Random Reflections on Intellectual History, Abstraction and Social and Political Values

by Mark English

Complexities

Terms like “pragmatism” as it applies to philosophy and the history of ideas – most isms really – are intrinsically vague and useful only to the (necessarily limited) extent that they help to bring out persistent or more fleeting strands or commonalities in thinking within or across populations.

Even the views of individuals are often difficult to fathom and characterize accurately. That these views generally change over time, from book to book, from article to article, from diary entry to diary entry, makes the task even harder.

Nor is any one thinker’s work privileged over another’s. Judgments on the intrinsic merits of individual works or of the merits of particular thinkers are very difficult to make in an objective manner. But individual thinkers can be readily assessed according to the compatibility of their views with the findings of contemporary and subsequent scientific and scholarly investigation. Certain thinkers can also be shown to have been more influential than other thinkers. Unfortunately there is very little correlation between these two vectors. Sometimes it seems that an inverse correlation between compatibility with science and personal influence applies.

In my view, there is no grand narrative and no abiding canon. We find ourselves with respect to the history of ideas – just as we do with respect to any and every aspect of this relentlessly evolving world – in the midst of complexities which can only be satisfactorily “simulated” or modeled by the reality that is generating them. The best we can do is make marginal notes.

One of Louis Rougier’s early books was called, En marge de Curie, de Carnot et d’Einstein: études de philosophie scientifique. Marginal notes, you could say, by a marginal figure.

Rougier’s works are not on anybody’s essential reading list today. He made some bad career moves and got pushed aside, but he was a rising star in the 1920’s and a very influential figure in the 1930’s. You want to pigeonhole him? Not possible, I’m afraid.

Rougier was aware early on of the thought of William James (whom he read in translation). It was James’s version of pragmatism that he singled out for attack as a young man, but which arguably was not all that far from his own developing views. As Rougier himself often pointed out, intellectual history can be seen as a dense network of ironies and contingencies.

Language and abstraction

There is another angle to this. It relates to the nature of language. I see natural language as something that evolved for specific reasons and which is well suited to certain uses (e.g. storytelling and facilitating and coordinating social interactions of various kinds) and not so well suited to other uses. In particular, I am wary of the dangers of using abstract concepts in a relatively unconstrained way as often happens in theology and philosophy.

Common concrete nouns involve abstraction. There is no instance of a dog that is not also a particular animal of a particular breed or mix of breeds; or of a table that is not of a particular type and size and shape and color etc.. Such words, however, are clearly both semantically constrained and useful. Common abstract nouns are also useful as a sort of linguistic shorthand.

The trouble is that we have a natural tendency to hypostatize concepts and this has led, variously, to myth, ideology, philosophical puzzles and the elaboration of metaphysical systems.

Mythic elements in our thinking are unavoidable. Likewise ideology to an extent. Our brains just naturally generate value-laden narratives. Beyond this we are, as language users, committed to certain rudimentary metaphysical assumptions associated with grammatical structures that can lead to philosophical puzzles or pseudo-problems. But the deliberate construction of free standing or self-contained metaphysical systems is something else again.

Arguably myths, ideologies and metaphysical systems (unless the latter are closely tied to science) lack any real connection to non-human reality. Many metaphysical systems fail even to connect to human reality in any significant way.

Within science, abstractions are necessarily constrained. They play their assigned roles within, and take their meaning from, theories. The abstractions are constrained by the theories, and the theories are constrained by the rules and protocols of the discipline in question and ultimately by empirical evidence.

The formal sciences take us further from natural language than empirical science generally does. Abstractions in mathematics and logic take their meaning from, and so are constrained by, the rules of the systems involved. They are, as it were, contained within the system. What Rudolf Carnap referred to as “external” questions about these concepts are misguided and ultimately meaningless.

I would not want to commit too strongly, however, to a distinction between the formal and the empirical. Many developments point to a blurring of the distinction. For example, pure mathematical structures have long been known to play important roles in modeling physical reality. And, of course, the rapid development of computers and artificial intelligence is changing the nature of mathematics, arguably moving it closer to empirical or applied science. Algorithmic information theory is a case in point, focused as it is both on practical problems and on deep questions concerning the fundamental nature and limitations of computation and mathematical thinking (i.e. on meta-mathematics).

