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.

Conservative, progressive and the habitus

I am reading out of field again, struggling through the complex syntax of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice from 1977. He is an anthropologist-sociologist-philosopher; I saw a brief reference to him a few weeks back, specifically his concept of a habitus, and thought I would like to read about this from the source. The habitus is his anthropological take on culture; it is a group’s set of shared predispositions on how to handle socially defined situations through practiced actions. Now he formulates this concept through his study of marital arrangements in, I think, an Arab culture, where ‘important’ marriages are arranged through a careful process of intermediaries by males and ‘lesser’ marriages by females talking with one another. Of course, the important marriages are made so because they either consolidate property and material within the family or they increase political capital through alliances with other families. All very interesting, I am sure, and I can better appreciate finding myself in a culture where the marital couple determines their own match. We find our way over a landscape of love more than a political terrain, but all humans have their habitus to steer their practices into socially defined and acceptable channels according to their cultural tribe.

While Bourdieu does not, so far as I have read at least, relate habitus to a biological frame other than control of kinship, resources, and genetic pool, he does speak in terms I understand as easily translatable to neuroscientific ones. He says, “The habitus, durably installed generation of principles of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in [the performance in context]. Translated to BRoH speak, culture is an acquired set of learned invariable proclivities, that operate to guide our actions in key situations according to social mores and traditions. Remember the previous post about the natural history human morality and consider how we come to act in accord with our conventional notions of ethics and honor, e.g., sometimes we act humanely according to the golden rule and sometimes we abrogate that rule for strategic purpose and act disregarding the common good. The habitus, Bourdieu asserts, “harmonizes” our experiences and thus our attitudes and actions whether these are marital arrangements, workplace etiquette, hospitality towards strangers, the inclusion-exclusion of the ingroup, the mores of authority, etc.

Remember, now, a couple of things I have often mentioned here before:

  • Susanne Langer posited that society changed through a dialectic between the individual and society, sometimes learning and following the conservative traditions and sometimes creating new ways but always, one hopes, preserving the coherence and integrity of the culture. The individual also experiences a dialectic between the imaginative and practical; again balance is necessary.
  • Since the early days of psychology with Freud and James steady progress has been made in understanding that much of what we think may come from conscious deliberations actually comes about from unconscious processes. See, for a recent and most cogent example, the book, The Undoing Project, about the collaborative work between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on human decision making that found our conscious heuristics riddled with biases and errors.
  • Taking this further, several scientists, like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, have found that our political leanings and judgments stem from unconscious automatic processes, i.e., that political attitudes derive from deeper in human nature than from well-considered deliberations.
  • Mind is embodied through the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. We acquire and develop our special competence, e.g., linguistic and cultural, through largely incidental experiences, a largely unremembered history of learning the cultural and linguistic invariant forms needed to act and interact effectively in the social domain.


All of these ideas are commensurate with Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus. He makes a statement that seemingly takes all these factors into account, that generational changes in the habitus, culture if you will, come about because each generation finds different “conditions of experience” and these impose “different definitions of the impossible, the possible, and the probable” and these differences lead one group to “experience as natural or reasonable practices or aspirations which another group finds unthinkable or scandalous, or vice versa”. (For some reason John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ comes to mind). Our parents’ habitus initiated our acculturation, we developed our own habitus as our own current experiences led to different practices and predispositions, and we brought this newly rejuvenated habitus to acculturate our children, and so on into the future.

As I read this I wondered about the changes in visual art affected by photography or scientific progress or in what constitutes ‘appropriate’ content from religious images to natural scenes to abstracted experiences to what some consider obscene. (Oh my, Joyce’s Ulysses is such a case in point). I also remembered something I read long ago in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is that a change in paradigm, say from the Aristotelian solar system to the Copernican universe, is never a simple progression based upon consideration of data and the revolution is never complete until the practitioners who maintained the old paradigm have died off. And of course I wondered about my youth in the 60s growing up with the possibility of nuclear war, the upsurge in consciousness resulting from the civil rights struggle, and the changes in the workforce and gender roles engendered by females working more in WWII and then reproductive freedom helped along by birth control pills. Then what about my daughter’s habitus now with computers, internet, rapid cultural change, gender equality and the degradation of our politics along with the earth itself?

So cultural change occurs as each generation encounters new “conditions of experience”, and what one generation finds natural and reasonable is rejected by another, e.g., Elvis and rock and roll, divorce, abortion, the right of all to medical care, the equality of opportunity and justice to all groups regardless of race and gender, or what constitutes an acceptable gap between the rich and the rest of us. While our activities will change the conditions the next generation experiences, our activities are rarely done with that strategic purpose in mind; our actions are rarely that powerful in isolation, and much change comes incidentally or as unintended consequences. That gives me pause as to how I understand human intelligence and action in all domains, e.g., marriage, justice, economic, political, etc.

Finally I have been thinking a good deal most recently about how our minds handle temporal parameters, especially the loops, you know, like feedback, feedforward or feedsideways. Our different political biases, being based more in our human nature than our conscious deliberations, also show the importance of how we handle time and change. The basic division for so very long has been conservative, i.e., slow change and preserve old values, and progressive, embrace change and improve values. We also have reactionary, i.e., go backwards (and sorry that is a strategy of failure), and revolutionary, i.e., enact drastic change (and sorry, that is often a strategy of chaos at least in the short term and a process liable to be hijacked by charismatic miscreants or ruthless reprobates). Cultural change, i.e., change in the predispositions composing the habitus, happens incrementally through an astoundingly large exchange of social quanta that sometimes organizes into social movement. The dialectic underlying human society and culture bespeaks the importance of maintaining integrity and coherence of past practices while developing and incorporating the creativity that serves human progress. In vol. 3 of Mind: An essay on human feeling Langer details many cultures that have failed to sustain this dialectic and so passed out of existence. Somehow, to this ole man, weaving conservative and progressive threads into the social fabric used to seem easier. How and why have our predispositions changed so that pragmatic, grounded action feels so alien? And will our next generation form a habitus that is more viable and if so, how? Travel on.