THE HOPE OF FINDING ORDER.

A few days ago, Geoff Pullum had a post in Lingua Franca in which he quoted a wonderful passage by Herbert Feigl:

The attempt to know, to grasp an order, to adjust ourselves to the world in which we are embedded, is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to live. Confronted with a totally different universe, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown. Only if extended and strenuous efforts led invariably to complete failure, would we abandon the hope of finding order. And even that would be an induction.

(From “The Logical Character of the Principle of Induction,” Philosophy of Science 1.1 (Jan. 1934): 20-29.) As Geoff says, “the attempt to know the regularities and constraints of sentence structure, to grasp a linguistic order, [...] is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to speak and understand,” and if we were confronted with “a totally different linguistic experience, where no grammatical rules were followed and speech was just a chaotic jumble of words, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown.” We humans are not built to deal with chaos.

Comments

  1. About this idea, two wonderful poems by Wallace Stevens, both online: “The Idea of Order at Key West” and “Connoisseur of Chaos.”

  2. Very interesting: Feigl seems to be yet another river that flows on to Bochum. Luhmann put it more tartly, though: “There is no escaping from sense”.
    We humans are not built to deal with chaos.
    So we roll our own alternatives, right ? It is but a step from this to the conclusion that realities are social constructs, one way or t’other. It seems to me that you essentially agree with this (on certain days of the week, at any rate), but not with this way of putting it. Pullum speaks to my own experience with his remark:

    People seem to want to pigeonhole me as either a rulebook-thumping martinet or an if-it-feels-good-do-it anarchist. I struggle to make it clear that the only sensible position lies in between those extremes, and mostly I fail.

  3. Gosh, “Connoisseur of Chaos” I hadn’t known, although I consider myself a fan of Stevens. Primarily, though, I consider myself a wind-tunnel of Luhmann, testing his ideas under unfavorable public conditions.

  4. My mistake above to write “Bochum” – that should be “Bielefeld”, where Luhmann was. I’ve never been to either place, they’re too far out in the sticks as seen from Cologne. All I know is that they both begin with a “B”.

  5. That’s not strictly correct: I once visited a sociopath in Bochum. Memories do not serve that only stand and collect dust.

  6. “I once visited a sociopath in Bochum.”
    Well, you made me curious. What’s the story behind that?
    And, BTW, I know both cities – I studied in Bochum and I once visited a friend who studied in Bielefeld (more preciesely, in Bethel). Both are cities where a lacklustre-to-ugly urban space is partially redeemed by pleasant green surroundings.

  7. That was merely the first occasion in my life to have dealings with a sociopath other than my father. To understand what I mean by “sociopath”, see the “full-length biographic studies” provided by Hervey Cleckley in The Mask of Sanity, 1988. It can be downloaded free here or bought through amazon.
    But back to Pullum, who can be a bit of a tease sometimes, it seems to me. He writes, immediately following the sentence quoted by Hat:

    Only if extended and strenuous efforts led invariably to complete failure would we abandon the hope of finding syntax in the language used by the people around us, and (perhaps) come to believe that any and all possible orders of word forms in a sentence are permissible. And even that would be a grammar.

    Well, yes – but a trivial grammar consisting of a single production rule (or rather rule schema) generating all finite lists of “words”. Here the prescriptivist would lie down with the descriptivist – an unlikely state of affairs.
    The enquiring mind finds other conclusions crowding in at this point: maybe the “sentences” are not sentences at all, but a diversionary activity – the speakers are actually communicating by surreptitiously passing little notes to each other, unnoticed by the linguists. Or the “sentences” are representations of the (valid or invalid) Gödel numbers of the statements meant. Gödel numbers are syntactically trivial, all the relevance being found in the interpretation, i.e. semantics.
    If these ideas sound too unlikely, replace “the people around us” by “the crows around us”. Crows have been rehabilitated with respect to communication ability. Previous researchers had not been paying attention to what did not attract their attention – a common practice. But where there’s a will, there’s a way to make sense out of anything. Indeed, it’s more a matter of willy-nilly, as Feigl can be seen to be saying in the light of Luhmann’s detailed analysis of sense in Soziale Systeme.

  8. Garrigus Carraig says:

    I thought it was more or less settled that Bielefeld didn’t exist.

