Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Dreams, perceptions and delusions

I have never considered dreams – my own or anyone else’s – worth recording or trying to analyze in any serious way, but I have always maintained an interest in the various manifestations of consciousness and the functioning – and malfunctioning – of the brain. Doing some sorting recently, I came across some scribbled notes which I made a while ago and which got me thinking again about dreams, perceptions and peculiar waking experiences.

Dreams have a special fascination, of course. Operating outside the normal imperatives of waking life, the brain takes on a (sometimes disturbing) life of its own.

Various kinds of waking experience also give us insights into the workings of our brains. Especially under stressful conditions, unexpected things happen: hallucinations, visions, so-called mystical experiences, devastating waves of fear or dread, unexplained convictions.

With respect to peculiar waking experiences, my own have been (mercifully) few and far between. One such experience was utterly terrifying and occurred in early adolescence. No drugs were involved. I may write about it another time.

A far less harrowing episode occurred a couple of years earlier. It involved a failure of visual processing. Three spatial dimensions collapsed into two. The scene before me decomposed and I could no longer distinguish form, just colour, a kaleidoscope of colour. Quite beautiful actually. Even (in the context) strangely liberating. Again, no drugs were involved.

As a child, I did not know much about the brain, but this experience gave me a sense of the precariousness and the general nature of the visual system. There were obviously all sorts of complex mechanisms in play, and this brief failure of the system had allowed me to look behind the curtain, as it were, to get a glimpse of the not exactly raw but non-integrated data that lay behind the finished product which the visual system normally presents us with. What was normally integrated had, for a time, disintegrated, revealing not only the precariousness of the system but something of its distributed, layered and constructive nature.

Dreams and delusions involve not only visual processing but also a more central feature of the brain, its narrative-generating function. In dreams, the narrative-generating function is given free rein, being largely detached from sensory input and the constraints and imperatives, both physical and logical, that moving around in the real world necessarily entail. In this respect dreams have parallels with hallucinations (where sensory input is overridden or is processed in anomalous ways) as well as with other kinds of delusion.

The stories we tell ourselves in our waking hours to orientate ourselves within the social world derive largely from stored information but real-time sensory input is also important. As we all know, there is a tendency for these stories to become detached from physical and social realities. Such tendencies are exacerbated by processing failures in individual brains, brought on by stress, disease, aging, etc..

Take the following example. Late one night my mother was in hospital recovering from major surgery. I got a call from the hospital asking me to come in because she was upset and they thought I might be able to calm her down. It turned out she was sleep-deprived and showing signs of paranoia. She was convinced that the nursing staff were not humans. They were aliens from another planet. But, being a very level-headed and intelligent woman, she was also aware of the silliness of this conviction and in fact embarrassed about it. So it wasn’t too hard for me to reassure her.

Capgras syndrome involves integration failures in respect of the various brain processes associated with the recognition of and responses to known individuals. The sufferer will recognize the face and body in question but, because the usual emotional responses associated with this recognition do not kick in, he or she will have a strong sense that this is not really the person normally associated with that body. In this manner, loved ones may be perceived (for brief or extended periods of time) as hostile intruders. I have had the experience of having to deal with transient episodes of this syndrome in aged relatives. It’s quite common, I believe.

As I indicated above, what got me thinking again about these topics was coming across some scribbled notes from the past. One document related to a dream which my mother had – and told me about – twelve years ago. I quote verbatim from my notes…

Last night’s dream involved the disruption of a church service. In the dream she was a school-aged child, though an adult friend whom she had not known in childhood appeared in the dream and spoke to her. The church in question was specified by name. It was not one she had known as a child but was the church she was married in.

In the dream she sought out and gathered together the noisiest things she could find: tin cans and “a strange kind of metallic vessel” – she wasn’t sure what it was but she was “pretty sure it would make a noise.”

“I tied all these things together and crept up towards the altar where the priest was moving to and fro. The array of objects made a very disruptive noise and the priest swung around and here’s this girl shaking [the objects] madly to make as much noise as possible. There was nothing anyone could do, it was such a surprise. I wanted to irritate him, to stop him doing all the things I hated, worshipping this God who wasn’t there.”

