue that the important differences between human beings and certain animals is merely quantitative -- even if it is finally expressed qualitatively via this 'Law'. On this view, the gap between ancient humanoids and apes (or our common ancestors), say, would be somewhat analogous to that between two closely related elements in the Periodic Table (except, of course, in this case, the situation is far more complex). So, given this analogy, when one chemical element supposedly acquires a few more elementary particles, "qualitatively" new properties automatically arise in the elements so formed. The latter could then be said to "emerge" from the former as the increased complexity exceeds a certain "nodal point".
[However, as we saw in Essay Seven Part One, this 'Law' doesn't even apply to the elements in the Periodic Table, which removes one of the best and most over-used 'illustrations' of this 'Law' that DM-fans' have in their box of tricks.]
Indeed, a belief in the continuity of nature seems to require a similar commitment to the idea that there is some sort of 'dialectical connection' between, say, our ape-like ancestor (or proto-human group, as they were before the development of language, etc.) and modern human beings (after this took place). The idea appears to be that even though apes are biologically close to us, the gradual increase in our ancestors' social/material evolution in the end led to the development of the profound qualitative differences between humans and the aforementioned ancestors, culminating in the 'emergence' of 'consciousness' and language, etc. Hence, Engels's claim that certain animals are capable of understanding language looks as if it lends support to the belief that some sort of continuity exists between modern humans and our ape-like past, mediated by subsequent material and social progress.
This seems to be the only conceivable reason why Engels alluded to parrots, dogs and horses in this way.
The only problem is that he left out the Apes!
Plainly, Engels chose the wrong animals to illustrate his point (if this was his point). As should seem obvious, no sane biologist would want to argue that we are biologically closer to parrots, dogs and horses than we are to the Apes. Even worse, the latter aren't widely known for their verbal skills (unlike parrots); in fact, they are quite incapable of vocalising words. And yet, if the view outlined above were correct, we should find Apes vastly exceeding the 'linguistic' production of parrots. Hence, the "qualitative change" that is supposed to have "emerged" as a result of increased "quantitative" evolutionary development must, it seems, have taken an unplanned "qualitative" detour via birds, horses and dogs, outflanking our nearest relatives the Apes! Clearly, this means that "quantity" doesn't in fact "pass over" into "quality", but skips it sometimes. Either that, or it indicates that parrots and other birds (the Hill Myna, for example), as well as dogs and horses, somehow managed to defy this dialectical 'Law' --, or, indeed, (if we absolutely insist on clinging to this part of DM come what may) that these species are evolutionarily closer to us than the Apes!
Comrades are oddly silent on this issue.102 They are, however, free to "grasp" what little comfort they can from it.
Even though the nature of primate 'language' (and the question whether it is only those animals that possess 'language' which are capable of 'thought') will not be entered into here in any detail, a few comments are clearly in order.103
A close reading of the writings of those involved in research into animal 'language' reveals that rather too many authors conflate several different senses of the word "communicate", and it is this that makes some of their conclusions seem initially plausible. Indeed, as seems plain, these theorists find they have to anthropomorphise the noises and signals animals make in order to get this part of their story up and running. The rest of the picture is then sold to us by the by-now-familiar ploy of using ordinary words in odd ways in order to sanction these seemingly innovative conclusions, the entire ensemble further motivated by the use of inappropriate metaphors, 'educated' guesses and no little sentimentality.104
The word "communicate" can, of course, mean anything from "to connect" (as in "communicating door"), to "to convey information", "to achieve mutual understanding", "to share thoughts and feelings", and "to bond socially" -- and, of course, simply "to converse". Naturally, certain senses of this word are closely linked to our nature as social and political agents. While animals appear to be able to 'communicate' by means of various calls, gestures, signs, smells and noises, calling this "communication" in any of the above senses is clearly prejudicial. In fact, it is hardly more illuminating than the claim that since certain rooms are connected by communicating doors, rooms can signal to one another and share thoughts via the said door! Even less persuasive is the idea that the mere presence of signs indicates the presence of thought -- unless, that is, we are also prepared to concede that the weather can think, too, since thunder is often a sign of rain. Again, the careless (if not, thoughtless) misinterpretation of the figurative use of language to depict animal 'communication' has misled many of those working in this area.105
Moreover, our comprehension of animal 'sign' systems is neither helped nor advanced by an egregious distortion/misinterpretation of the conventional, logical and social features of our own language.
Nevertheless, one thing is reasonably clear: in the absence of human intervention (that is, without a socially-structured input from us), primate 'communication', for example, would be seriously limited. Manifestly, it is we who train apes to respond to us, not the other way round -- the same can be said of parrots and other conversationally-challenged animals. Even this limited concession indicates that linguistic ability is socially-, not genetically-based.106
Language: Social Or 'Genetic'?
The Retreat Of The Radicals
Naturally, this brings us to a contentious issue mentioned above: whether language is a social or a 'genetic' phenomenon. As pointed out earlier, the danger with the strategy Engels adopted is that it actually undermines belief in the social nature of language.107 It also blunts the hostility revolutionaries have generally shown toward biologically reductive theories of humanity -- for instance, those found in Social Darwinism, Ethology, Sociobiology, and (the now trendy) "Evolutionary Psychology". This might help explain why we find prominent revolutionaries endorsing views that are in fact compatible with the very worst forms of biological and genetic determinism. Hence, we have comrades like Alex Callinicos heaping praise on Daniel Dennett's deeply reactionary work (and in the pages of International Socialism!), joining forces with an attack on Stephen Jay Gould, all the while referring his readers to Pinker's fashionable (but nonetheless regressive) book on language -- and maintaining this line even when these serious lapses were pointed out to him.108 In addition, we find comrades like Chris Harman endorsing Chomsky's Nativist theory of language -- also beloved of characters like Pinker109 -- and referring his readers to the work of a prominent sociobiologist to support his case against Gould!110
With such a display of 'socialist' thought, what remains of the implacable opposition revolutionaries have generally shown toward racism, sexism and elitism? To be sure, the above comrades rightly abhor the use of Darwin's ideas to justify each and every such regressive doctrine (as, for example, Harman does in Harman (1994), pp.88-90, and n.39, p.186) -- and they regularly remind us of their complete opposition to such aberrations. However, they have only succeeded in undermining this otherwise laudable stance by adopting (or by being sympathetic toward) the ideas of reactionary authors like these.
Without doubt, ideas drawn from DM have seriously compromised their commitment to HM. Plainly, these comrades have made unwise concessions to ideologically-motivated theories based on extreme forms of Neo-Darwinism. Once again, this is no surprise since the concepts found in DM have an impeccable ruling-class pedigree themselves.
[HM = Historical Materialism/Materialist; CNS = Central Nervous System.]
Hence, such ideological compromise is the natural bed-fellow to one or more of the following (analysed in more detail above):
(1) Metaphysical theories of mind that have arisen from a series of pseudo-problems, which were themselves motivated by the archaic idea that each individual (or, rather, each shadowy alter ego inside every skull, i.e., the 'soul', or these days 'intelligent' algorithms) can be viewed as a socially-isolated unit that invents his/her/its own idiosyncratic language with its own private meanings, acting just like a bourgeois possessive individual -- a fable concocted by early modern philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes and Locke.
(2) The idea that language is based on an internal grammar genetically-programmed into the CNS, which is independent of social forces/development and cooperative labour. [In its modern form, this theory was invented by bourgeois rationalists (Descartes and Leibniz), made 'respectable' these days by Chomsky.]
(3) The adoption of representational theories of mind, language and knowledge; this is a family of doctrines that stretches right back to Ancient Greece.
Given the acceptance of one or more of the above anti-communitarian notions it is little wonder that DM-theorists are soon at a loss as to how to explain language and 'consciousness' --, or how to account for the connection either of these has with our social development. Because of this, DM-theorists find they have to refer to Engels's dubious first 'Law' to account for the supposed "emergence" of this mysterious entity, 'consciousness', from increasingly complex arrangements of matter -- not pausing for one second to notice that this way of viewing things is only made possible if our individual and social characteristics are projected back onto nature, and then into each head -- in order to sell this idea to themselves and the rest of us. This then succeeds in compromising the DM-account both of the 'mind' and of language, since dialecticians are now forced to concede ground to reactionary Adaptationist and Geneticist models of the origins of speech and culture, as well as to ruling-class ideas based on representational theories of 'thought' and discourse. Once more, DM forces its adherents to play right into the hands of the ideologues of the class enemy.
This also explains why each of the comrades mentioned above becomes uncharacteristically vague, evasive or defensive when trying to explain how social development could conceivably find itself represented in, or be imprinted upon, our genes -- or, conversely, how genetic change could possibly affect co-ordinated social behaviour across the whole of humanity (behind the backs of the language producers, as it were). But, if the first alternative is impossible to achieve (as seems to be the case), then the development of language cannot be accounted for on Darwinian lines. On the other hand, if the second option is equally non-viable (as it must be if language were "innate" and genetically 'programmed'), Linguistics cannot be reconciled with Marxism.
