February 28, 2012

The elusive taste of pineapple

On the opening pages of Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume famously talks about a

plain and convincing phaenomenon; which is, that, where-ever by any accident the faculties, which give rise to any impressions, are obstructed in their operations, as when one is born blind or deaf; not only the impressions are lost, but also their correspondent ideas; so that there never appear in the mind the least traces of either of them. Nor is this only true, where the organs of sensation are entirely destroyed, but likewise where they have never been put in action to produce a particular impression. We cannot form to ourselves a just idea of the taste of a pine apple, without having actually tasted it.

This sounds natural enough: the congenitally blind cannot understand colour language, the congenitally deaf can have no idea of the sound of a trumpet or clarinet, and someone who has never tasted pineapple can’t form an idea of what it tastes like. Hume is here arguing for his central doctrine that all our ideas (anything we can talk or think about) have to originate in sense-impressions: we learn what red is by having a visual impression of red, what the taste of pineapple is by having the sensation of tasting pineapple, etc. (Hume would probably have conceded that this need not be literally true: someone might be able to produce a pineapple-tasting compound in the lab and teach us the taste of pineapple by means of it.)

Is Hume right here? What type of claim is he making?

There appear to be two sides to the claim, one apparently psychological, the other concerning understanding. Hume seems to be saying that under certain conditions (in the absence of having tasted pineapple) certain mental contents (or qualia as philosophers would nowadays call them) will not occur. In consequence of this, the person “cannot form a just idea” of the taste. How are these sides connected?

“Isn’t that obvious?” someone may retort: “having an idea of a taste simply consists in feeling or recalling the taste, that is, in undergoing this particular sensation”. But how do we know that someone who has never tasted pineapple (or even a lab-made imitation) will never in fact experience this particular sensation? How are we to exclude the possibility, say, that certain neurological conditions will cause a person to have precisely this sensation when eating cucumber or shrimp, or whatever? Similarly, can we be sure that a congenitally blind person will not in fact have an impression of red and blue dots swimming before him?

The point is that this would make no difference. What matters is that these individuals would have no way of connecting their sensations with the taste of pineapple or with the colours red and blue. (I’m not committing myself on what it would mean actually to attribute experiences of this kind to someone.) The importance of the event of tasting pineapple or seeing an actual coloured object does not lie in its causal efficacy in bringing about a particular sensation; it lies in its constituting a point of reference which guides the speaker in her use of the words - provided of course she knows (e.g. has been told) what she has been tasting or seeing.

What matters are not her mental contents, but the fact that from now on we expect her to be able to carry on certain tasks or to make certain kinds of judgment. Differently put: someone who has seen a red object or has tasted pineapple has access to a sample to which she may appeal in her use of words. She has a mastery of the language-game that someone who has not had these experiences or is incapable of having them does not have. I can tell the first person certain things that I cannot tell the second. (Of course, it isn’t that I can tell the first but not the second what pineapple tastes like - but the first will understand me if I say that something else tastes like pineapple, while the second will not.)

On samples as tools of the language, see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §§ 16, 50, 56.

Could this line of thought be applied to the case of horrendous experiences? Are we to think, say, of the loss of a loved one as a “sample” that can be used as a point of reference in describing or comparing experiences? Maybe in some cases, but for the most part, the contexts in which we speak about experiences like grief are radically different from the contexts in which we discuss colours or tastes. I hope to return to this question.

(These reflections were inspired by discussions with Olli Lagerspetz.)

February 05, 2012

On trying to capture reality in language

The small volume Philosophy and Animal Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) consists of a series of contributions by Cary Wolfe, Cora Diamond, Stanley Cavell, John McDowell and Ian Hacking, each of the latter three commenting on those that precede it. The essays are highly readable and they raise a number of intriguing issues.

In my reading, the essays are more centrally concerned with questions about the limitations of language than with animal life. The theme is adumbrated by John McDowell in speaking of situations "when something we encounter defeats our ordinary capacity to get our minds around reality, that is, our capacity to capture reality in language. That dislodges us from comfortably inhabiting our nature as speaking animals, animals who can make sense of things in the way the capacity to speak enables us" (p. 134).

One situation to which McDowell refers is that invoked in Cora Diamond's essay in the book, "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy". It comes from a poem by Ted Hughes, "Six young men". (The poem can be read at http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/news/news07/102.html .)

The poem is about a photograph of six young men who were soon after all to be killed in the first world war. "The poem", as McDowell expresses it, "is about a kind of impossibility the poet finds in trying to combine that fact [of their imminent death], in a single mental embrace, with the vibrant aliveness with which they are present in the photograph" (p. 132). The poem ends:

To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One's own body from its instant and heat.

The poem connects with experiences with which we are familiar: the very incomprehensibility of the death of those who matter to us and of the thought of our own non-existence, the senselessness of the slaughter of young men in war, the poignancy of a photograph capturing a moment in time that is almost palpably present and yet forever lost.

The question I wish to raise is whether experiences like these actually do throw light on our predicament as speakers. Do they reveal something about the essence of language? Or are they just one way of reacting to a powerful experience?

Here are some things to ponder: I believe some of us are more inclined than others to speak of experiences defeating our capacity to capture reality in language. Do those who do not have this experience miss out on something? Or is it merely a matter of what forms of expression we prefer?

Experiences of the sort hinted at by McDowell seem to be speaker-centred rather than bound up with problems of communication. It is I as speaker who experience my inability to capture the experience in words. It is not a matter of someone else finding my words hard to understand. Indeed, we could imagine a situation in which I tell someone of an experience of mine, and when he responds by saying "Yes I understand" I may react by feeling that he does not understand at all. (Perhaps we could even say that in these situations the criterion of one's being understood is that one's interlocutor should have a sense of not understanding?)

McDowell equates "getting our minds around reality" with "capturing reality in language", and he says that the capacity to speak enables us to make sense of things. Again, it is as if I need language to tell myself what it is I experience; language failing I do not understand my experience. However, there is a special twist to this. It is not that I cannot find the right words to articulate my experience. That would be a different situation altogether. Here the problem is that even the right words (say, "these young men died shortly after this picture was taken") fail to capture the experience - that is what takes me aback.

But if so, what is the understanding that we are missing here? It is not that we are at a loss how to interpret the description: we know what the relevant evidence might be for such a claim, and what follows from it. My suggestion is that the feeling of not understanding is partly constitutive of the experience - of how it feels. In saying that this experience "defeats my capacity to capture reality in language", I am using words in a secondary sense.