Chapter 3. Speaking in tongues.
I told you I use the words “human being” as a term of art. Here is why: Because there is a valid and valuable distinction to be made between a genetic Homo sapiens (the surviving issue of the recombination of genes) and a human being (a genetic Homo sapiens within whom has been cultivated the gift of mind). A genetic Homo sapiens can have the potential to become a human being – although this capacity or its existential realization can have been damaged or destroyed by disease, injury or birth defect. But until the mind has been cultivated within a particular genetic Homo sapiens, that entity will not be a human being.
A human life is an artifact, a man-made thing. The existence of a genetic Homo sapiens is a manifestation of nature, just as with any tree or reptile or kitten. But the existence of your life as a human being is a consequence of a vast number of conceptually-conscious choices made by your parents and other human beings when you were just a baby. Had they failed to cultivate the gift of mind within you, you might have survived as a genetic Homo sapiens, but you would never have become a human being. You owe your biological life to nature, but you owe your life as a human being to choices made by other human beings.
It’s funny for me to listen to abortion ideologues, pro and con, argue about when human life begins: Conception or birth? The truth – as a matter of ontological fact – is that, for normal children raised in normal circumstances, human life begins at age four or five. The transition from toddler to child is slow and gradual, but the distinction is obvious once you know what to look for. A toddler is little more than a very smart dumb animal – an exceptionally talented dancing bear. He does amazing things, compared to the clumsy efforts of trained animals, but like a trained animal, he does not understand conceptually what he is doing or why. A child, by contrast, is a small and relatively inexperienced human being. He thinks in concepts, and he can name the reason for everything he does.
And that’s the bright-line distinction, of course: Thinking and choosing in concepts. Mammals have sense organs, obviously, and they can perceive the world around them. They can recollect some of their perceptions at some level of organization, and they can even draw crude inferences about those perceptions – pattern matching. They can communicate by bodily signaling. They can want, make no doubt, and they can pursue their wants quite willfully. What they cannot do is collect their perceptions into conceptual categories, reason proportionately about those categories and make informed choices on the basis of that reasoning. No mere animal can do this, no matter what breathless claims are made for its “uncanny” Dancing Bear behaviors.
That kind of cognition – rationally-conceptual volitionality – is found only in human beings – only in a normal genetic Homo sapiens child or adult within whom the gift of mind has been cultivated – by the repeated, persistent, fully-conceptually-conscious choices of the adult human beings who raised that child. If you’re like me, you never thank your parents enough for all the gifts they gave you when you were growing up, but your humanity itself is the greatest treasure they conferred upon you – and I expect they didn’t even think twice about that, at the time they were doing it.
Mainly, they cultivated your potential simply by delighting in it. You learned motor skills by playing “patty-cake,” and you learned to speak – in a sort of verbal semaphore, at first – by being spoken to. You learned to categorize by sorting among the many toys they gave you, and you taught yourself the laws of identity and causality by playing with those toys – taking the same simple actions over and over again and observing the results. You learned to think subjunctively – to think about things not immediately in evidence – by playing “peek-a-boo” and “which-hand.” This exploration of the subjunctive was honed by a hundred-dozen lectures about bad behavior from your parents and other adults: “Would you like it if little Tommy took your toy?” You came to be a human being by being raised as a human being by human beings. Your capacity for a human level of cognition was natural, in-born – a function of that great big brain in your cranium, the brain that, not-coincidentally, no other kind of organism possesses. But the cultivation of that capacity was the product of thousands of choices made by your parents in the process of bringing you up.
I said you learned to speak in “a sort of verbal semaphore,” at first, and this is also an important distinction. One of the things that protects humanity from all of the philosophers and academics who insist that we are nothing special is the power of speech. Not speech deployed to argue against them; for the most part we are intimidated by their pedigrees and their supercilious posturing. But the power of speech itself defends us, because each one of us can easily see that this is a power that human beings alone possess. Lab-coated academics never stop trying to convince us that chimpanzees or dolphins share the power of speech with us, but regardless of what we say – or don’t dare say – in rebuttal, most of us recognize that these claims are absurd.
That’s just more of the Dancing Bear Fallacy, of course, but it is worth listening to the people who make these arguments – and to the people who chortle their support for them. A laboratory dolphin possessed of rationally-conceptual volitionality would immediately file a lawsuit seeking manumission from the clipboard-wielding sadists holding it captive. Ten thousand chimpanzees sitting at computer keyboards cannot produce the works of Shakespeare, nor even one line of intelligible verse. Not ten thousand, not ten million, not ten billion. The purpose of making these nonsensical claims about the specious verbal abilities of trained animals is not to confer an unearned status on those animals, but to rob you of the status you earned by mastering your mind. Animals cannot make informed choices by reasoning about concepts – nor do they need to. They are perfect the way they are – and so are you.