The 'Pentecostal' Origin Of Speech
At this point it could be objected that Harman did in fact outline a plausible, dialectical explanation of the origin of language, culture and thought, which is based on sound Darwinian principles, and which also accords with Marxist materialism (i.e., in the article discussed above). Nevertheless, as we will soon see, and despite what Harman says, his approach to this topic suggests that the origin of language was in fact an abrupt and semi-miraculous event, somewhat reminiscent of the way that ecstatic Pentecostals suddenly begin "speaking in tongues" (a phenomenon known as Glossolalia). [More on this presently.]
However, returning to Harman's theory, when the relevant sections of his article are closely examined, it soon becomes apparent that it contains what can only be described as a gesture at giving a 'dialectical' account of the origin of language -- and, once more, an account that was augmented by several of Harman's own "just so" stories.
Clearly, a detailed examination of this issue would be inappropriate here, but in view of the controversial nature of the above allegations, something more needs to be said that goes beyond these bald assertions.
Harman's earlier theory (as we will see, he later appears to have changed his mind somewhat) was based largely on Engels's The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, and The Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State [i.e., Engels (1876, 1891)], updated with some of the scientific discoveries that have been made in the meantime. Engels saw the move made by our ape-like ancestors from an arboreal existence to a more terrestrial habitat as a crucial move in freeing their hands to work with tools, thus facilitating greater and more complex social organisation. This was accompanied by parallel developments in tool-making, and thus of the brain, which in turn allowed such proto-humans to invent language. Central to all this was cooperative labour. Harman continues:
"It is this which also explains the development of those most peculiarly human attributes, language and consciousness. The distinctive feature about human language, as opposed to the sounds and gestures made by other animals, is that we use words to refer to things and situations that are not actually present in front of us. We use them to abstract from the reality that confronts us and to describe other realities. And once we can do this to others, we can also do it to ourselves, using the 'inner speech' that goes on inside our heads to envisage new situations and new goals. The ability to do these things cannot have arisen at one go. It must have grown up over many generations as our remote ancestors learnt in practice, through labour, to abstract from and to change immediate reality -- as they began to use sounds and gestures not merely to indicate what was immediately in front of them or what they immediately desired (which is what some animals do) but to indicate how they wanted to change something and how they wanted others to help them. In tool use we know there was a significant change from the ape to the early humans: the ape picks up a stick or stone to use as a tool; the early humans of 2 million years ago were already not only shaping the stick or stone, but using other stones to do the shaping, and, undoubtedly, learning from each other how to do this. This implies not merely conceptions about immediate things (food stuffs), but about things once removed from immediacy (the tool that can get the food stuff) and twice removed from immediate reality (the tool that can shape the tool that gets the food stuff). And it also implies communication, whether by gesture or sound, about things two stages removed from immediate conditions -- in effect, the first use of abstract nouns, adjectives and verbs. The development of labour and the development of communication thus, necessarily, go hand in hand. And as they both develop, they both encourage the selection of those new genes which made people more adept at both: the more agile hand, the larger brain, the larynx that made a wider range of sounds.
"Such developments do not involve just quantitative changes. As the growth of labour, the growth of sociability and the growth of language reinforced each other, encouraging the selection of a whole range of new genes, new networks of nerve cells would emerge in the brain, making possible whole new ranges of interaction between people and the world around them. This may well explain why suddenly new species of humans developed that lived alongside and then superseded those that went before, as with the successive emergence of homo habilis, of homo erectus, of the various sorts of archaic human. Thus, it may well be the case that modern humans eventually replaced the Neanderthals because they were able to communicate more quickly and clearly with each other (although we will probably never know for certain if this was so).
"So there has to be a recognition of how quantity turns into quality, of how through successive changes animal life gave birth to that new form of life we call 'human', which had a dynamic of its own, shaped by its labour and its culture not by its genes...." [Harman (1994), pp.101-02. Bold emphases and links added.]
While much of the above won't be questioned here (or anywhere else, for that matter), we have already seen that "inner speech" is far too vague and fanciful a notion to be of any use. Likewise, we have also seen (in Essay Three Parts One and Two) that the idea that "abstraction" underpins language is no less misguided. Finally, we have also seen that Engels's first 'Law' is no help at all in understanding evolution, or, indeed, anything else.
What will be questioned here, however, is the theory, which Harman later endorsed, that language is genetically-based [Harman (1999), p.621], since that idea is incompatible with his earlier stated commitment to the social nature of language.110a
Proto-Language – Invention Or Inheritance?
In this section, some attempt will be made to examine the viability of Harman's 'later view' of the origin and nature of language:
"The ability to use language is, according to the generally accepted theory of Noam Chomsky, a genetically determined feature of all modern humans. The connection between language, abstraction and human consciousness is spelt out in the books written by the Russian Marxist Voloshinov during the 1920s, and in part two, Labour, of the Ontology by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács." [Harman (2008), p.621, note 6. Harman has made a slight error here; Labour is part three of Lukács's work. Bold emphasis added, italic emphases in the original; link also added.]
At the outset it must be stressed that the comments below don't pretend to be an exhaustive critique of the many theories there are concerning the origin of language, nor are they aimed at a even a brief survey of current theory in this area. [Indeed, that would require several books on its own!] Quite the opposite, in fact. This material is aimed solely at Harman's comments (and those of Chomsky's, detailed later).111
Imagine, say, a proto-linguist, NN, at time, t1 (i.e., X thousand years ago), who has in their linguistic repertoire a limited set of 'words', W1. Suppose this set contains only 'proto-nouns' used to 'name' things.112 Suppose also that at time, t2 (Y thousand years later, Y < X) another proto-linguist, MM (who perhaps belongs to the descendants of the group to which NN belonged), has in their repertoire a wider set of 'words', W2. Further, let W2 contain 'nouns'/'proto-nouns' and 'verbs'/'proto-verbs', which are used to say things. Finally, let MM be the first to innovate in their group.113
A linguistic development like this could be the result of one or more of the following: (i) A series of genetic changes, (ii) A pattern of cultural development, or (iii) A 'dialectical' combination of the two -- even given Harman's account of things.
Consider the first alternative (the third is clearly dependent on the first -- again, assuming the truth of the theory under consideration -- while the second won't be open to question here): let us suppose that a gene or set of genes, G1, is responsible (a) in whole, or (b) in part for this innovation. Given either of these sub-options, the presence of G1 would be wholly or partly responsible for the transformation that took the group(s) to which NN and MM belong from the use of W1 to the use of W2 (or which enabled that development to take place).
Again, consider the first of these two sub-options:
(1a) Let G1 be wholly responsible for this development. In that case, G1 would clearly enable whoever possessed it (i.e., in this case, MM) to use the wider repertoire W2. Unfortunately, however, unless several speakers in their group simultaneously possessed G1, MM would have no one to talk to who was capable of understanding them, and no one from whom they could have learnt this new language, or these new 'words'. In such circumstances, MM would be either self-taught or a spontaneous master of this wider vocabulary. Neither option is credible, and both undermine the social nature of language.
Even supposing MM were self-taught (or was a spontaneous master of this proto-language), no one else would be able to understand them unless the same were true of the rest of the group. In which case, there would be no survival value either for MM, or their group, resulting from this development. As Behme notes:
"Furthermore, the result of the one-time Merge mutation would have to have been exceptionably stable (allegedly Merge did not change from the moment it appeared in one lucky hominid (called by Chomsky (2005b) Prometheus), some 50,000-100,000 years ago), and would have had to result immediately in massive selectional advantages for Prometheus. According to Chomsky (2009b, 2014b), it is foolish to speculate about the role of communication when attempting to account for language evolution. This seems to imply that, whatever advantage was conferred on Prometheus, he could not have communicated his novel cognitive powers to other members of the breeding group." [Behme (2014b), p.677. Referencing conventions altered to conform with those adopted at this site. It is worth recalling that Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, was subtitled The Modern Prometheus.]
Of course, these problems will be multiplied considerably if, as Chomsky imagines, language (in its entirety) appeared all at once.114
If we now weaken an earlier restriction placed on this option and suppose that several members of MM's group possess G1 (and hence, W2) at the same time, little in fact changes. Whenever it was that G1 first appeared in the population it would have had to have taken place all at once in more than one speaker at the same time, otherwise the linguistic innovations of one member of the group would be useless, and would be incapable of being learned or comprehended by others. Hence, unless we suppose there to have been a simultaneous group mutation, this isn't a credible scenario, either. Quite apart from the fact that widespread simultaneous group mutations (of exactly the same sort) aren't plausible (and, as far as I'm aware, have never been observed in nature), this option also undermines the idea that language is a social phenomenon.114a0 This would mean that language is neither socially acquired nor learnt by group interaction based on cooperative labour. In this particular case, language couldn't have been taught to MM and all the rest by their parents, relatives or members of their local tribe/group. That is because this proto-language was assumed to have been genetically initiated; hence, ex hypothesi, MM and/or their generation would have been the very first to innovate.114a
Even if we now suppose that there had been a group mutation of some sort resulting in members MM's linguistic community all innovating together, they would all have to demonstrate roughly comparable expertise with the same (new) vocabulary all at once or they would fail to communicate, once more. [Why that is an important consideration here is connected with the alleged survival value of mutations like this, which, if there is no pay-off in this respect, would be zero.] But, how might this remarkable coincidence have come about? Unless we suppose that there is a close connection between words and genes -- so that, for example, where there was a gene (or set of genes), g1, there would be a word (or set of words), w1 --, the presence in each individual of the same unlearnt vocabulary is as difficult to account for as it is implausible.
