Re: Mutual Intelligibilty

Christopher Pound (pound@IS.RICE.EDU)
Sun, 27 Nov 1994 04:35:47 -0600

Your question gives us at least three things to talk about: skepticism,
linguistic relativity, and humanism.

As you suggested, skepticism has had a major role in the historical
development of theories of language and interpretation. Locke stated the
skeptical position in its strongest form:

And every Man has so inviolable a Liberty, to make words stand
for what _Ideas_ he pleases, that no one hath the Power to make
others have the same _Ideas_ in their Minds, that he has, when
they use the same Words, that he does (Locke in Taylor 1992:32).

Weird, huh? But as you've already discovered, that's what happens when
you try to examine statements like "I understand what you're saying" from
an epistemological perspective (i.e. How do you know you understand?),
precisely because you're introducing a new perspective, shifting the context,
and positing a fundamental rift between yourself and the person who just
said "I understand what you're saying." You're looking for a natural law
of understanding to connect the two (imaginary) subjects of experience that
you've artificially separated from the linguistic, relational subjects
declared in dialogue (I/you/I/you). But, phrases like:

I understand what you're saying.
You're lying.
That's not what I meant.
I don't like your tone of voice.

etc. pertain to the legitimacy of expression and to the legitimacy
of understanding. They do not imply that there is either a law of
understanding (like the one you invented) or a law of misunderstanding
(like Locke's).

For a full treatment of how this problem has shaped theories of
language in Locke, ethnomethodology, Chomsky, Saussure, and many others,
check out _Mutual Misunderstanding: Scepticism and the Theorizing of
Language and Interpretation_ by Talbot J. Taylor.

Now, as for linguistic relativity and the problem of worldviews, I suggest
you actually sit down and read Whorf. He assumes that communication within
and across languages is an _a priori_ possibility. He believes that all
consensus is achieved as a linguistic process. He implies that there is
an equivalency in usages between languages that makes translation seem
perfectly straightforward. In fact, he says _lots_ of things that should
give us pause before we go dumping on him as just another "relativist,"
for example:

[A] common stock of conceptions, possibly possessing a yet
unstudied arrangement of its own, does not yet seem to be greatly
appreciated; yet to me it seems to be a necessary concomitant of
the communicability of ideas by language; it holds the principle
of this communicability, and is in a sense the universal language,
to which the various specific languages give entrance (Whorf 1956:36).

Hmmm. Maybe these (linguistically) relativist guys are saying something
quite different from what they're supposed to have said? Check out
Whorf in _Language, Thought, and Reality_ ... I'm not saying it's flawless,
but there's a lot more there than you'll usually hear about on the net. :-)
Also, for a really terrific discussion of Whorf, Whorf's varying receptions
and mis-receptions, and linguistic relativity in general, check out
Emily Schultz's _Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin, and Linguistic

Finally, there's humanism, the idea that human beings are essentially all
the same (especially with respect to their worth, dignity, and potential
for self-realization through reason). That sounds nice. What more moral
ground could we have to stand on than that when we're confronted with the
paradoxes of relativism? Humanism must stand in opposition to the inhuman.
That's the only logical conclusion.

Or, should I say that's only the logical conclusion? I wouldn't want to
question the sincerity of the concern expressed for others in humanistic
terms, but I think we have to look carefully at where this idea about the
essential sameness of human beings came from and what it has been used to
justify. Personally, I don't intend to commit myself to any argument that
relativizes all other arguments to the correctness with which they express
an essential truth of the human condition, but that hardly makes me
indifferent to moral argumentation.

You're right to think of this problem in connection with the skeptical
perspective on communication; IMHO, it has a very similar solution.

Christopher Pound ( | They think they are Parisians, but
Department of Anthropology, Rice U. | they are nothing. -- Pierre Bourdieu