Grammar and Logic (2) : Wealth and power

In his introductory text on heredity and evolution, Links of Life: The Story of Heredity [Putnam‘s, NY, 1962], L. J. Ludovici wrote:

‘“The first step of science,” said Linnaeus (1707-1778), “is to know one thing from another.”  And Linnaeus proceeded to show how one thing should be known from another by naming and classifying some ten thousand living things. (p.42.)’

No, what Linnaeus showed was that one could devote a lifetime to a pathological obsession for trying to control reality by forcing it to conform to language.  And Ludovici should have been able to point this out, since the theory of evolution itself reminds us that living entity classifications correspond to reality only until the next great genetic mutation evolves the entity-types classified.  But of course, Ludovici is writing a fairy-tale for young minds, partly in support of  a social order organized by a highly specialized system of linguistic classifications:  What is the difference between a “garbage collector” and a “sanitation engineer”?  The “sanitation engineer” generally works in a large metropolitan area (but may live in a “middle-class” suburb) and belongs to a union; he or she  is allowed to wash up at the work-site before going home to work.   The “garbage collector”, on the other hand, does not belong to a union, is generally male, tends to appear covered in garbage, and earns considerably less than a “sanitation engineer”, but nonetheless stands firm in the belief that his job is every bit as dignified and as necessary to the social order as that of, say, the mayor of the nearest city; except that the “garbage collector” does not live in the same neighborhood as the mayor, and even if he could afford it would probably not “choose” to do so, since the mayor lives in a “ritzy” area with few corner bars at which the garbage collector can get drunk on beer on Saturday nights.

Stereotypes? Yes, of course.  So is the assertion that a certain plant is a representative of Linnaea borealis (A.K.A. the twinflower honeysuckle).

Does discussing such matters in these terms make modern science “wrong”?  No; but really that issue is off topic.  What our issue is has to do with the fact that Linnaeus contributed to the development of a language only experts could use; but the grammar involved represents an effort to preserve that of the ancient Romans, and that of the ancient Greeks (the two grammars are not identical, as Heidegger frequently points out when he needs to discuss the two).

Let’s get this straight:  Linnaeus was born and raised in Sweden; he was born during the era when the Swedish language, like most other European languages at the time, was being standardized at the insistence of the state bureaucracy on decree of the Royalty of Sweden.  He learned Latin (and possibly Greek), and then spent several years studying in the Netherlands, where he began his teaching career; but he also spent considerable time in England and France.

What we are looking at is a polymath in command of at least five languages, requiring knowledge of at least three grammars.  And the best he can do is generate ten thousand plant names?  Chaucer’s “Middle English” had only about eight thousand word; he had only two grammars to draw from (Latin and his native tongue).   [He was able to read Italian and French, possibly German, but his text does not show any innovations articulating these grammars; as for Greek, all of the elements of Greek mythology entering his text could be gotten from Roman sources.]  Yet Chaucer not only innovates grammatically, his text demands it of him.  In the middle of the Canterbury Tales, he writes what amounts to a parody of himself  telling a story that is a parody of someone else.  In order to write a parody within a parody, one must articulate grammar in a double strategy, generating meaning in one grammar that another grammar parodies.  The Latinate grammar that tells the story in verse, is undercut by Middle English grammatical conventions that oversimplify it ruthlessly.  And in “Troilus and Cressida,”  a large part of the subversive humor underlying the text, specifically in dialogue passages, depends on recognition that the characters would prefer to speak in a grammar apparently Latin in origin, but recurrently burst into Middle English grammar, which, given that the text is written in Middle English, makes perfect sense.   But there is an edge to this humor that indicates that Chaucer was aware of this writing strategy as such.

