Episode 111 – “Printer’s Devil”

How would someone who is bent on spreading evil use the newspaper publishing business to achieve its goal?  We don’t have to look far for answers to this question now, when traditional newspapers have been supplemented by new Internet-based publications, and where both are now most widely disseminated via social media. In its current form, news media includes efforts to deliberately present misinformation to the public, and, perhaps more disturbingly, to influence public opinion and public action, including the democratic process itself. “Printer’s Devil” anticipates the current state of news publication, by imagining how the devil itself could thrive in the newspaper publishing business. It is a cautionary tale that we would have been well-served by heeding not long ago.

A prescription that is unlikely to appear in any code of ethics for journalists is the following: Publish reports only of events that have occurred in the past. Do not report an event that has not occurred, and do not cause events to occur by reporting them. Perhaps the reason why the first part of this prescription is never stated is that it is already covered by the standard prescription to “seek the truth and report it” (SPJ, 2014).  The second part of the prescription might be excluded on the grounds that one can’t cause an event to occur simply by publishing a report that it has occurred.

The rub is that in our fanciful episode Mr. Smith is a journalist who, in virtue of being the devil, can make events occur by reporting them. Significantly for the comparison to the current state of news and social media, Mr. Smith is depicted as a master of the news publishing technology of the time, the linotype machine. Mr. Smith takes news copy that is submitted to the paper’s editorial office, and turns it into blocks of metal type that are laid out in pages which then go to the press, producing hard-copy newsprint. What is special is that he’s modified the machine so that it causes the events he writes about on it to occur. With the short delay from linotype production to printing and distribution, when the paper hits the street, what is reported has occurred.

While we can imagine a devil with these incredible journalistic capabilities, we certainly don’t have to worry about one making things happen by writing about them. But that doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate to consider this thought experiment, and, in particular, to consider how the mastery of publishing technology, which today is light-years beyond the linotype machine, means for the possibility of influencing or manipulating events through technology. This isn’t merely possible, but sadly it is actual. During the 2016 presidential race in the United States, bad actors, including agents of foreign governments, created “news stories” and published them on such social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter. Those “stories” were designed to bring about political events, such as rallies and meetings, which they did, and those events were then further reported by other media outlets. So journalism as practiced by some, has taken a page from Mr. Smith’s playbook, and it provides a cautionary tale about the use of technology in the media.

Aside from questions about the ethics of journalism, and the appropriate standards for the reporting of news, “Printer’s Devil” presents a philosophical puzzle about the rationality of making a deal with the devil. The puzzle is presented by the devil himself, Mr. Smith. First, he points out that it is irrational to believe in the existence of the devil, as he says to Douglas Winter, “As a sophisticated 20th century man, you know that the devil does not exist.” However, Mr. Smith claims that if Winter is reluctant to sign the deal presented by Mr. Smith, that can only be because Winter believes that Mr. Smith is the devil. If Winter is worried that by signing the agreement he is bargaining away his soul to the devil, that worry should be allayed by realizing that the devil doesn’t exist. It simply can’t hurt to sign the document. (What Mr. Smith doesn’t say is that on his argument signing can’t help either!)

Mr. Smith’s argument bears some resemblance to the argument known as Pascal’s wager. Pascal argued that believing in in God is the only rational thing to do. If you don’t believe in God, and God exists, then you will go to hell and suffer eternally. If you don’t believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you’ll lead a finite life which may be a bit better than otherwise because of your atheism. If you believe in God and God exists, you can secure eternal life in heaven. If you believe in God and God doesn’t exist, then you were wrong, but little harm can come from that false belief.  If you calculate the expected utility of the two choices – belief or disbelief, where expected utility is the product of the probability of an event and its utility, then it is clear that the choice to believe will always have a higher expected utility than the choice not to believe.

In “Escape Clause”, the devil, who goes by the name “Cad Walleder” convinces a mortal, Walter Bedeker, that trading the soul for an immortal life of excellent health is a great deal, because the soul is insignificant. It’s hardly anything. Mr. Smith uses the same strategy, and that’s not surprising. When one attempts to strike a bargain, it’s always a good idea to devalue what the other person is going to have to give up and inflate the value of what they are going to gain and what you are giving up. Mr. Smith goes even further, and denies that the soul even exists! Winter doesn’t catch the inconsistency of Smith’s position. He’s trying to get Winter to sign over something that he claims Winter doesn’t even have.

