Grammatical feelings and cultural senses

I continue to work my way through Pierre Bourdieu’s Toward a Theory of Practice. Apart from the anthropology, including studies of an Arabic culture, with which I am not familiar, the dense conceptualizations he presents, and his tortured syntax, I would breeze through it, I am sure. His syntax is difficult because many sentences have many clauses embedded into the main proposition, these extra clauses reiterating previous statements to ensure, I guess, proper presentation of the complexity involved, and also enlarging upon the place of these ideas in the literature of his discipline and in a broader philosophical tradition. So, a read that demands patient energy to enjoy. With gardening season in the dog days, I have some of that some days sometimes. I keep on to understand as best I can his concept of the habitus, which is, as I have said earlier (see post 8/13/17), his take on culture, a hot topic in my mind these days.

One of his ancillary purposes here, though, is to remind us that our theories about human activity involve transforming that activity, necessarily washing out the particularities manifest in practice so as to have cleaner conceptualizations. Or as Yogi Berra said, to paraphrase, ‘In theory there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is’. Bourdieu uses examples in this regard from structural anthropology, e.g. Levi-Strauss, whom I did read long ago, say 1970, but he also mentions in this regard, linguistic theories. Now I come to known territory; old posts ride again.

Indeed, I posted about grammatical feelings on 10/12/14. (I will say that 2014 looks like it was a very good year for my blog; see post previous to this one as well as the 2014 post on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, and memes, a post that continues to get several hits a week—hey now!). Here is an excerpt on language: Now grammar, at its inception, derives from feelings of fitness ranging from very awkward and frozen to quite comfortable and fluent. Consider your feelings of laterality, e.g., handedness. Cross your arms, right over left then left over right. One will feel more comfortable than the other. You can repeat this with folded hands (which thumb is on top?), crossed legs, kicking a ball, swinging a bat or pulling a rake, using one eye to view through a telescope, etc. A grammarian or linguist says a sentence and then intuitively tests its fitness in a similar fashion [which is more comfortable or feels more fit?]. These feelings vary across languages and within languages by dialect and social class. We can get creative violating grammar as in Yoda-speak. These feelings of grammaticality are how we apprehend the rules governing the linear construction of words and sentences as we formulate our thoughts for communication. My old English teachers taught grammar prescriptively, helping me fit into an educated class no doubt, but linguistics uses grammar more as a descriptive tool to trace relationships among languages, the nature of embedding and recursion, historical shifts within and between languages, etc. We have been doing so for a long time. The earliest recorded grammars were by Sanskrit scholars in 6th-7th century BCE India.

My point here is to use grammatical feelings of fitness as a general analogy for how we sense what is true, what fits together better, even best, and that this is as good, as knowledgeable about truth as we can be. Science uses mathematics to test our intuitions and confirm facts objectively (consensus or probabilistically) but even here, scientists operating under different paradigms have different intuitions of fitness. Thomas Kuhn illustrated this in his writings on scientific revolutions. For many years, the mathematical differences in accuracy between the Ptolemaic solar system and the Copernican one were negligible, but the latter felt more fit and upon further study proved to be truer.   [Kuhn also said that a paradigmatic shift is not complete until the old generation dies away.] Last century physicist Paul Dirac is famous for a set of equations predicting previously unknown phenomena like the positron that were confirmed 20-30 years later, but he said at their initial formulation that they were “beautiful” and so he knew they were true. Even today some physicists challenge the standard model because some features do not feel right, and of course, our mathematical theorizing and ability to measure at increasingly smaller and larger scales has helped engender quantum physics, which leaves much of our intuition far behind. Extrapolating just a little from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religions (and gods) have changed over the course of human history to meet the changing demands of humans and our society—the new ones have a better fit than the old, e.g., a spoken prayer over a blood sacrifice for example (you do prefer the former, don’t you?).

