Thursday 15 March 2018

On Humour (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 1 Spring 2018

René Magritte, La Clef des Songes, 1935

So the Essence of Humour is Self-Deception?
Who Are You Kidding?

By Christopher Gontar

Every theory of humour must in some way acknowledge what actually appears in humour, but one sense of such theory should also be concerned with something only inferred. That deduced thing we may call humour’s essence, and though never perceived, it affects us once we see its associated signs. In this essay, I will seek to show that the theory accounting for this object is the theory of what humour is. But as to any theory whose content is all appearance (we will call this ‘appearance-focused’), it is a set of various ideas that are perceived in humour or used in its creation. That practical aspect could be called ‘theory’, but it cannot be a theory of humour’s essence because it omits this very aspect. Instead, it consists of appearances, disregarding their meaning and implication. Such a theory is not informatively descriptive, but is at best prescriptive. Of course, a prescriptive theory of humour describes this or that, but what makes it prescriptive is that humour creation is its sole possible function.

The so-called incongruity theory presents only appearances and only in one broad area of humour are these useful for composition. Consequently, though the incongruity theory has always been universal in intention it is not a theory of the essence, regardless how well it unites all classes. The first, however, and now forgotten version of a theory with the name incongruity was much more uniform than the one known today. The earlier model, of James Beattie, in On Laughter and Ludicrous Composition (1778), treated every kind of humour not as incongruity between one term and another, but as this contrast: that things fit within a scheme while also not fitting. Presently, this context-based approach—which describes a part of humour’s appearance but misses the point of all of it—is mistakenly considered a full explanation of linguistic humour and called appropriate incongruity (for example, see, Elliott Oring’s 1992 book, Jokes and Their Relations). Yet exactly the same theory was applied by Beattie to both linguistic and non-linguistic humour so that, formally, his view looked more universal than incongruity theory as usually known.

Another contemporary author, Tomáš Kulka, proposes a universal theory of incongruity resolution (2007), but apart from Beattie himself there is no known universal ‘appropriate incongruity’ theory. ‘Incongruity resolution’ can obviously be seen as a variant of appropriate incongruity and yet both of these distort the experience of humour by confining it to the cognition of what appears. The problem with this kind of position, moreover, is not that it is about the stimulus and neglects the response—for the response can be known only after one has described what is most important about the stimulus. But to theorise about what appears in humour is not to describe either the full stimulus or response, so that these theories become strictly prescriptive in use. Now, with these appearance-focused methods can be classed ambivalence theories, such as those of Hugh Lafollette or Niall Shanks, of Thomas Veatch, and Peter McGraw—the last known as benign violation. Indeed, an ambivalence theory is hardly more than a response-side extension to the old theory of fitting and not fitting. Though it has prescriptive value, benign violation fails as a descriptive theory because it is very often a theory about the offense of humor rather than humor itself. There is, however, one sense in which benign violation itself is humorous, namely that in any mean or mixture of violence with non-violence, self-deception, the essence of humour, is always evoked. Self-deception is there implied by the pretension to violence, or because acts which cause revulsion and embarrassment always tend to signify immodesty, a sense of self-deception. The linguistic transgression in puns and the like cannot be constitutive of the humour, since many kinds of linguistic error are not humorous. Schopenhauer’s remarks in The World as Will and Representation, finally, conform with the theory of James Beattie, but are applied to linguistic examples, rather than universally.

The term incongruity is particularly useful only as a name for juxtaposed things that may be called ludicrous, and of no use at all, either creative or explanatory, in linguistic humour itself.

Though his was a theory of laughter, Beattie distinguished this as the laughter of humour, and he, not Kant or others, to this day remains the prime exemplar of an incongruity theory of humour. Non-linguistic incongruity is now commonly placed under the former, simpler of those two senses, incongruity between terms rather than the fact that two terms relate differently to a context or frame. The former is at least a much better way to characterise the appearance of non-linguistic humour, and will here be assumed. My first effort will be to examine the incongruity theory where it actually applies, then explain why it has no other notable application and is not universal. It has no value at all. It is not a significant theory of anything, but an egregious misconception that has hindered theory and criticism for centuries and ought to cease to be studied immediately. No current authoritative text credits the alternative so-called relief, or release theory, or the superiority theory, as describing humour in itself, as they are based upon extraneous aspects.

The term incongruity is useful only as a name for juxtaposed things that may be called ludicrous, and of no use at all, either creative or explanatory, in linguistic humour itself. First, consider where it actually applies. It describes the outward appearance of a few closely related examples of humour that occur frequently. As the ludicrous, incongruity is the juxtaposition of the serious with the trivial, or the unfashionable or ill-made thing, typically alone. As the ridiculous, it is the interaction, not mere juxtaposition, of the mind with bodily appetites, and second, any falling or failure. But since the ridiculous is so elementary, the word ‘incongruity’ there serves no creative role. In all these forms, however, the first weakness of incongruity is that its sense of ‘violation’ of patterns does not convey relations of better and worse, and it certainly does not explain the significance of these. Incongruity treats such juxtapositions as inert, leaving us wondering why they have any effect. The last attempt to save the incongruity theory was to assert that humour is either play or pleasure in relation to incongruity, either of which attempt clearly fails.