On the other hand, if this group mutation was also responsible for simultaneous grammatical (and not just lexical) innovation, the difficulties become even more formidable. Not only would the language of such innovators be incomprehensible to non-innovating parents, relatives and members of the same community (who do not share these genes), we would be faced with a scenario where these novice innovators would (as it were) all woke up one day as expert speakers in this new tongue.115 They would all demonstrate a semi-miraculous facility with these new verbs (never having heard or used them before), knowing (implicitly) that they weren't nouns -- this remarkable capacity revealed by their use of them as non-nouns, non-naming words. [I am not suggesting they were intuitive grammarians, here! I am merely adverting to the novel way they would have to use such 'words'.] Such a scenario might feature in Hollywood B-movies, but only the most credulous of film buffs would buy into it.
It could be objected to the above that it badly misconceives the origin of language since it supposes it to have been developed suddenly, which is absurd. The genetic changes that occurred in our ancestors need not have been expressed linguistically at first, but could have developed as a result of other selection pressures, and/or random changes.
In that case, let us suppose that G1 gradually formed in the said tribe, and further that this gene (or set of genes) wasn't immediately responsible for these hypothetical linguistic innovations. Instead, let us surmise that G1 initially assisted in the survival of members of the group in some other (as yet unknown) way, and was preserved in the gene pool for that reason.116
At some point, of course, the exaptative -- or perhaps "pre-adaptive" -- proto-linguistic properties of G1 would have to have kicked-in at some point, in order for G1 to assume its linguistic role in the target group.
Hence, G1 would have had to become operative in this novel capacity at a future date -- in response, say, to new selection pressures -- allowing it to assume its innovative role, assuming functions not necessarily related to those that had given rise to its original preservation in the gene pool. In that case, although G1 might appear in a population as a gene (or set of genes) selected for other reasons, subsequently, it could, under certain circumstances, facilitate the development of a proto-language. There are many examples of this sort of pre-adaptation (or exaption) in nature, or so we are told.117
However, even given this revised scenario, we would have to suppose that several members of the group who possessed G1 would have to innovate linguistically at the same time, and in exactly the same way, as the pre-adaptive (or exaptative) properties of G1 kicked-in. If this weren't the case, no one in the group would be able to understand anyone else in the same group who began to speak in this novel way. A lone innovator -- whatever the genetic pre-dispositions of the group happened to be, and howsoever quickly or slowly they became manifest -- would suddenly find themselves uttering strange unrecognisable sounds -- somewhat like the aforementioned ecstatic Pentecostals -- to a group of bemused onlookers. This still fails to be a credible picture.117a
Even so, as noted above, the idea that all or most of those possessing G1 would innovate together is equally implausible. But, even if they had, an entire throng of innovators would face each other, not as lone Pentecostal ecstatics, but as a dissonant gaggle of babblers all suddenly barking strange noises at one another.117a0
Furthermore, members of this group of innovators would either have been (a) born with this gene (or set of genes) already in place, or they would have (b) acquired it as a result of a mutation later in life. Either way, plainly, they wouldn't have been taught, or socialised into, this new proto-language by their parents, siblings or carers,118 even though we are now to suppose that they could all use this new tongue in the same way, with the same grammar and vocabulary (and would all comprehend one another in the same way, at the same time) right from the get-go. We have to suppose that all this, or something like it, did in fact take place, otherwise an appeal to biological, genetic or physiological principles to account for linguistic innovation would be an empty gesture.118a
That being so, none of these pre-historic, novice innovators would need to be schooled by anyone in the proper use of their new vocabulary with its novel grammar; the employment of these ground-breaking linguistic abilities would spring forth in each individual spontaneously, and all in the same way, at the same time. And, we would have to suppose this were so no matter how basic or rudimentary this extension to the old 'dialect' (of 'nouns') proved to be, or how gradually it was introduced. Every party to these new social norms should have to innovate together at roughly the same rate (or the proposed links with the biological origins of linguistic novelty would begin to weaken once more) --, even though, as they proceeded to do this, they would fail to comprehend each other's new sounds, words, or grammar. [Why that is so will be explored presently.]
Hence, these innovations would still be useless.
Moreover, if we examine the original postulate, these innovations were said to be of a specific sort. Earlier it was hypothesised that there once was:
...a proto-linguist, NN, at time, t1 (i.e., X thousand years ago), who has in their linguistic repertoire a limited set of 'words', W1. Suppose this set contains only 'proto-nouns' used to 'name' things. Suppose also that at time, t2 (Y thousand years later, Y < X) another proto-linguist, MM (who perhaps belongs to the descendants of the group to which NN belonged), has in their repertoire a wider set of 'words', W2. Further, let W2 contain 'nouns'/'proto-nouns' and 'verbs'/'proto-verbs', which are used to say things. Finally, let MM be the first to innovate in their group.
The question is: How would a member of MM's group recognise a verb as a verb if they had never used or encountered one before, let alone know how to use one? Since we are dealing with human beings (or proto-humans) here, not gene-driven automata, this consideration is no mere detail. Naturally, we should only want to say that such proto-linguists were using verbs if they employed them in the same way that we now use them to form, for example, indicative sentences (among other things). And how might they have done that if they don't yet know (in practice, not in theory!) the difference between the two grammatical forms -- that is, between nouns and verbs? If they don't in fact appreciate this difference (once more, in practice, not in theory), what justification is there for us now saying that they must have understood what they were communicating, or even that they knew how to go about doing it? What possible reason could there be for concluding that a new noise uttered (or employed in a novel way) for the very first time in history is indeed a verb if it wasn't then used, even in a rudimentary way, as we use verbs today? In fact, if there is no good reason, then this science fiction account of the origin of speech can't even get off the ground.
Of course, as noted above, the innovators involved in this scenario needn't have consciously grasped the import of what they were doing, nor need they have had any idea at all about grammar (and, in this case, plainly, they couldn't possess such knowledge). But, in practice, if they couldn't use these new forms in the way that we now do, even if only in a highly simplified kind of way, there is no good reason to characterise their innovative sounds as part of this novel grammatical category, i.e., as verbs. And since we are now trying to theorise about the steps that might have led up to the invention of language by human beings (and, once more, we avoid deliberating over the introduction of a new set of noises produced by automata), we have no other way of conceptualising this series of moves. Hence, given what we currently mean by the use of verbs, we now have no good reason to suppose that such innovators could use these new forms -- if the process of innovation is characterised in this way.119
[Why this is so was explained earlier; more details are given below.]
On the other hand, even if these innovative moves were plausible, radical developments like this couldn't facilitate communication. Members of this pre-historic band of novice innovators would confront each other with sounds they wouldn't recognise; nor would they know what to do with them. Recall that at some point in history they would be the very first individuals to use language in this new way; in that case, they would comprehend one another no better than ecstatic Pentecostals do now.120 Simply mumbling or barking sounds at other members of the group doesn't amount to communication. [On this, see Note 117a0 and Note 118a.]
The temptation to suppose otherwise -- i.e., that one or more of the above scenarios presents a credible picture of how communication might have arisen -- might be prompted by the fact that we are trying to imagine what life was like without language, when, of course, we are forced to do this from our perspective as sophisticated language users already. As should seem obvious, even historical linguists and evolutionary scientists are heavily biased in this respect, using analogies drawn from the way we communicate and innovate at present. That is, of course, why such theorists find they constantly have to use metaphorical language, liberally employing 'scare quotes' along the way.120a
Clearly, these two situations aren't at all comparable; how we innovate today bears no comparison with how proto-linguists once did. In this respect, we are in no position to form a clear picture of what it was like for human beings before language was invented (any more than we can now put ourselves in the 'mind' of an ape, or an ape-like ancestor). Even an attempt to do this would be forced to employ the very thing we are now trying to imagine we were once without (i.e., language), applying it in situations where there was no language. It isn't as if language is an afterthought, a dispensable, insignificant detail that we just happen to get along with right now, something we can ignore when it suits us; it is constitutive of our ability to comprehend anything at all. As noted earlier, human beings haven't yet figured out a way of thinking about anything that doesn't use language, directly or indirectly -- nor are they ever likely to. And we can say this with some confidence because of what the words in the last handful of sentences now mean.121
Moreover, option (1b) above suffers from the same weaknesses.