Back to 2017. I will return to Bourdieu’s habitus after this bit from Jacques Monod from my post on 3/10/17: Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

So today in 2017 we have the idea that feelings of fitness are important to our minds and further, that these feelings are strongly influenced by and are derived from our acculturation, a rich biological phenomena. Bourdieu says the habitus is an acquired set of predispositions that enable us to solve new problems in socially prompted ways; the habitus, he says, helps set what is possible, impossible, probable and acceptable in our minds. Further, he sees the habitus as bodily, as postural, or a way of living in our culture prepared to adjust from our current stance. Eye contact may be respectful, disrespectful, or incidental according to your culture and the situation.

I am fond of the phrase “embodied mind”; Bourdieu uses the phrase “socially informed body” to mean that culture begins with the social transformation of body awareness. This is very similar to Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. We use body orientation to map reference to many concepts, e.g., truth and heaven up, lies and hell down, time progresses front to back as in what lies ahead and what is behind us now, and this list goes on quite a ways right-left, male-female, etc. And just like grammatical feelings or the stereotaxic fit between proteins, whether we operate from our socially informed body or our embodied mind, we sense what our culture tells us, so whether it feels right or wrong or on or off, we know the way of our culture by sensing the fitness. Bourdieu gives quite a list of these senses because human culture is so unbounded and diverse; he lists “ a sense of necessity and the sense of duty, the sense of reality and the sense of direction, the sense of balance and the sense of beauty, come sense and the sense of the sacred, tactical sense and the sense of responsibility, business sense and the sense of propriety, the sense of humour and the sense of the absurd, moral sense and the sense of practicality, and so.” Our ability to order the world through some sort of logic and categorization is based upon “what might be called the sense of limits and of the legitimate transgression of limits.”

This is quite a different perspective on culture than the one offered by memes as units of replication. In Bourdieu’s view culture is an internalized set of predispositions and just that as they guide our actions into culturally modeled channels. Some actions are distinctively cultural, e.g., ways of shaking hands or greeting with a kiss on both cheeks, etc., and some result in cultural products, e.g., art, laws, marriages, etc. Memes, here in this view then, are cultural artefacts, the detritus of cultural processes. Yes, they morph and evolve, but this only a reflection of the changing deep and surface structures of actual culture, the socially constructed and shared ways of thinking, feeling, and acting among the group, in much the same way language does. Reflect on the change in English terms, “named” and “yclept” that mean mostly the same thing, though naming has changed quite bit since Chaucer’s day as well, or on the difference in languages where some have nouns that are masculine or feminine.  Cultural changes are analogous to these.

I am beginning to think that ‘fitness’ is a basic feature of biological activity as I consider Monod’s stereotaxic fit between molecules that functions as the binary operations of life, thus reinforcing the idea that life is an information machine, and then evolution’s genetic change in which new genes must fit with the old ones and then must help increase adaptive fitness in order to replicate and spread, and onward to linguistic and cultural changes. Bourdieu also sees this idea as central. He says that the basic feature of all of our cultural senses is whether the action under consideration fits within the normative predisposition or outside its pale. I would add that this is yet another aspect of our biological roots. Travel on.

Not your father’s fitness

I have long appreciated that our intellectual life is governed by feelings of fitness. Take for example grammar and handedness. Some linguistic constructions feel fit, i.e., they are grammatical, like this very sentence is. Others feel awkward, e.g., “Bluebirds the lands the house on nest build to”. No logic required here, just the grammatical intuition of how things are supposed to fit together. Similarly, fold your arms right over left and then left over right and then do the same with your hands. One way will feel more natural, i.e., fit, and the other more awkward. Being right handed means that turning the screwdriver with the right hand feels right and more skillful and turning it with your left is not. Linguistic grammar is analogous to the fit coordinations of handedness. Back in my days as a speech-language pathologist I used this analogy to explain to parents the development of their young child’s grammar. A toddler says ‘tow’ for ‘cow’ and uses abbreviated syntax because that is what feels right to them. Correcting their child’s performance often resulted in the child saying something that felt awkward and wrong to them. As their brains mature and their grammatical feelings change, their speech comes to accord with adult grammar in a most marvelous manner.