Now the unfashionable in humour need not be explicitly contrasted with its better counterpart. Dress is humorous whenever it can be seen as though it intends and fails to meet the standards of the viewer, or as work-clothes. The reason in the latter case is that a class difference is evoked, implying self-deception in an interloper. But the unfashionable would only be explicitly juxtaposed if actually set next to something better, surely possible.

Two clashing garments could be used to mean either a failed attempt at a combo, or what is hardly wearable ‘presuming’ that it can ‘hang’ with what is passable or very good. Already we find, prior to fully explaining, that self-deception is the essence of humour, and incongruity only humour’s appearance. The trivial next to the serious makes one of those halves the self-deceived, as we will clarify. As to physical appetite and the mind, the former overpowers the latter in all people, and renders the human self a constant hypocrite. This theme becomes more intense in that a more intellectual person is the more troubled by sensuality, as is the comic hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, in A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Such a character is particularly driven to deceive themselves. Few things are as instinctively seen, and reproached, as hypocrisy. Yet how it is humorous, by way of self-deception, is only being explained now. The evocation of self-deception by falling or failure is self-evident. As to personal ugliness, the unkind fact is that its humour consists in the same sense as the unfashionable.
A practical joke may surprise by use of incongruous things. Such things are not explained by the empty word, "incongruity," but by the way that they evoke the unfashionable or defective, while in these jokes' main humor, they insult the butt of the joke and deny their intelligence, thus portraying them as a self-deceived person. It is true that horrible or fantastic things fit the incongruity theory, and these override humorous feelings and introduce others. But this is because where something could be merely pretentious or offensive it may be more, and what rules this out of the class of humour is a negative condition. Now if tragedy might be invoked by a pictorial juxtaposition between humanity and what is beyond its reach (of course the simplicity of a picture makes it unserious), the kinds of things juxtaposed are not those of humour and comedy. Incongruity, then, cannot be challenged as a description of how a lot of humour looks. But it is no more than that.

The incongruity, however, in the above cases, has no role at all in linguistic humour in itself, but only where it appears in combination with linguistic humour. A theory of ‘appropriate incongruity’, as introduced by Elliott Oring, for example, describes the process of experiencing linguistic humour, but such an explanation is entirely prescriptive in meaning. As mentioned above, this kind of theory closely parallels Beattie’s universal theory, because the relation of partial fit within an assemblage is highly comparable to appropriate incongruity. Here is a typical example of what the theory of appropriate incongruity would explain, or presume to create.Woody Allen said in a monologue:
‘Most of the time I don’t have very much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.’
This is not only linguistic (it is also bathetic), though it is because of language that the punchline is puzzling. But this puzzling quality, where it does obtain, does not have at all the same role as ‘incongruity’ in things or people. Furthermore, what if it did? But then it would be of no creative use since the joke-writer could not look for it. Even if he actually hunted for ambiguities, he would not be on the lookout for puzzlement. And though he knows humour when it comes to him, he does not search for it. Finally, we could only unite the linguistic and thing-based incongruity, if we saw them both as did James Beattie, as partial incongruity. But there is no reason to do that.

As the ‘appropriate incongruity theory’ suggests, the punchline does refer us back to the previous line, which by its ambiguity gives a place to the punchline. In other words, the idiomatic meaning of ‘not having very much fun’ is indeed having no fun, whereas ‘some fun’ is a robotic, literal interpretation. The linguistic part in itself has some humour, not because the absurd meaning is ridiculed, but just because ambiguity is not only an instrument of deception, but a punisher of presumption, a kind of self-deception.

That is important, as it is the real reason puns and the like are inherently humorous. The pun is intrinsically humorous and therefore must allude to something, but that cannot be itself, or jokes. For that possibility takes us in a circle. Linguistic ambiguity must, necessarily, get its intrinsic humour from imagined situations. In the first place, to make linguistic humour is not generally to ridicule language. George Carlin, while not to everyone’s taste, had a monologue about clichés in which he included a few puns. He succeeded in mashing these together, although puns and clichés are completely different in humorous force. “‘Legally drunk.’” Well if it’s legal -- what's the f***in’ problem!? ‘Hey! Leave my friend alone officer, he’s legally drunk!’”

