this debate has begun to self-de(con)struct.

Scott and I have thought a lot about Seb's mango-eating feral child. We've shared some laughs, we may have even grown to love her. But she has to go, and heres' why: Seb writes:
Suppose again that I'm the feral child mango monopolist. I don't have language, but I have non-linguistic thought. In this sign system, I can form all sorts of concepts, like 'mango', 'flavor-X', even, maybe, 'truth', all by my self! What does this do to the thesis that truth has to be a matter of convention or agreement, when it can be signified in a sign system that can develop completely without convention or agreement?
First of all, I'm going to have to object to Seb's first distinction: language vs. non-linguistic thought. This is the arbitrary (though historically priviledged!) distinction that Derrida's "language in general" and "writing in general" terms try to overcome. Aristotle got us into this mess by asserting that language is the signifier of thought, and writing is the signifier of language. this means that thought precedes language, and writing and language are external and secondary to thought. These ideas are held self-evident by thousands of years of western philosophy, and it is precisely these presupposed boundaries that post-structuralists argue we should question.

It's a complicated knot to untangle, as jacques himself illustrates: "The system of writing in general is not exterior to the system of language in general, unless it is granted that the division between exterior and interior passes through the interior of the interior or the exterior of the exterior, to the point where the immanence of language is essentially exposed to the intervention of forces that are apparently alien to its system." I don't understand this at all, and i maintain hope that that's the point.

Continuing with our close reading:
I [feral child] can form all sorts of concepts, like 'mango', 'flavor-X', even, maybe, 'truth', all by my self! What does this do to the thesis that truth has to be a matter of convention or agreement...?
I'll tell you what this does. It answers the question before it even asks it! This statement says: 'presuppose someone who has no communication with others, but has a concept of truth... does this person have a concept of truth, even without communication with others?' This feral child really has us tied up in logical knots! And, to make the example even more ridiculous, keep in mind that the feral child can't tell us whether she has these concepts! Throughout this entire debate, we've been putting OUR words and concepts into her mouth. Who are we to presume to speak for our necessarily voiceless example?

(additionally -- though i'm beating a dead feral child here -- in order to have any expectations, the child must have pattern-based concepts. These concepts (not necessarily words, mind you) would group together many sensory experiences and enable them to be linked to others. this is how language in general, spoken language, and written language all operate.)

another tenet of deconstruction is this: in any binary (true/false, inside/outside, good/evil, civilized/uncivilized), the existence of one term necessitates and relies on the existence of the other. there could be no concept of civilization without the negative example of the uncivilized. there is no idea of truth unless there is the potential for falsehood. and this, i believe, is what bugs the crap out of analytic philosophers.
The system of language associated with phonetic-alphabetic writing is that within which logocentric [read: truth-based!] metaphysics, determining the sense of being as presence, has been produced. This logocentrism, this epoch of the full speech, has always placed in parenthesis, suspended, and suppressed for essential reasons, all free reflection on the origin and status of writing.
western thought (oh, aristotle!) loves to imagine a perfect world with truth but no falsehood, with experience uninterupted and unmediate by language, with rugged individuals who have access to truth without the need for communication with others. but it is this communcation that allows us to know anything outside of our own personal experience - and we never experience truth in the physical world. as scott said: "What's beyond the physical reality of the tree that does not require communication with others?"

Here's an exercise we tried: try to lie without using language. try to lie without saying anything. try to make someone's experience of the world untrue. even imagine an entire 'fake' world (or a Truman Show, if you like), that is the only thing that person has experienced. without an assertion that it is 'real', nothing about it would be untrue. and if a falsehood can't be achieved without language, then neither can a truth.


Scott said...


Seb (persistently) said...

I think you’re misrepresenting my argument. Here iis the one I think I'm making, summarized:

A1. Based on empirical studies on concepts and language-use, there are reasons to think that language use, in the sense of morphemes and syntax, is somewhat distinct from conceptual thought. Examples:
- We can have a concept but have trouble finding the word for it.
- Also, we can have concepts whose content is not contained in the meanings of the words we’d use to indicate that concept, such as a concept of a flavor that we can only communicate via “taste of a mango”.
- When we experience new things (say, a unique fruit or flavor) where no other people are around, we can have no linguistic conventions to describe them, but we can have concepts that encode those experiences.
A2. Given A1, somebody (for example, a feral child), could come up with a system of signs that was all mental but without linguistic convention.
A3. There is no reason to think that that system of (mental, non-verbal) signs could not include a concept of truth (or falsehood). In fact, there is reason to believe otherwise, if truth is defined as that which correctly predicts experience.
A4. The truth, or a person's concept of truth, does not depend on linguistic convention.

This is different, I think, from the argument you say that I’m making, which is:
B1. Assume a child with a concept of truth, but not language
B2. A person can have a concept of truth without language.

So please don't try to make a straw man out of me. I'm trying to fight fair.