“I walked out [of the church via] the side aisle. People looked the other way. They would see what I was doing as wrong and I knew I was doing wrong – but I had to do it, to try and stop them. I threw the noise-making contraption onto the ground outside the church…”

I am not saying that this dream has any great significance but it is amusing in its way. It also bears witness, I think, to longstanding frustrations and to an independent spirit adamantly opposed to (what was perceived as) obfuscation and mystification.

[This is an abridged and revised version of a piece which appeared recently at The Electric Agora.]

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Distorting history

Bharath Vallabha used to be a regular contributor to The Electric Agora. He returned recently with a piece about how, in his view, some of the central and most polarizing debates of post-World War 2 academic philosophy were the product of a misreading of intellectual history. Both Gilbert Ryle and Richard Rorty were extremely influential and both gave a false picture of Descartes' thought and the Cartesian tradition more generally.

Here is Bharath on Rorty and Ryle and how his own views have changed:

[Rorty] went from being a Princeton philosophy professor and president of the APA to basically decamping to literature departments. He was right about problems with the direction of analytic philosophy, but it was a mistake to connect that criticism to Descartes et al.. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is no more a careful study of Descartes than Ryle’s Concept of Mind was... I think Rorty was reading a lot of what was wrong with analytic philosophy back into early modern philosophers. This kind of reading back led to Rorty being polarizing, because he was lumping together 300 years of thinkers in a way that divorced them from their historical context.

To be honest this is a new thought for me. For longest time I was on the side of Rorty and Ryle against early modern philosophy of mind and as it carried over into analytic philosophy... Rorty’s book says more about Rorty’s struggle with professional philosophy than it does about Descartes and Kant. It seems strange to me now that there is some special conception of mind common to Descartes to Nagel even given the vast differences in context of what being a philosopher is between them. My thought is if we let go of this kind of generalizing over centuries to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys, would be easier to listen to each other – in ways for example Rorty and his Princeton colleagues couldn’t do. And in ways current traditionalists and social justice warriors now can’t, because both are wedded to historical generalizations.

On binary thinking:

Resentationalism versus Pragmatism, and fitting historical figures into those categories, forces a binary choice at every turn, in the present and in the reading of the past. There is then no way to rethink the terms of the debate. However, if one sees historical figures with new eyes and with greater openness to historical context, new, more productive conversations are possible.

I agree with this entirely. Like Bharath, I favour more historically-oriented approaches. And I too have only recently come to realize the extent to which Ryle was misrepresenting Descartes. Rorty distorted history also. He was worse than Ryle, in my opinion, because he let politics intrude into his professional work, and also because of his anti-science bias.

Despite his criticisms, Bharath made it clear that he values the writings of Rorty and Ryle (if not the work of their followers). I am less positive. Though I give credit to both Ryle and Rorty for their stylistic power and the thought-provoking nature of their best work, my reservations outweigh my sympathies.

I share Ryle's secular outlook and his commitment to an apolitical approach to academic work. But, in my opinion, any attempt to carve out a sacrosanct space, distinct from the sciences, for an academic philosophy of mind is fatally flawed.

In terms of general outlook, however, I am definitely further away from Rorty than I am from Ryle. I am close to the former on one matter only, as far as I can tell. I am sympathetic to his disillusionment with and drift away from academic philosophy.

Rorty's roots were in literature (his father was a poet) and I understand that he took comfort in his final illness reading the likes of Swinburne rather than philosophical works. (Martin Heidegger – another master of historical distortion – followed a similar trajectory.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

More on culture and language

I recently set out some of my basic beliefs and assumptions about what there is and about what makes a person.

"Biology and culture. Culture and biology. That’s not all there is, but – with the inorganic world within which biological organisms evolved and within which they exist – that’s enough to make a human being..."

And, in a recent podcast, I talked about Gottlob Frege's beliefs and assumptions about life and language, views which I endorse to a large extent. Frege saw human thought and language in fundamentally organic and holistic terms.


I am adding here a few general thoughts on culture and language. My sense is that these various fragments are compatible with one another and form (potentially at least) a more-or-less coherent whole.

Language is probably the most basic cultural element for two reasons: it bridges biology and culture in ways that other cultural elements do not; and it is the foundation or at least a sine qua non for the development of many other cultural forms and practices, from religion and politics to mathematics.

