Monday, May 6, 2013

Linguistic communication epistemologically precedes perception

Do we first see an oak and then come to know its name from an expert friend or is it the case that
Vicky Asp, Oak hillside
only because our expert friend has made us aware of oaks we can recognise them within the undistinct mass of trees? I uphold the (radical, I know) theory that the latter is the case and that our perception is informed by what we know through linguistic communication.

I have recently received an amusing piece of evidence for my theory: an Italian trio has started taking true portions out of well-known English songs (e.g., Bob Marley's Keep on Jamming at 11.40' of this audio file) and read them giving them an Italian meaning. This can be done because some English words, if differently grouped, do in fact (by chance) resemble Italian ones (don't you remember having thought that "Let it be" was a love song dedicated to "Lady B."?). Now, the funny part of the experiment is that, once you have heard the "Italian" song, you are just no longer able to distinguish the English words in it. Your auditory content is the same as before, while you were able to distinguish the English text, but if you focus on the Italian text, you can no longer recognise the English one, as in the rabbit/duck experiment (where you can only perceive the one or the other animal, but not the two together).

Is not it a further evidence of the fact that our so-called perceptions are theory-loaden and that Linguistic Communication is an unavoidable instrument of knowledge?

My Italian blog on Linguistic Communication in Indian and Western philosophy can be read here. For further posts on Linguistic Communication as an instrument of knowledge, see here (where I call it "Testimony").


Unknown said...

Dear Elisa,

I completely agree with you that “an” oak tree is “the” oak tree for a perceiver who encounters it for the first time because of it being described as an oak tree by a friend who has experienced it earlier. Brought out of the boundaries set by the rules of verbal testimony, our perceptions are nothing more than a white canvas, awaiting the strokes of a painter’s brush, as it were. So in a way, the function of linguistic communication is to structuralise and thus set limits to the contents of our experience by superimposing conceptual frameworks of colourful analogies. So when we say, “it’s an oak tree”, we actually mean, “It is something other than a non-tree, determined by the property of not being a non-oak.” But we never know what the thing we call ‘an oak tree’ “actually” is. Thus the transactions of our work-a-day life make sense only in so far as they conform to these conceptual structures. Against this backdrop the classical Sanskrit adage, mānadhīna meyasiddhiḥ becomes immensely relevant. This view is rather rhetorically expressed by Shelley and Tagore in their respective poems:

“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity” (Adonais, Shelley);

“It is due to the colour of my consciousness that emerald became green, ruby red…” (Tagore)

Somewhat parallel to the experiment you cite, I remember having read somewhere the following:

A Sanskrit scholar said in a single breath: “gaurīśaṅkarābhyāṃnamaskaromi”. Immediately it was pointed out by an opponent that the sentence was grammatically incorrect as it must be “gaurīśaṅkarau namaskaromi”. Then the scholar replied what he said was not grammatically incorrect at all as he said: gaurīśaṃ (= the husband of Gaurī) karābhyāṃ namaskaromi ! Thus here also, though for the opponent “the auditory content is the same as before”, yet while he deems the former as incorrect, the latter cannot be known as correct at the same time. The Mahābhārata also abounds with similar examples. Thus it is one’s intention in the form of conceptual structuralisations that matters a lot here.

Phillip said...

[The Mahābhārata also abounds with similar examples.]

I didn't realize this. Can you remember a few?

Phillip said...

[don't you remember having thought that "Let it be" was a love song dedicated to "Lady B."?]

Or that Hendrix sang "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy", or Robert Plant "And there's a wino down the road"? And good lord, the things kids think they're singing when they sing their national anthems. I had to sing ours both in English and in French, a language I managed never to learn despite years of somehow stumbling through French class. I never did figure out what a doll (épopée) was doing in there.

Phillip said...

Not too far off topic, I hope: I always liked a story that Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson told in his introduction to The Peacock's Egg (not, as might well be thought, one of his recent animal books, but an anthology of Sanskrit love poetry done in the seventies with the American poet W.S. Merwin). I forget where it came from. Anyway, the story goes that some sage was wandering in the south when in some village he happened to be present when a big screaming match erupted between two women. It was big enough that the cops hauled the women in front of the local king, along with the sage as a witness. The king asked the sage what the fight had been about, whereupon the sage replied in Sanskrit that he regretted that he did not know the local language, but if the king so wished then he could remember the SOUNDS of the whole argument, and the king could judge for himself.

Unknown said...

@ Aśvamitra:

If I am not incorrect the following verse comes from the Mahābhārata:

keśavaṃ patitaṃ dṛṣṭvā drono harṣamupāgataḥ/
rudanti kauravāḥ sarve hāhā keśava keśava//

Dominik Wujastyk said...

Ernst Gombrich famously argued something similar concerning visual knowledge, in Art and Illusion and elsewhere (see WP for some info.). I think Gombrich's notion of feedback is important here (a notion he adapted from Popper's work on epistemology), i.e., acts of knowledge may be considered gradualistic, cumulative and self-adjusting or self-correcting. It's not that "I see the oak," but rather,
"I see something, what is it, oh, a tree. Um, a big tree. Does it remind me of anything? Perhaps if I got closer. Oh, wait, that's what my mum told me was an oak. Yes, that fits. I see an oak."
Feedback loops. Tricky.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you very much, you all, for raising these interesting issues (I really enjoyed the doll-épopée one).

@Dominik, this seems to even point to the direction of Bhartṛhari's approach to perception (as always soaked with śabda).

displayname said...

I'll just leave a couple of tangentially related links here:

Also, along the lines of the "gauri..." story above, there is one about a pandit whose rivals followed him around hoping to catch him making a grammatical mistake... until one day, when visiting a devi temple with his granddaughter, he said "ambe mAm pAhi". Of course, ambA is a special word whose vocative case is "amba" (unlike sItA -> sIte and all the usual -A ending feminine words). When this was pointed out to him, he said that he had asked the goddess blessings/protection for his granddaughter. ("amba imAm pAhi")
There is one more about *"dadhim Anaya" / "dadhi mA Anaya".

elisa freschi said...

Thank you for the excellent links, Displayname. I had a lot of fun with the last one.

Unknown said...

Your stance is close to what is called "Sapir-Whorf" hypotesis in linguistics. Current consensus as far as I can see tends to accept only a very limited formulation of it.
From what I gather on this topic, psychology and neuroscience tend to view cognition (or better said, thinking) as largely (although obviously not completely)independent from language. I would not dare say, however, that matter is settled, or ever will be.
Indeed, cognition is an incremental thing for individual and there's much ground say that every cognition in humans and other sentient species is necessarily acquired socially (so much for my beloved Medieval Aristotelians and their feral children, alas). Now, what society can be created without language?

elisa freschi said...

Dear Marco, I might be wrong, but I do not think I am endorsing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis here. I am not maintaing that language shapes the way one thinks (as, e.g., maintained by Michel Angot when he explains that Sanskrit authors lacked the idea of possession and of duty because there are no corresponding verbs in Skt —I have refuted this position here: Rather, I am saying that Linguistic Communication shapes the way we look at the world. Again, Linguistic Communication depends on language, but on language as an epistemic tool and not on its linguistic peculiarities (such as whether the "duty" is expressed by a specific verb or by a verbal suffix).
Thanks also for your last remark, which is very insightful.

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