Finally, Professor of Linguistics, Vyvyan Evans, concurs (but no should assume I agree with everything Evans has to say):
"There is one last big problem for the idea of a Universal Grammar. That is its strange implications for human evolution. If language is genetically hard-wired, then it self-evidently had to emerge at some point in our evolutionary lineage. As it happens, when Chomsky was developing the theory, language was generally assumed to be absent in other species in our genus, such as Neanderthal man. This would seem to narrow the window of opportunity during which it could have emerged. Meanwhile, the relatively late appearance of sophisticated human culture around 50,000 years ago (think complex tool-making, jewellery, cave-art and so on) seemed to both require and confirm this late emergence. Chomsky argued that it might have appeared on the scene as little as 100,000 years ago, and that it must have arisen from a genetic mutation.
"Stop and think about this: it is a very weird idea. For one thing, Chomsky's claim is that language came about through a macro-mutation: a discontinuous jump. But this is at odds with the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis, widely accepted as fact, which has no place for such large-scale and unprecedented leaps. Adaptations just don't pop up fully formed. Moreover, a bizarre consequence of Chomsky's position is that language couldn't have evolved for the purpose of communication: after all, even if a grammar gene could have sprung up out of the blue in one lucky individual (already vanishingly unlikely), the chances of two individuals getting the same chance mutation, at exactly the same time, is even less credible. And so, according to the theory of the language instinct, the world's first language-equipped human presumably had no one to talk to.
"Something seems to have gone wrong somewhere. And indeed, we now believe that several of Chomsky's evolutionary assumptions were incorrect. Recent reconstructions of the Neanderthal vocal tract show that Neanderthals probably did, in fact, have some speech capacity, perhaps very modern in quality. It is also becoming clear that, far from the dumb brutes of popular myth, they had a sophisticated material culture -- including the ability to create cave engravings and produce sophisticated stone tools -- not dissimilar to aspects of the human cultural explosion of 50,000 years ago. It is hard to see how they could have managed the complex learning and co-operation required for that if they didn't have language. Moreover, recent genetic analysis reveals there was a fair bit of interbreeding that took place -- most modern humans have a few bits of distinctively Neanderthal DNA. Far from modern humans arriving on the scene and wiping out the hapless ape men, it now looks like early Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis could have co-habited and interbred. It does not seem farfetched to speculate that they might also have communicated with one another." [Quoted from here; accessed 11/09/2017.]
One thing is reasonably clear: contemporary linguistic innovators don't invent new areas of discourse as a result of genetic mutations or variations. Not even the most died-in-the-wool, solid gold, diamond studded sociobiologist would argue along those lines. That is why they have had to concoct the entirely fanciful "memetic" theory of linguistic/cultural transmission to plug the Grand Canyon-sized gap in their theory.122
But, even if they were to argue that language development at present had a genetic basis, their theory would emerge still-born, for only those possessed of the correct genes would be able to comprehend it!
As seems obvious, we comprehend languages that are new to us at present because they can be translated into our own, or they can be explained to us in terms we already understand. But, ex hypothesi, that option wasn't available to such bands of proto-linguists -- for to do that they would have to have possessed the requisite linguistic skills before they possessed them!
Let us now suppose that the third alternative above is correct: that is, that a dialectical combination of cultural and genetic factors facilitated linguistic innovation (which is the option Harman seems to favour -- in his journal article, at least). Unfortunately, however, the problems outlined above afflict this alternative, too. So, in order to comprehend a radically new innovation (i.e., the introduction of 'proto-verbs'), MM, for example, would already have to be in possession of the necessary linguistic resources. But, as noted earlier, comprehension is both public and language-based. It isn't something we do privately in our heads. Hence, on this view, MM (or his/her group) would have to innovate before he/she/(they) could understand that innovation, or anything said to them!123
Howsoever this idea is re-packaged, we have as yet no idea how linguistic or social change could be incorporated into, or caused by, our genetic make-up. On the contrary, current genetic orthodoxy seems to suggest that the former cannot happen -- since extremely wide human cultural diversity is in fact supervenient on what is a largely stable genetic base, so we are told. And, given current knowledge, there seems to be no way that social change can be imprinted on the genome.124
If that is so, a dialectical account (which sees some sort of mediation between genes and cooperative social labour as fundamental to the origin of language and thought) can gain no grip. In the end, like it or not, a materialist account of language must take the HM-route, viewing language as a social phenomenon, and nothing more.124a
DM And Dialectical Miracles
There are several possible DM-avenues out of this impasse. The first involves the postulation of an 'emergent' property of matter which operates simultaneously in every member of MM's group, permitting them all to use W2 at the same moment. Alas, this escape route also suffers from exactly the same problems as those outlined above. Unless all of these quasi-miraculous innovators used the same words at the same time (and in the same way), none of them would be able to understand what any of the rest 'said'.124b Now, the weight of probabilities suggests that it is highly unlikely that this band of proto-linguists would all hit on the very same words at exactly the same time. Even dialectically motivated genes cannot establish a settled vocabulary which is familiar to all its users, and which they all have to know how to employ (in the same way), from day one! The operative word here, of course, is "familiar"; it is important to remember this incredible scenario will only work if these proto-linguists are all familiar with the words that have just been invented!
[It would be interesting to see how DM-fans go about trying to "grasp" that contradiction -- that these innovators are all familiar with words that are entirely new to them. Any who fail to appreciate the incongruity here need only reflect on the (ridiculous) claim that it is possible to be familiar with someone who, or something that, has been encountered for the very first time.]
On the other hand, if they weren't in fact familiar with these newly invented words (as seems more than merely likely!), then whatever these proto-linguists mouthed at one anther would be as comprehensible as Pentecostal ecstatic linguists or aphasics (see below) are to us (let alone to one another) today.
Even MM, the original innovator, would have to be familiar with grammatically novel words (which they had never heard before), and with how to use them correctly from the get-go. This isn't credible, to say the least.
Another way out of this dialectical hole might involve the suggestion that MM, or other members of his/her group, invented their own private language and subsequently shared it with the rest. But, even if such a private language were possible (and there are good reasons (over and above Marx's view) to suppose it isn't; on this, see the references listed in Note 86), it would be impossible for this lone innovator to explain (or communicate) anything to anyone else without the requisite linguistic resources already being publicly available by means of which this could be achieved. As should seem obvious, this 'escape route' would have to presuppose the existence of the very thing this 'private language' had been invented to explain: a publicly usable language. Again, we hit another brick wall.
This series of dead ends isn't the least bit surprising: it isn't possible to use language to try to get behind its conventions. Any attempt to do so will always run into the same obstacles. That is because language is irreducibly social; any endeavour to account for it along alternative lines has to appeal to (or has to utilise, surreptitiously) the very thing it had sought to explain. Hence, in order to make the above scenarios even seem plausible, we had to suppose that early linguists innovated in the same way we do today. Failing that, we are forced to concede that they innovated non-socially, as we do not do today.124c On the other hand, if they innovated back then as social atoms, individualistically, they would fail to communicate. Moreover, we can't assume that such proto-linguists innovated as we do today, for, plainly(!) they didn't possess a language, as we do; they and their group had certainly not gone through the same social development we experienced, which helped create the sophisticated language we now have.
The reason why this barrier is non-negotiable isn't -- as some might suppose -- because we have to use some language or other to express theories that endeavour to account for the invention of language.125 It is because, in order to account for the development of language we have to assume the existence of the very thing we sought to explain -- i.e., the ability to use language based on historically-conditioned social convention -- so that communication can take place. Edit that out, and no wonder communication can't be accounted for --, except by appeal to myth, metaphor and miracle. [On this see Note 124c.]
Marxists, who inadvertently undermine belief in the social nature of language (even if they pay lip service to it elsewhere), play directly into the hands of the reactionary forces they otherwise seek to oppose.
It is no surprise then to see DM (given its alien-class origins) once again compromise HM with sinister efficiency.126
Language And Aphasia
Of course, we needn't speculate about what might or might not have happened, nor need we appeal to obscure religious hysterics to make this point. There are numerous well-documented cases of aphasics (or, dysphasics) who utter all manner of odd 'words'/'sentences' that no one understands (even when these are (presumably) 'grammatically correct'). Indeed, a recent episode of House (i.e., Failure to Communicate) illustrated this phenomenon -- concerning a patient suffering from Wernicke's Aphasia.126a
It isn't possible to comprehend such radically flawed 'speech'. In that case, the above ancestral novice innovators would confront each other as a group of aphasics face us, or one another, today.
Moreover, we don't need to appeal to fictionalised TV programmes to make this point. As noted above, there are plenty of well-documented cases. One interesting example is outlined in Aitchison (1996). This concerns a monk called Brother John who, in the 1970s, experienced a series of epileptic seizures. Whenever these attacks occurred, he found he couldn't understand anything that was said to him, and no one could comprehend his speech, either. Longer seizures, though, had a more dramatic effect:
"He lost his ability to use language, and was aware of this... [as] he noted: 'I know that certain words I say are not correct but I do not know which ones...'.
