Talking to Aliens.

Daniel Oberhaus writes for Wired about the (so far hypothetical) problem of contacting aliens that begins by describing Sónar Calling GJ273b, “an interstellar messaging project by the nonprofit METI International that began in 2017” which “was notable for rehabilitating an extraterrestrial language developed by the physicists Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas in the late 1990s”:

This custom symbolic system begins by introducing ET to numerals, and then progresses to more complex topics like human biology and the planets in our solar system. An earlier version of the language was first sent into space in 1999 and again in 2003 as part of the Cosmic Call messages—a crowd-sourced interstellar messaging project that marked the first serious attempt at interstellar communication since Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent the Arecibo message into space 25 years earlier.

All of these formal messaging attempts have taken basically the same approach: Teach numerals and basic arithmetic first. But as some recent insights in neurolinguistics suggest, it might not be the best way to greet our alien neighbors.

The world’s first interstellar communication system, the lingua cosmica, or Lincos, set the tone for all subsequent attempts by placing basic math at its core. Designed by the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal in 1960, Lincos inspired several other mathematicians and scientists to try their hand at designing extraterrestrial languages. Each system is ultimately an attempt at solving a remarkably complex problem: How do you communicate with an intelligent entity you know nothing about?

The question gets at the nature of intelligence itself. Humans are the only species on Earth endowed with advanced mathematical ability and a fully fledged faculty of language, but are these hallmarks of intelligence or human idiosyncrasies? Is there an aspect of intelligence that is truly universal?

There’s some tosh about “universal grammar,” then:

There is a good chance that ET’s planet will be quite a bit different from our own, and the species there will adapt accordingly. But the course of evolution on ET’s planet will still be bound by the same physical laws, and ET will face the same fundamental constraints on time, energy, and resources. So it is reasonable to assume that extraterrestrial evolution might arrive at similar solutions to these common problems, such as a brain capable of wielding hierarchical, recursive languages.

If that’s the case, then the best way to communicate large amounts of information may not be painstakingly designing artificial languages from scratch, but sending a large corpus of natural language text, such as an encyclopedia. This is how we train natural language algorithms on Earth, which tease out the rules of human language by statistically analyzing large collections of text. If ET has developed its own AI, it could potentially decipher the structure of a natural language message.

Which makes sense to me. Thanks, Bathrobe!

Comments

  1. About a 1924 attempt to receive communication from the alien,

    https://jonathanmorse.blog/2015/06/12/asks-air-silence-seeks-sign/

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    the best way to communicate large amounts of information may not be painstakingly designing artificial languages from scratch, but sending a large corpus of natural language text, such as an encyclopedia

    Particularly as in reality (as opposed to Chomskyworld), we aren’t all that far advanced in analysing the structure of our own languages. They might be better at it …

    The encyclopedia would still need to have some pretty good pictures (and the equivalent for other sensory modalities than sight, too.) It won’t matter how Paninian the aliens are if they have no way of correlating the text with anything else about us. Of course if they turn out to be Chomskyite aliens they probably will not be concerned with meaning at all, unlike us pitiful humans.

  3. I think most of the interesting debate about how to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences these days is not about the content, but rather the method of communication. Consider that radio technology is less than 150 years old and laser technology less than half that. What’s more, we have only within the last couple decades become able to identify other nearby stars with systems of planets. In another century, we may well have mapped out every planet in our arm of the Milky Way that might be capable of supporting life. And at that point, it may be more efficient in terms of energy and signal-to-noise to send tightly-targeted messages at optical wavelengths, using giant (orbital) lasers. Unless extraterrestrials are interested in making contact with us when we are just barely at the threshold of the Space Age, they may not even be listening in the radio, for just the same reasons. And if they want to be in touch, they probably know where to look for us already.

  4. IIRC the reason for starting with maths (or rather with arithmetic and counting) is: the medium is the message. If we’re broadcasting (and therefore the aliens are receiving) via electro-magnetic radiation (be it radio waves or light), then the aliens have mastered a technology that can distinguish patterns encoded within variations in frequency or by on/off transmissions. So they know math; whether or not they have anything vaguely comparable to language.

    (Perhaps someone can remember/reference this example better than my failing memory.) Something/someone has been broadcasting a pattern which is a digital image showing the solar system and a human and highlighting the third rock from the sun. The key to obtaining a two-dimensional image is that the series of dots-dashes repeats at a cycle that is a square of a prime number; so snip the message into segments of that prime-number length; arrange into rows/columns (there’s only a few ways to do that); and only one of those arrangements makes a 2D image that looks coherent. Of course only one way what looks coherent to a human won’t necessarily look coherent to an alien; but we only suppose they can draw wire diagrams, not speak no language.

  5. … ah, here we go: it was the Arecibo message. “The number 1,679 [binary digits] was chosen because it is a semiprime (the product of two prime numbers), to be arranged rectangularly …”

    (My memory was within a shout of the math.)

  6. Richard Hershberger says:

    “the best way to communicate large amounts of information may not be painstakingly designing artificial languages from scratch, but sending a large corpus of natural language text, such as an encyclopedia”

    Going from distant memory, as I recall this was what they did in Robert L. Forward’s “Dragon’s Egg.” There they had the added twist that the aliens they were trying to communicate lived much, much faster than us. Living as they did on a neutron star, they weren’t based on chemistry in the normal sense of atoms’ electron shells interacting. Once the humans realized this, they grabbed a database they had handy and did a massive data dump at the highest speed they could.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Had the Minimalist Programme had any actual claim to validity, it would presumably mean that pretty much any conceivable language would have to be structurally like our earthling languages. As far as I can see, the Programme is an effort to demonstrate that the entire baroque Chomskyan edifice follows as a natural and inevitable consequence just from Merge (along with real-world practical constraints on production which would seem likely to bear on little furry creatures from Alpha Centauri just as much as humans); and as Merge is (indeed) probably the least possible thing that you need to have in order to get anything properly describable as “language” at all, it would seem to follow that Old High Martian would inevitably have theta-roles, island effects, you name it, the whole thing.

    (The stuff about the “language organ” being “uniquely human” is a red herring in this context. It would rather be unique to language-wielders – pretty much by definition – quite irrespective of whether they were human or not.)

    Unfortunately the said natural and inevitable consequence is perceptible only to Chomskyan initiates.

  8. AJP Crown says:

    Forgive my ignorance but aren’t maths and natural science languages, as much as French or Japanese are, each with its own metaphors for nature? When a picture is worth a thousand words and we’ve no reason to expect an alien to understand maths any more than Proust, why communicate in computer code? Is it the only way we can broadcast data nowadays, just because it’s current? Aliens may come to resent massive data dumps, just as I don’t like 20 Chinese menus being left in my letterbox. They might like the occasional good book or a couple of photographs of different dog breeds. Keep it simple, that was how things were sent into space in the old days.

  9. AJP Crown says:

    They might like a few new recipes.

  10. AJP Crown says:

    What I definitely think we mustn’t do is write “Please, please help us. We’re all polluted and bombing each other and running out of space and we need a place to move…” No begging letters even if that’s the goal.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    If there are any Chomskyans still around when we make First Contact, I foresee a schism: one school will discover that the tried and trusted techniques which have discovered the selfsame structure in Kabardian, Vietnamese, Warlpiri and Blackfoot can (with moderate ingenuity and many peer-reviewed articles) be extended just as well to Arcturan; the other school will deny that Arcturan communication constitutes a language at all.

  12. Forgive my ignorance but aren’t maths and natural science languages, as much as French or Japanese are

    No. They’re tools that use some of the elements of language.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    They might like a few new recipes

    It might be as well to use the opportunity to claim that we are inedible.

  14. In before someone else references “To Serve Man.”

  15. AJP Crown says:

    to claim
    Exactly. They’ll make the final decision.

    Tools with elements of language; then much like the encyclopedia he mentions. I see I just repeated what he said, only worse. Beam them down Wikipedia, but keep the discussion pages for a later transmission so we don’t look too argumentative.

  16. AJP Crown says:

    “To Serve Man, it’s… it’s a cookbook!” “In the show … a staff of cryptographers attempts to decipher the alien language as though it were some secret code, which is utterly ludicrous. Without some sort of interplanetary Rosetta stone, deciphering an unknown language would be impossible.”

    – Marc Scott Zicree, a science fiction author.
    That would apply to an encyclopedia as well as a cookbook, presumably.

    Zicree also points out that the chances of the word “serve” having the same dual meaning in both English and another language, especially an alien one, are almost nil.

    Not if they play tennis.

  17. Amando servare ‘It’s Amanda’s turn to serve.’

  18. @AJP Crown: The original story “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight is very clearly intended not to be taken seriously. In fact, it’s actually pretty silly—in spite of the dark punchline at the end. I notice that in that quote from Zicree, he seems to be talking about the famous Twilight Zone episode, which tries to take the story much more seriously, and I think compares quite unfavorably to the story. However, the television version seems to have a much stronger place in the public consciousness. For example, I just looked at the Wikipedia page specifically about the story, and it does not even mention one of the most important elements of the story (an element which was not part of the Twilight Zone episode): The very first thing the narrator of the story talks about, going on for several paragraphs (of what is not a very long story) is the humorous and thematically significant fact that the Kanamit aliens are anthropomorphic pigs!

  19. David Marjanović says:

    inedible

    Indeed. Check out the end of this section for… starters.

  20. Besides, why should we care whether the cosmos will ever run out of hominids? It’s not as if our evolutionary descendants at that distance would be recognisably human! And while the development of true “artificial intelligence” is a way off yet, on a geological timescale it’s the AIs we should be thinking of as our descendants, not their pet monkeys. As long as we avoid doing anything irresponsible in the short term, we can expect the long‐term survival of our intellectual offspring to take care of itself.

    This is my take on the subject as well.

  21. Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a
    trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and
    incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the
    minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable.

    Man said, “The Universe is dying.”

  22. AJP Crown says:

    the Kanamit aliens are anthropomorphic pigs!
    Yes, that changes the story a bit.

    hominids
    A big dumb object BDO, only without objectlike mechanical qualities, is an appealing alternative to daleks etc. I find it convincing. Ethereal, perhaps heavenly (or hellish) but minus the anthropomorphic God-object. And it accounts for why we haven’t seen “them”, the Fermi paradox.

  23. Breffni says:

    Is there any scepticism left in the scientific community about the existence of communicating ETs? In my admittedly superficial reading on the topic what bothers me is the conflation of “intelligent life” with “civilisation”. The WP article on the Fermi paradox tells us that “some [exoplanets] may have developed intelligent life long ago”, then immediately after that “some of these civilizations may have developed interstellar travel”. I’ve seen versions of the Drake equation that make a similar jump. But there’s a whole lot of contingency between intelligent life and civilisation, and between civilisation and interstellar chattiness.

  24. Well, the idea seems to be that Earth is not that special and that what has happened here has happened elsewhere as well, both the development of intelligent life and the trajectory to civilisation and space exploration. There are probably lots of scientists who don’t buy into that; I assume we hear much less from them because that this is a position that isn’t very thrilling (and, therefore, not very newsworthy) and that all they have to do is sit back until it becomes clear that no aliens are returning our calls. The communicators need money for their projects and therefore need to bang their drums.

  25. It is interesting to consider how the perceived importances of the various terms in the Drake Equation have varied over time. The estimates of the number of stars and (more recently) the number of planets* in the Milky Way have largely been based on sound empirical science, but the subsequent terms are much, much less well understood. I recall, probably around 1990, the radio astronomer Patrick Palmer making the (admittedly pessimistic) estimates that perhaps only 1 in 100,000,000 million planets might be suitable for life, and even of those, only 1 in 100,000,000 might actually have life develop. At those rates, we would be quite alone in the galaxy, which makes it seem rather peculiar that Palmer was one of the leaders of the Ozma II experiment—which was a targeted search for signals from extraterrestrial intelligences coming from just a few hundred relatively nearby stars. On the other hand, Palmer, Frank Drake, and many others seemed to think that once life would develop, intelligent life was probably pretty much inevitable, and that the intelligent life would also inevitably develop technologically.

    However, as our understanding of the history of life on Earth has pushed the earliest organisms back almost as far as they could possibly go (life probably could have arisen until after the end of the Hadean Period, since in the Hadean there was no liquid water, or even a consistently present solid crust), it seems like life might actually be a much more ubiquitous phenomenon than people had previously thought. There is also still the possibility that there may have been primitive unicellular life on Mars billions of years ago, which subsequently disappeared as conditions there deteriorated (due to the planet’s faster cooling and loss of atmosphere—both effects being due to it being substantially smaller than Earth). So there may actually be a lot more suitable planets, and life may appear astronomically more frequently than older estimates like Palmer’s. On the other hand, if life existed on Mars, it did not last (or if a few Martian organisms do still survive, they must be a very small population of extremophiles), and higher organisms never evolved. Even on Earth, sexual reproduction is, at most, about two billion years old, and multicellular organisms are less than one billion years old. For most of the last half billion years, the planet has been swarming with advanced multicellular lifeforms, but intelligence only appeared extremely recently. So the idea, promoted by Stephen J. Gould, that the planet could easily have had a highly developed biosphere, which nonetheless looked very little like the planet we know,** is being taken a lot more seriously. According to this kind of thinking, life may be fairly common, but the evolution of intelligent life—and specifically, technological intelligent life—may be much more exceptional than once thought.

    * There is an unambiguous dividing line between stars and sub-stellar bodies. Stars are large enough to produce energy by nuclear fusion. However, the dividing line between major and minor planets is much murkier,*** as we learned with Pluto about fifteen years ago. This could continue to be a thorny issue as we observe more small exoplanets. (At present, we are still observing an incredibly skewed distribution of exoplanets.**** Some of the first observed exoplanets were so large and so close to their stars that some theorists suggested that they were inconsistent with our models of solar system formation. But no, it was just that, since being massive and having a small orbit both make a planet easier to detect, the first exoplanets we saw were all way, way far out in the tail of the overall distribution, and it should have been no surprise that the first ones we were able to see were extremely atypical.)

