Saturday, September 26, 2009

The writer's perspective

An essay in the New York Times informally considers the link between speech, writing and thought.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pattison's Consciousness

I'm a little unclear about the definition of consciousness in the phrase consciousness of language, so here's some questions/comments....

Where is the definition of consciousness coming from?  At first I though this might be a loaded "Western" term, but perhaps different literacies can define consciousness in their own ways.  Is consciousness an awareness of the expressive powers of language?  Is it the perception of the power of language to represent and relate objects and ideas? Is consciousness located individually (in the mind of the language user) or collectively? Does the location/employment of consciousness vary according to literacy?  Is consciousness perceivable to a student of literacy only as it is manifest by language users; that is, can we locate consciousness of language itself, or only point to it as manifest by speech or print acts? 

That aside, I don't think consciousness is necessarily a higher order of being, but more like a basic condition of being human.  The name consciousness, however, is an invention made possible by language.  In a way, language might precede consciousness, but perhaps only in its capacity to name or "point out" the term.  In older times, the concept must have taken other names, but I'm not sure if it was so clearly pointed out. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Maturing Technology

There is a link on the right to something called the Hype Cycle.  If you are interested in emerging technologies, or theories about how they emerge, check it out.  If you already know about the "hype cycle," please tell me what you think of it.  I just randomly found it...

Pattison, Culture and Literacy

I really like the title of this article.  

"The philosophical and literate investigations of life have fused in the works of logical positivists and of Heidegger, for who the sentence "I am looking at the river" is a statement about Being that might be best understood by scrutinizing the least prominent word in the utterance: am.  What does our speaker mean by this word?  Heidegger's answer to the question of Being never loses sight of an obligation to know the relation between language and the world.  The literacy of an age defines this relationship."  (Pattison 28).

The claim that the literacy of an age defines the relationship between language and the world seems an apt comment on the problems of defining literacy in our polyglot world, where there are not only many languages, but also many different ways even one language is employed to represent the world to differing ends.  I'm not clear on whether we can suggest one universal definition of literacy when we explore how different cultural, academic or religious groups define the relation between language and the world.  That said, a universal definition of literacy, like Chomsky's universal grammar, might show us not how we represent the world, but some set of broad conditions/contexts for language use....I have to read more about universal grammar.  The book I'm using to do that is called: The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar, by Mark C. Baker.

Anyway, implicit in Heidegger's "obligation to know the relation between language and the world" are the people demonstrating that relation, also known as the speakers of a language.  It makes sense, then, that the question of how any group of language users understands (or determines) their own metaphysical status (their Being) would determine how they use language to represent the world.  But, as above, what if diverging views are present?

Pattison points to this problem earlier in the reading, when he cautions the student of literacy:  "He ought to be aware, however, that behind the social data usually employed to discuss the topic [literacy] lies a breathtaking world of ideology that arises from the solutions imposed upon the problems of language.  The solutions make up the tenets essential to the formation of a literate culture" (20).  We can observe historical differences of the purposes or origins of language:  the evolution of ideas seems to move from an understanding of language as a priori, to an understanding of language as a by-product of humans' comport, to some contemporary, contextualized combination of the two.  Pattison traces this path from the Ancient Greeks to Nietzsche, and beyond.  I would also like to suggest that questions about the "problems of language," definitely determine the possible solutions.  The character of inquiry into the problems of representation depends on the people doing the inquiring.  The difficulty of describing investigations about language is no new discovery.  In my opinion, it is in the recursive nature of the project that the problem lies; that only language can be used to "describe"itself.

Even so, teaching language and learning how to use it greatly benefit from these kinds of inquiries, because student and teacher are forced to see the weight and breadth of words, maybe so to choose them with greater care.  When you learn to write, is it that you are learning to think, or is it more precisely that you are learning to use the written form of a language as a tool of inquiry?

Pattison raises this question when he discusses the notion that speech is a technology.  He seems to quickly resolve the notion, thereby eliminating the argument that writing is a "higher" technology than speech.  In fact, he shows that all cultures are "by definition oral cultures" (24).  Writing then, enhances our capacity for thought and representation, but doesn't transform it.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ong/ The cognitive divide theory

I'd just like to comment on a couple of quotes.  The second one is more interesting, if you ask me.
1)  "Without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials." -Ong, "The literate mind and the oral past"

This statement is interesting for its veiled simplicity.  To fully understand Ong's position, I need specific details of the potentials and consciousness he mentions.  Is he talking specifically about cognitive potentials? Is there room here for slippage from the field of cognition into other, more social arenas?   Is it the collective or individual human consciousness he takes as his subject?  Who determines what the potentials are for human consciousness?  Is consciousness as we know it a result of the Western empirical/analytic tradition a theoretical product of the (written) language that gives it a name and properties? 

2) "The 'rules' of grammar in natural human languages are used first and can be abstracted from usage and stated explicitly in words only with difficulty and never completely" (Ong, Orality of Language, 7). 

Despite the fact that they govern articulation and thought processes themselves, grammar rules or structures normally originate, live, and function far below the level at which articulation functions.  You can know how to use the grammatical rules or structures and even how to set up new rules or structures that function clearly and effectively without being able to state what they are.  Of  all the hundreds of thousands of grammar rules or structures that have been at work in all the tens of thousand of languages and dialects of humankind, only the tiniest fraction have ever been articulated at all" (Ong, Writing is a Technology.., 23).

This discussion of grammar is, to me, one of the most interesting aspects of Ong's theory.  The idea that the grammar of a language is difficult to separate from the use of language itself is not surprising to me as a teacher and student of English, Spanish and Latin grammar.  Is Ong's admission that the rules or even "logic" of a language are often inaccessible or under-determined a call to the grammarians of the world to further unpack our languages?  Wouldn't we be better able to understand language's objectifying and representing power if we understood its own order? 

Honestly, I doubt that a perfect logic of language can ever be uncovered, because there are so many aberrations from standard usage and levels of meaning that cannot be conscripted to a system of symbol logic. Since I know English best, here are a few examples of the problems....Some, or even many words, have more than one meaning or shades of meaning, so that no hard and fast rule can be applied to them, and their morphological status depends on context and author's intent. One old-time example from logic is the term bachelor, where some bachelors are unmarried men, some are a type of blue flower, and some are degrees conferred by institutions.  Similarly, some sentence structures require context or previous knowledge to make their intended meaning clear.  If you have ever misread the tone of an email or mistakenly quoted an idea out of context (as I may be doing above), then you know what I mean...

So, this mysterious logic of language, otherwise known as grammar, may be beyond the reach of the very people who constantly put it to use?  Many grammarians have worked hard to uncover the logic of language, but Ong calls their project mostly incomplete.  If we don't understand the rules by which language operates, how can we be sure that we are using it to the best effects?  Surely we can approximate and appreciate quality representations of reality in words. Likewise, we can understand concepts expressed in language.  But what about the way we use language itself indicates that Ong's preference for the analytic tradition resulting from language indicates that this is the best way to use language, or its ultimate purpose? 

As an aside, in my writing class, the students have analyzed the grammatical structure of thesis statements to decide whether they were logically strong or weak.  It seemed like it was easier to see what claims the thesis made when we broke it down into its grammatical parts, and discussed their functions.  The structure of sentences reveals part of their meaning and power, so I think learning about grammar IN CONTEXT is an important tool for the kind of analytical writing students are required to do in college.