Re: teleology and language

From: Douglas P. Wilson (
Date: Tue Apr 30 2002 - 20:36:29 BST

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    From: "Douglas P. Wilson" <>
    Subject: Re: teleology and language
    Cc: Robert Neville <>
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    Wade Smith, <>, quoted my comment on the evolution of

    >> some people remain convinced that language does evolve, but I don't
    >> Brains evolve. Language doesn't.

    and added:

    > Some people replace 'language' with 'culture' and
    > see no incorrectness, but, indeed, a fuller understanding
    > of the phenomenon.

    There is something right about that, although I think some of the memetic
    content of language is not "culturally accessible" since it is unavailable
    even to native speakers of the language, in more or less the same way our
    DNA includes a lot of sequences that aren't used for anything but are passed
    along through the generations for reasons nobody has yet divined.

    Maybe there are no reasons, maybe they are just useless noise, but people
    like the late Lewis Thomas have seen ways they may be a vital part of some
    global genetic process. I don't really know enough about genetics to form
    an intelligent opinion on that, but when it comes to language I think I know
    enough to state with certainty that natural languages are full of something
    we don't use, some kind of content we can't get a handle on, but do pass
    along to our children.

    But whether we could just replace the word "language" with "culture" is a
    difficult question. Whenever I try to think about this I always seem to
    fall into one of those semantic traps the analytic philosophers used to set
    for the unwary.

    Natural languages are, I think we would all agree, something vitally
    important but terribly hard to understand. So I concentrate instead on
    various kinds of artifical languages, e.g. the lower predicate calculus,
    Fortran, C, Python, the Colon Classification, deontic logic, and so on.

    I am quite fluent in a few of these language-like things, and writing in
    them seems quite a lot like writing ordinary text, as I am doing here and
    now, so I do think of them as languages, and in my mind they have started to
    replace natural languages as defining paradigms for the word language.

    That's bad enough, and any analytic philosopher who is worth his salt could
    surely write a devasting critique of this abuse of lang..., I mean for this
    abuse of our normal medium of communication, but this philosophical sin in
    only the beginning. Before long I find myself measuring natural languages
    against these new paradigms, and finding they don't measure up very well.
    Before long I find myself saying that English, Russian, and Walpiri are not
    actually languages at all, they are, as Wade Smith said, culture -- memetic
    content expressed in some underlying mathematical ideal language.

    At which point even the dullest philosophy undergraduate will surely say
    that all of the above points notwithstanding, English, Russian, and Walpiri
    must be languages because they are precisely what the word "language"

    Oh, Semantics, Semantics, god of communication, why do you torture me thus?


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