    ** However, Gould’s presentation of this idea, in his book Wonderful Life and elsewhere, was actually somewhat disingenuous, I think. He seemed to deliberately overlook the fact that in the animal kingdom, the two most successful phyla (by any reasonable criteria), the arthropods and the chordates, are those which have developed articulated (exo- and endo-)skeletons, which enable them to grow larger and to support more complicated structures. It seems pretty unlikely that the fact that the phyla with the body plans that enable the greatest structural complexity have come to dominate the animal world purely by coincidence, as Gould would have had it.

    *** I was thinking about this demarcation line a couple days ago, and it occurred to me that if our species had evolved on a gas giant, we might have very different ideas about what should constitute a proper planet. There is a sort of ranking one could establish for the sizes/importances of planetary bodies. From the smallest to the largest mass necessary, we can set conditions as:

    1. A body must be massive enough to be approximately spherical under its own self-gravitation.
    2. A body must dominate its orbital region, not being a satellite of a larger planetary body and having largely cleared its orbit of other matter.
    3. A body must have accumulated an atmosphere more massive than its solid core.

    We choose to set the boundary between major (or true) planets and minor (dwarf) ones between conditions 1 and 2. But if we were gas planet autocthons, we might equally well have chosen to place it between 2 and 3, so that our solar system would have only four planets, rather than eight. (Historically, of course, another reason that we include the four largest rocky bodies in the solar system as major planets is that Mercury, Venus, and Mars are all, like Jupiter and Saturn, bright naked eye objects.)

    **** We are getting to the point that we soon may have reliable information about how common Jupiter-sized and larger planets are throughout our galactic neighborhood. It is going to take a lot longer to get good statistics on the number and sizes of terrestrial planets, since they are so much harder to see. This is actually a variant of a problem seen in many different areas of astronomy. For example, we know a fair amount about the historical development and evolution of large spiral and elliptical galaxies. However, the much more numerous small galaxies are far less well understood, because they are mostly too dim for us to see when they are located at truly cosmological distances.

  26. And of course it’s essentially impossible to correct for what we have insufficient knowledge of; we can tell ourselves it’s important all we like, but we inevitably focus on what we know (aka “looking under the streetlight”).

  27. Breffni says:

    Pinker in How the Mind Works did a good job of undermining the idea that intelligence is inevitable, with an analogy to an elephant civilisation undertaking a Search for Extraterrestrial Trunks (SETT), but my beef is with the leap from intelligence to sky-watching civilisations, which I haven’t seen critiqued.

    Waving aside the debate about what intelligence even is, and assuming we’ve got it in one or more species on a hypothetical exoplanet, these intelligent organisms also need to be gregarious; cooperative; capable of abstract, hypothetical and displaced thought; able to communicate with precision (including on hypothetical, abstract and displaced propositions); have a cultural drive, i.e., a concern for posterity; have a recording system; be curious; live in an environment with exploitable manufacturing materials; live in an environment with exploitable fuel; and not least, they need to be dextrous.

    Those may not all be independent probabilities; maybe abstract thought inevitably gives rise to language, for example, or vice versa. But at the very least it’s not self-evident. Many of them certainly are independent, and they’re not all universal even across human cultures, or consistently present through history. When you multiply the individual probabilities of all those things being in place, you could end up with a very low number indeed for the relevant term in the Drake equation.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Fermi Paradox leads to the uncomfortable thought that it would be ominous to discover signs of life on Mars.

    It would be comforting when speculating about our own future to believe that very few planets have developed life at all, i.e. that the bottleneck in the eventual development of spacefaring civilisations is early – as opposed to, for example, an overwhelming tendency for technologically advanced civilisations to destroy their own ecospheres beyond repair before they get a chance to get off their home worlds in significant numbers.

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    On the other hand (continuing my remorseless positivity), the bottleneck could easily be the development of intelligence.

    It’s natural to suppose that intelligence in the sense we possess/understand it would confer such an overwhelming advantage that it would be strongly selected for in evolutionary terms (and therefore, that intelligent life should be common where there is life at all); but I don’t think that the evidence on this planet actually bears that out. (Among other factors, witness the remarkable lack of genetic diversity in our own species compared with other primates, and what that probably means.) Intelligence as we understand it may be just like a peacock’s tail. Are peacocks’ tails common in the universe? (Maybe they are. Perhaps that’s the whole point of it all …)

  30. That reminds me of James Tiptree, Jr.’s “A Momentary Taste of Being.”

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    I haven’t read that. However, having been mightily impressed by what I have read of her work, I think I might now …

    [Oops. Yes, I have read it. Just forgot the title. Yes, I see what you mean …]

  32. Do so by all means.

  33. (I am one of that graying cohort of fans who experienced the shock of learning that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman, and the schadenfreude of Robert Silverberg’s consequent discomfiture.)

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    I must say it’s difficult to see how anyone could ever have doubted it, but then hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    Several of her stories are quite uncomfortable reading if you’re male, the more so as she writes so well that you pretty much have to take her point …

    I must say that there’s no cosmic law dictating that a man couldn’t have written those stories, after all.

    My daughter, to whom the name Alexei was not (at that time) obviously male, was astonished to discover that the author of Rite of Passage had (as far as we know) never in fact been an adolescent girl …

  35. I might as well provide the Silverberg quote in all its glory: “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”

  36. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s the Jr. that’s the stroke of genius. “James Tiptree”, yes: perhaps a woman using a pseudonym. But James Tiptree, Jr.

  37. Yes, it beggars belief that Tiptree’s father would have been a woman as well.

  38. Of course, now I’m thinking of “All You Zombies”…

  39. David Marjanović says:

    In my admittedly superficial reading on the topic what bothers me is the conflation of “intelligent life” with “civilisation”.

    Radioastronomers define intelligence as the ability to build a radiotelescope.

    In other words, they take an existing word and use it to name what they can actually look for.

    Some of the first observed exoplanets were so large and so close to their stars that some theorists suggested that they were inconsistent with our models of solar system formation. But no, it was just that, since being massive and having a small orbit both make a planet easier to detect, the first exoplanets we saw were all way, way far out in the tail of the overall distribution, and it should have been no surprise that the first ones we were able to see were extremely atypical.

    …also, these planets probably formed much farther away and then spiraled in due to friction with the remains of the protoplanetary disk.

    multicellular organisms are less than one billion years old

    More than two, but we’re talking about red algae here, not the ability to build a radiotelescope…

    seemed to deliberately overlook the fact that in the animal kingdom, the two most successful phyla (by any reasonable criteria), the arthropods and the chordates, are those which have developed articulated (exo- and endo-)skeletons, which enable them to grow larger and to support more complicated structures.

    Very few arthropods are larger than a middle-sized mollusk or annelid (or a very small chordate).

    Conversely, calling Arthropoda and Chordata both “most successful” in the same breath strikes me as needing to be extended with “give or take a few zeroes”. The number of extant chordate species is given as “more than 65,000” on Wikipedia. That’s not comparable to Arthropoda, it’s comparable to Hemiptera, the true bugs in the wider sense*, which count “some 50,000 to 80,000 species” today.

    For Mollusca, Wikipedia claims 85,000 known extant species and adds: “The proportion of undescribed species is very high.” Arthropoda is at over a million and counting (thousands more are added every year).

    The annelids are not so diverse, but at 22,000 they’re still comparable to Tetrapoda or Actinopterygii**.

    * The truly true bugs are Heteroptera, a part of Hemiptera.
    ** True fish. Eels included, as the aquarium of Atlanta seems not to know.

  40. John Cowan says:

    Stars are large enough to produce energy by nuclear fusion

    By that definition, white dwarfs are not stars.

    A body must have accumulated an atmosphere more massive than its solid core.

    Asimov once characterized the solar system thus: “four planets plus rubble”.

    Radioastronomers define intelligence as the ability to build a radiotelescope.

    Larry Niven’s slower-than-light trading species, the Monks, define sapience as the ability to construct a launching laser for a starship. If a Monk ship arrives at a planet without sapient life, they use the hachiroph shisp to make the planet’s star go nova. In “The Fourth Profession”, Earth humans do not have this capability….

  41. @John Cowan: There is still plenty of fusion going on in white dwarfs. It’s obviously far less than it was in earlier stages of stellar evolution, but it’s still quite substantial.

  42. David L says:

    Actually, no: a white dwarf is the remnant of a star in which all fusion has ceased. It’s therefore not a star, strictly speaking. It’s luminosity is of an emberitious nature — it is a hot thing cooling down.

    A red dwarf, on the other hand, is a very low-mass star in which fusion is happening, but just barely. A brown dwarf is smaller than a red dwarf, and does not sustain fusion at all.

  43. If a Monk ship arrives at a planet without sapient life, they use the hachiroph shisp to make the planet’s star go nova.

    What’s the rationale for this — they enjoy making things go boom?

  44. Owlmirror says:

    If a Monk ship arrives at a planet without sapient life, they use the hachiroph shisp to make the planet’s star go nova.

    What’s the rationale for this — they enjoy making things go boom?

    As Cowan says, they need a launching laser to propel their ships onward. If there’s no laser, they’re stuck at the planet of arrival. The nova is meant to power the lightsail-spaceship onwards to a presumably more civilized destination.

    As with many SF stories, genocide is taken for granted as a reasonable solution to a problem. Bootstrapping or Uplifitng a planet’s species to the point where they can build a launching laser is Too Much Work, I guess, as are less lethal methods of stellar manipulation.

  45. Ah, gotcha.

  46. @David L: That’s the way white dwarfs are usually explained, but it’s an oversimplification. There is no such thing as a white dwarf that is made entirely of helium and metals; there is always a certain amount of hydrogen still present. Since white dwarfs are highly convective, their contents remain relatively well mixed, including the remaining protons. While there are no more direct p-p chain reactions (let alone fusion of helium into metals), the abundant carbon means that the catalytic CNO bi-cycle can keep slowly converting hydrogen into helium.

    This is usually not discussed much, because the remaining fusion is no longer the main source of stellar energy. Nor does it play any role at all in supporting the star against collapse. (Younger stars are supported by the outward gas and radiation pressure produced by their fusion heat, but white dwarfs are kept from collapsing by quantum-mechanical degeneracy pressure. The Pauli Exclusion Principle keeps the electrons in the plasma from being squeezed into too small a space.)

  47. Owlmirror says:

    Of course, “The Fourth Profession” is also the story where a “language-learning” pill is too hard to make. No, no, it’s much easier to make a pill for being a frigging prophet who has, among other gifts for literal miracles, Speaking in Tongues.

    *snort*

  48. AJP Crown says:

    Today’s one-day-only* free sample of the LRB is an article by Frederic Jameson on time travel:
    https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v37/n17/fredric-jameson/in-hyperspace?utm_campaign=20200726%20DT95&utm_content=usca_nonsubs&utm_medium=email&utm_source=LRB%20themed%20email

    *(I’ve got a copy)

  49. AJP Crown says:

    Right, it’s “Fredric”. Sorry, Fred.

  50. PlasticPaddy says:

    @ajp
    The author displays an impressive erudition, but he does not develop the point that creation of time-travel fiction might stem from the same (mythic) impetus as for exotic travel fiction (including visits to the moon or the Underworld and cases where the traveller is exotic and serves as a mouthpiece for the fiction author’s clever or ironic observations of features of his/her society) and historical fiction (which is mentioned briefly in the article).

  51. David Eddyshaw says:

    The author seems concerned to dazzle rather than illuminate. Possibly it is I who am dim, however.

  52. Eh, it’s Fredric Jameson — he is at least as concerned with dazzling as with informing, but I usually find it’s worth plowing through the Ding an sich to extract the good-to-think-with nuggets. Here are some bits I might want to return to later:

    This is why science fiction, despite appearances, cannot be said simply to carry on the traditional narrative methods of ‘old-fashioned realism’, merely applying it to fantastic or at least non-realistic content. Rather, it enlists the visual literality of Einstein’s thought experiments to convey conceptions often more outlandish than his own (and this is no doubt the moment to disabuse the sceptical reader of the still widespread opinion that science fiction is always about ‘science’). For Einstein’s ‘experiments’ were very far from being the laboratory experiments and falsification devices in terms of which the history of ‘hard science’ is so often written (it took a good deal of ingenuity to invent a ‘real experiment’ – the solar measurements of 1919 – to confirm his ‘scientific’ theories). Rather, Einstein’s demonstrations were pedagogical, texts more closely related to children’s books than to applications for a grant. Yet these ‘examples’ are not to be understood as mere rhetoric: they pioneered a form of schematism which authorised the early writers of science fiction to take their cosmological fantasies literally and to re-enact in a visual (or later on a cinematographic) mode the dynamics of worlds either too large or too small to be conveyed by human language (perhaps, then, as Badiou’s work has been reminding us, mathematics is one of the ultimate – and alternative – forms of such literality or schematisation).

    * * *

    For although Bellamy’s novel [Looking Backward] was not the first time-travel narrative, its immense success was political as well as literary, and drew attention to a seemingly secondary defect, shared by William Morris’s reply in News from Nowhere (1890), which lay precisely in the way that ‘transition’ was imagined (or not imagined) by both authors: in each case, the narrator falls into a magnetic sleep, only to awaken a century later in Utopia. This failure of imagination is the same, I want to argue, as that of the political revolutions designed to achieve the same transition in real life: the absence of a third term between the two systems, the absence of a mechanism.

    Wells’s formal innovation, on the other hand, lay in his shifting of the reader’s attention to a technological substitute for the missing historical transition, namely the time machine. (We might argue that the party was Lenin’s analogous innovation in the realm of political strategy.) With the insertion of this technological third term, the hitherto merely notional fantasy of time travel had become a full-blown genre, capable of standing on its own and developing its history autonomously according to its own now semi-autonomous formal laws and structural problems.

