Saturday, June 02, 2007

Popper, Sapir, and international auxiliary languages

I've been reading some of Karl Popper's work lately, and found it quite interesting (and clearly written, which one doesn't always expect of philosophers.) Both his political and his scientific writings are dominated by the same important theme: no one can get closer to the truth without being willing to put their beliefs to the test, and the more different people doing the testing, the less likely they are to overlook a flaw in the idea. Thus dictatorship and censorship - in any power structure, governmental or academic - are not just bad, but intrinsically prone to get worse results. I noticed that he took this view to have implications for language policy too:
The adoption of rationalism implies, moreover, that there is a common medium of communication, a common language of reason; it establishes something like a moral obligation towards that language, the obligation to keep up standards of clarity and to use it in such a way that it can retain its function as a vehicle of argument. That is to say, to use it plainly; to use it as an instrument of rational communication, of significant information, rather than as a means of 'self-expression', as the vicious romantic jargon of most of our educationists has it. (It is characteristic of the modern romantic hysteria that it combines Hegelian collectivism concerning 'reason' with an excessive individualism concerning 'emotions': thus the emphasis on language as a means of self-expression instead of a means of communication.) (Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies vol. II: Hegel and Marx, Routledge 1945/2003, p. 264)
While this quote is mainly about how you should use a given language, rather than which language to use, it clearly suggests the desirability of some international language, and Sapir's idea of how such a language should be built happens to be rather Popperian in spirit:
It [the international auxiliary language] must, ideally, be as superior to any accepted language as the mathematical method of expressing quantities and relations between quantities is to the more lumbering means of expressing these quantities and relations in verbal form. This is, undoubtedly, an ideal which can never be reached, but ideals are not meant to be reached; they simply indicate the direction of movement. (p. 51)... National languages are all huge systems of vested interests which sullenly resist critical enquiry... (p.60) Intelligent men should not allow themselves to become international language doctrinaires. They should do all they can to keep the problem experimental, welcoming criticism at every point and trusting to the gradual emergence of an international language that is a fit medium for the modern spirit. (p. 64, Edward Sapir, "International Auxiliary Language" in Culture, Language, and Personality, Berkeley: University of California)
So it is all the more ironic to find that Popper's paragraph continues with this:
And it implies the recognition that mankind is united by the fact that our different mother tongues, in so far as they are rational, can be translated into one another. It recognizes the unity of human reason.
This seems to imply that linguistic diversity is worthless: if something is rational, it can be explained in any language, and if it can't be explained to me in my language, it must be irrational. I rather suspect that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was partly intended as a rebuttal to this sort of argument. If your language tends to blind you to the differences in logical form between sentences with superficially identical structures (his example in the very essay quoted above is the perfective/imperfective distinction in English) and makes it easy to spot the differences between ones with different structures, then the ideal auxiliary language should allow you to express logical form as unambiguously as possible; and to be able to make a language free of your own linguistic biases and blind spots, you will have to carefully study many languages of as many different types as possible.

Of course, that begs the question: is there such a thing as an overall better language, or is that whole approach misconceived? Algebraic notation is unquestionably superior to English for describing physical laws, but it's not a very effective way to make a grocery list. In practice, people use different languages, and different technical vocabularies embedded in the same language, for different purposes.

6 comments:

A.S. said...

While this quote is mainly about how you should use a given language, rather than which language to use, it clearly suggests the desirability of some international language...

I'm not sure that it does. Popper really was talking about how to use language, or rather, what to talk about. Consider this passage from Ch. 23 of OSE

“Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. ... They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is ‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it.”


To me, this suggests that the scientific method itself can serve as a communicative frame and that you can use any language to talk about (and in terms of) the scientific method. This seems reasonable to me, and I would have to see some very convincing evidence before I were ready to accept anything else.

So when Popper says “...our different mother tongues, in so far as they are rational, can be translated into one another”, I understand this to mean that if you use any language within the framework of the scientific method, then whatever you say in that language can be translated into any other language. Again, I think that this is a reasonable assumption.

This seems to imply that linguistic diversity is worthless: if something is rational, it can be explained in any language, and if it can't be explained to me in my language, it must be irrational.