As for your specific objections in this post, it looks like you have three:


The first seems to be against point A1 above. Your points seem to be that:

C1. The distinction between language and non-linguistic thought is arbitrary.
C2. It has also been historically privileged, which makes it suspect.
C3. As post-structuralists, we should call this arbitrary distinction into question.
C4. Derrida said something admittedly incomprehensible, which proves the point.

To which my response is:

D1. The distinction is not arbitrary--it has valuable explanatory value, because if we didn't distinguish between conceptual thought and language, we would have trouble figuring out what was going on in the cases described in A1. If language and thought are one, how can we have thoughts that are not linguistic?
D2. While it's certainly important to overturn historically privileged ideas when they are discovered faulty, there's no reason to overturn an idea solely for its high status unless you already are presupposing that one idea is no more valuable than any other. And even then, you have some explaining to do.
D3. As pragmatists or philosophers of science or analytic philosophers or whatever, we should not give up a distinction that has explanatory or predictive power unless we find something better than it.
D4. If saying something unintelligible is a valid argument, then my brilliant defense is "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," and I rest my case.

So here's where I stand: If you can give good reasons why I should give up the distinction between language and conceptual thought, (which would have to include an account of the issues described in A1, above), then I'll give it up. But until then, I think I've got to stand by my reasoning.

(Incidentally, I opened this discussion with the mention of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which seems to me to be the emergence of the belief that the distinction between language and thought is arbitrary as a scientific hypothesis. My understanding was that in at least its strongest versions it's been empirically refuted. Are you claiming that in fact Sapir and Whorf were dead on, or am I missing something?)


The next objection, if I'm reading you correctly, is that it is ridiculous to talk about a feral child who has concepts but is unable to communicate them--that it is somehow presumptuous to imagine such a thing, especially in an argument that's about the possibility of thought without language.

But that's as if I said "Imagine there was a cat who lived out his entire, pathetic existence in a cave, alone, feeding on bats." And then you say, "That's ridiculous! Nobody would ever observe that the cat was there--so it's presumptuous to suppose that it exists!"

Taking this approach to cognition I think puts you in the same ranks as behaviorists or logical positivists. (Odd company for a post-structuralist...do you really want to go there?)

There's an alternative: If we say that we have a theory about how the world works, we can imagine, reasonably, that it works in a similar way in the places we cannot go. Like in the cat's cave.

Similarly, if we have a theory about how the mind works, we can reasonable suppose what's going on in a mind we can't observe. Like the feral child's.

The feral child needs to have just two things to be an effective thought experiment: the capacity to form concepts out of experience, and isolation from linguistic convention. The particulars of mangos and flavors--the thoughts we put in her head--are unimportant. All that matters is that she's coming up with ideas, generalizing from particular experiences into general concepts, and forming beliefs. And since the evidence seems to be there that all people have this capacity, I don't think it's silly to suppose an imaginary person has the same property. (Rough arguments for this belief were made in A1, above. I suggest that if you're trying to remove the feral child, you should go after that point in particular, not the poor, innocent child herself.)


Lastly comes what I think is your most interesting point. Rather than attacking the idea of thought-without-language in general, as you do above, you are targetting truth specifically, by saying that:

E1. To have access to the sign/concept/word of one side of a binary distinction, you need access to the other.
E2. True/false is such a binary distinction.
E3. Without language, there is no access to the sign/concept of falseness.
E4. Therefore, without language, there is no access to the sign/concept of truth.

I'm willing to suppose E1 and E2 for the sake of argument, but I take issue with E3.

You defend E3 with the thought experiment of imagining somebody trying to lie, or decieve without language, or to distinguish between "true" and "fake."

But as I mentioned below, this distinction between "true/genuine" and "fake" is not what I'm talking about when I say true or false. What I'm talking about is more like "true/correct" and "false/incorrect." So I would refute this by saying:

F1. I don't have to have been lied to in order to have an incorrect belief about how the world works. If every time I eat a bagel an earthquake strikes for the first few times I eat a bagel, I might well believe, based solely on experience, that my eating a bagel causes earthquakes. But further experimentation with bagel-eating would show that this belief is false/incorrect. (Furthermore, I could theoretically form this false belief and then discover later that it is false even if I'm the feral child, experimenting with new foods)
F2. While I might be able to imagine a fake world, I can't form a thought experiment where I try to build an incorrect world--the things that can be true or false in this sense are beliefs about the world. In fact, I might go so far as to say that since the "genuine/fake world" distinction doesn't really tell you anything about how you experience the world, maybe it is exactly the sort of arbitrary distinction that post-structuralists ought to be attacking.

So...if you're going to convince me and/or win the debate, I would suggest that you either make a more constructive critique of A1 (tell me why I should reject it and/or tell me why you shouldn't accept it), or you should work on your E argument, especially E3 (which counters my A3, I think).

But please--don't hurt the feral child. She's all alone in that big jungle with only the squirrels for company.

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