"When his spoken speech was tested during a spell, similar sounding nonsense words tended to recur, often variants of the nonsense sequence tuwari. When shown a picture of a telephone...[he] said: 'That's it, there. The furi twar. No. Glarity tuware tuwa tuware ari tuware tuware tuwarere tu tuware tu'." [Aitchison (1996), p.39. Italic emphasis in the original; quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
Why aren't we justified in concluding that Brother John was innovating, here? The answer is quite plain: because what he 'said' was incomprehensible -- even to th individual himself after the seizures abated. And the same can be said of those hypothetical ancestral innovators, babbling away in their caves many thousands of years ago.
It could be objected that aphasics (etc.) are brain damaged, which means aphasia (etc.) isn't relevant to the case in hand. Of course, it is undeniable that aphasics are damaged individuals, but the point is that whatever the aetiology, the 'language' of anyone who utters nonsense (or who produces totally strange noises) would be, and is, incomprehensible to those around them -- unless someone 'de-codes' it. But, in order to do that they would need a sophisticated language into which it could be de-coded. Plainly, that would require the existence of a language in which this could be done -- and, given the scenario outlined above, that language would have to contain 'proto-verbs', or no such translation could be effected.
Once more we would have to assume the existence of the very thing we sought to explain!
Moreover, those without brain damage struggle to comprehend individuals who use language in odd ways, despite their expert training and advanced technology. Proto-linguists, therefore, stand no chance of comprehending innovators who use new words in new ways.
Anyway, what is a massive brain mutation other than damage to that organ?
Taking Exception To Human Exceptionalism
Harman's resistance to the idea that human development is "exceptional", and was sudden and took place relatively recently was clearly motivated by a fear that to think otherwise would be to make dangerous concessions to Idealism. Indeed, his discussion appeared under the heading: "The new idealist challenge", where he summarised what he took to be the main arguments central to this challenge (one of which was based on Gould and Eldredge's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium). His conclusion was:
"The overall impact of these different arguments has been to encourage a fashion in recent years which sees 'a distinctively human way of life' as arising very late in history, as a result of a 'human revolution' which first produced culture and language." [Harman (1994), p.96.]
He then summed up his counter-argument in the following way:
"So there has to be a recognition of how quantity turns into quality, of how through successive changes animal life gave birth to that new form of life we call 'human', which had a dynamic of its own, shaped by its labour and its culture not by its genes. But this should not lead to a collapse into a new which sees culture and language as emerging from nowhere in the fairly recent past." [Ibid., p.102.]
This partly explains why he rejected Gould and Eldredge's theory:
"Finally, the argument that punctuated evolution can take place does not, in itself, prove that it did take place in such a way as to produce culture and language suddenly. And there is one powerful argument against this -- that of brain size. If the evolution of humanity was the result of very rapid changes towards the end of a period of millions of years, then that is when you would expect the most characteristic feature of homo sapiens -- the massive size of our brain compared to our bodies -- to arise. The original formulation of the punctuated evolution hypothesis by Gould and Eldridge (sic) in fact held to this view, contending that the brain hardly increased in size for the million years homo erectus existed. But, as Stringer points out, there is 'little evidence' to back up this view.
"That leaves a problem for any theory which sees the 'human revolution' as occurring all at once half a million years ago with the replacement of homo erectus by homo sapien (sic), let alone 35,000 years ago after the evolution of anatomically modern humans: why did late homo erectus have a brain twice the size of the Australopithecines, and the Neanderthals a modern sized brain? It could not have been simply to undertake the mental operations which could be done by their ancestors millions of years before.
"At the same time, it is inconceivable that our forebears of a million years ago could have survived unless they had already developed ways of co-operating together to cope with their environment and of transmitting knowledge to each other on a qualitatively greater scale than is to be found among our ape cousins. For by that time they were already moving out of the African valleys where their species originated to colonise much of Eurasia, showing they were capable not just of living in a certain restricted ecological niches, but of adapting a variety of environments to their needs -- learning to discriminate between those newly encountered varieties of plants that were edible and those that were poisonous, learning to hunt new sorts of animals, learning to protect themselves against new predators, learning to cope with new climates." [Ibid., p.99.]
Now, Harman's evidence and argument won't be disputed here, but this form of exceptionalism clearly suggested to Harman that language and recognisably human psychological traits might not have material roots in collective labour (etc.), implying some form of Idealism.127
But, we have already seen that DM itself collapses into Idealism (since it is not only predicated on it, it was born out of it -- despite the materialist spin that is said to have been inflicted on it -- on that, see here). Moreover, Harman himself had to use several inappropriate metaphors to support his case. He supposed, for example, that specific developments in evolution would have "encouraged" others to take place, and he attributed to natural selection a mystical sort of agency, saying things like the following:
"Natural selection would bring about…evolution in the direction of ever larger, denser and more complex neural networks, capable of directing and learning from intricate motor functions of the hand and of using minute changes in gesture or voice to communicate…." [Harman (1994), p.100. Bold emphasis added.]
This isn't just Harman's shorthand for "Natural causes eliminated those organisms that were less successful in reproducing, because of factors X, Y or Z". That can be seen from the metaphor Harman found he had to use. In fact, this mirrors Darwin's own employment of the metaphorical (and thus teleological) term "natural selection". Indeed, Darwinism is shot through with teleological concepts; and so is Harman's article.128
Of course, scientific metaphors are entirely unexceptionable -- but only if they aren't taken literally! The suspicion that Harman has in fact done just this is not helped by the way he attributes direction to causes that he elsewhere says aren't "contingent".129 In that case, it isn't easy to reconcile the alleged capacity of natural forces to control and direct events with their supposedly non-necessitating nature.129a Nor is it easy to explain how 'non-intelligent matter' is able to 'direct' anything at all; nor, indeed, how objects and processes in nature can be 'directed', 'controlled', and 'determined' by anything else. Still less is it easy to comprehend how objects and process succeed in 'obeying' these 'injunctions' everywhere and everywhen, nor yet how these non-necessitating 'directives' command such unquestioning compliance throughout the entire 'non-intelligent', material universe, for all of time.130
As intimated above, in order to construct such a causal account of nature, theorists found that they had to animate matter at every turn; they had to attribute it with a capacity to 'follow orders' (as it were), or to 'obey' certain natural (or 'dialectical') 'laws'. Clearly, that would make objects and processes in nature either intelligent agents (capable of 'obeying' 'laws' without education or socialisation of any sort), or rather dim agents (bullied and pushed about the place by a Universal Will).
Indeed, this is precisely what is implied by a literal interpretation of such metaphors.130a
Now, far from it being the case that only human exceptionalism implies Idealism, Harman's approach itself ends up putting mind before matter, for it depends on the (implicit) metaphysical doctrine that natural events are directed by just such a Cosmic Will (a notion which is clearly buried in all those metaphors).131
In fact, as pointed out earlier, Harman found that he had to anthropomorphise nature at the very start so that intelligence and purpose could 'emerge' from it at a later stage.132 To that end, causes are pictured as determining ('deciding', 'directing' or 'controlling') events by natural law.132a These are "laws" which must be "obeyed" by 'lifeless, non-intelligent' matter, this fable made 'acceptable' by the indiscriminate use of metaphor -- i.e., in this case, the mystical correlate of those aforementioned "just-so-stories". [Since I have developed these points in more detail elsewhere in this Essay, I will not rehearse them again here.]133
To be sure, Harman is concerned to defend Engels's belief that labour contributed significantly to the development of human language and cognition, since he sees in recent trends a resurgence of Idealism. However, in order to defend Engels in this area it isn't necessary to deny human exceptionalism; in fact, as this Essay has shown, the best way to defend the 'Labour Theory of Culture' is to emphasise our uniqueness.
To sum up: there is nothing in current Darwinian theory that allows for social change to be imprinted in the genome, and there is nothing in Marxism that permits cultural phenomena to be genetically encoded. Indeed, human cultural development has been free-floating on a largely stable genetic base for tens of thousands of years. This explains why human beings across the world can inter-communicate, and, with relative ease, share and enjoy cultural artefacts with one another, even where their respective languages appear to be totally dissimilar.133a Since it isn't possible for Neo-Darwinism to account for this, it is puzzling why this theory has been given any credence (in this regard) by Marxists trying to account for language and thought.134 As we have seen, all that Harman himself could offer his readers in order to counter the reactionary ideas implied by Neo-Darwinism was a tired old reference to Engels's first 'Law', 'supported' by the hope that others will "see things" this way.
Indeed, one might just as well try to stop an avalanche with a "Keep Off" sign.
The minor genetic changes that have taken place over the last ten or twenty thousand years are testimony enough to the truth of the above comments. Over that period, cultural innovation has been extensive while genetic change has been relatively insignificant. Harman himself alludes to this fact when he speaks of a social process that displays "a dynamic of its own". As he will no doubt agree (but, alas, he is no longer with us!), the theory that accounts for this is called -- HM. But, and once again, it is DM that obscures the clarity that the latter theory brings to an understanding of our own history and social development.134b
It is surely time we consciously selected out this mutant, alien-class theory (DM); it is one aspect of our radical inheritance we shouldn't thank our theoretical ancestors for passing down to us without modification.
