23 May, 2006

Want / like: a reply to Gawain

(. . . see the comments to yesterday's post)

Dear G—

First of all, I must apologise for the appalling quality of my first reply; one prides oneself on style, yet sometimes it falls in haste from one's fingers. I was planning to rewrite this chewed-up doggerel, but now that time has passed. Second, I advert my readers that Gawain refers in his second comment to that loveable heretic, Giordano Bruno. Third, I'd like to thank my respondent for doing away with pleasantries and engaging in bare-knuckle dispute, quite appropriate for this space and just the sort of kein-Quatsch argumentation I was hoping to encourage in the first place.

Fittingly then, the superficies of the matter have been stripped aside, leaving the core of our disagreement. We concur that there is (theoretically) a live conditional behind the dead formula of politesse in each language; but we disagree on the 'possible world' invoked by this hypothetical. I said 'In world n where I have object x, I like x'; Gawain says (I abbreviate his formula) 'In world m where the present company accepts my desire for x, I want x.' This relocates the problem from the semantics of want / velle to the psychology of the 'polite conditional'. The superiority of Gawain's solution is that it accounts for the English as well: 'In world m where the present company accepts my taste for x, I like x.' It's plausible to suggest that the same conditional is the origin of both 'I would like' and 'Je voudrais', so this satisfies me. And unlike Gawain, I'm convinced that the question is, at least in theory, answerable—that there really was a genuine conditional expressed here, whether or not we can actually find it in extant historical sources.

Now, as for 'occult knowledge', this is a deeper dispute. I share with Freud (though not to his extremes) a dissatisfaction with explanations of human behaviour that rely on chance or coincidence. Correct me if I'm wrong, Gawain, but I am guessing that you associate my position with a quasi-Hegelian stance, that language (like art, philosophy, myth) reveals the 'inner structure' of a personal or national Weltanschauung. Hidden 'occult knowledge' about the human mind is thus to be obtained by examining the discrepancy between, say, 'I would like' and 'Je voudrais'. This type of thinking is largely derided as mumbo-jumbo now, and perhaps rightly so. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater—we needn't conclude that this discrepancy means anything in a 'metaphysical' sense to find it interesting. Words and expressions don't come out of nowhere; they preserve habits of speaking, and habits of thinking, and the more formulaic the pattern, the more basic or important the thought—see Calvert Watkins' How to Kill a Dragon in Indo-European for a wonderful illustration of this. Thus, I was not suggesting from this distinction that frogs and staartmen want or like differently; rather, I was offering an illustration of familiar languages dividing up semantic territory in unexpectedly different ways. The European tongues use slightly different lexical resources to fill the same semantic / psychological hole, a fact which, as you yourself have demonstrated, tells us a little more about that hole, in this case the 'possible world' to which our disagreement amounts. My conclusion is none too earth-shattering, therefore, even if it is right.

[Update: relevant recent posts at Languagehat here, and Language Log here.]


Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, his solution is better, I agree.

Sir G said...

Dear me!

hardly meant to be bare-knuckled about anything ever, the ever polite and smiling me. even if i managed to offer a better solution (thank you) then i did not mean to do so in a confrontational manner. i would really rather be agreeable than right. arguments are a good way to deepen friendships but the matters argued about rarely worth losing acquaintances!

and i would rather have you as a friend than be right!

now, to read your response...

Sir G

Sir G said...

Hello Conrad:

All your points are well taken and readily accepted.

A little elaboration on my comments (which were themselves none too well shaped, being as they were, victims of hasty typing, late time of night, and a rather satisfactory cabernet sauvignon which i had finally managed to locate in this God-forsaken nook of the woods)-- an elaboration, as i said, is in order.

First: my life in Asia started with precisely the sort of semantic project you mention. If there are semantic differences between English and French, they are as nothing compared to semantic differences between English and Chinese. Aged 20, I resolved to learn both Chinese and Japanese to a degree of fluency which would allow me to know what they felt like "from the inside". In the course of this study I have spent huge swathes of time trying to figure out, par example, how the rather startlingly different Chinese terminology for the simple Indo-European verb "to take" (they actually DO have a number of different verbs for it, depending on the different ways of holding) might affect the way the Chinese conceptualize the world and interact with it. As my fluency with the language grew, these ideas began to wane for the simple reason that I began to realize that the Chinese world is not all that different from ours.

(I should add that I found the drawing of semantic maps troublesome, perhaps because I was not sure what one could do with them. It strikes me that people who do draw up semantic maps by and large experience the same predicament: the point seems to be to do it in order to find out "what will emerge". Mostly, what emerges is nothing.)

The upshot of this was that I actually came to believe in the existence of private language -- and to believe that speakers pick their way through meaning by fitting the ungainly medium of natural language as best they can to an intention they have prior to expression.

The best argument for it I can think of is the simple situation you and I experience every day: do you sometimes write something, then reread it and notice that it is not quite what you had intended to say?

Not only is the Hegel/Fichte/Herder lot wrong, but so is, I think, the behaviorist theory of language -- for this reason precisely.