‘It’ being your language? Then I don't think that is what Popper meant: I see no evidence that he believed in languages that are incapable of being used rationally. Or ‘it’ being the thing that cannot be explained? In this case, I would agree with Popper: something that is so language-specific that it cannot be translated into another language would seem to be a good candidate for irrationality.

ToneMasterTone said...

I think this talk of rationality is a little mistaken.

There is nothing irrational about words having connotations, much like a "dodo" in English is associated with stupidity and extinction.

But to translate the range of meanings into another language is incredibly difficult, if not impossible - but that doesn't mean that such words are irrational.

Science, however, has the task of simplifying language as much as possible to avoid confusion. It should and usually does use words directly, so that when "dodo" is said in a scientific paper, you can be sure that it is referring only to the extinct and flightless bird of Mauritius.

Science is concerned with knowledge acquired objectively, and any knowledge that is language-specific is clearly not objective.

What, I think, Popper is really driving at is language divorced of subjective, language-specific complexity in order for there to be objective, language-independent simplicity.

Literature, of course, should and does use words in a complex way, but that doesn't make literature irrational, for literature is not concerned with objective knowledge. Rather, literature abounds with the interplay of ideas that are often language-specific and can't be translated because of it.

ToneMasterTone said...

And Popper also thought philosophy dealt with objective knowledge, which is why he advocated a clear, quasi-scientific language for the expression of its ideas.

Lameen Souag said...

Good points. In practice, scientists using different languages means fewer people are in a position to test claims that don't get translated, and as such is somewhat counter to the spirit of the scientific method; on the other hand, using a single scientific lingua franca would equally make it hard for non-scientists to test claims, so it's not clear that there's any good solution.

John Cowan said...

Tonemastertone: In actual scientific papers about dodos, we are not as a rule content with the term "dodo", but include the bird's name in one of the actually effective international auxiliary languages, namely the Linnaean binomial Raphus cucullatus. This suppresses not only minor ambiguities like the English informal sense of dodo, but also more serious problems like the two unrelated birds called "robin" in English, Erithacus rubecula and Turdus migratorius.

In addition, there is the problem of knowing just how organism-names match up across languages: for French singe we must choose in each case whether to say monkey or ape in English, but the Linnaean suborder Haplorrhini covers about the same turf in a natural-language-independent way (it includes tarsiers and humans).

Lameen: Fortunately, science has (mostly) converged on the same choice of international language for scientific papers as other people have for other linguistic functions. Before that, science had Latin, at least in Europe where the worst problems were; if scientists other than number theorists had listened to Peano we might have a sensible neo-Latin as the language of science today (it is so used in the alternative universe Ill Bethisad). Here's a bit:

«Latino es lingua internationale in occidente de Europa ab tempore de imperio romano, per toto medio aevo, et in scientia usque ultimo seculo. Seculo vigesimo es primo que non habe lingua commune. Hodie quasi omne auctore scribe in proprio lingua nationale, id es in plure lingua neo-latino, in plure germanico, in plure slavo, in nipponico et alio. Tale multitudine de linguas in labores de interesse commune ad toto humanitate constitute magno obstaculo ad progressu.»

("You are linguist, no? Listen, and try to understand." --Roman Jakobsen, giving a lecture on Bulgarian oral poetry in Bulgarian to an American linguist audience)

alex said...

Mind if I share a quote from Karl Popper?

"A limited amount of dogmatism is necessary for progress. Without a serious struggle for survival in which the old theories are tenaciously defended, none of the competing theories can show their mettle -- that is, their explanatory power and their truth content. Intolerant dogmatism, however, is one of the main obstacles to science. Indeed, we should not only keep alternative theories alive by discussing them, but we should systematically look for new alternatives. And we should be worried whenever there are no alternatives -- whenever a dominant theory becomes too exclusive. The danger to progress in science is much increased if the theory in question obtains something like a monopoly.

But there is an even greater danger: a theory, even a scientific theory, may become an intellectual fashion, a substitute for religion, an entrenched ideology."
The Myth of Framework (1994) p.16