From Shakespeare to Wittgenstein

The “Philosophy in Popular Culture” series returns after … SIX MONTHS! … ahem, with the entry that actually stopped me so long ago, a piece by Paul A. Cantor in “Star Trek and Philosophy” called “From Shakespeare to Wittgenstein: “Darmok” and Cultural Literacy”. And the reason why this halted me in my tracks was that there were interesting enough things to say about it, but not interesting enough to make me actually want to write it out. Essentially, the main thesis is, well, a bit muddled as it moves through a few different topics. It starts from the Shakespearean example of learning a new language from Henry V, where one character learns French starting from learning the names of body parts as the common basis. He then moves on to talking about Wittgenstein’s comment that if a lion had a language we couldn’t understand the lion anyway, because we lack any such common starting point, which leads in to the celebrated episode Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, which demonstrated that problem … except that the difference was not physical, but was instead cultural as all of the terms in their language had a strong cultural meaning, which the universal translator couldn’t pick up, and from there he moves on to commenting about how culture impacts our use of language today.

So the last point, that a lot of our terms have cultural implications that allow us to use them as short-cuts in conveying what we mean, is mostly uncontroversial. Tying it to Wittgenstein is far more problematic, because there is good reason to criticize the “Darmok” language as, for the most part, being utterly unworkable as presented … which then demonstrates as issue with Wittgenstein’s proposal.

Cantor quotes Data as saying this: “The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of the vocabulary”. The problem is that, for the most part, the terms in a vocabulary don’t, in fact, have meaning on their own … or, at least, they don’t serve their purpose by having an actual meaning. There are a lot of words in the English language, for example, that have a meaning or a meaningful origin. For example, it is believed that the word “sandwich” came into existence because it was the Earl of Sandwich who first invented/popularized it. However, you don’t need to know any of that in order to learn what a sandwich is, and most people can use the word perfectly well without knowing that. You also don’t need to know what English words came from French, or what Russian words came from English, and so on and so forth to be able to use them. You simply point at the cab, say “tacksi”, and you learn the word. What this means is that the inherent meaning of a word is utterly irrelevant to its use in the vocabulary of a language; a word is not better or worse for having a meaning prior to taking on the meaning it has.

But what “Darmok” would have us believe is that for these aliens, the words that go into the vocabulary go into it because of their inherent meanings, and that without learning that inherent meaning you simply will not be able to understand the world. And the problem with this is that it’s actually impossible. Imagine that I had to learn the history behind the sandwich before I could learn to associate the word “sandwich” to that bit of meat and other things between two pieces of bread. How exactly would I do that? I’d need to know what gambling meant, and what it meant to be an Earl, and all sorts of other words … that I would have had to learn the same way, according to the episode. How would I do that? And remember, this isn’t something that only outsiders would have to learn, but that all of the children would have to learn as they learned the language. The only way I could think of this actually working is if these stories were genetically passed on — which would make learning new terms exceptionally difficult — or else a low-level telepathy passed on the meaning and the object to the children, which is actually the best explanation for the problems in the episode.

This is why when you are talking about vocabulary the terms always point to things that can, well, be pointed to. They have to; you can’t learn them without having a reference outside of the language to point to. Ultimately, it has to be something in unfettered experience that you rely on to denote the meaning of the term you use, and the specific term you use isn’t important. You can use previous words or concepts as short-forms, but every time you do you end up placing a dependency on anyone who wants to learn that word on the previous words or concepts. The person who simply says, as Cantor says, “There is a tide” relies on people knowing that part of Shakespeare to get the point across. If they do, then the meaning is clear; if they don’t, it’s totally opaque and it takes a lot of explaining to get the meaning across.

Thus, vocabulary terms will always refer at the base level to something in experience, and what we experience is a world. Therefore, since the lion and the man and the humans and the “Darmok” aliens all live in the same “world” (universe, experiential plane, whatevah), they will refer to the same basic objects. The lion and the man will both watch antelopes; the human and the “Darmok” alien will both build ships. So if there is going to be a disconnect between them, it will not be in their vocabulary, but in their cognition. It will be in how they experience and organize their experiences, and ultimately thus in how they think. Humans have vision as their strongest sense, and vision is strongly objectified; it presents objects to us fully formed. Thus, we will think of things in terms of objects. But if a creature had a stronger sense of smell or stronger hearing, they might not think of things as objects, and so will classify things differently. And their language, then, will reflect that. However, these differences aren’t likely to be enough to make them completely and totally incomprehensible to the other, because we do share the same world and the same sensory modalities, and so with effort we should be able to translate from one to the other. Only for creatures whose experiences are completely different or whose cognition is totally different could we ever get to the point where it would be impossible to understand each other, because in those cases we would have two creatures who are effectively in two completely different worlds despite being in the same world. But that should be rare.

Ultimately, again, the fact that all languages use cultural short-cuts is not controversial, but what is controversial is that two different types of creatures in the same world could be so far apart in terms of cognition and experience that there is no way that they could understand each other. “Darmok” tries to set up a strong case of that, but does it in a way that isn’t credible because it presents aliens that simply talk differently, but that don’t think or experience differently. And that’s what’s needed for a truly confusing translation project.

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