But the self-deception associated with linguistic ambiguity needs to be unpacked: it always signifies a context, even if not present, of social exclusion and therefore self-deception as the presumption to fit in. For instance, in Vietnamese, “cảm ơn,” “thank you,” if the pitch falls where it should instead rise, may be interpreted as “shut up!” The divide, in such cases, of in-group from out-group might result in anger. But what humour here is necessarily implied, even if drowned out by negative emotion, derives from this particular social relation. That condition, always implied by ambiguity, does not obscure the meaning of the pun. Rather, it definitively reveals what ambiguity contributes to any humour. Put another way, the sense in which ambiguity signifies self-deception is like the wet floor and gaping hole in the street signifying a fall, the upturned rake a blow to the head, or a beautiful woman—a rebuff. Though there are jokes where this may be more convincing than others, the theory has a strong case because there is no plausible alternative.

There is another vast category of linguistic humour, namely irony, but this too derives its humour from association with self-deception. All humorous irony not only reserves self-deception as its implicit target, but irony’s essential obliqueness, even if not sarcastic, is humorous only because it points to the lack of awareness of the self-deceived.

The solution to the appearance-focused theory of humour, then, and its lack of insight, is this. The stimulating power of humour extends beyond what appears immediately to the senses. This is not the tautology that we cannot see what we do not see, or that everything has an inside and outside. Rather, humour exerts its effect because it always presents either the image of a person in which we infer self-deception, or else other things or ideas that lead to that association, of a person being self-deceived.

Though this point might elicit further discussion, there is a simple reason why humour’s essence is self-deception rather than passive deception. It is not only because deception of others is but one area of humour; rather, mere gullibility or stupidity are capable of being blameless, and derive their humour from association with self-deception, whereas the converse is never so. Now self-deception could be blameless either out of folly or out of justifiable discomfort. We should, then, define self-deception as lying to oneself to escape unpleasant truth, but where it is blameless for any reason, it cannot be the essence of humour. Phenomenally, however, self-deception consists in a restriction of perception, which is why we associate it so strongly with intoxication. In humour, we infer and imagine self-deception as restricted perception. Self-deception thus finds its place in a peculiar class, in that nothing in nature except mental states, or the infinitesimal or excessively large, cannot in principle be seen. Essences are normally understood to have appearance, but self-deception cannot appear at all. This premise, that the essence of humour lacks appearance, has been the likely cause of most uncertainty about it. One can believe self-deception to be present in others only by a sign or combination associated with it.

Now while the stimulus in humour outwardly signifies self-deception, the response to humour copies this inferred object, mentally. But we take a moment to think of self-deception when we see something humorous. It is not as though we see humour full stop, and are immediately amused. And there are, moreover, three ways this can occur, with respect to what is real and imaginary. In humour that depicts only words or things, self-deception must be imaginary, whereas it could be real when inferred in a person. But it is plainly often insinuated with exaggeration even in an actual person, as is so typical of mockery.

The response to humour does not simply outwardly signify self-deception, but mentally copies its mind; the accompanying theory of laughter, external response, could not be fit in this essay. There can also be a sympathy in the response, but that is separate. The response to humour copies self-deception, once that has been derived from things we actually perceive. For this theory there is overwhelming evidence, and it has no confirmation bias, thus meeting the demand of falsifiability. This is what the response to humour feels like if one considers it closely, all humour represents or alludes to self-deception, and no other explanation is as solid.
In humour, what we will call ridiculous are persons who represent self-deception more directly. But ludicrous things signify it. Linguistic ambiguity, for example, signifies its own power to dupe, even to alienate someone. In one kind of linguistic humour, there is accompanying reference to physical desires and thus to self-deception. The other sort of ludicrousness consists of things. For instance, if a dagger is used as a kitchen knife, the two basic humorous meanings yield much the same result, ultimately. There are two ways of reading this, as:
(1) war in a kitchen, or 
(2) as a kitchen in war.
In either case, violence is used as a sign of self-deception. In the first case, the chef cooking with a weapon gives the impression of an unstable person or a failed warrior, or by appropriating war he unmans it and mocks it. But in the second case, war is shown to be human, and thus again unmanned. We could call ludicrous things ridiculous, but as inanimate things it is best to distinguish them as ludicrous, and consistently.

Now self-deception causes eccentricity, as well as suffering. Clark Griswold’s erotic fantasy on the vacation highway, and Ron Burgundy’s courtship of Miss Corningstone in Anchorman, a 2004 American comedy film and a tongue-in-cheek take on the culture of the 1970s, make us laugh and cringe. While these acts of boldness signify self-deception, their shame gives us empathetic pain (in this context the benign violation theory is put to rest). We should expect that seeing self-deception gives us empathetic pain, indeed whether it is tripped up, or even if it strolls along in deluded bliss. But we do not naturally expect that an empathy is the essential response. But self-deception, which we see as the cause of misfortunes and eccentricity (while the reverse is also true), overtakes us in an imitative form.

