Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Epistemology II: Categories

I've discussed this before, but it bears repeating, and deeper consideration. Many philosophers have pondered these issues, but I base my thinking on the German philosopher Jurgen Hambermas in his magnum opus The Theory of Communicative Action. (I don't necessarily recommend that you try to read it, it's extremely wonky.) 

First, as an academic philosopher with a grounding in sociolinguistics, Habermas more or less takes it for granted, but I'll spell it out. Although we have bestowed the name Homo sapiens, "thinking man,"* on ourselves, what really distinguishes us is language. The other apes obviously think in some way; they can solve puzzles and make plans, although with not nearly our degree of sophistication. But we do our thinking with language. We run a silent monologue in our heads. We can record it, refine it, share it with others, by writing it down or saying it aloud. And others may criticize what we write and say.

Human society is largely created through the medium of language. It is of course shaped by the constraints of the physical environment, and some degree of physical coercion is also involved, but other apes cannot create nearly the degree of social complexity that we can because their communicative resources are far more limited. In fact it is a reasonable conclusion that a main reason there is more interpersonal violence among chimpanzees than there is among humans is because they don't have other ways of settling disputes or expressing displeasure with other's actions. Bonobos, who are our closest relatives, are more peaceful than chimpanzees. They bond through sexual activity, which they practice quite indiscriminately without regard to age or gender

Anyway, we largely bond through conversation, and we limit companionable sex to a small number of partners. It is through language that we label social categories and roles, define organizations, transact business, make rules and policy -- one can say that society is made largely out of language.


This means that language has to do several different kinds of work. Once you notice this, it seems glaringly obvious, but philosophers actually seemed not to realize it until the 20th Century. They were concerned with how language represents reality, and there was even an influential school that claimed that the meaning of a statement was equivalent to the means by which its truth value could be established. Oops! Along came John Searle and other speech act theorists who first noticed that the truth of a statement by a priest that you are married or a judge that you are guilty is established by the utterance itself. It took them a while longer to realize that most of what we say is either not verifiable at all -- it doesn't have a truth value, even in principle -- or, while criticizable, can't be strictly ruled true or false. What is the truth value of hello and goodbye? Of a question? Of an instruction?  


Then there are claims that do make some sort of representation but can't be strictly judged as true or false. These are of various kinds. If I assert that I am experiencing an emotion of some kind, you may or may not think I'm sincere but there is usually no way to prove it. (Emerging technology may complicate this claim but I will just note that the polygraph is bullshit.) A sharper distinction is that of moral evaluation -- claims about what is right or good, or evil, and to what degree, under what circumstances, by whom. Then there are claims about what is beautiful -- is that a good painting, or novel, and what is it worth?

To cut to the chase, Habermas refers to categories of "criticizable," rather than verifiable, claims. The category of representation -- hard core, "out there" truth -- certainly does exist. This may be subdivided into what we directly apprehend, and what may be concluded by deduction. The latter includes conclusions that require deep learning and thought -- expertise. If I tell you that I am presently sitting at an antique slant front desk, in principle you can determine if that is true. You would have to come into my house or look in the window, which is not possible in reality, but we can legitimately distinguish between my lying and telling the truth in this instance. 

If I were to tell you that the desk was made by the cabinetmaker Lemuel Walton in Philadelphia in 1834, I would be relying on expertise, whether my own or that of Leslie Keno. The assertion has a definite truth value, but the vast majority of us are incapable of evaluating it for ourselves. We have to rely on the experts, and so we have to judge how trustworthy they are. (I invented Walton, so it would not in fact be true.) Habermas puts both kinds of assertions in the "First World," the True.


Then there are moral categories. These also are of two kinds. There are my own personal feelings about what is right, and there are socially constructed categories that we are expected to accept. This is the Second World, of the Good, but watch out! Here we often encounter confusion. There are social facts -- assertions about the nature of society that belong in the First World. Police do have certain authority; people are classified by gender and expected to behave in gender conforming ways; people are classified by race and experience differential treatment depending on that classification. (Granted these sorts of assertions entail a great deal of complexity and definite conclusions about specifics can be debatable.) Whether that is good or right, however, belongs to the Second World, and does not have the same kind of truth value.

Finally, there is the Beautiful. What pleases you? This can be as trivial as being happy when the Yankees or the Red Sox win, or as profound as King Lear vs. Hamlet, but ultimately, nobody can tell you that you're right or wrong.

Mixing up these categories is a recipe for communicative failure, not to mention failure of the thought process, which as I said in the beginning is dependent on language. So take your time and make the effort to keep them all straight.


Don Quixote said...