Ideology and science

Challenged to explain in more detail the rationale behind previous remarks of mine on what I see as serious flaws in certain forms of progressive and radical thought, I have been considering the sources of my thinking and looking for a few thinkers to whom I might point and with whom I feel some kind of kinship.

With respect to sources, there are two important kinds: scientific and non-scientific. Of course, scientific findings cannot of themselves provide guidance on values. But, if our social or political views incorporate false or pseudo-scientific ideas, what are they worth?

For example, the idea that human behaviors and attitudes and so on are entirely “socially constructed” and have nothing to do with biology is simply wrong. It is also dangerous in many ways. It has been the driving conviction behind the actions of countless radicals and social reformers.

Take the case of John Money and the Reimer family. Jesse Walker (writing in Reason) called the Reimer saga “one of the darker episodes in the history of pseudoscientific hubris.”

A botched circumcision destroyed the infant David Reimer’s penis. Psychologist John Money, believing that differences in the psychology of the sexes are entirely socially constructed, persuaded David’s parents to allow the boy to be completely castrated and argued for further surgical interventions. The idea was to raise the boy as a girl. Money wrote extensively on the case, presenting it (falsely, as it turned out) as vindicating his views on sex and gender.

John Money had been (in Walker’s words) “a leading exponent of the theory that children were born psychosexually neutral and could be assigned to either gender in the first years of their life.” Over time he retreated from the most radical forms of this thesis but for most of his life he stood firmly by “the central contention that when it came to sexual identity, nurture trumped nature.”

Money’s response to having the case exposed as an unmitigated failure was to blame the fuss on right-wing media bias and the anti-feminist movement.

Moral and social values

Moral, social and political convictions are in some ways similar to judgments of aesthetic value. They are not reducible to neat definitions or able to be summarized in a formulaic way – or summarized at all, perhaps. Why should they be?

I don’t believe that discursive reason can be applied in any really comprehensive or extensive way to normative questions without creating drastic distortions and oversimplifications. Discursive reason operates on one level; values on another.

Whenever I read a philosophical text on normative questions which is framed in terms of arguments mounted in standard philosophical style I rarely get beyond a couple of paragraphs before a move is made which appears unmotivated or to which I object for one reason or another. Historical approaches make more sense to me, especially when they are (or aspire to be) purely descriptive.

My main influences with respect to values were individuals with whom I had dealings in my formative years, on the one hand, and literary authors and filmmakers, on the other. Not philosophers, by and large.

Even my rejection of rationalism in politics, though it is something that philosophers have discussed (Louis Rougier and Michael Oakeshott come immediately to mind), is not something that I learned from them. It was bred into me (as, no doubt, it was bred into Rougier and Oakeshott) at a relatively early age.

Similar environmental influences affect different individuals in sometimes very different ways, of course. Temperament and other personality traits play a big role. Consequently, if you want to understand anybody’s point of view on fundamental moral, social, political or religious questions in a satisfactory way you need to understand the personal history of the individual in question.

I was trying recently to explain my political views to a relatively new friend and I realized that, if I wanted to get him to understand what I really think and what drives my thinking on political and economic issues, I would have to explain to him various family influences and encounters with particular political figures in the city and country in which I grew up. Political demarcations, the meanings of various key political signifiers and so on, are utterly dependent on – they derive their character and meaning from – specific social and cultural structures.

I would have to tell the story, then, not just in terms of the reasons I had for holding such and such a view, but also – perhaps mainly – in terms of my reactions to the political environment of my childhood and adolescence (including family influences) and to the passions and upheavals and schisms within the political and broader culture of the time.

Tastes in literature and film seem to me to be closely correlated with ideological preferences, broadly interpreted. That is, one likes and feels a deep kinship with authors or filmmakers who see the world in a similar way to oneself, who have similar values. One’s politics are, of course, determined by one’s values and priorities. The values come first and often they are not explicit.

