Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



Total Pageviews

Thursday, April 14, 2016

PRIVATE LANGUAGES AND INVERTEBRATES

When I was a young man coming up, as we used to say, one of the hot topics in philosophy was private languages.  The issue arose in Epistemology, where everyone worried about whether I had a private language to describe my immediate sensory experience [“sense data,” we called it] and whether, if I did, I could communicate that experience by means of it to you.  It also came up in Ethics, where everyone worried about whether I could ever compare my pains to yours [or my pleasures, but we tended to be more pessimistic in those days.  It was before the Sixties.]

All of which flashed through my mind when I read about Inky, the New Zealand octopus.  It seems Inky, holed up in a Wellington aquarium, saw a tiny fissure in the wire mesh at the top of his tank, squeezed through it after hours, slid down the side of the tank to the floor, sidled over to a storm drain, slithered through that, and made his way to freedom in the Pacific Ocean.  I had always read that octopi were unusually intelligent, though I could never figure out how anyone knew. I would have liked the aquarium attendants [who wished Inky well, by the way – he was very popular] to make more of an effort to communicate with him.  Do you suppose he has a private language?


Now I understand why I have always declined to eat calamari, even though I love raw oysters.

3 comments:

tim said...

I have no problem with genuinely private languages per se. The privacy element vanishes as soon as I seek to use it to use with another person. Either this other person learns (enough of) the language communicate which is what language does, or they do not. In the latter case the private language is indistinguishable from gibberish for everyone else. Appealing to the intentions of the speaker of this hypothetical raises a good and interesting question: how do we figure out another person's intentions? Absent a belief in telepathy, magic and divine revelation, all we have is a person's words. A person with a private language out in the real world, would either make no difference to anything or anyone, be "mistaken" for a mentally ill person or maybe as having suffered a stroke.

As for communicating with an octopus, there's no reason to think it would be inherently impossible. That's not to say it would be easy, or particularly rich. What common ground would serve to provide a basis to create mutually intelligible signs and symbols? Think how you would register someone who only spoke an African tribal language for an ESL class. Now, strip away most of the common biological ground (fingers, head, eyes, feet, man, woman, child, etc). Depending on which theorists you follow, this hypothetical ESL registrant probably sees the same thing that you do when you look at a photograph of a car, house, person, etc. A smiley-face might be problematic, at least to start.

With an octopus, though, an octopus probably wouldn't see the same colors, lines, etc. Further, an octopus (even a genius octopus) might not recognize a picture as a picture. Another interesting question: does it matter that the octopus doesn't see the same thing a human does when looking at a picture (think about how species- and culturally-overlaid a simple smiley-face is), just as long as the octopus used and reacted to symbols and signs consistently, even if the interspecies language became quite complex?

As one of my freshman philosophy profs told us,"I don't know what you mean, I only know what you say and write."

Chris said...

I had always read that octopi were unusually intelligent, though I could never figure out how anyone knew.

Because of this news story, I read this terrific article on that topic from a few years back. You might find it interesting. Here's the link.

(This is a different Chris from the one who normally comments here. I'd pick a different pseud for this blog if Google permitted it.)

Chris said...

A friend once told me an anecdote about an octopus who escaped his aquarium, walked down a hallway and took a book off a shelf. Now I don't know for sure that the anecdote it true, but if there's one thing I choose to have faith and 'belief' in, it's that anecdote.

p.s. Hello other Chris! nice name!