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What is most striking both in Holder and in Dalgarno is the absence of debate about the foundations of such a view. Hearteningly optimistic and, to a point, efficacious as they were, both these attempts took for granted the assumption, stated by Holder,209 that language, as the manifestation of reason, was a system of signs superior to others which distinguished us from the animal world, even though its mode of transmission was physical and in this sense comparable to animal forms of communication. It is in this sense that theoretical presuppositions determined the practices of natural philosophy, and that experiment and thought-experiment did not mix in an obvious way.210 Enquiries about the ways in which access to the linguistic faculty might be impaired in beings whose very nature was defined by the ability to use language, however, inevitably turned on questions regarding the connection reason bore to both the human creation of meaning and the physiology of perception. As I shall explain, it was within empirical rather than rationalist accounts of perception that thought-experiments about sense-deprivation could fully become tools of scientific investigation.211
The view that anomalous sense-perception could tell us something about the nature of cognition and mind was implicit in some early accounts of individual cases.212 Galen, for example, had already been able to observe that the correspondence of lesions in the brain to changes in behaviour.213 Descartes, for his part, would note that when the brain suffered lesions, the senses alone were affected, while the body was able to remain mobile.214 But he had no problem explaining this in terms of his dualism, stated for example in the Dioptrique,215 that it was the soul which perceived (‘sent’), not the body, and that, lodged in the pineal gland, or conarium (as the ‘common sense’, the medieval sensorium commune or sensus communis), it received there the sense-perceptions transmitted by the nerves. Just as his Meditations began with scepticism about the reliability of the senses, so Descartes’s account in the Dioptrique of the nerves’ mechanism differed sharply from Locke’s inquiry about the nature of sense-experience. Empiricists and rationalists, then, shared the assumption that perception, or sensation, must be conscious - that without a mental operation it did not exist as perception or sensation. But they differed in their notion of how perception and thought were connected.
Descartes had staked all on the belief that thought alone could counteract doubt about the veracity of sense-perception, while holding that the senses could only convey information about the way in which objects and their primary as well as secondary qualities were experienced, not about their nature. Locke, on the other hand, believed that objects first affected our senses, causing ‘perceptions in the Mind’ and ‘thereby produce in the Understanding a simple Idea’.216 Ideas, however, were not
exactly the Images and Resemblances of something inherent in the subject; most of those of Sensation being in the Mind no more the likeness of something existing without us, than the Names, that stand for them, are the likeness of our Ideas, which yet upon hearing, they are apt to excite in us.217
Lockean ideas, then, resembled the objects they were images of as much as words resembled the things they designated.218 This was, for Locke just as it had been for Bacon, an instituted relation related to the notion of intelligibility (thus, ‘the Names of Colours to a blind Man, or Sounds to a deaf Man’ were unintelligible),219 although we functioned by the fixed and acquired rules that rendered sounds or letters meaningful and that turned sense-data into the primary elements of cognition.220 Locke’s ideas were not images,221 as he repeatedly pointed out; but they did play the role of a conceptual deus ex machina of sorts, a self-explanatory token with which he could account for the possibility of experiencing subjectively a world of objects and qualities. These ideas thus established an equivalence between the experience and the concept, itself the reified problematization of mental representation. To a degree, they were the embodiment of the physical phenomenon of perception, and on the picture of the mind of which they were a part, language could only operate in relation to them. Verbalization was thus studied as an aspect of mental discourse necessary to its very transmission, rather than as the manifestation of higher cognitive capacities. The ‘Communication of Thoughts’ and of the ‘invisible Ideas’ that made up thoughts was essential to what Locke called the ‘Comfort, and Advantage of Society’. This was why he wanted to analyse how words which were ‘by Nature so well adapted to that purpose’ became the signs of ideas, ‘not by any natural connexion, ... for then there would be but one language amongst Men; but by a voluntary Imposition, whereby such a Word is made arbitrarily by the Mark of such an Idea’. Words were ‘the sensible Marks of Ideas; and the Ideas they stand for, are their proper and immediate Signification’.222