Only gradually does one come to realize what one’s deepest values are.

30 Comments »

  1. Reading your articles feels like cleaning the house; you simply organize all these wild thoughts in my head so that they make sense, at last and all of them together! Much thanks

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  2. Mark,
    this is a fascinating account of how you see the world. It has helped me to see the ‘real’ Mark English with a tiny bit more clarity!

    There is so much I could say in reply, especially in respect of your attitude to the role of science in society. You say this under the heading of Science and Society:

    With respect to sources, there are two important kinds: scientific and non-scientific. Of course, scientific findings cannot of themselves provide guidance on values. But, if our social or political views incorporate false or pseudo-scientific ideas, what are they worth?

    Implicit in this, and earlier statements made by you in various posts, is the idea that science is the one true guide to knowledge. You augment this by saying that other kinds of knowledge, not amenable to scientific reasoning, are best understood through a historical and situational context. You dismiss “myths, ideologies and metaphysical systems (unless the latter are closely tied to science) [as] lack[ing] any real connection to non-human reality” saying “The trouble is that we have a natural tendency to hypostatize concepts

    You further emphasise the primacy of science when you say:
    But individual thinkers can be readily assessed according to the compatibility of their views with the findings of contemporary and subsequent scientific and scholarly investigation

    You go on to praise science for its rigour(as opposed to other forms of thinking), saying:
    Within science, abstractions are necessarily constrained. They play their assigned roles within, and take their meaning from, theories. The abstractions are constrained by the theories, and the theories are constrained by the rules and protocols of the discipline in question and ultimately by empirical evidence.

    Is this a fair summary(albeit crude) of your position?

    There is a lot to chew on but first I must make a minor correction to what you said here:
    the rapid development of computers and artificial intelligence is changing the nature of mathematics, arguably moving it closer to empirical or applied science.

    No, the nature of mathematics has not changed, but it has been augmented and enlarged by computing. We must make a distinction between pure and applied mathematics. Applied mathematics is the link between mathematics and reality In this sense your link between mathematics and computing means that applied mathematics has been extended to new problems. In the same way statistics can be seen as a form of applied mathematics.

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  3. Hi Mark.

    Re complexity – I don’t think Money can really be pigeon-holed as believing the “psychology of the sexes are entirely socially constructed”. He was not impressed by “media people [who] have not shifted from the nineteenth-century anachronism of juxtaposing nature and nurture, heredity and environment, constitutional and acquired, or biological and social”, and decried the “restor[ation of] the metaphysical partitioning of body and mind [where] Sex was ceded to biology [and] Gender was ceded to psychology and social science”. He was a sexologist, interested in endocrinology and psychoanalysis, and in homosexuality and paraphilia [his coining], as well as the intersex conditions.

    Re personal history – there is a big literature on the psychobiography and personality of psychologists and the theories they have developed or follow. This is not just therapists, but also academic psychologists eg what kinds of personality theories particular personality types might propose. You might enjoy

    http://williamrunyan.com/article_content/Runyan_psychobiography_2006.pdf

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    • David

      “I don’t think Money can really be pigeon-holed as believing the “psychology of the sexes are entirely socially constructed”.”

      I claimed only that *when the Reimer case first came up* he believed that differences in terms of male/female psychology were socially constructed. How else can you explain his actions in the Reimer case? Walker makes the point, which I explicitly acknowledge, that over time he moved away from this extreme position.

      Thanks for the pdf. Interesting perspective but the focus tends to be on figures I am not so interested in, and I think Runyan cedes too much ground to the “social studies of science”, cultural constructivist perspective. I remain skeptical that questions of ideological bias in the sciences can be dealt with satisfactorily in these sorts of ways. There is just too much scope for consciously or unconsciously pushing a favored agenda.

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  4. Mark,
    In my view, there is no grand narrative and no abiding canon. We find ourselves with respect to the history of ideas – just as we do with respect to any and every aspect of this relentlessly evolving world – in the midst of complexities which can only be satisfactorily “simulated” or modeled by the reality that is generating them. The best we can do is make marginal notes.