Mr. Smith,  the devil, leers at women and treats them as objects. His behavior is beyond creepy. While Winter is clueless about the difficulties that result from his hiring Mr. Smith, Jackie Benson is suspicious from the start, and it is she who mounts the challenge to Smith’s legitimacy and authority.  When Mr. Smith physically abuses her, she slaps him in the face. Jackie Benson is the real hero of this story.


Further Reading:

Pascal, Blaise, (1670), Pensées, translated by W. F. Trotter, London: Dent, 1910.

Society of Professional Journalists’ (2014) Code of Ethics https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Ward, Stephen J. A., (2005) Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond McGill-Queens University Press.

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Episode 110 – “Miniature”

Philosophers attempt to make sense of the human condition, and doing that entails making sense of how humans typically function. This requires specifying what the functions are that humans carry out, and how the conditions in which they find themselves play a role in influencing those functions. Even casual observation reveals that although we can identify and classify functions shared with other organisms and others which may be uniquely human, there is significant diversity among individuals in the extent to which any of these functions is present. Vision, for example, is typically present in human beings, and it plays an important role in a wide variety of human activities and pursuits, though it can be completely absent from some humans, and visual acuity can vary widely. We can determine a range of normal vision by using tests of visual acuity to sample populations.

Can we do the same for mental health? Is there a benchmark for behavior that would enable us to characterize the way humans behave as normal , as we can characterize vision as normal? One difficulty is that human behavior encompasses a very swathe of human functioning than something like vision, or other physiologically based functions, and so it is less clear what we would be trying to describe and benchmark.  There are as many types of behavior as there are ways of describing what people do. Are there “normal” behaviors for each of these types? Is there normal and abnormal hunting behavior, grooming behavior, speaking behavior, and shopping behavior? Are extreme abnormal behaviors  of these types forms of mental illness?

A second, related problem is that our characterizations of types of human behavior and their ranges relies on beliefs and values that we have prior to coming up with these characterizations, and those beliefs and values themselves represent behaviors that we already presuppose as normal. In short, how we understand mental health depends  on what we think constitutes normal human behavior in various contexts which we take to be relevant to one’s mental health.  Michael Foucault sheds considerable light on this often under-appreciated aspect of our understanding of mental health in Madness and Civilization, where he shows how our understanding of mental illness has changed from the end of the sixteenth century to the present  These two complicated philosophical dimensions of our understanding of mental illness are brought to the fore in “Miniature.”

Charley Parkes is described by his boss as a “square peg,” and he is promptly fired for just that, for his failure to fit into the culture of the office where he works. He is never late and he gets his work done. But he is fired because he just doesn’t fit in, which, in the early 1960s counted as a fully adequate basis for firing someone. Nothing suggests that Charley’s unusual personality prevents anyone from doing their job. It seems merely that they don’t like his personality. Charley’s boss also comments on the fact that Charley, a grown adult, still lives with his mother. While the boss acknowledges that this is irrelevant to Charley’s work at the firm, it is clear that the boss thinks this is odd and says so. We soon learn that Charley has lost jobs in the past, and also that he has few friends and no romance in his life. This is a source of concern for Charley’s family, and they seek remedies, by presenting opportunities for both employment and romance. They are supportive and loving, and wish only the best for Charley.

Perhaps to escape from the stress of meeting the expectations of others, Charley becomes obsessed with a miniature display of the interior of a 19th century, complete with a doll of the house’s resident, seated at a harpsichord.  Charley experiences first auditory  and then visual illusions. He hears  Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Major, and then sees that it emanates from the “doll”  playing the harpsichord in the parlor room of the miniature house on display.

Is this the description of someone who is mentally ill? Charley has a flat affect. He is a loner, and he may have certain other traits that we, sixty or more years later than the period represented in the episode, might characterize as an obsessive-compulsive or borderline personality disorder.  Yet Charley’s behavior in the early 1960s, before the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements, is very much out of step with what was considered normal. Even before he begins to experience hallucinations, Charley is marked as a serious problem.

