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Sunday, February 13, 2005

I'm a little surprised (and more than a little pleased) that no one objected to my characterization of the core tenets of postmodern theory. Perhaps it was because I said they began in uncontroversial claims about the limitations of our experience, and no one noticed — or I didn't make forcefully enough — my claim that postmodern claims about language are not so uncontroversial. I'm more than a little surprised that no one objected when I said the reason the core claims are mainly uncontroversial is that they're nothing new, nothing that isn't in the pre-Socratics, the Book of Job, and the Bhagavad Gita: "All is clouded by desire, Arjuna, as fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust …"

I also more than hinted last time that my objections to the language claims of postmodernist theory are rooted in current work in the cognitive sciences, including evolutionary psychology, suggesting that we're probably at least as good at being human beings as tapeworms are at being tapeworms. I'm in no way an expert in those fields, so my understanding could be wildly misguided*, and I encourage everyone to read Daniel Dennett, George Lakoff, Mark Turner, Giles Fauconnier, Mark Johnson, Antonio Damasio, Eve Sweetser, Marc Hauser, Karl Sigmund, Helena Cronin, William Calvin, Steven Pinker, Stanislas Dehaene, Judith Harris, Daniel Gilbert, Irene Pepperberg, and almost anyone mentioned in the indices to their books. There is a pretty generous sample of more casual work by several of these people here. All of them, unlike some writers I might mention, work hard to make their difficult and often unsettling ideas understood.

Here are those language claims I listed, reordered so I can make a more coherent argument:

  1. Much of our mental world is pre-verbal and therefore cannot be expressed by or even known to the language-using parts of our selves.
  2. Metaphor is distortion.
  3. Narrative is necessarily selective and always biased.
  4. Merely making statements about the world creates a false sense of understanding.
  5. Systematic disruption of ordinary language can provide access to deeper truths by clearing away the fog of false consciousness.
  6. Literary "texts" (the scare quotes are deliberate) are more about their internal structures and their relationship to other "texts" than to the world, and in any case the meanings readers will make of the experience [of reading] are more significant because more present in the [act of] reading than are the intentions of the author.

There's more to postmodern language theory than that, of course, but this is a blog and not a dissertation and no one objected the first time (no fair wanting more now). I'll begin by admitting the truth of the first three and show why they do not imply the fourth, at least, not in a way that matters.

A mind is a product of a brain in a body. As far as we know, no other species has a mind in the full sense which we can apply to human minds, but the human mind did not appear out of nothing. It is a product of evolution just as is our upright posture and the tongue of an anteater. In our close relatives and beyond there are antecedents and analogues to nearly every function of our minds: the auto-biographical self is, perhaps, the only real innovation. Even that may be based on an ability to string together, in a narrative, a history of at least a class of previous mental states (those which are the mind's report on the condition of the body in the world) and to use that history to project and evaluate possible future mental states.

For us and for all living things, it is important to adjust our internal and external activity to events outside and inside our bodies. In many animals, brains are an important means of organizing the proper homeostatic reactions: look for food when blood sugars are low; run like hell or hide when a predator appears; sleep when, for whatever mysterious reason, it is necessary; copulate when appropriate and possible. There is no detail-to-detail mapping from the world to an animal's sense of it, but rather an appropriate correspondence, appropriately organized. Minds extend that organization to possible states.

And they'd better be pretty damned good at it, because the kind of brain which can produce a mind in a body like ours is expensive. It needs a lot of sugar and oxygen; its sheer size imposes costs in infant mortality; its organization through experience means a long period of utter helplessness and a longer period of dependency on adults. We wouldn't be here if our minds didn't map well enough (the map is not the territory) that part of the world which matters to our survival — and what part of the world matters more to our survival than other people?

Language, of course, is the pre-eminent mental tool for dealing with other people. It is also a product of evolution, and its deep structures are shared by speakers of every human language because they are made possible by brain structures shared by every normal human being. No one has discovered a specific brain structure devoted to them (nor is it likely to happen, for many reasons), but Lakoff and Johnson (here and here), Turner (here), and others have shown that, far from their being problematic, language and most kinds of thought are impossible without metaphor and narrative.

Of course they can be used to deceive, coerce, and oppress, but no thoughtful response to those evils is possible without them, and it is only through them that we can even recognize such things as evil. They are part of our evolutionary heritage and they are at the heart of the tools we have for dealing with evil and for the expansion of human freedom. To abjure them because they are imperfect is no different from deliberate self-blinding because of optical illusions.

Well, I'm not quite done, but I'm done tonight.

*Please do write, by email or in a comment to this post, to let me know of any gross inaccuracies in my understanding or to point me to further source material for an intelligent non-specialist — but I'm not interested in and will delete without replying any emails or comments which advocate any variant of creationism, including so-called Intelligent Design. I'll be only slightly more tolerant of messages which maintain the essential separation of mind and body.

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