    I find this statement interesting. On the one hand you valorise science but on the other hand you insist there is “no grand narrative“. This seems to be a contradiction since implicit in science is a “grand narrative“. The grand narrative is of two kinds. First it is a social path that purifies and delivers reliable knowledge against which all other knowledge can be weighed. I think you will agree with this point.

    Where you will likely disagree is my second point. Science is predicated on a bone deep belief in the efficacy of the laws of nature.They are unchanging, exceptionless, applying at all places and at all times. This really is a startling belief. We don’t have even the slightest, foggiest clue of why this should be. How on earth do the laws of nature dictate with such complete and utter precision the behaviour of every particle in the universe? How is it possible? The best answer science can give is to say “it just is

    And yet this vast, precise, exceptionless machine has given birth to consciousness, free will, meaning and purpose. It has enabled infinite creativity that fundamentally transcends the mechanical nature of the universe. It is my personal belief that it is our destiny to creatively enrich the universe. Therefore what you call “myths, ideologies and metaphysical systems” are to be valued for they way they creatively enrich our universe.

    This is a “grand narrative” and a “abiding canon

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    • On the one hand you valorise science but on the other hand you insist there is “no grand narrative“. This seems to be a contradiction since implicit in science is a “grand narrative“.

      I’m not seeing that as a contradiction.

      Science is not a grand narrative. Science is a narrative which can be adjusted and adapted whenever a better narrative is found.

      Science is a system of pragmatic social conventions. And because the conventions are carried forward by the culture, yet can be replaced by more effective conventions, we get a ratcheting up. This is why science seems to work so well.

      I disagree with some of what Mark wrote, and I suspect that Mark disagrees with what I just wrote (in this comment). But it is hard to put my finger on exactly what is the disagreement.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like what you said about personal histories as a way of understanding someone’s views. I think this is so important.

    We really need to stop thinking in binary terms like nature/nurture, as many social scientists have already done, and start seeing people as ongoing individual developmental processes. People become who they are as a result of everything going on within them and around them as they move through the time-line in their personal life history. We are also each intertwined in larger and longer processes of cultural and evolutionary histories.

    John Calopinto’s excellent book about David Reimer has the otherwise misleading title As Nature Made Him (2001). For nature doesn’t really make us, anymore than culture does. What ‘makes’ us is not two separate ingredients called nature and nurture that are sifted together and baked at 350° for 72 years, but rather, an unfolding development of cycles of contingency through experience directed by both ourselves and others. A better way to put it is: we are grown, not ‘made’.

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  6. It seems that the author, Mark English, is being rather coy in this piece, hence the title – “Random Reflections… but the gist of it may have been summarized in the following paragraph: “I don’t believe that discursive reason can be applied in any really comprehensive or extensive way to normative questions without creating drastic distortions and oversimplifications. Discursive reason operates on one level; values on another.”
    I need to add here that I share the author’s stated concern about philosophy’s over-dependence on abstract concepts. My specialization is in Philosophical Anthropology. I find almost anything written about meta-ethics to be both unreadable and irrelevant. However, my understanding of how to talk about “normative questions” is very different from his. I would say that the problem is not discursive reason about values per se, but lies instead in the rabbit hole that most meta-ethicists have chosen to go down. “Realism” vs “Anti-Realism”, “cognitism” vs “non-cognitivism”, “Intuitionism” vs “Naturalism” …. All these meta-ethical disputes are based on misunderstandings about normativity.
    I’ll try to put my theory of normativity in a nutshell: Normativity is the uniquely human ability to collectively follow and enforce rules. Adopting normative systems was the move that brought us out of the state of nature and forms the foundation and framework for all human activities, including language, morality, and culture. It’s a deep philosophical problem because it frames everything we do. We don’t see it because it forms the background and the very ground that we stand on. Therefore we become embroiled in pointless meta-ethical disputes about “ought” and “good”.

