LANGUAGE, TRUTH and LOGIC

Ralph Windle Posted by Ralph Windle.

Ralph Windle is the editor of The Poetry of Business Life, as well as the author of Boardroom Ballads and The Bottom Line, and co-editor (with William Keyser) of Public Enterprises in the EEC.


Language is the unique, differentiating characteristic of the human species.

Language is the unique, differentiating characteristic of the human species. Yet its origins and workings remain oddly resistant to scientific enquiry, even in this golden age of science. Magnetic Resonance Imaging allows us to examine synaptic formations in the living brain and plot neuronal pathways. Our ubiquitous neuroscientists are probing the innermost workings of our thinking and emotional processes, generating myriads of hypotheses on ‘ minds’ and ‘brains’; and yet the origins and workings of human language remain remarkably obscure.

The great American Linguistics Scientist, Stephen Pinker (‘The Language Instinct’ 1994)
at least explained what made us different from other animals in this respect. He described the three main kinds of non-human communication system:-

-  thefinite repertoire of calls’ (warning of predators, making a territorial claim etc);

- the continuous ‘analog signal of magnitude of some situation’ ( the livelier the dance of the bee, the richer the food source it is telling its hive-mates about)

- and random variations on a theme’ ( birdsong, repeated but occasionally with a ‘new twist’)

Our human language has a totally different design. Its unique ‘combinatorial system’( called ‘grammar’) makes human language ‘infinite’( ie there’s no limit to the number of complex words or sentences). It is effectively ‘digital’ ( can infinitely re-arrange its elements in particular orders and combinations; and each combination can convey a different but- through its provenance - comprehensible meaning).

So, by both nature and nurture , we have access to this unique faculty; which, like all ‘potentials’, can atrophy or wither by abuse, under-use or misuse. Which is why, starting with the fundamentals of education for our children, the alert and lively application of our language faculties is central to the full life and our professional livelihoods. We all know this, but there are many regrettable signs of our societies and political leaders falling short or misreading the threats to this priceless asset.

Some - scientists among them - are even questioning the impact of rapidly developing technologies on this birthright. Susan Greenfield, a leading UK scientist, has controversially suggested that society needs to be much more aware of the potentially harmful effects of the internet, networking sites and computer games on the brain. ‘ Using search engines to find our facts could impair our ability to learn’. At the recent Festival of Science in Birmingham she felt the need to suggest ‘without scaremongering’ that ‘ we should acknowledge that these new technologies are bringing unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad’.

Words, of course, and how we perceive and manipulate them, are central to this language capability and its life enrichment. The book, newspaper, magazine have been its more recent ‘packaging’ yet all seem to be in some degree of decline in our societies. It’s in this context that we should see the relevance of initiatives, (like the ‘Halo and the Noose’ project of our South African communicants, Graham Williams and Dorian Harrhoff), to reconnect with longer traditions of story- telling and the live exchange of words and meaning. They are achieving some remarkable re- engagements in dialogue and action.

We are certainly seeing this in our own work in the Arts/Science Interaction fields. The main purpose here is to stimulate creativity by bringing together supposedly different ‘mindsets’ -the ‘artistic’and the ‘scientific’- into what Arthur Koestler called ‘Creative Synthesis’; the interlocking of previously unconnected ‘ skills or matrices of thought’.

Yet ‘matrices of thought’ are primarily displayed across these different disciplines through words and language. So it is no surprise to learn that a major part of the ‘cross-disciplinary’ dialogue is centred on finding the appropriate language and- in this context – ‘bridging’ metaphors. ‘Metaphor has, we know, long been connected with the fields of literature and poetry ‘ the essential appeal of which is to the emotions, as opposed to logic or reasoning’ ( JGJennings. ‘Metaphor in Poetry’). Yet ‘logic and reasoning’ are surely what ‘science’ is pre-eminently about! Hence philosopher John Locke’s scorn for the flowery imprecisions of rhetoric and poetry.

So it was that the supposed divergent languages of ‘emotion’ and ‘truth’ helped build and sustain an alleged ‘arts/science’ divide on which the enduring ‘Two Cultures’ hypothesis was built. It was wrong, and we are learning better – but too slowly.

