Peripheral Vision – Science and the Prejudice Against Prejudice

It is usually said that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the scientific study of language in the western world. And this statement is true, if we give to the term ‘scientific’ the sense it generally bears today; it was in the course of the nineteenth century that facts of language came to be carefully and objectively investigated and then explained in terms of inductive hypotheses. It should not be forgotten, however, that this conception of science is of quite recent development. The speculative grammar of the scholastics and of their philosophical successors at Port Royal ..was scientific according to their understanding of what constituted sure knowledge.

-John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 1971: p. 22; underlines mine)

This brings to mind my favorite class at Fuller – Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics (hermeneutic generally means ‘interpretive’ and derives from the Hermes, the Greek god of heraldry) with Merold Westphal.  We spoke of the ‘prejudice against prejudice’ to quite some extent.  I like that Lyons here provides a means to contextualize science as we understand it.  It ‘s too easy to assume that our way of scientific inquiry is surely the right method.  Like us, the medieval scholastics thought their manner of inquiry was scientific and the most rational means of approaching the study of language.

Lyons concludes:

The difference between this way of looking at linguistic questions and that which resulted in the immensely fruitful period of comparative philology was not so much that the latter was more respectful of the ‘facts’ and more careful in its observation and collection of them (this is effect, rather than cause), but by the end of the eighteenth century there had developed a general dissatisfaction with a priori and so-called ‘logical’ explanations and a preference for historical reasoning.  (Lyons, Theoretical Linguistics: pp. 22-23)

I do n’t mean to argue here that the methods of our day are more ‘scientific’ than previously, but rather; I mean to note that the concept denoted ‘scientific’ has shifted as the presuppositions of scientific inquiry have been replaced.  Having read a goodly sampling of medieval philosophy in general, I am consistently impressed by how thorough their thoughts are (this was more true once I learned of some of the nuances particular terms held).  By the measures of their methods, they were exhaustive and many of the preserved texts are brilliant within their discourse.  I mean to say that that which causes something to be characterized as ‘scientific’ has and continues to change, even as we are unaware of the flux.

So, my question is – when will our current methods of ‘scientific’ inquiry be deemed unscientific?  More interestingly, what will be the means by which our science is seen as inferior – what criteria do we foolishly violate?  Every discourse or method of philosophical inquiry has limits – each is a ‘seeing as’ and therefore something is inevitably lost on the periphery.  My question is therefore one of predictive peripheral vision in the context of the study of language.  Or, are there some prejudices in our science which ought to be preserved?

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Misreading Literally, the Best Language Book Ever – I

Paul…Paul, Paul, Paul… I really do n’t think you understand what constitutes an adverb – at least, not on this occasion.  Your description: “In a basic sense, adverbs are words that answer the questions How?, When?, Where?, How much?, Why?, and to What extent? (Yeager, Best Language Book: p. 3)”  Yes, an adverb will usually answer such questions, but the core understanding of adverbs is that they modify verbs or other modifiers (adjectives and other adverbs).  I ‘m honing in on how what they do distinguishes them.

You take this to mean that ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, and ‘lastly’ are poor form.  You may not like the sound of it, but your argument that ‘first’, ‘second’, and ‘last’ are adverbs is a bit unsound (to your credit, the likes of ‘Grammar Girl’ agrees with you).  In sequencing, I can nearly agree with your point; it ‘s superfluous and I ‘d be unlikely to use them in such a context.  Her argument, however, diverges from yours in that she sees ‘First’ at the beginning of a sequence referring to ‘the first point is’ ,in which case, we are dealing with an adjective.

I know I ‘m sifting too finely…but so are you.  It should be easy to recognize that ‘first’ and its counterparts function primarily as adjectives, but may be used as adverbs also without the need to add -ly.  I would much rather see you criticizing errors concerning function – you are n’t displaying much imagination in this aspect.

Finally, or the final point is, both you and Grammar girl bemoan where ‘common parlance supercedes proper usage’ as though written grammar is primary and spoken is derivative.  Again, language serves communication – communication may be constrained by linguistic norms, but grammar should serve us – not the other way around.  Your idea that common acceptance crystallizes errors is fair, but should n’t we primarily concern ourselves with that which blocks communication?

Misreading Literally, the Best Language Book Ever

Congratulations Paul Yeager for catching my eye with Literally, the Best Language Book Ever (Perigee, NY: 2008).  I have merely waded through the introduction to your humorous work.  I share your disdain for the trite and despise a certain subset of redundancies.  But before I give you any glowing marks, there ‘s a matter or two we should see to (I hope you are n’t one of those who think the split infinitive confuses communication in the slightest, or we ‘re going to have issues).