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    • Normativity is not uniquely human; nearly all social species have their own established norms of behavior. Any ethologist will tell you that. And we have never left “the state of nature” whatever that could mean.

      Meta-ethical disputes are not pointless. They help clarify our understandings about the nature and meaning of morality. As Wittgenstein observed, most problems in philosophy are about problems of language and meaning.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joe,
        first you say
        Normativity is not uniquely human; nearly all social species have their own established norms of behavior.

        and then you say
        most problems in philosophy are about problems of language and meaning.

        Your use of the word “Normativity” perfectly illustrates the latter point. You and Charles have implicitly assigned different meanings to the word, hence the “problem“.

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        • Peter,

          “Your use of the word “Normativity” perfectly illustrates the latter point. You and Charles have implicitly assigned different meanings to the word, hence the “problem“.”

          Huh? You need to elaborate on how we are assigning different meanings to normativity. I wasn’t disputing how Charles was using or defining normativity, only that it was not uniquely human.

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          • Remember that you invoked Wittgenstein, language and meaning. Now it so happens that I agree with you in this respect. But then you must bear the consequences of this invocation, understanding that we are talking about language and meaning. Consequently you must clarify your terms and endeavour to understand how other people might use the terms differently.

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      • However I agree with you that met-ethical disputes are not pointless. As you say, they help us to clarify our understanding.

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        • “Surely that depends on how we define normativity, no?”

          Sure, but you claim Charles and I are implicitly defining it differently. How do you know this? That was my question.

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  7. Peter

    Thanks for your attentive and respectful reading. As you say, there is much to discuss and by summarizing a large part of what I am saying you are putting a lot of it on the table. Too much to deal with here, but I’ll make a couple of points.

    “… I must make a minor correction to what you said here: “the rapid development of computers and artificial intelligence is changing the nature of mathematics, arguably moving it closer to empirical or applied science.” No, the nature of mathematics has not changed, but it has been augmented and enlarged by computing. We must make a distinction between pure and applied mathematics. Applied mathematics is the link between mathematics and reality. In this sense your link between mathematics and computing means that applied mathematics has been extended to new problems. In the same way statistics can be seen as a form of applied mathematics.”

    This may be a minor terminological matter or it may not be. In the quoted statement I am suggesting two things: that computers are changing the way mathematics is practised, and (perhaps) conceived. Gregory Chaitin has said something along these lines. Or think of Turing. A Turing machine is a mathematical object.

    “On the one hand you valorise science but on the other hand you insist there is “no grand narrative“. This seems to be a contradiction since implicit in science is a “grand narrative“. The grand narrative is of two kinds. First it is a social path that purifies and delivers reliable knowledge against which all other knowledge can be weighed. I think you will agree with this point.”

    I think so. I wouldn’t call this a grand narrative however. (You can if you like.)

    “Where you will likely disagree is my second point. Science is predicated on a bone deep belief in the efficacy of the laws of nature.They are unchanging, exceptionless, applying at all places and at all times…”

    You proceed to outline your grand narrative. But, again, I don’t see science as being locked into a view on, say, unchanging laws. Certain assumptions must be made for the process of scientific inquiry to get off the ground, but I see these as provisional assumptions and nothing more.

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  8. Neil Rickert

    “Science is not a grand narrative. Science is a narrative which can be adjusted and adapted whenever a better narrative is found.”

    Well said.

    “Science is a system of pragmatic social conventions. And because the conventions are carried forward by the culture, yet can be replaced by more effective conventions, we get a ratcheting up. This is why science seems to work so well.”

    I can almost accept this also. Two points however. Science doesn’t just seem to work well. It does work well (when it does). Secondly, there is the knowledge aspect. The pragmatically evolving social institution you describe produces a body of knowledge about which certain claims can be made.

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    • Science doesn’t just seem to work well. It does work well (when it does).

      I prefer my wording.

      The problem here is that we have no objective standards for “it does work well”. And some people (young earth creationists, for example) do not think that it works well. So I’ll stick with “seems to work well.”

