On Human Understanding~ Excavating the Mytho-poetics of Babel



[Here is a draft of a paper I’m preparing for a Linguistic conference on translation in 2016. Advice is always welcome, although not always heeded. Thanks ~ cK]

It is not enough for language to have clarity and content… it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion. ~Rene Daumal

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without climbing [up], it would have been permitted. ~Franz Kafka

About kulturcritic

With a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Sandy had a ten-year academic career, with appointments at University of Virginia and the Colorado School of Mines. He spent the next twenty years in executive ranks at several of America’s largest international firms, including Computer Sciences Corporation, Ernst & Young, and General Electric. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe and North America, as well as parts of Eurasia and Africa. For the past five years Sandy has been living in Western Siberia with his wife and young child, teaching at the Pedagogical University and the Altai Institute for Law and Economics in Barnaul, Russia. Published works include VERONIKA: The Siberian's Tale (a novel), (Islands Press 2011) Apocalypse Of The Barbarians: Inquisitions On Empire (Islands Press, 2010), The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks From Siberia (Booksurge, 2009), Recollective Resolve: A Phenomenological Understanding of Time and Myth (Mercer University Press, 1987), Ethical Decisionmaking Styles (Addison-Wesley Press, 1986), and Gandhi in the Postmodern Age: Issues in War and Peace (CSM Press,1984).
This entry was posted in American Exceptionalism, civilization, cultural crisis, Curriculum of the West, Dostoyevsky, Gadamer, geopolitics, hermeneutics, human nature, language, nature, phenomenology, polysemy, primal humanity, rationality, syllogism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Human Understanding~ Excavating the Mytho-poetics of Babel

  1. Disaffected says:

    The latest – On Human Understanding~ Excavating the Mytho-poetics of Babel – is great, but comments are disabled. Just a quick note here since I don’t know if you’re going to enable comments or not, the late Albert Bartlett became famous for his lectures illustrating the gross inability of humans of all stripes to understand the exponential function – the very basis for western debt-based capitalism – so the idea that humans could even rally around a “universal language” such as mathematics is obviously completely unfounded as well. In truth, mathematics has been revealed of late to be at least as effective when used as a tool of deception as it ever was as a tool of clarity and understanding. Same as it ever was.

    Hierarchical systems and their simplified and codified communications systems are most effectively viewed as “force multipliers” for human deception, and little more. Any initial good they ever served is completely outweighed at this point by the fact that they will very soon spell the end of human civilization altogether. But all the rest of your points in this paper are well taken. I think I even understood most of it this time!

  2. Colin says:

    A portion of my New Years Email to Family and Friends. The “Software and Mind” book is extremely relevant to this discussion around language and syllogism. Andrei Sorein calls it “Mechanism” or hiearchical constructs that ignore interdependencies. I believe these are the same things we are talking about.

    I think Sandy that we are on the same page now with this subject!


    More importantly, we have to consider the role of our current paradigms and beliefs in formation of our society and political system. The chart and images below I believe helps illustrate a key point:


    Notice the “Millenial” group. Of course this is a generalization, but as a group they appear to have only one benefit – their tech saviness. Overall though they are in second and third place to both Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers in every single category that employers look for. In fact, if these trends continue into the next generation there will be only ONE word used to describe our youth upon entering adulthood – “Unemployable”. As education has been completely taken over and restructured by government and mechanistic belief systems (see below) it is failing to prepare our youth for adulthood. If you want to study the problems with lack of job growth, economic development, I would suggest beginning here. Why are we churning out individuals who seem so poorly adapted to the demands of adulthood? Again, obviously this is not true for all Millenials, please don’t get offended if you are a Millenial – I know many great Millenials and there are things I really enjoy about them as a group including their high activity levels and love of the outdoors. I admittedly struggled with joblessness myself and can comiserate with the situation many Millenials find themselves in and don’t fully understand.

