Right as Rain:  What Goes Without Saying?

Gordon Fisher


Is coming to understand entirely a matter of putting into language?  Hans Gadamer says in his Truth and Method:  “Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world, but on it depends the fact that man has a world at all.  For man the world exists as world in a way that no other being in the world experiences.  But this world is linguistic in nature. … That which can be understood is language.”  The cognitive psychologist John R. Anderson says:  “ … the language faculty is really the whole cognitive system … the mind is a general pool of basic structures and processes, which has been added to under evolutionary pressure to facilitate language.”

We may compare this with a statement made by the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead:  “Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate … metaphysical first principles.  Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably.  Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage, and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap … no language can be anything but elliptical, requiring a leap of the imagination to understand its meaning in its relevance to immediate experience.”

The chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi talks about tacit knowledge, and even ineffable knowledge.  He says:  “The area where the tacit predominates to the extent that articulation [in language] is virtually impossible … we may call … the ineffable domain.”  And what Polanyi calls “ineffable,” he says, “may simply mean something that I know and can describe even less precisely than usual, or even very vaguely.”

Consider the phrase “right as rain”.  Someone might say, “I felt like the sun was going to come out, and I was right as rain.”  Aside from the mixed metaphor, why “right as rain”?  What does correctness have to do with rain?  Nowadays in the English language “right as rain” is a kind of opaque cliché.  Perhaps its basic meaning can be expressed as “straight as rain”, or “straight as rain falls”, aside from effects winds may have.  Years ago, people used to call straight lines in English “right lines”, derived no doubt from the Latin linea recta, the term once in common use.  The words “right” and “recta” appear to have come from an Indo-European root which means “to move in a straight line.”  The metaphor plays on a resonance between geometric straightness and correctness of judgment.  The basis for this metaphor appears to have been propagated by way of Indo-European languages for thousands of years.  It seems to work by virtue of some underlying, hidden process that takes place when we acquire an Indo-European language.

The thesis of Gadamer and like-minded people is, I take it, that we don’t understand or know anything except by way of language.  Whitehead, as I interpret him, says that sometimes language only triggers other non-linguistic understanding, for example by way of metaphor.  A thesis like that of Gadamer is defended by the philosopher Wilbur Marshall Urban in his book Language and Reality, published in 1939.  “In a very real sense,” Urban concludes, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.  Science, in the last analysis, is language well made.”  Such an idea got additional support from logical positivists or logical empiricists, people like Rudolf Carnap and Alfred Ayer, intellectual descendants, I presume, of David Hume, and among the most dominant philosophers of science in the first half of the 20th century.  Stated baldly, one of the basic assumptions of their work is that scientists operate in a world that can be split into two parts: sense data, which are some kind of non-linguistic structures, and languages.  Many of them were after purified languages, to be sure, as expressed in what used to be called symbolic logic.  Thus scientific concepts and theories were to be considered linguistic structures.  Even pictures were consider by some to constitute a kind of language, although many were silent on this point.  Gadamer (who customarily is not thought of as a logical positivist) explicitly says he thinks pictures act the same way language does.  There has been in the second half of the 20th century a strong reaction among philosophers of science and others to such positivistic points of view, and many have said during this period that logical positivism is dead, and indeed so, it is claimed, are all species of “foundationalism”, such as one finds when one takes as a foundation for epistemology some language-independent entities such as sense data or perceptions or the like.  The enormous activity among postmodernists and deconstructionists and critical theorists (of literature) which has taken place in the latter half of the 20th century is related to this turning away from foundationalism, and also to assertions about the primacy of language, though at the same time the indeterminacy of language.  People engaged in such activities appear to be both rejecting some sort of “grand” foundation for knowledge, and at the same time using language as basis for epistemology, but considering languages as lacking the deterministic precision of systems of symbolic logic and other formal systems, e.g. those employed by mathematicians when they do abstract algebra or axiomatic geometry. 

Crudely stated, the positivists asserted that scientists deal, or should deal, with something often called “reality” by trying to match non-linguistic structures, such as sense data or perceptions, with linguistic structures, so the non-linguistic structures are represented in some way by logical linguistic structures.  They regarded language or languages as separable from whatever science is about.  Some, though not all, sense data were to be taken as non-deceiving.  We are, for example, not deceived when we measure the temperature at which pure iron melts, under some standard conditions.  Of course, there are problems with what constitutes “pure” iron, what constitutes “standard conditions”, and other related problems, but on they whole they claimed that what scientists do can be mirrored in some sort of purified and precise language. 

A perennial question is, can we really do this?  Isn’t it the case that when we use language, or more generally when we think or perceive we can’t help interacting with the world in such a way that there is no world for us independent of these interactions?  If there is anything independent of us, a noumenon, to use Kant’s term, is it unknowable as such by us.  Indeed, are there no “facts”, is there no “reality” independent of people and other organisms, perhaps no world independent of any one entity in it?  Is the world nothing but interactions?   Is this what Whitehead meant when he spoke about Process and Reality?  Is there no “noumenon”?