Intrinsic to this view of the role of language was the notion that mental discourse was private; that it preceded what one may term public discourse; that it stood in a relation of correspondence to ideas; and that ideas themselves corresponded to the objects of thought, whether these objects were abstract or concrete. As for thought, Locke described it in these terms: ‘When the Mind turns its view inwards upon it self, and contemplates its own Actions, Thinking is the first that occurs. In it the Mind observes a great variety of Modifications, and from thence receives distinct Ideas.’223 The mind itself was not the main actor. The world and its objects principally made impressions upon it, and thought was the apprehension of the modifications of mind that impressions provoked: thought was an aspect of consciousness.224 On such a view, the understanding was the sum of cognitive functions; but it was difficult to understand how these functions worked, or how they came to be what they were. Locke’s epistemology, as presented within his account of language and cognition, offered a precise description of the genesis of knowledge, which, however, did not so much serve a scientific end as constitute a solid basis for a project that was informed by, and encompassed, wider social and political concerns.225 Taken on its own, the Lockean notion that we came into the world with a so-called tabula rasa for a mind, that perception was necessary to knowledge and that no knowledge was innate, remained open to questions as would be, in our own time, the parallel notion that we are born with fully equipped, pre-programmed minds whose development is not in some way dependent on the environment.226 Locke’s epistemological solutions, some of whose implications we shall return to later on, posited our capacity for knowledge as intrinsically limited; but there was little room within these solutions for a precise account of our perceptual and cognitive structures.
To accept that the deaf could learn how to speak was not necessarily to hold a theory about the linguistic faculty. If, nevertheless, one were to explain how it was that words could be physically reconstructed, with the help of a teacher but without having been perceived by any senses, this very aspect of the linguistic faculty begged the question of its theoretical underpinning. What the theory would be of was unclear, since it needed not just to prove that, but to explain how a deaf person could be taught how to speak. A Platonist, ‘nativist’ doctrine of knowledge might serve as a general theory of human nature, one which ran counter to Locke’s. Such a doctrine, however, jarred with the Baconian programme of enquiry since there was no available way of formalising the process and methods of its empirical investigation. Visual evidence offered by dissection had been the subject of speculative study since Vesalius;227 but these explorations of lifeless flesh could only make it possible to view parts of functional systems, natural processes and physical mechanisms:228 not provide an overall conception of the mode in which higher faculties depended upon the physical organism. Conclusions about the order of explanation - about what would have counted as a valid fact about cognition generally - and about the nature of the explanandum - here, the role of senses in the operations of human cognition - were related, but the mode of their causal implication was not determined by evidence.229
Within the accounts described here, organs of sense were always acknowledged as necessary for cognition. The elaborate linguistic function at the heart of our mental activity clearly manifested itself through physical signs and gestures as well as through the capacity to conceptualize, or the evolved tendency to do so.230 But these accounts did not have the explanatory yield to fill in the gap between the understanding of the human organism as its own end, autonomous from God, and the picture of man as a creature of God. This might explain why natural theology tended to be well served by natural philosophy without any sense that the latter’s chief role might be anything other than to celebrate God’s creation, as attested for example by the popularity of the naturalist John Ray’s The Wisdom of God,231 or by the Anglican clergyman and physician William Derham (1657-1735), in the sermons he preached in London as the Boyle Lectures in 1711 and 1712.232 (We shall return in Part II to the importance of teleology in the determination of the metaphysical uses to which could be put the empirical study of organic life.) Concepts which accounted for the ontological and epistemic gap between objects in the human mind and objects in the physical world did not reduce the gap’s scientific unintelligibility; in effect, the very possibility of modern, Baconian science depended on this gap, ‘so differing an harmony there is between the spirit of Man and the spirit of Nature’, as Bacon himself put it.233 Questions about the nature of sense-perception, when illustrated by cases in which certain modes of perception were altered or, as with deafness, non-existent, remained interrogations about the mind’s autonomy from the physical world and from the body. Dualism, in the form of the doctrine set out by Descartes, was one response to these interrogations; but debates concerning it were characteristically theoretical, theological and ideological. The gap at the center of dualism was a condition, rather than a matter for empirical investigation.
