Notes for an idiolecture

My one year-old niece refutes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on a daily basis. What do I mean by “refute”? In the Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell famously describes how Johnson responded to the philosophical solipsism of George Berkeley:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”

Though generations of Western philosophy students have derided this “refutation” as obtuse (see here, for example), I think they are the ones who are guilty of obtuseness for failing to appreciate the Zen-like adroitness of Dr. Johnson’s swift kick. Like a koan, it is best appreciated not as an isolated, universal statement, but as a spur-of-the-moment response to the student’s (Boswell’s) state of mind. They had just come out of the church, whose central drama reenacts the mystery of incarnation, however the bishop may try to resolve the paradox of Word-made-flesh. In Christianity, as in Buddhism, pain and suffering are awarded a quasi-ontological significance. The difference, I think, is that if Dr. Johnson had been a Zen master, he would’ve kicked Boswell; Christian charity dictated his choice of a stone scapegoat.

Buddhist philosophy includes a very Berkeleyan school called Vijñaptimí¢tra, “Representation-Only.” It was popular for a while in Tang- and Song-Dynasty China, and the Record of Master Yunmen (Ummon in Japanese) describes several instances where students question this most formidable of Zen teachers about it. Here’s one of them, in Urs App’s peerless annotated translation (#77):

Someone asked: “What is it like when [one realizes that] the three realms are nothing but mind, and the myriad things are merely [produced by one’s] cognition?”

The Master replied, “Hiding in one’s tongue.”

“And what is that like?”

The Master said, “Su-lu, su-lu.”

“This spell was among other things used for fending off evil spirits,” says App’s footnote to the last line. Thus can apparent nonsense be invested with a higher, non-symbolic sense.

My niece Elanor is what they call pre-verbal. But in fact she verbalizes constantly, and often quite loudly and insistently, accompanied by hand and head gestures. For example, last Friday afternoon she was sitting on her Grandpa’s lap while he read one of her favorite books to her. When he finished and closed the book, she turned it over, jabbed her right forefinger at the cover, looked him in the eye and let out a loud stream of syllables some ten seconds long, with falling intonation. We all laughed, and Grandpa read the book again.

I could relate many such incidents about her. A couple weeks ago, I did something to tease her – I forget just what. She got a stern look on her face and lectured me vociferously for a couple of minutes while everyone looked on. The gestural qualities of spoken language are evidently very appealing to her. Her mother gave her an old cell phone to play with, and she tells us that Elanor quite often holds it up to her ear and holds lengthy “conversations,” toddling back and forth from one end of their apartment to the other.

Her choice of syllables seems fairly arbitrary, though she gravitates toward some, such as dada and lalala, apparently because the sounds are agreeable to her ear. She has clearly grasped the link between speaking and self-assertion. At family gatherings, she often attempts to join in on supper-table conversations from where she sits like a potentate in her high chair. In her serenity and sovereignty, she brings to mind the Daodejing’s example of a (male) infant as the very embodiment of virtue or character (de). From the Ames and Hall translation, Chapter 55:

He screams through the entire day
And yet his voice does not get hoarse:
Such is height of harmony.

Though Elanor was never a screamer like that, I think it’s important to remember that her “pre-verbal” utterances and gestures are not an imperfect anticipation of “real,” systematic language. Rather, they constitute expressions of her state of mind closer to music or the songs of birds, which, though they rarely obey the laws of harmony, cannot fail to harmonize with the bird’s internal and external state, and thus sound pleasant to a third party.

In their commentary on Chapter 55, Ames and Hall make a point of some relevance to Johnson’s common sense-based “refutation” of representation-only:

The baby, unconsciously and without motivation, is the embodiment of harmony and equilibrium. Vitality, then, is sustaining this kind of balance in the rhythms of the day. Common sense – insight into the ordinary and everyday – is the relatively uncommon ability to maximize one’s quantum of life-energy by using it up in a measured way, remaining ever responsive to the cadence of one’s experience.

How does this refute Wittgenstein?

Wittgenstein, as you may recall, was anointed by Time magazine as the most important philosopher of the 20th century. He was a very serious man who liked to number his thoughts, and tried to give them an air of cohesion and importance by grouping some of them under a grand, Latin title – a practice which the author of this website heartily deplores. But it’s his later work, collected posthumously as Philosophical Investigations, that I want to call attention to here. As the Wikipedia article points out, this work permits a variety of interpretations. According to one of them, Wittgenstein maintained that “everyday language functions for the most part unproblematically and does not require correction by philosophers.”

Well and good! But it’s one of Wittgenstein’s subsidiary arguments – his famous digression about the possibility of a private language – that I think my niece’s behavior refutes. A private language is one in which “The words … are to refer to what can be known only to the speaker; to his immediate, private, sensations. So another cannot understand the language.”

This translation is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which goes on to explain that

This is not intended to cover (easily imaginable) cases of recording one’s experiences in a personal code, for such a code, however obscure in fact, could in principle be deciphered. What Wittgenstein had in mind is a language conceived as necessarily comprehensible only to its single originator because the things which define its vocabulary are necessarily inaccessible to others.

Immediately after introducing the idea, Wittgenstein goes on to argue that there cannot be such a language. The importance of drawing philosophers’ attention to a largely unheard-of notion and then arguing that it is unrealizable lies in the fact that an unformulated reliance on the possibility of a private language is arguably essential to mainstream epistemology, philosophy of mind and metaphysics from Descartes to versions of the representational theory of mind which became prominent in late twentieth century cognitive science. […]

[S]uch a so-called language would, necessarily, be unintelligible to its supposed originator too, for he would be unable to establish meanings for its putative signs.

You can click on the link and read about the debate Wittgenstein’s cryptic statements engendered if you wish. To me, the entire argument is flawed by the assumption that language is, at root, an intelligible system of signs – rather than, say, an endless flow of sounds and gestures, sense and nonsense, a river that constantly reshapes its bed. The earliest human language, like the languages of many non-human animals, has not yet become narrowed into the channel of representation-only, but floods and rushes wherever the questing mind wills. Its reach regularly exceeds its grasp, as the semiotically naive mind seeks intimate involvement in a world rich in numinous energy. Only at rare moments of great intensity in our adult lives are we reminded that what we call “meaning” was once pure gestalt.

The other thing I forgot to tell you about my niece is that she regularly interrupts whatever she is saying and doing to seek out physical contact with the nearest adult. A brief hug every five minutes or so seems to provide a kind of fuel for her explorations. And of course there’s no fooling a small child: any falsehood during such contacts would be detected almost immediately. It is on this template that the shared, “common sense” truth-assumptions of all social languages are built, I think. Soon enough, an escalating addiction to such physical/emotional response will lead to the standardization of her private language and its assimilation into the narrower but more powerful linguistic currents of her social milieu. Her favorite, all-purpose syllables dada will become less Dada and more Dad. Nonsense will become increasingly uncommon as she strives to make a commoner kind of sense. With time and luck, she may come to compete with her father or uncle for the title of fastest bullslinger in the West.

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