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Monday, August 29, 2005

Wittgenstein in Hawaii: A Non-Philosopher’s Naive Questions About the Philosophical Investigations

Posted by Matt Greenfield on 08/29/05 at 12:11 AM

Let me begin far away from Wittgenstein - half a planet away - with the work of Derek Bickerton, a linguist who teaches at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.  My parable (or, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, my representative anecdote) begins with a scene on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.  One day in 1897 a father of Portugese extraction discovered that his small son had somehow acquired a nickel, a large sum of money.  Asked to explain where the coin had come from, the child responded with the Hawaian Creole English sentence, “One kanaka make me one bad thing inside of house.” After questioning, the child revealed that a man had sexually molested him and given him the money as a bribe to keep silent.  No one at the time found remarkable the child’s use of the indefinite article “one,” but many years later linguists noticed that this was the first recorded use of the new article.  No previous recorded Hawaiian Creole utterance contains any indefinite article whatsoever, and for some time afterward the only recorded users of indefinite articles are small children. 

In 1897 Hawaii’s English-based creole was still a young language.  In the late nineteenth century, when the islands began a transition from tobacco farming to the more labor-intensive cultivation of sugar, the owners of the Hawaiian sugar plantations imported workers to labor in their cane fields.  The workers came, under varying degrees of compulsion, from China, Japan, Korea (after 1901), Portugal, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and, in smaller numbers, from Germany, Norway, and the United States.  The labor force also included many of the native Hawaiians who had survived the diseases imported by Europeans.  The plantation owners tried to avoid too great a reliance on workers from any one nationality: they believed that a multi-ethnic work force would be less likely to bargain collectively.  To communicate with each other in the fields, the managers and workers developed a pidgin, a “structureless macaronic jargon” based primarily on English but with borrowings from various languages. 

Bickerton hypothesizes a scenario in which a group of children are tended by an adult caretaker who speaks to them only in pidgin.  The children used the native languages of their parents at home, but to communicate with each other they made the pidgin richer and more complex.  Whether or not Bickerton’s hypothesis is correct, it does seem clear that the children who grew up in the 1890s invented an English-based Hawaiian creole language.  One Korean-born woman said that her children spoke Hawaiian English more fluently than they spoke Korean.  Linguists have described similar language-making scenarios involving deaf children raised by hearing parents.  The parents initially address the child in a clumsy subset of a sign language, the visual equivalent of Hawaiian pidgin.  The child then elaborates this sign-pidgin, developing new words and new grammatical forms.  Adults contribute to the ongoing renovation of languages, but not in the explosive bursts of linguistic energy one finds in children.  Children can make a language out of very unpromising materials.  They do not have to be taught to do this; they do it on the basis of whatever cues they have been given about what a fully functional language is.  They collaborate, arriving at group decisions about how to conjugate a verb or inflect a noun or refer to a relationship.  They develop both a community and a language. 

This process of creolization seems to emphasize verbs.  Creoles generally begin without relative-clause markers, Bickerton says, and often take centuries to develop them.  The children focus on developing the tools they need to describe action: what they can and cannot do, what is done to them, and when it happens.  They understand themselves as agents, as possessing a capacity to choose, to make, to imagine.  And they do this in what must be among the most powerless subaltern positions possible.  It may even be their powerlessness or their deprivations that generate the stupendous energies of the early stages of creolization.  And whatever violence may be inflicted on them, as long as they remain alive they will continue to make meanings.  They will possess a realm of shared meanings which their oppressors can never fully penetrate.  The plantation owners can tinker with their social institutions but cannot control the way that they invest those institutions with significance.  Similarly, knowledge of the means of production and the political system of the islands is necessary but not sufficient to take a scholar into the mental world of these creole speakers.

When Bickerton and his colleagues in linguistics examine the invention of creoles, many of them focus on what these episodes have to tell us about the way that human children are pre-programmed to learn a language.  Which features of language, they ask, are hard-wired into our brains, and which are cultural, optional, contingent?  Are people born with the template for case markers?  Verb tenses?  Relative pronouns?  Prepositions?  Classes of objects?  Intersubjectivity?  What sort of “deep structure,” to use Chomsky’s phrase, do all human languages share?  Linguists disagree about the nature and extent of our biological equipment for learning to speak.  Strong nativists argue that we are born knowing a meta-grammar, while weak nativists argue that our bioprogramming is fuzzier and less specific: human languages are too diverse for all of them to be based on a single grammatical pattern.  Linguists, anthropologists and historians also argue about the extent to which African and Asian folk-ways survived in the new world.  All of these questions have enormous political and intellectual significance.  For me, though, the mere facts of creolization, the facts on which everyone seems to agree, constituted a dazzling revelation.

