Friday, 4 December 2009

Bewitchment of Language

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein opens his Philosophical Investigations with the following excerpt from ‘Confession’ by Augustine, in which he, Augustine, describes the way in which he learnt language.

Cum ipsi (majores homines) appellabant rem aliquam, et cum secundum eam vocem corpus ad aliquid movebant, videbam, et tenebam hoc ab eis vocari rem illam, quod sonabant, cum eam vellent ostendere. Hoc autem eos velle ex motu corporis aperiebatur: tamquam verbis naturalibus omnium gentium, quae fiunt vultu et nutu oculorum, ceterorumque membrorum actu, et sonitu vocis indicante affectionem animi in petendis, habendis, rejiciendis, fugiendisve rebus. Ita verba in variis sententiis locis suis posita, et crebro audita, quarum rerum signa essent, paulatimcolligebam, measque jam voluntates, edomito in eis signis ore, per haec enuntiabam.

Augustine says, ‘When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved toward something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out.’ Augustine goes onto say that the more his elders pointed out objects with their bodily movements, he grew to learn how to speak in sentences and express desires.

Wittgenstein comments on this passage by saying:

These words, it seems to me, give us a particular picture of the essence of human language. It is this: the individual words in language name objects—sentences are combinations of such names. In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.
Wittgenstein refers to this understanding of words as ‘ostensive’, for it “establish[es] an association between the word and the thing

We can only analyze concepts in terms of words. By the time one has reached the stage of thinking or reflection, one has learnt how to speak at least one language. A child [Wittgenstein argues] uses such primitive forms of language when it learns to talk. Here the teaching of language is not explanation, but training. An important part of the training will consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word.

‘The ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it can mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child's mind when it hears the word. But now, if this does happen, is it the purpose of the word? Yes, it can be the purpose. I can imagine such a use of words (of series of sounds). Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination,’ says Wittgenstein.

What is the purpose of language? An obvious use is for communication. We also use language for thinking or reflection. Communication, thus, involves at least two parties—it is, one might say, the public use of language. Thinking, on the other hand, is a private activity and need not comprise entirely of language; one might use mental images while thinking. In theory, then, it is possible that the person can create his own rules, a sort of private language, where words may be assigned meanings different from those in ordinary language. When language is used for public communication you have to use the words in their conventional meaning. This brings me to another related question. Say, I am speaking to another person; (borrowing liberally from an example Wittgenstein gives in ‘Psychological Investigations’) say I am a builder and giving instructions to this person who is my assistant; say, I want the assistant to pass on to me stones or a beam or a slab. I shall then use words or sentences to convey to the assistant what I want. The assistant, if he fully understands what I am saying, will do what I am asking him to do. The communication can be broken down into several steps: firstly I have something meaningful to say; I use words—which are symbols— and sentences to convey the meaning to the assistant; the assistant understands something—he decodes the symbols—by the words and sentences he hears. The communication between the assistant and me is effective only if the assistant understands the same as what I mean.

Learning language, according to Wittgenstein, involves giving names to objects, to human beings, to shapes, to colours, to pains, to moods, to numbers, etcetera. Naming is something like attaching a label to a thing. One can say that this is preparatory to the use of a word. But what is it a preparation for? What do words in a language signify? Wittgenstein would have us believe that the words signify the kind of use they have. For the communication to be effective there ought to be an agreement that people will use the same words to have the same meaning. The built in rules of a language would go some way towards achieving this. When the words are used to stand for concrete things, there can be an unambiguous agreement about what they signify. However, when the words are used to express abstract concepts it may be difficult to build up an agreement. Hearing words, or looking at them in print, Wittgenstein says, is like looking into a cabin of a locomotive. He uses an interesting analogy to put forth his point. We may see handles all more or less looking alike. But one is the handle of a crank which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two effective positions, it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brake-lever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder it brakes; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro. Therefore, when we say 'Every word in language signifies something' we have said nothing whatever; unless we have explained exactly what distinction we wish to make, unless of course we want to distinguish the words of language from nonsensical words such as occur in Lewis Carroll's poems.