My favorite part of this post was the reference to “the other apes.” And I agree with that. As my brother-in-law said once, and I agree, we’re just special monkeys. And I don’t think many of these monkeys would be good at understanding Jurgen Habermas’s books, based on my rxperiences as a teaching assistant in public schools over the past decade. I wish that were not the case. I also have my doubts as to whether there is more interpersonal violence between chimpanzees than between human beings. The reason I say this is that, based on the writings of Marshall Rosenberg, and his teachings regarding nonviolent communication, humans create a lot of violence toward themselves and others with words and language, in addition to their almost inconceivable track record of physical violence toward each other.

Cervantes said...

Well, the amount of interpersonal violence among humans varies enormously with the socio-cultural and historical context. Chimpanzee life is more consistent. I don't know if you can really compare them. We can aspire to be non-violent and many people are, at least if they're in the right place at the right time. In other contexts there is enormous violence. Chimps can't make guns or bombs, but on the other hand humans can choose not to use them.

Don Quixote said...

I'll go a little further out on the limb here to draw your attention.

Each time we say to ourselves or another, "I'm (You're) stupid," that is a form of violence. And that is pretty much the least harmful epithet I can think of out of the billions used daily toward ourselves and others, much less the physical violence. Our use of language enables us to commit emotional violence upon one another in a way that chimps can't even dream of. I think, frankly, that the reason there is so much strife in the world is because violence is committed so frequently and endemically by parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, relatives, acquaintances, and others on children. They never grow up emotionally, and so many people lead, in Thoreau's words, "lives of quite desperation," never truly seen, heard, felt, or loved. Or at least they get a lot more of twisted love, and things other than love. And the cycle repeats. Masses of people who don't know and appreciate themselves are prey to demagogues and false ideas.

Our violence to one another and to animals and ourselves and the world is infinitely more complicated because of the capabilities of our neocortex, which makes a good servant but a terrible master. And a little knowledge becomes a terribly dangerous thing for most humans, who don't really know what to do with that knowledge or why they even do the things they do--what makes them "tick."

I don't believe that our species will survive without a revolution in education and a radical swing away from rejection of self and of life, away from commodification and technological "development" toward the spiritual and natural.

Cervantes said...

Yes of course, language can create conflict as well as resolve it. The key insight of speech act theory is that we do things with words, they don't just represent reality, they create it. For better or for worse.

Don Quixote said...

Well then, children should be taught in schools from a very early age the power of words, and how to use them correctly and responsibly. And they’re not. The people who are teaching them generally do not know how to use them, or how much power they have, either. Our whole world needs to learn how to use language responsibly. Because it doesn’t. And that’s why the world we are creating is, by and large, a world of violence. Experts are creating worlds of beauty in their individual disciplines, but we are not learning how to live and play well with others. And that is what will make or break our survival. We need a revolution in the language of relating to the world around us and to ourselves.

Chucky Peirce said...

Re: Language creating reality.

When I learned how to program computers I found it mind blowing that I could create a useful machine by just writing a document in a simple, specialized language. Almost every app you download onto your phone is something that started as a collection of words but which now turns your phone into a machine that can do a number of novel things without changing the phone itself. A mundane example of words creating reality.

Incidentally, the person who precisely characterized the traits (kind of grammar) a language needed to have in order to do this efficiently was Noam Chomsky, the modern incarnation of Bertrand Russell. The Chomsky Heirarchy is still fundamental to constructing compilers for computer languages. Incidentally, English won't do, its grammar is too ambiguous.

Don Quixote said...

Holy cow … Thank you, CP, for that fascinating post. Also, because I am a tutor in English and reading, I really appreciate the comment about the lack of clear grammar in English. I am constantly telling my young students what an irregular language English is. I know that German comes from the same language family, but it seems much more highly structured. I would really like to read up on Chomsky’s history in linguistics, which would be a nice break for a change from politics :-)

Don Quixote said...

PS Also relevant that you mention Bertrand Russell. When I was in high school, I found a thin little volume of his that explained general and specific relativity better than anything I have ever found. That’s genius: the ability to reduce the complex to basic elements. It sounds like that is exactly what Chomsky did with his hierarchy.

Cervantes said...

Well, the explanation is that modern English is what's called a Creole language. It's an amalgamation of Germanic English, and French. In 1066 a French guy conquered England and installed French-speaking people as administrators of his realm. They started using English words but didn't know the grammar, and conversely their subjects started using French words but didn't know the inflections. In other words everybody is using Me Tarzan You Jane talk. Actually exchange between English and French continued for a couple of centuries since William's successors ended up with his empire in France. (Viz. Henry V.) So we now have a double vocabulary of Germanic and Latinate words, and a degraded grammar.