Cultural information rains down on the landscape of our genetically endowed mental capacities, mouldering the paths along which future information must travel, eroding and shaping the patterns of our thoughts and reactions (Distin 2011, 177-8)
Chasing down some of Sloterdijk’s references has led me to two early-20th-century thinkers who recognize the reality of our conceptual artistry and try to provide some sort of foundation for it. (Or is it a foundation? Perhaps it is just a further improvisation upon the mystery of being capable of thought).
Both Max Scheler and Ernst Cassirer put forward the claim that human beings are amalgams of Life and Spirit. (Scheler and Cassirer both studied under Georg Simmel, and on this topic at least were swayed powerfully by him.) But, refreshingly, they know better than to reify These Capitalized Entities; they seemed to know that what they were saying had serious metaphorical weight to it, but only metaphorical. Life is the world of causality: it is our genes, triggered by environment, and the interplay of psychological forces and other material forces. Life has its own life, so to speak, but pushes forward blindly, greedily, Dionysianly. Spirit is the world of reasons, beauty, “ought”, and thought, and if we want to explore it thoroughly, we have to traipse through other territories, like philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics. Scheler and Cassirer say we are Spirit immersed in Life, or beings capable of thought having to work our ways through Life’s complications, understanding those complications, correcting for them, and striving for some measure of transcendence – and, of course, failing in all these endeavors either sometimes or always. For, as Nietzsche and Freud taught, our motivations are rarely if ever what they seem to be, and Life secretly pushes us along when we think Spirit is in charge. But coming to realize this, and dealing with it, is a matter that can be pursued only through Spirit, oddly enough: in any predicament like this, we have no choice but to think our way through it. (Well; either that or just give up, I guess.)
The foggy reflections upon Life and Spirit are interesting in their own ways; but luckily I have also been reading Kate Distin’s more recent and clearer book, Cultural Evolution (Cambridge 2011). Distin is in the camp of Dennett & Co., seeking to extend Darwinian explanation into the domain of culture through the invocation of memes and language. The rough story is that, at some crucial point, our ancestors developed the capacity for communication and for conveying information to others in increasingly effective ways. Thus natural language. But natural language has its limits, so long as we can shout only so far and remember only so much. Eventually artefactual language developed, or representations pressed into clay or (later) marked onto paper-like surfaces. This is, basically, the addition of a hard drive to our operating system, as it hugely expands our information storage capacity. It also enables us to keep track of how many sheep I owe you, or how many I gave you last time; and it also enables us to falsify records, and so prompts us to develop more secure information technology that can’t be faked or tampered with.
But artefactual language is more than just record keeping and enhanced storage capacity. As Distin argues, it is no longer merely about communication, but about representation: the scratchings on the medium are things representing things:
Just as other artefactual languages have evolved for the representation and manipulation of concepts that could not be managed so efficiently by natural language, so the written language serves our representational purposes. It has the potential to preserve our ideas in a permanent, unambiguous format, and in the evolution of jargon we can see the same sorts of conceptual tools as are provided by nonlinguistic symbols. Writing is a means of representing our thoughts as well as of communicating them (103).
Once a rich capacity for representation is developed, we can begin representing representations (what Distin calls “metarepresentation”), and then we really are off to the conceptual races. To run with the metaphor I’ve been using, artefactual language enables us to build arches. Writing, particularly for economic or cryptographic ends, forces us to consider both medium and message. It introduces questions of both content and style, and forces us to make words about words. And I can’t help but think that the act of transcribing a sound – of turning what’s heard but invisible into a tangible thing that can be seen – encourages abstractions, or reifications of words, which is all anyone needs to get arches going. When I put Distin’s work together with Scheler and Cassirer, what I get is that artefactual language is the enabler of Spirit, built upon nothing more than what Life has made, but enabling distinctly new capacities of which Life is necessarily ignorant. Writing enables a dialogue between a representing mind and concepts, and at that point we find ourselves with many new words – and through them, many new worlds.