Many of us have this idea, subconsciously if not consciously, that words have some kind of real, essential meaning. This assumption is fallacious. The same word may be used with different meanings in different contexts and connections. Take the word ‘Rascal’: it can be used to describe someone (frequently a child) who is playful and mischievous; or it can be used to describe an unscrupulous, dishonest person. So what is the real meaning of the word ‘Rascal’? I do not think that it has any real meaning. We can employ this word to perform different jobs in different contexts, and presumably the listeners would make a judgment about what is sensible for them to understand when they hear the word. Words can be used in very many different contexts and have so many different meanings that it may be argued that they do not serve any useful purpose as effective tools of thinking. If we consider the English language, the same word can be used as a noun or verb, or a noun and an adjective. Take the word ‘kind’, for example, which is used as an adjective and a noun, more frequently the former. Also, when used as an adjective it can sometimes have a moral connotation. When we describe someone as kind we could mean a variety of things: we might mean that the person is of generous, warm-hearted nature; or is showing sympathy; or is humane and considerate; or is forbearing; or is liberal; or is agreeable. Although the word used is the same—‘kind’—there are nuances related to the contexts in which the word is used, and, when we are talking, we emphasize the meaning by our voices, intonations, gestures etcetera. When we are writing, the function is partly served by the syntax and punctuation. None of the meanings, though, is an essential one. However, it does not mean that we can bounce off to the opposite extreme and use the words whichever way we choose, as that will increase the risk of being misunderstood and failure of communication. Even if you adhere to the position that there is no essential meaning to any word, it is a natural human tendency to hang on to something fixed in our thinking, and the majority of people will use a given word more frequently to convey a particular meaning. Wittgenstein gives an example: ‘Can I say "bububu" and mean ‘If it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk”? It is only in a language that I can mean something by something. This shows clearly that the grammar of ‘to mean’ is not like that of the expression ‘to imagine’ and the like.’

This brings me back to what Wittgenstein calls the ostensive definition of a word. The ostensive definition, according to Wittgenstein, explains the use—the meaning—of the word when the overall role of the word in the language is clear. Thus if I ‘know’ that someone means to explain a colour-word to me, the ostensive definition ‘That is called sepia (or beige)’ will help me to understand the word. One has to already know something in order to be capable of asking a thing’s name. But [Wittgenstein asks, rhetorically] what is it that one has to know? He gives an example to elucidate this further. ‘I am explaining chess to someone; and I begin by pointing to a chessman and saying: “This is the king; it can move like this,.... and so on.” In this case we shall say: the words “This is the king” are a definition only if the learner already knows what a piece in a game is. That is, if he has already played other games, or has watched other people playing 'and understood'. Further, only under these conditions will he be able to ask relevantly in the course of learning the game: "What do you call this?"-- that is, this piece in a game. We may say: only someone who already knows how to do something with it.’

To complicate the matter further, there are words, at least in English—possibly in other languages— which are used to convey similar or approximate meaning, for example, the two adjectives: ‘splendid’ and ‘ ‘resplendent’. It might be argued that the two words convey subtly different meanings. If we consult an expert about this, he might say that ‘splendid’, depending on the context in which it is used, can be used to express brilliance of colour, as in ‘splendid field of flowers’; or grandeur, as in ‘splendid costumes’; or admiration, as in ‘splendid achievement’; or praise, as in ‘splendid performance’. ‘Resplendent’, on the other hand is usually used to describe a striking or brilliant appearance; one would not use it to convey all the other meanings attached to the word ‘splendid’. If we ask a random sample of people the same question: what difference, if any, do they attach to the words ‘splendid’ and ‘resplendent’, and suppose the majority of the sample thinks that there is no difference between the two words and can be used synonymously, does it mean that they are wrong or are not properly educated (because they are unaware of the different meanings of the word ‘splendid’ which are different from ‘resplendent’)?

It would be safe to conclude that a reasonably valid distinction can be drawn between the majority use of a word, and its educated or expert use. And, since, the main purpose of language is communication, to depart from the majority usage is liable to lead to the failure of communication. This is not to say that the majority are always right, for example, if the majority of people believe that William the Conqueror landed in England in 966 AD, they are plain wrong and their thinking does not make it right. If, on the other hand, the majority thinks that a word is used to convey a certain meaning and use it in that way, then they are ‘right’, and it is their thinking and resultant action (i.e. using the word in a manner that conveys a particular meaning) make it right.

Are there then any desirable qualities one should attempt to adhere to while communicating, say, while writing? Should one be clear, precise, accurate and unambiguous in our writing? Some would argue that these are desirable qualities. (These would also be the people who would hesitate to label James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ a masterpiece.) It has also been suggested that any verse which carries these qualities cannot be considered, in any considerable degree, poetry. So, what is desirable? That would depend on the context and the task in hand, in other words. A relentlessly rational and cogent argument that leaves no one in doubt as to what the writer has in his mind may be desirable when one is debating or putting forth a case or attempting to give factual information. On the other hand, a novel, or a drama, that supplements the reader’s imagination may enhance the enjoyment one will get out it. The flip side of the coin is sometimes poems or plays are subjected to over-elaborate linguistic investigations and conclusions may be drawn which might not have been in the mind of the creator (as in ‘Waiting for Godot’.) There is a tendency to examine words minutely, as it were through a microscope, and pontificate on different meanings they might carry. The conclusions may be valid only if at least some people use the words in the manner in which a given usage of the word purports to describe reality.