They are correct who note that humour relaxes, but they fail to add that the relevant tension comes from fear of judgement, and actual self-deception is the other way of dealing with tension, a potentially ridiculous way. Humour consumption, then, taking in the toxin of self-deception, is almost a homeopathy, because it seems to kill the real self-deception in us. But in truth it does not do that. And neither are our modesty and sociability highly dependent on the threat of ridicule. Rather, humour appreciation, by taking in the small dose of the toxin, signals and celebrates self-honesty, which finally explains humour in terms of socio-biology.

In other words, humour is to actual, full self-deception what a single glass of wine is to, say, a whole bottle. Humour is, then, deeply schizoid, since in reacting to it we merge with the self-deception we regard as shameful. In intoxication by substances, a certain base effect is the same as humour, restriction of external awareness, along with other reactions such as visions or affect. But in humour the source of perception-dimming is less obvious, since it is a mind with self-imposed unawareness. Actual humour presents this image more indirectly as the ludicrous, or more concretely as the ridiculous. There are three steps, a stimulus, an inferred mind, an empathy. With the ludicrous, the second is reached more indirectly. In the ridiculous, which is strictly speaking always a person, these three steps are unmistakable.

About the Author: 
Christopher teaches philosophy as an adjunct professor in Chicago and performs jazz piano. 

Address for correspondance:
Email: <>

Thursday 8 March 2018

Arendt on Public 'Truth' and Virtue (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 1 Spring 2018

Le Serment du Jeu de Paume à Versaille

and the link between Public ‘Truth’ and Virtue

By Will Denayer

Hannah Arendt, the German-born, but America-based political theorist, is not well-known for her work on truth and she had no interest in epistemology. She once approvingly noted (misleadingly, as it turns out), that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment ‘the word “truth” does not occur’. Nonetheless, in her writings, she makes a fascinating and fundamental contribution to what she called 'public truth' and I think that her attempt to present and reinstate the ethical dimension to public policy is extremely valuable and relevant even today.

To give an example of the sort of truths we are dealing with, is there a ‘true’ answer to the question of whether or not it should be acceptable to see people sleeping on the streets? Should the answer depend on my view or on yours, on that of the liberals or the conservatives, on the view of the majority, the analyses of the economists, the competence of experts in ethics and morals or on religion or is there another way to solve this conundrum?

In The Human Condition (published in 1958), which Arendt calls her study of the ‘active life’, she distinguishes between three distinct human activities, labour, work and action. While labour corresponds to the metabolic process with nature – taking care of the bare necessities of life - work creates a distinctively human world because it leaves tangible results behind. It is the activity the craftsman, the artist and the scholar. Arendt’s vigorous distinctions have led to the widespread conviction (if not consensus) that she divorces politics from all strategic interactions and all instrumentality. Action cannot have any regulative function, because this implies the development of relations of means and ends – relations which are characteristic to work, but foreign to action. Unsurprisingly, this misinterpretation gave rise to charges of irrelevance: a fairy-tale of ‘once upon a time in Greece’ that leads, by means of ingenious etymological explanation, to a bizarre concept of a self-referential meta-discourse. Arendt purifies politics from all ‘vulgar’ or more ‘prosaic’ social and economic issues out of politics, her critics affirm. The result for them is an empty concept, which they then ridicule. 

The reading of a self-contained politics points to a problem that is easy to formulate and impossible to solve. Even if politics corresponds to some bizarre, rite-of-spring-like self-referential ritual (and it does not), it still has to have some content: what are these great speeches of the orators supposed to be about? This discussion is essential for what I am trying to explain. Leaving the self-referential thesis behind, we can see that the articulation of interests is coupled to the formulation of principles. This, in turn, leads to the questions as to where these principles originate and how the enter the public world.

Arendt explains that political action comprises the freedom to bring the unpredictable into the world. The interactions in the ‘web of human relations’ can never fully be anticipated. Action can therefore not include clearly describable causalities. But this does not mean that action is the realm of human caprice. Action is bound to the articulation of a principle (Aristotle’s ‘first cause’ of something that appears). Principles inspire action, but they are not motives. They are much too general to prescribe specific goals, although any concrete action can be judged according to the principle that inspired it. If this is not the case, there simply is no action. Without this in-between and the disclosure of the actor, ‘… action loses its specific characteristics and becomes …achievement. It is then indeed no less a means to an end than making is an end to produce …and this achievement cannot disclose the 'who', the unique and distinct identity of the agent’, Arendt, writes in The Human Condition.

