Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/May 1911/Language and Logic
|LANGUAGE AND LOGIC|
Here I am balked: who now can help afford?
The Word?—impossible so high to rate it;
And otherwise I must translate it
If by the spirit I am truly taught.
So he tries again.
In the beginning was the Thought.
Is it the Thought which works, creates, indeed?
Another attempt leads him to translate:
Finally he declares:
The spirit aids me: now I see the light!
In the beginning was the Act, I write.
Many volumes have been written to explain the meaning of the mysterious word Logos, yet the underlying idea does not seem particularly difficult of comprehension. The abstruse doctrines that have been built upon it are another matter. The writer of the fourth gospel understood it to mean the divine reason that existed before anything visible or tangible was created, and through which "everything was made that was made." It was an effort on the part of the dualistic philosophy to account for the creation, or at least for the orderly arrangement of matter, by a power that dwelt outside of it. As matter could not have produced God, God must have produced matter. In the older Jewish philosophy, so far as their thorough-going belief in the constant interference of the Deity in everything can be called a philosophy, the problem never found a place. It also engaged the attention of the early Greek philosophers. We find the same notion underlying Plato's doctrine of ideas, which is not difficult to comprehend in its main outlines. He evidently means that the concept of things exists in the mind of the self-existent designer before the objects themselves are called into being, just as a man who undertakes to make any thing has a plan in mind before he enters upon his work; when it is completed the abstract idea is concretely realized. In like manner, a quality may be conceived abstractly before it is embodied in concrete form. In the Cratylus, Socrates asks whether "our legislator ought not also to know how to put the true natural name of everything into sounds and syllables, and to make and give all names with a view to the ideal name, if he is to be a namer in any true sense." The thought was anterior to the word which expressed it. The mind exists independent of the body; it therefore possesses innate ideas, ideas that had a previous and incorporeal being. The.idea of justice, for example, existed before it was embodied or externalized in just acts. The maker of a statue, or of a table, or of a house, had in mind its idea or mental image before he could give it a visible form. The visible is fleeting, the conceptual is abiding. This doctrine was developed in contradistinction to that of Heraclitus, who taught that all things are in a state of flux, and to that of Protagoras in ethics who maintained that man is the measure of all things. Plato doubtless carried his doctrine to an unwarranted extreme, but that there is much truth in it will hardly be doubted. Neither the mute man nor even the mute child is without ideas. The ability to mould language so that it will fit thought closely is the highest human achievement, but it is not essential to thought. The thought-processes of deaf-mutes are to some extent beyond our grasp, but not wholly out of the range of the constructive imagination. It is well to note, furthermore, that our word logic is the direct descendant of Logos. Whatever technical or philosophical definition we may give to logic, there is no doubt that speech and rational thought were closely associated in the minds of the Greeks as the history of the term proves. In their philosophical systems dialectic, discussion, question and answer were so intimately connected and interwoven that they were unable to think of them as separated. People who live in an age of books can only realize with a mental effort conditions when they were non-existent or rare. The poet-philosopher Euripides, who flourished about the middle of the fifth century b.c., is said to have been the first man to collect a library. In the nature of the case it must have consisted at most of only a score or two of manuscripts. Besides, he lived in Athens, the center of culture in the ancient world; elsewhere there were strictly speaking no books at all. Our dictionaries designate what they believe to be correct usage. At any rate, they do much to establish it by setting up a standard to which all educated persons endeavor to conform. In this way a language becomes stereotyped to such an extent that it changes very slowly. But dictionaries in the popular sense are of comparatively recent date. The Greeks always felt justified in using any word or phrase they found in Homer, just as we do with respect to biblical or Shakesperean phraseology. But these authors did not get their vocabulary from books. Later writers, notably Plato among the Greeks and Cicero among the Romans, endowed with the power of genius, may be said to have created a language; it was subsequently imitated with more or less success by all who strove after elegance of diction. But it is doubtful whether they formed a single word in the sense in which a modern scientist may be said to do so. Neither does a man who makes a machine make the materials that enter into it. The influence of these two writers is still vibrant in all philosophical and ethical discussion. The same may be said of Kant, another of the world's great thinkers and one of its original geniuses, since he was not much interested in ancient philosophy and preferred to grapple with the problems he set out to solve without the intervention of predecessors. While we can not tell how thought-processes are carried on without words, that they are so carried on does not admit of doubt. Facts of a strictly scientific character are furnished by the study of deaf-mutes. In my boyhood I was well acquainted with one of these so-called unfortunates. He was a blacksmith, having learned the trade from his father, and was associated with him in the business. When the father desired him to do anything he addressed him in his natural voice: "Dan, I want you to make a lot of horse-shoe nails"; or he might speak of something that had no connection with the shop as: "To-morrow we will plant corn." This young man had never had any systematic instruction and simply "picked up" his knowledge of English. In order to get some further light on the connexus of speech with thought I addressed a letter of inquiry to superintendent Jones of the Ohio Asylum for the Deaf. I quote from his reply.