Am I holding up Chaucer as an example of “Poets” who might, with divine inspiration, produce a greater knowledge than that discoverable in the botany of  the “Scientist” Linnaeus?  Not at all.  This is not a contest between “Poets” and “Scientists”.  What is at issue is this:  Chaucer is a highly civilized writer.  With far fewer resources to draw on than Linnaeus, he accomplishes so much more.  It is not botany that is the problem; it’s Linnaeus.  He was obsessed with “things” and sought to “appropriate” them as “knowledge” by giving them names – whether the things wanted names or not.  Children are now taught – as Ludovici teaches in his text – that Linnaeus contributed to the increase of knowledge in an empirical science.  Actually, I like to think that botany continues to develop in spite of Linnaeus: imagine a science reduced to classification and memorizing these classifications in order teach others to learn and memorize these classifications – anybody who has suffered through a college course in anatomy (which has been dead as a field of research for nearly two hundred years) should recognize what I am getting at.  Ludovici argues that this is precisely what Linnaeus did not want, he wanted to conceive of the system of plant life in some holistic fashion; but we “can’t get there from here”.  Knowledge increases when there develops a new way of looking, listening, thinking about the world, and not by compiling lists.  Linnaeus did not know plants – he knew names.
But one way to think about this is to compare the work of Linnaeus with that of Charles Darwin.  Charles Darwin also went to work on classification; but of course his a major contribution to modern science is the theory of evolution, which provided the new grammar for addressing relationships between species, and relationships between species of life and the environment, across time.  Of course we can debate on whether this grammar would provide an accurate analog, or whether its usage has proven beneficial or harmful in the long run.  But that is not derived from a compilation of a list nor in an effort to preserve Latin grammar in English; it presents itself as an innovation purely within the English of its day.   Henceforth we will conceive of species of life, especially of animal life, as engaged in “a struggle to survive”. Although Darwin’s theory actually represents a culmination of a process of linguistic change involving several other important writers, Darwin’s tireless, and sometimes tiresome, Victorian prose established our grammatical boundaries within which the theory of evolution has been debated and even introduced into political and social philosophy – where it does not belong.   In order to deploy theory of evolution as social theory one has to be able to posit absolutely whether or not the human species as an animal species is social in nature or nonsocial in nature; and unfortunately this cannot be known by any member of the human species, since this requires a dispassionate external empirical study of a variety of individual representatives of the species, of which no human is capable.   If I watch another person eat a piece of apple pie, the problem is not that I cannot know precisely what that experience is like for the person (I’ve eaten apple pie, I know precisely what the specific experience is like for any person), the problem is that, with such intimate knowledge of the experience, I cannot help identifying myself with that person to some extent; but this prevents me from any honest appraisal of the possible motives for such an experience.  But let us consider a moment of disjunction, when a specific experience of one person is recognizable as such as an observing person has never encountered; say, for instance, a European anthropologist observing an Inuit woman teeth a strip of bear skin (that is, pull at it with her teeth, over and over, moistening it with her saliva as she does) in order to prepare it for use as leather.  Well, but the anthropologist has teeth, no?  Of course.  Even if the European has never chewed leather, she or he should be able to recognize the sensation of pressured chewing in the mouth.  So, what’s so wrong with that?  Doesn’t a person recognize a similar correspondence when observing, say, a dog chew a bone?  To a certain extent.  Unfortunately we cannot project human motivation onto the dog’s behavior (is it chewing the bone as an attempted resolution of bored nervousness, the way a human might chew gum?) without doing the dog and ourselves some injustice; whereas, on the contrary, we cannot help but project some human motivation onto the Inuit chewing leather.   (All human acts are assumed to have a telos, they accomplish an intended goal; even chewing gum can be recognized as, say, an effort to relieve a certain low level anxiety; but in any case, it cannot lack telos all together, the human must be accomplishing some end by chewing gum.)

Throughout most of the Modern era, a certain strain of Romantic ideology has asserted that such is not the case, that humans can act without an end in view, they can engage in an action “for its own sake,” i.e., “aesthetically” or “spontaneously;” some would even say “absurdly” or (in an almost criminal misuse of language) “existentially.”  But all of these terms mark, not a lack of telos, but precise judgments of an act’s supposed teleology.  They do not erase the end from view, they assert determinate ends in view.  To act “spontaneously” means precisely that “spontaneity” is the goal to be accomplished in the act.

The grammar of Darwin’s theory of evolution was (mis)appropiated by Herbert Spencer and other “social Darwinians,” to provide one set of conventions for describing the teleology of human behavior.  The “struggle to survive” is achieved successfully by a “fittest” member of a given species, and by the “fittest” species of a given class.  What I am trying to suggest is that this application is wholly inappropriate.  Since we cannot view human beings with complete “objectivity,” we cannot possibly assert a “struggle” of the “fittest” to survive, because we cannot know that the survivors are truly “fit” in some evolutionary manner, or if they’re just damned clever.  It has long been believed that the very wealthiest members of a capitalist society are the “fittest” to survive the “struggle” against other humans; but actually, they tend not to reproduce in quantity (apparently afraid to share their wealth even with their own children), and so by far the larger numbers of humans in such a society are found among the “working class” and the poor, who thus have a greater chance of handing down their genes from generation to generation.  The childless Oprah Winfrey is worth an estimated one billion dollars; some unknown woman in the Harlem ghetto has brought forth, say, 10 children from her womb; whose genes are more likely to continue onto another generation?  Within three generations, the descendents of this Harlem woman may number into the hundreds; within ten generations, into the thousands.  So in four hundred years, the wealth of Oprah Winfrey will amount to nothing, whereas the Harlem woman has mothered an entire city.

How did Darwin’s grammar of evolution get so misapplied that so many people believe someone like Oprah Winfrey to have won the “struggle of the fittest”, when this is quite clearly not the case?  Yet, isn’t it obvious?  The wealthy find in the language of Darwin’s misinterpretors the verbal justification for their acquisition and consumption of wealth.  Further, through deployment of this language into the society as a whole, the wealthy persuade others, like the Harlem woman in our example, to accept their own lack of wealth, and to expend wealth in support of the rich – that is, to hand over a small part of their wealth to the well-to do.  In other words, the theory of evolution applied to social theory, or even simply deployed within a given society, has merely rhetorical usage, it’s a “sell,” an advertisement for the rich and powerful.


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