Culture is undoubtedly real but a culture is impossible to define in a precise way. The same applies to language and languages. Just as each of us deploys a unique linguistic system (idiolect) which is different in various ways – scope and details of lexicon, aspects of syntax, pronunciation, etc. – from the linguistic systems deployed by others within our language group, so each of us embodies a unique cultural mix.

This idea obviously relates to the idea of individualism and, I think, justifies taking individualism seriously as a potential way of dealing with social problems related to various kinds of identity politics and stereotyping.

Degrees of overlap vary between individuals but, because cultural elements are so diverse, there is no single measure of commonality. Some cultural elements are easily isolated and compared but most are not.

Take language. Though the idiolect notion is (in my opinion) central to any truly scientific approach to language, for practical purposes it is useful – necessary in fact – to distinguish between languages or dialects. This inevitably involves abstraction and simplification – but then so does most of our ordinary, day-to-day thinking.

Religion is another fairly clearly identifiable cultural element, at least in the sense that the churches and sects and religious movements of the modern world can be defined and demarcated in both social and doctrinal terms. Complications arise, however, when you start to look at how participating individuals envisage and justify their participation. Congregations may be gathered together physically, but each individual will have a unique perspective on what they are doing and why.

I am conceding that identifying and drawing cultural distinctions within certain defined areas is not only possible but inevitable and necessary. But defining and drawing these distinctions is difficult to do in a rigorous way. And, if one is talking about a culture in a general sense, that task becomes well-nigh impossible.

The notion of a national culture is particularly problematic. Where there can be said to be such a thing, it is of necessity imposed and artificial – in contrast to regional cultures, for example, which are shaped over long periods of time by local conditions and practices.

Generally, it makes more sense to talk of national myths and ideologies rather than national cultures, I think. Perhaps if one is looking at a fully-fledged totalitarian state in which the natural course of cultural history has been totally blocked or perverted by a central authority, leaving the population with no other culture than that which has been imposed upon them by their ideologically-driven overlords, you could talk about a national culture. But, even in such cases, pockets of resistance will inevitably arise, complicating the picture.

Ideology and political myth, I am saying, need to be distinguished from (and are always in tension with) the more spontaneous and organic forms of thought and action which derive from the activities of small groups, families and individuals pursuing their personal goals.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Individualism and cultural embeddedness

I talk here about my general goal in this series of podcasts of presenting and defending a form of individualism which takes seriously our cultural embeddedness, noting that universal political prescriptions – to the extent that they can be applied at all – are rarely successful. Reference is made to the surprising origins of neo-liberalism in Europe in the 1930s. The European neo-liberals were keen to distance themselves from earlier, laissez-faire approaches to economics and emphasized the importance of cultural factors.

Tags: neo-liberalism, laissez-faire, Chicago School, Milton Friedman, Louis Rougier, Wilhelm Röpke, groupthink, cultural embeddedness, language, Karl Vossler, close reading, science, Gottlob Frege.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Karl Kraus and close reading

Young children are notoriously poor liars, but even mature and sophisticated users of language reveal themselves in ways of which they are all too often unaware.

Listeners and readers inevitably make judgments based not so much on the literal meaning of what we say as on what they perceive to be our purpose or motivation in saying it. This is a well-known and universal phenomenon. But there are strands of thinking, in both Western and Eastern traditions, which take these ideas a bit further and see the analysis of linguistic style as potentially revealing the moral qualities of the speaker or writer.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Why I haven't been posting

I have been preoccupied lately with developing a podcast which will be a part of the Electric Agora network. It is called Culture and Value and it is still a work in progress. For the present, at least, it will consist of brief monologues, scripted and spoken by me. It is meant for a general audience, one probably less well-educated in academic philosophy, linguistics or related disciplines than the typical reader of this blog would be.

There may or may not be a focus on language-related or philosophy-related questions. General social and cultural questions will be dealt with, as well as politics and geopolitics. Obviously I want to keep the tone restrained and reasonable and (as far as possible) non-partisan.

