Book: Language and Human Nature

Language and Human Nature

After Metaphysics ( 1977) – reprinted as Language and Human Nature (1985)

A book of essays which (deeply) critiques the assumption that language is what makes humans – human: i.e., unique, different from animals. Humans are human, alright, but…we have neglected much in our thinking that human=language; e.g., faces…in interaction; gender.

The first two sections lay out the critique – of our thinking, and our approaches – to the human; but also including the study of other animals whom we have tended to oversimplify. We have much to rethink about the human, other animals, and to our guiding ideas.

Three major critical points:

1. Our understanding of human language is quite limited or narrow, because we have presumed that language essentially defines what is human. For example, we have presumed – since language has been thought to enable us to be social – that no other animals are social: simply untrue.

2. We still don’t know all that much about (other) animals, to know whether they have language (abilities). Studies are showing that some other animals are more social and much smarter than we had thought.

3. Our ideas of what is human (and human nature) remain confined, because we decided in advance what human is. (The current polemic between brain or mind/spirit/soul totally characterizing us, is a prime example of presumptive thinking.)

Instead this book proposes a wider and more extensive study of the human. Interestingly, Darwin in his last book – “Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” laid out the grounds for an extensive study of the human: all people(s), infants, the aged, other animals, the insane, art.

This marks a very good beginning for rethinking what is human: and there is more in later sections of the book:

Part three describes how we think normatively about the human, and what this implies for our particular depictions of the human. Biologists and social scientists carry much intellectual (and political) baggage into their studies and claims. How, then, to study the human…as we are?

Parts four to six develop new ways of considering and exploring the human, both in terms of ideas, and actual practices in considering language: a critical naturalism. Observing: others, but also oneself observing. “Man is the measure(r) of all things.”

How to study how we understand language, one another, and the world:

- The Study of Intelligibility – language is dynamic, not merely an array of syntactic structures. Methods for doing this.

- Seeing what is actually occurring involves exploring context: how to break context, and begin to see what is actually occurring. How we know contexts, remains obscure.

Q-R (Question-Response System). Language development has been depicted from assumptions, not from the actuality of child-m/other interactions. Language and the self are emergent from that relationship. The question of how we emerge as individual-self is central to our understanding of the human.

The last section proposes methods for (re)examining the human: as we are. From facial expression and body movement, the attempt is made to lay out the study of the human as deeply interactive. The final essay enters the ancient-enduring question of how we know others and the world: “Around the Cartesian Impasse.”

In sum, the title “After Metaphysics” is a parody of Aristotle’s idea that physics (the body) is primary, and the mind et al are after or me ta physics. This title attempts to proclaim a new era for thinking about human nature > more accurately, inclusively.

Mind-body dualism is an assumption which flows from ancient thought, and still frames thinking about the human. More: it is a presumption, simply believing that this is the way of the world. Period!

What difference(s) does it make? This is the meta-story of “After Metaphysics.” I think metaphysics has provided us a particular and limited story of the human – human nature – which underlies much of our being.

- Much of our being is neglected – at least on the surface – while differences often rule the Realpolitik of, e.g., gender, race, normality, often age, power; facts of our interactions.

- Our bodily being is taken for granted, backgrounded.

- Our Identity – Who I Am – is portrayed only partially; often with biases. That we are bodies which interact with other’s bodies is omitted from our being who we are.

  • http://jacobfreeze.com Jacob Freeze

    “Seeing what is actually occurring involves exploring context: how to break context, and begin to see what is actually occurring.”

    Now that the language of the deaf has been promoted from pidgin to creole, apparently no higher promotion can be imagined by the standard academic imagination. The family of languages has achieved the sort of hierarchy formerly reserved for the general staff of Central American “republics”…

    Everyone who survived the latest coup is now a seven-star general, and no more stars will fit on anyone’s epaulet without reducing the size of the stars!

    This is unthinkable!

    But assuming for a moment that we have a sufficiently clear notion of “language” to use the word in a reasonable sentence, it isn’t exactly impossible to ask if some other form of intra-specific communication might deserve an even higher place in an expanded hierarchy, on the “conglomerate” model sometimes achieved in corporate take-overs, where the CEO of an absorbed corporation rules a new domain including his former corporation as a small subset.

    Are there forms of intra-specific communication even more communicative than language?