    * * *

    It is my opinion that it is precisely this opposition – between the initial data, or raw materials, of the story and the unique form the storyteller chooses to tell it in – which resurfaces in modern linguistics in the form of the all too familiar opposition between the signified and the signifier, the énoncé and the énonciation etc, not to speak of their reappropriation by narratologists (as histoire versus discours and the like). But the earlier version of this linguistic opposition in fact involved three terms rather than two: alongside the signifier and signified there was thought to be that mysterious thing, the referent – the object in the reality outside the mind, where its merely mental image is registered. Lacan slyly reinserts the referent in the form of that Kantian Ding-an-sich which is the Real (in its Lacanian acceptation, inaccessible to language or conscious thought). But the vast majority of structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers wage an implacable war on the ‘referent’ and its supposedly ideological conception of a ‘real’ reality out there (of which truth is the accurate reflection, etc). Yet in this process, in which the old tripartite linguistic scheme is whittled down to the simple opposition of signifier to signified, some of the opprobrium that hitherto attached to the referent now comes to contaminate the second term, the signified, which seems to have more or less taken its place. Thus the primacy of the signifier begins, and the fundamental dogma of textuality – ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ – induces a profound philosophical reorganisation in which the signifier not only determines the signified, but in its temporal version, the effect determines the cause and the present the past.

    * * *

    Wittenberg, now following Shklovsky closely, has done what none of the currently fashionable celebrants of ‘reading’ have dared to do: he has theorised its structure, which consists in the positing (as Hegel might say) of fabula over syuzhet, that is, in the necessity of some prior ‘belief’ in the fabula which can alone enable our reception of the syuzhet. ‘Reading for the referent’, the structuralists contemptuously called this; but it is surely true, and a better way of saying it than ‘suspension of disbelief’ or other ingenious attempts to ensure the difference of fiction from fact, to hold on to the old conventional notion of reality while ensuring a momentary grace period for the consumption of literary narrative. But if everything is narrative, as we seem nowadays to believe, then this division no longer holds; and as for belief or disbelief, Rodney Needham long ago demonstrated the incoherence of this pseudo-concept in Belief, Language and Experience (1973) – though nobody believed him. If, however, you like the word, let’s keep it (if only provisionally): so the new Wittenberg/ Shklovsky doctrine maintains the priority of a ‘belief’ in the fabula over the syuzhet (which nobody believes, it is nothing but literature). Reading then involves what Wittenberg (following Kant’s example) will ingeniously and pertinently call ‘the fabula a priori’. Even when reading those patently false narratives called novels, we still believe in something, namely the fabula; and this holds, as he demonstrates, for the so-called experimental or modernist novel fully as much as for the allegedly traditional kind. But in that case, there is at least one term we can get rid of for good, and that is the word ‘fiction’: fiction is a fiction, if you prefer, and in a world where everything is narrative, we can eliminate it. ‘Fiction’ was the now discarded theory that the fabula could be either true or false; whereas, if you want to put it that way, the fabula is always true.

    Sure, all that stuff about how reality doesn’t exist and belief is incoherent is postmodernist drivel, but it makes one think. (I note with a disapproving finger-wag that the piece mentions literature’s “supercession” by philosophy. Oh, LRB, surely you know better!)

  53. AJP Crown says:

    Yes, that’s a good point he could have mentioned. I thought he had things to say about SF in general: modernism (by the way, I see Marshall Berman’s All that’s Solid Melts into Air that Language wrote about a few years ago is now available free online as a pdf) for example, and picture-thinking; it’s always the visualisation that fundamentally bothers me in SF. Fredric Jameson is heavy going for me when he gets on to literary theory and anything French (anything about what he teaches, in other words), so I skip those bits. And he’s not always right (see the letter at the bottom).

  54. AJP Crown says:

    That was directed to Mr O’Furniture, whose comment was the only one when I started writing but then I went out and dug up some of the garden and came back and finished it… and there were three more. I don’t think Jameson is as well known in the British Isles as he is in America, so https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fredric_Jameson

  55. David Eddyshaw says:

    as for belief or disbelief, Rodney Needham long ago demonstrated the incoherence of this pseudo-concept

    I find it hard to maintain my patience with this sort of verbiage. People who actually do believe this sort of thing (as opposed to claiming to believe it, in a mist of self-congratulatory delusion, to show how intellectually advanced they are) are not comfortably holding chairs at prestigious universities. They are desperately sad individuals coping with horribly limited lives with the help of medication.

    (Admittedly there may be some overlap between these categories.)

  56. AJP Crown says:
  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    Interesting: thanks!

    He was capable of singing Gurkha songs fluently in Oxford restaurants.

    Aren’t we all, when it comes right down to it? It is not ours to judge.

  58. I find it hard to maintain my patience with this sort of verbiage.

    Oh, I do too, but I find it helpful to take such maintenance as a kind of spiritual exercise, a mortification of the brain if you will.

  59. AJP Crown says:

    I thought you might find this appealing, DE, especially because of your sceptical interest in Chomsky:

    the book he thought his best was Belief, Language and Experience (1972) which, apart from its argument that belief does not exist as an inner state, could be regarded as a manual of methods to be brought to bear on exotic linguistic and intellectual categories

    the writer might have something quite different in mind for “exotic”, of course.

  60. AJP Crown says:

    a kind of spiritual exercise
    I agree. It’s the same for me with Perry Anderson’s pieces and some others in the LRB when I’m bored with boring old daily political news.

  61. Yes, same here.

  62. David Eddyshaw says:

    @AJP:

    Indeed, it rather looks as if I might find Belief, Language and Experience interesting, though it also might prove bad for my blood pressure. I’m encouraged by the invocation of the holy name of St Ludwig, though.

  63. … the schadenfreude of Robert Silverberg’s consequent discomfiture

    To be fair, Silverberg’s subsequent acknowledgment of his mistake was rather gracious (see the first comment to this blog post):

    … and there I was in print upholding the ineluctable masculinity of “Tiptree’s” writing. Okay: no shame attaches. She fooled me beautifully, along with everyone else, and called into question the entire notion of what is “masculine” or “feminine” in fiction. I am still wrestling with that. What I have learned is that there are some women who can write about traditionally male topics more knowledgeably than most men, and that the truly superior artist can adopt whatever tone is appropriate to the material and bring it off. And I have learned–again; as if I needed one more lesson in it–that Things Are Seldom What They Seem. For these aspects of my education, Alli Sheldon, I thank you. And for much else.

  64. Yes, that was gracious indeed, and I’m glad he said it.

  65. January First-of-May says:

    The part that stuck out to me in Fredric Jameson’s article – amid all the philosophous dazzlement that I felt compelled to scroll through – was his use of “syuzhet” as if it was an English word (not even emphasized, the way “Ding an sich” was). I suppose the distinction intended by the Russian philosopher who used it doesn’t really work in English that well, but it still feels weird.

    Incidentally, my favorite example of early time-travel fiction that somehow never gets mentioned in lists of such (that I know of) is Galoshes of Fortune (1838).

  66. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Lykkens galocher! — I remembered the main theme (nobody actually wants what they think they want) but I had forgot all about the time travel segment. Not one of H.C.Andersen’s best known works in Denmark, though I may have heard it read aloud many many years ago — is it better known elsewhere?

    Derivation disputed.

  67. PlasticPaddy says:

    @lars
    In my mind galoot, German Klotz and galoshes (something a galoot or Klotz would wear to splash in puddles?) are related. But not in reality.

  68. PlasticPaddy says:

    Actually clog in English would seem to be related to Klotz (block of wood). But no one has tried to relate clogs and galoshes.

  69. AJP Crown says:

    I’m encouraged by the invocation of the holy name of St Ludwig, though.
    If he was about 70 years old now, Wittgenstein would be a (British) national treasure.

    Lars: Derivation disputed
    Étymol. et Hist. 1263 forme latinisée plur. caloges, Troyes (ds Mél. Wartburg (W. von), 1968, t. 2, p. 213); cf. le dér. galochier « fabricant de galoches » 1292 ds DG

    In English, a century later, from the OED
    a. In early use: A wooden shoe or sandal fastened to the foot with thongs of leather
    b. In later use: An over-shoe (now usually made of india-rubber) worn to protect the ordinary shoe from wet or dirt.
    ‘Rare in U.S.’ ( Cent. Dict.).
    1373–4 in J. T. Fowler, Extracts from the Account Rolls of the Abbey of Durham III. 578 Pro bots, kaloges empt. pro dicto d’no Priore, 2s.
    1377 W. Langland Piers Plowman B. xviii. 14 As is þe kynde of a knyȝte þat cometh to be dubbed, To geten hem gylte spores or galoches ycouped.
    c1386 G. Chaucer Squire’s Tale Ne were worthy to unbokel his galoche.

    Of course it’s no longer true that they’re rare in the US, though the word may still be. LL Bean has the most authentic looking ones (“I use them to snow blow my driveway” says a customer) though these are called rain shoes and aren’t overshoes.

    The most famous galoshes in England are Jeremy Fisher‘s. A publisher has had the sicko idea to put out an edition with new drawings not by Beatrix Potter, and the illustrator has confused galoshes with waders.

  70. January First-of-May says:

    Russian has this word as both галоши and калоши; I dunno where the forms with /k/ came from. Vasmer says Russian borrowed the word from German.

  71. Of course it’s no longer true that they’re rare in the US, though the word may still be.

    They’re only talking about the word; the OED has no interest in footwear on the ground. Stat calopodia pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

  72. AJP Crown says:

    A shoemaker’s last, calopodia -æ. It’s about time someone compiled a dictionary of footwear; my choice would be Maira Kalman.

  73. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Galoshlessness is foolishness when sharply slants the sleet (Paul Jennings, The Jenguin Pennings)

  74. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Crown — Orig. très discutée; […] Plusieurs étymons ont été proposés. And then it gives four. Caloges is the first attestation of the French word (as a latinized plural), not a source.

    TLFI is sure that everybody else (English, German, Russian, Scandinavian) nicked it from French, and everybody else seem to disagree only on the path it took from French.

  75. AJP Crown says:

    I see now. And for the insecure (me), I’ve just found a French table that will decline or conjugate Latin. I’m not aware of an English-language version of this.

  76. David Marjanović says:

    As is þe kynde of a knyȝte þat cometh to be dubbed,
    To geten hem gylte spores or galoches ycouped.

    It alliterates… and it almost rhymes!

  77. AJP Crown, about currency of the word “galoshes”:

    In Joyce’s “The Dead” (set in Dublin and written in 1907), Gretta Conroy laughingly complains about her husband Gabriel to his Aunt Kate, “Goloshes! That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my goloshes. [. . .] The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Then this conversation ensues:

    Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly while Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded from Aunt Julia’s face and her mirthless eyes were directed toward her nephew’s face. After a pause she asked:

    — And what are goloshes, Gabriel?

    — Goloshes, Julia! exclaimed her sister. Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your . . . over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?

    — Yes, said Mrs Conroy. Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent.

    — O, on the continent, murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly.

    Gabriel knitted his brows and said, as if he were slightly angered:

    –It’s nothing very wonderful but Gretta thinks it very funny because she says the word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.

  78. Lars Mathiesen says:

    English Wiktionary has verb and noun paradigms for numerous languages, Latin among them.

    Also Perseus has a lovely morphological analyser for Latin, Greek, Arabic and Old Norse.

  79. @Jonathan Morse: Some people aver that “The Dead” is the greatest short story ever written. I am not among them.

  80. Well, “greatest ever” is a silly idea anyway. It’s a damn good story.

  81. AJP Crown says:

    Jonathan Morse, I haven’t read it but I saw a film that was made of The Dead some years ago. Guttapercha is a word I haven’t heard for a while, I think fly-fishers and dentists use it, and I can see it on galoshes. I meant to say, I’ve always thought of them as galoshers and always will; the pronunciation is almost identical for me.

    On Joyce, I’m currently reading a book that mentions in passing Irish orientalism a couple of times and so Joyce. From its LRB review (I can’t quote the book, I’d have to type it all out; it’s by Josephine Quinn):

    James Joyce drew attention to the supposed links between Ireland and the Phoenicians in a lecture entitled ‘Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages’. Speaking in Trieste, he said that the Irish language ‘is eastern in origin, and has been identified by many philologists with the ancient language of the Phoenicians, the discoverers, according to historians, of commerce and navigation’.

  82. David Eddyshaw says:

    Bloom and Stephen do some comparing of Irish and Hebrew in Ulysses; as I recall, the text makes it clear that neither of them has much idea what they are talking about.

  83. And oh (speaking of greatness) the memories.

    An old man, a retired high school teacher, once paid a surprise visit to my office, bearing a manuscript. It was sixty pages long and he said he’d been working on it for five years, but (he complained) nobody wanted to publish it. So (he asked) would I be willing to read it and offer suggestions? Its thesis, he explained by way of making me a tempting offer, was that Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is the greatest short story ever written because it’s in sonata form.

    Oh “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Jr. citizens, that’s a cultural-nationalist story from the Popular Front era, formerly taught in American high schools. In 1941 it was made into a movie which I haven’t seen, starring all kinds of people even you have seen: Edward Arnold from It Happened One Night. Jane Darwell from The Grapes of Wrath. . . . I politely declined the old man’s offer.

    But I added, “Even without reading this, I can say that sixty pages is an awkward length. It’s too long for a paper but too short for a book. So why don’t you break this up into three papers and try to publish those separately?”

    The old man instantly got furious. “I can’t do that!” he shouted. “It’s in SONATA FORM!”

    And out the door he went and I never saw him again.