The artwork (Chinese woman in traditional dress) is meant to allude to global economic and cultural shifts and to the fact that East Asian cultures have not cut themselves off from their cultural traditions to the same extent that Western European cultures have. The neon lettering, which is part of the Electric Agora house style, adds some unexpected semiotic complexity.

The show is available now via the following audio streaming services: Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, Audible, Pocket Casts and Spotify. We have been having problems getting it running on Apple Podcasts (and also Google Podcasts, it seems) but we expect these issues will be sorted out. 

You can subscribe (free) to Culture and Value here. Or click on the subscribe button in the insert below.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Conceptualizing language

[This piece was published at The Electric Agora earlier this year. Chomsky's ideas on linguistics are very polarising and even my qualified endorsement of some of his central ideas prompted some animated exchanges.]

Complex language is a precondition not only for the kinds of interaction which characterize human societies but also for many kinds of thinking. It is both social and biological. A language only develops in a context of social continuity over an extended period of time, though it is typically learned very quickly by infants who are exposed to it. There is still controversy about the extent to which natural language is shaped and constrained by the structure and physiology of the human brain, but it is clear that the advent of complex human language was associated with genetic changes which impacted on various aspects of human physiology (including brain function).

What, then, is language? How should we conceptualize it? The approach I am outlining (and recommending) here is strongly idiolectal.

The term “idiolect” can be understood in different ways and taken more or less seriously in the study of language. Taken in a strong sense, it inclines us to see the individual rather than the language or linguistic community as the primary focus of study. As I see it, language only exists insofar as it is used (or instantiated) by individuals. A social context is a given. But speaking and writing and listening and reading and the thinking (or cognitive processing) which supports these activities or which impinges in some other way on linguistic forms or structures are all things which are done by, or (in the case of cognitive processing) occur within the brains of, individuals.

I don’t deny having been greatly influenced by Noam Chomsky’s ideas in my thinking about language. I was first introduced to linguistics by a former student of Chomsky’s who followed a broadly (but by no means doctrinaire) Chomskyan approach. This general approach appealed to me. Chomsky put the focus firmly on what he originally called (linguistic) “competence” (the individual speaker’s internal intuitions about grammar etc.) rather than “performance” (as a behaviorist might). This distinction was developed over time into one between I-language and E-language. For Chomsky the focus was on the former and consequently on idiolects rather than languages.

The entry for “idiolects” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (credited to Alex Barber and Eduardo Garcia Ramirez) highlights the philosophical implications of the concept and some of the confusions which surround it. Those who claim that idiolects (in any strong sense of the term) do not exist or that such a notion is useless or incoherent “are nonetheless happy to use the word ‘idiolect’ to describe a person’s partial grasp of, or their pattern of deviance from, a language that is irreducibly social in nature.”

But nobody is denying the social dimension of language. Of course a language is a social product, but “partial grasp”? Of what exactly? And (as I see it) any attempt to define idiolects in terms of patterns of deviance from a norm is likely to be arbitrary or trivial unless the norm itself is defined in terms of idiolects.

In what sense does a language exist as distinct from particular instances of language use? Spoken words and written texts are generally assignable to this language or that, but precise boundaries are impossible to draw. Grammars and dictionaries try to do this but they can never reflect the constantly shifting contours of actual linguistic practice which always depend on the knowledge and behavior of individual speakers. In the final analysis, then, what we have is a set of unique and (to a greater or lesser extent) overlapping idiolects. We find it convenient, however, to group sets of idiolects into what we call dialects or languages.

“The substantial debate,” Barber and Ramirez explain, “is not over how to define [the word ‘idiolect’]. It turns, rather, on whether an idiolectal perspective on language is to be preferred to a non-idiolectal one. Someone taking an idiolectal perspective on language treats idiolects […] as having ontological or investigative priority and [sees languages as] nothing but more-or-less overlapping idiolects. […] At issue, then, is what we should take languages to be.”

They go on to explain that Chomsky does not deny that language is at least in part a social product. But he is skeptical of E-language-based approaches. The term “E-language” is used by Chomsky to refer to those things (whatever they might be) that are the target of study for those who take languages and their properties to be external to the mind.

“Chomsky’s case for introducing and using the notion of an I-language is, in the end, indistinguishable from his case for a cognitivist approach to the study of language as a natural phenomenon. And his case against E-languages is that there is no scientifically coherent project to which they belong as posits.”