The relationship between the formation of new tools for the observation of the world and the use of older conceptions of the mind was thus complex and often uneasy. The assumption that language was the manifestation of thought-processes was common-sensical enough to recur throughout the history of speculations about language. As we shall see now, the view that higher-order, verbal thought was a priori a property of human nature was popular across the Channel among Cartesian property dualists, who advanced it in order to enforce their picture of the mind-body relation.
In 1684, Bishop Bossuet’s pious friend and protégé François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon (1651-1715) wrote - a few years before being named tutor to the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV, and at the instigation of the abbé Claude Fleury234 - a treatise on the education of girls, De l’éducation des filles.235 The text gives general, commen-sense advice on how to bring up children, regardless of gender and has not aged much. But it also represents a compromise between the progressive wishes of educated women at the time236 and conservative views regarding what was commonly seen as their natural weakness, on account of which their educational requirements could not equal those of boys. Girls, said Fénelon, could turn idle if given too much licence in their youth; and with time on their hands they might become the bathetic victims of their own inappropriate curiosity, like the ‘précieuses’.237 Here is how he thought one should attend to the need to teach children - and girls in particular, naturally inclined as they were, he wrote, to focus on their bodies - that ‘our soul is more precious than our body’, indeed that the two were ‘distinct’:
Ask a child who is already able to use reason: is it your soul that eats? If he gives the wrong answer, do not scold him; but tell him gently that the soul does not eat. The body, you will tell him, is what eats; it is the body which is similar to beasts. Do beasts have a mind? Are they knowledgeable? No, the child will reply. But, you will go on, they eat, although they have no soul. Thus you see that the mind does not eat; it is the body which takes in meat to nourish itself; it is the body which walks and sleeps. And what does the soul do? It reasons, it engages with the world; it likes some things and has an aversion to others.238
Put like this, it made sense to posit the duality of mind and body.239 A child might easily have been convinced that a physical body did not exist in the same mode as that which the adult called the soul - or Cartesian mind - and that the body’s needs differed in kind, and qualitative degree, from the soul’s non-physical ones. It was simple enough, in this way, to match a hierarchy of functions to their division, and a dualist ethics to a dualist ontology. But there were difficulties inherent in assuming this simplistic mind-body dualism, because the senses were necessary for perception, and something in the human organism must have been going on for sense perception to be associated with the creation and rational use of sense-data. Speculation about visual and sound recognition was concerned with operations of sense-perception. Whatever belief one held about the specific nature of the correlation between mind and body, they were one aspect of the study of the perceptual and, inevitably, mental life of sentient creatures.240 The problems of accounting for these realities within the dualist postulate and orthodoxy were at the core of the theoretical debates accompanying the absorption of the Cartesian doctrine.241
Fénelon emphasized that the high receptivity of small children, not really explainable except by the softness of their brain, indicated that early childhood was the period ‘at which the deepest impressions will take be effected’, and ‘therefore is of significance to all the rest of life’ (it was for this reason that he considered it a great mistake to entrust young children to governesses).242 A child’s brain was ‘like a lit candle in a windy place. Its light flutters constantly.’243 Children’s learning capacities at that point were great, since they were about to acquire language and would do so better than a scholar would ever master a dead language over which he had sweated for years. But, he asked:
