From: Elizaphanian (email@example.com)
Date: Sat Sep 11 2004 - 10:33:26 BST
MF September topic
This is a summary of the argument that I have been intending to make for
a while on the topic of language and the social level. It is my belief that
language, properly understood, is the equivalent at the social level of
DNA at the biological level. When I return from my holiday I shall try and
give more substance to my argument - I'm afraid that for now you have to
rely on what is in my long term memory, which will have the virtue of
if nothing else.
A few things to support that.
1. I have written before about Wittgenstein's view of language, principally
that language has a 'depth grammar' which relates the words spoken/written
to their context within a form of life (lebensformen). Wittgenstein's view
of language specifically breaks down the positivist view (descending from
Descartes) that sees language as composed of distinct units of sense (ie
'clear and distinct ideas') which map clearly on to 'reality'. In contrast
to this view - very much part of SOM of course - Wittgenstein's conception
is much 'thicker'; he is the one who rejects 'flatland' most profoundly.
My earlier posts (from 2001/2002) go into this in more detail.
2. Two things specifically from Wittgenstein's analysis which are relevant:
i) the private language argument. A key part of the early argument in
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is the debunking of the notion of a private
language, ie one in which the reference for words or concepts is only known
to the person developing the language. Wittgenstein shows how this is
radically confused. Language is essentially shareable and cannot be otherwise (in
other words, language has to have some sort of public and communal 'cash
value' or else it isn't language at all).
ii) the notion of following a rule. Similarly, Wittgenstein argues that
rules must be public and verifiable, and embedded in a social practice.
So grammatical rules, but also things like mathematics must be embedded
in a social context which reinforces the rule and gives it its sense.
(Practice gives the words their sense) You can't have a rule which is separate from
its 'embeddedness' within a particular lebensformen. If you try, then you
either have individual choice (hence, not a 'rule') or you have a private
3. Now, if you follow through these elements from Wittgenstein's thought
then you have a notion of language as something which is a) essentially
social and b) embedded in concrete practices. It seems to me that this is
a key part of what Pirsig is describing when he talks about the social
level, in all its various manifestations. So, although language is not the whole
part of what the social level is about, it is a necessary component, in
that, if there is no language, there is no social level, and language is
the way in which the social level operates and evolves. It is precisely
the equivalent of DNA - it is the building block of the social level (ie
the lebensformen or 'language game' which can be very small and local is
what the social level is built up from).
4. An input from Steven Mithven (? check name) and his book 'The Prehistory
of the Mind'. There was a biological change in the architecture of the human
brain, related to language processing, which triggered the great
advancements in human civilisation 60k - 30k years ago, ie the invention of art, ritual
etc. This would seem to tie in quite naturally.
5. The point about Descartes and Pirsig's revision: 'French culture exists,
therefore I am' - this is very much a part of what Wittgenstein is
The ironic thing is that Pirsig himself is still a Cartesian (ie an SOM
thinker) when it comes to some elements of his system. Specifically, the
idea that the fourth level is about 'the manipulation of symbols' comes
crashing down if there is any truth in Wittgenstein's perspective. Which,
at least as far as the above goes, is not all that controversial any more.
What is a symbol if not a 'clear and distinct idea'? And how can it be
manipulated in the way that Pirsig wants (eg in higher mathematics) if there is no
social lebensformen within which the rules governing that manipulation can make
sense? Once more, I think Pirsig's conception of the fourth level has more
holes than a piece of fermented milk from a mountainous canton in central
Regards to all
The most wasted day of all is one in which we have not laughed.
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