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      • “some people (young earth creationists, for example) do not think that it works well. So I’ll stick with ‘seems to work well.’”:

        But YEC just doesn’t work well intellectually, because there is really is a certain unity of science. There are many people who hold with a young earth, but very few who attempt to achieve consistency with physics, chemistry, geology, genetics, and of course none successfully. The “successful” approaches are blanket rejection or doublethink..

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  9. Enjoyable essay Mark,
    Very early on you make an observation which would appear to make your whole narrative moot:

    “In my view, there is no grand narrative and no abiding canon. We find ourselves with respect to the history of ideas – just as we do with respect to any and every aspect of this relentlessly evolving world – in the midst of complexities which can only be satisfactorily “simulated” or modeled by the reality that is generating them. The best we can do is make marginal notes.”

    I agree. Narratives can be very useful when they deal with the verifiable objective world, but quite the opposite is true when trying to describe our subjective universe. Since most discussions are a combination of objective and subjective realities, such a narrative cannot reliably transmit its meaning.

    Perhaps for the first time the utter complexity of the world is being appreciated more generally. The question for you is how to be a cynic and remain optimistic?

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      • Liam

        And when I said that I was not advocating cynicism I meant to encompass both the popular and historico-philosophical meanings. My social philosophy is not compatible with the views of the cynics in a number of ways but mainly, I think, because I see culture as playing a central — and generally positive — role.

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    • Liam

      “Very early on you make an observation which would appear to make your whole narrative moot…”

      I am trying not to push one particular narrative (other than the narrative implicit in my emphasis on science etc. as the main source of a certain kind of shared knowledge).

      “Perhaps for the first time the utter complexity of the world is being appreciated more generally. The question for you is how to be a cynic and remain optimistic?”

      I am not advocating cynicism, just a certain form of skepticism.

      But how to remain optimistic in the absence of religious or metaphysical commitments is a problem I acknowledge.

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  10. Mark,

    I agree with you on many points but when you say that you “see culture as playing a central — and generally positive — role” I foresee some problems. Firstly, of course, I don’t know what you exactly mean.

    Furthermore, there is no agreement on what culture is. Are there many cultures or is there “one complex whole”?

    My meanderings around the culture question have convinced me that our one global culture is ineffable or super complex. I.e. there is no way we can identify it or describe it fully at any moment in time. The human brain is not yet up to the task of grasping the whole, figuring how the parts interconnect, or deciding what the purpose and meaning of it all is.

    Breaking culture down in various perceived parts also does not help: religion, metaphysical commitments, art, literature, science, economics, psychology, sociology, etc. These parts are still ineffable. No matter how many times one slices a chocolate mousse cake, it still is what it is. Only when one gets down to the atoms things begin to change, but then the questions are no longer relevant to our daily lives.

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  11. Addendum.

    Also, depending on one’s perspective, culture can be beautiful or downright ugly, especially if one includes, as one should, wars, genocide, racism and slavery.

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  12. Liam

    As I see it our humanity and individual identity necessarily derive from a cultural matrix. I am just stating the obvious, as I see it. This matrix involves language as a central element. I am not claiming we can grasp or describe the entire cultural matrix, but just about everyone speaks a language, for example.

    I said culture was generally a positive thing. Perhaps I should have said ‘basic’ or ‘necessary’.

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    • I agree Mark that language is the glue that is the basis for all culture and cultures. Being able to create a history in writing that can be passed down (if the language is able to be translated) gives future societies not only a point of reference to their current state but gives them a much deeper understanding of that former society. For example their are many cultures that we can merely speculate about on a very superficial level due to the fact we cannot interpret any of their written history. An example would be ancient Egypt before we discovered the Rosetta Stone and learned what the hell all the hieroglyphs were trying to tell us. Sure there was plenty of tangible evidence we had to speculate about the society as it was, (they must have been extremely advanced to have built these tombs and buildings). But that didn’t mean a thing as far as understanding their culture and their society until we unlocked their language. Language is the keys to the ball game in my opinion. I believe that the apex predator on any planet is the one which first masters the ability to use language and reasoning in conjunction because these are the foundations for culture to emerge.

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