    The language of the deaf is a prime candidate for this distinction, and it additionally recommends itself as an escapee from the category of “language” by having already escaped from several other crushing categories. The sub-human pen of pidgin couldn’t hold it, and it also resists a common but even more fantastical mis-identification with “American Sign” and its international analogues.

    Every hearing person who ever tried to understand the language of the deaf by studying little diagrams of “American Sign” eventually comes to moment of meta-linguistic aporia, when his or her two-dimensional vocabulary floats into an animated conversation among the deaf, like a leaf floating into a hurricane.

    This experience is radically unlike the usual language-learner’s experience among native speakers, where a beginner begins with something like a little tree and gradually adds more branches, on the way to near-native fluency.

    But the beginner with the language of the deaf begins with something more like an seed than a little tree, and no amount of inspection of “American Sign” can reveal the jungle that grows out of that seed, or the strange birds that evolve in its canopy.

  • http://jacobfreeze.com Jacob Freeze

    “Seeing what is actually occurring involves exploring context: how to break context, and begin to see what is actually occurring.”

    Now that the language of the deaf has been promoted from pidgin to creole, apparently no higher promotion can be imagined by the standard academic imagination. The family of languages has achieved the sort of hierarchy formerly reserved for the general staff of Central American “republics”…

    Everyone who survived the latest coup is now a seven-star general, and no more stars will fit on anyone’s epaulet without reducing the size of the stars!

    This is unthinkable!

    But assuming for a moment that we have a sufficiently clear notion of “language” to use the word in a reasonable sentence, it isn’t exactly impossible to ask if some other form of intra-specific communication might deserve an even higher place in an expanded hierarchy, on the “conglomerate” model sometimes achieved in corporate take-overs, where the CEO of an absorbed corporation rules a new domain including his former corporation as a small subset.

    Are there forms of intra-specific communication even more communicative than language?

    The language of the deaf is a prime candidate for this distinction, and it additionally recommends itself as an escapee from the category of “language” by having already escaped from several other crushing categories. The sub-human pen of pidgin couldn’t hold it, and it also resists a common but even more fantastical mis-identification with “American Sign” and its international analogues.

    Every hearing person who ever tried to understand the language of the deaf by studying little diagrams of “American Sign” eventually comes to moment of meta-linguistic aporia, when his or her two-dimensional vocabulary floats into an animated conversation among the deaf, like a leaf floating into a hurricane.

    This experience is radically unlike the usual language-learner’s experience among native speakers, where a beginner begins with something like a little tree and gradually adds more branches, on the way to near-native fluency.

    But the beginner with the language of the deaf begins with something more like an seed than a little tree, and no amount of inspection of “American Sign” can reveal the jungle that grows out of that seed, or the strange birds that evolve in its canopy.

  • Karl Rogers

    I found this book to be rather dry, until the final chapters 11-14.

    However, having said that, this is an interesting book.

    It was first published in 1977 and challenges the assumptions of anthropology and linguistics of that time. Many of the questions raised by Harvey in this book were ahead of their time by a generation. Even though his questions were radical in the 1970s and his ideas were on the cutting edge of the research into animal communication, many of his ideas are largely taken for granted by social science and theory today.

    The best way to explain this is in relation to a critical discourse analysis course I recently gave to masters students in Argentina.

    All the students can be classified as mature students. The youngest is twenty five and the eldest in her mid fifties. They are all professionals. In this group of 11 students, most are language teachers, a couple are translators, and one is an anthropologist.

    Their responses to reading selected chapters of Harvey’s book is quite illuminating.

    The teachers all have degrees in linguistics, mostly of whom acquired their degrees during the 1980s, and they, in agreement with the anthropologist, found Harvey’s book to be provocative and challenging, as well as informative. They considered his ideas to be quite damning of Chomsky’s and Simpson’s theory of language, as indeed they are. They buzzed with excitement at Harvey’s discussion of saliva, mouths, and tongues, and argued at length about the differences involved when speaking english or spanish.

    The two translators, declaring themselves to be speaking from common sense, and looking rather bored about the class discussion, both considered Harvey’s ideas to be self-evident and hardly worth mentioning. Thus is the fate of radical thinking. After all, it is obvious that we are social beings, with bodies, faces, tongues, and mothers, and these are crucial factors in the acquisition of language and the possibility of communication. Who would deny this?