The facts above reported, as well as those that have come under my own observation, partake largely of the mysterious. Speaking for myself, I can not comprehend how it is possible to carry on a process of reasoning wholly without the use of words. Such vagaries as we find in "Alice in Wonderland" are not the product of reason, but rather of the constructive imagination as distinguished from the creative. They are much like the products of the mind in dreaming where it is not under the control of the intellect and the will. I find no difficulty in the comprehension of mathematical formulæ, or in grasping the idea of time and space, or of the persistence of force, or of the indestructibility of matter, apart from the terms in which they are stated; but these are propositions quite beyond the mental reach of the child. The theory that we use words as supports just as a lame man uses crutches until he is healed, breaks down before the fact that children do not need verbal crutches and are able to walk, figuratively speaking, without them. It is probable that every normal child born in a civilized community is endowed by nature with certain hereditary capacities which are then spontaneously developed up to a certain point under the influence of its environment. If the development is to be carried farther, the child's environment must become aggressive and begin a course of training. In fact, what we call culture or civilization is the result of an effort exerted continuously by a small part of the community under pressure of the state upon the whole. There is no doubt that men existed in South Africa as early as in northeast Africa; yet in the former region they never got far enough from the primitive stage to construct a government in the modern sense of the term. When in the course of time this small minority loses its efficiency, the disintegrating forces gain the upper hand and the state falls to pieces. This was the fate of all the pre-christian commonwealths and may be the ultimate fate of all that exists at the present time. The educational agencies of a culture-state are engaged in the endless task of rolling a stone up the hill of progress with more or less success. But as soon as the propelling force is relaxed it will probably begin to roll down. With each generation the work has to be done over again almost from the foundation; in other words, there is a constantly oncoming crop of young savages to be tamed and trained. The reason why the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian kingdoms, the Greek and Roman governments, decayed was that the intelligent minority was overslaughed and eventually destroyed by the atavistic agencies that had at no time ceased their activities. The state had foes within and foes without. It was able to withstand both for centuries, but not for ages. They had simply been kept in check. Heroes, as Carlyle would call them, endowed with varying degrees of efficiency built up states and their successors maintained them. The process was partly spontaneous, partly purposive. In like manner language is a spontaneous growth up to a certain point. It never passes beyond this point unless it becomes the object of mental effort. But even effort is powerless beyond a certain stage. No amount of education can make a great writer, or a great poet, or a great orator, notwithstanding Quintillian's dictum that the orator is made. Neither is any government sufficiently powerful to force a language upon a refractory people, as may be seen in the case of Prussian Poland. I quote further from Superintendent Jones:
The last quotation throws considerable light on one aspect of our vocabulary. It is generally held by philologists that the ultimate elements into which all languages can be resolved consist of two sets of radicles, verbs and nouns, all other parts of speech being derived from these. That our grammatical nomenclature is mainly artificial is not to be doubted. Persons without education are unable to see any difference in the functions of words; often, in fact, these are very indistinct. It is a dictum of Homeric Grammar that all propositions were originally adverbs. In English, as in most other languages, almost any part of speech can be used as a verb. I have heard such expressions as: "I don't want anybody to thee-and-thou me." "No if-ing, if you please." The French have a verb tutoyer, meaning, "to address another with thee and thou." "If" is probably the instrumental case of a word expressing doubt. Whether, neither and either are plainly comparatives. It is an utter waste of time to discuss the grammatical classification of words. In Greek and Latin the infinitive of the verb and the dative case of the noun have the same sign. The same statement is true in a modified form of the English, as we may see in such phrases as to me, to town, to go, to walk. "To walk makes me tired," hardly differs from "Walking makes me tired." In German any infinitive can be used as a noun, as also in Greek.
The imperfection of language allows the writer to reveal himself. It is because language displays but a part of this subjective world that there exists an art of writing. James Darmesteter in his "Life of Words" says:
This statement, although true to a limited extent, is applicable only to a small minority of mankind. The overwhelming majority is so much under the sway of tradition and possessed of so few new ideas that their vocabulary is entirely sufficient to afford them utterance. Much more to the point is the following:
While the origin of the ultimate constituents of words is rarely discoverable, we can often trace their descendants up to our own time. Typical terms are "derive," "rival," "derivation," "rivulet," and many more that on the surface do not appear to have the most remote connection with one another. The ancient Romans called a stream rivus. To draw water from a stream was called derivare, the act derivatio. Rivalis was one who lived on the banks of the same stream. The idea of competition or rivalry is probably latent in the term. The insight we get from other sources into primitive conditions makes it plain that every man's hand was against every other man's. We have by no means outgrown this stage. Thucydides testifies that in his time in some parts of Greece the peasants went to work in their fields with arms in their hands in order to be prepared to fight for what they considered their rights at all times.
