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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  May 2011

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE May 2011

Subject:

Re: How Languages Shape Thought``

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 31 May 2011 08:49:27 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (98 lines)

As Herb says, this is both important and complex.

Ultimately, I think, both language & thought are rooted in human 
practice and social relations, and a (partly playful, partly serious) 
hypothesis put forward by the anthropologist  Ian Tattersall on the 
origin of language can illustrate this tangle of practice, thought and 
language. He suggests that language was "invented" numerous times -- BY 
CHILDREN -- and that around 40K BP it spread to adults. (Seventy years 
ago Susanne Langer suggested language had originated in ritual.) Here 
playing (which resembles, is even identical with, free exercise of the 
capacity to work) would have been accompanied always by babble, the 
necessary preconditon for learning to talk. Se have action, then, and 
some kind of thought. (Is there a neuroscientist on the list to comment 
on that phrase, "some kind of thought"?) There is a case, I believe, of 
two children left almost wholly to themselves who invented their own 
language; it seems a real possibility. But given this emergence of both 
thought and language from ongoing practice, it always (now, whatever the 
origin of language) occurs within a particular language, which may 
enable or block the easy expression of thought. A possible example. A 
potential in the Chinese language enables the phrase, 
"Marxism-Leninism-Mao-tse-tung Thought. The character for "ism" can be 
translated as "Thoeyr" in a rigorous sense of that word (Theory of 
Relativity; _not_ theory about where I last saw my watch). A theory (in 
this sense) holds over a wide range of contexts -- it is in some sense 
_universal_. In the example, "Marxism-Leninism" was assumed to be valid 
for all nations for the entire perod of capitalism and the transition to 
socialism. (The validity of _that_ is irrelevant to the present 
discussion.) The charfacter for Thought, however, implied  no such 
unvierality: it referred to "local theory," applicable only within a 
limited or constrained. As I understand this, in Chinese tone could say 
not just "theorize" one's practice; one could say "thoughtize" one's 
practice! In fact, it would be impossible to say, "Theorize on'es 
practice" meaning, as in English, _either_ thought or _theoruy_: in 
Chinese the language compels the speaker to choose whether her 
proposition is of universal or onlyh local applciation.

That _limitation_ is, clearly, both constraining and freeing, and in 
English both the constraint and the freedom of the distinction are not 
easily achieved. But NOT impossible. (I have lost my source for this, 
and am depending on a vague memory from about 40 years ago: A U of 
Chicago visited China sometime after the Nixon visit and had a 
conversation with Mao. Mao asked him if western scientists 
distintguished between thought and theory!)

Now let's push this a bit further. Suppose that (at least) Russian, 
German, & English all imposed this discrimination on speakers and 
writers. They could speak of universal theories or "theories" with more 
limited application, but they could not say both with one word. Now, in 
the most recent issue of _Historical Materialism_ there is a symposium 
on _Lenin Discovered_ by Lars Lih. (Lih's book is over 800 pages long, 
quotes hundres of sourcesd from the period 1898 to 1910, and argues that 
the "Lenin" of the "Textbook Interpretationf " of WITBD as well as the 
"Lenin" of Stalin, Trotsky, et al, never existed. There is along 
response from Lih to his critics, which I paid $22 an hour to have read 
to me by a grad student. As was the case with Ted Morgan's _Waht Really 
Happened in the 1960s_, the text was wroth the price I paid. For 
example. Perhaps many of you have seen the prhase, "Party of a New 
Type." That is used to descrivbe efforts to build a "Marxist-Leninist_ 
("Democratic"-Centralist) Party even yet, in the 21st century. A poster 
on another list used the phrase (positively) just a few weeks ago.) What 
does the phrase mean -- or, rather, what _did_ it mean in Russia in 
1900. Well, prior to the RSDLP, which was an underground party, as all 
resistance parties had to be under the Czarist autocracy)  underground 
paraaties had been _conspiracist_ parties. But the RSDLP withed (and to 
some extent succeeded, in being an 'open' underground party: that is,  
its functions were to be distribution of agitation and propaganda -- 
which can't be "conspiracist activities." But its active members did 
have to develop to a fine degree a skill or trade or 'profession' which 
consisted in the"abilaity not to be arrested." THAT was the Party of a 
New Type: A Party which, as far as was possible under the autocracy, 
operated as the SPD did din Germany! The phrase is absolutely empty of 
content in any other context! In Chinese, it was thought, not theory! 
And so the (in)famous sentence in WITBD, "Without a Revolutionary Theory 
There can be no revolutionary Party" would have been "Without 
Revolutonary Thought focused on the conditions of poltical life under 
the Autocracy, thought guided by Kautskyism, there can be no  spreading 
of social-democratic agitation and propaganda to the Russian workers who 
are already engaged in one struggle after another against the autocracy 
and who need our help which our backward party is nto providing them."  
Turn that into a universal theory that all socialist parties everywhere 
under all conditons must follow! When, alter, Lenin called Kautsky a 
renegade, he meant a renegade to Kautsky's _own_ theory, because even 
after 1914 Lenin continued to regard the pre-1914 Kautsky as the best 
interpreter of Marxist theory! Bolshevism, in the thought of the 
Bolsheviks themselves, was Kautskyism applied to the concrete conditions 
of Czarist Russia.

I think Stalin, Trotsky, et al would still have turned Lenin into a 
demigod dictating "theory" (i.e. the thought of Stalin and/or Trotsky) 
to all true Marxists parties. Just as our contemporary "Maoists" have 
turned the flexible and concrete Thought of Mao into a (sterile?) 
abstract Theory to be iposed on all revolutionary thinking. Language 
does not, ultimately, determine thought. But it does make some thinking 
easier, some thinking harder, depending on the particular reources of 
the particular langauge.

Carrol

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