"Critical Realism" In Crisis
Another comrade who has also drifted into deep waters is Andrew Collier. Collier recently attempted to controvert the ideas of certain so-called "Wittgensteinians" with arguments drawn from the work of Noam Chomsky, Donald Davidson, Trevor Pateman and Roy Bhaskar, among others.
One of Collier's main worries appears to be Wittgenstein's alleged insistence that the reasons for an action cannot also be the causes of that action. Apparently, refuting this particular idea is important because it would allow theorists to develop a 'naturalistic' explanation of human action.
[At this point, alarm bells should be ringing in the head of anyone who accepts HM.]
Of course, this issue is connected with Collier's attempt to provide his readers with his own brand of a priori Superscience, dressed up this time as something that initiates call "critical theory". Indeed, Collier's argument forms part of a wider attempt to establish the case for a Bhaskarean-style "Critical Realism".135
Unfortunately, the reader will search long and hard (and to no avail) in Collier's book for a direct reference to any of Wittgenstein's actual arguments. [In fact, there is no reference at all to the Philosophical Investigations (or any other of Wittgenstein's works) in the bibliography to Collier (1994).] A strange omission one might feel for an avowed realist; precious little correspondence with reality, here!
What the reader will find in place of evidence and argument, however, are several rather vague allusions to the opinions of certain "Wittgensteinians" about this or that aspect of 'mental' phenomena -- alongside a few misguided comments lifted from a book by former "Wittgensteinian", and one-time radical, Trevor Pateman.136
An Unbalanced Account Of Causation
The substance of Collier's case against Wittgenstein fares little better. Quoting Bhaskar, he argues as follows:
"What does it mean to say that reasons can be causes? Bhaskar suggests that:
"'When something is cited as a cause it is, I think, most typically being viewed as that factor which, in the circumstances that actually prevailed, "so tipped the balance of events to produce the known outcome"…'…." [Collier (1994), p.152, quoting Bhaskar (1979), p.106. I am clearly using a different edition of the latter, since Collier gives p.83 as the location of this passage. Quotation marks altered to conform with the conventions adopted at this site.]
He then concludes that:
"Intentional actions involve beliefs and desires…. It is hardly open to dispute that, given a desire for something, coming to have a belief about the way to get it may 'tip the balance', and so be naturally described as 'the cause'." [Ibid., p.153. Bold emphasis added.]
Of course, a belief about "a way to get" X isn't a reason for why X was wanted in the first place. If NN wants to go on a march, for example, and believes the Number 159 bus will get her there, that is surely not the reason why she wanted to go on that march.
Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether the opening sentence of the first of the above passages, namely:
"[W]hen something is cited as a cause it is, I think, most typically being viewed as that factor which, in the circumstances that actually prevailed, 'so tipped the balance of events to produce the known outcome'..." [Ibid.]
is based on some the yet-to-be-published, innovative research into the sociolinguistics of the terms in question -- or whether it was just a guess. If the former is the case, it is reasonable to ask where the data is to be found that supports the view that a cause is "typically…viewed" as something that "tipped the balance of events".
This query is not being raised out of mere cussedness; if someone makes an empirical claim about the "typical" way the rest of us are supposed to interpret (or use) a certain word that is in fact not even remotely like the way they would naturally employ it, some supporting evidence is the least one should expect. [If there is any such evidence, perhaps Collier will include it in the second edition of his book.] Even so, in abeyance of this data, we would be unwise to revise our use of English just because of what Roy Bhaskar says everyone else typically understands by the word "cause".137
In fact, competent users of language do not need to wait for the results of such a study before they are told what the words they already use mean. If they were to wait, a study of the words "word" and "study" (among others) would surely have to be carried out first before any conclusions could be drawn. And how might that task be undertaken, for goodness sake?
In fact, as I am sure Collier is also aware, when someone challenges another's understanding of a word (or attempts to revise it), an appeal to everyday examples -- or in some cases a dictionary (but not a survey) --, would, in many cases, settle things. Collier, unfortunately, omitted these simple steps. In order to rectify this, we will examine several typical examples of the use of "cause" (and other related terms), later, and the reader is invited to decide for herself if they are indeed typical. In advance of that it is worth noting that no dictionary worth its salt defines this word in the way Collier or Bhaskar suggest.138
Despite this initial worry, one might also be forgiven for wondering what the relevance is of the emphasised words, repeated here:
"Intentional actions involve beliefs and desires…. It is hardly open to dispute that, given a desire for something, coming to have a belief about the way to get it may 'tip the balance', and so be naturally described as 'the cause'." [Ibid., p.153. Bold emphases added.]
Even supposing it were true that means/end reasoning preceded some of our actions, how would that show reasons were causes, let alone 'balance-tippers'? Of course, if something is to be regarded as the cause of something else, and this is supposed to form part of a novel scientific analysis of the processes involved, evidence would be required -- otherwise any old fable (or, indeed, any old "just-so story") could be presented as hard science.
Nevertheless, Collier's 'analysis' purports to be a little more prosaic, and based on what we might ordinarily say and think. If so, as noted above, a wide selection of examples of everyday use would have been much more helpful. Collier, unfortunately, confined his research to an examination of what Roy Bhaskar had to say, not what ordinary speakers actually say.
In fact, a consideration of a wider selection of the sort of ordinary examples that Collier unwisely omits reveals a different and far more complex story (one that isn't easy to squeeze into Bhaskar's a priori, dogmatic and ultimately Idealist straightjacket).
Developing further an earlier example: if, say, comrade NN believes that running for a bus will help her catch it, and so acted upon that belief, would this count as the reason why she caught the bus? Even if running for a bus caused her to catch it would that be her reason for catching it -- running for it? It seems it should if Collier were correct. However, if, when asked for the reason why she caught the bus, NN replied: "Because I ran for it" (and not, for example, "I wanted to get to the march on time"), we would be somewhat bemused, and rightly so. But, if reasons were causes, we wouldn't be puzzled by such a response. We would accept any 'balance tipping' cause as a surrogate reason, or as the reason, no matter how odd it seemed. In that case, NN could have answered "Because of the 'Big Bang'", and that would be the end of the matter since that event tipped every subsequent balance by default.138a
And, what if it turned out that the 'balance-tipping cause of NN catching the bus was the fact that the driver accelerated away rather lazily, and forgot to close the doors, since he was day-dreaming about his new girlfriend? Was that NN's reason?138b
Naturally, it could be argued that these responses are absurd because (1) Collier does not claim that all causes are reasons,139 and (2) He connects desires and intentions with the reasons and/or causes of actions. Clearly, the "Big Bang" and the driver's actions couldn't function in this way, nor could they cause NN's actions in the required sense.
But, Collier's own account actually implies several of the above crazy conclusions. He says:
"Intentional actions involve beliefs and desires…. It is hardly open to dispute that, given a desire for something, coming to have a belief about the way to get it may 'tip the balance', and so be naturally described as 'the cause'." [Ibid., p.153.]
In that case, NN could reply that she caught the bus because she wanted to, which, even on Collier's terms, would be an empty explanation. NN caught the bus because she wanted to catch it, and her wanting to catch it caused her to catch it, so this must be the reason why she did it. But, her real reason might have been to get to the march on time, which she would readily have volunteered, if asked.
Well, perhaps this again misses the point?
In fact, it doesn't; the cause of NN's catching of the bus and the reason she caught it are separate matters. Collier's account simply runs them together.
Laws And 'Balances'
However, if we examine Collier's words more carefully, another puzzle soon emerges:
"…coming to have a belief about the way to get [what one desires] may 'tip the balance', and so be naturally described as 'the cause'." [Collier (1994), p.153.]
From this, it looks like it is the presence of a belief or set of beliefs about the means to attaining our ends (and not so much our desires as such) that is supposed to cause our actions.
At least this interpretation would rule out the "Big Bang" response noted above --, but, alas, only at the cost of introducing several other absurdities. For instance, as pointed out earlier, no one would say that the reason why they did something could be identified with any of the beliefs they had about how they might go about attaining what they had, in this case, wanted. If they did, then NN could reasonably reply that the reason she caught the bus was that she ran for it (since, presumably, she must have believed that running for the bus would help her catch it). Indeed, Collier himself could declare that the reason he wrote his book was that he had a word-processor, which he bought because he believed it would help him write it!
To be sure, it could be objected that Collier didn't mean that any old beliefs were relevant, only those that are relevant to attaining our ends. But, the above examples were specifically chosen because they are of this sort.
Even so, it could be countered that the above reasons are contributory causes in disguise, not the cause. In the first case, running for the bus helped cause NN to catch it, and buying a computer was part of the causal background that led to the said book being written.
However, even if this were so, could any of these be described as "balance-tipping causes"? That is far from clear. In some cases, perhaps so, in others, maybe not -- and that might be the case even if the candidate reason in question was the cause. So, the cause of NN catching the bus could be the fact she ran for it, but the reason she caught it was she wanted to go on a march.