Unusual or abnormal behavior is called out when it creates conflict. Charley doesn’t work as a member of the “team” at work, and the solution is to eliminate him from the team.  Attempts to put him on other teams by those who care about him create other conflicts, and Charley ultimately takes matters into his own hands by finding a team that he fits into, the world of the miniature house. That this isn’t a workable solution follows from the simple fact that the larger society to which Charley belongs is inescapable. His beliefs about the miniature house and its contents conflicts with the beliefs of everyone else. As his psychiatrist explains, intersubjective agreement is the test for what exists. As long as Charley makes claims about the existence of things that others don’t agree with, the conflicts will remain.

Charley figures this out, and learns how to withhold his claims about the reality of the experiences that he has that are not shared by others. He learns how to not make waves and ultimately get himself sprung from the psych ward, just long enough that he can return to full bore engagement with his miniature world,  leaving “the real world” behind. Whether this is understood as psychosis or suicide hardly matters. It is the outcome of all the well-meaning interventions of his family and care-givers.  As his psychiatrist said, the important thing is to figure out not what Charley saw, but why he saw it. It appears that no one came up with the answer to that important question.

Mental illness, or what used to be referred to as madness, has long been the subject of philosophical reflection. In epistemology, it has functioned to provide a way of considering whether it is possible to know anything. Descartes implicitly raises this in Meditation 1 of his Meditations on First Philosophy, when he argues that because he has sometimes been deceived by his senses, it is possible that he is always deceived by his senses. This possibility would put him in the same league as Charley, who lacks the ability to distinguish his hallucinations as hallucinations. But Descartes quickly rejects this possibility, in a beautiful passage:

And how could I deny that these hands and this body are mine, were it not perhaps that I compare myself to certain persons, devoid of sense, whose cerebella are so troubled and clouded by the violent vapours of black bile, that they constantly assure us that they think they are kings when they are really quite poor, or that they are clothed in purple when they are really without covering, or who imagine that they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass. But they are mad, and I should not be any the less insane were I to follow examples so extravagant. (Descartes, 1911, p. 145)

Descartes doesn’t explain why he rejects the possibility that he is mad here, though perhaps it is simply that he finds himself in agreement with others about what is real, which, as his psychiatrist suggests, provides the touchstone for distinguishing hallucinations from reality.  But by the end of Meditation 1, Descartes has provided further arguments which remove whatever grounds he had for distinguishing illusions from what is real. The extreme or hyperbolic doubt of everything removes the touchstone of our agreement with others, since even that agreement may be an illusion. Descartes, like Charley, is engaged in a solitary endeavor.

Further Reading: 

Bolton, Derek, What is a Mental Disorder?

Descartes, R., Haldane, Elizabeth S., Ross, G.R.T., trans.(1911)  Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Volume 1.

Foucault, Michael, (1965) Madness and Civilization, Random House.

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Episode 109 – “Jesse-Belle”

“Jesse-Belle” is, as Serling notes in his opening narration, a familiar love triangle. Jesse-Belle and Ellwyn are each in love with Billy-Ben, who is alternatively attracted to each, but  ultimately must make a choice.   Is the selection of a lover or mate a matter of choice? If our choices are based on our beliefs and reasons, will Billy-Ben rely on them? “Jesse-Belle” explores the irrationality of the phenomenon of love and attraction.  Love, like witchcraft, is deeply mysterious and largely inaccessible to human understanding. Choosing a lover is not a matter of rational choice.

In the opening scene, we are confronted by the fact of Billy-Ben and Ellwyn’s attraction to each other. We only know that they are mesmerized by each other. We don’t know why, and we don’t learn why. We find out that Jesse-Belle is Billy-Ben’s jilted lover, and the intensity of her anguish matches the intensity of the  attraction between the Billy-Ben and Ellwyn.  Jesse-Belle quickly uses witchcraft to remedy the situation. Through witchcraft she causes Billy-Ben’s attraction to revert back to her. Suddenly and to everyone else, inexplicably, Billy-Ben is heads-over-heels in love with Jesse-Belle, in violation of a host of social norms.