  84. J.W. Brewer says:

    Popular Front era? You callin’ Mr. Benet a comsymp, Mister? (It was a story one had vaguely heard of, if not read, by the time I entered high school in 1980, but the culture had just moved on to the Charlie Daniels Band as its go-to for stories about making deals with Satan and getting the better of him.)

  85. J.W. Brewer says:

    In an eerie bit of coincidence, I have just come across this interview with the recently-departed Charlie Daniels (1936-2020, vechnaya pamyat) in which he explains the inspiration for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” thusly: “Well, I think I might know where it came from, it may have come from an old poem called ‘The Mountain Whippoorwill’ that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school.”

    https://www.songfacts.com/blog/interviews/charlie-daniels

  86. January First-of-May says:

    Guttapercha is a word I haven’t heard for a while, I think fly-fishers and dentists use it

    “— Ты, девочка, читать умеешь?
    — Умею, — говорит Вера.
    — Что здесь написано? — он показал на один плакат на стене.
    Вера прочитала:
    «Для младших школьников! „Густоперченный мальчик“».
    А этот мальчик был не густоперченный, а гуттаперчевый, резиновый значит.”

    [“– You, girl, can read?
    – Can, – says Vera.
    – What’s written here? – he pointed at one poster on a wall.
    Vera read:
    “For elementary schoolers. “Thickly-peppered boy”.”
    Though this boy was not thickly-peppered [gustoperchennyy], but guttapercha [guttaperchevyy], rubber, that is.”]

    (Eduard Uspensky, Vera and Anfisa. I only remembered the punchline, so had to google the context. Vera is a kindergartener.
    “Guttapercha Boy” is a real film, incidentally, though the Wikipedia description really doesn’t make it sound like it could possibly be intended for elementary schoolers.)

  87. the Charlie Daniels Band

    I will always respect them for “Still in Saigon“; I think I still have the single in the cellar somewhere. I played it a lot back in the day.

  88. John Cowan says:

    I’ve just found a French table that will decline or conjugate Latin.

    Well, that’s impressive. Certainly way past Dennett’s lectern which wished to be at the planetary center of learning, and therefore remained exactly where it was, namely in an Oxford lecture-room where Dennett was speaking.

    cultural-nationalist story from the Popular Front era

    I, on the other hand, think TDaDW is a fine celebration of American lawyerocracy. I once made a balls of an oral examination in a middle-school English literature tutorial (which happened because I was the only eighth-grader in the school; it’s a long story) on “The Devil and Daniel Walker” because I kept conflating the two plots and two devils.

  89. David Eddyshaw says:

    a fine celebration of American lawyerocracy

    Indeed. Satan got off lightly. Webster might have come up with the idea of a class action suit.

  90. AJP Crown says:

    Jan1May: the Wikipedia description really doesn’t make it sound like it could possibly be intended for elementary schoolers
    No, it sounds depressing and terrifying. But Uspensky sounds absolutely great. I’d love to read Uncle Fyodor, His Dog, and His Cat, Дядя Фёдор, пёс и кот:

    At the end Murka (the cow) reveals that she can use human language too. When Matroskin (the cat) asks why she didn’t talk before, she answers: “To you? What for?”

    Amazingly, it seems to be unavailable in English at the moment.

  91. AJP Crown says:

    JC: Well, that’s impressive.
    Not for an escritoire.

  92. What’s called non-fiction, for those of you who have read “The Dead”: Joyce modeled Gabriel’s aunts on two of his own great-aunts, and at

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-50390837

    you can see pictures of their now ruinous house at 15 Usher’s Island, Dublin, and read praise of “The Dead” as (sorry) “the world’s greatest short story.”

    What’s called fiction: in the “Ithaca” episode of Ulysses (17.140) you’ll learn that Stephen is a godson of Aunt Kate and that Gabriel’s premonition of Aunt Julia’s death came true.

  93. January First-of-May says:

    But Uspensky sounds absolutely great.

    He’s pretty good, though this specific scene seems to be from a relatively recent edition; Google finds it, but I don’t remember it.
    If I ever get to my copy of the 1974 first edition, I’ll check if the scene is there. IIRC the book got a new version after the cartoon came out.

    That said, the book’s still excellent, and the sequels get pretty close (though the most recent the sequel is, the less likely it is to be really good).
    It’s definitely uncle Fyodor, by the way; I dunno where Wikipedia got “Fedya” from, unless that’s how it was translated. (…Actually, best I can tell from the article, this is exactly what happened.) I don’t think he’s ever called Fedya in the entire book series.

    Either way, Uncle Fyodor is hardly all there is to Uspensky; if nothing else, Crocodile Gena is at least as important, and there’s a huge amount of more minor work.
    My favorite among his works is probably Mekhovoy internat (not sure how to translate that title; it’s about a group of anthropomorphic animals who asked a schoolgirl to teach them Russian spelling and grammar).

  94. PlasticPaddy says:

    For Mekhovoy Internat I would choose a name like “St. Hairy’s Academy” or just “St. Hairy’s” with a cover photo of animals in the school uniform.

  95. AJP Crown says:

    I would love to try illustrating one of them, more in the style of Ronald Searle or Quentin Blake perhaps, or that New Yorker cartoonist who drew bare light bulbs and dogs (dead, forgotten his name). I don’t especially like the examples I’ve seen; on the other hand, I suppose if you grow up with a set of illustrations the story is kind of fixed in your mind that way.

  96. David Marjanović says:

    The Hairy Museum of Natural History. Now a bit hoary; it’s a blog that stopped publishing in 2013.

  97. Owlmirror says:

    Even without reading this, I can say that sixty pages is an awkward length. It’s too long for a paper but too short for a book.

    Monograph?

  98. David Eddyshaw says:

    Grammatical sketch.

  99. Owlmirror says:

    “Guttapercha Boy” is a real film, incidentally, though the Wikipedia description really doesn’t make it sound like it could possibly be intended for elementary schoolers

    Some pretty dark films for children have been made, after all.

    “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” — Rick Polito

    See link for film titles:

    – Moody teen encourages boyfriend to kill her.

    – Talking lion befriends a warthog and avenges father’s death.

    – Boy left to fend off robbers after parents abandon him.

    – Orphaned boy hangs around with convicted mass murderer while a rat plots his death

    – In a dystopian future society, young girl forced to battle other children to the death on reality television…

  100. AJP Crown says:

    Someone (the City of Dublin perhaps) ought to replace the missing cornice on that house. I hate that kind of thing.

  101. The second is a plan to transform the house that provided the setting for one of his most acclaimed works, The Dead, into a 56-bedroom hostel.

    “Come stay with the Dead!” “When the snow is general all over Ireland, let it fall upon you as well!”

  102. David L says:

    “Come stay with the Dead!”

    Haunted by the ghost of Jerry Garcia, I presume….

  103. David L says:

    @AJP: Are you thinking of George Booth?

  104. I really need to get my Alice Sheldon reading on. James Nicoll keeps mentioning her, and it seems like I would really like her fiction, but it was never translated into Bulgarian (as far as I know) in my formative SF-reading years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I’d love to read at least a synopsis of “A Momentary Taste of Being” to compare it with other ideas in SF about self-awareness, consciousness, and reflexivity in general.

  105. David Eddyshaw says:

    It’s in the collection “Her Smoke Rose up Forever”, which is highly recommendable all round.

  106. It sure is.

  107. I _think_ I’ve read “Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death” in Bulgarian. Robert Silverberg appeared last night on the Hugo awards livestream (I don’t remember which category he was presenting), and I remembered languagehat’s comment about him being surprised James Tipree, Jr. is a woman. I think I “heard” of that anecdote from Samuel Delany first. It seems to be about a comment by him about “The Women Men Don’t See”, which I’m pretty sure I have not read; all three stories are in “Her Smoke Rose up Forever”.

  108. David Eddyshaw says:

    I’ve just got hold of Belief, Language and Experience (AJP is to blame) and am a few pages in. It actually looks very interesting indeed, and he’s already convinced me that he’s at least dealing with a real issue. There are also many comforting invocations of Wittgenstein, evoking my simple trust. I’m beginning to wonder if the flimflam is not in Needham but in Jameson’s name-dropping of him as a substitute for actual argument.

    Will report back in due course if I remember, and so long as the blood pressure hasn’t become too much of a problem.

  109. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, it was interesting (thanks AJP!) And Jameson was indeed merely showing off …

    Needham does indeed claim to have shown the incoherence of the concept of “belief”, but despite a tendency to shuffle between different senses of the word as it aids his argument, what he’s overwhelmingly concerned with is specifically the concept of religious belief, and more specifically yet the idea that there is a particular internal psychological state corresponding to this. He does a perfectly reasonable job of showing that this is a culturally bound notion associated with Western traditions.

    To me, this borders on being obvious, and I almost felt that it was a straw man argument, but Needham cites a good array of references showing that it very often hasn’t been obvious, even to anthropologists. His old teacher Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer Religion is something of an Exhibit A in this (though N is very polite about it.) I must say I was struck myself at how like familiar concepts of Western religion E-P makes Nuer religion sound (much less than Kusaasi “religion” seems to be); but E-P was actually there after all (and also a great anthropologist.)

    Unfortunately, although I agree in large part with the conclusion, I think N’s argument is in places rather weak,to the point of (IMHO) giving bad reasons for true conclusions. The basic problem is that he starts with the English word “belief” and discovers that it really has no straightforward translation into (say) Nuer (with some very interesting stuff about Nuer along the way, incidentally.) N’s actual starting point for his study, he says, was waking up in the middle of the night with the realisation that he didn’t know how to express “I believe in God” in Penan (a language of Borneo, whose speakers he himself studied.) In fact his example has a close parallel in Kusaal: there is no single word in Kusaal that translates “believe”, cf the translation of the New Testament locus classicus Hebrews 11:6:

    Ka yadda niŋir ya’a kae, sɔ’ kʋ nyaŋi ma’ae Wina’am sʋʋnrɛ. Alazug, onɛ bɔɔd ye o li’el Wina’am, asɛɛ o siak ye o bɛ …
    And trust doing if not.exist, anybody not succeed cool God heart. Because, who wants that he approach God, except he agree that he exist …
    “Without faith one cannot please God. For someone who wants to come to God must believe that he exists …”

    Here yadda niŋir is the gerund of the form used to express trust in a person, as in Numbers 5:14

    o sid la ya’a ti pin’ili bi’esid ka pʋ lɛn niŋ pu’a la yadda
    her husband the if after begin doubt and not again do wife the trust
    “if her husband again starts to doubt and no longer trust his wife”

    You can’t “trust” a fact or a thing with this construction, only a person. (Yadda is actually a loanword from Hausa, ultimately from Arabic, but thoroughly integrated.)
    Siak is “agree that something is the case”, or just “agree”:

    Fʋ ya’a siak, ti na digilif.
    you if agree, we irrealis lay.down-you.
    “If you agree, we’ll admit you to hospital.”

    English “believe” can easily cover all these senses and more, and unsurprisingly N concludes that it does not represent a single coherent concept. He makes what seems to me to be a redundant detour into Wittgensteinery in the process of doing this, and invokes Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances”, but (as N rightly says) Witters subjects other psych-verbs like “think” to just the same treatment as “believe”, and the whole thing doesn’t really seem to advance the argument.

    He subsequently gets on to Lévy-Bruhl (about whom, I know from nothing, so here I just have to take his word for it) and some interesting, if, at times, rather worrying stuff about “the primitive mind” (opposed en bloc to the “Western mind.”) This is where the “experience” bit of N’s title comes in. The L-B’s idea (says N) is that “experience” is not an unproblematic cross-linguistic given, but may include much that “the Western mind” would in fact classify as belief. This ties in (for example) with an example N gave earlier of the Nuer propensity to say kwoth a thin “God is present”, when “they do not know what to do but God is here with them and will help them”; as N says, this is not “to utter a dubitable proposition, but instead to invoke an undoubted source of strength.” This caught my eye as it’s also a pan-West Africanism: you could translate Kusaal Wina’am bɛ as “God exists”, but it makes no pragmatic sense to do so in the contexts where people actually say it and his existence is regarded as a given by all parties.

    [I happily conclude, BTW, that my own mentality is Lévy-Bruhl-primitive.]

    That’s about as far as the argument gets, it seems to me; N subsequently wombles off into fairly hardcore relativism, not only about belief but the supposed impossibility of comprehending pretty much anything about an alien culture which is not solidly physical.

    Although I wasn’t really sold on his argument except insofar as I agreed with him already, the book is very well written and engaging and deals with a lot of matters I’ve long pondered on myself, in a much more amateurish way. There’s a good bit of Hattic interest, as he focuses a fair bit on what are ultimately problems of translation, and he throws in perfectly appropriate shout-outs to Beckett and Borges ….
    Would recommend it as a choice for a Book Club consisting entirely of Hattics.

    (Somebody should really have told him about the etymological fallacy, though. He’s got several excursuses into etymology which are very interesting in themselves but in no way support his argument.)

  110. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Much less than Kusaasi religion” should be “much more than Kusaasi religion.” A mere detail …
    And “cross-linguistic” should be “cross-cultural”, but of course for Hatters there is no meaningful distinction in any case.

  111. David Eddyshaw says:

    Now I look at it, it’s interesting (and would doubtless please Rodney Needham) that the Kusaal translation of Hebrews 11:6 actually undermines the logic of the original, unless you are already thinking in terms of Western categories of belief. (Interesting, too, that I didn’t notice that myself initially.)

    Using yadda niŋir to translate “faith” does indeed seem to be translationese, with a meaning parasitic on that of the English word “faith” (rather like the press-ganging of siig “life force” as a translation for “spirit”, a word with a wholly different set of associations for Westerners from “life force.”)
    Still, it’s easier to see the problem than to suggest better solutions.