    Of course, neither of these translators, proudly armed with their common sense, had read Chomsky or Simpson. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

  • Karl Rogers

    I found this book to be rather dry, until the final chapters 11-14.

    However, having said that, this is an interesting book.

    It was first published in 1977 and challenges the assumptions of anthropology and linguistics of that time. Many of the questions raised by Harvey in this book were ahead of their time by a generation. Even though his questions were radical in the 1970s and his ideas were on the cutting edge of the research into animal communication, many of his ideas are largely taken for granted by social science and theory today.

    The best way to explain this is in relation to a critical discourse analysis course I recently gave to masters students in Argentina.

    All the students can be classified as mature students. The youngest is twenty five and the eldest in her mid fifties. They are all professionals. In this group of 11 students, most are language teachers, a couple are translators, and one is an anthropologist.

    Their responses to reading selected chapters of Harvey’s book is quite illuminating.

    The teachers all have degrees in linguistics, mostly of whom acquired their degrees during the 1980s, and they, in agreement with the anthropologist, found Harvey’s book to be provocative and challenging, as well as informative. They considered his ideas to be quite damning of Chomsky’s and Simpson’s theory of language, as indeed they are. They buzzed with excitement at Harvey’s discussion of saliva, mouths, and tongues, and argued at length about the differences involved when speaking english or spanish.

    The two translators, declaring themselves to be speaking from common sense, and looking rather bored about the class discussion, both considered Harvey’s ideas to be self-evident and hardly worth mentioning. Thus is the fate of radical thinking. After all, it is obvious that we are social beings, with bodies, faces, tongues, and mothers, and these are crucial factors in the acquisition of language and the possibility of communication. Who would deny this?

    Of course, neither of these translators, proudly armed with their common sense, had read Chomsky or Simpson. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

  • Karl Rogers

    In the last session, inspired by Harvey’s discussion of the importance of having a tongue, I challenged the teacher/students in my discourse analysis group to write a brief description comparing the differences between how they moved their tongues while speaking English to when speaking Spanish.

    What resulted was a rather interesting collection of descriptions of the differences between such sounds as |t|, |s|, and |r| in Spanish and English. The efforts to explain to me how to perform the notorious |rr| were particularly fascinating.

    Despite my continuing inability to produce and reproduce this sound, their efforts were not in vain. The impossibility of this task helped the teacher/students appreciate the thrust of Harvey’s argument of the importance of the tongue, as a crucial extralinguistic and complex feature of spoken language, and the reductive character of linguistics when it treats language as a purely verbal and grammatical form.

    We appreciated the importance of not taking la lengua out of linguistics.

  • Karl Rogers

    In the last session, inspired by Harvey’s discussion of the importance of having a tongue, I challenged the teacher/students in my discourse analysis group to write a brief description comparing the differences between how they moved their tongues while speaking English to when speaking Spanish.

    What resulted was a rather interesting collection of descriptions of the differences between such sounds as |t|, |s|, and |r| in Spanish and English. The efforts to explain to me how to perform the notorious |rr| were particularly fascinating.

    Despite my continuing inability to produce and reproduce this sound, their efforts were not in vain. The impossibility of this task helped the teacher/students appreciate the thrust of Harvey’s argument of the importance of the tongue, as a crucial extralinguistic and complex feature of spoken language, and the reductive character of linguistics when it treats language as a purely verbal and grammatical form.

    We appreciated the importance of not taking la lengua out of linguistics.

  • Karl Rogers

    Our last discourse analysis group session was interesting in relation to Harvey’s Language and Human Nature.

    We were discussing the ideological foundations of critical discourse analysis (CDA) in relation to Norman Fairclough’s foundational efforts in the 1980s for establish CDA as a field of study.

    The discussion soon spiralled into a a wide ranging discussions about media and politics, from the perspective of the political and social situation and tendencies in Argentina. Often quite tangential from the initial objective of the session.

    However, towards the end of session (defined by running out of time rather than coming to any conclusion), one of the teacher/students in the group related the initial question of ideological foundations to Harvey’s book by noting that CDA is underscore by particular theories of language [sociological Wittgensteinian/Foucautian/Gramscian] that both entail and presuppose theories of human nature and visions of the ideal society. They argued that if these theories are implicit then CDA can be seen as ideological. This raised questions about the nature of ideology that we did not have time to discuss further. Such is life.

