1.18.2002

Wittgenstein struggled mightily with the issue of private language. His concern was to show that any language constructed by humans -- private language, symbolic logic, mathematical logic, Esperanto -- is an extrapolation of ordinary language. Ordinary language connects us, tethers, and there is comfort here. But is there more? Physiological isomorphism is another area of congruence and I think it is a way to think about what is unique about human language and why we could never understand the lion's speech. What is it like to have a human body?
Clifford Geertz talks about overcoming the cultural boundaries in anthropological work. I ask a Sherpa if the water is potable. She nods her head up and down. I drink and get sick. Why? Well, nodding up and down in Sherpa means "no." A small illustration for a big problem. How do we begin to engage and study cultures different from our own without losing the differences? The starting point for Geertz is the "experience near" and "experience far" distinction. What we share is the experience near of having a body. A person slams their fingers in a door. They cry out in pain. I do not feel that pain, but I recognize the criteria for pain, "I know how it feels," -- even if they were to respond by laughing rather than crying -- because I have a similar body. The world as I know it is shaped by ancestors who experienced the world through bodies close to my own. (Sadly, this capacity for empathy feeds cruelty (torture) as well as compassion.) I reaffirm that aspect of experience.
I imagine there can be inter-species sharing in this form of life, this body shape community. Jane Goodall's work leaps to mind here in the relation of humans to chimps. The Washoe Project illustrates the relation from the ape to human direction. Successful interaction is limited, but immersion in one another's forms of life enhance what successes there are/were. If a chimpanzee could talk, we might understand some of it -- or we could be taught to understand one another. With limitations.
Clearly, dolphins can be trained to perform tasks. They demonstrate a mammalian need for social interaction that can be shared with humans in certain circumstances. But the physiological differences are hugely significant and stand as barriers to linguistic imbrication. Worlds are different.
Sometimes you just have to throw ideas out there and see what the response will be. Fortunately, we have wonderful students to serve as crap detectors for us.

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