1.31.2006

Monkeying Around

Those friggen monkeys are at it again! Check out the link and learn about how monkeys, apparently, 'vote' for policeman of their communities. Not sure what to make of this at this point, but since we're all in love with 'language' and 'signaling', this layman science should provide some useful diversions. C'est non?

1.25.2006

We Will Talk Language

Looking through the languages that a friend and I are familiar with (and hungry for exceptions), we found no instance except in English of the practice of using the word for 'determination' or 'strength of purpose' to establish referral to future events.

As in "The Stock Market will collapse."
or "I will try harder next time."

Constructions like "have been" are reasonably common but what is this matter of the Will?

In considering that this peculiarity was English -as in "sourced in Great Britain", at least in partial origin, I struck a nerve and you will all have to forgive me now as I am going to stray farrrr out of the current academic philosophical canon and invoke our weird departed friend Aleister Crowley, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the beginning and especially the middle of the last century.

Because the word "Will" has a strong connotation in the philosophy of this strange fellow, whose magickal system (which was simultaneously a total reworking and faithful torch-bearing of a long old tradition) was nothing more complex than a system of learning to focus the will to effect change. All additional trappings served as atmosphere.

The first and biggest thing when it comes to "Doing Magick" that you learn in this tradition is to create what're called "Sigils" - 'magickal symbols' with a connotation of meaning that you define yourself. They can stand for anything, even and especially concepts that aren't well-expressed in English. In other words... a sigil is a word you make up yourself.

Essentially, in doing sigil magick, you repeat to yourself in a state of serious mystickal focus:

"I will try harder next time." "The Stock Market WILL collapse." "I will find the emerald gate to the thirteenth heaven of et cetera and whatever"
And the experience that keeps these traditions going is the experience of having this work.

The 20th century British Occult traces its root/rotes/routes back a few centuries in the UK, branches through Europe on its way on down through Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, eventually even the nation of Israel and India. Little tendrils poking out into the Celtic traditions, solid foundation in the heart of Africa - A startlingly similar map to the one that I might draw if I tried to trace the path of the English that I'm speaking these days.

What is it about a word? Trace a word's geneology and you'll find it's rooted not in your brain, or anyone's brain but in the same place that your geneology terminates. The word you speak now is the end result, still in progress, of billions upon billions of sayings, and a long slow process of finding new ways of wording and new words for saying, new sigils and ways of sigil-making, and why is it called "spelling" the same as a magic "spell"? If a word's not just a flat dead token but one stop on an unbroken chain of growth, linking people across impossible gulfs of time, who's really doing most of the talking? What are we doing when we speak carelessly in matters of importance?

1.15.2006

why fred is linguistic

fred responds to certain vocal inflections, particularly high-pitched ones. He also reacts predictably (ashamedly) to a certain 'angry' tone.

fred also responds predictably to certain strings of phonemes. Prominent examples are 'cookie', and 'fred'. Fortunately, fred is illiterate, so 'c-o-o-k-i-e' does not induce the same reaction.

fred and i often achieve coordination of action. If i want him to bring back a tennis ball, i simply wave it in front of him, and then throw it while saying 'fetch!'. Fred retrieves the ball, and then i say 'drop it!', and he deposits it at my feet so that the process can be repeated.

fred also seems to have a limited capacity for operating under the principles of reference. upon hearing 'where's cristi?' he usually runs to the window, and, if he sees my car, runs to the back door. 'out?' spoken with a dramatically rising tone usually causes him to run to the back door as well. additionally, the afforementioned 'cookie' example demonstrates that it is possible (to a limited extent) to communicate with fred about things and people that are not present.

I would also like to point out that certain conventions are in place such that i might be able to approach a dog i had never met before (let us say an american dog), and achieve coordination with it by asking it to 'sit', 'stay', 'shake hands', etc.

and if that's not language, i don't know what is.

1.11.2006

the death of written or typewritten letters and a possible replacement

Last semester, in Advanced Poetry Writing, my professor Michael S. Harper spoke several times that the use of written or typewritten letters (as in, epistles) are dying out. And for him, this change is tragic. Authors' letters have been collected and printed in books for thousands of years. (For example, I believe the letters of famous Roman orator Cicero were collected and published soon after his death.) This long-standing tradition has a number of reasons. Firstly, good writers usually write well, even when writing casually; thus, the letters of writers, and especially those of poets, often have significant aesthetic or stylistic merit. Secondly, authors often write about their most important ideas and beliefs more casually in letters than in their formal publications, potentially giving readers a better understanding of their thoughts. Finally, authors reveal things about their personal lives through their letters that are often obscured, masked, or simply not discussed in other writings, and for those who consider these authors important, their personal lives are usually interesting as well.

