Episode 107 – “Mute”

We can put the imagination to use in philosophy when we use it to generate and reflect on possible worlds that test or stretch our familiar concepts  from the actual world. In the actual world (at least at this writing) you can’t buy an artifically intelligent “grandmother” or caregiver for your children. But thanks to “I Sing the Body Electric” we can reflect on what we would say and do if we could. In the actual world we can’t, by mere thought, fashion the world to be the way we (think) we want it to be. But in “The Mind and the Matter” Archibald Beechcroft can do this, and we can reflect on what we would say and do if this possibility were actualized. Some exercises in the imagination work better than others for testing the application of our concepts.   Compare the thought experiments in the two episodes just mentioned. In “I Sing the Body Electric” we are asked to imagine an intelligent, but robotic caregiver.  Based on our current understanding of the world, we can make sense of how such a state of affairs might come about. We would need engineers and computer scientists with fair greater facility than they currently have, but we can at least imagine how a future like the one depicted could come about. In “The Mind and the Matter” we are asked to imagine someone possessing a god-like ability to bring about significant changes just be willing them. But we really can’t begin to imagine, based on our current knowledge, how such an ability could come about. We can stipulate that someone like Beechcroft could suddenly have it, but it would still be inexplicable how that ability came to be.

When what we imagine is purely stipulative and not based on what is actual, the philosophical pull of such possible worlds is less compelling, and perhaps less instructive then it is when the possibilities have an explanatory relation to the current state of our understanding of the world, that is, when what is possible clearly is related to what is actual.

There is a third case, where  we attempt to imagine something, but where what we’ve attempted to imagine turns out to be something that is not possible. In that case we’ve failed to come up with a possible world.  In such cases, it may seem that we have imagined something, but we really haven’t, because we can’t coherently describe what we think is possible. To take a simple case. Can we image walking into a room where there is an object in the middle of the room that is both a cube and a sphere? Can we imagine that possible world? It seems not. Our concepts of cubes and squares can’t accommodate an object being both spherical and cubical.

Some Twilight Zone episodes are instances of this third case, where something is depicted or presented that isn’t possible. In such cases, it may seem that something possible has been described, but when we attempt to spell out the possible world, we wind up with an incoherent description. An example of this is found in “Mirror Image” where Millicent Barnes is confronted by her counterpart from another possible world.   Such a situation is impossible, because it entails, for example, that Millicent is in two different locations at the same time. Another example is in “Walking Distance,” where Martin Sloane travels back in time and changes his childhood in such a way that he has an injury as a child that results in a limp that persists into adulthood. The episode then represents Martin as both having a limp and not having a limp at the same time, which, of course, is not a possible state of affairs.

“Mute” may appear to present a possible state of affairs. A small group of individuals are convinced that communication through language is flawed, and that there is another form of communication, which is telepathic rather than linguistic. They commit to eliminating language from their communication, though they realize that they are already “tainted” as language users. They decide to raise an infant to adulthood with telepathic communication replacing speech and language. The child, Ilsa,  is home schooled and never spoken to. We meet her when she is twelve years old and, through a fire that devastates the community that raised her, she is  thrust into the world of those who communicate through language.

Ilsa struggles to adapt to a world in which she is expected to learn and communicate through language, and eventually she does. Is Ilsa’s adaptation possible? Could a child raised to the age of twelve without language be able to learn English or some other natural language? This is an empirical question, but one for which we have limited data. Although they use Isla as their experimental subject, her parents are aware that doing so is morally problematic. From the most well-known case of an abused child raised without exposure to language, we know that it may be extraordinarily difficult, or even impossible, to acquire a language after a childhood without language.

The problem with the way Isla is represented is that she is presented as having a complete internal or private language in which she talks to herself. She is mute, but she understands what is said around her, and she is aware of her own beliefs and desires, as well as the beliefs and desires of others. Ilsa can think, reason, and understand what others say almost the moment she is exposed to language. The only thing she can’t do, or won’t do, is talk. She is mute.

If the way “Mute” presents the case of Ilsa is possible, it is at least an example of a possible world that we can’t easily access based on our scientific knowledge of cognitive development and language acquisition.  At best we might allow the stipulation that Isla has thought and cognition even though she has not had the linguistic and other behavioral experiences routinely had by all children. Yet is this even possible? How can Isla both lack language and at the same time have it? How can she formulate sentences which she speaks to herself if she’s never had any exposure to language?

Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that there can’t be a private language, that we are all natively like Ilsa,  formulating thoughts privately and then figuring out how to communicate them publically, is incoherent. What has come to be known as “The Private Language Argument” suggests that without public criteria for the correctness of language use, we simply can’t talk. We can’t even think.

We are not told much about Ilsa’s non-linguistic education, and her isolation from language. Since she was raised by individuals who possessed language, perhaps they unintentionally exhibited linguistic behavior in some of their interactions with her. There is a brief scene in which Ilsa’s father teaches her by showing her pictures of objects, which suggests that imagistic representation was stressed. Later, when she is confronted with language, she objects: “The boat isn’t words.”  But neither is a boat a picture of a boat.

Further Reading: 

Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: a Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-day “Wild Child”. New York: Academic Press.

Jones, P. (1995). Contradictions and unanswered questions in the Genie case: A fresh look at the linguistic evidence. Language and Communication, 15(3), 261-280.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, (2009) Philosophical Investigations, 4th edition, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (eds. and trans.), Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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