So, what did Wittgenstein have in mind when he talked of the bewitchment of our intelligence by language? Sometimes a writer may deliberately (or should I say, ‘intentionally’? Is there a subtle difference between the two adverbs? Does ‘deliberately’ carry a slightly aggressive connotation—something done on purpose to irritate—whereas ‘intentionally’ is more neutral?) use language in a way calculated to evoke strong emotions that may override the intellect. I have utterly enjoyed novels where the force of the narrative and the accompanying emotions are so strong—for example some of the Tibor Fischer novels—that they make you ignore the fact that one can drive a schooner through the holes in the logic and consistency. However, I do not think this is the same kind of bewitchment Wittgenstein was referring to. A word, Wittgenstein says, has no meaning if nothing corresponds to it. He further clarifies (or confuses depending on your view) that the word ‘meaning’ should be taken to have been used illicitly if it is used to signify the thing that corresponds to the word. That, in Wittgenstein’s eyes, is to confound the meaning of the name with the bearer of the name. When Mr. N. N. dies one says that the bearer of the name dies, not that the meaning dies. And it would be nonsensical to say that, for if the name ceased to have meaning it would make no sense to say ‘Mr. N. N. is dead.’

A name [says Wittgenstein] ought really to signify a simple. And, as is his wont, he gives an example, ostensibly to elucidate his point: the word ‘Excalibur’, say, is a proper name in the ordinary sense. The sword Excalibur consists of parts combined in a particular way. If they are combined differently Excalibur does not exist. But it is clear that the sentence "Excalibur has a sharp blade" makes sense whether Excalibur is still whole or is broken up. But if "Excalibur" is the name of an object, this object no longer exists when Excalibur is broken in pieces; and as no object would then correspond to the name it would have no meaning. But then the sentence ‘Excalibur has a sharp blade’ would contain a word that had no meaning, and hence the sentence would be nonsense. But it does make sense; so there must always be something corresponding to the words of which it consists. The meaning of a word, Wittgenstein concludes, is its use in the language. What then lies behind the idea that names really signify simples? Wittgenstein quotes Socrates [in ‘Theaetetus’] (who, it should be noted, is no easier to comprehend than Wittgenstein). ‘There is no definition of the primary elements--so to speak--out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exist in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not..... But what exist in its own right has to be..... named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names.’

Something red can be destroyed, Wittgenstein says, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of the word 'red' is independent of the existence of a red thing. What Wittgenstein is saying here is if as a result of the way in which we use language lead us to form erroneous conclusions about reality, then our intelligence is bewitched by the language—it is akin to believing that since the word gryphon exists, there must also exist an animal represented by the word. The word exists, therefore the thing exists—that is the bewitchment of intelligence by language. While most of us will not be misled when it comes to believing whether or not mythological creatures exist, it might create confusion at more complex and abstract levels. Like the so called essential meaning of the word: simply because someone talks about the essential meaning all the time does not necessarily mean that there is one, and setting about finding it is going to be as futile as collecting sand in a sieve. The language—its words, the structure of sentences—influences the way we think. When we are watching, say, a musical, and decide that it is splendid, how do we choose the word ‘splendid’? Do we form an idea in our mind about the quality of the play, then search for the word from the repertoire at our disposal that would code the idea appositely; or does our knowledge of the word ‘splendid’, that is, its meaning, influence what we think? When a child learns a language, at the most simplistic, or primitive, level, Wittgenstein says, the following process occurs: the learner names the objects; that is, he utters the word when the teacher points to the stone. And there will be this still simpler exercise: the pupil repeats the words after the teacher--both of these being processes resembling language. We learn language by association, and form an idea of what the words, constituents of the language, signify. And this knowledge influences our thinking.

That is what Wittgenstein meant by bewitchment of our intelligence by language. I think.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book of the Month: Life And Death of Harriet Frean (May Sinclair)

Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.

May Sinclair (real name Mary St Clair) is a forgotten name these days. Yet, before Virginia Woolf’s emergence as a major writer, Sinclair was one of the most distinguished women writers from the Edwardian and Georgian age. Critically acclaimed and popular in both England and America, she was the author of twenty-four novels, of which Life and Death of Harriet Frean, (together with Mary Oliver: A Life) is remarkable as much for its exploration of Freudian themes as for its subtle and insightful analysis of English class and character of the Victorian era. In fifteen short chapters, the novel traces the life of Harriett Frean, from her birth to death, animadverting, in the process, some of the cherished values of the Victorians.