  9. So we roll our own alternatives, right ? It is but a step from this to the conclusion that realities are social constructs, one way or t’other. It seems to me that you essentially agree with this (on certain days of the week, at any rate), but not with this way of putting it.
    It seems to me your taking issue not with any lack of consistency, Stu, or a lack of willingness to follow a thought to its logical conclusion, but with the power of rhetoric — the idea that Hat, or Pullum, would find interesting a point of view you’ve introduced at times to less enthusiasm. C’mon. That’s the way of the world. I’m actually on your side of this philosophical fence, but LH isn’t a philosophy of science blog. You can’t really take issue with our host for evincing a little excitement over a quote that touches on both linguistics and aligns with your area of interest and even expertise, just because he doesn’t always find it interesting to think that way or join conversations that drift in that direction. Hat’s a big sophisticated boy; just because he hasn’t read Luhmann et al. as voraciously as you doesn’t mean he isn’t aware those ideas out there. And that he chooses to explore history, linguistics, literature, etc. instead of philosophy doesn’t make him intellectually shallow in any way for posting one quote he happens to like that touches on philosophy.

  10. Shit. That should have been, “[. . .] you’re taking issue,” of course.

  11. I’m not convinced that this has much to do with the power of rhetoric, Jim. Pullum writes a few lines about a difficult idea, Hat adds a few of his own – nobody gets hurt. I add a remark on the proximity of that idea to another, equally difficult one that has been repeatedly, heatedly rejected (“post-modernist claptrap”) – again, nobody gets hurt.
    I could be that Hat doesn’t see any particular connection between the ideas – or it could be that he now does, and as a result his enthusiasm for the Feigl quote wanes. Have there been accusations of “intellectual shallowness” ? I don’t see any.

  12. That’s exactly what I took your understanding to be, Stu. And though you may not be convinced, I was saying that I thought Hat did see the proximity of the ideas but that he enjoyed the one he was quoting, even though he’d heatedly rejected another near it, because of the way the former was written. It was my own addition that this didn’t indicate any intellectual shallowness on his part, not any sort of rebuke of something you’d written or implied. Hat of course can speak for himself, but I’ve always found his attitude toward philosophy fascinating, specifically because I, like you, feel a greater pull down that rabbit hole; and having gleaned his attitude, I hoped — in part from occasional tensions on this blog — I thought I might take the liberty of trying to articulate the underlying thinking myself. I hope I haven’t misrepresented that thinking (though if I have, that’ll be how I’ll learn), and I certainly didn’t intend to offend you. It is possible, though, that I was cavalier in that regard, seeing as I always think of you as having thick skin. I’m still betting on the skin, but if I’ve overstepped in any way, you only need say the word.

  13. I actually think the idea expressed here and the one that I take to lie behind Grumbly’s frequent questionings of what he takes to be a too simple-minded acceptance of “reality” are quite distinct, but as Jim says, this is a language blog and not a philosophy blog, and I have no intention of getting into it. I will say, however, that I have thought quite a bit about these matters and am not likely to be brought to an agonizing reappraisal by anything anyone says or quotes in a LH comment thread.

  14. I thought it was more or less settled that Bielefeld didn’t exist.
    That would explain why I often confuse it with Bochum.

  15. I used to spend weeks and even months at a time in Bielefeld. It did seem to exist. I recall that it called itself “Die freundliche Stadt am Teutoburger Wald”.
    The university had a certain lacklustre-to-ugly urban space quality. It was mostly one giant concrete building with a hollow inside, sort of an indoor Main Street.

  16. And even that would be an induction.
    I actually think the idea expressed here and the one that I take to lie behind Grumbly’s frequent questionings of what he takes to be a too simple-minded acceptance of “reality” are quite distinct
    That would make me wrong yet again: hardly surprising, not only because I often am, but also because the problem of induction is so big that just about everything is in its proximity in one way or another. I was sloppy in conflating proximity with alignment. Bishop Berkeley, after all, took induction to an extreme to usher people back under God’s umbrella, whereas Hume, to whom the word is often ascribed, though he never used it himself, thought an understanding of it necessary for the best possible practice of natural science, about which he was sanguine, being of course a famous to-his-deathbed atheist. You were right, Stu, that rhetoric, or just good writing, had nothing to with it. One of these days, when I have time, I’ll have to read Luhmann myself, hopefully with your help, both in picking translations and in understanding the philosophy, and then, once I have a proper understanding — I have no idea how long that will take — we can have it out every not and agin via email over whether or not a thought constitutes a small step to his.