The Greek from which our word ‘metaphor’ derives means a ‘cross-over’ term, which attempts to understand one thing in terms of something else, even if this may not make ‘literal’ sense. As my friend and past collaborator, Rachel Falconer ( now Professor of English Literature at Lausanne University ) has explained, a metaphor can be seen as a kind of ‘creative’ lie, or at least a diversion from literal truth. So, when Romeo asks, ‘what light through yonder window breaks?’ he doesn’t  then say ‘It’s the sun’, which would make sense. He says,’ It is the East, and Juliet is thesun!’ –which she patently isn’t! ‘By using the metaphor, Romeo is able to convey both that the sunlight is coming through his window, and that Juliet is the centre of his universe ’.(Arts/Science Encounters, Sheffield University, 2009)

Neither Romeo nor Shakespeare were scientists, of course, so you might ask what this has to do with Science. Everything, it now transpires, since science is itself being progressively seen, by society and many of its leading practitioners , as a predominantly ‘human’ activity rather than some austere repository of ‘facts’ and ‘universal truths’; so that the creative shaping of our conceptions, and the imaginative play of metaphor is coming to be seen as a required characteristic of creativity in science as well as in poetry and literature.

The evidence for this is now overwhelming ( and, I believe, is paralleled by some opening up of minds in economics and business, too, through the creative re-entry of poetry and story into these once barren fields!)

One - some would say the most - influential ‘science’ book of the past decade – ‘The Music of Life’ by leading Oxford physiologist and geneticist, Professor Denis Noble, subtitled ‘Biology Beyond the Genome’ , is structured around striking metaphors from music ( of which he is himself an accomplished performer). Here the ‘metaphoric’ content does more than simply bridge between ‘arts’ and ‘science’; it also underpins his further serious scientific purpose of boosting ‘systems biology’ as the necessary way forward beyond the brilliant mapping of the genome itself. ’Only Connect’ is no longer to be a purely literary abstraction!

The special relationship of music to these important and exciting developments is emerging as a dominant theme of this fresh synthesis, and so will be playing a major role in our own Arts/ Science agenda as this new season unfolds. It has already triggered an unprecedented series of interchanges with Professor Noble, his scientist/musician brother Ray Noble, and the leading Swiss classical guitarist Christophe Denoth. We expect important outcomes in due course.

At the 2009 Venice Biennale, Professor Falconer (above) also gave a detailed account of a much earlier, internationally known, book which built bridges between ‘art’ and ‘science’ through metaphor. It was in 1975 that Primo Levi, established writer and committed professional chemist, brought out ‘The Periodic Table’ (which, she points out , once beat Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ to gain the title of ‘best science book ever written!’) It is, in fact, Levi’s autobiography, in which he uses sustained metaphors from Mendeelev’s Table of Chemical Elements to structure the narrative of his own life and relationships. Levi was a Nobel Laureate – not for Science, but for Literature!

Story, and story-telling, with their origins long before the written-word, are part of our oldest, and most prolific, sources of metaphor. Yet growing insights into our language idiosyncracies leaves still unsolved the greater mystery of how the ‘spoken’ word itself evolved. By way of birdsong, perhaps?

At the turn of the year we reported on the unique work of composer/ornithologist Peter Cowdrey and his highly innovative ‘Conference of Birds’ group of performer/ researchers.The significance of their (Arts Council supported) study Mission to Brazil earlier this year –focussed on Amazonian birdsong, and exchanges with key musicians and researchers working in the Amazonian rain-forest - continues to grow. A fascinating account of the mission, covering both ‘music’ and ‘science’ aspects of the dialogue, has been put together by  Nadia Kerecuk , an advisor at the Brazilian Embassy in London. I am hoping that she, and Peter, will be sharing some of the highlights with us on the website soon.

These are exciting times …. Not least because I can also now announce that Eva Koleva Timothys brilliant photo-monograph ‘ Lost in Learning’, on the processes of discovery and exploration, has just been published in the USA. Expect a full review and details here soon.

Ralph Windle
September 2010.