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Saturday, November 11, 2006 -- 1:08 pm

I mentioned on a prior occasion that I might, given the opportunity, elaborate on some of the features that make particular languages stand out as particularly exciting to me. I'll probably get into particulars in a piecemeal fashion. But at the moment what I want to discuss is the applicability of certain terms within the field of linguistics. Linguistics has been working hard in recent decades to establish itself as a rigorous and well-defined discipline, and there's a lot to be gained from that systematic approach. But there's nothing in such an approach to discuss the aesthetics of grammar.

By such phrases as "Aesthetic of Grammar", of course, I refer not to how well a language has been put to use by a Shakespeare or Sophocles, but the aesthetics of the language itself -- such as its logical categories, its grammatical forms, how word order is used to express meaning, and the richness and subtlety of its capacity for expression. Such a list is by no means intended to be exhaustive, and I don't pretend to offer a systematic account of the aesthetics of grammar so early in the discussion. But I think it makes clear that what I'm looking to evaluate is the structure of the language, rather than its use.

I'm aware that there are a handful of people out there who invent languages for their own entertainment or that of others, and Tolkien famously constructed several to give weight to his mythology. I even dabble in it myself, although nothing is yet ready for presentation, and I'm reluctant to sketch my ideas before they're ripe. But flipping through a scholarly reference the other day (which would probably not be grateful to be named in this context), I found myself wondering about how you would go about formulating notions of taste and obscenity in the context of grammar as art. What qualifies as good taste and judgment in the crafting of a language? Is there anything that is simply repugnant? Are there any grammatical structures that are morally unacceptable, since that, ultimately, seems to be what obscenity is all about? Are there any that, whether or not they're considered obscene, pander to appetites in such a manner that access should be restricted, or at least consciously regulated by each consumer, in some conscious way?

Doubtless a lot of these questions just seem silly, or themselves morally suspect, or just downright unintelligible. That doesn't mean there's any harm in asking. What prompted this was that the book I was flipping through, a handbook of languages indigenous to a particular region, did not give a systematic account of any one language. Instead, it seemed to pick and choose the most exciting features of each language and focus exclusively on those, organizing itself around such topics as tense, aspect, evidential markers, and so on. I doubt the grammarian intended to create a box of candy, but that seems to be the effect. Could it be called pornography? A lot of definitions of pornography could be tossed around for various reasons (it appears to derive from the Greek words for "prostitute" and "writing"), and there does seem to be a growing trend to refer to any guilty pleasure as "pornographic." I'm not interested in debating which definition would be the most suitable for all purposes. All are probably inapplicable in the context of linguistics, and anyway the etymology is probably a bit too loaded. I'll instead use the more neutral word "candy". We could say that candy is identified by its emphasis on only one aspect of something we perceive so it presents a one-dimensional caricature, usually to cater to and reinforce fantasies relating to a particular appetite. Is that a bad thing? There seem to be at least two categories of moral issues here, each deserving their own discussions at some other time: (1) any immoral or exploitive conduct associated with the production of the item; and (2) any deleterious impact associated with use, abuse, or overconsumption, such as escapism, distortion of one's relationships and expectations of the real world, and becoming used to the idea of implementing in reality what should really be confined to fantasy life. Whether and to what degrees various items (or categories of items) have this effect is clearly a controversial topic.

So how does this result in a critique of the grammar anthology? In that it didn't look at the whole language, but featured only the most exciting and titillating bits, at the expense of any real understanding of the languages as a whole. It creates an unrealistic portrait of the languages it discusses, without giving any kind of a sense of how they work as a whole, or on a daily basis. It's a caricature designed to excite fantasies of deeper structure and symmetry, but nothing more.

Probably few, if any, of my few, if any, readers will have any idea what I'm talking about. But I'll elaborate.

Saturday, November 11, 2006 -- 8:17 am

I've commented earlier on the various doctrinal grounds that people use to dismiss magical beliefs, rather than looking at the problem in an objective and systematic fashion. As I've said before, I don't have any developed views on this myself, but take issue with the fact that people don't bother to apply the same methodology in their critiques of other belief systems that they do to their own. It very well may be that all magic is snake oil and charlatanism, and I've previously pointed out philosophical grounds why some paranormal or magical phenomena may not be intelligible in the first place. But it is not a bona fide critique to say simply that something isn't consistent with our current theories of causality.