In the discussion of the ‘web of human relations’, Arendt explicitly construes what her critics (and most of her admirers) deny, namely a straightforward and convincing relation between action and the development of relations of means and ends. She also writes in The Human Condition that:
‘Action and speech …retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective’, concerned with the matters of the world of things in which men move …and out of which arise their specific, objective, worldly interests. There interests constitute, in the world’s most literal significance, something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore bind them together. Most action and speech is concerned with this in-between …so that most words are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent.’ (Emphasis added).
Action, like work, creates tangible outcomes, but, unlike work, it brings into the world a ‘second, subjective in-between …for all its intangibility, this …is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common. We call this reality “the web of human relations”’. This ‘web’ is the public world, with its unique characteristics power generation, meaning and happiness, the unfolding of human plurality, and so on. The remaining questions are then where the principles originate from, how they find their way into the ‘web’ of human affairs and how they become validated, i.e. ‘true’.

Arendt set out to explain this in The Life of the Mind, her final work published in 1978. The book was meant to consist of three parts: thinking, willing and judging, but she died before she could write the third part. However, another, slightly later, edited work, entitled Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, provides a good indication of what she had in mind for the part on judging.

Arendt first discussed thinking, however. And thinking deals with abstractions and generalities, such as justice, fairness, goodness. The faculty of thinking does not stand in a factual relation with reality – abstractions are not phenomenal. Judging, on the other hand, does deals with particulars. It is inherent to judging that we search for approval from others for our judgements. While thinking is solitary – the Socratic inner dialogue with myself – judging is social and can become paradigmatic for the public sphere.

Arendt explained how in the Lectures on Kant. Since the faculty of judgement is autonomous, the particular that has to be judged has to be compared with something that is also a particular. However, the particular with which we compare has to somehow contain a generalisation, otherwise judging is impossible. She located the particular that contains in itself a generality in the exemplary example of the representative figures. Thus: ‘Achilles is an exemplary example of courage’. Judgement, then, has exemplary validity to the extent that the example is rightly chosen.

But what assures that the example will be rightly chosen? The figure, or deed, that has to be recognised by a community of peers really has to be courageous. Arendt explained that, in the process of solitary contemplation, we anticipate the possible objections of others. This representative thinking is not empathy, as if I try to feel like someone else. The imaginative process has to remain disinterested, so as to assure the relative impartiality of the final conclusion. In case the wooing of consent of others in the public sphere proves successful, the example becomes a tertium comparationis - meaning the common element that two things share. ‘A is courageous, but not as courageous as Achilles’. Arendt emphasised that this mediation between solitary thinking and social judging, between abstract and particular, constitutes the only way in which an ‘ethical principle’ can become binding without corrupting action. As she wrote in Between Past and Future (1961):
‘… this teaching by example is …the only form of “persuasion” that philosophical truth is capable of without …distortion; by the same token, philosophical truth can become “practical” and inspire action without violating the rules of the political realm only when it manages to become manifest in the guise of an example… this is the only chance for an ethical principle to be verified as well as validated.’
Or consider her view presented in On Revolution (1963):
‘Only to the extent that we understand by law a commandment to which men owe obedience regardless of their consent and mutual agreements, does the law require a transcendent source of authority for its validity, that is, an origin which must be beyond human control.’
It is blatantly clear that nothing of this has anything to do with how politics works today. Arendt’s prudent public discourse simply does not exist. In politics, the strongest lobbies will win and usually all methods to achieve their goals are good enough. However, it is equally clear that ‘the life of the mind’ is essential wherever people try to deal with certain aspects of life in an authentically political way, that is, a way in which the public sphere has the function to generate virtues, consideration, shared definitions and regulations.

The insights drawn from The Life of the Mind and the Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy are consistent with my reading and they are inconsistent with the self-referential thesis. Once action is interpreted as an activity without relevancy to anything outside itself, the essential connection between politics and the activities of the faculties of the mind becomes invisible, as the link between political interests and principles disappears. Action is free and innovative, but its inherent freedom and unpredictability play within the ‘confines’ of a sensus communis that is created through political action itself in the web of human relations. Only in this way, Arendt asserted, is it possible for the members of a political community to remain free as well as equal.

The Life of the Mind is an exploration into the mental operations that are necessary requirements to act politically in the world. Instead of seeing the Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy and The Life of the Mind as divorced and unrelated to Arendt’s earlier concerns, these works complete her investigations into the nature of action. It is therefore my contention that this article made a contribution in understanding why Arendt asserted that ‘the principles by which we act and the criteria by which we judge and conduct our lives depend ultimately on the life of the mind’.

To close, let me attempt to make this a bit more concrete. Imagine that we would no longer allow self-interest to reign over society, how then could we manage it instead? Arendt would surely answer that everything which can give rise to a principled discussion is fit to enter the public realm. It can be, for example, because the dispute has exemplary relevancy for a community or for part of it or, indeed, for another one or for several ones or for all of us, for example, when justice, basic human rights, elementary welfare or future generations are at stake. But I do not think that Arendt excelled in getting her point across. Asked to clarify, she commented that:
‘… everything which can really be figured out in the sphere Engels called 'the administration of things' are social things… That they should …be subject to debate seems to me phoney and a plague. But (for example) the question of whether …adequate housing means integration (in city planning) or not is certainly a political question. With every one of these questions there is a double face… There shouldn't be any debate about the question that everybody should have decent housing.’ 
(The Recovery of the Public World, 1979).
To which we might say, ‘certainly’, but I do not think that it is so easy to distinguish between the ‘administration of things’ and principled discussion. The position that everybody should have decent housing is not generally accepted – in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party unashamedly voted against it. To many people, this is not a matter of principle, although it should be. How can we make them?

