"same experience" irrelevant to language

[From Bruce Nevin (2003.11.24 23:18)]

Bill Powers (2003.11.21.1908 MST)–
replying to Marc Abrams(2003.11.21.1544)

This is basically what we’ve been arguing
about in the linguistics thread.

When you and I both hear the sound “ah”, are these experiences
the same for

both of us?

Once again: differences of private experience are relevant for
imitation of particular performances, but irrelevant for
repetition of linguistic structures. That is actually a primary
benefit of language.
Even though I hear my Georgia friend Quincy’s pronunciation of
“Hello Ace!” as different from your pronunciation or mine, and
my experience of his pronunciation is quite obviously different
for me from my experience of yours or mine, I perceive each as a
repetition of “Hello Ace!”. If these differences are irrelevant
(the differences between my own private experiences of two repetitions of
the same utterance), then differences between your private experience and
my private experience are also irrelevant, and for the same reasons.
Even though your experience of my pronunciation is different from your
experience of Quincy’s pronunciation, both you and Quincy perceive it as
a repetition of “Hello Ace!”. And either you or Quincy (or
both) can repeat it back; whereupon we all perceive that in turn as yet
another repetition of “Hello Ace!” For each repetition, and for
each of us privately, the obvious differences in the experience of how
it is said
are irrelevant to our perception of what is said.
(Setting aside consideration of what is meant.)
This is because in each of us the control functions and reference values
for linguistic structures are organized so as to maintain our performance
of language in accord with language conventions that we perceive our
fellow speakers of English maintaining.
Each repetition of “Hello Ace!” is a social artifact; an
imitation of Quincy’s pronunciation is a personal performance.
When someone violate a conventions of language it is a disturbance that
we resist. Notice how instantly compelling was the urge in you to correct
that preceding sentence. As is the urge to correct your own errors (when
you perceive them) in the course of typing or speaking. Regardless of our
subjective experience of language perceptions, the conventions
that we maintain by controlling them are a social fact. Slowly changing
through time, this social artifact that we call English was present when
we were born and learned to participate in it, and will almost certainly
continue after our demise. To demonstrate its existence, or to
demonstrate that our individual control functions and reference values
conform to it, whereby we collectively sustain its existence among us,
does not depend upon resolving the philosophical conundrum of private

And a good thing, too. If it did, the only means we would have to address
that puzzle would be by in fact resolving it in a practical way, enabling
direct communication without the intermediary of language. But in fact we
do have language. And by that means we are able to distinguish, in a
public way, between private perceptions and public agreements. Indeed,
without that distinction, the philosophical conundrum of private
experience might never occur to us, and obviously could not be subject of

Whatever the course of that debate, it is a separate topic from these
questions about language.




At 07:58 PM 11/21/2003 -0700, Bill Powers wrote
Subject: Re: Perceptions?

[From Bill Powers (2003.11.24.1449 MST)]

Bruce Nevin (2003.11.24 23:18)–

Once again: differences of private
experience are relevant for imitation of particular performances,
but irrelevant for repetition of linguistic structures. That is
actually a primary benefit of language.

I can’t tell whether you have approved of my translation here, from
“imitation/repetition” to “lower-order/higher-order”.

It may be that whether we experience the same thing as each other is
immaterial if we each perceive the same thing as the last time. I haven’t
been able to satisfy myself on this point. The question is, given all the
alternative cross-checks and so forth, can all ambiguity be
removed, or is there an irreducible minimum that no amount of cleverness
can eliminate? Is it or is it not possible for us to continue to believe
we agree when we do not?

If it is possible, this would explain why, despite many, many attempts to
communicate certain ideas to others, what they say in return continues to
show me that they have missed the point, even though they believe they
have understood me. On the other hand, if language is as reliable as you
seem to be claiming, failures to communicate must mean that I have simply
not mastered the language yet, and must keep trying. I suppose the second
choice is the least self-defeating assumption.


Bill P.