Talking Blorx

I have referenced a number of times how the use of language gets in our way when we are trying to understand an issue. This is especially true of philosophers almost because of their commitment to rigour rather than in spite of it. There is nothing like artificially pinning down a word or concept for divorcing it from natural usage.

Recently in a discussion involving biology someone expressed difficulty with the concept of the ‘selfish’ gene. This was not because of the genuine issue of whether it is at the level of the gene or the organism in which genes inhere that matters in selection, but rather the application of a word with an ethical cast. How can a gene be selfish, since it has no behaviour instantiated within a moral framework?

The biological question is a fairly interesting one, but frankly without addressing the issue of language there is little point in questions or answers.

On one level, of course, we can say that the use of the word ‘selfish’ here is a marketing ploy. It sounds emotive, perhaps even disturbing. On a much more relevant level we can say, well, what else should we call it? If the whole idea is that genes propagate themselves, enduring vertically down generations, and elements of their structure and function select for that propagation, there is an obvious sense in which this is down for themselves, even in the absence of a self. I’m sure the author took it as axiomatic that a reader would be able to sense the element of mild metaphor in play (see previous for metaphor).

Here we will extrapolate a general point from the specific: in this example of biology, we are dealing with an area we are not evolved to deal with. Genes are microscopic; microscopes are mere hundreds of years old, our awareness of genes even younger. It is all very new to our mesoscopic perspective, and as such dealt with at a remove, intellectually and linguistically. How utterly astonishing would it be if it turned out that the random, natural language of the community we happened to grow up in possessed an intricate and exhaustive vocabulary and syntax for describing the nature of human genetics? How baffling is it that anyone would even posit that a random natural language would have the ideal granularity to cope which a world beyond that we experience directly?

Language and human cognition are very, very closely linked. Language is a powerful tool, or set of tools. It can be adapted for new uses, and often does so via metaphor. One could write a book called ‘The Blorx Gene’ where ‘blorx’ is defined as ‘an process evinced by entities possessing functions that serve to propagate themselves in some fashion in the absence of sentience’, but rarely are we so unwieldy or helpful. We adapt a current word or concept, we extend it, and live in hope that the workings of cognition outside of language possess enough intelligence to keep us from tripping over literalism.

At least, I do. Hence the disappointment.


The War of Jenkins’ Pig’s Ear

Guest post by A. J. P. Whaler

As an amateur historian I often feel a close connection with my surroundings, ambling through a richer environment than those more ignorant, those blind to the great stories that surround us. So let me assuage some of this ignorance as I take you through a brief tour of the events underlying the street names of the famous Harringay Ladder, in North London.

It is a mostly forgotten conflict, the War of Jenkins’ Pig’s Ear, which was fought largely by British forces in northern Europe disguised as itinerant meat vendors, against mostly German forces masquerading as early conscientious vegetarians. Of course, as this conflict presaged the somewhat more famous Second World War, the motives were in truth less idiotic.

Lord Jenkins’ introduction of war ham (refer to the map of the Ladder, to find Warham Road), intended as a significant improvement on the normal ham used in the First World War, which was rendered ineffective and delicious in the presence of mustard gas, was not well received by the British troops. Far more use, they claimed, would have been guns or even cleavers (the absence of which caused much eyebrow-raising considering the otherwise flawless meat vendor disguise). This led to the pejorative soldiers’ expression which lies behind Effingham Road.

But it was nothing short of a devastating weapon in the hands of a few daring commandos (see the Roads, Beresford, Falkland, Frobisher, Fairfax). It was they, who, in defence of the beleaguered Jewish population of northern Europe, drew off the German attention hitherto focussed on turning over brisket and gefilte stalls, under their flimsy vegetarian guise. The war ham was so effective in this endeavour, despite the irony, that the little-known Jews for Jambon group was founded, but who relocated to Australia (Sydney Road) after ham eating was not included as an exemption in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.

A striking counterpoint to this consistent naming of streets after the War of Jenkins’ Pig’s Ear is Duckett Road. Some ostensible scholars will tell you this is named for the war cry given when the British would hurl their war ham (‘duck it!’) knowing full well the Germans didn’t speak English and would more likely turn towards the ham than duck it. This is, of course, apocryphal, and Duckett Road is a corruption of the French ‘ducquet’ meaning ‘little Duke’, which is what Lord Jenkins called his favourite pig.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief tour of one small corner of North London. At least it may go to highlight the rich stories that surround the prima facie mundane locales which we inhabit.

