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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Science as a way of seeing

Attitudes to science and attitudes to language are often related. Many science-oriented people are 'linguistic revisionists'. They have a low opinion of ordinary language (because of its vagueness and ambiguity) and seek to reform it or replace it wherever possible with various formalisms. Conversely, a negative attitude to science and mathematics and logic is often evident amongst lovers and respecters of natural language (especially in literary circles for example).

But there is no reason why one cannot combine a passionate commitment to a scientific (even scientistic) view of the world with a profound respect for natural languages – these curious products of biological and cultural evolution – as objects or systems and with a recognition of what these systems are uniquely equipped to do.

To complicate matters, it's also possible to combine a commitment to the formal sciences with a passionate hatred for the physical sciences. This is a not uncommon position, actually, but one I will not deal with here.

What follows, then, are some preliminary and loosely connected notes on the differences between broadly scientific and other modes of thinking, seen in relation to language.


Reasoning and deduction can, of course, be framed in formal terms, and even natural languages can, to an extent, be seen as interpreted formal systems.

Such formal logical approaches – which don't come naturally to most of us – represent a limited but (paradoxically) revealing perspective, rather like an X-ray image, or a monochrome drawing (a landscape, say).

They have their own beauty, these approaches, but it is a spare beauty which derives from abstraction, from leaving things out – like soft tissue in the case of the X-ray, or colour and smell and sound and movement and a third spacial dimension in the case of the drawing.

Revealing and beautiful – and also useful. It was this mode of thinking that gave rise to mathematics, science and technology. And, in the mid-20th century, habits of abstract and reflexive thought finally brought formal systems themselves to life in the form of the digital computer.

But computers, as embodiments of formal thinking, suffer the limitations of formal thinking, and are not well-equipped to deal with the rich parallelism of human perceptions or the tacit knowledge implicit in ordinary human actions and interactions and language use. Their strengths are our weaknesses and their weaknesses our strengths.

What is most notable about normal human brains – in stark contrast to machine intelligence – is their remarkable ability to deal with non-abstract things, and, in particular, with the hugely complex sensory and social realms; in conjunction, of course, with natural language, the bedrock of social life and culture.

Human languages are in fact quite remarkable in their capacity for expressing the subtleties of psychological and social experience. I don't much like the word 'literature'; it's a bit stuffy and pretentious but it's the only word we've got in English that picks out and honors, as it were, texts which explore and exploit this capacity.

The word 'letters' worked in compound expressions in the relatively recent past ('life and letters', 'man of letters') but is now quite archaic. 'Belles lettres' even more so.

The adjective 'literary' is, however, neither pretentious nor archaic, simply descriptive. It can be a neutral indicator of a specific context of language use. Or it can be used to designate (often pejoratively, it must be said) a particular style or register of language use (in contrast to technical or plain or straightforward or colloquial language, for example).

In the early 20th century, the linguist (and one-time student of Ferdinand de Saussure) Charles Bally saw the need to expand the scientific study of language to encompass the subjective and aesthetic elements involved in personal expression. His notion of stylistics was further developed by thinkers associated with the Prague school – most notably Roman Jakobson, who listed the 'poetic function' as one of the six general functions of language.

[I am always wary when scholars make numbered lists of this kind (suspecting that reality is rather less amenable to clearcut categorization than the scholars would wish).

Though his overview of linguistic functions is harmless enough, Jakobson did in fact have a tendency to drive his more technical insights too hard and too far. On markedness and binarism, for instance. But that's another story.]

On the question of the possibility of a satisfactorily scientific study of style I am undecided.

Certainly, the importance of stylistic elements in actual human communication is often underestimated and communication failures are often the result of stylistic rather than substantive issues. The aesthetic element is also important in its own right (as Jakobson saw).

But scientific approaches are characterized by their narrow focus and abstractness: by what they leave out. And what they leave out is generally the subjective or experiential side of things. Twentieth century phenomenologists and others tried – and failed – to reinsert into the scientific view what had been omitted.

A supposedly 'scientific' approach (phenomenological or otherwise) could never really replace, as I see it, the informal 'close reading' of a text or spoken exchange (for example) by a perceptive reader or listener who was well versed in the language and culture (or sub-culture) in question.

Was a particular characterization plausible or a given piece of dialogue convincing? Was a particular remark witty or just sarcastic or rude? Was someone being condescending in what she said, or kind (or both condescending and kind)?

Often the answers to such questions will depend not only on non-verbal and para-linguistic factors but also on the subtle connotation of a word or turn of phrase.

Logical languages (like the predicate calculus) strip these psychological and emotional and aesthetic elements away; and all scientific language – even in the social sciences – aspires to denotation, pure and simple.

As I started out by saying, that spare, direct approach has its own beauty which stems above all from its power to make us see in a more direct and culturally unencumbered way.

You can interpret the scientific way of seeing things (which goes beyond science as such) in an almost mystical way, in fact: as a means of 'cleansing the doors of perception', of temporarily sloughing off the necessary – and necessarily arbitrary – cultural baggage of social existence.