I first encountered the story of the invention of the Hawaiian creole in Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct.  Pinker, a vehement strong nativist, is not an entirely trustworthy guide to recent work in linguistics, but The Language Instinct is lucid and readable.  Pinker’s discussion of creolization is only a few pages long, but when I had finished it I realized that I would need to reconfigure much of the intellectual equipment I had acquired over the years.  Creolization presented a challenge to many of many of the theories on which I relied: theories about language and power and human action. 

Consider, for example, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, much of which concerns the question of how we learn to speak.  Wittgenstein describes a series of “language games,” beginning with hypothetical primitive languages and moving to more complex matters like the way we talk about pain.  Each of Wittgenstein’s meditations ends in frustration and awe: over and over, he demonstrates philosophy’s inability to explain how we learn to speak.  Wittgenstein’s “ordinary language philosophy” seems to be missing a crucial ingredient.

That missing ingredient may well be what Bickerton calls the “bioprogram” for language (Bickerton, like Pinker and Chomsky, is a strong nativist).  How do we learn to acknowledge the existence of minds other than our own?  Perhaps we are pre-programmed for intersubjectivity.  How do we master the referential properties of language?  Perhaps we are born possessing a general schema for classes of objects.  This dismissal of Wittgenstein’s sublime agonies may seem rather uncharitable, but it is exactly the procedure Wittgenstein himself advocated.  One solves a philosophical problem, he suggested, by letting the fly out of the bottle: i.e., demonstrating the mistake implicit in the question.  Why was Wittgenstein not more interested in empirical work on language acquisition?  He might have spent more time watching babies.  And he could profitably have addressed the work of Piaget, among others.  What is the proper relationship between the philosophy of language and observation-based disciplines like linguistics and psychology?  Certainly philosophers cannot simply ignore the findings of the natural and social sciences.  I continue to love Wittgenstein’s work, but I love it as some of the great prose of the twentieth century; about its ongoing relevance as philosophy, of which I cannot speak, I must remain silent. 


"Born knowing” is not accurate. “Born with the tendency to develop, given appropriate stimuli” is closer to what you describe as the “strong nativist” position.

By Jonathan on 08/29/05 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"What is the proper relationship between the philosophy of language and observaton-based disciplines like linguistics and psychology?”

Lingistics and psychology take priority.  Why bother with a priori theorizing when you can have a V-8?

By Lynn on 08/29/05 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually Wittgenstein emphasizes that ostention will work as sort of a bare-bone semantics: I think this emphasis on ostention can be seen in both Tractatus and PI as well as the Blue Book. Creoles and pidgins as well as artificial languages--say programming codes such as java or C--might be entirely ostensive. I think Wittgenstein and the analytical language people were more concerned with the semantics and the referentiality, and yes logical form than with the mere syntactic taxonomy (which is, yes, still important).

Moreover I think you are overlooking the problems with the “triggering” process which Chomsky alludes too (which he does not really prove or provide evidence for), and you might recall though Chomsky is often credited with overthrowing all other language acquisition theories there remains quite a bit of evidence for some associationist and behaviorist models of language.  And the deep structure seems to be an intermediary and possibly idealist construct (though the later “Barriers” school sort of diminishes it, doesn’t it): where is the deep structure? Perhaps it is physiological (though Chomsky seems reluctant to claim that) but it is speculative.

Additionally there is an empirical claim here that Wittgenstein and other philosophers were aware of which the linguists seem to ignore--the language is already existing: the pidgins are not created anew but based on other languages (as spanish is based on Latin and arabic, other influences). So it has not been proven, as far as I know, that if children were not exposed to any existing human language that they would invent a code with subject-predicate noun phrase/verb phrase structure of present languages; moreover the entire Chomskyan Uni. grammar model may not be correct in regards to many languages: does latinate noun and verb structure describe say how ancient Chinese pictographs functioned, or native languages which use one long word to describe various complex cultural processes, which may have nominal-verbal- modifiers (or you could call them that) which can not be really separated?  Not to raise that old undergrad chestnut the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but there are many problems with translation and interpretation that the UG school seem to brush aside.

Chomsky may have raised some important issues in regards to the syntax but philosophy of language is not simply “pragmatics” or syntax or about acquisition: the semantics, logic and indeed epistemological issues certainly are as important.

By snake on 08/29/05 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

and were one to put aside the de rigeur sentimental, quasi-marxist anthropology and read not just some excerpts of the PI or the Blue book, but say Quine’s criticisms of the Chomskyan school (and his remarks on reference and lexicography), one might come to realize that “Universal Grammar” contains a lots of bogus, feel-good pedagogy without much data to support it. Even Lakoff, another of the marxist linguistic cadre (now at the People’s Republic of UC Berkeley), has challenged much of Chomsky’s work.