  112. AJP Crown says:

    David L: AJP: Are you thinking of George Booth?
    Thanks for bothering. Yes, I am. I thought of Booth a day or two later. My wife (an artist, fairly well known in Norway) just submitted a children’s book to a publisher and if that gets going, I’m going to ask them about new Uspensky editions in languages besides Russian.

    David E:
    Thank you for the interesting synopsis and criticism of Rodney Needham. I’d never have got anywhere with the book itself which may be a tiny bit beyond my pay grade. Waking up in the middle of the night with the realisation that I don’t know how to express “I believe in God” in Penan just ain’t gonna happen in this lifetime.

  113. John Cowan says:

    I happily conclude, BTW, that my own mentality is Lévy-Bruhl-primitive.

    So are we all. Here’s a reflection on a certain politician (I’ve cut out the distinguishing details) that seems relevant:

    “His speeches were long and loud. Praises of [his country], disparagements of [the other country], vilifications of ‘disloyal factions,’ discussions of the integrity of the [national] borders, lectures in history, ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the [motherland/fatherland]. […]

    I decided that […] he wished to arouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. […] He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, although he used the words perpetually. As he used them, they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization”.

    It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer or paint […] or whatever, hiding the noble reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural, that it is the opposite of primitiveness…. Of course there is no veneer. The process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things you have either one, or the other. Not both.

  114. David Eddyshaw says:

    Needham is actually at considerable pains to say that Lévy-Bruhl (despite the unfortunate use of “primitive”) did not by any means regard Western conceptual forms (and logic) as intrinsically superior, just different. “Primitive”, as far as I can make out, is not supposed to have the overtone of “barbaric.”

    What I was referring to was much narrower: the notion that a “primitive” may classify as “experience” what a “Westerner” would call “belief”; in that sense I think I actually am (at least in part) “primitive.” (Not just me, either.)

  115. David Eddyshaw says:

    Actually, I see I’ve missed your point; take my comment as an extension of your point rather than an implied contradiction.

    I agree entirely that the civilisation/primitivity opposition is problematic.

    I don’t know how far Lévy-Bruhl, or indeed Needham, realised that it’s a false dichotomy. I noticed that Needham at one point specifically says he’s picked a Jesuit rather than a ‘fundamentalist’ author to illustrate Christian concepts of “belief” (explicitly on the grounds that he would more faithfully reflect the complex developed traditions of Western thinking on such matters); he may have too readily supposed that a highly intellectualised concept of Christianity heavily influenced by the Western philosophical tradition (with its “pagan” roots) was more characteristic of Real Existing Western Christianity than has ever really been the case.

    (Or maybe he was just a bit of an intellectual snob. I’m not in a position to cast the first stone …)

  116. Lars Mathiesen says:

    excursuses — maybe it’s the [-səzəz], but this really makes me want a learnéd plural. (4 m in Latin, I know, but those plurals never seemed to take off in English innit. The length difference would be gone in any case).

    (I am reading all the tractatus religicophilosophici with interest, but they are above my paygrade too so I don’t comment on the substance).

  117. David Eddyshaw says:

    Excursususes, Precious.

  118. John Cowan says:

    So, you are not as Tolkien-blind as you had us believing (or “believing”).

    Robertson Davies was, among many other things, the Master of Massey College at UToronto from its founding in 1963 to his retirement in 1981, and one of his self-imposed duties was to tell the college ghost story at Christmas (these were later collected as High Spirits). Northrop Frye, his coeval as Chancellor of Victoria College at the same institution, was interested in the form as well. When he was asked whether he “believed in ghosts”, he would reply that ghosts were a matter of experience and not belief, and hitherto he had had no experience of them.

    I once had the experience of “hearing” a Voice. Characteristically, what it said was, “Nobody at all knows anything about Me.”

  119. David Eddyshaw says:

    The French Wikipedia is quite forthcoming about Lévy-Bruhl (the English is just a stub.) Interesting stuff; makes me feel embarrassed that I knew so little about him. Very good friend of Jean Jaurès (may his name be said with honour …)

    L-B apparently did the Wittgenstein thing of writing highly influentual works early in his career, and spending the latter part of his life showing in detail why he had been wrong. (You’ve got to admire that …)

  120. AJP Crown says:

    (John, one copy & paste google and your quotation is immediately revealed.)

  121. David Eddyshaw says:

    Must reread it one of these days. (I can see why JC introduced it, too: very much apropos to the whole discussion.)

  122. Interesting fact: “His speeches were long and loud” was said of Gerald L. K. Smith in Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred by Robert S. Robins and Jerrold M. Post (1997); did they swipe it from LeGuin?

  123. David Marjanović says:

    N’s actual starting point for his study, he says, was waking up in the middle of the night with the realisation that he didn’t know how to express “I believe in God” in Penan (a language of Borneo, whose speakers he himself studied.)

    Possibly complicated by the fact that, at least for a lot of Americans, “I believe in X” doesn’t mean “I believe X exists”, but “I trust in X” or even “I believe X is a good idea”. Example of the latter: I believe in doing good. American atheists occasionally wonder if this makes them widely misunderstood as dystheists or misotheists.

    More generally, but similarly, English has that extra word faith, which bridges belief and trust. German has Glaube for “belief”, Vertrauen for “trust”, and nothing for “faith” – faith has to be translated as one or the other depending on the translator’s interpretation of the situation. I have faith in God means both at once – one meaning or the other may be irrelevant in a particular situation, but that’s not guaranteed.

  124. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed so; and it’s exactly this sort of thing that gives Needham his ammunition for the thesis that there is no underlying coherent concept corresponding to “believe.” (He mentions the German words, in fact.)

    While I’m actually broadly sympathetic to his conclusions, I’m rather sceptical about his means of getting there: it doesn’t strike me as implausible that a bit of hard work with a few English dictionaries could clarify what people actually mean by “believe”, case by case, pretty satisfactorily. And if he’d started from a language like Kusaal, in which the semantic range of the relevant words overlaps a lot less to begin with, he might have found it more difficult to conclude that all of the relevant words were basically either empty or radically incomparable between different cultures. Some of them clearly aren’t; I don’t know of any language where you can’t say something like “I think that it actually happened.” (Over to you, Dan Everett …)

    Needham himself has an interesting bit on “believe” in the sense “trust a person”; he is open to the possibility that this may in fact be a cultural universal, on the grounds that it’s hard to see how a culture in which the concept was completely absent would actually survive very long.

    As I say though, it’s not really his objective to show that there are no cross-cultural common themes at all involved; his particular target is what he takes to be a particular Western religious sense of “believe”, and especially the idea that this sense entails some sort of cross-culturally stable notion of a corresponding internal psychological state. There I pretty much agree; he has a tendency, I think, to assume that because this particular understanding of “believe” is untenable as a fundamental human thing, he’s proved that all other senses are also untenable as fundamental human traits, and I think that’s very much more open to doubt.

  125. John Cowan says:

    your quotation is immediately revealed

    Well, sure. I removed them in the first place because it would be distracting to my point to have people thinking about Karhide and shifgrethor, not to keep the origin secret.

    English has that extra word faith

    Yes, and what’s an obvious Romance word doing with a conspicuously English-looking suffix anyway? One theory is that it actually is < Old French feid with lenition, loss of the -e from fide(m), and final devoicing within French itself (after which another round of lenition takes us eventually to foi).

    The other theory is that it is the English abstract suffix -th applied by analogy to ME fay < later OF fei. This suffix is Common Germanic, though it is pretty rare in German. Wikt.en mentions only Gemeinde ‘community’, lit. ‘mean-th’, where mean has the old sense ‘common’, now displaced in English by common itself, because mean got pejorated first to ‘low-class’ and then to ‘cruel’.

  126. ktschwarz says:

    “I believe in God, and I believe that God believes in Claude, that’s me” — wonder how that’s been translated into other languages?

    If I understand correctly, the linguistics terminology for Needham’s problem with believe is to say that multiple senses are “colexified” in the English word, where “colexified” is agnostic as to whether such senses are “really” aspects of a coherent central meaning or not. In this semantic graph BELIEVE=‘to be confident about something’ is colexified in various languages with THINK(BELIEVE)=‘be of the opinion’, HOPE, THINK(REFLECT), WORSHIP, ADMIT, KNOW(SOMETHING), UNDERSTAND, FEEL, HEAR, LISTEN, OBEY, and those with each other and other concepts … it’s like a kaleidoscope, a new picture at every node.

    I got the term from a discussion of colexifications of breath, wind, spirit here in 2018.

  127. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, it’s a familiar phenomenon. I felt sometimes reading Needham’s book that it was a bit spiteful of him to pick on poor “believe” when very similar things could be said about literally hundreds of other English words.

    His argument also reminded me of the celebrated idea that Western philosophy has got itself into unnecessary knots because in Greek, Latin and most Western European languages a single verb does duty both as copula and as expressing existence and location, and that this wouldn’t have happened if Plato (say) had spoken a language like Kusaal (a “be something/somehow”, “exist/be in a place.”) Be that as it may, nobody making this argument seems to draw the conclusion that the concept of being located somewhere is a Western cultural construct and fundamentally incoherent.*

    You perhaps might more plausibly make an argument that distinguishing between the concepts of being in a place and simple existence is culturally bound; the use of different verbs/constructions in these two senses seems to be relatively uncommon. I think you could try to make the case that this particular distinction is not a cross-cultural given. However, if it’s an artefact of Western philosophy, it’s happened despite the behaviour of the relevant Western languages, not because of it.

    (As far as I can see from Crazzolara’s account of Nuer, Nuer grammar conflates existence with being in a place, like Kusaal; however, its fairly close relative Anywa has the full three-way distinction. A language for philosophers … someone should translate Kant into Anywa.)

    *This is being unfair to Needham, though. He’s quite happy with the idea of concepts being meaningfully cross-cultural when you can point to straightforward physical correlates which are evidently human universals. Strictly speaking he doesn’t claim that his linguistic assault on the integrity of “believe” proves that the concept is incoherent, just that it means that some other justification of its coherence is required; and that no such justification can actually be found. In the really rather narrow domain that he starts out with, I think that’s fair enough: but then he goes overboard …

  128. David Marjanović says:

    because mean got pejorated first to ‘low-class’ and then to ‘cruel’.

    In German, too, gemein has the pejorative meaning of “mean” first and foremost, and the other senses are restricted nowadays (e.g. “common or garden” in species names) and make children giggle.

  129. Do they still say “sich gemein machen mit” for ‘associate’?

  130. David Marjanović says:

    That’s a literary archaism.

  131. John Cowan says:

    Gemeinde is Common Germanic, though it was lost in English after OE. I suspect it is a calque of communitas; the roots are cognate, though the suffixes are not, and of course con- ‘with’ has nothing to do with ge- ‘former of neuter collective nouns’ except the notion of collectivity.

    Plato (say) had spoken a language like Kusaal

    Or Lojban, which makes the full four-way distinction: du, the copula, which assserts the identity of two definite NPs; zvati ‘is at location’; zasti ‘x1 exists for person or group x2 when using metaphysics x3’ (a trivalent verb); and applying a noun or adjective to an NP by zero-deriving a verb from it, which is the normal thing to do in most cases. Examples (the person and the house are assumed to be discourse-old):

    le prenu du le zdani ‘The person is the house’

    le prenu cu zvati le zdani ‘The person is at the house’ (cu is a dummy separator)

    le zdani cu zasti le prenu ‘The house exists for the person’ (metaphysics ellipsized)

    le prenu cu zdani ‘The person is a house / houses’ (object implicit)

    Indeed, it is a concession to Western grammar to talk of “zero derivation” at all, because in fact every content word is noun, verb, adjective, or adverb depending on the surrounding (particle-driven) grammar.

  132. David Marjanović says:

    of course con- ‘with’ has nothing to do with ge- ‘former of neuter collective nouns’ except the notion of collectivity.

    Of course they’re cognate; the Verner treatment is because it was a ditropic clitic at some point.

  133. David Eddyshaw says:

    applying a noun or adjective to an NP by zero-deriving a verb from it

    Kusaal does this for most core adjectives:

    O anɛ ninkpi’euŋ.
    “She’s a strong person.”

    O kpi’em.
    “She’s strong.”

    In fact more or less the only place that adjectives can head NPs is when there is no cognate quality verb and they are used as complements of a “be something”:

    Li anɛ bʋnpielig.
    “It’s a white thing.”

    Li anɛ pielig.
    “It’s white.”

    Quality verbs seem to be being progressively lost (Kusaal preserving more than its sister languages), so Kusaal may eventually end up with a system not unlike SAE in this respect.

    How do you say “the person has a house” in Lojban? Is it effectively “there exists a house for the person”, as in so many languages?

    Kusaal usually uses a “have” verb, but can do that too:

    M mɔr biig “I have a child” = M biig bɛ, literally “A child of mine exists” (as opposed to M biig la bɛ, with the article, which means “My child is there.”)

  134. Bathrobe says:

    Still, it’s easier to see the problem than to suggest better solutions.

    There are always solutions of one kind or another in translation, including fudging; the question is whether these would sit well with Christian missionaries.

    distinguishing between the concepts of being in a place and simple existence is culturally bound; the use of different verbs/constructions in these two senses seems to be relatively uncommon.

    It is found in Chinese. 在 is location in a place. 有 is existence (or possession). 存在 means ‘to exist’, but is not as everyday as the other two.

  135. David Eddyshaw says:

    the question is whether these would sit well with Christian missionaries

    Frankly, this is a cheap shot. Contrary to popular belief, Christian missionaries (at least of the sort involved in translation) are both very aware of these issues and concerned to prioritise accuracy (where at all attainable) of translation above all else. When I say that it’s hard to suggest better solutions I mean exactly that: I’ve gone on at length about the problems of some of the existing choices in translating the Bible into Kusaal elsewhere, so it’s not like I minimise them myself. Increasingly, too, it’s the case that these choices have been made by Christian Kusaasi; if they’re not entitled to decide these matters for themselves, I’m Leopold of the Belgians.

