2. Shouting Into the Void?

A definition from grade school that I learned and which has stuck with me was something like “a sentence is a group of words that express a complete thought.” This definition is a) perfectly serviceable for most grade schoolers, b) not so great if you want to capture how contemporary linguists and philosophers of language understand what makes something a sentence, and—most interesting to me—c) actually surprisingly workable if you adopt two specific early modern attitudes about mind and language. The first, which I won’t really discuss at length right now, is Rene Descartes‘s trick of using “thought” very broadly to refer to any type of mental activity. The second, which will be our focus, is John Locke‘s approach to thinking about the relationship between mind and language.

One of the works from which this blog takes its name is John Locke’s long, at times frustrating, but nevertheless interesting tome An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It contains some very exciting and prescient thought experiments like “what if you were locked in a room with a person you liked?” as well as some over discussed ones like “what if what looks green to me looks yellow to you and vice versa?” and some extremely underexplored thought experiments like “what if light is the result of fairies playing tennis against your eyes?” (The main upshot of that last one is to learn that tennis is a much older sport than I’d realized).

The third book of his Essay concerns our use of words, and (more or less) set the stage for how British philosophers (and European philosophers more broadly) wound up treating the workings of language for the 17th and much of the 18th centuries.

John Locke’s big idea was that people are able to use “Sounds, as Signs of internal Conceptions; and to make them stand as marks for the Ideas within [their] own Mind[s], whereby they might be made known to others, and the Thoughts of Men’s Minds be conveyed from one to another.” (ECHU 3.1.2) Or, in other words, that when you speak, the words you say are displaying or advertising your ideas to others, because, in general, what’s going on in your mind is hidden from the rest of the world, so without words, there is no way to share it. It is sort of an incidental feature of this set up that we generate a way to talk about the world; a byproduct of the fact that many of the thoughts you wind up sharing with others are thoughts about the world. If we only ever verbalized our expressions of pain or emotional reactions, then, presumably, our languages wouldn’t contain a lot of descriptive, truth-oriented, world-focused content. I’ve written a bit about this elsewhere.

Central to this, though, and this is a big thing not only for Locke, but for many other early modern figures (though they have big disputes on how to make sense of the basic idea, as it often the case), is that we are fundamentally social beings. The reason we need this whole language apparatus for sharing our otherwise hidden thoughts with one another is that we were created “with an inclination, and under a necessity to have fellowship with those of his own kind” (ECHU 3.1.1). Language was thus given to us as “the great Instrument, and common Tye of Society” (ECHU 3.1.1).

Locke is buying into the Tower of Babel idea that, with a common language, we can form genuine social connections, and without a common language, not so much (hence, God, in the parable, punishing us with a “confusion of tongues” for our hubris).

Of course, there’s some comedy to the idea that the “tye” of society is a common language, if you watch how we interact with each other on, say, twitter or any social media (or if you prefer, thinking back to family gatherings at which politics are discussed). It would require a sort of supreme optimism to think that all that conflict is due to our failure to speak precisely the same language as each other.

“when there are disputes among persons, we can simply say: Let us calculate, without further ado, and see who is right” (The Art of Discovery, 1685) — GWF Leibniz

At any rate, a simple way to phrase Locke’s big idea, and one that makes it sound both obvious and hard to deny, is that language is principally about communication (you may think this would be hard to deny, and I think if you phrase it this way, very few people would disagree, but people can still lose sight of this fact when working out their theories about language).

I spend a lot of time thinking about this thesis of Locke’s (I say “of Locke’s” but, obviously, he’s not the first to have this idea: a common feature of virtually every idea we encounter in the modern period), and more so, not surprisingly, over the last several months, during which there’s been drastic alterations to the ways I socially relate to every single person in my life, and corresponding shifts to how I have been communicating with them. From big things like not getting to go visit my new niece in person, because travel between where she lives and where I live stopped happening, to smaller things like changes in the frequency with which I video chat or phone call relatives (or how often I am invited to participate in video chat based birthday parties for family members).

I’m not an expert on mental health, but, it was not surprising to me (or, really, to anyone) when mental health experts started telling/warning us all about the strains that social isolation would start to take on us after even a short period of lock-down. Even most people who are accustomed to fairly introverted lifestyles are still used to periodically meeting up with a friend, or going out to the store/for a bite to eat real quick (or perhaps just having the option to do so).

On balance, these considerations are prima facie bad for Locke’s Big Picture. Locke says that we can still be fundamentally socially connected with each other, because we can still express our thoughts to each other (we even have video chat!) so, the basic ‘tye’ and instrument of social connection is in tact. Now, this is unfair to Locke because he didn’t say “the great instrument and social tye, and also there’s nothing else important to the well functioning of society” but, I think the difficulties we’ve all felt communicating with each other over the past several months, the fact that we get zoom fatigued, and so on, do mean that (as with basically any part of Locke’s picture), we’d need to update it and add nuance in light of our better understanding of the mechanisms involved. Just hearing the articulate sounds or seeing the words and recognizing that they stand for ideas in the mind of another person is not sufficient for the purpose Locke identified (or else, the lockdowns would not feel so isolating or lonely for us, I don’t think).

Today—apart from working on this blog post—I have work to do planning and prepping my classes. I really enjoy teaching, and the different classes I teach typically have very different feels to them. My intro to philosophy course is a large lecture-based class. I stand in the front of a 120 or more person room, and I get to try and spread my enthusiasm for philosophy to undergraduates, many of whom are taking the course to fulfill a requirement. My early modern philosophy course used to be small enough for a straight-forward discussion-based approach, but it is routinely over 40 students now, so it’s a bit too big for that (while still feeling too small for powerpoint slides and straight lecture, so I run it as more of a mixture). Both of these classes are going to be drastically different experiences this term. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how to design them so that they are still engaging to students, and still get the course content covered that I want to get covered.

Normally, in the classroom, when I talk to the students, I say things, I see their faces, and, at least on a good day, it feels like a meeting of the minds. Now, I could be wrong. Maybe that’s just optimism on my part. But it feels like I’m expressing what I’m thinking and it feels like they are picking up on what I’m putting down, and their homework, quizzes and test scores are good enough (give or take the folks who don’t show up, etc.) that it seems to be something that does happen at least some of the time. And that part is going to be missing this term.

I didn’t intend this post to be about teaching in particular—I actually thought I was going to wind up having a lot to say about the Lockean thesis and people engaging in intractable social media conflicts—but I am, usually, around this point of the summer, starting to look forward to stepping in front of a room full of students where I will be able to see whether I’ve managed to get them excited about philosophy.

But this isn’t just about my job not being as much fun; this is about Locke’s claim about our fundamentally social nature, and the role of language in permitting us to exercise our social selves. Clearly language isn’t sufficient (or, rather, language via zoom isn’t sufficient, or, rather, at the very, very, least just the use of language via zoom, without us adapting to the new zoom paradigm isn’t sufficient), but it is, super plausibly, necessary. Imagining these last months without the lifeline that is phone/social media/video chat, is a nightmare, no matter how much zoom fatigue I acquired. Imagining the fall without remote teaching would also be a nightmare, no matter how much I dread completing my course redesigns.

And since I can’t figure out where this rumination falls on the optimism to pessimism scale, I’ll just end with the quoting the poem that it keeps reminding me of, Donne’s “No Man is an Island”

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

No Man is an Island, John Donne

3 thoughts on “2. Shouting Into the Void?

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