  17. I used to spend weeks and even months at a time in Bielefeld. It did seem to exist. I recall that it called itself “Die freundliche Stadt am Teutoburger Wald”.
    A first-hand testimonial to the possible existence of Bielefeld ! That’s something to be going on, at least.
    In fact Luhmann almost nowhere has much to say about “existence”, or about what it means to say that “something exists”, or about “induction”, or any of your standard philosophical conundrums. When he does pick up a conundrumite he does it with tweezers, turns a few laser-like remarks on it, then casts the ashes aside. He’s a sociologist, after all.
    He occasionally refers to persons as “psychic systems”. In a famous interview he said that persons don’t interest him in the slightest. If you are a member of the Jane Austen Society, vote Democratic or often read science fiction, you may not get much out of Luhmann. [;-)]

  18. Now that I have found pictures of the University of Bielefeld, I’m beginning to wonder if it should exist, whether or not it does. Here is Main Street. The outside looks like a gigantic Mayo Clinic. Crown is going to have a hissy fit when he sees these pictures.

  19. In a famous interview he said that persons don’t interest him in the slightest.
    I’ve just lost whatever interest I had in Luhmann.

  20. Hier.

  21. Now, now ! Would you be more interested if Luhmann offered explanations on why you vote as you do, where your thoughts and feelings come from, and churned out questionnaires to measure your social intelligence quotient ? You can get all that already in Psychology Today and Cosmopolitan.
    Luhmann gave his answer in response to an exasperating interviewer who, like many others before him, wanted to discover something warm, cuddly and reassuring in Luhmann’s work – something to make people buck up and feel more comfortable about the world they live in (“society”). Luhmann’s answer means that he as a sociologist is not concerned with the Warm and Cuddly, no more than a mathematician is.
    Luhmann always refused to dissect persons, speculate about their individual motives, and serve up unsolicited public explanations of how they tick and what they really are. Consistent with that, he also rejected attempts to pry into his own person.
    The man himself was a self-effacing sweetiepie. Take a look at this interview excerpt in which he gives his brief analysis of the function of morals and moralizing. Or this interview (from a dctp program) on Liebe als Passion, a book he published in 1982.

  22. MMcM: Your link, at the top of the next page, contains one of Luhmann’s central notions: Die Einheit der Form verschwindet im Gebrauch oder in der Beobachtung. [The unity of the form vanishes during actual use, or when observing].
    Example 1: you can’t see your visual blind spot. Example 2: sociologists observing society traditionally forget that they, and sociology itself, are part of that society.

  23. an exasperating interviewer who … wanted to discover something …
    Perhaps that is the larger context. But, as you can see, it was as a direct answer to the question, „Gibt es bestimmte Gegenstandsbereiche, die Sie nicht interessieren?“
    I think it can be reasonably claimed that Prof. Huber is, or was, a disciple of Luhmann’s. He wrote several books on art as a social system, including one on the working of Veronese’s bottega specifically, continuing themes of Kunst der Gesellschaft.
    From the earlier comments here, I had actually hoped that you’d pick up on „die Stadt Bielefeld, das ist kein System.“

  24. I didn’t read the whole exchange, because it seemed to be primarily about art (graus !). Die Kunst der Gesellschaft is one of those things I will get around to reading before I die, I’m quite sure.
    I knew the quote only from one of the several collections of interviews published by kadmos in recent years. I made up the “annoying interviewer”, I now have to admit, as a kind of collage from other interviews. I did get the spirit of the thing, but had forgetten the fuller quote: ich lehne alle Einladungen ab, die mich veranlassen wollen, über den Menschen zu sprechen. Menschenbilder, sowas Grausliches. Also der Mensch interessiert mich nicht, wenn ich das so hart sagen darf. How more mildly mannered is it possible to be: wenn ich das so hart sagen darf ?
    The remark about Bielefeld not being a system is a nice example of his dry humor.

  25. “I love mankind! It’s people I can’t stand.” —Linus van Pelt

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