Arendt added some further distinctions in the obviously hastily written article Private Rights and Public Interests. She argues that our public interests (as citizens) differ from our private interests (as ‘selves’). Public interests do not derive in a direct way from private interests, they are not ‘collective private interests’, they do not constitute the highest common denominator of private interests, they are not enlightened private interests. Public interests differ from private interests in their nature. She concludes the passage by citing the slogan: Near is my shirt, but nearer is my skin, in order to elucidate the self’s inherently private mentality:
‘That (“near is my shirt” …) may not be particularly reasonable, but it is quite realistic; it is the not very noble but adequate response to the time discrepancy between men's private lives and the altogether different life expectancy of the public world. To expect people, who have not the slightest notion of what the res publica …is, to behave non-violently and argue rationally in matters of interest is neither realistic nor reasonable.’
As is the case with Adam Smith, Arendt has been claimed by forces she had no affinity with. However, Arendt was very consistent. The following point is almost never made in the literature, although it is obvious. The upshot of everything she wrote on rights, interests leads to the egalitarian position that freedom from want is a necessary condition for rational political debate. Otherwise, instinctive egoism will always prevail. Public Rights and Private Interests ends with a consideration that leaves little room for doubt on her position:
‘To ask sacrifices of individuals who are not yet citizens is to ask them for an idealism which they …cannot have in view of the urgency of the life process. Before we ask the poor for idealism, we must first make them citizens, and this involves so changing the circumstances of their private lives that they become capable of enjoying the “public”.’
In fact, Hannah Arendt, despite often being read as a conservative thinker, went much further. In On Revolution (1963) she went as far as to advocate for the creation of council-states which 'would permit every member of the modern egalitarian society to become a participator in public affairs'. This would mean ‘a new form of government rather than mere reform or mere supplement to the existing institutions’.

The relation between the loss of a private place and the rise of modernity as an era bereft of genuine action is a major theme in Arendt’s work. In The Human Condition, she wrote that ‘the eclipse of a common public world, so crucial to the formation of the lonely mass man and so dangerous in the formation of the worldless mentality of modern ideological mass movements, began with the much more tangible loss of a privately owned share in the world’. This, I think, is a thought to keep in mind because we now again live in an era of dispossession. Assuredly, as misery grows, so too does the political influence of the radical right. 

About the author

Dr. Will Denayer is a political theorist and macroeconomist. He is head of research of Flassbeck-economics, a German-based think tank.

Address for correspondence:

Thursday 1 March 2018

Linguistic Culturism (2018)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVI No. 1 Spring 2018

An argument for Common World-views based on a Shared Linguistic Heritage

By Lina Ufimtseva

Many have attempted to explain the relationship between language and thought, or even philosophised on the topic of the building blocks of language (or morphemes) and the conveying of a meaning. Here, I will investigate the specific question of whether meaning is created from within or without us.

If we were to take words out of a language and thereby simplify it (think, for example, of the ‘Doublespeak’ of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984), our ability to express thoughts would surely diminish, and thus the breadth of our worldview would also start to perish. The process is often how leaders – dictators – have used language as propaganda to control masses of people.

It would make sense to say that, yes, language does create thought, and that meaning is created linguistically based on external factors. After all, if you don’t have the words, you can’t describe it. Yet when we come across a word that describes a very specific situation, there is a click of recognition, an a-ha! moment that is universal, wherever you may hail from. For example, many have experienced what the Scots call a tartle – the panic-like hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember. Would this not indicate that meaning is, actually, created cognitively, meaning from within, and that we simply assign references to help us construct meaning? If we don’t have the words, we can’t describe something, but we can still experience it.

Then again, there's the idea that one word can signify different concepts. Here lies the middle ground between linguistic and cognitive references. Let us take the concept of time. Compare how the English in Britain speak about time – how precise and punctual they are about it – and the casualness with regards to the same things in South African English. Distinctions embodied in terms like ‘now now’ and ‘just now’ seem nonsensical to the typical Westerner, yet they are much more than simply a label for ‘coming another twenty, perhaps twenty five minutes later’. Such dialects comprise an entirely different mind-set, and thus also, a different world-view.

In Chinese, the expression ‘Form is empty’ is rendered as se bu yi kong, or 色不异空. At first glance, this seems to make little sense. However, the first character 色 originally meant ‘sex’. Semantic change saw that the meaning evolved into ‘sexiness’, then ‘beautiful features’, before lastly coming to mean ‘colour’ or ‘form’ today.

