copyright © 1997 by Jim Michmerhuizen

Primitive Talk

a mind in two voices


Itís funny. Iíve never thought of myself as a systematic thinker. Iíve never, for example, believed in the big metaphysical systems that try to cover everything in the world under some uniform topic outline.

And yet...

And yet here I am with a little collection of a dozen concepts or so that Iím prepared to call fundamental, or primitive, or ultimate. And here I am intending to talk about each of them until the cows come home.

Huh? ďUntil the cows come home?Ē

Well, for a long time, anyway.

So you feel youíve got some explaining to do before you even get started.

Uh-huh. Sort of. As though even to confess these primitive concepts is to desert positions that Iíd staked out years ago... .

Well, so what? Nobody cares about that, really. Certainly, I donít.

Oh, weíre not referring to an issue of simple vanity or anything: ďSee, heís contradicting something he used to say. What good is a guy who keeps changing his mind.Ē Nothing like that. What has me so quiet and thoughtful is the possibility that even now, after all this thinking about things, I might have gotten something desperately wrong.

Oh my, what bullshit youíre capable of. Really. First of all, one of the best ways to get corrected, if youíre wrong about any of this stuff, is to have other people pound you on the head with the errors. Thatíll never happen as long as you sit there with your Walkman at full blast, noodling with the compilers and linkers and the Microsoft Foundation Classes.

But second of all, and much more importantly, my friend, you are lying. You are putting on a marvelous pretense, an act, a magic show. Everybodyís fooled except (for some fairly obvious reasons) me. What you really are is: you are quite certain that, about almost everything youíre about to talk about, you are very very right. Otherwise you wouldnít be getting ready to talk about it. You goose. Shame on you.

long pause...

OK. Letís make a deal. Iíll try to suppress these fits of false humility. You, in return... . I what.

another long pause

Well, anyway, Iíll suppress those fits of false humility. But some of itís real, and when Iím genuinely uncertain of something, youíre going to have to help me think the thing through and not just caper around pointing and giggling. Agreed?

No promises. No promises.

Oh, come on now. Be reasonable. Iím not asking you to sign a contract. Just a mutual understanding. Agreed?

Maybe.

Whatís your problem? Iím really serious, you know.

Pointing and giggling is a lot of fun. Sometimes itís more fun than listening to you being serious.

Ok, so you get fits too.

I guess you could call it that.

Well, then, restrain them. And that will be your contribution to our effort.

short pause

Thatís hard. You donít know what youíre asking.

Youíre at least as full of bullshit as I am.

I know. As I pointed out before, the technical reasons for that are obvious.

Yeah. But then, for the same reasons, you have to acknowledge that I do in fact know what Iím asking.

All right already. You got me. I give up.

So weíre agreed about this.

Yeah. Go ahead. Do your thing.

very long pause

Iím waiting.

Iím getting organized. Hold your horses.

I donít know why you take so long. You want to organize yourself around those basic, or primitive, concepts of yours: NAMING, REASONING, STORIES, THEORIES, MODELS, and so on. So why the long wait?

Iím trying to decide where to start.

Oh for heavenís sake. Just start talking, will you. Talk to me about humans and our language and how the world would be without language and how different it gets when thereís language and how having a language creates as many problems as it resolves only at least theyíre different problems.

Youíre right, I guess. Gotta begin somewhere. If we start that far back, as it were, weíre going to be covering a lot of the same territory that others have covered much better. Weíre beginning roughly where Wittgenstein began the Philosophical Investigations, where Kripke began Naming and Necessity, where Whorf and Vygotsky and a lot of other people worked.

Yeah. So what else is new.

Spare me. Seeing that youíve begun to enumerate our topics already, Iíll just continue with a brief summary of all the different things weíll be talking about.

First, we want to say something about our language; we speak, we listen, we think with it; we can hardly imagine what kind of creatures we would be if we didnít or couldnít do these things.

Then weíll have to say something about our capacity to do things with concepts. Weíll distinguish this from language itself, and talk a little about how the two are related.

Weíll have a good deal to say about names and the naming of things.

Then itíll be time to talk about reasoning in particular, as a human activity.

Somewhere along the way - possibly as part of our talk about names - weíll have to spend a good deal of time talking about models and metaphors.

Finally, weíll get to stories and theories. Most likely weíll talk about both of these together; theyíre like opposite directions or poles along a single dimension of discourse.

Good luck.

Human Language

For as long as we have been able to speak, we have understood our use of language to be one of our most distinguishing characteristics. Whales dive, birds fly, snakes slither, lions prey, and humans talk about all these things.

I do not wish here to get very far into the question of animal communication. Whatever is distinct about human language does not, in itself, detract from whatever abilities our colleagues among the creatures of the earth may also have. If any species turns out, in the future, to have more elaborate linguistic abilities than we do, weíll just have to rethink those parts of our present thinking that are affected by that. In the meantime, my attention is on us humans and our language.

Itís difficult to imagine what we would be like without it. I suspect that a great many of us try, at one time or another in our lives, to do that: imagine ourselves without our language. Maybe during the spiritual bloom of first adulthood, speculating, restless, trying to really know that the world existed before we did, that it will continue to exist when we donít, that each of us was once, to all appearances, a simple squirming animal without thought or language or even body control... .

So we do sometimes try to imagine that, donít we.

Yes.

