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From the Canada Free Press, April 17, 2008

The concept of language as a kind of lens or filter, or even straitjacket, cannot be over-stated. Wittgenstein said that the limits of language are the limits of one’s world.

By that token, bilingual or multilingual people have broader vision. It is not what we look at, the poverty, the injustice, the overpopulation, the environmental degradation, that is paramount. But the linguistic construction built in to filter that reality, to bring it into sharp focus, or make us blind to it.
The question becomes then, whose lens are we wearing? What filter are we looking through? How do we remove it?
In 1984 George Orwell revealed that the purpose of Newspeak, the language of his fictional totalitarian regime, was to rid old English (Oldspeak) of all adjectives and unnecessary words so that people would be not be able to feel or think. If one could not describe sadness, one could not feel it, and if there was no word for democracy or justice  one couldn’t complain about the government. By eliminating words, Newspeak would eliminate the range of thoughts..

Entire article here.


68. Is there a reason or rule for every word or sentence we utter? No more than there is a reason or rule standing behind every tune we whistle or sing to others. And what do we lose by this?

‘the eyes have it’

The following, excerpted from the New York Times, February 13, 2007, is a typical report of pareidolia:

More than a decade ago, Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Fla., received a religious message through an unlikely medium: a grilled cheese sandwich she had made herself. As she gazed at the brown skillet marks on the surface of the bread, a familiar visage snapped into focus.

“I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back,” she told reporters in 2004. “I was in total shock.”

Are reports of pareidolia avowals or expressions (Ausdruck)? I look at a face in a picture and am asked: ‘What do you see?’ I reply: ‘The Virgin Mary’. I look at an object; suddenly a face is in it. I exclaim ‘The Virgin Mary!’ The first is a report, the second an exclamation. Both are expressions of visual experience and perception. But the exclamation is forced from us, so it is an expression of perception in a different sense from the report.

Diana Duyser reports she was shocked when she saw the face of the Virgin Mary in her sandwich. This makes her statement of pareidolia  – “I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back” – similar to exclamations and interjections. Reports of pareidolia are spontaneous reactions to what we see, and they are on the same level as reports of aspect-perception (PI II 194).

Wittgenstein asks: ‘What am I believing in when I believe that men have souls?’ (PI II 178) Do I believe that somewhere within the body there is an intangible object called ‘the soul’? Suppose I do not believe that people have souls. Do I nonetheless understand it? Certainly, I understand this teaching, and I can imagine plenty in connection with it (e.g., people have souls, plants do not). But the overall role of the expression ‘belief in the soul’ in the life of he who believes in the soul escapes me. Similarly, I can readily understand a report of pareidolia. But I can only guess at its function in the life of the person who spontaneously avows it.

A picture of a West African lion in a zoological handbook is a picture by similarity. Its function or role is largely preparatory: it enables us to identify the West African lion; it tells us what the lion looks like. The application of this picture is straightforward because it involves a familiar means of comparison. Now, compare this to the face of the Virgin Mary in Duyser’s sandwich. Does the sandwich tell us what Mary looks like? Duyser does not say: ‘Naturally, I cannot show you the real thing, only the face in the sandwich’. At issue is not what is seen, but that it is seen. That is what part of makes reports of pareidolia avowals. We may agree that reports of pareidolia are avowals, but the role of Duyser’s statement is not clear, and much harder to survey than in the case of the West African lion.

Of course, for Duyser the story of the Virgin Mary in her sandwich didn’t end with her sincere avowal of it. She held onto the sacred bread for the next 10 years, and recently put it up for sale on eBay. The auction generated so much excitement that the sandwich eventually sold for US$28,000! Comedy aside, this nonetheless highlights the role Duyser and others associate with the experience.

Goethe said: ‘Because everyone uses language to talk, everyone thinks he can talk about language.’ What is difficult to convey in pareidolia is not that a person perceives a face in an object and from it derives a whole system, but that a whole system is, as it were, avowed in the face simpliciter. “I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back” is embedded in a system – form of life – and is founded like emotion personified in the facial features.