You bring up the verbifying of nouns with the examples of ‘tasking’ instead of ‘assigning a task’, ‘dialoguing’ instead of ‘having a dialogue’, and ‘transitioning’ instead of ‘making a transition’.  I ‘m nearly convinced that you think language is static and that there persists a right and wrong in lingual (or written) communication.  Are you well aware that language serves us, not we it?   Certainly there are better and worse normalcies in communication by means of language, but until all communicants die out any specific tongue will continue to change.  There is enough of a grand return that you should n’t be distressed — ‘breakfast’ is the nounified form of ‘to break (one’s) fast’ (and we still pay homage to this when we employ ‘breakfast’ as a verb).

Further, redundancies naturally creep into language.  Sure ‘completely finished’ and ‘absolutely essential’ are unnecessary – especially for those liberally applying Ockham’s razor.  You ‘re right to note that our speech has become overly dramatic (with the profusion of an absolute like ‘ever’), but I ‘m afraid here you ‘re picking one nit too many.  One might display mental laziness by choosing one’s words poorly (and so be passed over for promotions) – but we should more clearly define when errors are truly leading to communication distress.  So, let ‘s be a bit more careful what errors we spend energy pushing back against.

Let me finally agree that ‘I could care less’ is an unhelpful statement.  I do sincerely hope that those items you have chosen to pick at are actually helpful ones.  I must say I ‘m a bit put off at the beginning – shall we redeem what is left of your work?  Otherwise, I might take issue with your title selection.

 

*update: this is the only book both picked up and completely put aside in twenty-twelve.  I feel I ‘ve forgotten more useful concepts and insights than were available herein.  Of course, it ‘s difficult to keep up the false self-righteous reading for diatribe’s sake and this was a necessary casualty.  But am I the casualty of myself in this case? that is, am I merely exercising my own pretentiousness without stepping towards exorcism?

Miscommunicating Magnified: Expressing Affliction in ‘The Plague’

“If, by some chance, one of us tried to unburden himself or to say something about his feelings, the reply he got, whatever it might be, usually wounded him.  And then it dawned on him that he and the man with him weren’t talking about the same thing.  For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the market-place, mass-produced.  Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.”

~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947, Modern Library, NY: p. 69 [emphases mine])

 

Several aspects of this quote reflect themes prominently found in Camus’ The Plague.  The isolating aspect of pestilence is particularly insufferable and this, time and again, goes well beyond the expected ‘conventional emotions’.  In connection, the lack of adequate sympathy is exacerbated for while each suffers from the same fears and many of the same restrictions imposed by plague – their experiences drive them farther apart.  It is, in fact, this being driven apart that unites these members of the plague-stricken town.  One would expect, then, that sympathy (feeling with the other) is natural in such circumstances.

But it seems that, if we are to agree with Camus’ narrative, sympathy in suffering is extremely difficult to communicate – most especially so by means of words.  In the case of such isolation, these words take on a precision sharpened by one’s isolation.  The depth of this isolation is felt more sharply when one finds that the meaning associated with these terms – the deep feeling behind them – is understood in the most general manner.  The communicant is stunned to find that where the medium of language should allow for communication, the generalizing nature of language drives them farther from communication – from truly sharing the other’s feeling.

 

To step into the personal/practical, I often wonder how to communicate with the grieving.  It seems ‘being there’ in principal means community members see to clear needs and each provides space should the grief-stricken approach.  But in such moments, I find myself unable to bridge the gap – to truly understand being generalities what the other is experiencing.  In a similar position I would perhaps describe such pains as being separated from some important aspect of myself…but such rational expression (again the idea of ‘ratio’ or measure) never manages to scale what is being experienced.  Perhaps we never know our feelings until after we are finished experiencing them in full vigor.  It ‘s rather like what C.S. Lewis had to say about toothache; while experiencing toothache one cannot think of anything but the pain — the concrete.

This is what I ‘ve most valued in The Plague; considering the place abstraction has in our concrete experiences of affliction.  We communicate abstractions but we are concerned with the concrete.  Is the isolation then abstract or concrete?  It is experienced concretely, but acutely driven home by abstraction – by the fact that all rationalizations fail.  The mind is unable to give full and lasting reprieve from what is being experienced.  In a case where the suffering is isolation (from one’s loved ones, one’s expectations, and therefore a certain view of one’s relation to reality – the expectation of the future) – abstraction offers little reprieve in communication.

 

It acutely describes the failure of words – words only serve as a medium when they are understandable.  This is only possible when we have managed to funnel meaning through them so that the concrete can be expressed.  In order to do so, abstraction must occur and such a medium paints a raging sea with one chalk on a flat slate.