Goethe once said something to the effect that what one calls a fact is already a theory.  There’s no way, perhaps, that we can defer a correspondence long enough for us to do any controlled matching of a reality outside of us with a language which we have acquired from the societies into which we thrown when we were born, or with neural structures or processes other than those of language.  Is there no world which is free of neural activities or some other interactions or transactions between entities in the world?  Perhaps there is no world waiting to be put into correspondence with language or to be represented neurally in some other way?  Is reality constituted by interactions between beings in the world?  Is any complete separation of the world into, say, subjects and objects wholly distinct from these subjects, or into organisms and non-organisms distinct from them, or into an entity and its environment with some sort of sharp boundary between the two --- is such complete separation, which appears to be able to many if not all organisms, at least those which are capable of being “conscious” --- is such extreme dichotomization bound to distort and fail to be complete, fail to “get the whole picture”, able to represent only fuzzily? 

To what extent or degree can an entity be separated from other entities?  Do objects exist independently of other objects?  Or does the existence of an object depend on other objects, perhaps all other objects, so that any separation in thought or perception of one object from other objects is bound to lead to deficiencies of representations?  If so, each object interacts with other objects in varying degrees, and there is no such thing as an object existing independently of other objects.  Perhaps, due to the common use of “object” to refer to something which one regards as completely separate from oneself, one should say that there is no such thing as a thing which exists independently of other things.  In particular, from this point of view, when living organisms perceive or think, they are not separating what they are perceiving or thinking about from all other things, but rather interacting with all other things.  It is of the nature of attention that such interactions are graded so that parts of what is being attended to are more prominent and influential than others.  Or, if one wants to include all things, and not just those which are capable of paying attention, one can say that the nature of interactions, of which the world is made, is such that intensities or degrees of interactions are greater and lesser in the totality of things.

            But to get back to different ways that different people relate to languages, I propose to center my attention on all we can know and understand about our worlds which can’t be put into language.  I want to talk about what goes without saying, and which can’t be said.  That is, I want to talk about what can’t be talked about.  Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that there are things that can’t be put into words.  He said:  “They [such things] make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical.”

            Scientists, for example, by means of their actions – observations, experiments, interpretations, theorizing, and so on -- come to know more than they can say.  They know more than they can say because some part of any person’s understanding of the world is not mediated by language.  Some understanding occurs in interactions which are not, so to speak, filtered through a language.  Language, I maintain, can at most be used to direct attention to this kind of understanding.  It may, on occasion, be used to initiate such understanding.  I like to say that language may trigger understanding or knowledge.  One way this would work is by way of metaphors.  But scientists may get such understanding in other ways as well, such as working in a laboratory, or in some other environment which is relevant to what they are studying.

            Many neuroscientists, psychologists, people in artificial intelligence, and so on, tell us brains are modular.  That is, there are brain functions which can be distinguished physiologically and psychologically in various ways.  This is not just a matter of lateralism or bilateralism, the famous different functions of left and right sides of brains.  The modules, which it may be presumed interact with one another and with the rest of the world, may not even be spatially localized in a neat way.  They might instead be nodes, of a sort, within some kind of network constituting a brain, and within a larger network consisting of the world.  Some modules, notably Broca’s and Wernicke’s regions, are especially active in connection with language.  According to some neuroscientists and others, there are numerous regions of brains which interact only very weakly with such language regions.  From this point of view, to say that part of what anyone knows and understands can be only be processed by way of language in very weak ways, for example, as I’ve suggested, by way of some triggering action, rather than by some sort of detailed exposition using words and statements.

            Thus language can be regarded as separated from the rest of the world in various degrees and in various ways.  This time it’s not a clean separation of language from the physical world, as it was for logical positivists, but rather a separation of language of various degrees and kinds from what we know and understand.

            In the case of humanists, to use a broad term based on common distinctions found in universities and other societies, there appears not to be, on the whole, the same kinds or degrees of separation of language from knowledge and understanding that one finds among scientists.  Historians, for example, customarily put great reliance on written records and documents, from which they compose lectures, books and articles.  For simplicity, let’s consider historians who deal with times before they were born.  In order to know and understand and communicate about activities as they took place and changed in time, they convert language into other language.  The activities come to them not directly, but filtered through language.  They then use other language to communicate something about these activities to others.  The chief material of most such historians is not events and developments as directly experienced, by events and developments as documented in languages.

            Literary critics and critical theorists (of literature) and teachers of literature are like historians in the way they rely on documents, which in their case is primary texts of certain kinds.  There is a kind of philosopher who comments on and extends the documents of his predecessors and contemporaries, as modified to some degree by his or her own experiences in the world.  The chief material or subject matter of historians, teachers and critics and theorists of languages and literatures, and of numerous philosophers, is language.  Their chief instrument in what they do is also language.  They don’t perform experiments in laboratories, or study processes in direct contact with them.

