[Marxism-Thaxis] Babel's dawn

2009-03-30 Thread Charles Brown

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[Marxism-Thaxis] Babel's dawn note

2009-03-16 Thread Charles Brown

The Group and the Individual are mutually dependent. Is there a way to 
talk about the whole as a unit, or must we choose between them whenever 
we talk about social change?
This blog’s long-time emphasis on the role of cooperation and community
 in human evolution got some extra attention this week. My alma mater,
Washington University in St. Louis,  sponsored a conference on
 “Man the Hunted” which presented evidence that human evolution 
owes much more to the lineage’s role as prey than as predator. I thought 
about covering the event, but did not because its focus was too far from 
speech. However, I have also read a provocative essay in the latest issue 
of Group Analysis by a psychotherapist, Claire S. Bacha, on “Becoming
 Conscious of the Human Group” (abstract here). The paper is much too 
speculative to be received as the solution to any puzzles, but it is still
 important. I don’t believe I have ever read a more radical understanding
 of the nature of the “Human Group.”
The paper’s most radical assertion comes from S.H. Foulkes, founder 
of group psychoanalytic therapy:
individual grow from groups; groups do not grow out of individuals. [65] 

Having just lived through thirty years of Republicanism and its 
counter-assertion that the individual creates society, I sat up. 
Bacha immediately interprets the statement in terms of interest to 
group therapists, but the remark is provocative enough to offer food for
 thought on this blog’s subject as well. After all, language too emerges
 from a group and the great mystery of language origins is that our 
ancestral group never spoke, but now all people do. How do you get from a 
silent group  to a speaking one?
The conservative temptation is to think of the transition from 
non-linguistic to linguistic groups entirely in terms of individuals.
 There was a mutation that led to mutant individuals who were selected 
and became a mutant group. Even with the introduction of multi-level 
selection (see: A Vote for Group Selection) the reason for the selection
 tends to be the benefit the individual brings to the group rather than 
what the group brings to the individual; e.g., the law-abiding individual 
benefits the group and therefore group survival favors law-abiding individuals.
But after all those years of Republican catastrophe, the radical reversal 
doesn’t seem so ridiculous: the law-giving group makes the law-abiding 
individual possible. When groups don’t form laws, it is impossible for group 
members to follow them or benefit from them. Similarly it is the
 language-speaking group that makes the individual poet or story-teller 
Both the conservative and the radical propositions seem to make sense.
 Bacha sums up  this relationship between group and individual nicely. 
She reports that according to Foulkes individuals and groups 

exist in a Gestalt where they are both always present but 
difficult to see at the same time. Sometimes the group is in 
the foreground and sometimes the individual [65] 

The speaker and the language, for example, are always together, but 
we can only pay attention to on one or the other at a time. Since language
 echoes perception (see: What I’ve Learned About Language) it is very 
hard to understand the two as a unit. It is like like the yin and the yang. 
We can visualize their mutual dependence and yet we look at one part 
or the other. Yet both are there. Thus, we may always have intellectual 
reversals in which we go from attending to the evolution of the speaker to 
focusing on the evolution of the speaking group without ever grasping the 
whole, the nut and its shell together.
Bacha approvingly quotes Ralph Stacey who says in his book 
Complexity and Group Process: A Radically Social Understanding of Individuals 
who  refers to 

… the paradox of individual minds forming and being formed 
by the social at the same time. [Stacey p. 327] 

Bacha refers several times to this paradox as “irresolvable,” which is alright
 for her because she is a clinician and can work with a paradox, even an 
irresolvable one, but is alarming for this blog whose ultimate hope is to 
understand how we came to be speakers. If the explanation rests on an 
irresolvable paradox, that ambition is foredoomed. The best we can hope 
for is the mess physics has gotten into, where we have a series of extremely 
accurate equations that people can use, but not understand. 
Fortunately, I don’t have to despair because the paradox may not be 
First, a sentence like, “At church the individual and the group sing hymns,” 
draws attention to the whole gestalt and its effect. It sounds a little funny 
and we may have to work out the meaning, but that may be because 
simultaneous attention to individual and group is novel. With practice we 
might work it out and find it easy to think this way.
Second, contrary to Chomsky’s suggestion, the ultimate form of language
 is not the sentence. 