Personally Challenged

Androclast and I challenged each other to write a piece on Equality and then compare the two.  We set no word limits or theme outside of the one word.  Below are the resulting articles.

Am I Every Woman?

As a precocious youth, I was proud to declare that I was a feminist.  I relished in the idea of empowered women stomping over men to eventually rule the World.  Granted, I may have had a slightly warped view of what feminism meant but the roots were there. 

More recently, I have begun the question feminism.  I no longer feel the urge to spit on the downtrodden men as we women sail past in our chariots of success and retribution.  What has triggered this sudden change?  I still want equality for women – the SAME rights as men.  I don’t however, wish to punish today’s men for the subjugation of the past.   A feminist should seek to overcome the barriers that stop her from the same rights as everyone else and not to become the oppressor of the opposite sex in return.

In the study of history, feminist historians seem to be particularly aggrieved about their fore-mothers.   Since the 1960s, there has been a plethora of publications about women’s history.  Books about women in history, TV shows about mothers and sisters and servants.  Why are we so interested in the ordinary woman and now, no longer, the ordinary man?  Would a TV series on John Bull be as interesting to an audience as Lucy Worsley and Harlots?

I enjoy androgyny and dislike makeup.  This does not make me less of a woman or believer in a fair society.  I also don’t care if men want to dress and women and vice versa – this is one’s own choice.  What I object to is the misappropriation of the word feminism.  Women can be chauvinist too.

I live in hope that one day these terms won’t even have a purpose.  The same rights will be applied to traditional concepts of men, women and everything else therein.  I also hope that the penchant for feminists to forget about the value of men is short-lived.   The point of equality lies in the definition. 


 All The Stuff’s The Same

Philosophy is the treatment of the bewitchment of intelligence by language, said a sage man. Said sagacity may have been enhanced if it had been understood that human intelligence, at least the part we tend to experience so proximally, in conscious awareness, is almost entirely linguistic in nature.

Linguistic intelligence bewitches itself. It is the cornerstone, the keystone even, of the majority of disputes, even between those ostensibly using the same language. None of which is particularly important for the following, except to highlight the poor use of a word and its underlying concept. I might have also referenced the human tendency to jettison reason when dealing with a potentially emotive issue.

The issue in question is ‘equality’. A laudable concept, one of which its forward-thinking nature is evinced in the brutal and oafish application across the board without pause to consider what the word means.

Equality. Equivalence. One thing being the same as, worth as much, as effective as, as deserving as, another. Seemingly a very strong relation between any two things, and yet one which is so entrenched in vast areas of thought it is almost taboo to query.

Equality is vanishingly rare, and should be fairly confusing wherever it rears its heads. Genders are not equal. People are not equal. Individual people are not equal to themselves on a daily basis, let alone anyone else.  The concept has, via its own very laudability, led to an utter undermining of its very point.

Political and social equality are desirable and truly enlightened because equality in the sense people seem to wish it existed does not. For objective genetic reasons men tend to be physically stronger than women (this is not refuted by a woman being stronger than a man, or even the strongest person alive being a woman for a thousand years [although that would be a legitimate research area if it arose now]); for tawdry sociological reasons the wealthy tend to have disproportionate control over… well, whatever they wish: conditions such as these can (because they have and do) lead to a recognition of inequality which many (mostly those losing out) find distasteful. It boots nothing for us to dissolve that sense of dissatisfaction by denying these inequalities obtain. The sensible position is, upon espying areas where inequalities do not benefit us in general, to make sure certain societal equalities are imposed.

I mentioned emotive issues above. This is one for some reason. The selfsame people who would not hesitate to allow a trained helicopter pilot to convey them in said vehicle, rather than demand they be granted recognition of identical rights and abilities, would question various faculties and abilities simply because another was of another gender, or nationality, or intellectual tradition.

How human. We know we are unequal, and yet we focus on partisan fripperies, rather than employing it and intervening where inequality genuinely encroaches on fairness.