what is it to learn a language? It is not merely to consign to memory a great number of words; it is also, as Augustine said, to look out for the meaning of each of these words. In the midst of his cries and games, the child, he says, notices the object of which each word is the sign; he does so at times by watching the natural movements of the bodies that touch them, or that point to the objects referred to; at other times by noticing the frequent repetition of one word to refer to the same object. It is true that the temperament of a child’s brain allows for the admirable ease of impression of all these images. Nevertheless, much attention is needed to discern them and to attach each of them to its object.244
According to Fénelon, language acquisition began before words were actually identified by the child: emotions were present from the very beginning of life, and so signalled the propensity to learn language insofar as they were one mode of relation with objects in the world. If Fénelon did not actually say this, it was mainly because his concern was to give parents and educators a practical treatise about child-care. Moreover, his point was that children’s moral education began early, whether or not, presumably, they were able to understand the meaning of a word like ‘soul’, and as long as they could identify the word ‘doll’ with the object it denoted. The assumption here seems to be that cognition was not buried solely within the linguistic faculty, since emotions were one form of cognition. Again he referred to Augustine, who once saw ‘a jealous child; he could not yet speak, and already he stared, pale-faced and with a gaze full of anger, at the child that was nursing with him’.245 This meant, according to Fénelon, that one could assume ‘children know more than one usually imagines’246 and would understand, before their linguistic faculty was actually formed, whatever one signalled to them with words and gestures.
Most parents would have no trouble recognizing the truth of this. But it was less evident to find theories capable of sustaining a satisfactory explanation of what language acquisition was, and of what, more generally, our capacity to conceptualize amounted to. The question remained: what turned our inner mental discourse247 into information about the concrete world? That humans alone were endowed with this capacity was not necessarily a given either: as we shall see, it was possible to hold that animals might equally be endowed with information processing abilities, given that they too had senses and a nervous system, and had to function in the world. We have seen earlier the problems which emerged when it was claimed that such abilities could exist only if they were made manifest through verbal expression.248 For late Cartesian dualists such as Fénelon, the preservation of the specialness of humans, created in the image of God, was at stake here. It was clear to all that animals saw, smelled and heard. To most, except for the radical exponents of the new mechanist orthodoxy (we shall turn to them in the next chapter), animals had sensations and emotions, too, and seemed in some way or other to be able to communicate. But this did not signify that human cognitive capacities were similar to those of animals. According to the dualist view, one vital reason for this difference was that, however much these capacities were embedded in bodily life, one could account for them solely within the framework of the Cartesian system and its variants. Given the obligatory conceit of our possession of a rational soul, the issue of determining who or what was able to form ideas and concepts was determined by the question of the origin of this capacity its and mode of acquisition. This question, in turn, was ideologically loaded.
The separate status of our immaterial, rational soul allowed the physical world and its knowability to be defined in terms of the human capacity for accurate perception and conscious thought, on the one hand, and provided the theoretical justification for doing so, on the other. This is why, as I have suggested earlier on, Locke’s focus on the consequences for human knowledge of the need for sense-perception differed so much from the Cartesian focus on the actual mechanisms of sense-perception and language use. Moreover, speculations about cognitive functions seem to have been independent of the ordinary observation of ordinary emotions. So, for Fénelon, children had an emotional life before they were able to talk about it; and for everyone on either side of the animal soul debate, animals did at least manifest emotions and behave in such a way that one was able, perhaps compelled to ascribe emotional states to them. Certain forms of behaviour were recognized as bearing an emotional content or meaning and it was assumed that they could be interpreted as immediate responses to events and objects in the environment.