Harriet Frean, the eponymous heroine of the novel, like her creator, is a product of the Victorian era. There are no Victorian monsters in her childhood, though. Indeed, her parents are educated people—her father reads Herbert Spencer and Darwin, while her mother reads biographies of Great men—who are self-consciously free from any vulgarity in their personal conduct, epitomized by their refusal to deliver corporal punishment to Harriett. Little Harriett is brought up to believe that vanity is sin, and, like all those whose breeding is true, she mingles happily with the proles and tinkers. From an early age, her parents have inculcated her with a sense of moral righteousness: Self-denial and subjugation of will are two virtues that bring the greatest joy and make one morally beautiful. The deliberate deprivation of the self’s longing takes a poignant meaning when young Harriett renounces Robin, the man betrothed to Priscilla, one of her close friends, who declares that it is Harriett who he really loves. Harriett is convinced that she would be doing the wrong thing; she would not be happy, always thinking what she had done to her friend, and, even if she were happy, she had no moral right to get her happiness out of her friend’s suffering. It is a grand moment of self-sacrifice in Harriett’s life, a moment in which she puts into practice all that she has imbibed from her parents—indeed, Harriett’s decision of not reciprocating Robin’s feelings on moral grounds is subtly abetted by her parents. As the story unfolds and the once pretty Harriet mutates into a bitter, cynical, haughty, and impoverished spinster, the utter futility of that sacrifice is spread out for the reader.

The beauty of Life and Death of Harriett Frean is that the novel works at several levels. It can be enjoyed as a chilling case history of a life marred by the deliberate repression of one’s desires and instincts, of a life crushed by the weight of decorum and misdirected correctitude. However, it is more than that. It is also a severe indictment of oppressive influence of one’s family, derived in turn from societal moratoriums, thwarting individual aspirations. The narrative style, for the most part, strives to drive the point home via irony, occasionally sarcasm; except on one occasion: a dialogue between an old Harriett and a much younger woman, who censures Harriett, and suggests that she had been a selfish fool, her self-sacrifice having brought nothing but misery and unhappiness to all the parties. This didactic excerpt strikes a slightly contrary note in its directness, as though Sinclair, suddenly unsure whether the reader has grasped the message, decided to take a more direct approach.

Life and Death of Harriett Frean is also remarkable for Sinclair’s admirable, if somewhat clumsy, attempts at exploring Freudian themes. The novel was published at a time when Freud’s psychodynamic theories were at the height of their popularity in Europe. Sinclair, deeply influenced by the works of Freud and Jung, explored some of Freud’s defence mechanisms in her novels. In Life and Death of Harriett Frean she analyses repression and its consequences. Robin, spurned by Harriett, ends up marrying Priscilla with whom he had original fallen in love. Priscilla, realising soon enough that her husband’s heart belongs to her best friend, can give vent to her rage only by developing a hysterical paralysis. It is a kind of non-verbal pantomime, which castigates not only Robin—who, unable, perhaps by societal taboos and constraints, to end the sham marriage, is reduced for the rest of their married life, which mercifully comes to an end when Priscilla dies, to a glorified flunkey—but also herself, her ego killing two birds in one stone, so to speak, by punishing Robin for his emotional infidelity and herself for the intense hostility, albeit unconscious, she feels towards him for his betrayal. When Priscilla dies of pneumonia—it is not easy to die of hysterical paralysis—Robin marries Beatrice, who has nursed Priscilla in her final illness, and takes out his pent up bitterness and frustration on her by developing hypochondriacal symptoms, and Beatrice, with apparent willingness, takes on the role Robin had played in his unhappy marriage to Priscilla.

George Orwell once described Sinclair’s novels as an example of ‘good bad writing’. Orwell was unduly harsh on Sinclair. Sinclair’s writing style is deceptively simple, at times stark and trenchant; yet the writing has the lambency that many a writer with showy linguistic flourish would struggle to achieve. The sparse, parsimonious style also manages to effectively convey the misguided Spartanism that keeps Harriett in its vice like grip. It also conveys, without hyperbole, the gradual transformation of Harriett from an angelic girl, full of joi de verve into a sullen, peevish misanthrope. One wonders to what extent was Harriett was the author’s alter ego.

Harriett’s attitude towards men is kept tantalizingly enigmatic throughout the novel. In response to Robin’s declaration of love, never once does Harriett reciprocate. The author does not elaborate—deliberately, you get the impression—why Harriett chooses to live a life that many people, at least those from her generation, would describe as inefectual. Instead, she regresses more and more into the suffocating and cloying embrace of her parents, and fails to feel liberated even after their deaths. In real life, Sinclair did not have relationships with men throughout her long life and led, for all appearances, a life of celibacy. Youngest of six children, and the only daughter, Sinclair was very close to her family. She lived with her mother until the mother’s death, and nursed her brothers, all of whom suffered from an inherited heart condition, four of them dying before their fiftieth birthday. Whether Life and Death of Harriett Frean, written when Sinclair was fifty-nine (by that time Sinclair was showing unmistakable signs of early Parkinson's disease; ten years later she would stop writing completely), is a reflection on Sinclair’s own life, will remain a matter of conjecture. If it is, one can either admire the dispassionate dissection of an unfulfilled life, or wonder at the self-loathing that inspired the novel.