So now re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity I realize again how important ‘fit’ is to life. In laying out the molecular basis of the genetic control of protein synthesis, Monod discusses how proteins work by folding into particular specific shapes so that they fit into other molecules thereby catalyzing and regulating the molecular biology of cellular function. With the presence of one molecule the protein folds one way and carries out one function and with the presence of another molecule the protein folds another way and carries out a different function, both because the two shapes fit exclusively into different substrates and so engender different chemical processes. He, Wolff and Jacob won the Nobel for discovering this phenomena by studying how yeasts metabolize one sugar at a time and when the supply of that sugar is exhausted, the genetic mechanism directs the shift to metabolize another sugar if present. This shift occurs within minutes of one sugar’s depletion and another’s presence is detected as the synthesis of the new necessary protein increases a thousandfold in a matter of molecular moments. Amazing, and then he goes on to explain how similar processes carry forth the ontogenesis of a new life, even more amazing.

Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

Now consider the connectome. Monod describes DNA and its accompanying proteins as crystalline structures, not regular repetitive lattices like salt or quartz but aperiodic ones whose components are self organizing like salt’s but whose irregular shapes then fit with other molecules out there initiating chains of process and thereby creating function (based upon the decision points or choices like a binary algorithm). So look at this picture of the connectome in this light and see fluid crystalline molecules lighting up crystalline modules of different functions that must fit together to be operational, and in order to be optimal, must fit according to some linguistic or aesthetic grammar.

White_Matter_Connections_Obtained_with_MRI_Tractography

Connectome

Both composing and comprehending linguistic and aesthetic productions involves different modules lighting up and their functional ‘shapes’ fitting together according to their grammatical rules. A stroke can hinder or prevent the parts fitting together so the patient is aphasic or has amusia. Cultural expectations shape what is considered fit, so that some music seems to violate tonal rules and causes consternation, as when Stravinsk’s Rites of Spring premiered to a riotous reception or like when I hear certain music or see certain paintings and wonder why bother. Clearly the notion of ‘fitness’ is important and pervasive.

Finally consider the old myth that creative, e.g., artistic, people use their right hemispheres more. This is one of those statements that sounds good enough for some to believe but that everyone should know is too simple to be true. A brief note from the Duke Chronicle reports some brain research showing that people who rank high on creativity (and how did they assess that? Don’t know.) use both sides of their brain, especially some frontal areas, more than people who rank the lowest on creativity: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/03/connectivity-between-brain-hemispheres-boosts-creativity-study-finds. This suggests that creativity stems in part from the communication between hemispheres, or following the idea here, that the functional crystals on one side communicate and operate in fit manner through the anterior commissure and corpus callosum with the functional crystals on the other side. Oh, could I go on from here, but enough for now; just look at the connectome and imagine the forms lit up and flashing between the two hemispheres (and don’t neglect subcortical structures). Time to travel on.

truth and grammar

I have had recent occasion to think more about these two popular and favorite topics, truth because despite my thinking it is a concept with definitive overtones, it seems as indeterminate today as it ever has, and grammar because, well, if you don’t know already, please continue reading.

Have you heard this phrase any time recently uttered, say by media pundits: You can have your own perspective but not your own facts. Well, facts too seem to be found in a variety of forms, some personal, some without verifiability, most eluding replication but still there nonetheless. The now old adage that we create own reality has a literal truth, and the power and at times loose subjective constraints of symbolization make civil society’s work at consensus (the result of a critical dialectic) all the more important. So facts bear some responsibility for consensual validation with the proviso that some people will agree with anything of the right emotional tone, e.g., righteousness, jingoism and other demagoguery are good examples (don’t say ‘baaa’). Since the late 18th Century (even before in way) empirical facts have born a standard of truth of logical verifiability, especially mathematical proof, determination of probability and when possible, replication of results. Indeed, the ancients knew the sun rises in the east and sets in the west even before any words labeled compass points, probably more than many moderns today. And now we have modern media pouring forth information at tremendous rates and often with a very low common denominator of factual truth, yet civil society depends upon a modicum, a necessary level of consensus in fact and perspective. Because we create our own reality, it would seem we could do so together quite readily, and we do in science and engineering but we don’t in religion and governance. An adaptive feature of humanity or a step towards our demise? Yes, if you believe in a dialectic.