The Roman soldiers received no pay for their services while in the field, but the state gave them a small allowance for the purchase of salt, an indispensable but costly article of diet, in many places hard to get. This allowance was called salarium, whence our familiar word salary. So likewise emolumentum was the money paid for grinding the grain. Lira means a "furrow," lirare to make a furrow, deliro to get out of the furrow, deliratio a getting out of the furrow; hence, folly, madness. The connection of these words with delirium and deliramentum is plain. They were evidently formed when the ancient Romans were an agricultural people. That the conclusion follows from the facts is as clear as the law of deduction can make it. A current German phrase to designate mental aberration is "to be out of one's hut." A word that exhibits this gradual change, or rather, extension of meaning almost under our eyes, as it were, is our familiar term "to ship." The verb came into use at a time when goods were generally transported by water; then it was extended to include conveyance by land likewise. Now it is employed to designate the activities of any common carrier whether by land or water. The original signification has been so completely lost that very few persons who use the word think of it, or notice the incongruity between the term and its primitive meaning.
It is almost certain that a good many words—and there is no way of discovering how large the number—are the spontaneous utterances of persons who can give no reason why one form was chosen rather than some other. To this class belong boom, skedaddle, hoodlum, hooligan, spondulicks and a host more. I recall that several words were current in our neighborhood in Pennsylvania to designate certain persons and acts and were usually referred to their authors. As they never got into print they may have since died out. It is easy to see how, in a primitive state of society, a word uttered by some chief would be taken up by his entourage and eventually become a part of the language of the clan; for although language is developed by society, it does not owe its origin to man's gregarious instinct. Every one knows that children often invent names for things that have no relation to or connection with words used by older persons. The theory that the hypothetical pithecanthropus was the progenitor of man is no longer held by any competent anthropologist. If we place the fossil remains discovered by Dubois in the island of Java in this class the argument is not strengthened, the chief objection being its comparatively late date. According to the recent and very careful examinations of Klaatsch and Hauser of all known fossil remains of man there were two primitive types which they designate as the Aurignac and the Neanderthal races. Of these the former stood considerably higher than the latter and unquestionably possessed the faculty of speech. With regard to the latter the evidence is not quite so convincing, but is sufficient to produce a high degree of probability, especially in view of the fact that this race, anatomically considered, bore a striking resemblance to the Australian aborigines; and these display a large measure of linguistic capacity.
Although words are often used eventually in a widely different sense from that which they originally bore, the progress from one meaning to another is not always gradual. The first man who used ship to designate transportation by land doubtless did so with a clear knowledge of its original signification; this was only forgotten in the course of time. The man, probably a sailor, who invented the article now considered indispensable by seamstresses named it a "thumb-bell" for evident reasons. The Germans call it a Fingerhood. Yet it is safe to say that very few English or Germans now think of the original meaning of the word, though it was clearly evident when it first came into vogue. Shortly after Chinese trade was thrown open to American shipping a vessel was lying in one of the treaty ports. A Yankee sailor who happened to be on shore noticed some natives digging a ditch and carrying away the earth in their blouses. Thinking to teach them a valuable lesson, he provided them with a wheelbarrow and showed them how to use it. Coming to the same workmen some time afterward he saw them carrying the wheelbarrow. They found it less trouble to do so than to learn to use it in the proper manner. We have here a practical illustration of what Lord Bacon had in mind when he said that new ideas are conceived in the old way. Many words experience the same fate. They are used for purposes for which they were not intended originally. The mind expands faster than the vocabulary increases, and it is easier to use the old word with a new meaning than to invent a new one. In this way a great number of new significations are sometimes grafted on a stem that may be called hoary with age. According to de Mortillet who has probably devoted more time to the study of the problem than any one else, man has existed upon the earth not far from 240,000 years. Of these about ten thousand belong to the culture period, and six to the historical. We may greatly reduce the first period and it still remains very long. Primitive man had need of but few words. In the nature of the case his vocabulary would increase very slowly. If not more than one or two words a year were added to it he would enter the historic stage with a relatively large stock. The Hebrew Bible contains less than nine thousand words. A writer says, in the introduction to Worcester's dictionary, that the English language embraces about thirty-eight thousand words. "This includes not only radical words, but all derivatives, except preterites and participles of verbs." The Anglo-Saxon vocabulary is about one third smaller. The Greek language up to the time of Aristotle includes about forty thousand words. Why our modern lexicons are so much more comprehensive is easily explained. The fundamental problem, as it looks to us, that primitive man had to solve was how to designate by the sound of his voice objects that were hushed in perpetual silence. He might imitate, however imperfectly the roar of the tempest, the thunder-clap, the noises made by birds and beasts; but how should he designate the sun, the moon, the stars, the flowers of the field? Did his fancy come to his aid so that he felt like the Psalmist when he speaks of the time when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? To this question science has no answer and the answer furnished by the imagination is worthless except as a curiosity. Hence the problem of the origin of language has almost ceased to engage the attention of investigators. Every possible theory has been advanced, but none has gained general assent. It may aptly be said to have been consigned to the limbo of unrealizable possibilities.