Thursday, June 07, 2007

Linguistic Anthropomorphism

If we hold the view that consciousness is unique, what does that entail about the phenomenon of language? Does it mean that language that is no mere thing? This is one of the questions that arises from Merleau-Ponty's introduction to Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language. Merleau-Ponty says that language "cannot be observed or grasped directly; it can only be exercised" (p. 6). Possibly he is completely wrong about this. Does rejecting this idea imply that we are bound to an idea of universal thought, to a sense of thinking that is not unique?

I was surprised to see Merleau-Ponty cite the work of Wolfgang Köhler (whose The Mentality of Apes I've just requested from the library.) Merleau-Ponty describes the anthropomorphism of Köhler's approach as "indispensable," because it ensures that "the life of the animal will not be reduced to the behavior that is under observation" (p. 9). Merleau-Ponty's brief defense of anthropomorphism reminded me of Hans Jonas, but I'd like to focus for a moment on what anthropomorphism means for the problem Merleau-Ponty has asked us to consider. If we can acquire a knowledge of language that may be described as intersubjective, must we resort to anthropomorphism? If we hold that language cannot be observed directly, it would appear that there is no other option. But is there another reason to favor an anthropomorphic method? Does the problem of the infant compel us to think anthropomorphically? (Now I am wondering to what extent Daniel Stern's work relies on anthropomorphism; does the problem of infancy necessarily lead one to imagine the subjectivity of the infant, and raise all the issues associated with such an imagination?)

Is language essentially mysterious, as Merleau-Ponty suggests? If language is a mere thing, does this mean that there is concievably a limit on the things that can insightfully be said about it? The ambiguousness of language is hardly deniable, but is it more or less swept under the rug by certain assumptions about what language is? If language is mysterious, then can we expect that judicious anthropomorphism may be in some instances demystifying, or would that merely compound the mysteries rather than solve them?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:53 AM.


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