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.

a positivist genesis myth

[This is a very long post. I considered breaking it down into 2 but did not like the results so here it is. Having read the previous post would be helpful and acquaintance with some of the threads running through my blog may help this post be more understandable. Thanks in advance to anyone who reads to the end.]

What do you call a genesis myth without the supernatural? Au naturel, of course. And I use the term myth loosely, meaning an allegorical narrative symbolically capturing an explanation of nature that is, when objectively considered, unexplainable in its totality. Thus we have gods creating each other and the cosmos and humans. We also have the mystic apprehension of the unexplainable universe; one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is the Tao Te Ching (and I really love the translated rendition by sci-fi hero, Ursula K. LeGuin).

I have written here about the ocean of experience surrounding each of us, meaning that domain where the two great genetic watersheds (Solving World Problems (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR): see post 4/7/17 ) run to confluence and form an estuarine island of life and mind. A mystic stands on the shore, a being nakedly aware of the generational and temporal flow through to this moment, then this one, and oh, you know, and watches the weather, tides and the waters wave and glisten on the shore, content with just that apprehension, finding that experience a full one, and assured that the knowledge mirroring the experience is meaningful and insignificant. A genesis myth is valuable, even necessary for carrying that apprehension forward into meeting life’s probabilities and necessities.

Though a positivist genesis myth may be paradoxical, when we consider the scientific basis of our genesis presented below, I think that mythic aspect will be apparent because our understanding has come through increasingly sophisticated mathematics and information processing. Most of us cannot really comprehend how the numbers show their truths as the mathematically keen scientists do see them. In this sense scientists are like the seers, shaman and priests who created and developed the supernatural myths: only the initiated have access to the genesis esoterica as gleaned from either the mathematical domain or that learned through communication with the supernatural divine. Scientists talk with numbers and priests with angels. (I pass over the crucial differences in replication, falsifiability, and transferability between the two). We may not usually think of science in this way but in truth the majority of the people on Gaia evaluate positivistic myths and find them much less comprehensible than their religious mythology.   Conversely those of us initiated into this scientific world view, both the lay and the practitioners, can still find some truth about humanity in the old myths but little fact, certainly not enough to guide our pursuit of knowledge. Religious myths are at this point best seen from without, i.e., as data as we seek to understand our humanity.

In my last post I talked about Monod’s ethic of knowledge, and so to journey even further above my pay grade, this constitutes an epistemological effort that needs some supporting concepts about reality; about what is it we are learning? How did it come to pass and what is my relation with it? My bias is that any statement about the ultimate nature of reality, i.e., metaphysics, ultimately and necessarily given the scale and scope of our capabilities relies upon, revolves around and devolves intellectually into mystic apprehension. The question here is how from a cold, mechanical and valueless though lawful universe can life evolve with its values, as it has clearly done here with us on Gaia? That is, how to account for both our knowledge (true knowledge formed from an ethics of knowledge based upon empiricism) about the world and our values as both are clearly, as Monod demonstrated, sociobiological in origin. So again, what is it we know and value?

Human culture, though composed from both knowledge gained and values held, is a virtual world imagined among group members that helps to govern or to channel how each individual goes about life and supports the group. Over the past few thousand years, cultural parsing has held knowledge as more secular and values as coming from a supernatural divine. The ancient Greeks attributed some values, e.g., hospitality to strangers, respect for the dead, obedience to the king, acceptance of fate, to their gods, while they initiated a grand tradition of intellectual effort, i.e., philosophical and scientific knowing. The ancient Israelites certainly attributed their values to Yahweh and I believe follow a more secular and pragmatic approach to knowing. The Taoists stand on the shore and seek the Way. We don’t know about the people who painted the caves 40,000 years ago, much less about the earliest Hominids who buried their dead, but we do know that from them and since the advent of agriculture, civilized knowledge and values have grown to compose today’s cultural worlds.

Accept for a moment that all culture is learned and that we acquire culture through mirroring, empathy and symbolization. Assume even further that we can understand how we benefit from experience in such a way that cultural invariants form inter- and intra-personally that then guide how we relate, communicate symbolically, conceptualize with words, use metaphor, govern individual actions and relationships, organize socially, etc. Understand that early groups form on the basis of kinship which yields a natural historical narrative through their ancestry, while other groups form through social roles irrespective of kinship, and so must bond through constructing and sharing relevant narratives, some literal or empirically based, e.g., a flood, and some mythically based, e.g., the afterlife. All this to say that our philosophy as currently conceived results from a long history of cultural development (or is that evolution? Erwin Schrodinger, for one, wondered if humans were done evolving, i.e., we would stay in roughly the same biological form now into the future, sort of like sharks and insects have been the same for roughly 200 million years, so any further evolution for us would have to be cultural).

John Locke said the human infant was a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate, upon which experience writes its tale. Today we understand much more about what the child brings to the table and that there is no ontogenetic blank slate. But this idea covers only a very short time scale of one life. Monod from his scientific perspective seems to endorse John Locke’s tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate, but says the blank slate has been written on by the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” So our capabilities flow from incipient life some 3.5 billion years ago. Yeah, it was a blank slate then, but much has been written on it since and much has been edited, erased and replaced.