So, why are written letters, so to speak, dying out? Technological advances, namely the computer and the internet, make hand-written or typewritten letters in a certain sense unpractical. Email is the basic communication tool of choice for much of modern business, not to mention academia. Email has a few significant differences from normal mail. Firstly, people are almost always less formal in an email than in a written letter. Traditional greetings and headings, for one, are not as widely recognized or thought appropriate in emails. Many emails do not even have greetings or signatures within the body of the text. Secondly, emails are naturally less malleable than a letter written by hand or by typewriter. You can't just throw a doodle into the corner of an email, and most emails don't even give you the opportunity to work with margins as a word processor program would. Finally, and most importantly, emails leave no papertrail. As most people do not print out their emails, and as many email services have automatic deletion of emails after a certain point, emails usually disappear after a time. Forgot any differences in the quality of the letters; there often won't even be letters for the collecting!

But here's where I think it starts to get interesting: while letters (and its byproduct, emails) will perhaps not be as prominent, other technological changes lead to opportunities that people hundreds of years ago probably couldn't even dream about. With a computer, huge amounts of information can be kept within an extremely small physical space. Consequently, I foresee the possibility that a famous person's personal computer space could easily become in the future open to the public, or at least to scholars.

Here's a really bad hypothetical which will give you an idea of what I'm implying: imagine famous poet Ezra Pound lived (technologically) during the 21st century instead the 20th. After he dies, DVD-Rs are produced and sold that contain all the writings typed on his computer. So, you can find 7 drafts of his "Sestina: Alteforte," random thoughts collected about what he wanted The Cantos to be, a bunch of really bad poems he would have deleted had he known it would seen by another human being, etc. You get his Mussolini desktop wallpaper complete with "DOWN WITH USURY" written on the bottom.

...I hope these examples are getting across the possibilities here. Given that people's personal journals have regularly been published in the past, I wouldn't be shocked if famous people's personal computer's data were made easily available past the time of their death, if there was anything interesting there to begin with. The truth is: since technologically it would be easy to do, it seems altogether possible.

I'm not going to argue how good or bad I find this possibility to be, at least in this post, but merely to suggest that it is possible.

vagueness resolved.

i promised i'd try to convince seb that we're not as different as he would like to believe. the following are excerpts from my final paper from philosophy of language last semester. the topic? vagueness, of course.

"Discussions of vagueness frequently begin by introducing sorites problems, and the challenge they pose to classical logic... On first glance, one might argue that logic is unequipped to handle these subtleties, and thus vagueness poses a clear and present threat to attempts to describe language in logic.
In this way the debate over vagueness has been restricted to a defense of logic, and most theorists maintain that vague objects must be precisified before they can enter the arena of logical language. This opposition and subsequent attempts to maintain the use of logic in the face of vagueness leads to new problems..."

"...many... problems in the philosophy of language can be shown to stem from one underlying notion: that the behavior of language can and should be described according to logical principles. Without this assumption, vagueness is a boon rather than a problem. W.V.O. Quine, who frequently questioned the uses made of logic in philosophy of language, writes, “A painter with a limited palette can achieve more precise representations by thinning and combining his colors than a mosaic maker can achieve with his limited variety of tiles.” Vagueness should not be immediately considered the enemy of truth or precision."

"Would the same definition suffice if I chopped the apple, or hollowed out the insides, leaving its appearance almost unchanged, or wrapped it in an orange skin? What constitutes an apple?
In asking this question, we have already made an assumption: that the usage of a word depends on the constitution of an object, and that the two correspond in a way that can be described by logical laws."

"The disquotationalist notion of truth, that ‘P’ is true if and only if P, hinges on this same assumption: that facts about the world can be known outside of language, and that they are somehow accessible to humans for comparison to language."

"Quine’s more interesting claim is that, in most natural language settings, vagueness does not impede our ability to utter or assess true statements. He provides examples of statements... that are clearly true, despite their reliance on a vague term. Precification is called for... only in restricted domains of speech such as law, record books, and logic. Quine writes, “When sentences whose truth values hinge on the penumbra of a vague word do gain importance, they cause pressure for a new verbal convention or changed trend of usage that resolves the vagueness in its relevant portion.”"

"‘The Vagueness Problem’ is a misnomer when applied to natural language. Such language functions passably well, despite requiring clarification many times a day. The difficulty of applying logic to vague language has important implications for the relationship of logic and language. Perhaps a more useful study would proceed by limiting the applications of logic and seeking to understand vagueness as an unavoidable part of language use. Through such an inquiry we might gain a greater understanding of how we come to learn language and understand each other in the face of so much uncertainty."

we're not so different, seb and i. i think our real debate is, once again, not about vagueness, but about the definition of 'language'.