            The chief material of most scientists, on the other hand, is direct neural and physiological interaction with what they are studying.  The chief instruments of scientists are things like clocks, hammers, electrical measuring devices, and so on.  When scientists are talking or writing about their work, during the work or after it’s done, to themselves or to others, they use language.  But they don’t primarily act with language when they’re doing their scientific work.  The primary activity of scientists is coming to understand some part of the world by interacting directly with some part of it, and uses of language in this connection are secondary.  Humanists, on the other hand, commonly come to understand some part of the world by interacting with it primarily by way of language, and only secondarily by some sort of other interactions.  People who furnish texts for humanists --- novelists, poets and so on, or certain philosophers (Nietzsche comes to mind), or some of the makers of documents historians rely on – such people are often somewhere in between.  That is, the degrees to which they rely on direct, non-linguistic contact with the world are often greater than those of humanists.  Their non-linguistically based contacts may even be as strong, in some sense, as those of scientists, but with their attention directed in ways different from scientists.  That is, they customarily have different subject matter than scientists.

            The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said:  “Maybe we are here in order to say: house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window …   but to say, you understand, oh to say just so, like the things themselves never devoutly intended to be.”  This, I take it, expresses the attitude a poet may take toward language.  Rilke goes on to say:  “Earth, isn’t this what you want:  to be resurrected in us invisible?  Isn’t it your dream to some day be invisible?”  Rilke appears to be suggesting that the primary purpose of humans is make things second-hand to words.  This is not the attitude of a scientist.  Quite the reverse.  The primary aim of scientists, I would say, is not to transform the visible to the invisible, changing it into words, but to make the invisible visible, more visible, by their actions, and then at second-hand to convey with words and statements what they’ve seen and felt and used, and what they want others  to see and feel and use.

            Some people have maintained that what scientists say is affected by the societies and cultures in which they live and work, and by the languages they use, to the extent that different cultures have, on average, different sciences or bodies of knowledge and understanding about the world or worlds they inhabit, and that there is no sure way to evaluate one such group of understandings as being truer or better than another, although such groups may have some core in common.  In order to consider such a viewpoint, I will now turn to mathematics.

            The relations of mathematics to languages are complex.  As I see it, the raw material of mathematics, which mathematicians who wish to communicate turn into language, consists of certain activities which take place largely in non-linguistic modules or regions of nervous systems.  These modules, I suggest, do not mirror the world, but rather they are part of the world.  These modules have evolved over time with the rest of the world, and by way of genetic transmission, organisms which are capable of doing some sort of mathematics (if only by distinguishing one thing from another) develop their mathematical capabilities as individuals interacting with their environments.   I suggest that on this account, while people are grouped into many different language communities, and while individuals within a single language community differ from one another in their capabilities in and uses of that language, they all belong, on the whole (barring special defects, diseases and the like) to one and the same mathematical community, in the sense that they all share the same neural mechanisms involving in doing mathematics, as they have evolved over time.

            I suggest that it’s by virtue of humans belonging to what I will call this single mathematical neural community that mathematics is the same for us everywhere in the world, under all religions and systems of rule and social structures.  It’s why the mathematics of the ancient Greeks and Babylonians and Egyptians and Indians and Chinese is just as comprehensible, and often just as usable, today as it ever was.  We use languages to communicate mathematics.  But the parts of our brains with which we do mathematics, I suggest, are only relatively weakly connected with the parts with which we do language.

            To be sure, different people have different genetic endowments and different developmental experiences which lead to greater and lesser capabilities in doing mathematics.  And some societies have over time made mathematics a more developed and important part of their cultures than other societies.  Yet if a person from a culture or region in which mathematics plays only small and simple roles moves into a culture in which mathematics plays a large and complex role, and if that person is sufficiently well endowed genetically (which I take to be the case for some individuals in all cultures) and exposed to relevant experiences, that person may become able to do mathematics as if he or she was a native of the culture to which he or she has moved.

            Everybody, I take it, with the exception of some few with neural incapacities of one sort or another, knows something about numbers and how to work with them (if only with simple arithmetic), and also knows something about geometric forms --- triangles, rectangles, circles, and so on.  I infer from this that mathematics deals with something common to all humans, and which may be called objective with respective to humans, meaning that humans (with exceptions already noted) share common neural activities in doing mathematics, developed to great or lesser degree in different individuals.  This, I take it, is what mathematics is about.  For one thing, it is about numbers and structures involving them.  For another, it is about geometric and topological forms and relations between them.  For still another, it’s about how numbers and geometric forms are related to each other.  And finally, it’s about how numbers and geometric forms are involved in the world (or worlds) around us.

            The question arises, how about mathematics done by different species of organisms --- non-human mammals, insects, bacteria, and so on.  One may contemplate that many other species can do mathematics in some degree.  But it appears that only beings capable of language have been able to development mathematics beyond such things as counting, estimating distances, telling time physiologically (circadian rhythms), distinguishing between different geometric forms and dealing differently with different kinds of shapes and forms perceived in some way, and the like.  In my view, this doesn’t make mathematics into some sort of language, as many people have often said.  It indicates, rather, that interactions between doing mathematics and doing language have much facilitated the development of mathematics among humans.