I see that Marc Hauser and a number of his colleagues have published an essay in the current (Feb. 2007) issue of Mind and Language (abstract here) repeating the idea he promoted in his book Moral Minds (reviewed here) that we have innate moral principles which we cannot explain coherently in words. It is the kind of conclusion that is almost inevitable if you think that the essence of language is found in writing, but not at all persuasive if you think of language as speech.
Writing is as different from speaking as shadow boxing is from prize fighting, but nobody bases their theories of boxing on lone athletes dodging and weaving against their own actions.
What if sports writers did base their theories that way? Instead of appearing brutal, boxing would be deemed graceful, and anybody looking for its origins would focus on aesthetics rather than more primal emotions. Something like that seems to have happened to the study of language. We think about its origins by thinking about writing rather than speech and we look at the artistry of the expression rather than the physicality of the interaction.
In particular, because we focus on writing, we think about language as formal and intellectual, the communication of ideas. A comment was posted a few days ago on this blog suggesting that “having something to say … derives from possessing … abstract ideas.” This is, you might say, the literary perspective, and if it is true, the origins of speech would have nothing to do with any of the explanations that have been explored on this blog. Indeed, we would return to the blank mystery that the subject has faced for a great many centuries. Where did all these abstractions come from?
In more theistic times, people generally said they came from God. That answer is not so scientific and these days we say they came from evolution. In both cases there is an assumption that the abstractions are written in our brain, just as words can be written on paper. But we can shred the metaphor of ideas being written down if we imagine a long history of speech in which words served as pointers rather than representations.
Look, warns Alley Oop while nodding off to his left¸ there goes a hyena.
No need to assume there is a representation of a hyena in Mr. Oop’s head. Perception does the trick. The hyena is out there on the savanna and Oop has the ability to recognize it and speak an associated name. He does not need a database of hyena concepts. He is not philosophizing, but drawing somebody’s attention to something.
Putting words into writing has the curious effect of making an abstraction seem concrete. Written language sets words out there where they themselves can become the focus of attention. Written language forces a kind of word-consciousness that is probably very minor in illiterate communities. Rhymes and puns are surely older than writing, but it was only when words became written objects that they could make the leap from pointing to representing. And with that leap they carried all the peculiar baggage that has kept philosophers in business for centuries. In particular it became apparent that speakers have only a pragmatic notion of things. They know something when they see it.
What, asks Socrates/Plato, is justice? It was the kind of question that seems very unlikely to come up in an oral world, but it is natural when you see the word justice written on a piece of paper. Justice doesn’t seem to be like a hyena. I can warn my friend of the hyena’s approach, but there is nothing in the here-and-now to point to and say, there, that’s justice. You could answer that therefore there is no such thing as justice, and yet certainly long before Socrates children who were bullied, cheated, or otherwise abuse cried out the local equivalent of No fair. So what were they talking about?
Twenty four centuries later Marc Hauser is asking the same question, and like Socrates he assumes justice must be something found somewhere. Plato imagined a world of ideal forms, something more real and enduring than the transitory shadows of everyday life. Hauser is less poetic, imagining that justice is a principle implanted in our brain, but he is just as sure of his invisible reality. He has performed experiments of a sort, and although there is something to question about experiments involving volunteers on the Internet, we can let that pass while objecting to the deeper, language-as-writing bias that imprisons Hauser's theory.
There is a famous perception experiment. Put your left hand in a bucket of hot water and your right in a bucket of ice water. Now put both hands in a bucket of tepid water. The left hand reports the water is cold while the right hand reports that it is hot. Nobody tries to explain the contradiction by pointing to unconscious principles in our minds. We understand the paradox as a function of perception.
On this blog, speech is presented as a way of sharing or manipulating attention, and attention is a function of perception. We know examples of injustice when we see them, just as we know the taste of sweetness. Yet still we stumble when we try to explain just what sweetness—or justice—is.
Where did those abstractions come from? No, our question is how did our capacity for joint attention become so powerful.