    After the session, the discussion reminded me of some criticisms that had arisen while I was reading Harvey’s book. Often it seemed to me that Harvey’s account/theory of the relation between language and communication was vague and lacking development. Upon reflection on what seemed to be missing in relation to the general direction of Harvey’s questions, it seemed to me that, in Language and Human Nature, Harvey’s struggles had anticipated the need for CDA (and a great deal of contemporary socio-linguistics), as well as many of their foundational questions, and had begun in the 1970s the varied and enormous theoretical tasks involved in linking theories of language and communication that were subsequently developed in the 1980s by Norman Fairclough et al. While, at the same time, Harvey’s questions about how particular theories of human nature underwrite particular theories of language provide a vital and important critical tension that advocates of CDA need to address, if they are to avoid descent into unthinking ideological dogma.

  • Karl Rogers

    Our last discourse analysis group session was interesting in relation to Harvey’s Language and Human Nature.

    We were discussing the ideological foundations of critical discourse analysis (CDA) in relation to Norman Fairclough’s foundational efforts in the 1980s for establish CDA as a field of study.

    The discussion soon spiralled into a a wide ranging discussions about media and politics, from the perspective of the political and social situation and tendencies in Argentina. Often quite tangential from the initial objective of the session.

    However, towards the end of session (defined by running out of time rather than coming to any conclusion), one of the teacher/students in the group related the initial question of ideological foundations to Harvey’s book by noting that CDA is underscore by particular theories of language [sociological Wittgensteinian/Foucautian/Gramscian] that both entail and presuppose theories of human nature and visions of the ideal society. They argued that if these theories are implicit then CDA can be seen as ideological. This raised questions about the nature of ideology that we did not have time to discuss further. Such is life.

    After the session, the discussion reminded me of some criticisms that had arisen while I was reading Harvey’s book. Often it seemed to me that Harvey’s account/theory of the relation between language and communication was vague and lacking development. Upon reflection on what seemed to be missing in relation to the general direction of Harvey’s questions, it seemed to me that, in Language and Human Nature, Harvey’s struggles had anticipated the need for CDA (and a great deal of contemporary socio-linguistics), as well as many of their foundational questions, and had begun in the 1970s the varied and enormous theoretical tasks involved in linking theories of language and communication that were subsequently developed in the 1980s by Norman Fairclough et al. While, at the same time, Harvey’s questions about how particular theories of human nature underwrite particular theories of language provide a vital and important critical tension that advocates of CDA need to address, if they are to avoid descent into unthinking ideological dogma.

  • Karl Rogers

    In the last session we continued our discussion about ideology and methods of media manipulation in relation to Fairclough’s CDA and Chomsky’s “The Journalist from Mars” (speech given to FAIR, 2002).

    Of course the discussion was lively, wide ranging, and often very funny. How could it not be?

    One thing I found to interesting, in relation to Harvey’s Language and Human Nature, was that the group, once again, returned to the central theme of how theories of human nature and visions of the future underwrite the ideological presumptions of CDA and editorial decisions, often in ways that are pre-conscious (or sub-conscious, if you prefer) and implicit in the ways that we talk. The discussion rapidly turned to how historical ideologies and visions of the ideal society, without any conscious manipulation or conspiracy, become embedded into people’s thinking and speaking, via the ways that we learn how to communicate successfully within a culture, a society, with all its diversity and complexity, that has its own history and evolving tendencies of development, albeit contradictory and chaotic.

    This brought us to the fundamental question of how we can turn upon this… gaze up these embedded ideologies and visions… recovering them and making them explicit… exposing them to critical reflection.

    Or will we inevitably end up like a dog chasing its own tail?

  • Karl Rogers

    In the last session we continued our discussion about ideology and methods of media manipulation in relation to Fairclough’s CDA and Chomsky’s “The Journalist from Mars” (speech given to FAIR, 2002).

    Of course the discussion was lively, wide ranging, and often very funny. How could it not be?