The interjection of witchcraft into these relationships makes the point that love, or at least attraction of the kind we witness here, is no less an irrational attraction than one caused by a witch’s spell. Just as Billy-Ben is attracted to Ellwyn, as he presumably was earlier to Jesse-Belle, thanks to witchcraft, he is again attracted to Jesse-Belle. The attraction in all these cases is direct and results not from some sort of reasoning, or analysis of the good character of the person loved. Billy-Ben can no better explain why he was attracted to Ellwyn than he can now explain why he favors Jesse-Belle.

Perhaps there are other kinds of romantic attraction than the kind that is on display in “Jesse-Belle.” Two people may meet at  a library, or coffee house, and engage in meaningful dialogue about important matters, where such conversation leads each to the appreciation of the beliefs, interests, and character of the other, and this may lead result in romance and love. Here one could reconstruct the reasons for the eventual attraction. This variety of attraction is part of a long tradition in philosophy. G. E. Moore argues for its importance in accounting for the nature of love in Principia Ethica.

We can fit this kind of intellect-directed love with accounts of other things we take to be virtues, such as courage, honor, and honesty. We can describe the good-making features of such virtues and our approval of them in the same way that we could describe the good-making features of someone we love. But when asked to describe what it is that draws one to the visceral attraction between Billy-Ben and Ellwyn, or latter Billy-Ben and Jesse-Belle, we come up empty handed.  When Jesse-Belle speculates that Billy-Ben prefers Ellwyn because she wears pretty clothes and comes from a family of means, Billy-Ben denies it. He tries to describe the difference in his attraction to Ellwyn, but all he can say is that he loves her “in a quiet way.” When Jesse-Belle wins Billy-Ben back through witchcraft, Ellwyn sees the futility of attempting to win him back. She says: “I won’t get the chance. Jesse-Belle bewitched him.” We often say that someone who is in love is “bewitched,” which means that just as don’t, and maybe can’t know how witchcraft works, we also don’t know how love and attraction works.

Nussbaum highlights the difficulty of coming up with a clear understanding of the nature of love, when we take seriously the kind of non-intellectually based love on display in “Jesse-Belle.” If love is a sentiment or feeling, which can’t be adequately described or explained, then what sense can we make of Billy-Ben’s claim to know that he loves Ellwyn?  If, thanks to witchcraft, he is suddenly caused to switch to loving Jesse-Belle, how can he claim to know that? Does the consciousness of the feeling of being in love with someone constitute an incorrigible belief or certain knowledge?

As a sentiment or feeling of attraction toward another person, this form of love is a kind of sentience rather than a form of sapience. There is a tradition in philosophy that marries sentience and sapience, by treating our sensations as foundational bits of knowledge. Descartes argues in Meditation 2 of his Meditations on First Philosophy, that although I may not know that there is a piece of wax in front of me, because it may be an illusion, I know that I am having a sensation or experience of wax-like features. Stripping away the conceptual superstructure of Billy-Ben’s understanding of the love he feels, what he directly and immediately knows is that he is forcefully attracted to his love interest.

The idea that sensations, perceptual or emotional, can constitute immediate, certain knowledge, has come under attack since the work of Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Quine. These philosophers argue that knowledge requires sapience, or the mastering of concepts, and the mere presence of feelings doesn’t put one in the space of reasons in which knowledge functions. This insight is hinted at in “Jesse-Belle,” when the story moves from the initial multiple attractions, to the consequences of those attractions.

As “Jesse-Belle” shows, love can’t be just a matter of attraction.  It matters how that attraction is achieved. Jesse-Belle gets Billy-Ben, but at what cost?  Witchcraft, or its secular counterpart, unreasoned attraction, may be not be the best way to attract a partner. Jesse-Belle has to pay for the power that she has, that she has to be punished for it.  She ultimately realizes that “torment comes from buying something, and finding out that the price was dear.”

Further Reading:

Moore, G.E. (1903)  Principia Ethica Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha,  (1990)”Love’s Knowledge,” in Love’s Knowledge : Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press.

Quine, Willard V.O., (1951) “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” The Philosophical Review 60,  20-43.

