kaen joyler: Problems in Managua

Spring '09 TOC

Suppose that Juan, a speaker of Spanish, suffers a bad head wound. He loses his ability to speak and understand. Juan arregla el carro. “Juan fixes the car.” In The Meno, Socrates leads a slave boy to discover the theorems of geometry. Discoveries by the chemist lead to more research about physical mechanisms. Discoveries of the linguist-psychologist lead to more research about brain mechanisms.

Has Juan lost his knowledge of Spanish? Juan afeita a Pedro. “Juan shaves Pedro.” Descartes discovered normal language use is constantly innovative. He called it the creative aspect of language. He believed that humans are fundamentally different from everything else in the physical world. The brain scientist begins to explore the physical mechanisms of the linguist’s abstract theory.

Juan recovers his ability to speak and understand as the effects of his injury recede. Juan hizo arreglar el carro. “Juan had someone fix the car.” How is it human beings are able to know as much as they know? Nineteenth-century chemistry developed models of compounds like the benzene ring. It developed ideas like valence, molecule, and the periodic table of the elements. This happened at a level that was highly abstract.

Juan recovers the ability to speak and understand Spanish. Juan hizo afeitar a Pedro. “Juan had someone shave Pedro.” In normal speech one does not repeat what one has heard but produces new linguistic forms. How this relates to more basic physical mechanisms is unknown. There is much debate whether these notions have any “physical reality” or are just convenient myths created to help organize experience.

Had his native language been Japanese, Juan would have recovered the ability to speak and understand Japanese, not Spanish. Juan hizo arreglar el carro a Pedro. “Juan had Pedro fix the car.” Plato’s answer: knowledge remembered from an earlier existence was reawakened in the slave boy’s mind. This sets problems for the brain scientist, much as those who spoke of the valence of oxygen or the benzene ring were speaking at some level of abstraction.

If Juan had lost his knowledge of Spanish when he lost the ability to speak and understand Spanish, the recovery of this ability would be a miracle. Juan hizo afeitar a Pedro a Maria.*  “Juan had Maria shave Pedro.” There are few meaningful questions about the “psychological reality” of the linguist’s construction, just as there are few meaningful questions about the “physical reality” of the chemist’s constructions.

Why did Juan come to speak Spanish and not Japanese? Juan afeita a se.* “Juan shaves to himself.”* Juan se afeita. “Juan shaves himself.” Leibniz argued that Plato’s answer was essentially correct but that it must be “purged of the error of preexistence.” Researchers try to build theories to learn about the nature of the world. In the study of language we proceed abstractly, at the level of mind.

How did Juan’s ability develop without instruction or experience, something that no child can do? Juan hizo afeitar a se.* Juan made shave to self.”* Juan hizo afeitarse.* “Juan made shave-self.”* Juan se hizo afeitar. “Juan self-made shave.”* Juan had someone shave him. We will not cease to discuss language in term of words and sentences, nouns and verbs, just as the chemist does not stop speaking about valence, elements, or benzene rings.

Plainly something was retained while Juan’s ability to speak and understand was lost. Juan se hizo afeitar a los muchachos. “Juan self-made shave to the boys.”* Juan had the boys shave him (Juan). A quien se hizo Juan afeitar?* “To whom self-made Juan shave?”* Consider two people who share exactly the same knowledge of Spanish: these two people usually differ greatly in their ability to use the language. These may remain the appropriate concepts for explanation and prediction.

What Juan retained was not ability—that was lost—but a system of knowledge. Juan hizo afeitarse por el barbero. “Juan made shave-self by the barber.”* Juan had the barber shave him (Juan). Juan se hizo afeitar por el barbero. “Juan self-made shave by the barber.”* Juan had the barber shave him (Juan). Humans are not “compelled” to act in a certain way, only “incited and inclined” to do so. It is hard to see how knowledge can be identified with ability, still less with disposition to behavior.

Philosophers committed to the identification of knowledge and ability have been forced to conclude that Juan, who lost the ability to speak and understand Spanish after brain injury, retained this ability, though he lost the ability to exercise it. Juan hizo afeitarse a los muchachos. “Juan made shave-self to the boys.”* Juan had the boys shave (themselves). A person may take a course in public speaking, improving their ability to use language but gaining no new knowledge of the language. This is the legacy of Wittgenstein.

We must conclude, rather, that the attempt to account for knowledge in terms of ability (disposition, skill, etc.) is misconceived from the start. A quien hizo Juan afeitarse? “To whom made Juan shave-self?”* Who did Juan have shave (himself, not Juan)? We cannot exorcise the “ghost in the machine” by reducing knowledge to ability, behavior, and dispositions. There is nothing mystical about the study of mind, regarded as a study of the abstract properties of brain mechanisms. Plainly nothing is achieved by these verbal maneuvers.

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