1.08.2006

vagueness dissolved

'Tis I, Seb. Hijacker. Fly hacker. Snidely Whiplash to Scott and Cristi's Dudley Do-Right. Or, more appropriately, the Murky Dismal to their Rainbow Brite (and those meddling Color Kids), as I attempt to wield science, analytic philosophy, and historical power dynamics to rid the world of all that is colorful and beautiful--art, the primacy of language, the culturally constructed, and (plot point!) lazy solutions to disturbing philosophical problems. No doubt, I will fail at the end of every 30-minute episode. But a recurring villian is nothing if not tenacious. So I'm back, and, in the words of Akrobatik,

"You could call it a prophecy, prediction or psychic
But I know as long as I possess my skill I'm gonna mic it"

So let's get down to brass tacks. And by brass tacks I mean mangos.

An enormous heap of mangos. That are being eaten, one at a time, by a ravenously hungry feral child.

"When is the heap no longer a heap?"

At the risk of beating a dead horse, I want to talk about vagueness again. Several weeks (months already?) ago, I went undercover to a short seminar on the subject of vagueness looking to pick a fight. And I got one, learned something, and wanted to mention it.

The fight I wanted to pick was: Why is vagueness considered a problem, as opposed to just a matter of fact?

The answer I got was informative. In most branches of philosophy, there is a particular philosophical stance that is easy to come up with, easy to say, easy to defend, but completely unsatisfying and untenable. In epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), this stance is skepticism, the belief that we cannot, in fact, know anything. It sucks. Everybody thinks so. Which is why so much philosophical time has been spent trying to get around it.

In philosophy of language, on the subject of vagueness, the bogeyman stance is less famous and more subtle, but in many ways it's the kid brother or sidekick of the skepticism monster--a chupacabra to skepticism's wendigo. According to the guy who ran the seminar, this ugly but diminutive mofo is Timothy Williamson's epistemicism--which is the view that while there is, in fact a moment when the feral child eats the last magic mango that unheaps the heap, we just don't know which mango that is.

It might be the 100th-to-last mango. It might be the second-to-last mango. Who knows?

Easy to say, easy to defend (I guess), but...well, personally, I feel the same way about heaps as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart felt about pornography: "I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it." Wouldn't you agree?

We need a way out of this mess. But don't fear--I'm packing a degree theory of truth which, like the neato tech the Ghostbusters use, looks ridiculous until you see it suck a giant, havoc-wreaking demon into a tiny box. More in a future post. Assuming this blog doesn't self-destruct in 5...4...3...2...

1.02.2006

behaviorists: not so bad after all

everyone loves to bash BF Skinner. Scratch that, in philosophy and the cognitive sciences, no one even talks about behaviorism. usually our only exposure to it is as the missing link between the advent of modern psychological thought and the glorious revolution of noam chomsky.

in the philosophy of language class scott and i took last semester, i approached the professor about writing my term paper on WVO Quine, a theorist i had immediately felt an affinity with. i was told that i should avoid Quine because a) he's depressing - he is known for his pessimism about science's ability to describe language. b) he works to undermine a lot of the foundations we'd established for philosophy of language. where does one go from quine? and, last but certainly not least, c) one has to be careful if one strays too far from what we've discussed in class: a lot of his work is tied up in behaviorism.

and i did recoil. a behaviorist? my newfound philosophical hero? i couldn't abandon my attachment to his ideas. he tied the field of philosophy of language up in knots, but the course continued on past him as if he'd left its foundations undisturbed. i, with my lack of attachment to traditional philosophy as a discipline, felt more and more that he was right. but it's very easy to dismiss a behaviorist.

why are we so afraid of behaviorism? because it is so clearly wrong? because it led to bad philosophy and bad science? some of these assertions could definently be argued. but apparently it also led some scientists and philosophers to abandon the divinity-of-man arguments that had previously infected all of the social sciences. behaviorists were the first to treat their study of man as the study of an animal. and, admittedly they went too far, but we could learn a lot from the openmindedness that required.

quine essentially proved that language isn't necessarily logical, or at least that logic is not the place to begin investigating language. if our only conception of science, language, and man is based on aristotle, of course we'll have to treat quine as a heretic. behaviorists don't have anything to prove. they don't need to prove that man is logical, that he has free will, that there's something perfect about him, (and, often, that there's something more logical, freer, more perfect about white males...) as many philosophical schools assume from the beginning.