Sellars, Wilfrid, (1997) Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, (See “Further Readings” for “Mute”)

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Episode 108 – “Death Ship”

Setting a spaceship safely down on a newly discovered planet is fraught with danger, even in the technologically advanced future of 1997 (as represented in 1963, when this episode aired), the year in which Spaceship E89 is traveling around the galaxy, searching for sources of food for an over-populated Earth. This particular spaceship has three astronauts, and while there is a captain of the ship, there is disagreement from the start about how to proceed. Should they land, or is it too dangerous?

“Death Ship,” like  “The Passersby,” “The Hunt,” “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtebank,” “A Nice Place to Visit,” and “The Hitch Hiker,” explores philosophical questions about the nature of death by adopting the perspective of individuals who are dead, and imagining what it would be like to be dead, it also treats other questions that we face in the more prosaic circumstances as living creatures, namely how to explain things that have happened, how to predict what will happen, and how to choose among alternative actions based on those explanations. Sometimes we seek explanations and make choices based on those explanations by ourselves. At other times we do so as members of a group or team. Group explanation and  group choice of action require coordination and agreement. The challenge of such coordination and agreement is as much the subject of “Death Ship” as the phenomenon of death itself.

The three crew members  of E89 disagree about whether to land on the alien planet, after spotting a possible sign of intelligent life on the surface of the planet.  The captain is cautious. The other two are in favor of landing and exploring. On landing, they discover the wreckage of a ship that appears identical to E89, and when they investigate they discover the bodies of three crew members, whose bodies are qualitatively identical to their own.  They are of course, freaked out by this state of affairs, and they begin to try to explain it, and then to figure out what they should do.

Between them, they come up with three theories: (1) They crashed and are dead, and they are somehow seeing their crashed craft and their dead bodies. (2) They are seeing their possible future. They may crash if they land, but if they don’t land, they won’t crash. (3) The crashed craft and its content are an illusion. They are alive, but aliens on the planet are deceiving them, perhaps with the goal of scaring them away.  They consider each theory, and argue for or against it on philosophical grounds, and they also argue about the possible consequences they would face should one of the theories turn out to be true.

If they crashed and died, then it seems that their personhood somehow continues to exist, but it living, qualitatively identical bodies to their former bodies. The captain supports this view when he points to the bodies in the crashed ship and says: “Those are not our bodies. These are our bodies!” The captain is claiming that the bodies they are looking at are not them, which suggests that they didn’t die. Their personhood is intact, and is related to their bodies, which have also continued to exist over time. It’s difficult to make sense of how they could be dead, since they seem to have what we have when we endure as persons over time.

There are other puzzles about describing the situation. Carter asks the captain: “How can there be two of me dead, two of you, two of Mason?”  Someone could be qualitatively identical to you, but that would still not make that person you.  This suggests two other possibilities that may at least be coherently stated, that either they are imagining a possible future state of themselves, or they only appear to be seeing their crashed ship and bodies.

There are further complications. Carter and Mason each escape into imagined scenarios where they are back on earth with their families. The captain literally wrestles them back to reality. The captain suggests that this fits with the theory that there experiences on the planet are illusions. They have the same status as Carter and Mason’s flights of imagination. Perhaps the epistemological situation of these astronauts is like that of Mike Ferris in “Where is Everybody?”


The vigorous debate about which of these theories is correct is an impressive set of applications o f principles of logic. In several cases an astronaut will challenge another by pointing out that their current claim is inconsistent with a claim they made earlier. In another challenge, the Captain is asked why he claims to be certain that the illusion theory is correct. The answer, that attempting to leave the planet will prove that he is correct, is not a good answer, and that  is duly noted by the others. The debate is rigorous and spirited, but also analytical and probing.  Perhaps the astronauts majored in philosophy, or at least took a course in logic.

The decorum of studied argument vanishes when the Captain makes a unilateral decision that the Carter and Mason reject. Here the failure to agree is worse than fatal, it leads to an infinite loop or eternal recurrence. Their failure to agree results in no resolution of the question of whether to land on the alien planet.



Further Reading:

See the suggested readings  for “The Hitch Hiker”.

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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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