The goal of modern philosophy – in all probability unknown to you and to the scientific researchers who make these breathless claims about the imaginary conceptual abilities of animals – is to undermine the mind. Slavishly following those knowing philosophers of mindlessness, there are vast cadres of very well paid professional butterfly collectors whose job it is to make tautologically obvious observations about animal behavior in the most exaggerated ways they can. And slavishly following them are hordes of popularizers – journalists and artists and so-called “thought leaders” – whose passion is to blow those exaggerated claims even further out of proportion. And, sad to say, at the tag end of that long slavish train, there are a great many ordinary people who hate the human mind enough to seek any bogus evidence of its impotence, its incompetence, its fundamental ugly corruption. I told you the world is at war with your mind. This is how that war is fought.
So let’s talk about what the power of human speech really is – and why it is so different from the bodily signaling we observe in animals. I can’t promise you that you won’t get fooled again, but at least you won’t be stuck trying to defend your mind unarmed.
What’s the difference between “a sort of verbal semaphore” in a toddler and true human speech in a child? Simply everything. Animals communicate by bodily signaling. They don’t know why they communicate. They do everything they do because that’s the way they do things, and they cannot change, add to or improve their in-born signaling ability. Whether the signal is a bee’s flight patterns, a dog’s wagging tail or a chimpanzee’s chest puffed out to express a territorial belligerence, the behavior is a semaphore, a cipher, with no underlying conceptual content.
I call that kind of communication Mothertongue, and all higher animals do it – including us. When you sing a lullaby to an infant, that baby cannot possibly understand the words you are singing. But he can understand the Mothertongue component of your message – the love, the care, the comforting – and he can respond in kind, also in Mothertongue, by smiling and cooing back at you. You and your spouse can do this, too – kiss and cuddle and coo – and very probably the best of the communication that flows between you is carried on without words. We express joy and pride and anger and impatience and every other emotion in Mothertongue, and we can drive each other completely crazy by saying one thing in words while communicating the exact opposite position in Mothertongue.
When a toddler first learns to use words to communicate, he is not at that point communicating concepts. The words he masters are just new signals to him, new semaphores, more precise versions of the laughing and crying and smiling and grimacing he has been using to communicate since birth. Gradually, over time, the toddler will come to understand that a word can subsume any number of instances of the type of object or idea it denotes, some immediately obvious, some not presently in evidence and some purely imaginary. This is the birth of Fathertongue in the toddler’s mind, and the acquisition of Fathertongue is the point of graduation from a largely-animalistic toddlerhood to a fully-human childhood.
In the broadest possible scope, Fathertongue is any notation system – codified memories, speech, written language, mathematical symbols, musical notation, choreography, drawing and painting, computer software languages, etc. – any system by which a human being seeks to retain and communicate complex conceptual information. Mothertongue is active, immediate, visceral and fleeting, where Fathertongue is generally passive, patient, cerebral and enduring. The world of sense experience can be cluttered and chaotic, and the mind itself is much too good at wandering off on meaningless tangets. Fathertongue is the means by which the mind focuses itself, the means by which it hangs onto matters of importance while shedding itself of everything that does not matter.
That’s important. We have been talking about communication, but Fathertongue is about thinking first and always. Even in isolation – stranded on a desert island – you would still have to retain your thoughts to survive, even though there is no one present with whom to communicate those thoughts. Which berries are tasty and which make you sick? If you don’t make an effort to recollect your past experiences, you are as much at risk as any dog of eating bad food – without the dog’s built-in easy-regurgitation system.
As an aside, the terms Mothertongue and Fathertongue are not sex-role related. Thoreau used these coinages, originally, in a very different way. To him a mothertongue was the kind of language Heinlein would have called a “milk tongue” – the locally-prevalent language of casual discourse, like English or Spanish, that you learn first at your mother’s teats. Thoreau contrasted this with the fathertongue languages – Latin and Greek – you would later learn as a part of your formal education.
My own usage of these terms is different. Every notation-based system of recording, preserving and communicating human cognition – memory, speech, poetry, prose, math, music, the visual arts, choreography, software – is Fathertongue in my formulation. Fathertongue can be communicated at a distance, across time, without any direct contact between the communicants, to anyone already versed in the notation system – and to no one who is not. Every sort of communication that can be carried out without formal notation – even if a notation system is used for convenience – is Mothertongue. When you sing to an infant, the words you sing mean nothing to the baby, but the embrace and the warmth and the comfort and the caressing and the sounds of your singing mean everything.
Fathertongue is the means by which human beings collect and organize our perceptions into concepts, and, stripped to its essence, Fathertongue is the means, mode and method of conceptualization. We devise notation systems – words and images and sounds and symbols – so that we might share our concepts with one another, transmitting them across the room, across the globe, across millennia, thus massively increasing our knowledge base. But you cannot denote and communicate what you have not first abstracted in the silence and solitude of your own mind. Fathertongue is the means by which you organize your thoughts so well that you can understand, retain and communicate them.
Dogs bark and dolphins chitter, but only human beings are possessed of the power of Fathertongue, and for this reason among many others, it is inappropriate to compare the mental functioning of animals to the conceptual prowess of human beings. Philosophers and academics can do this if they choose to, but they will be introducing obvious, palpable, outrageous errors into their arguments. And now you know how to identify those errors – and how to defend your mind from them.