I defy anyone who is teaching K-12 or remedial students to use wholly descriptive and Chomskyan models: at some point, either in writing or algebra classes you are going to refer to standards and rules which have to be learned (ie, via conditioning and reinforcement as arch-fiend Skinner used to argue).

By jake on 08/29/05 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Why was Wittgenstein not more interested in empirical work on language acquisition?”

Because he wasn’t an empirical scientist.  He does discuss language acquisition in PI, but in only in order to examine the philosophical assumptions behind a particular account of it (Augustine’s).  As a philosopher his main interest is the nature of logic and its role (its formal role, not its psychological role) in thought, and what that tells us about the relation between different philosophical inquiries (ontology, semantics, ethics, philosophy itself, etc.).  He might very well have approached the topic another way (and indeed most of the Investigations is not about language acquisition, but about language use, or other things like perception and memory).  This is not to say that empirical discoveries cannot be relevant to philosophical questions – far from it.  It’s just that they’re different questions.

On the other hand, as for “watching babies”: for a while Wittgenstein was an elementary school teacher, and he took some pride in the dictionary he compiled for his students.  But even there he’s more concerned with language use than with its acquisition, as the kids already know how to talk.  Or maybe the two aren’t so easily distinguished.

By Dave Maier on 08/29/05 at 04:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just wanted to say that I found this post extremely interesting, but that, in reading it, I hoped for more and richer responses in the comments. I take Dave Maier’s point that Wittgenstein isn’t offering theories of language acquisition, but I don’t see that it follows that what Wittgenstein does offer can’t be in conflict with what “empirical scientists” are doing, if perhaps more generally construed--or, rather, vice versa, since that’s the thrust of the post--in as much as certain research programs are underwritten by certain metaphysical views (I think that the linguistics and cognitive science that grew out of Chomsky is a pretty good candidate here). Not to conflate Wittgenstein and Kripke, but is it really really true that there’s no tension between W’s discussions of private-language, rule-following, etc., and cognitivist modeling of linguistic competence? Really?

By on 08/30/05 at 03:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In the Investigations Wittgenstein attempts to understand the hold (what I call) the Cartesian conception of mind and language has on us, and ultimately to free us (and himself) from its grip.  Empirical facts, whether or not in the form of scientific theories, of the biological basis of language acquisition or anything else, may suggest some avenues of philosophical investigation – and of course Wittgenstein’s examples refer to plenty of empirical facts, although usually ordinary rather than scientific ones – but they cannot do our philosophical work for us.  Compare for example the questions “how do we master the referential properties of language?” and “What are the referential properties of language?” (or “Are we preprogrammed for intersubjectivity?” and “What is intersubjectivity?").  An empirical answer to the former question may suggest a way of locating the relevant concept in, shall we say, philosophical space (w/r/t truth, objectivity, belief, agency, etc.), but that’s all.  It will still be an open question whether that which is explained by the empirical theory, even when (apparently) successful, really is what it is purported to be, philosophically speaking.  A fully established scientific theory can put the same kind of constraints on philosophical elucidation that any common sense fact does; but I already said that.

Similarly, spacetoast is of course correct that when Wittgenstein undermines certain metaphysical views, this does indeed cause tension with empirical research programs underwritten by them, and (e.g.) the residual Cartesianism still rampant in cognitive science (although the tide may be turning) would certainly qualify here.  (Sorry if I seemed to suggest otherwise.) That’s one reason that non-philosophers may be interested in Wittgenstein’s reflections.  But philosophy can’t refute empirical theories; only (interpreted) empirical data can do that, perhaps in conjunction with a better empirical theory.  If we abandon Cartesian conceptions for better ones, then research programs committed to the former may be forced to adapt or die out, but if they do it may be because we see them as not really telling us what we wanted to know (of course they might still tell us something; but that’s for scientists to decide).

In general it seems not so much uncharitable as pointless to see PI as a failed attempt to provide an empirical theory of language acquisition ("great prose” or no) rather than a (successful?) attempt to help philosophy out of its self-imposed difficulties.  Wittgenstein’s relation to Augustine is not purely, or even primarily, negative; in fact, the confessional aspect of PI is one of its most striking and even disturbing qualities, as if it’s airing philosophical dirty laundry in public.  I sometimes feel like asking people to have the decency to look away until we get our pants back on.

By Dave Maier on 09/01/05 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you all for your wonderful, genuinely interdisciplinary comments.

I still have the impression that Wittgenstein is very concerned with how languages are acquired as well as with what languages are or how they work.  For example, doesn’t the discussion of pain and private languages keep coming back to how we learn to play certain language games in response to certain interior sensations or events?

With regard to Dave Maier’s comment about Wittgenstein’s teaching experience, I have a 19-month-old son, and my experience suggests that the initial language learning that babies do involves bigger, more mysterious leaps than anything that happens later.

By on 09/03/05 at 11:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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