And in a way itís entirely natural that we should. Even though one might think it kind of a hopeless task.

Why?

You mean why hopeless?

Yes.

How could anybody have any way at all of checking what he imagined? Concepts are intimately tied up with language; if I try to remember childhood events from before I spoke, am I not laying adult words on experiences which originally came to me unlabelled?

Then why, in spite of all that, do you say itís natural that we should?

Because so many of us do. It might be foolish, or hopeless, or a complete illusion, for any human to daydream about such a question. But Iím not even trying to judge that. At this moment in my talk, Iím simply expressing the belief that many - maybe most - human beings think about this at some time or times. Most are surely not what weíd call ďseriousĒ about the speculation; almost nobody, perhaps, even remembers, a couple of days later, that he even did think about such a question. A stray moment, on the bus home, or having coffee at the corner deli, perhaps some ghastly initiation into what, for short, Iíll call ďlinguistic traumaĒ.

Whatís that? Weíll have to come back to it later. For the moment, let me just characterize it as the exact opposite of Jesusí suggestion to ďlet your yea be yea, your nay nay, all else is vanity.Ē

Hm.

But now thereís a circularity about your suggestion that itís natural to try to see ourselves without language. It sounded, at first, as though you were going to come up with something substantive. But then all you said was itís natural because I think most of us do it. Thatís pretty weak.

Yeah. If we left it at that point, it would be weak. Lemme go on. Itís natural also exactly because weíre born without it: we acquire it. Under the language thereís an animal, a creature, just as full of blood and guts and muscle and bone as a chimp. The language is, as it were, a set of habits laid over the animal. In my life, in yours, in our daily experience, somewhere in all the pomp and panoply of our thoughts and visions and music and worship and exultation, there is the animal. My moment-by-moment experience is not only of my surroundings and my thoughts, itís of me: the viscera, the kinesthetics, the blister here, the minor irritation at my right elbow, the bladder, spots in front of my eyes, numbness under the ribs on my right side...

. ...bleak catalog, what...

...in sexual play, alone or together, times we donít even track whoís who, or take note of inner or outer.

All of that.

Yes. All of that and of course infinitely more. And I think, when it comes right down to it, that this animal is the strongest motive any of us has for trying to imagine ourselves without language.

How eles am I going to understand my dog, right

What do you mean?

My dog doesnít have language like I have language, right? So what am I doing when we play? How am I understanding the look in his eyes, his gestures and behavior, if not on the basis of my eyes and gestures and behavior, as a fellow creature with him.

By george, I think youíve got it. Thatís not what I would have said, but it sounds like youíve got the same sort of idea. Well, actually, I was going to say something quite different. Not incompatible, mind you, just different. Itís this: if one takes up the task of ďbecoming singleĒ, in a time-honored spiritual tradition, one has to bring the animal in somehow. Weíll see later on, I think, the consequences of attempting to become single in the domain of thought alone.

What an ominous note. The consequences, I suppose, are...

...disastrous.

So if Iíve got this right, the ďnaturalĒ impulse you were referring to is a kind of nostalgia for the simplicity of life without - or before - language.

Sort of. With the proviso that that single word ďnostalgiaĒ that you used must obviously be shorthand for an enormous - an infinite - range of human behaviors. Youíre not using it here to refer to a simple emotion at all.

In fact youíre using it for something that might not have the same expression in any two people at all. Um, yes. All those streetcorner thoughts you alluded to earlier: those are the nostalgia.

Good. Weíre agreed so far.

A Sidebar, about Methods Weíre taking our time about openers. My intention is to address, to begin with, only common topics, in common speech. I intend to allude only to everyday experience, of a sort that everybody can understand and make some contact with. The reasons for this are the same as the reasons that people engage in smalltalk: you need to get some feeling for how I name the common things of human experience. Thatís what smalltalk is for.

By the same token, thereís almost no heavy reasoning going on yet, with real premises and arguments and conclusions. That wonít come - if it comes at all - until much later.

So, for heavenís sake, if I or one of these voices of mine says something weird, donít get hung up on it. It probably is weird. Maybe itís wrong; if so, hopefully Iíll figure that out myself somewhere along the way. Maybe itís a signal that you and I just have slightly different names for things; we can make some adjustments and go on.

Moving Right Along Then...

Well, why is this an important theme then, this ďnostalgiaĒ.

Weíre the only creatures who can experience it. Only we have both the animal foundations and the linguistic superstructure.

What about the chimps that learned ASL?

If it gave them self-consciousness - to whatever extent it gave them that - then, to exactly the same extent, it made them capable of this nostalgia. If an ape is given language sufficient to become self-conscious, to think its own end, then it has language sufficient also to know that it did not always have this language. And thatís the nostalgia.

Youíre bifurcating.

Huh? Where did that come from? What are you talking about.

Just an intuition. Youíre on the point of announcing a big bifurcation in the world, or in our experience, or spirit, whatever. ďThe world with and without language.Ē Right?

Well, uh, I guess. I hadnít thought of it in just those words, but, yeah, I guess I was.

Liar. You know exactly what youíre doing.

No I donít.

Yes you do.

Somewhere along the way Iíll prove that I donít know what Iím doing.

hm...hah...hehe. He-he-he.Ha. HAHAHA. HAW, HAW, HAW, Y-Y-Y-E-E-EEEEHAA!!

to be continued

Copyright © Jim Michmerhuizen 2000