Gérauld de Cordemoy (1628?-1684),249 a celebrated lawyer and Cartesian thinker, expressed opinions similar to those of Fénelon with regard to a child’s acquisition of language, in his 1668 treatise on language, the Discours physique de la parole (which he dedicated to Louis XIV). Children came into the world, he wrote, equipped solely with
what nature gives to all humanity in order to express pain, joy, or the other passions, but that is sufficient. If they live, they are able to study their nanny’s face so well that she can make them cry or laugh simply by looking at them. Thus, they easily get to know the passions of those who have contact with them, through the external movements which are their natural signs.250
Emotions, here again, were a form of cognition, and a form of judgement, evaluation or thought. But, he went on to say, children ‘take a bit longer to decipher the signs that men have instituted to signify things’.251 And signs, here again, were not natural: they were a code, instituted by humans for the communication of information and therefore had to be learned. It was precisely such a code that the deaf, according to the Royal Society group discussed earlier, were able to learn, though how it was that it could be acquired at all, even without the early exposure of ‘soft brains’ described by Fénelon, was not easy to explain. Indeed, insofar as learning a language amounted to acquiring knowledge of an arbitrary set of grammatical rules, it was not clear how language came to signify at all; nor was it clear how, if these rules really were instituted by man, a word could come to mean anything true about the real world and designate real objects. It seemed that, just as naming an object must go hand in hand with identifying its function - or its essence - so it was via the processing of sense-data that we could have any acquaintance with the world. Inversely, it could also be, as Locke would write (in relation to Molyneux’s question), that we could only consciously recognize objects we perceived by having an idea of them in our minds which had been acquired through our senses.252 We shall shortly see how, in Cordemoy’s dualist scheme, using language was, in a rather convoluted way, akin to perceiving. As would be the case for Locke, it involved the conceptualization of data; and the relation between word and thing was equivalent to that between idea and thing: to speak, he said, was ‘donner des signes de sa pensée’.253 For both Cordemoy and Locke, language was unquestionably a coherent system because, quite simply, it supposed and was built upon a constant correspondence between referent, sign and meaning.
Unlike Locke, however, Cordemoy had the intention of establishing that belief in the existence of such a correspondence entailed a commitment to dualism: by showing the first, one inevitably proved that the other was true. He followed Descartes in adopting a ‘nativist’ picture of the nature of thought and assumed, as in fact Locke also did, that mental discourse preceded verbal discourse, that thoughts preceded words, while words expressed thought. Cordemoy did not need a Lockean doctrine of ideas, however, and was content with the notion that, as Aristotle had put it: ‘The things of the voice are symbols of the things of the mind, and the things of writing are symbols of the things of the voice.’254 But Aristotle’s subsequent claim that ‘the states of mind … to which these signs refer are the same for everyone, as are the reflections of things which are the same for everyone’ was exactly what a Cartesian rationalist might want to doubt hypothetically. And so, since language was the means through which one could ‘know others, and be known by them’,255 studying how language functioned was, for Cordemoy, necessary to understanding the nature of communication. He thus began by asking how one could be sure that the language system worked and that the meaning attached to words by the listener or reader was identical to the meaning intended by the speaker or writer. His concern, announced at the beginning of the preface to the Discours, was in particular to show why, since the system did work - showing how it worked was not his intention - dualism was true. Speech must surely be the sign of the necessity that all bodies which were similar to mine were united to souls similar to mine, because it was both ‘of the Soul’ and ‘of the Body’.256
The problem of knowing ‘other minds’ was here posited as a hypothetical one. Cordemoy used it to undermine its own foundations as a problem, just as Dalgarno and his colleagues were able to eliminate the need to posit it by presenting their project in a positivistic fashion. So, Cordemoy started off his argument by assuming that physical expression alone could not be meaningful if not accompanied by parallel movements in the brain. He supposed at first that there were no grounds for him to believe that other people were like himself, that they thought and had a soul like his own.257 The parrot analogy made an appearance, as it did in Holder258 and in Locke,259 to help make the point that while non-rational creatures such as parrots could emit intelligible, seemingly intelligent sounds - just as mechanical contrivances were capable of doing260 - they were themselves unable to generate unconditioned linguistic constructs. Words, as Descartes himself had pointed out, were related to passions only in humans.261 The words of parrots were devoid of content. The sounds they made certainly did not signal the existence of a thinking mind and could just as well be echoes resounding off rocks. It was the mind, not the disposition of organs, that determined the capacity to speak.262 Neither parrots nor the other beings observed by the skeptic spoke meaningfully, whereas the creator of this thought-experiment clearly did.263 In other words, one could not take for granted the correspondence between external appearance and internal nature.264 But Cordemoy, the observer, noted that since people’s external gestures and words - the signs of objects of thought - seemed to relate to his own objects of thought, since he seemed to interpret these signs of intentions and perceptions in a coherent, accurate fashion, then language, expressed through these conventional signs learned in infancy, must be accompanied by movements in the brain.