    One thing I found to interesting, in relation to Harvey’s Language and Human Nature, was that the group, once again, returned to the central theme of how theories of human nature and visions of the future underwrite the ideological presumptions of CDA and editorial decisions, often in ways that are pre-conscious (or sub-conscious, if you prefer) and implicit in the ways that we talk. The discussion rapidly turned to how historical ideologies and visions of the ideal society, without any conscious manipulation or conspiracy, become embedded into people’s thinking and speaking, via the ways that we learn how to communicate successfully within a culture, a society, with all its diversity and complexity, that has its own history and evolving tendencies of development, albeit contradictory and chaotic.

    This brought us to the fundamental question of how we can turn upon this… gaze up these embedded ideologies and visions… recovering them and making them explicit… exposing them to critical reflection.

    Or will we inevitably end up like a dog chasing its own tail?

  • Karl Rogers

    In our last and final CDA group session, we continued our discussion of ideology and language.

    In the morning, the group largely focussed on the historical situation in Argentina and how children were taught language during Peron’s era, e.g. “te amo, Evita” being the first words children were taught to read in schools, and how the military junta during the 1970s attempted to control the rules of discourse and censored what was permitted to be taught, printed, and spoken.

    In the afternoon, the group discussed how ideology shapes discursive events and linguistic structures in translation and teaching.

    The discussion of teaching resonnated with many of the ideas raised in Harvey’s Teaching and Dialogue, with its ideological aspect of implying a vision of how a human being should grow and what a good world would be like, and its non-ideological (pedagogical) aspects, which are to be understood in terms of whether it is successful as a underpinning for techinical methods and teaching practice. Both aspects are clearly related.

    Harvey’s Teaching As Dialogue is a very interesting book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in education. Many teachers who have read it and spoken to me about it also find it to be inspiring and provokative.

    The only reservation I have encountered is whether it is applicable to very young children. While I think that it is, with perhaps Montessori schools providing a starting point for phenomenological research here, I do agree that Harvey’s pedalogical ideas and questions need to be reshaped with particular focus on our understanding of the needs and limitations of very young children, as a distinct avenue of reflection and research, before they should be developed in the context of kindergarten or pre-school education.

    There are no conclusions here. But I would simply like to state that both Harvey’s Language and Human Nature and Teaching As Dialogue offer rich insights and deep questions for anyone interested in how we grow into human beings and understand that growth.

    Highly recommended.

  • Karl Rogers

    In our last and final CDA group session, we continued our discussion of ideology and language.

    In the morning, the group largely focussed on the historical situation in Argentina and how children were taught language during Peron’s era, e.g. “te amo, Evita” being the first words children were taught to read in schools, and how the military junta during the 1970s attempted to control the rules of discourse and censored what was permitted to be taught, printed, and spoken.

    In the afternoon, the group discussed how ideology shapes discursive events and linguistic structures in translation and teaching.

    The discussion of teaching resonnated with many of the ideas raised in Harvey’s Teaching and Dialogue, with its ideological aspect of implying a vision of how a human being should grow and what a good world would be like, and its non-ideological (pedagogical) aspects, which are to be understood in terms of whether it is successful as a underpinning for techinical methods and teaching practice. Both aspects are clearly related.

    Harvey’s Teaching As Dialogue is a very interesting book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in education. Many teachers who have read it and spoken to me about it also find it to be inspiring and provokative.

    The only reservation I have encountered is whether it is applicable to very young children. While I think that it is, with perhaps Montessori schools providing a starting point for phenomenological research here, I do agree that Harvey’s pedalogical ideas and questions need to be reshaped with particular focus on our understanding of the needs and limitations of very young children, as a distinct avenue of reflection and research, before they should be developed in the context of kindergarten or pre-school education.

    There are no conclusions here. But I would simply like to state that both Harvey’s Language and Human Nature and Teaching As Dialogue offer rich insights and deep questions for anyone interested in how we grow into human beings and understand that growth.

    Highly recommended.

  • http://harveysarles.com Harvey Sarles

    Karl,
    thank you for reading Language and Human Nature – and taking the reading discussion into your classes. I appreciate your thoughts and comments and look forward to our ongoing conversations regarding these issues…toward the encompassing studies of Human Nature.
    Harvey

  • http://harveysarles.com Harvey Sarles

    Karl,
    thank you for reading Language and Human Nature – and taking the reading discussion into your classes. I appreciate your thoughts and comments and look forward to our ongoing conversations regarding these issues…toward the encompassing studies of Human Nature.
    Harvey