Chomsky does not deny the existence of some linguistic arbitrariness (emphasized by Ferdinand de Saussure and David Lewis, for example). But he sees the core aspects of language as being constrained by the specifics of our biological nature and the (undoubted) arbitrary and contingent aspects of language as operating within these constraints.

The facts of first language acquisition arguably demonstrate this. It is clear that language learning in infants represents a special kind of learning. Infants are not like little scientists observing and inferring the linguistic conventions prevailing among adult users. And even if they were, even if they were masterminds, they would still be unable, on the basis of the fragmentary, flawed and often inconsistent evidence which the typical linguistic environment provides, to zero in on an appropriate grammar. Logically speaking, there would be countless possible languages which would be compatible with the data. (This is the “poverty of stimulus” argument.) What we see in fact is very rapid, and apparently effortless, linguistic progress. And it calls for an explanation.

According to Chomsky, language acquisition can be thought of as a series of brain states, developing from an initial state, S0 [S zero], through intermediate states to a relatively stable mature state, SM.

From the SEP: "S0 is the initial state common to all humans, idealizing away from individual linguistic impairments and the like. Subsequent states arise through exposure to a particular linguistic environment. Nothing said so far requires that these states be thought of as representational states we could call “knowing a language”. […] [L]anguage acquisition can be described—usefully—as a matter of children evolving through various stages of knowledge en route to acquiring adult competence. This description is useful because the empiricist/nativist debate can now be couched as a debate over what linguistic information must already be known by someone in S0 if information supplied by the linguistic environment is to culminate in knowledge of the mature language M. Empiricists claim that nothing much is needed, that S0 is a “blank slate” to be filled in using environmental data. Nativists claim that plenty of information must already be provided, in the form of innate knowledge of a language dubbed Universal Grammar (UG) by Chomsky. We each come predisposed to acquire only certain languages, the humanly possible ones that can grow out of UG."

Despite the controversies surrounding the notion of Universal Grammar, I tend to agree with Barber and Ramirez that nothing much is added to this account, as an account of language learning, by describing it as development towards the learning of an externalistically specified social language (as opposed to some specific mature linguistic state (SM) of an individual). On this view, the primary target of investigation is the human language faculty, its nature and limits. Of course, other approaches to language are possible but, to the extent that they have scientific pretensions, they will probably be in tension with an idiolectal approach.

"Because there is considerable variety […] in the underlying conceptions of languages, Chomsky’s criticisms can seem sweeping, but the underlying thought is that, because E-languages are less “real” than I-languages, the concept [of an E-language] appears to play no role in the theory of language. […] Linguistic behaviour is the product of both the language faculty on the one hand and external influences—performance systems in the mind/brain of the individual and social factors—on the other. At issue is not whether anything at all can ever be said, usefully, about these “downstream” effects, but whether the notion of an E-language has any pivotal explanatory role to play in saying it (save as a useful shorthand)."

This is well put.

It is worth noting also that Barber and Ramirez explicitly recognize the challenges that idiolectal (or I-language-focused) approaches pose to traditional approaches in the philosophy of language.

"One apparent corollary of [Chomsky’s view of language] is significant for those many philosophers of language who have agonized over how to construct a theory of meaning for English. A common thought is that such a theory ought to take the form of a statement of the referential properties of the expressions of English—a link between words and objects in the world—from which the truth conditions of all English sentences can be derived (e.g., [Donald] Davidson, [Richard] Montague). Echoing P. F. Strawson, Chomsky suggests that referring is something people do. They use words in doing so, it is true, but referring is not something that words somehow do by themselves, through some fantastical medium, English. If referential properties of expressions amount to anything, rather than being relational properties between expressions and external objects (or “word-world” relations) they should be thought of as embodying instructions to the individual’s conceptual system, one of the performance systems with which the language faculty interfaces. If Chomsky is right, a great deal of the philosophy of language is either radically off beam or needs considerable re-interpretation."

I have barely scratched the surface here and don’t have a fully worked out position. But I am convinced that an idiolectal perspective has been and will continue to be extremely useful in the quest to develop a truer and more parsimonious account of human language.