Language thus consisted both of sounds - mechanically transmitted, in man as in beast, through the air into the ear and from there, via the nerves, into the brain265 - and of referents, perceived and understood by the mind. It was for this reason that, for Cordemoy, we must be composed of two separate substances, an extended one and a thinking one: ‘nothing is less like our thoughts than that which enables us to explain them’.266 As with Descartes, this difference between word and thought, physical sound and silent mental event, manifested at once the difference ‘between our body and our soul’ and ‘the secret of their union’.267 It was because we understood other people’s facial expressions, and because the communication of their thoughts to us provoked thoughts in our own mind, that these facial expressions corresponded to real states of mind,268 these words to real thoughts, and that gestures and words were the manifestation of the union of body and soul. Since words could only signify anything if they corresponded to mental events or movements in the brain - and thoughts were themselves mental events - meaningful signs must be the translation of thoughts, the perception of which triggered in us similar movements in the brain that we freely willed to follow or not.269 Our minds were not determined by our bodies; but since we were dual creatures, physical events and mental events were bound to one another. We could speak unprompted, or we could choose to remain silent; and this freedom of our will was a function of mind-body duality.
As a response to the ‘other minds’ enigma, the argument made a circular loop.270 But its real point resided in the logical twists Cordemoy somewhat earnestly gave to this loop. The first twist was the use of the fear of mental solipsism to establish mutual legibility as the foundation-stone for a dualist metaphysics: it was the very opacity of communication, coupled with the undeniable fact of its existence, that demonstrated our dual nature, where the duality was such that ‘an agitation [ébranlement], being a movement, can only belong to our body, and perception, being a thought, can only belong to our soul’.271 The second twist, which followed from the first one, consisted in the affirmation that the existence of language proved that one could plausibly derive the existence of mental events from the observation of physical ones. This was precisely what Cordemoy thought he might have reason to doubt in the first place; and no empirical proof was available other than the fact, self-evident to him, that for a machine to speak and gesture as we do would be quite impossible. It was this very incapacity of a machine to express itself as humans did, to fool the observer (its inability, one might say, to pass the Turing test),272 that showed how the necessity of using signs to communicate our thoughts derived from the divinely managed mind-body relationship.273 According to Cordemoy’s extreme dualist position, our bodies were the producers of a language whose syntax was scripted by our minds and whose narrative was made up of the referents of thought; the whole was magisterially directed by God. What Cordemoy assumed, it appears, was that our thoughts were simply mental, in the sense that perception, rather than being locked in a causal relationship with them, was merely the corporeal occasion of their formation. To him, this meant that our bodies, on account of which movements and signs were necessary for the communication of our minds’ contents, were themselves impediments to communication. The movements of our brains were entirely unlike the thoughts that they accompanied. So, on the atomist notion that like was drawn to like, there was no good reason, other than the existence of the body, for thoughts to need these movements, since they would rather have the company of other thoughts.274
It was thus possible to posit that we might exist without our body: its ontology was not dependent on any metaphysical requirements. Indeed, as pure minds we would be at leisure, if we so desired, to communicate with other minds embodied or not - and rather better than we did as embodied creatures - just as it was possible for minds still united with bodies to communicate, voicelessly, with disembodied minds.275 Signs were only necessary because we existed as embodied creatures; they were approximate translations of thoughts. Words were not necessary for communication other than as imperfect remedies to the rocky marriage of mind to body, the smooth running of which was overseen by God. The notion that mind-events and physical events kept each other constant company, in a ‘necessary correspondence’,276 was one way of explaining how we could function as a unit while having a dual nature;277 but it was God that ensured the unit’s harmony.278 Descartes had located the soul in the pineal gland,279 assigning to it a physical place inside the very body from which he had first expelled it. Cordemoy, by contrast, left the need for a physically plausible theory entirely out of the problem of mind-body interaction, which he preferred to consider resolvable by appeal to a version of what was eventually named ‘occasionalism’. This was a solution that Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) would later develop, according to which the apparent interaction of mind and body was in fact the manifestation of a concurrence of events caused by God, rather than by the causal interdependence of mind and body that one instinctively interpreted it to be.280