Clearly, one of the problems here is that it is all too easy to confuse two different senses of "reason". In order to illustrate the latter, consider another example: If comrade MM attended a march against the Nazi BNP and gave as his reason for being there that he ran for the bus with NN (since that was the easiest way to get there), would we count as his reason for demonstrating against the BNP that he ran alongside NN? In one sense of "reason" perhaps we might, but in another sense it would be a joke. If MM had been asked why he was on the march, and he replied "Because I ran for a bus with NN", few would accept that as anything other than a supercilious remark.
The superficial plausibility of Collier's argument relies on conflating these two senses of "reason". One of these senses arises in connection with an explanation others might give why something happened, and this might indeed involve reasons being causes, but this isn't always the case, nor is it even typically the case with the reasons an agent might volunteer. It would be perfectly acceptable to explain why MM caught the bus that he ran alongside NN (and this might even be recruited as one of the contributing causes for his catching it), but it wouldn't count as part of MM's reason for going on that march, or even for catching that bus.
Furthermore, in connection with explanations of this sort, not every use of "because" is causal. Consider, for example, the following:
B1: NM broke union rules because the constitution says we must have a ballot before each work to rule.
B2: Two is a prime number because it has exactly two factors, itself and one.
B3: DM-Athletic's first goal did not count because the striker was offside.
B4: You can't be nominated for that position because you aren't a paid-up member of the party.
None of these uses of "because" is at all plausibly causal, even if all are explanatory. In B1, the union rules did not cause the alleged infraction; in B2, a number isn't caused to be prime by the definition, and so on.139a
It could be objected once more that the above misrepresents Collier's argument, for it assumes that he thinks causes are reasons, when he merely argues that reasons are causes. But, as we shall see below, Collier's 'theory' does indeed imply this since his account of causation suggests that causes are in fact surrogate reasons, and that everything that has happened (or will ever happen), is subject to the operation of the mysterious 'Cosmic Will' we met earlier.
Anyway, even if this distinction is disallowed, would things really be as Collier depicts them? Are beliefs and desires normally regarded -- i.e., in everyday language (for, as pointed out earlier, what else could Collier/Bhaskar's own term "naturally described" amount to?) -- as little more than 'balance-tippers', as it were? Is this metaphor -- which pictures the mind as a sort of see-saw or weighing scale --, any better than other figures of speech we have learnt to distrust in the Philosophy of Mind? The few everyday examples Collier gives in support of such a bold claim suggest that his case is indeed far more hyperbole than hypothesis. Wittgenstein himself characterised this particular theoretical malady (i.e., the urge to generalise from a few 'non-standard', or specially-concocted applications of a word, to all of its instances) as an example of philosophical malnourishment brought on by a diet of too few examples.140 Hence, it would seem that Collier's somewhat counter-intuitive thesis -- wherein broad results are based on narrow evidence -- is further confirmation of this untoward diagnosis.
Consider, therefore, these additional, perfectly ordinary examples:
C1: NN believed that the bus was going to be 20 minutes late, so she decided to walk.
C2: NM wanted to go to France for his holidays, so he booked a flight to Nice.
C3: MM believed that Tony Blair was a socialist, so he voted New Labour.
C4: The angry workers wanted a better deal, so they went on strike.
C5: The boss knew the workers wouldn't back down, so she gave them what they wanted.
C6: The philosopher wanted to make a point about causation, so he wrote a book.
[These are all boringly typical sentences we all recognise as such as soon as we see them.]
Are we really supposed to believe that in any of the above there is a "balance" that has been "tipped" in a particular direction? Or even that it is natural -- or "typical", to use Collier's word, again -- to re-describe any of them in this way?
Are commuters in a constant state of equilibrium, hovering between walking and riding, to such an extent that a bus that is 20 minutes late will tip them one way, while one that is only 19 minutes 59 seconds late will send them the other? Are bosses permanently teetering on the edge of settling with recalcitrant workers, all the while perched in a state of equilibrium between calling in the Police and capitulating to militants? Are Labour voters wobbling on a knife-edge, half-Tory, half-Socialist? Does it take a Tony Blair or a Gordon Brown to unbalance them? Do philosophers sit on fences all day long, dithering about writing books and articles until a sufficiently unbalancing thought or desire enters their heads? Do people linger in a state of indecision over their proposed holidays to France?141
It could be argued that what Collier really meant is that NN's reasons for doing X, Y or Z aren't so much the cause of her X-, Y-, or Z-ing, but of NN's intention to bring about X, Y or Z. In the above example, for instance, NN wanted to go on the march; that is what caused her to initiate a series of voluntary and intentional actions related to whatever she believed would bring this about.
If asked why she ran for that bus, NN would perhaps reply "I wanted to go on the march." So her reason (i.e., her aim to join the march) caused her to initiate a series of actions (getting dressed, having breakfast, leaving her flat, running to the bus stop, etc.). Now while there might be, and indeed are, a multitude of other causes of this series of events (they are in fact far too many to list, but they range from her beliefs about the properties of the material universe in her vicinity, the behaviour of others (such as bus drivers), her knowledge of the transport system, and so on), the main cause of the series of actions depicted above was NN's reason (i.e., to go on that march) which informed all of her other relevant voluntary actions and intentions that morning. In that sense, her reason was the most important cause of her actions because this lay behind most if not all the rest, and this is what "tipped the balance". Without that reason, and thus those intentions and voluntary actions, she wouldn't have done what she did.142
Or, so it could be argued.
There are, however, several problems with this way of seeing things:
(1) NN may in fact have two or more perfectly good reasons why she did what she did (i.e., running for that bus), some of which could even be operative at the same time as the first given reason. For instance, these could comprise two or more of the following: (a) To go on the march, (b) To test out a painful leg muscle, or new pair of trainers, (c) To beat her companion to the bus, (d) To wake herself up, (e) To avoid getting wet, (f) To escape from a dog/annoying man, (g) To burn some calories, (h) To increase/test her fitness..., and so on. Which one of these is the 'balance-tipping' cause of her running for that bus?
Some might want to argue that the 'balance-tipping' cause is the always the main reason why agents do what they do. But, in the above case, NN might have as her main reason that she wanted to go on the march, but what actually made her run for the bus was her desire to test out a painful leg muscle.
Now, if we were to argue that in that case her desire to test her painful leg is the 'balance-tipping' cause in this instance, then we would already have resiled from the above thesis, that such 'balance-tipping' causes constitute the main reason/cause why people do things. Even so, the 'balance-tipper' here was the painful leg. But, that leg must have been in that condition for some time. Does this mean that 'balance-tipping' cause can last for weeks? [More on this presently.]
It could be countered that it was her desire to test her leg that was in fact the 'balance-tipping' main cause, here. Hence, if her leg hadn't been painful the day before, she wouldn't have run for the bus today; she might have walked instead. Indeed, and in this case we would seem to have a reason which is also a cause (a possibility that hasn't in fact been ruled out in this Essay). But, is it really a 'balance-tipper'? [More on that presently.]
Anyway, this needn't always be the case. As noted above, there could be several reasons why NN ran for that bus.
Supporters of the 'reasons-as-causes' view of things might now want to occupy a fall-back position, and argue that the set of reasons why agents do what they do constitute the cause of what they do. That response brings us to the second reason why the general equation of reasons and causes is misguided.
(2) As noted above, it is important to distinguish two senses of "reason":
(a) "Reason" in the sense that this is a reason/explanation an agent would give for why he/she did X, Y or Z, and,
(b) "Reason" in the sense of what it was that caused the X-ing, Y-ing or Z-ing.
Now, it might not always be possible for an agent to be able to say what caused something to happen, but it is impossible for an agent not to know his/her reasons for doing something intentional.142a0 This shows that reasons and causes aren't always the same. This distinction becomes all the more stark if we introduce motives into the equation (which are, in fact, more natural candidates for psychological causes than reasons are). So, if NN were to φ for reason, R, then NN must know what R is, and be able to volunteer R if asked. On the other hand, if NN's motives for φ-ing were F, G, or H, then it is not always the case that NN would be aware of F, G, and H, or be able to say what they are.
[The Greek symbol used above is explained here. R is a dummy variable for propositions or clauses that could be advanced as reasons (such as "I wanted to go on the march", or "I want to prove Collier and Bhaskar wrong"), F, G, and H are dummy letters for noun or verb phrases that could express motives (such as "To annoy the neighbours" or "Jealousy").]
Collier in fact has an answer to this:
"That reasons can be causes is also a necessary condition of the phenomenon known as rationalization (in the Freudian sense). This occurs when the reasons sincerely given for an action by an agent are not the real reasons. Thus we may suppose that Henry VIII sincerely believed that he had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled because it was contrary to canon law, whereas the real reason was that she had not provided him with a male heir, or perhaps that he fancied Ann Boleyn. What is the force of 'real reason' here? Surely causally efficacious reason....