The Face on Mars, photographed by Viking Orbiter 1, July 25, 1976 

Pareidolia (from the Greek para – beside, and eidolon – image) involves the perception of faces, animals in inanimate objects like clouds, rocks, or grilled-cheese sandwiches. The perception of secret messages in music is also common.

There are many examples of this phenomenon. In 1978, a New Mexican woman found that the burn marks on a tortilla she had made appeared similar to the face of Jesus Christ. Thousands of people came to see the framed tortilla. The Rorschah Inkblock Test uses pareidolia to make inferences about the subject’s state of mind. The charges of backmasking in popular music have also been described as pareidolia.

Are reports of pareidolia descriptions? Do they describe reality? Let’s consider some examples.

(1) I see the Virgin Mary in my sandwich.

(2) This cinnamon bun looks like Mother Teresa.

(3) There is Fidel Castro in these potato chips.

On one level, we understand sentences (1)-(3). They consist of words ordered according to the rules of English syntax, and are punctuated according to the rules of English grammar found in any grammar book. We can easily identify the sentence components and the mode of composition of each sentence. If we wish, we can transform the tense of each sentence. This is a necessary condition for understanding sentences (1)-(3). But, does the grammatical form of a sentence determine its purpose?

The standard purpose of a sentence may not agree with its grammatical form. Commonly, we give orders with declaratives or interrogatives, or we ask questions with imperatives. A form of words may serve a non-canonical purpose, such as a rhetorical question. The purpose of a sentence may depend on its use, and on how the speaker would explain or defend it, what he conceives as pertinent to it, and so on. Understanding the grammar of a sentence is necessary for understanding it, but not sufficient. We may also need to supplement our understanding of it with information on intention and contextual meaning. Hence, intention and meaning something are important for linguistic meaning or understanding.

Given this, it is not clear what sentences (1)-(3) communicate. We may feel – naturally enough – that they are descriptions or assertions. Paradigmatically, a description communicates how things are in reality. They communicate knowledge. This means what they speak of is observable and capable of examination and manipulation. They can be confirmed or disconfirmed; and are either true or false. It is natural to think that they make a knowledge claim and are ‘read off’ reality. Suppose now that statements of pareidolia have descriptive content. Is this sufficient to explain their meaning?

Compare what is claimed in pareidolia with the sentence ‘It is 5 o’clock on the sun’ (PI, 350-351). Is the sentence ‘It is 5 o’clock on the sun’ a description? First, we can easily identify the sentence components and the mode of composition which are necessary for understanding it. It is an articulate statement, grammatically composed. Let us entertain that the grammar of it conforms to the canonical form of descriptive language on the assumption that grammatical form conveys the status of a sentence when such a form is standardly used for a particular purpose. Suppose this is settled. We would still need to confirm it. But, can it be confirmed? How? For, given our method of determining time relative to the sun’s zenith, it makes no sense. Indeed, it reminds one of statements like ‘Pigs swim, but I don’t believe it’. The question arises: why say it in the first place? To whom is it intended to inform? For what purpose?

Suppose you utter (1), and then draw my attention to the object of attention (i.e., the Virgin Mary in the sandwich).  I observe the object of perception, and I may see in it or on it what the speaker sees, namely, the face of the Virgin Mary, or, indeed, I may not. Consider that I perceive the face of the Virgin Mary in the sandwich, and that my attitude to it is one of disinterest or indifference. After all, it is only a face. Nature abounds with such phenomena. No big deal. This is one possible reaction. But, this is not the one which interests us. The reaction we are interested in is this: reactions of shock or interest not in what is said, but in that it is said. In this case, the interest pareidolia generates is not due simply to the fact described. Our interest in this phenomenon also arises from a change in attitude toward the speaker, and our interest in his way of seeing the world, especially in those worlds that are imponderable (e.g., the world of the religious mystic).

