MF Discussion Topic for September 2004

From: Elizaphanian (
Date: Sat Sep 11 2004 - 10:33:26 BST

  • Next message: David Buchanan: "RE: MF Discussion Topic for September 2004"

    MF September topic

    Hi people,

    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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