[Marxism-Thaxis] Babel's dawn

2009-03-16 Thread Charles Brown


A Tale Without Episodes

Radio transmitters provide a misleading metaphor for speech.
 They encourage the notion of a signal that must be encoded 
and then decoded rather than an active tool whose meaning 
comes from where it directs one's attention.
The pieces have fallen together in a position I did not anticipate 
when I began this blog. None the less, last week’s post has left
 me feeling that I now understand the basic outline of the story 
of speech origins. “Basic outline” means I don’t have dates, but 
I do know the outline of what evolved and even how it happened. 
What Evolved
When I began this blog, I thought of language as a means of
 expressing ideas and emotions, but I now see that definition 
as too abstract to help think clearly about how speech works 
or how it evolved. Talk about ideas and emotions encourages
 mystical thinking in which words somehow contain a “meaning”
 that carry an idea from speaker to listener. The technical analogy
 is a radio that transmits a signal to specific receivers. The evolution
 of a linguistic species requires the appearance of individuals able to
 pack meaning into words, transmit them as sentences, and then 
retrieve the meaning from the received signal. A great deal of
 philosophical and critical confusion has come from taking
 these abstractions literally.
Put more mundanely, but concretely, speech is a tool for 
directing attention. Instead of transmitting meanings it directs 
the joint attention of speaker and listener. In this view, understanding
 speech requires a perceiving, aware listener capable of joining 
in on the attention of another. The story of the evolution of 
language is not a tale of increasingly complex capacity to 
transmit and deconstruct meanings; it tells instead of an 
increasingly rich ability to share perceptions and to know 
what is on each other’s minds.
Last week’s post focused on episodic thinking (see Episodes 
on the Highway of Life) and suggested complex syntax might 
have evolved to describe episodes. The description of an 
episode can require more than one sentence. So you see 
the use of full paragraphs in speech. It is a very late development
 in the story of speech origins.

How it Evolved
Episodic thinking can lead to mistakes, For one thing, 
it makes us expect a story to occur in episodes instead of
 along a continuum. The story of speech evolution is a handy 
example. Episodic thinking encourages people to expect a 
series of episodes, or milestones, that went something like:
 first came words, then phrases, then simple sentences, and then
 rich sentences. Trust Noam Chomsky to show the logical limitations 
of that approach without finding the solution. Words alone, phrases
 alone, get you no closer to syntactically rich sentences, so why 
suppose there were such stages? But instead of getting rid of episodes
 this argument just reduces the number of milestones to one: thinking
 in syntactically rich (recursive) sentences.
Episodic thinking encourages before-and-after thinking. Before 
the episode things were one way and after they were another way. 
Thus we expect genes to introduce novelties so that we can say 
before the episode of the mutant gene our lineage talked this way; 
after the episode it talked this other way. We also expect a series 
of milestone to produce a series of distinct differences. Thus, it is 
not enough for speech itself to be unique to humans. It must have
 resulted from a series of distinct milestones, each of which introduced
 a novelty, such as recursive syntax, into the picture.
I am very much an episodic thinker myself, but the evidence does 
not support a story of evolution via milestones. For example, the one
 gene found so far that seems assuredly part of our tale, FOXP2, is not
 at all like one would expect as milestone.FOXP2 is indirect, it controls
 other genes, and its effects are not limited to speech. Speech does 
break down in cases without a normal FOXP2 gene, although cognitively
 there seems to be little damage. In FOXP2 mutants, the ability to
 coordinate muscular movements for proper speech seems deficient 
and there are problems in comprehension as well. Finding the gene
 has tangled the story instead of bringing the clarity you should expect
 from finding a milestone.
Also contrary to expectations is the issue of differences. It is clear that 
we talk and apes do not, but that very great difference seems to rest on 
a series of small similarities. Apes in some small degree have many 
of the traits that humans find useful for speech, and yet they don’t speak at 
It is difficult to account for this tangle of similarity and difference by 
referring to
 episodes that introduce unprecedented novelties. The chief solution has been
 to attempt to keep the episodes to a minimum.
Instead, I believe the story is very different. It is one of co-evolutions, the 
increasing dependence of traits on one another so that something