The same argument applies to astrology. I'm certainly not going to claim that the relative positions of the stars and the planets necessarily have a direct and immediate role in shaping our personality, our character, or our fate; I have no systematic evidence of it, and it's a sweeping enough claim about how the world works that I think anyone listening to such a claim is entitled to evidence. There are also questions of cultural relativism. To the Babylonian astrologers and their successors, Venus (or Aphrodite, or Ishtar) was a goddess of love, whatever that word may have meant to ancient peoples. My recollection of Mayan astrology, on the other hand, subject to further research, was that the Mayans regarded Venus as a god of war. And Indian and Chinese astrologers each presumably had their own interpretations. So I don't see why the western system of astrology is entitled to special consideration.

At the same time, it's an interesting, but altogether separate, anthropological question why so many of the world's civilizations have such detailed views about the role celestial events play in our lives. Is it simply a coincidence? Is this an inherent defect (or, more neutrally, predisposition) of our conceptual toolkit? I'll leave this aside for the moment, because I'm not sure how one would go about answering these questions.

But what I would like to sketch out is the following: It seems to me that there are ways of testing whether there are relationships between celestial and terrestrial events, even if we're in no position to describe the mechanism that establishes and perpetuates them. There are certain preliminary philosophical and definitional issues that would need to be clarified at the outset, so that we would understand exactly what it was that we were measuring and trying to test. First, are we examining the role that celestial alignments play in developing a person's temperament? In a person's health? In political events? In personal relationships? In seemingly random accidents and good fortune? I have read of people attempting to use astrology for all of these reasons, and perhaps more, and I have my doubts that astrology, if it is equiped to deal with any of them, is equally suitable for all of these different issues.

Second, a traditional hallmark of unconventional divinatory methods is that people tend to resort to them only when they have no other means of accessing the information, as when trying to foretell the future. This makes astrology sound little better than wishful thinking. Astrology, if there is any truth to it, should be able to tell us things about past and current events as well as future events, and we can verify those predictions by resorting to more conventional investigative techniques. In addition, it should be something that can be, and is, used to reliably (or semi-reliably; not even eye-witnesses can always be counted on) complement our other sources of information, just as information we obtain using both sight and hearing is more concrete than information from just one of these.

Third, my general reading on the subject over the years has led me to conclude that most astrologers seem to take an impressionistic and highly metaphorical approach to interpretation of these celestial events. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as I see it. Borrowing from Kant, and given how compartmentalized I find the mind's various functions to be, it could very well be that our sensory equipment predisposes our conscious mind to organize the world in terms of time, space, and causality, but that our unconscious mind organizes and obtains information from sources in a way not intelligible under such a scheme. Quantum mechanics serves as one scientifically validated system of thought that already conflicts with our traditional notions of how the world works, and there is no reason to believe that this is the *only* flaw in how we understand the universe. In other words, the ideas set in motion by Hegel and Nietzsche, and channeled by Freud, may not be completely off-base to the extent they suggest that some parts of the mind cannot and do not abide by the rules of western logic and universal grammar. Metaphor and symbolism, which tend to be highly specific to individual experience as well as cultural norms, may be more apt modes of expression for real and compelling psychological notions which are nevertheless opaque to formalistic analysis. If true, though, that does make it extremely difficult to systematize these intuitions in a manner both intelligible and acceptable to others, especially skeptics. In some religious circles, of course, this is the point: either that faith alone, in the absence of concrete evidence, is a prerequisite for what comes later, or that paradoxes are intentional, and purposeful, because they remind us that certain truths or connections are beyond any form of rational comprehension. That may well be, to the extent that it applies to issues that presumably cannot be investigated by other means, such as one's subjective experiences, if any, after death. But astrology purports to make assertions about events in our everyday experience, and those assertions can and should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. You could argue this point ad nauseum, borrowing from Descartes the notion of a deceitful creator simply testing your faith by confronting it with evidence. But there's no evidence to support that view over a more parsimonious one, and the debate becomes more about politics than about facts.

Taking all these considerations into account, I have some specific notions about how to systematically test one perspective on astrology, which I will explain in greater detail as I get closer to a launch date. Clearly, I am sympathetic to the notion of astrology the extent that I would like to believe that there is a deeper unity to events in the world than is immediately obvious. But I have no stake in the outcome of the experiment, and I would further add that extraordinary claims, if they are to be believed, require particularly compelling evidence. But I'll explain my project in a bit more detail closer to the time.

Saturday, November 11, 2006 -- 8:14 am

It's been a rough couple of weeks at the office, and now my usual internet connection is down -- so there have been no postings, and it'll probably be another week before any new ones see the light of day