As I discussed in the previous post on Monod’s book, our evolutionary experience has led to two cultural facets from which mythic values seem to arise. One is an inborn fear of solitude; we are social animals and do not do well in isolation. Our contemplation of the cosmos along with our knowledge gleaned so arduously through empirical efforts indicates that our place in the universe is indeed lonely; we are warm-blooded strangers in a cold place, each conscious of our irrevocable solitude within our own MEMBRAIN, and constantly filling our mental void with all kinds of energies. The other facet derives from the first; we have, Monod says, a “need for a complete binding explanation” of our existence, and that includes the gaps before birth and after death. How have we come here now to stand on the beach of the ocean of experience? Both of these facets are inherent in life as it has developed on earth; they are inherent in Gaia’s character, i.e., they follow from life holding forth through negentropy amidst a universe flattening out in entropy. Each soma operates to replicate the passage of genes while mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance opportunities until its lapse into the final entropy of death.   This view of life is consistent with Susanne Langer’s idea that human consciousness arrived with the understanding that our life is one act that begins and ends and that within that frame each of us lives alone. Also consider Camus’s Absurd and the myth of Sisyphus and most especially Chris Hitchens’ proposal to separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).

It is as I have pondered Monod’s Chance and Necessity and sought its relations to other readings, e.g., Langer, Dawkins, James, Whitman, Hawking, etc., that I have developed a frail metaphysical myth to support this ethical epistemology, keeping consistent with my basic approach to the biological roots of our humanity and moving forward through a dialectic between positivism and mysticism (see posts beginning 11/15/15). To be clear, I believe any truth of which we are capable of apprehending is a gem with many facets, some more transparent and therefore practical or at least knowable than others; the goal is to see the gem whole even given our limited access to various facets. The metaphysical and epistemological answers to the questions of solitude and significance that used to be answered by animist myth with reference to the supernatural (and these serve us well for some purposes still, like artistic imagery or, as indicated, anthropology) are now superceded by positivist myths with reference to the natural world (and these can serve us better if we develop and use an ethics of knowledge to organize our culture and civilization). So to give an abstract rendition of a positivistic genesis myth:

  • Consider the big bang, or any theorized notion of this cosmic course through time, e.g., expansion and contraction, parallel universes, multiple dimensions beyond 4, etc.
  • These refer to the void beyond our comprehension and how the universe developed in ways we can comprehend.
  • A void filled by energy that illumines no forms =>
  • Higgs field appears whereby energetic matter gains mass (see delightful illustration at:
  • Matter and mass, though we apprehend them through our senses on some macro level, actually operate on a micro level through quantum waves of probability =>
  • These waves swell, subside, interfere +/-, and break into present reality: this is the first level of chance and necessity, i.e., quantum probability reduces to a certainty, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat is either dead or alive but not both because that wave has crested and broken on the shore
  • Matter with mass coalesces and clumps even as the incipient energies undergo entropic dispersal
  • The clumps accrue in the spacetime continuum =>
  • Gravity is a manifestation we can discern of this negentropic building process, i.e., against or resisting entropy; the spacetime curves according to this history of amalgamation
  • Gravity assembles cosmic structures that become elemental forges, e.g., stars burn and synthesize heavier elements: this is a next level of chance and necessity in that cosmic structures, e.g., gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets appear by chance and then follow a time line ruled by necessity
  • The next level still of chance and necessity is when some combination of the products of these elemental forges coalesce through a gravitational eddy to generate life, e.g., planet Earth becomes Gaia.
  • Once begun life evolves according to chance and necessity.

This would be our genesis story if it were constructed as an anthropomorphic narrative; it is more detailed than animist origin myths because it is empirical and dynamic; the big difference is, of course, that this genesis details a cold, mechanical, and valueless universe from which life evolves with its own sociobiological values. Religious people may find that a problem but those who pursue an ethics of knowledge do not, because we realize that any and all value appears through and from life. Consider these incipient values I find apparent in Gaia’s biosphere:

  • Of course the first value, though perhaps one of the last to be understood, is to understand the world through realistic means and action.
  • Life’s projection into the future through replication, e.g., procreation is good for many reasons
  • Generational replication via somas is quite conservative by necessity and its sensitivity to chance events allows evolution to proceed in two ways:
  • One, variant genes must fit coherently into the whole genome or they will not continue
  • Two, having done so these variants become invariant and must pass muster through environmental interaction by demonstrating the same or increased adaptability
  • Each and every soma operates to minimize exigencies and to exploit chance
  • Their capability to do so speaks to their evolutionary potential.
  • Somas with brains do better than those without, somas with strong social relationships, i.e., have MEMBRAINS, do the best.
  • All life is interconnected
  • All life is local and Gaia is the location; each soma participates in the ecological balance
  • We must respect Gaia, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that our actions even if performed authentically with sound knowledge and conscious values have many intended and unintended consequences.
  • Our ignorance is greater than our knowledge, e.g., standard theory of physics about 10% of the universe and the rest dark
  • Finally, while we accrue our knowledge through scientific means, both empirical and theoretical, our values continually emerge from the ancestral history of our species. I hope to expound upon this more in later drafts.

With this first axiom of procreation (replication) and its two corollaries of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance, our frail metaphysic grows strong enough to support a new domain of values instigated and developed through evolution with conspecific relationships. With our heightened empathy and symbolization, we become conscious of greater questions, that of our solitude and of our significance, that can find only partial answers through our ethics of knowledge and development of values.

We have no way of comprehending this richness of life on Gaia. We may work on constructing our ethics of knowledge based on a positivistic genesis myth for our metaphysics, which can lead to a knowledge of ethics and a better understanding of our values. That effort, for me, resolves to a dialectic between my biological mysticism and my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If you have read all of this, I again thank you. Linger here if you like watching the ocean waters wave and glisten upon your shore or travel on the Way.