It appears that language, for Cordemoy, rather than simply manifesting mental activity, stood as a reminder of our embodied nature; and it is perhaps ironic that in writing a treatise on language he ended up demonstrating the theoretical possibility of extra-sensory perception - one section is entitled: ‘Que l’ame séparée du corps, pourroit plus aisément communiquer ses pensées à une autre’.281 What matters to us here, however, is that, within this system, only the existence of the physical and biological processes of perception would have warranted an analysis of the relation of linguistic structure to thought.282 Cordemoy included in his treatise - and there was nothing exceptional in doing so - a number of pages on the anatomy of the ear and the mechanics and ethology of speech, hearing, pronunciation, grammar, on the acquisition of language and on learning foreign languages. There was also a substantial section on the art of rhetoric, informed by traditional loci on the passions, perhaps present, in part, on account of his professional activities as a lawyer, but explicitly because, as he wrote, the need for eloquence derived from ‘the indispensable necessity we are in during our lifetime to express ourselves through spoken words’,283 and to make the very best of our imperfect tools of communication. Mainly, though, these sections illustrated a finalist belief that our bodies functioned as a result of God’s design,284 and the faculties with which we, along with animals, were equipped, were proof of its perfection. Animals heard sounds that entered their ears and travelled via the nerves to their brain, whose disturbance caused spirits to flow to their legs and induce action. This happened because of a
necessary order in the mechanical arrangement of the entire body of each kind of animal, and even of every individual beast, which, as it belongs to one species, and so was formed for a particular purpose, possesses all that is required to execute what the Author of nature has intended it to perform in shaping it. Its brain is so well adjusted, according to its temperament, to everything that can help it survive that objects which can harm it will disturb its brain in such a way that it will always open up at those very places from which the spirits can flow into the muscles used to draw back from these objects.285
And inversely: the impact of useful objects on the brain provoked it to let spirits flow into the muscles that would enable the animal to approach these objects. Mechanical adaptation to nature was a product of God’s work.286 No aspect of nature’s elaborate engineering, it seemed, should really surprise the dualist, since the realm of matter obeyed the laws of physics, by means of which all physical behaviour could be understood. Mental events were a separate issue. In other words, on this picture, there was no mind-body problem.
What we started off with, then, no longer seems so straightforward: the view that language was the manifestation of higher mental life actually served to throw light on its boundaries, on its origins in our existence in nature as embodied creatures, whose minds must be connected, at most for the duration of terrestrial life, to bodies. The notion of language as partial and limited was equivalent to that of language as reflecting, and resulting from, our fallen and imperfect nature. But here there was no quest for a universal language, for the reestablishment of universality and transparency on earth. The very possibility of unity between sign and object was indeed of no relevance to understanding the physical world and our place within it. Cordemoy’s starting-point had been instead to identify the difference between sign and signifier as a difference of substance - just as Descartes had done with the mind and the body - and likewise for the difference between the sound or letters of a word and the object denoted by that word. He further assumed, as Hobbes had also done,287 that one could not attribute to products of the mind what belonged to physical objects. This might amount to the fallacy of assimilating predication to efficient cause; but it is of more interest and higher import to note that Descartes himself had made a similar point at the beginning of Le monde ou Traité de la lumière,288 the first chapter of which is entitled ‘De la différence qui est entre nos sentiments et les choses qui les produisent’.