Now grammar, at its inception, derives from feelings of fitness ranging from very awkward and frozen to quite comfortable and fluent. Consider your feelings of laterality, e.g., handedness. Cross your arms, right over left then left over right. One will feel more comfortable than the other. You can repeat this with folded hands (which thumb is on top?), crossed legs, kicking a ball, swinging a bat or pulling a rake, using one eye to view through a telescope, etc. A grammarian or linguist says a sentence and then intuitively tests its fitness in a similar fashion. These feelings vary across languages and within languages by dialect and social class. We can get creative violating grammar as in Yoda-speak. These feelings of grammaticality are how we apprehend the rules governing the linear construction of words and sentences as we formulate our thoughts for communication. My old English teachers taught grammar prescriptively, helping me fit into an educated class no doubt, but linguistics uses grammar more as a descriptive tool to trace relationships among languages, the nature of embedding and recursion, historical shift within a language, etc. We have been doing so for a long time. The earliest recorded grammars were by Sanskrit scholars in 6th-7th century BCE India. Here is a great stamp commemorating one, Panini. (I would not hold my breath for a stamp commemorating our greatest modern linguist, Noam Chomsky, though it is a good idea. He would probably refuse).

Panini,_the_great_Sanskrit_grammarian.

My point here is to use grammatical feelings of fitness as a general analogy for how we sense what is true, what fits together better, even best, and that this is as good, as knowledgeable about truth as we can be. Science uses mathematics to test our intuitions and confirm facts objectively (consensus or probabilistically) but even here, scientists operating under different paradigms have different intuitions of fitness. Thomas Kuhn illustrated this in his writings on scientific revolutions. For many years, the mathematical differences in accuracy between the Ptolemaic solar system and the Copernican one were negligible, but the latter felt more fit and upon further study proved to be truer. Last century physicist Paul Dirac is famous for a set of equations predicting previously unknown phenomena like the positron that were confirmed 20-30 years later, but he said at their initial formulation that they were “beautiful” and so he knew they were true. Even today some physicists challenge the standard model because some features do not feel right, and of course, our mathematical theorizing and ability to measure at increasingly smaller and larger scales has helped engender quantum physics, which leaves much of our intuition far behind. Extrapolating just a little from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religions (and gods) have changed over the course of human history to meet the changing demands of humans and our society—the new ones have a better fit than the old, e.g., a spoken prayer over a blood sacrifice for example (you do prefer the former, don’t you?).

Let me be clear and distinguish facts and truth. Facts are a relatively modern conception, while truth in various forms has been around for a long time. We can find truth most anywhere including the myth of Sisyphus, the better poems, the best music, Newtonian mechanics and quantum theory.  Truth is a biological phenomenon with deep roots and is an important one for our species. We think our thoughts, and our thoughts come and go in trains. The trains follow various tracks and stop at or pass by various stations. Some are fitter than others. There is still a station at Truth, I have seen it out the window as I passed it by, but I do not think many trains stop there. Actually I think that some trains do stop there when we are about 3 ½ years old (see previous post long ago about that maturational milestone) and then for some of the great ones (Pythagorus, Mozart, Newton, Picasso, Einstein, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela, etc.). I have heard from supposedly reliable sources that a station at Big Truth exists, lying far off in the distance, past the last nerve track, so it still waits for a train’s arrival. Namaste.