Sunday, June 27, 2004

The Reporting Trees (LFPA)

Citation: John King-Farlow. "Two Dogmas of Linguistic Empiricism." Dialogue vol. XI, no. 3 (1972) 325-336.

Summary: (General Overview) Taking his start from comments by Hampshire and Quine, King-Farlow identifies two 'dogmas' about what it is to speak or to be a speaker:

I. If we have a case of a rational speaker we must then have a being with a self-concept (or something similar).

II. If we have a case of a rational speaker of a rule-governed language learnable by others, then this being must have learned it from others and must use it primarily or almost entirely in interaction with others whom he knows to be fellow-speakers of the language.

King-Farlow's article is an attempt to show that these dogmas are "confusedly anthropocentric" (326); in particular, they contribute to confusing [a] the truth that typical human speakers are typical human speakers with [b] the falsehood that typically rational speakers must closely resemble typical human speakers. He will do this by arguing that "a description of possible beings that would be rational speakers" (326) satisfy almost all the requirements for rational speech noted by Bennett in Rationality. ("The idea of rationality is that of the ability, given certain present and particular data, to unite or relate them wit other data in certain appropriate ways..." - Bennett, quoted p. 327).

(The Parable of the Reporting Trees) The "description of possible beings that would be rational speakers" opens with this:

Neo-Quinean linguistic explorers lost deep in the Amazon jungle try to take refuge from irate, rabbit-worshipping tribesmen, who consider it blasphemous for aliens to utter their sacred sound "Gavagai." An ecumenical witch-doctor, sympathetic even to Skinnerian Scripture, directs the fugitives to an invariably respected sanctuary which, he truthfully tells them, is called by the tribe The Inviolable Wood of The Reporting Trees. Twenty closely bunched and meagre trees, forming a slightly curved line, remind one newcomer a little of a William Blake illustration for Dante's Wood of the Self-Murderers: are they not equipped with what appear to be eyes and ears? This interpretation of the arboric appendages is held in scorn by most of our long confined and bored field-linguists until statistical analyses are applied (initially as a joke) to certain rustle-regularities of the trees' leaves, sounding in motion. There is hardly any wind which could even begin to account for this motion.


Long story short, the appendages of the trees turns out to be sufficiently analogous to a nervous system to make the explorers think they should look into leaf-rustlings of The Reporting Trees as a matter of linguistic research. The (tentative) conclusion of their work: 1) The trees can respond to visual and auditory stimuli if they occur between about 400 and 600 yards away. 2) Within this field the trees can correctly a)discriminate relative distances; b) state the number of objects of certain kinds; c) state the number of times a 'thing of a sort' is seen within a 10-second 'now' or within the previous period of up to 50 time units (where a time-unit is 21/53 of a minute). 3) If one tree gives a statement the same tree or another tree sometimes gives something like a correction, indicating the truth value of the statement and the reasons for assigning the truth values. 4) The trees do not appear to distinguish in any way their own statements and the statements of other trees. Further research suggests that, while a certain amount of contact with the trees is possible, they seem to be equipped only for the types of statements indicated in (1) - (4).

King-Farlow then considers a handful of minor protestations and argues against them. I pass over to the conclusions drawn.

(Moral of the Parable) King-Farlow draws several conclusions from his parable.

(C1) "Speaking what dserves to be called a language requires no concept of Self, no concept of myself-versus-others, no Cogito ergo sum, no Transcendental Unity of Apperception." (p. 333)

(C2) "Unfortunately for Strawson's anthropocentrism, we have seen that there is no need for our Reporting Trees to think of themselves as having a point of reference within the spatiotemporal network which interests them. They just do identify and reidentify things like crows well enough for them to count and state accurately the numbers of birds of various kinds that appear in the network within anything up to fifty of their time units, to make meta-stateemtns about such calculations, to give reasons, referring only to what goes on in a spatial framework in which they do not participate, etc. More important, human beings just do understand a tale about such hypothetical organisms. Humans just are capable of analogical thinking about language, meaning, identification, vision and much else. And this precious human capacity for analogical thinking seems to have been better appreciated by alleged obscurantists of the Middle Ages than by Renaissance humanists or our modern anthropo-eccentrics." (p. 334) Strictly speaking, the last sentence isn't essential to the argument, but I love it too much to let it go.

(C3) "Having to learn language from older members of one's linguistic community and mainly using language to interact with other members in societal ways may be essential to men as linguistic beings. But neither is essential for a language user qua language user." (p. 334)

(C4) "Insofar as Wittgenstein in his so influential Philosophical Investigations or Norman Malcolm in commentary seems to suggest that the rule-governed use of language can only be ascribed either to human beings or to what look and behave very like humans as they behave in interacting groups, intending to influence each otehr, they are wrong." (p. 335)

(C5) With respect to (Gricean/Searlean) attempts to link meaning qua meaning and language qua language to intentions, performative intention, etc.: "The Reptorting Trees have no such intentions, ahving no concept of Self-versus-Others, but they speak much and mean plenty. It just conceivably might be objected that a Reporting Tree intends to influence itself: but since, ex hypothesi, it has no concept of Self, it has no concept of me-affecting myself either." (pp. 335-336)

(Conclusion) King-Farlow concludes:

Man already has a broader concept of language and of meaning than many terrestrially land-locked 'naturalists' are predisposed to allow. Man has the intelligence and conceptual fertility to grow much further in wisdom (scientifically as well as philosophically) about language and meaning. If or whenman meets linguistic organisms very different from himself, he should nto be handicapped by parocial apriorities. Philosophers should not try to sell their intellectual birthright for a mess of stale, anthropocentric pottage.


I will give my thoughts on this interesting article in the comments section.

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