    One of the things that surprised me agreeably about Needham’s book was that he, although very clearly not a Christian believer, is remarkably positive about the attempts at translation (and cross-cultural communication in general) made by missionaries, as opposed to anthropologists; he opposes Fr Crazzolara rather pointedly to Evans-Pritchard, for example, as having spent decades among the Nuer (as opposed to less than a year for E-P), and having a considerably greater knowledge of the Nuer language.

  136. John Cowan says:

    Of course they’re cognate; the Verner treatment is because it was a ditropic clitic at some point.

    Ah, I didn’t understand that. I will take the opportunity to copy Wikt.en’s treatment of ge-, as it has a whole lot of juicy examples in its fivefold classification:

    1. Forms collective nouns, almost always neuter gender. Whenever possible, the root vowel is modified as well: Ader/Geäder, Ast/Geäst, Berg/Gebirge, Busch/Gebüsch, Rippe/Gerippe, Stein/Gestein, Strauch/Gesträuch, Wasser/Gewässer, Wolke/Gewölk.

    2. Forms action nouns, usually with a sense of repetition or continuation. All of these nouns are neuter and have no plural. For example: ächzen/Geächze, heulen/Geheule/Geheul, reden/Gerede, seufzen/Geseufze.

    3. Forms nomina rei actae, verbal nouns that refer to the patient of the action, always of neuter gender. For example: schenken/Geschenk, legen/Gelege, prägen/Gepräge.

    4. Forms past participles in combination with a suffix -en or -(e)t: schlafen/geschlafen, denken/gedacht, retten/gerettet. Nouns are frequently made from the past participle.

    5. Forms verbs with terminative aktionsart: geleiten, genießen, gebären, gelangen, gereuen, geziemen, geruhen, genesen. This is hardly productive after Early New High German and outside of dialects.

    I must say that while it is clear enough, I have never seen nomina rei actae in English (or any other language) before.

    How do you say “the person has a house” in Lojban? Is it effectively “there exists a house for the person”, as in so many languages?

    No, that doesn’t work, for me at least. Ponse is the verb for legal or customary possession or ownership. But the grammaticalized possessive constructions are semantically different. Saying le stizu po mi ‘the chair of me, my chair’ is equivalent to using the verb steci ‘specific to’, which is wider than ponse possession.

    Le stizu po mi might apply not only to a chair I have made for myself or bought, but also to my “assigned seat” in a classroom, where there is no question of ownership. Stizu is also a reciprocal verb in a way that ponse is not: one can speak not only of le zdani po le prenu ‘the house specific to the person, the person’s house’ but equally well of le prenu po le zdani ‘the person specific to the house, the house’s person’.

    There is also a weaker form le stizu pe mi with the same English gloss, but suitable for a chair I merely happen to be sitting on at present, where there is not even a sense of specificity. Of course, if there is no confusion a weaker form can be used to express a stronger semantic, or as Lewis Carroll put it, anyone with three eyes may be said to have two eyes. (But not so in Lojban, where le kanla po’u mi cu remei ‘the eye(s) inalienably-of me are-a-pair’ (regularly from re ‘two’) excludes my having three eyes.)

    Kusaal does this for most core adjectives:

    It seems to be common to verb adjectives, to the point where no distinction can be drawn in some languages. Verbing nouns by zero derivation is I think less common; even English tends to use a suffix.

  137. David Eddyshaw says:

    I wonder if there’s some mileage in the idea that the concept of existence as distinct from location is a misapprehension generated by human language (obviously I don’t believe this myself, but it’s interesting to think about.)

    I thought about this because I was just reading a transcript of the famous debate between Ayer and Copleston about the existence of God, in which Copleston keeps reverting to the idea that Ayer’s system can’t account for the fact that anything exists at all* (as opposed to how existing things relate to one another); Ayer’s response is essentially to declare the question unintelligible. If existence were, however, a linguistic ghost formed by illegitimate generalisation of the concept of location, that would neatly cut the legs from under Copleston’s argument. It’s pretty counterintuitive, but then plenty of counterintuitive things are in fact true …

    *Myself, I don’t think any argument of this kind is valid, and was a bit surprised at the weight placed on it by Copleston, who was no fool and knew his philosophy.

  138. Bathrobe says:

    Frankly, this is a cheap shot.

    Not at all. The fact that it is the ‘Word of God’ means that the Bible is probably the most translated (gotta get the word out) and the most carefully translated (God’s word must not be distorted) book in the world.

    Therefore I would suggest that Bible translators give far more thought to their renditions than most ordinary translators, especially for expressions like ‘I believe’. I say this because I’ve had a lot of experience comparing translations with their originals — especially literature — and I can assure you it is amazing how often translators 1) get it wrong because they didn’t understand the meaning and weren’t able or couldn’t be bothered to check with someone who knew, 2) add additional material to enhance the effect of the original, or 3) leave things out that they didn’t find important or didn’t understand. Although there are no doubt exceptions (like, IIRR Good News for Modern Man), my impression is that translators wouldn’t play around with the Bible like this — correct me if I’m wrong.

    Perhaps it isn’t ‘Christian missionaries’ per se who do the translation, but then you have the issue of how well the new believers understand the message, given that they only got it from outsiders who didn’t speak their own language. It is always possible (although I wouldn’t say inevitable) that they’ve put their own slant on it. It’s also possible that they’ve understood the message perfectly and have put it into their own language the best way possible.

    Even with the English-language Bible there are direct translations that originally didn’t make much sense, including ‘In the beginning is the Word, and the Word was with God’. I’m not going to check but in my understanding Word was Logos. Because the Bible is a religious text, ‘word’ might be acceptable to native speakers as a mystical concept, but a translator dealing with a lesser text might be just as likely to cast around for something more easily assimilable. After all, they just want to get the meaning across; they’re not initiating anyone into a religion.

    (There are different ways of translating Logos into different languages, and no two translators necessarily agree. In Chinese some translated Logos as 道 dào. This is fine, except that no translator of Chinese into English translating books about the Dao would translate it as Logos. In translations into other languages I’ve seen, Logos is translated quite literally as ‘word’. I’m sure, however, that Bible translators took great care in deciding how to translate this.)

  139. Bathrobe says:

    I was intrigued by your statement that Somebody should really have told him about the etymological fallacy, though. He’s got several excursuses into etymology which are very interesting in themselves but in no way support his argument.

    The etymological fallacy is that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning. (Wikipedia, for want of something better). Did Needham really hold to this fallacy? Etymology and various other excursions into the reason that things are as they are (e.g., knowing that ‘Word’ in the Bible is actually from Greek ‘Logos’) is a valid way of shining light on the present. If that was Needham’s approach I don’t think he should be faulted on it. If he actually embraced the etymological fallacy in its true sense it deserves to be exposed for what it is.

    (It was Saussure, I believe, who decided that ‘synchrony’ should be rigidly divorced from ‘diachrony’, and having been brought up in linguistics I never doubted it. But while it is a useful approach it seems to me a little drastic if pursued to its logical conclusion. For instance, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ is recognised by a native speaker as an archaising form of English — native speakers would not even consciously notice it. But some of the grammar of earlier stages of English must be incorporated into a grammar of modern English in order to fully explain Kennedy’s exhortation. You could incorporate it as archaic, but even so, this appeals to a consciousness that English embodies different types of grammar and an understanding of what went before.)

  140. Bathrobe says:

    * In the beginning was the Word (not is).

    In fact there are number of places in my comment where the tenses are out of whack.

  141. David Eddyshaw says:

    did Needham really hold to this fallacy?

    I don’t think he’s free of it. He goes, for example (in one of a great many such excursususes) in some depth into the etymology of glauben, making a great to-do out of a presumed link with the complex of words that turn up as lieben, “love” etc; in the case of his own specialist area of Borneo, he says (presumably rightly) that the “believe” words are ultimately loaned from Sanskrit, and then goes into some detail about what the Sanskrit word means in Sanskrit. To be fair, this is all grist to the mill of his endeavour to show that the whole set of ideas is incoherent, and historical meaning shifts could be supportive evidence. But it doesn’t shed much light on his central concern, which is to show that contemporary concepts of “belief” are radically incompatible with each other.

    For example, it is presumably the case that for contemporary Christian Kusaasi, siig actually does mean “spirit”, and telling them that it “really” means “life force” would be pretty impertinent, to say the least. Such major semantic shifts are not only a phenomenon of the modern world caused by the European invasions, but have surely occurred repeatedly in the past*: therefore, despite their great intrinsic interest, these sort of etymological investigations can’t shed light on present meanings in he way he needs.

    In general, Needham is at his weakest (it seems to me) when treating matters which are linguistic in the strict sense**: ktschwartz rightly noted that linguists have actually been all over this area and not come to similar aporetic conclusions. In fairness (and it’s a good book, well worth reading) Needham himself flags up the fact that he is not universally competent in all relevant fields as a weakness of his own study; while rightly pointing out that nobody else is, either.

    *For example, it seems very likely in West Africa that the Creator God, who seems to be pan-West African, has acquired attributes from Allah over many centuries preceding European arrival, even for groups which are not Muslim at all.

    **You might say the same about Wittgenstein.

  142. David Eddyshaw says:

    Not at all

    Yes, “This is a cheap shot” was a bit of a cheap shot, in retrospect. Sorry.

    It’s undeniable that there have been great failures in Bible translation (and in associated cross-cultural communication more generally), and also that this is by no means only a thing of the past. Still, I think it’s also true that at least at the more sophisticated end (SIL for example) many lessons have been well and truly learnt over the years.

    However, it really is extremely difficult to suggest viable improvements to (for example) the Kusaal Bible’s translation choices even when they seem highly problematic. Traditional Kusaasi understanding of what makes up a human being psychologically and physically is profoundly different from the Western. In a ideal world, the right approach would have been to completely refactor (as computer scientists might say) Christianity in order to express it in Kusaal conceptual categories. This would also be extraordinarily illuminating in helping to understand Christianity itself: what is the Gospel, and what is extraneous cultural baggage? But this is an enormously difficult undertaking. To carry it out successfully would require the abilities of an Aristotle, an Aquinas and a Boas at least: it’s never actually been done satisfactorily, not even at the critical beginning when a Jewish millennial sect was transposed into a Greek-speaking world religion.

    So any realistic approach is going to be a pis aller, and the use of siig for “spirit” ends up being driven by necessity.

    The nearest thing to “soul” in the traditional worldview is surely not siig but win “spiritual individuality” – what makes you, you. The trouble is that the term is intimately bound up with an entire animist outlook: not only do people have wina but so does a whole range of animate and inanimate things, and non-anthropomorphic wina associated with objects or places are at the centre of actual religious practice. Moreover, the Creator himself is Win (significantly, the name Wina’am “God”, though not a recent neologism, is shown by aberrant segmental and tonal structure to be a loanword.) So to use win for “soul, spirit” seems out of the question.

    That means you end up with Hobson’s choice. You could create some sort of completely new term (or just adopt “spirit” as a loan, though it doesn’t fit Kusaal phonotactics very well.) Or you could use the only other traditional term for a non-physical part of a human being. Although siig is a poor fit in many ways, there is, after all, some overlap in the semantic fields of “spirit” and “life force”, so one can see the logic, at least.

    Even the earliest translations were made with major input from Kusaasi, and it’s inconceivable that the translators simply ignorantly blundered by wrongly equating the words without realising how different the meanings really were. They just had to make the best job of it that they could in the circumstances.

  143. John Cowan says:

    Allow me to repunctuate:

    For example, it seems very likely in West Africa that the Creator God, who seems to be pan-West African, has acquired attributes from Allah over many centuries preceding European arrival, even for groups which are not Muslim at all. You might say the same about Wittgenstein.

    This connects of course with Keynes’s remark about meeting God on the train, and Le Guin’s story in which Man (a proper name, not a collective) made the world with his ears. Though this is partly a product of bad translation: God’s full name is Bik-kop-man, with assimilation of /lk/ to /kk/, and ‘with’ should in this context be translated ‘between’.

  144. David Eddyshaw says:

    Heresy. Wittgenstein is merely a Saint: it is legitimate to venerate him, and ask for his intercession, but not to worship him.

    (I picture him as one of the more scary ascetic pre-Whitby Celtic saints. Ronan, maybe.)

  145. You might say the same about Wittgenstein.

    And I do. In fact, I have an ineradicable (and doubtless unfair) prejudice against Wittgenstein because of the idiotic things the man said about language.

  146. Wittgenstein is brilliant as a philosopher but frequently terrible as a linguist. It is unfortunate that the maturation on analytic philosophy was so closely tied to the field’s “linguistic turn”; I think the two really ought to be independent, but the way language was used to develop formal philosophical analyses bound them together in the minds of many thinkers.

  147. PlasticPaddy says:

    @de
    does win correspond to igbo chi, i.e., does it also have a destiny/ potential implication?
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odinani

  148. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, it does: wintɔɔg, literally “bitterness of win” is “misfortune”, for example.

    I don’t know anything about Igbo religion, but there seem (unsurprisingly) to be a lot of common threads running through traditional West African religion. I’m tempted to say “religion”, except that runs the risk of looking vaguely pejorative, which I certainly don’t intend to imply; but I think the word “religion” carries a lot of culture-bound implications which need not have any equivalent in traditional worldviews at all (hence, inter alia my agreement with Needham about his central thesis regarding “belief.”) It also implies a separation from other areas of thought and practice which, if not unique to our own culture, certainly doesn’t seem to be typical cross-culturally. There doesn’t seem to be a good substitute for the word, though.

    There seems to be a rather different religious system in the Guinea zone, especially in the more eastern parts, from the Savanna (“Western Sudan” in the traditional geographical sense); the Guinea zone often has pantheons of named more or less anthropomorphic gods, as with the Yoruba and in the Vodun of the Gbe-speaking peoples.