    Well, this is a complex problem and one with many different causes. One book I have begun reading is called “Software and Mind – The Mechanistic Myth and its Consequences” by Andrei Sorin. This book covers a range of topics all related to the modern belief in “Mechanism” to which a variety of current social ales can be contributed. Mechanism is the religious belief that everything in nature can reduced or atomized to a simplified, hierarchical construct (like a hierarchical decision tree) as a series of “things within things”. Take language itself for instance – letters combine to form words, words combine to form sentences, sentences combine to form complete thoughts which are the basis of language and communication. Let’s say for instance that instead of having characters for letters, we attempt to simplify by creating a single character for every possible word instead – our language would actually lose information and communication would become very difficult. If we did this at one level higher, at the level of complete sentences communication would break down entirely. Additionally we have trouble finding the correct abstractions for this hierarchy because we note that under some circumstances a sentence forms a complete thought where as in others it does not – the precise rules and nuances that determine whether it is complete or not are buried at the word and even character level as well as other hidden connotations like tone and pace which are too subtle to characterize. Thus language is a complex space – it is irreducible to pure mechanism.

    And yet, that is exactly what all of us, in our modern mechanistic views are attempting to do ALL THE TIME – reduce complex issues to sound bytes and single phrase sentences. This (as Sorin points out) is equivalent to “News-speak” in George Orwell’s 1984 which is a particular language that is used by propagandists in the media precisely because it is ambiguous, jargonic and misleading. We delude ourselves into the land of Charlatanism by becoming masters of this form of communicating and we deify, reify and revere those who are most gifted at this form of black magic. Our faith in politicians, entertainment and media personalities, belief in a particular form of Utopian government (“Socialism”, “Marxism”, “Nationalism”, “Fascism”) are predicated upon this crumbling mechanistic view of the world. Worse yet, Sorin says, the entire field of Science itself, most notably in the software community has become corrupted by Mechanistic belief systems – the belief that the complexity of the world can be greatly simplified and atomized as “things within things”. This belief system began in the west with the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution and has followed us ever since. In the beginning our successes using this mechanistic world view were great (such as the industrial revolution where machines were all made of parts and sub parts) but the problem is that we have exhausted this belief system – no new progress can be made because we’ve only been able to solve the simple problems that mechanism readily allows for. The REALLY COMPLEX stuff escapes us, completely. ONLY, Sorin indicates, by the expansion and development of the individual human mind itself can we resolve the deeply troubling modern quagmires we find ourselves in. Sorin claims that not even modern computers are structurally adapted to resolve deeply complex human issues and that if we are to build software to help us solve human problems we must always first solve them in the human mind and THEN model it into software. Software itself must never be a pure abstract substitute for human thinking.

    However the fields of Psychology, Social Science and Economics and even Life Sciences have all been infiltrated by mechanistic belief systems or “Scientism” that rot the foundation of modern society. Mechanism fails to explain human behavior because it inevitably suffers from framing or isolating of phenomenon that is in reality interdependent. For instance, an Economist looks at a person as a “rational actor” while a psychologist looks at that same person as a “male” or “female”, the social scientist or Marxist views them as “oppressor” or “oppressed”, etc. In reality humans don’t fit neatly into these categories but rather float around – when we abstract a simple hierarchy or mechanastic theory from this complex ether we “reify” the theory into a simple hierarchy that will inevitably fail, at some point dramatically, our ability to describe our world.

    Let me be clear…

    This is where we are at now!

    The world is completely falling apart and all I see around me are people clinging to oversimplified ideologies that must necessarily fail. The Socialists, Keynesians and Marxists want more government control over our lives even while these very same systems are at the brink of catastrophic failure. If only they could tax more people, print more money, regulate firearms, forcibly redistribute wealth, centrally plan the economy by finding the right interest rate (negative?), force others abroad to do the same, introduce more legislation, provide food and shelter for all the refugees of our failed policies abroad – If only we did these things we would be great again we claim! And yet, every year we see that things don’t quite turn out that way – the politicians just get better at lying and hiding things from us. We feel ashamed and in our sense of shame we turn against those who disagree most vociferously with our flawed views. I read recently that the reason we are often so opposed to the obvious truth of a situation is because it implies that people don’t love us – even our own family. “If that were true someone would have told me but they didn’t! That means no one loves me because no one cared to tell me!” we reason. And so we sink further into ourselves, eventually isolating ourselves from those whose viewpoints violate our sense of emotional well-being.

    All of that is coming to an end this year. 2016 will be the year you won’t be able to ignore what’s wrong. …

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