Abraham Lincoln knew how to woo an audience, and it was not just by adding a tall hat to his already impressive stature.
The past week saw the 200th anniversary of both Darwin and Lincoln’s birth. The coincidence of having two of the greatest men of the nineteenth century born within hours of one another seems like an astrologer’s dream. (Although as Cassius pointed out, a few cats were born then as well.) This blog has already noted Darwin’s birth and contribution to our efforts (see: Darwin’s Contribution), but I want to recognize Lincoln as well. Lincoln was the president who approved creation of the National Academy of Sciences which, I am very proud to say, published my book about Einstein. Relevant to this blog, Lincoln’s success with language helps illustrate the peculiarities of the human species, and how we are radically unlike other primates. I’m not so concerned with what the language tells us about Lincoln the speaker, but the insights it offers about us, the audience.
Lincoln’s most famous phrase is probably government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Is it the most beautiful use of prepositions in all rhetoric? Perhaps. On this blog I want to just take note of how special this kind of prepositional logic is. Typically, prepositions specify a relationship between subject and verb. Arithmetical logic governs counting, but + - ×÷ cannot handle prepositional relationships. Boolean logic governs computing, but cannot grasp Lincoln’s prepositions. Two of his famous prepositions express mechanical relations
of: government acts on people;
by: the people act on government
while the third—for: government acts on behalf of the people—introduces a reason behind the actions.
Reasons? Who cares about reasons? Not apes. They live in a world without excuses. Computers don’t care either. But it is critical to human relationships and laws. Right there, in our interest in reasons, we see something unusual about the human lineage.
Attention to reasons simultaneously socializes and radicalizes. It introduces a cause for behavior that is distinct from obedience to an individual who is higher up in the social order while it enables people to work in concert. Instead of choosing between blind obedience and rebellion, members of a group with a shared reason for their actions can contribute to the goal. Thus, every form of human society known includes councils that talk things over, and in the radically egalitarian democracies that govern its members, by those same members, on behalf of those same members, talk is going to be most of the story.
It might seem that reason-giving is inevitable once language appears, but computer languages offer a counter-example. Computers can be made to respond to physical situations, but computers in a network cannot reason amongst themselves like members of a council in which new ideas are proposed and thrashed about. Computer languages are too concrete for such behavior. Reasons are by nature invisible. Any species that is interested in why its members do things need a language that can give concrete expression to personal ambitions or insights. In other words, they need a language that can take secret things and make them public. All human languages seem to be able to do this.
Lincoln could appeal to this concern in a remarkably eloquent and concise way, but Lincoln needed an audience that could respond. That’s where we come in. We are not so eloquent, not so concise, but we can appreciate the concept that government acts for the people, that is government that takes our concerns into account. Bonobos and networks do not care about that. How remarkable that we do.
Reasons, however, have their limit. We push for a reason and get one. Push further and look for the reason that justifies that reason. Ultimately a speaker comes to a point where the question why comes to a matter of pointing. Why do we want a government of, by, and for the people? Lincoln had an argument. He gave it at the start of his address and cited it earlier in his campaigning. The federal government was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Surely the majority of his audience knew that he was quoting the Declaration of Independence and that his talk of “the people” cited the opening of the preamble to the Constitution. Instead of just giving another reason, he put a stop to the search by appealing to authority.
But so what? Why should authority matter? Lincoln took language from earlier sources. Why does that add force to what he says? I don’t think it would carry any import with talking chimpanzees, and it would have no extra weight with computers. But it does influence people. The human lineage, unlike others, have a striking respect for authority. That may seem old-fashioned or just plain outrageous to a society where everybody has seen and nodded their heads at bumper stickers urging, “Question authority.” But for all that rhetoric, people can only accept each other’s reasons when they rest on some accepted authority that says this reason is sufficient.
It would be easy to run off on a tangent at this point, denouncing or praising authority, but that is beside the point. The key issue is that Lincoln appealed to authority in his rhetoric and the audience accepted it. Many of us still do today. By its nature, authority requires language, but it is easy to imagine a language without authority.
Much of this blog's focus on the origins of speech and language concerns technical details. Where did syntax come from? How are semantics possible? It would be nice to know the answer to those questions, but even if we had te answers, the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln reminds us that there is more to the story. Language holds communities together by appealing to the reasons and authorities a community accepts. When people are reduced to speech without those things—that is, when they are forced to communicate only in pidgins—they are subordinate to groups that can talk about reasons and authority. Their children liberate themselves by transforming the language they inherit into a richer one.
Our species is unique in using language, but we are also unique in using language in ways that we could not expect other species to use, even if we could teach those other species to talk. Are our communties peculiar because we have language, or do we have language because our communities are so peculiar?