(Perhaps I may suggest a generous take on my outburst: perhaps you may agree to be convinced that I am driven in part by the desire to save you what I have found to be an unproductive trip into the wilder regions of linguistics).

Which is the second point I wanted to make here, and which is not mine but Karl Popper's: that semantic differences are actually not important, that one can express himself satisfactorily in ordinary language without getting bogged down in its semantics (presumably the French are as good at it as the English, certainly the Chinese are).

And that semantic arguments, like exegetic arguments, while interesting, are a waste of time *from the point of view of advancement of knowledge*.

KP was a big enemy of unnecessary definitions.

Finally, and perhaps this is where I have come through seeming bare-kuckled, I need to say something about my (justified, but perhaps unwise) use of the word "useless". I meant useless in the KP sense: it does not advance knowledge because it is not testable.

So, while I did mean "useless", I did not mean "wrongheaded".

"Useless knowledge" is perhaps the most precious thing in our pruvate lives, most of my blog is dedicated to it. Russell dedicated a beautiful essay to it, and my post on the essay (really little more than an extended quote from Good Old Bertie) is still one of the biggest traffic drivers on my site. There is apparenly a great interest in useless knowledge.

The post is here

Finally, thanks for the reference to Calvert Watkins' book. I have not read it, but it sounds fascinating and I will add it to my reading pile.

Carry on, your blog is a wonderful discovery.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thank you for your comments. Alas, the 'wilder regions of linguistics' are my favourite parts! The problem you mention is one of the very oldest. Since Aristotle, a pressing question has been, "Why do different people have different words for the same thing?" If words represent ideas, and ideas represent things, then where is the 'disconnect'? Aristotle's conclusion was at the idea-word level, and he assumed that everybody had the same ideas ('inner representations of the world'). It wasn't until Humboldt et al that a powerful argument was made for the reverse--ie. that each language accurately reflects its speakers' ideas, which are different from (and not reducible to) the ideas of other races/nations. Hence the (now largely discredited) Sapir/Whorf hypothesis.

Your point of view seems well represented by the current linguistics scene, which I confess to knowing next to nothing about, dominated by Chomsky's notion of the Universal Grammar common to all--he would call such a notion neo-Cartesian, though really it is neo-mediaeval, as many scholars have demonstrated.

Anyway, you're probably right on this, at least as long as Chomsky is still alive.

As for KP, I still disagree; as said earlier, it (being the psychological origin of the 'polite conditional') is in principle testable and falsifiable. If we could trace the expression in extant written historical sources, we might discover the truth; even if not, this remains a conceptual, if not a practical, possibility. Of course, all this is *wasting time* from the 'living your everyday life' point of view, but that's neither here nor there, as you yourself admit.

Sir G said...

I suppose the way to make a point about the insignificance of the theory would be to ignore it and make no further comments, but i cannot resist this:

yes, you could find some documents suggesting that a particular usage derives from x, though it would be hard to substantiate that there werent other possible derivations.

further, i draw your attention to the (Chomsky) idea that none of us speaks "English" -- for example -- but each of us speaks a language more properly referred to as "Gawain du Lac" or "Conrad Roth". there is a real problem making generalizations about the way the mind works because there is a variety of minds out there.


Conrad H. Roth said...

"yes, you could find some documents suggesting that a particular usage derives from x, though it would be hard to substantiate that there werent other possible derivations."

G: one can always be sceptical, but depending on the context in which the evolving expression occurred, we may be able to make a plausible guess. There is no proof that a word has a given etymology either (and indeed, many have disputed origins)--but we can usually make a good guess.

The idiolect idea (I speak Conrad, you speak Gawain) is much older than Chomsky, and basically irrelevant here. As you observed before, we are not talking about what any individual was thinking, or what you and I are thinking when we say "I would like"--we are talking about a conventionalised habit of language... Ah, soup has arrived, must go.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Soup finished; delicious. What I meant was, we know the origin of an expression like 'toe the line', and we can therefore know the image in the mind of the speaker who first used 'toe the line' metaphorically--we can know, with some plausibility, his 'psychological state'. This is not some mystical/occult mumbo-jumbo, but a reasonable guess; of course, it can never be proved, as we cannot go back into the mind of that speaker to find out. But this doesn't mean it's not knowledge, realistically speaking. Idiolects are therefore irrelevant. The same applies to 'I would like', although as a less concrete metaphor, it happens to be much harder to trace.

Sir G said...

what you are saying, if i understand you correctly, is that the psychology of the individual speaker (and his idiolect) is interesting only to the extent that s/he coins new language.

Conrad H. Roth said...

G, is this a response to this thread, or the 'Words and coins' post? I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that the individual psychology is *only* interesting insofar as he coins new words; I merely regard this as the most interesting phenomenon, which is literary as well as psychological problem.

Sir G said...

it was a comment on your last comment in this thread. your explanation suffices. it surprises me, for i find other joys in life as fascinating as literature is. such as sitting through a wayang kulit performance. so i spend a lot of time wondering (to no purpose) on the psychology of THAT.