The Germans have a special word: Weltansicht, which refers to ‘the general attitude towards life and reality that an individual or character demonstrates’. Weltansicht is closely allied with the words which we speak that it is difficult to escape their pull. Thought is not objective and some chance difference in what language or linguistic dialect you were raised in can indeed shape the way you think and perceive things. For composing the same thought in different languages may yet yield different meanings.

And so I propose that we understand language as being ultimately not only culture bound but as encompassing an entire cultural identity. This is why even the same language spoken in different parts of the world evokes modified meanings.

However, let us take a step back to look at the how language and perception have been classified in the past. Theories regarding language and thought range between two logical extremes. Followers of the American socio-linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf hold that each language both represents and leads to its own modestly different Weltansicht, or world-view. This is linguistic relativism.

At the other extreme is linguistic universalism, which holds that every language is a manifestation of the same human cognitive system, and therefore obeys the same principles. But, as argued above, language is determined by the current culture it is spoken in. I specify ‘current’, because culture is certainly no static entity. If anything, it is evolving Or regressing, depending on how cynical one is! Language is thus culture-bound and is part of a cultural identity, and so the nuances of translated words are not universal. If world-view is culture bound – ethno-liinguistically bound – and not language bound, then we could speak of linguistic culturism.

In terms of the first position of the linguistic relativists or Whorfians, some languages may be virtually untranslatable, while in terms of the second, true translation can be done, even if it cannot be done word for word. This may not satisfy relativists, but the point is clear. An apparent problem with the hypothesis of linguistic relativism is that concepts are very much translatable. They just require more words to describe them. Think of the various forms of love in ancient Greek: eros, philia, ludus, pragma, philautia, agape. Non-Greek speakers understand what they mean, even if it takes a full sentence to explain a word – for instance that agape is selfless, unconditional love, and comparable to the love which is described by most religions. If linguistic relativism were entirely correct, a concept in one language could not be understood in another. And so, only in certain cases of poetry, humour, and other creative forms of language are ideas truly ‘lost in translation’.

Yet the problems with linguistic universalism seem equally obvious. There are considerable differences between languages, even different dialects of the same language, and the language which I speak is deeply affected by the linguistic society in which I live and the culture it has developed in. Wilhelm von Humboldt, The diplomat and pioneer of the theory of language, correctly observed that the diversity of languages ‘is a diversity of the world-views (Weltanschichten) themselves'. Without accepting the entire edifice of Humboldt’s theory of language, one may grant him this: language has everything to do with culture.

It may be helpful to survey the matter from a descriptive point of view. Chinese characters include a range of meanings, so related concepts tend to be compounded into one collective word. The aggregation of concepts into one word leaves a great deal of ambiguity and room for interpretation. Everyday Chinese speech is riddled, so to speak, with figurative speech. Many examples exist: ‘boiled water’ is called ‘rolling water’, revenge is called ‘snowed hatred, ‘stranger’ is ‘raw man’, and a ‘friend’ is a ‘cooked man’.

And so to this question: how do cultural influences on language affect everyday thinking? Cultural influences that influence modern thinking are discovered especially from old scriptures. The Heart Sutra, or ‘The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom’, is the best known Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture. In it is famously stated, ‘Form is empty’ – in Chinese: se bu yi kong, or 色不异空. At first glance, this seems to make little sense. However, the first character 色 originally meant ‘sex’. Semantic change saw that the meaning evolved into ‘sexiness’, then ‘beautiful features’, before lastly coming to mean ‘colour’ or ‘form’ today. Taking that into consideration, the intentional meaning of the phrase ‘Form is empty’ could be ‘Lust is empty’. This is how, when Chinese speak about the appearance or shape of something, they automatically link it to the concept of transience – something short-lived and ephemeral.

In Russia, babushkas – old women or grandmothers – endure long hours of standing in church because there are rarely benches provided to sits on. The thinking behind this is that people come to church to worship God, not to be ‘comfortable’. That people should exhibit a kind of suffering as the Christian deity suffered for his people. This shared cultural knowledge, or awareness, infiltrates the language, and is present in many ways in everyday life.

Another example. If a Chinese person asks an English speaker to verify something, a perfectly acceptable response is ‘You could say that,’ or ‘That's okay.’ But China has a collectivist culture which values the group above the individual. Hence, the response from a native Chinese speaker would be ‘We don't say this.’

Traditionally, the Chinese speakers have a greater inclination to see themselves as a part of a national identity than most Westerners. The factors which play into this mentality include Confucianism, as well as the long history of dynasties and communism. It may even be as simple as people’s close proximity to one another.