It simply escapes me that one should be shocked in perceiving the Virgin Mary in a sandwich. I see it there too, clear as daylight, but I do not share your attitude to it. I am interested in it, for it is a face, and so it expresses a kind of demand, a power to attract interest, if you will. But, my interest in it goes no further than this. You, on the other hand, perceive a whole system in it. And I am left dangling in the wake of your experience. I understand your sentence as a description – but that is it. The system shadowed in your statement alludes me. Our grasp of each part of a whole is complete only once we have mastered the whole. But, in this case, I cannot master the whole, and I feel insecure.

Die Grenzen Meiner Sprache, K. Rakoll, digital print, 2007

From Chronogram Magazine, December 21, 2007

According to the Book of Genesis, all of humanity originally shared one language, and all people lived in one city, Babel, where they gathered to build a tower that would reach heaven. God prevented them, however, by “confounding” their language, and scattering them over the earth. “The Secret Tongues of Babel” at the BeGallery in High Falls, is a response to this story. The artist K. Rakoll has created a phonetic alphabet that can express every human language. His writing, which is also his art, appears in silkscreens, digital prints, paintings, and sculpture-and a large sliding tile puzzle. (We all played with sliding tile puzzles when we were eight years old. They are small handheld squares with eight movable tiles, where you must place the numbers in order.) Night Cube is a black cube with illuminated letters from K. Rakoll’s alphabet, installed on the porch of the gallery.

There are quotations from Shakespeare and from Jorge Luis Borges in Rakoll’s work. One large print, 5’x 4′, quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world.” The words are written in a circle. Another says, “In the beginning was the Word,” in German. Of course, you can’t read any of these writings. The alphabet looks like the notation of hyper-intelligent space aliens in a 1950s comic book. (A pamphlet instructs you how to translate each symbol into a sound.)

am anfang war das wort, K. Rakoll, digital print, 2007

K. Rakoll’s alphabet was born in 1994, when Rakoll was visiting a friend in Esopus. He had recently bought a 600-year-old Moorish house in southern Spain, and had become fascinated with its arches. K. Rakoll laid out many drawings of the arches on the floor of the house in Esopus. The writer Sid Hite looked down at the drawings from a balcony, and asked: “So what is this, some kind of alphabet?”

Entire article is here.

From Common Ground, December 30, 2007

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein proposed, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” an intriguing proposition, begging the question: “Do our words shape the way we think about things?”

It’s a question at the centre of a 50-year-old, controversial hypothesis, initiated when the concept of “linguistic determinism” hit the scientific world. You can’t deny that words shape our experiences and that there are some situations, such as our health, where precision in how we use words is indescribably important. Does the carelessness with which we sometimes speak affect how we think and what we expect from our physicians and our healthcare system?

I was reminded of this burning question by Dr. Ralph Fagotter, a friend and family physician in South Australia. He runs a busy general practice but finds time to tend several acres of ginkgo biloba trees and philosophize on his little plantation north of Adelaide. He takes the time to think deeply about medicine and his own place in it. Writing in a late-night email last month, he asked, “Imagine what it would be like if the word kilometre meant 100 metres when used in one context and 1,000 metres when used in another context?”

Ralph continued: “Well, there would be public outrage at the stupidity and disastrous imprecision of it all wouldn’t there? An expert committee would quickly be appointed to redefine and clarify the meaning of the word kilometre and everyone would have to accept the standard meaning.” What is implied, of course, is that confusion would reign and we simply couldn’t live in the resulting chaos of double meanings. Yet Ralph’s late-night monologue invoked the fact that we do this in the medical world all the time, changing the meaning assigned to the same word. If I were to stand on a street corner in Victoria and ask a sample of people walking by to tell me what an “effective” drug is, they might say, “Oh, it’s something that works” or that “It works much of the time.” If I were to go further and ask them to quantify what this means, I expect most people would say, “Well, it works between 80 to 90 percent of the time.” In other words, effective to them means most of the time. 

Entire article is here

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