Thursday, September 04, 2003

Herder, Language Philosophy, and Language Rights

I hope that Scott Marten won't find the new group blog he has joined, A Fistful of Euros, absorbing all his time, since I would miss all the fascinating material he has produced on his blog Pedantry--and none more so than the sort of thought which has been on display in his recent series of long rambling posts on language, culture and political theory. (I'm skipping the one where he applies his ideas about group identity and rights to affirmative action.) He got started writing on these issues in response the recent publication of an excellent set of essays on language and politics, Language Rights and Political Theory, a collection I am using in a class I'm teaching on identity and nationality this semester. His reviews of the essays in that book led him in the direction of fleshing out what--in his view--is, and isn't, sufficiently unique about language as to warrant a departure from our (as Westerners) default setting of thinking in terms of liberal, individualist rights. He doesn't go the same route as many sociolinguists who have developed an "intrinsic" attachment to linguistic diversity, arguing that multilingualism is beautiful in itself and/or part of the necessarily pluralistic order of the world, but neither does he make the "liberal communitarian" move (most famously associated with Will Kymlicka) that linguistic/cultural groups need "rights" and protection because they are a necessary instrument to individual choice (that is, individuals will not be able to construct their own personally fulfilling lives if they don't have cultural groupings they can draw from). On the contrary, Marten makes the interesting argument (which I hope I understand correctly), drawing on his own extensive experience with language education and translation, that the best way to think about language politically is in terms of "self-development." The idea here is that language does not only have "instrumental value as a tool of cognition, its structure and categories also reflect the other tools accessible to its speakers." In other words, in order for human beings to develop, not just in terms of identity but also capability, languages must be available to them. This means that a certain territoriality principle must hold: if a people in a fully-developed society speak a language which is being surrounded and/or undermined by the growth of another language group, then that language can and should receive (at times aggressive) political support within its defined area, since otherwise its ability to allow and encourage personal growth and development (through higher education, the absorption of new ideas and terms, etc.) will atrophy in the face of alternative language use. But it also means that, however much historical injustice might be associated with the passing of any given language, its preservation cannot be defended through some simple territorial integrity (i.e., "this is the way we've always spoken around here!"). If a language, in relation to the times, is simply no longer one in which full development is possible, then foisting it upon a people through political action is pointless and harmful. In other words, while he defends territorial language policies, he insists they must be narrowly tailored, and never tied to anything like essential identity. He comes to a kind of conclusion be writing: "We cannot prevent cultures from changing and adapting to the circumstances of life and we should not want to. Sometimes, cultural and linguistic preservation projects have to start with people reclaiming their past, but it is a doomed effort if they can't adapt what they find to the present. It is crucially important to develop cultural tools which people can identify as their own and which serve them now."

There is far more in Scott's truly impressive posts to fully work out on a blog. The best I can do is make the comment that his very productive relfections of this issue suffer, unfortunately, from the common tendency to dismiss too quickly the possibility that defending the "intrinsic" or essential value of a language for a defined people (thus providing a certain grounding for territorially based language policies, whether monolingual or multilingual) could be done by way of the operation of language in human community life itself. The easy way of making this claim, of course, is to say that different languages = wholly different people; that when you speak one way (say like an Eskimo speaking about snow), you're grounding yourself in psychological universe that is completely incommensurate with that of others. Scott calls this "vulgar Whofism," after the old Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which had it that the words one used wholly defined one's ability to think about a given topic. Scott rejects that kind of linguistic determinism, and thus is able to conceive of a language as serving (not "conditioning") the development choices and needs of a given person or group of people. But there is far, far more to the language-thought dynamic than is included in Whorf's (relatively easily refuted) hypothesis. For instance, consider the arguments made by Johann Gottfried Herder (the best available translation of his philosophical writings on language are included in this volume by Michael Forster). Herder approached language theologically, as the key element in a wholly natural process by which divine powers were aesthetically revealed and instantiated into human communities. But you don't have to accept his political theology--that God has given man, through the sensate world, moral resources that may be linguistically appropriated and made historical--to appreciate his argument about how our (cultural) thinking is tied essentially to our language. Michael Forster, in a separate essay on Herder, writes that:

"[Herder's] doctrine denies that meanings or concepts are to be equated with the sorts of items, in principle autonomous of language, with which most of the philosophical tradition has equated them--for example, the objects to which they refer, Platonic "forms," or the "ideas" favored by the British empiricists and others--and equates them instead with usages of words....[This doctrine] provides the basis for a much more satisfactory justification of explanation of [Herder's other claim] that thought is essentially dependent upon and bounded by a thinkers capacity for linguistic expression....The argument is simple but compelling: Intuitively enough, thought is of its very nature conceptually articulated, articulated in terms of meanings. But now, if concepts or meanins just are usages of words, and grasping concepts or meanings hence is just being competent in usages of words, thought's essential dependency on and boundedness by linguistic competence...[is] both established and explained. Herder gives this argument in several places...[such as when he writes]: 'What exactly is the connection between language and mode of thought? Whoever surveys the whole scope of a language surveys a field of thoughts and whoever learns to express himself with exactness precisely thereby gathers for himself a treasure of determinate concepts. The first words that we mumble are the most important foundation stones of the understanding.'" (From "Herder's Philosophy of Language, Interpretation, and Translation: Three Fundamental Principles," The Review of Metaphysics 56 (December 2002), 341, 347.)

Forster goes on to show the parallels between Herder's ideas here and those of the later Wittgenstein, especially in terms of attacking the claim the phenomenon of human meaning is dependent not upon words but upon the somehow entirely pre-linguistic-yet-still-conscious determination of referents. Charles Taylor has also, in some of his writings, made a Herderian/Wittgensteinian attack on modern (overwhelmingly instrumental) epistemology central to his political project: namely, defending the idea that there might be something, if not necessarily essential in the traditional metaphysical sense, than at least teleological (directed, intended, meant) in every expressed (and therefore invariably if not consistently territorial) community. Exactly what the implications of this philosophical possibility are for political arguments over language rights is hardly obvious, of course. But at least it provides yet another potential path of thinking about these matters, one that both respects and deepens the philosophical quandaries of language--quandaries that I believe Scott does a much better job acknowledging than just about anyone in the Language Rights book does, and yet which even he has only scratched the surface of.