    The concept of win seems to have quite a bit of similarity to the Latin genius, too; I suspect that Roman religion was a lot more like the usual West African type until Greek influences made it the way we tend to think of it now. What I imagine to be the oldest layer (not that I actually know much about the history of Roman religion), like Lares and Penates, apotropaic customs and so forth, often seems very recognisable from a West African perspective. The Old Strong Religion … (with apologies to Cordwainer Smith, who uses the expression in quite a different sense.)

    A complete red herring that I’ve encountered in some of the few ethnographic accounts of the culture of which the Kusaasi are a part, is the equation of win with the stem of winnig “sun” (et sic de similibus.) This is simply based on amateur linguistics; both the vowels and the tones are different ([wɪ̄n] vs [wìnnɪ̀g]) and there is no reason at all to think that the stems are related (nor, come to that, the least evidence that anybody in that culture ever worshipped the sun.)

    The initial w of win derives from ŋ͡m historically. (I just thought you’d like to know.)

  149. A complete red herring that I’ve encountered in some of the few ethnographic accounts of the culture of which the Kusaasi are a part, is the equation of win with the stem of winnig “sun” (et sic de similibus.) This is simply based on amateur linguistics; both the vowels and the tones are different ([wɪ̄n] vs [wìnnɪ̀g]) and there is no reason at all to think that the stems are related (nor, come to that, the least evidence that anybody in that culture ever worshipped the sun.)

    Argh. This is why everyone should be required to pass a course in introductory linguistics.

  150. David Eddyshaw says:

    In saying that Kusaal has only one other word for a non-physical part of a person apart from win, I was forgetting pʋtɛn’ɛr “mind”, transparently related to tɛn’ɛs “think”; the element is also transparent: “inside.”)

    However, I don’t think it’s quite as reified as “mind”; in contexts where it is used you could generally just as well render it “opinion”, “mindset”, “Intention”; you can “change” your pʋtɛn’ɛr, have a bad pʋtɛn’ɛr towards someone, and so forth.

    I don’t think it would make sense to a Kusaasi person to ask whether they were their pʋtɛn’ɛr (not that I ever have); whereas many Western English speakers would probably feel that in some sense their “minds” were their actual selves, though with varying ideas about how their minds related to their physical bodies (and indeed, how they related to their souls or spirits, if they believe they have any.) Mind you, that may just all be René Descartes’ fault.

  151. Descartes was a bad influence in many ways, not least on the cats he vivisected.

  152. ktschwarz says:

    David Eddyshaw said:

    Siak is “agree that something is the case”, or just “agree”:

    Fʋ ya’a siak, ti na digilif.
    “If you agree, we’ll admit you to hospital.”

    But that last one is a sense that English believe *doesn’t* cover; you could use consent there, but not believe.

    the Kusaal translation of Hebrews 11:6 actually undermines the logic of the original

    By “logic of the original” do you mean how the Greek uses the same word in both places? (or technically, a noun and the verb derived from it)

    χωρις δε πιστεως αδυνατον ευαρεστησαι πιστευσαι γαρ δει τον προσερχομενον τω θεω οτι εστιν
    and without πίστις impossible to-be-well-pleasing, for it-is-necessary the one-coming-toward God have-πίστις that he exists

    where the noun πίστις is ‘trust, faith, belief, persuasion, confidence’ (and is etymologically from a verb meaning ‘persuade’). But the Vulgate uses two different words:

    sine fide autem inpossibile placere credere enim oportet accedentem ad Deum quia est

    and maybe this influenced the English translations, which all use two words, faith and believe, from Wycliffe on. However, Luther and subsequent German translators use one word, Glaube/glauben. Do other Germanic languages follow Luther in this? How about other languages, especially those whose traditions didn’t go through the Vulgate?

    Needham’s book is on archive.org, so we could easily do that book club.

  153. There’s a convenient multilingual selection here; Russian uses one word (веры, веровал). (As does Church Slavonic.)

  154. AJP Crown says:

    Descartes was a bad influence in many ways, not least on the cats he vivisected.

    Tell that to the dogs he vivisected. A thoroughly hateful man.

  155. David Eddyshaw says:

    But that last one is a sense that English believe *doesn’t* cover

    True. I was sloppy with that example. Siak is also the word for “agree that something is the case”, though (as in the translation of the verse from Hebrews) so its range does significantly overlap with “believe.” In the older Bible versions its agent noun siakid is used for “believer” in the Christian sense; it seems to have been ousted by yadda niŋid “truster” or just nya’andɔl “follower” (from nya’aŋ “behind” and dɔl “attend, accompany.)”

    By “logic of the original” do you mean how the Greek uses the same word in both places?

    Yes, I had that in mind; but also the logic is that faith is necessary for serving God because you need faith to believe that God exists at all. However, that only follows if belief in the existence of God is the same kind of thing as trusting God; the polysemy of the various Greek and English words makes that seem an inevitable inference, but the fact that the Kusaal uses two different words with disjoint semantic fields means that the form of the argument no longer works. I didn’t notice initially because I was carrying over the English meanings into the not-quite-equivalent Kusaal. The words used in the verse don’t have to be from the same root (as they happen to be in the Greek) for the argument to work; they just have to overlap sufficiently in meaning. So it still works for readers of the Vulgate (and for readers of Kusaal, too, I dare say, if they have already acquired a Western conception of “belief.”)

    we could easily do that book club

    Go for it! I think I’ve inadvertently given the impression that the book’s a lot more impenetrable than it really is; it’s well written and lucid, and I found it quite a page-turner until the final chapter where he disappears (IMHO) into a fog of far-out relativism not really justified by his arguments up to that point. And there’s lots of stuff likely to appeal to your average Hattic in the street.

    I would in actual fact be very interested in others’ opinions on it. They may very well differ from mine.

  156. January First-of-May says:

    However, that only follows if belief in the existence of God is the same kind of thing as trusting God

    There’s probably another confusing polysemy here: “I trust/believe X” (…that what X’s saying is correct) vs. “I trust/believe in X” (…to do something X is supposed to do). It’s just as similar in Russian (я ему верю and я в него верю respectively), which makes me suspect it might be a SAE thing, but I don’t know what it looks like in any other language (European or otherwise).

    The second one (and only the second one) can (in English) be reformulated as “I have trust/belief in X”, and then synonymized as “I have faith in X” [or indeed “I have confidence in X”], whereas it would still mean pretty much the exact same thing except in a slightly higher register. (Russian doesn’t bother having a separate word for “faith”, and struggles with separate words for “trust” and “believe”.)
    I’m not actually sure how “belief in the existence of God” had came to be described with the same kind of phrases (in Russian as well as English); logically it should have meant something roughly to the effect of “belief that God would do whatever he does correctly”.

    “Trusting God” (in the first sense) sounds like the sort of thing Abraham had to deal with. (“Wait, why do I have to sacrifice my son?” “Just trust me, OK?”)

  157. It’s funny, I’m currently reading Tendryakov’s «Апостольская командировка», about a science journalist who’s quit his job and left his wife and daughter to go in search of God; he’s wound up in a provincial village with a functioning church, a feeble young priest, and a few tottering old ladies in the congregation, and after a confrontation with the priest, who accuses him of not having вера (‘faith/belief’) but only a thirst for it, thinks to himself “Так что же такое вера?” [So what exactly is faith/belief?].

  158. (I’m astonished the story got published in the USSR in 1969, in the Aug.-Oct. issues of «Наука и религия» [Science and Religion].)

  159. David Eddyshaw says:

    @January:

    Kusaal makes just this distinction.
    The Kusaal Bible at Genesis 15:6 has

    Ka Abram da niŋ Zugsɔb yadda
    “and Abram believed the Lord”

    The Lord has just promised that Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky: Abram is trusting God to bring this about, as opposed to merely assenting to the truth of the proposition that he will.

    Contrast Luke 24:11:

    Ka ba tɛn’ɛs ye pu’ab la yɛli ba si’el la anɛ pian’ayaalis ka pʋ siakɛ.
    “But they thought that what the women said to them was nonsense and didn’t believe them.”

    In Kusaal, you might render “I believe in Santa Claus” as

    M siak ye Asantakʋrɔs bɛ.
    “I agree [with my parents’ proposition, perhaps] that Santa Claus exists.”

    If, on the other hand, you were to say

    M niŋid Asantakʋrɔs yadda.
    “I believe in Santa Claus.”

    you’d probably be responding to somebody questioning whether your Christmas gifts would actually arrive, on the grounds that you’d been too naughty.

  160. John Cowan says:

    in some sense their “minds” were their actual selves, though with varying ideas about how their minds related to their physical bodies

    “The mind is what the brain does.”

    “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

    Ray Smullyan’s story “An Unfortunate Dualist”, about a dualist who suffers from excruciating pain (quite independent of his dualism) and is induced to take a potion which will destroy his soul completely, ending his suffering while leaving his body intact. It doesn’t quite work out.

    Dennett’s essay “The Unimagined Preposterousness of Zombies”: there can be no such thing as people who behave exactly like us except they are not conscious and never have been.

  161. David Eddyshaw says:

    Yes, I think it’s fair to say that Blake’s and Dennett’s ideas on this point can be characterised as “varying.”

    The Smullyan story is so blatantly a petitio principii that I’m surprised that such an eminent logician didn’t notice it himself. (I think that that is pretty much exactly what Dennett is saying.)

  162. Yes, that’s one of the many arguments designed to comfort those who already agree with you rather than to convince anyone who doesn’t.

  163. John Cowan says:

    I forgot to attribute the first quotation: it is due to Marvin Minsky.

    petitio principii […] comfort those who already agree with you

    At least one of us doesn’t understand. Smullyan strongly opposed dualism and moralism and very little else; the villain/goat of his stories is generally one or the other or both. He also believed in survival after death, but speculated that perhaps only those who believe, survive, and further that perhaps only those who don’t believe, survive, and how sad his deceased colleagues would be that he would never be with them.

    But in any case I selected these quotations from four people who I think are anti-dualists to express my rejection of dualism, so if I misunderstand any of the four the fault is mine. Eppur si muove.

  164. David Eddyshaw says:

    I admire Marvin MInsky on the grounds that he seems genuinely to have convinced himself that his own consciousness was an illusion.

    As far as mind-body dualism goes, I’m agin it myself. And as I said above, the closest equivalent of “mind” in Kusaal is entirely consistent with Minsky’s dictum. I think there’s an excellent case to be made that more metaphysically hifalutin concepts of “mind” are based on linguistic confusions. And as somebody astutely pointed out, the problem with cogito ergo sum is that Descartes should have recognised that the first verb could perfectly reasonably be impersonal, as in weather expressions. Cogitatur … ergo … cogitatur.

  165. @David Eddyshaw: That should be “τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι.” (Don’t quote in Latin things that are actually from Greek.) However, I agree with you about the sentiment. A much better treatment (albeit in reverse) comes at the end of Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, in which Jack decides that he wants to have a soul, rather than always leaving his soul behind in the Dung Pits of Glyve whenever he rises from the dead.

    Regarding Minsky, it came out last year that he was one of the prominent people who Jeffrey Epstein supplied with underage girls for sex.

  166. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Brett:

    Foxed me for a moment. I thought you were replying to what I said about Descartes.
    I shall continue to cite Greek originals in Latin translation when the mood takes me. Latin is my native language.

    Didn’t know that about Minsky. How sad.

    @JC:

    No, I didn’t think Smullyan was being anything but anti-dualist. I just think his argument in the story leaves something to be desired. (Normally I would call it petitio principii, but the Hellenists are on my case …)
    The inclusion of Blake makes me think of intelligence tests. “One of these things is not like the others …”

  167. a potion which will destroy his soul completely

    How a potion can destroy soul? There should be some misunderstanding here… Even Hermione Granger knew that physical actions (alone) cannot affect the soul.

  168. David Marjanović says:

    In translations into other languages I’ve seen, Logos is translated quite literally as ‘word’. I’m sure, however, that Bible translators took great care in deciding how to translate this.

    I strongly suspect that all of these are influenced by the Vulgate: people looked at logos, knew it had been translated as “word” before, found themselves unable to improve on that, and kept it. Otherwise we’d probably see a diversity of equally bad solutions instead of the same bad solution over and over.

    (Goethe’s Faust suggests “power/force” to himself and then moves on to “act/deed”, but that says more about himself than about the meaning of the original, of course.)

    I suspect that Roman religion was a lot more like the usual West African type until Greek influences made it the way we tend to think of it now.

    Spengler made noises in that general direction, except he doesn’t seem to have known West Africa (unlike, say, India or China).

    It’s just as similar in Russian (я ему верю and я в него верю respectively), which makes me suspect it might be a SAE thing

    Identical in German down to the cases, only the preposition is a bit off: ich glaube ihm, ich glaube an ihn. Same in French, except there all that’s left of the cases is “word” order and the preposition actually fits: je lui crois, je crois en lui. In both cases, the second version, when applied to non-religious figures, can only mean “I believe he’s able to solve this problem and many others”.

    And as somebody astutely pointed out, the problem with cogito ergo sum is that Descartes should have recognised that the first verb could perfectly reasonably be impersonal, as in weather expressions. Cogitatur … ergo … cogitatur.

    Supposedly the original was in French, not in Latin. But, methinks, never mind.

    How a potion can destroy soul?

    Maybe if it’s a properly Epicurean soul: composed of atoms – just the lightest ones, so they disperse after death and can’t be put back together.

  169. David Eddyshaw says:

    Identical in German down to the cases

    You begin to wonder if English is practically unique in being able to use “believe” in a completely ambiguous way …

    Needham’s account of the situation in Nuer is actually heavily dependent on just looking up meanings in dictionaries, which could very easily miss relevant distinctions of construction and usage. I don’t know how good the Nuer dictionaries are at exemplifying words in use; a lot of dictionaries of African languages even nowadays are not too much better than vocabulary lists with glosses.