"In questioning one's mental states in this way, one is, among other things asking whether one's putative reasons are one's real reasons, i.e., the reasons that are effective. For instance, I may come to question whether my believing a scandalous story about an odious political leader is really caused by the evidence for the story or my desire to vilify that leader, or whether my depression is caused by the state of the world or the state of my digestion." [Collier (1994), p.154. Links added.]
However, from the above, it is quite clear that Collier has confused motives with reasons tout court. Motives can indeed be reasons in sense (2b) above, but not in sense (2a). Sure, Henry VIII might have given as his reason for annulling his first marriage that it wasn't a legitimate union in canon law *since Catherine had been married to his deceased brother, Arthur), while his motives might have been as Collier suggests they were. It won't do, however, to call motives reasons in sense (2a), unless Henry would have given one of them as his reason, and not have them attributed to him by others after the event.
Even so, the example Collier chose isn't a happy one, for it shouldn't be news to Marxists that members of the ruling-class hide their real motives and their real reasons, and advance in public the reasons they give for taking a certain course of action for ideological or 'public relations' purposes. Nor will it do to appeal to Freud's pseudo-scientific theories in support, either. Human beings were surely aware of ulterior motives long before Freud was born, and this concept isn't made one iota clearer by having Freud's obscure jargon and his even more dubious a priori speculations imposed upon it.
Anyway, it isn't as if Henry VIII was unaware of his real reason for divorcing his first wife, so this example doesn't undermine the distinction made above. Collier's second example (about the odious politician) also trades on confusing reasons with motives. If an individual doesn't know the reason why they believe a story, then there is no reason (in sense (2a)) why they do, only possible motives for so doing (2b).
Another serious difficulty with picturing causes as 'balance-tippers' is that it is incapable of explaining other clear instances of causation which:
(1) Don't involve any obvious change, let alone account for an upset equilibrium, or which, (2) Are the result of "negative causation", and/or, (3) Involve 'disconnected' causes, or which, (4) Comprise complex social change, or, (5) Implicate multiple causes. [(4) and (5) clearly overlap.]
Taking each in turn:
(1) For example, we might want to say that the reason (sense (2b)) that a bridge remains standing is because of its careful construction and design, along with the properties of the materials used to build it (and, of course, the forces operating upon it and its surroundings), etc. Clearly, this sense of causation requires no reference to a balance that has been "tipped" anywhere. And yet, this use of "cause" covers countless examples of causation at work every day throughout the universe -- those that operate on mountains, continents, planets and galaxies. Indeed, the cause or causes that maintain the steady motion of the planets, stars and galaxies around their relevant centres of rotation (or, even along their individual world lines, etc.) cannot easily be accommodated by such highly restrictive Bhaskarean figures of speech.
(2) Examples of negative causation include the following: (a) MM fell sick because he forgot to take his medicine; (b) The forest caught fire because it hadn't rained in six months; (c) Dialectical Wanderers lost their last soccer game because they had five players sent off for persistently abusing the referee. It isn't easy to see any of these as 'balance-tippers' since such causes are privations and thus do not in any real sense exist.
(3) Disconnected causes are those where there doesn't seem to be any obvious fact of the matter connecting an alleged cause with its supposed effect. There are many examples of this. [In what follows, I borrow heavily from Hitchcock (2003). See also Schaffer (2004).]
(i) Assassins A and B plan to kill victim V. B takes aim and A shouts "Fire!". V overhears this, ducks and so B misses. Now, did A's shouting "Fire!" cause V to survive? Had A not shouted, B wouldn't have fired, and V would have lived. Then again, if V hadn't overheard the command, he wouldn't have ducked, and so would have been killed. So, what is the "balance-tipping" cause here?
(ii) The chances of a woman getting thrombosis is raised by her taking birth control pills, but it is also raised by pregnancy. So, does the pill cause or prevent thrombosis? If the pill "tips the balance", which way does it "tip" things?
(iii) It rains heavily throughout April, thoroughly soaking forest F. In early May, lightning hits F, but because it is still damp, the lightning strike fails to set off a conflagration. By June, F has dried out, so that when lightning strikes again, a fire breaks out. But, if there had been a dry April, and thus a fire in May, there wouldn't have been one in June. So, did the April rains cause the fire in June? Was this a "balance-tipping" cause?142a
[There are many more examples of this sort of cause given in Hitchcock (2003).]
It could be objected that the above aren't relevant since Collier's theory relates to the causes underlying human action. Hence, if we are to account for these, a successful theory must address the material preconditions of an action and explain why a particular course of events unfolded as it did, as opposed to some other alternative. This would involve, for instance, a consideration of the factors that "tipped the balance" leading to NN φ-ing instead of ψ-ing.
[Again, these symbols are explained here.]
But, example (i) above does in fact concern human action, as does (ii), indirectly. Anyway, are we really meant to believe that 'balance tipping' causes only apply to human beings? In that case, what sort of naturalistic explanation of human action is this that divorces the alleged causes of human action from the course of events in nature?
(4) The idea that causes are 'balance-tippers' doesn't seem to apply to complex social change, either. [Which, of course, makes it a useless idea when it comes to HM.]
Consider, for example, the question: "What caused the Confederate States to lose the American Civil War?"
[Or, more colloquially: "Why did the Confederacy lose the Civil War?"]
Was it the massive three-to-one superiority in manpower (not counting African-Americans, i.e., the slave and ex-slave populations), and two-to-one superiority in military manpower in favour of the North over the South? Or, was it the vastly superior productive and logistic capacity enjoyed by the Northern economy? Could it have been the divisive nature of Southern politics, where many States put their "rights" above the collective war effort? Or, could it have been the growing dissatisfaction of Southern non-slave-owners with what came to be seen as a "rich man's war, poor man's fight"? Maybe it was the growing opposition to conscription in the South as the war progressed? [This isn't to suggest that some these factors didn't apply to the Northern war effort; for example, the widening opposition to the draft (given the 'Hollywood Treatment' in Gangs of New York) as the war progressed into 1863 and 1864.] Then again, maybe it was the many slaves who defected to the North? Alternatively, was it the fact that the North developed a sophisticated telegraph communications network during the war, which allowed its strategic and tactical direction to be prosecuted far more efficiently and decisively? In contrast, the telegraph network in the South was patchy, at best. The same could be said about the railway system in the North. Indeed, the rail network in the South was nowhere near as efficient; as Wikipedia notes:
"The system was fragile and was designed for short hauls of cotton to the nearest river of ocean post. During the war new parts were very hard to obtain, and the system deteriorated from overuse, lack of maintenance, and systematic destruction by union raiders....
"In addition, the Confederacy suffered from two key railroad deficiencies. The first was the lack of a true rail network; instead, rail lines usually connected ports and river terminals to points inland. This lack of inter-railway connections caused many railroads to become useless once the Union blockade was in place. A second concern was a break of gauge; much of the Confederate rail network was in the broad gauge format, but much of North Carolina and Virginia had standard gauge lines. Southern railroads west of the Mississippi were isolated, disconnected, and differed widely in gauge....
"As troop movement began in earnest in May and June 1861, a crippling problem was discovered; many rail lines terminated in towns without connecting to continuing lines. Instead, cargo would have to be unloaded, driven across town, and then reloaded. Soldiers, and other passengers, would often have to stay overnight to catch a continuing train the next day. When the Confederate government attempted to rectify this problem, they ran into local opposition. Towns preferred the lack of connection, since it required the hiring of teamsters and populated hotels with guests. Railroad operators, while not opposed to connecting lines, were opposed to the possibility of sharing rolling stock with rival companies." [Quoted from here; accessed 16/07/2014. One link added.]
Was this the 'balance-tipping' cause?
Or, if we switch to purely military matters, could it have been the death of Stonewall Jackson (arguably the Confederacy's most able general) in May 1863 after the Battle of Chancellorsville? Perhaps it was the North fortuitously finding Robert E Lee's battle plans before the Battle of Antietam? Maybe it was the fall of Vicksburg on July 4th 1863 -- a prize Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, called "the nail head that holds the South's two halves together" --, which allowed the North to control the Mississippi River, and thus the heart of the Confederacy? Maybe it was the failure of Lt. General Richard S. Ewell to take Culp's Hill on the evening of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which conceded the higher ground south of the town to the Army of the Potomac. Had Ewell's corps taken that hill, the entire Union Army would have been routed, leaving the capital, Washington, wide open to Confederate attack. Or, was it the stoic defence of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain on the second day of the battle, which prevented the entire left flank of the Union Army from being turned? Maybe it was General George Armstrong Custer's cavalry charge on the last day of the battle, which prevented a Confederate flanking move on the Union right? Alternatively, could it have been the uncharacteristically disastrous tactics Lee employed throughout the battle (these being prompted, perhaps, by his overconfidence as a result of the major Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville over the previous six months), the worst of which being his ordering of Pickett's Charge on the last day of the battle, against the advice of his senior commanders? On the other hand, maybe it was General J. E. B. Stuart's dereliction of d