There, Descartes had insisted that there need be no identity between an object and its sign, the object in this case being light, ‘that is, what it is in a flame or in the sun that we call Light’.289 Crucially, his goal in pointing this out was not solely the methodological one of establishing viable grounds for doubting the reliability of perceptual experience in yielding the true nature of objects of sense;290 nor was it at all to devise a positive theory of meaning.291 His aim was to establish a proper realm for physics, one in which sensible qualities were the mark of subjective experience, and did not reside, as Aristotelians would have it, in the physical objects themselves. Positive description of light according to mechanical explanation resulted from the need, born of scepticism, to test how error-proof sense-experience could be. The trial was set up by assembling the conditions for an ultimately circular ‘litmus-test’, whose purpose was to reconstruct not the episteme or the observer’s gaze but rather the world; it was later repeated by Cordemoy with a vengeance. The banal notion of the arbitrariness of reference was here enriched by the purpose to which Descartes put it. The trick was the identification of percepts with signs, and the description of the experience of percepts as resulting in sensation, ‘sentiment’: nature, Descartes wrote, has arranged for the sign that produces the ‘sentiment’ of light to signify light, just as it has established ‘laughter and tears, to let us read joy and sadness on people’s faces’, and just as humans have instituted the meaning of words.292 The signs were meaningful because our minds, which ‘retain the meaning of these words and expressions, represent it to us’ while we hear or see them.293
If, he continued, as the philosophers (that is, the scholastics) say, ‘sound is nothing but a vibration of the air that hits our ears’, the image of the object of hearing that should be brought to our minds is the vibrating air itself.294 Since this was not the case, our experience of sensation was not identical with the encounter with the objects which caused it: we perceived effects, not causes. Sensible qualities told us nothing about the true fabric of the world, because sense-experience did not give us direct access to this fabric. Just as a child who was being stroked by a feather as he was falling asleep would not identify the tickle with its cause,295 so the sensation of light did not reside in the objects from which it seemed to arise. In a sense, we lived in the dark until we realized this, and until we began to investigate what that fabric was really made of.296 This tight argumentation can be contrasted with a statement by Robert Hooke (1635-1703), typical of the optimistic and forcefully empirical ethos of the Royal Society, that
the best and utmost we can do towards the discovery of them [Causes, Principles, and Operations … far removed from the reach of our Senses], is only accurately to observe and examine all those Effects produced by them, which fall within the Power of our Senses, and comparing them with like Effects produced by Causes that fall within reach of our Senses … and so from Sensibles to argue the Similitude of the nature of Causes that are wholly insensible.297
The dualist stance established the necessity of dividing the set of objects to be studied into two realms, shading the illuminated realm of physics and physiology with the other, mysterious, immaterial one. Language, in this context, was a product of both realms. Descartes, by packing all perception into the semiological realm, assimilated words to sensations, to the experience of the touch of a feather. If it were not for the fact that language was - as we saw at the beginning of this chapter - a system which we could use freely, unprompted, creatively, then words would be whistles, akin to echoes, merely vibrations of the air. But they were not. What, then, were whistles? Animals emitted sounds, and they behaved as though they too had sensations. At stake in the preservation of the Cartesian wedge between sensation and higher cognition was the place of self-conscious beings such as ourselves in the natural world. It is not one we have yet fully understood. But Descartes was the first to simplify it, by corralling animals away from the sight and emotional investment of human affairs. How he did this, and what subsequent arguments he made possible, is the subject of the following chapter.
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«Synthèse» de la Note mensuelle d’analyses de Février 2016 d’
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