Russia, too, values the group above the individual, and ‘fitting in’ means more than just ‘not standing out’. Not being accepted into a group typically means that there something ‘wrong’ with you, creating. The Japanese have a proverb for this: ‘The nail that sticks out will get hammered down.’ Russians would say, ‘We, with our friends, are going to dinner,’, not ‘My friends and I are going to dinner.’ If a Russian were to use the latter phrasing, the underlying meaning would convey that he or she does not want to associate with the group of friends, and dislikes the group. Saying ‘We, with our friends (family/class)’, reinforces the idea that one shares the same values, and finds identity in that group.

The communist era saw seven decades of Soviet-ordained gender equality for women in the workplace. Even today, Russia is a global leader in gender equality in the professional arena. However, the Russian language had always had a subtle way of expressing this equality. In recent years, gender bias in language has stirred some hot debate, and we are seeing English terms such as ‘businessman’ or ‘businesswoman’ being dropped for the gender neutral ‘business executive’. Russian has long escaped such issues. Words for terms that in English have a strong masculine connotation are far more descriptive in action, rather than descriptive in responsibility (meaning whether the man or the woman was traditionally responsible for something). Or Russian simply omits gender all together. For instance, the word ‘manpower’ is translated as ‘labour force’ (Рабочая сила). No-man’s land is translated as no one’s (ничейная) territory. In Russian, pronouns can be omitted. In English, it would be grammatically correct to say ‘Somebody forgot his or her cellphone.’ Instead, many people drop the feminine pronoun and simply say ‘Somebody forgot his coat.’ Russian grammar avoids such an issue altogether by omission: ‘Someone forgot cellphone (кто-то забыл мобильный).’

Let’s look at last instance in which language-culture can fundamentally shape a person’s world view. It affects even more practical parts of everyday life, such as how one counts. The Japanese would say ‘Nine tens plus five’ (九十五). The French are known for their curious way of counting. The number 95 would be said as ‘four twenties plus fifteen’ (quatre-vingt quinze). But nothing quite takes the prize like the Danish way of counting from 50 upwards: 95 is said as ‘5 and 4½ times 20’ (femoghalvfems).

Another most interesting case would be the well-known linguistic curiosities of two Amazon tribes. In 2008, researchers tested the mathematical skills of two tribes in the heart of the Amazon basin where the Pirahã and the Mundurukú tribes were studies. It was discovered that their concepts of numbers did not follow our usual counting system. For starters, the Mundurukú have no words for numbers greater than five. It would be hard for us even to play hide and seek with them, as we generally start counting down from ten. How do the Pirahã and the Mundurukú tribes count if they don’t have numbers? Counting without precise numbers is simpler than one may expect: one, two, many. The researchers were at first perplexed that the tribal people struggled to give the exact number of items that the researchers showed them: ‘In that experiment, the tribe members used the word previously thought to mean ‘two’ when as many as five or six objects were present, and they used the word for ‘one’ for any quantity between one and four. The researchers concluded that there was no need to express large numbers, as tribes simply did not think of using a monetary system. This indicates that these aren't counting numbers at all; they're signifying relative quantities.’ Numerical language was primarily intended for comparative measures such as ‘some’ and ‘more’.

This spurred further research into the field on children’s cognitive development and inherent human aptitudes. How do children learn numbers? Small children first memorise numbers in a list format – but ask them for three apples, and they are just as likely to bring you five or seven. In terms of what people do and do not do from birth, Edward Gibson, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave the following insight:
‘It is often assumed that counting is an innate part of human cognition, but here is a group that does not count. They could learn, but it's not useful in their culture, so they've never picked it up.’

I began by speaking about the difficulty of articulating one’s thoughts clearly, regardless of which language one speaks in. I would love to wrap up with a perfectly formed conclusion, but might well fall prey to what seems to me to be the interminable wont of imposing theories on our language. In name, at least, we largely abandoned prescriptive approaches to language a long time ago. I instead propose an added description to the relationship between language and thought.

In a paper ‘Science and Linguistics’ published in 1940, Benjamin Lee Whorf emphasised the importance of common linguistic backgrounds to truly understand one another: ‘we are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.’ I would like to add a different crucial element. I am led to believe that not only our linguistic background, but, moreover, our cultural usage of language is what articulates our common perception of reality. Culture is bound to language, and language is bound to culture.

I think, that in order to understand the workings of language, we need to see it through a prism of what I call linguistic relatedness, in which human languages exist in harmony with one's environment. Language expresses culture, and culture is manifested in language. It is as simple as that. This is not to say that language creates thoughts, but that the context or cultural frame in which a language is used, is like a lens, through which the articulation of our thoughts elicits various frames of reference. This builds upon the lesson of Benjamin Lee Whorf's investigations too, just under a century ago.

About the author: Ms. Lina Ufimtseva is a writer in language and semantics based in Cape Town. Her article The Modern Stoic was published in 2017  at our sister site

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