Sunday, September 20, 2009

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.  

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