    In fact, Needham’s approach to meaning in language in general is atomistic, in the sense of looking for meanings in single words; in some languages that works very badly indeed. Hmmm … I suppose if languages in reality make more distinctions than a not-very-good dictionary would suggest, he would probably take that as a chance to find yet more examples of fundamental cross-cultural incompatabilities.

  170. Descartes should have recognised that the first verb could perfectly reasonably be impersonal

    I like that. In other words you can’t prove the -m of sum by petitio-ing (sorry Brett) its allomorph the -o of cogito.

  171. Early Latin religion was rather contractual. In a culture that was heavily based on reciprocal responsibilities between the powerful (nobles, magistrates, patriarchs, patrons) and the humble (clients, slaves, women, progeny), the gods were at the apex of the societal pyramid. If they were treated with respect and propitiated, they would protect your person, goods, and household. A Roman householder would sacrifice and tithe to the god Terminus, and Terminus would ensure that the boundary markers for his property would stay where they were supposed to be. Janus ensured that his doorway would remain secure. Vesta kept fire in the kitchen burning. The Penates originally protected the home’s food stores. Specific sites, especially important sites or the homes of the wralthy, could have their own private gods, and these Lares were often equated with male ancestor spirits, placing the former patriarchs of patrician houses in among the lower ranks of Latin divinities.

  172. David Marjanović says:

    and these Lares were often equated with male ancestor spirits, placing the former patriarchs of patrician houses in among the lower ranks of Latin divinities.

    Was Divus Iulius a Lar?

  173. David Eddyshaw says:

    Early Latin religion was rather contractual

    Extremely natural: any culture without some sort of concept of mutually beneficial exchange is probably not going to survive long enough to be the subject of an ethnographic monograph; and if supernatural beings are thought to be at all like people, the pattern will naturally be carried over. “I’ll do this for you, God(s), if you do that for me. Sir(s).”

    It turns up all the time, including as heretical strands within religions like Christianity which vigorously deny that it works that way (and in oneself, from time to time, too.)

    I was thinking more particularly of the underlying concepts, though, many of which seem within striking distance of “animism”; and especially the numina which aren’t (or weren’t originally) thought of like people, genii locorum and the like. The wina that are the target of Kusaasi attempts to influence are not anthropomorphic, and they’re often associated with places.

    The ancestor spirit thing is interesting too. The Kusaasi can’t be said to believe in reincarnation, because although a person’s win is rather like what our tradition calls a “soul”, it’s really not the same. However, a person’s win is supposed to survive their death, and many people have the win of a forebear as a sort of personal spiritual bodyguard (sigir); the exceedingly common personal name “Awini” actually signifies that your sigir is the win of an ancestor on your father’s side of the family, and “Abugri” that your sigir comes from your mother’s side. (There are other kinds of sigir, including the wina of powerful trees: someone called “Atiga”, “Tree”, has such a sigir.)

  174. David Eddyshaw says:

    I strongly suspect that all of these are influenced by the Vulgate

    The Syriac has mɛlθɔ “word” too.

  175. AJP Crown says:

    In this paper, I will challenge this common understanding of Cartesian animals and instead, based on Descartes’s correspondence and comments on animal behavior, argue for a more nuanced view where, despite not having a soul, animals still feel, sense and perhaps even have some rudimentary conscious states according to Descartes.
    […]
    In order not to turn this piece into a mere apologia for Descartes, I will add some words in the end about self-reflection. Assume that Descartes was right (and that the general contemporary conception I formulated is likewise correct) and the animals are capable of sensing, feeling, emoting and experiencing but are not capable of reflecting their sensations, feelings or experiences. What follows from this? [my bolding] If humans are the only animals in the world capable of reflecting their actions and to be consciously aware of the consequences of those actions, does not this also set a responsibility for humans of their behaviour. If we view that animals are aware (or even conscious) but not self-conscious, and humans alone have what it takes to be self-conscious, this seems to take us to a point that humans as creatures capable of introspection and ethics have the possibility to influence their own actions on a different level than other animals. As humans have this possibility, perhaps even the responsibility, it seems to follow in an unlaboured fashion that every one of us should take an active role in the ethical treatment of animals. It is not necessary then to rationalize this ethical treatment by rights which the animals should possess. The pure responsibility, which humans have towards other beings, would be sufficient.
    Jan Forsman (Univ. of Tampere)

    What follows from this? I don’t give a damn what follows because I don’t believe it, it’s a straw man. And since it (“animals don’t have what it takes to be self-conscious”) cannot be proven by Forsman, the benefit of the doubt should be given by him to the animals and not to Descartes. I have learnt that anyone nowadays who is out to show how other animals differ from humans is a) too stupid and ignorant to argue with and b) a great danger to animals.

  176. Since you don’t seem to have read further, what follows is “every one of us should take an active role in the ethical treatment of animals.” Not sure what your problem with that might be.

  177. AJP Crown says:

    Yes, I read it.
    “every one of us should take an active role in the ethical treatment of animals.” Not sure what your problem with that might be.
    My prob is: define ethical treatment of animals. Is that halal killing, or hilltop sacrifices or Descartes’ ethics or what? It’s all things to all people and so meaningless. He goes on “It is not necessary then to rationalize this ethical treatment by rights which the animals should possess.” in other words, he’s making an argument – he thinks -against animal rights. My own ethics [p.94]

  178. John Cowan says:

    I admire Marvin MInsky on the grounds that he seems genuinely to have convinced himself that his own consciousness was an illusion.

    “… and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope as a keepsake” (Twain on his sincere admiration for Cecil Rhodes).

    I don’t go as far as Minsky; I think with Dennett that my own consciousness, like yours and yours and yours, is a theoretical posit like a center of gravity, and that dualism is like (as Verlyn Flieger said of the close reading of “light” works of fiction) cutting open a ball in search of its bounce. (Tom Shippey, however, said the ball bounces all the better for having been cut open and reassembled, and I’m with him.)

    so blatantly a petitio principii

    In the light of day (hereabouts), I now see the problem with that claim: petitio principii applies to arguments, like all fallacies, whereas the Parable of the Unfortunate Dualist is not an argument at all.

    The inclusion of Blake makes me think of intelligence tests. “One of these things is not like the others …”

    Surely it is just as anti-dualist to say that the body is an extrusion of the soul as to say that the soul is an extrusion of the body. Although Blake uses the word “Soul” in this epigram, he often calls it by the name of the “Poetic Genius”, that is, the shaping spirit. It is the soul/mind that shapes the Ding-an-whatever-it-is into our perceptions, hence his other epigram: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

    [cogito] could perfectly reasonably be impersonal

    “‘I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.'” (Gale described her only experience with Demerol, administered while she was waiting for emergency surgery, in similar terms.)

    Was Divus Iulius a Lar?

    Lares were petty gods. I think his position was that of Hercules: born mortal but made a God.

    Seneca, that sanctimonious ratfink, wrote a story about how when the Senate deified Claudius they made him into a Claudian sort of God, namely a pumpkin. The title was “Apokolokyntosis”, a parody of “apotheosis”. In Rouse’s translation, when Claudius claims to be a Roman emperor, “Our Lady of Malaria” says: “I have lived with him all these years, and I tell you, he was born at Lyons. You behold a fellow-burgess of Marcus. As I say, he was born at the sixteenth milestone from Vienne, a native Gaul. So of course he took Rome, as a good Gaul ought to do.” Who Marcus was is not known.

  179. David Eddyshaw says:

    Seneca, that sanctimonious ratfink

    Yes. Just yes.

    Was Divus Iulius a Lar?

    Divus Iulius was an actual pukka god.
    I’m sure all Hatters are already familiar with Vespasian’s words on falling fatally ill: Vae, puto deus fio “Bugger, I’m turning into a god.”

    More like the win concept is genius; contrary to popular (i.e. non-Hatter) belief, the Empire did not require subjects to sacrifice to the current Emperor; that would be silly. You had to sacrifice to his genius.

  180. From Forsman’s paper:

    According to another story, Descartes once nailed his wife’s dog to a board plank for vivisection, in order to prove that animals are mere machines. The factuality of this tale is also more than suspicious (Descartes never married)[…]

    Thus, this claim is debunked. However, whether Descartes vivisected his wife’s cat is still an outstanding question.

  181. January First-of-May says:

    I think his position was that of Hercules: born mortal but made a God.

    That’s more about Marcus Aurelius Antoninus III, who was, I believe, the only Roman ruler to ever declare himself to be Hercules.

    (He is known to posterity under the name of Elagabalus [that is, El ag-Gabal – “God of the Mountain”], a minor local deity whose cult he usurped before he decided that Hercules fits better.)

  182. AJP Crown says:

    D.O. whether Descartes vivisected his wife’s cat is still an outstanding question.
    Good point. And if one of his followers did these things, it’s just as creepy. What kind of person has friends who nail a dog to a plank?

  183. The deification of Julius Caesar and Augustus occurred in the period when Roman religion was being Hellenized. So their meanings as deities are mixtures of Latin and Greek ideas. One thing about those very contractual Roman deities was is that there were not a lot of important myths about them. We remember the Greek gods as paragons,* who often reward people based on how well they adhere to the virtues the gods are supposed to embody, with the myths telling the stories of these virtues. This is a fairly common feature in Indo-European paganism, prominently seen in the Norse and Indian pantheons, but it is not universal, and it was not so important in early Latin culture.

    The Latins’ relative lack of important myths was one thing that made syncretism easy for them. Their relationships with their gods were transactional, based on performance of ceremony and sacrifice in return for divine support and protection. Values and ideals, as such, were not a particularly important part of the human-divine relationship. This made it easy for the Romans to add in new foreign gods, often identifying them with their own, because the Romans were not particularly concerned with the philosophical or narrative basis of any particular god, only the features that that god sponsored and protected. The Romans even split their most important divine hero between a legendary character and a god, because the two roles seemed so different to their way of thinking; Romulus became the the city’s warrior founder character, and Quirinus became the divine personification of the city and its free male citizens. (As the cult of Quirinus atrophied, he was absorbed as an aspect of the door god Janus, perhaps through a connection with the city’s defensive gates.)

    By the advent of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, however, Greek ideas had become very influential in Rome, and the lives of many among the city’s elite were suffused with Greek culture. Julius Caesar was known as a particular Hellenophile; he said, “The die is cast,” in Greek, not Latin. So the deification of the early imperial rulers, who created the military and institutional bases for the Roman Empire, was a mixture of Greek and Latin notions. From the more Greek viewpoint, they were like Heracles, who was very popular in Rome (as Hercules, obviously); they were human heroes whose exploits were so extraordinary that they had moved them beyond the mere mortal sphere. However, there was also an older Latin notion, of them as a sort of ultimate Lares, as divine, authoritative father figures (like Jupiter and Romulus) for the entire city and its conquests.

    *The Greeks specifically noticed that sometimes things could be important enough that a paragon god was needed, even if that god was not someone to be emulated. Thus we have the division of the portfolio of war between a male deity representing violence and slaughter and a female god more representative of strategy and tactics.

  184. David Marjanović says:

    The Syriac has mɛlθɔ “word” too.

    Ah.

  185. ktschwarz says:

    Continuing with “faith” vs. “believe that God exists”…

    Hat: Thank you for the saintebible.com link, just what I needed! Dutch uses the same word twice just like German: geloof, geloven. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish also use the same word twice, but it’s tro: North Germanic didn’t develop the “believe” sense from the *laub- root as the other Germanic branches did. Of course tro comes ultimately from the same root as trust, which English got via Norse; meanwhile English inherited/developed true, truth, truce, trow, troth from the same root via Old English. (That last group of words are used a lot in Beowulf, where people are constantly talking about who is or isn’t trustworthy.)

    David E: the logic is that faith is necessary for serving God because you need faith to believe that God exists at all.

    Well, and the rest of the sentence, “and that he is a reward-giver to those who seek him”. I guess if you interpret that as a hope of God’s future action, it’s more in the “trust” / yadda semantic area, whereas if you interpret it as an observation of what God is like, then it’s more in the “agree” / siak semantic area. But the whole context of the chapter is that faith is about things *not* seen, about the future, about Noah, Abraham, etc. acting on promises from God in the hope of future reward, so I’d think that would weight it more towards the “trust” area.

  186. David Eddyshaw says:

    But the whole context of the chapter is that faith is about things *not* seen, about the future

    Certainly. I have no desire to undermine Hebrews 11 at all; I was just struck by the fact that one verse tacitly takes for granted an equivalence between different kinds of “belief” which is (probably) not in fact a cultural universal. I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t been looking at the question in the context of Needham’s book (a point in favour of the book, of course.) In the great scheme of things, it’s a trivial point. As has been often pointed out, the whole Bible in fact takes the existence of God as a given.

    My impression is that confusion between these senses of “belief” can lead non-Christians to suppose that Christians are talking about siak-type belief when they are actually talking about yadda-type. I was certainly often unclear about this when I was myself a fairly orthodox Dawkinsite, and accordingly very focused on the siak side of the question; but there are certainly atheists more clued up about such things than I was, so it may have just been me …

  187. In the Pumpkinification of Claudius as we have it Claudius is not actually turned into a pumpkin, so what we have may not really be Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis at all. If it is, it redeems him a tiny bit; Claudius’s last words are “Damn, I think I’ve shit myself”.

  188. David Eddyshaw says:

    Claudius is not actually turned into a pumpkin

    SPOILERS!

  189. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish also use the same word twice, but it’s tro:

    Icelandic:

    6En án trúar er ógerlegt að þóknast honum, því að sá, sem gengur fram fyrir Guð, verður að trúa því, að hann sé til og að hann umbuni þeim, er hans leita.

    https://www.snerpa.is/net/biblia/hebrea.htm

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