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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Orwell was right

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Below is a quote from Quine, a single sentence with which you may agree, disagree or reserve judgement. To my mind the sentence is problematic for two reasons. The first is that if accepted as true, then it has a fundamental influence on one’s personal philosophy.

There are so-called logical connections, and there are so-called causal ones; but any such interconnections of sentences must finally be due to the conditioning of sentences as responses to sentences as stimuli.
Willard Van Orman Quine - Word and Object

The second problem is that Quine’s sentence is true.

Obviously that doesn’t mean everyone has to accept it as true. It is rooted in commonly observed human behaviour, but no doubt many people have other standpoints on which they prefer to secure their personal philosophy.

Yet from early childhood we develop mental causal networks where one sentence causes another to pop out of our repertoire of responses. We are trained to give normative responses in order to use language effectively, so naturally enough that is what we do for the rest of our lives.

Citizens of the monolithic and tightly controlled political culture envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984 find it difficult or impossible to stray beyond political norms because their repertoire of responses has been so ruthlessly limited by the regime.

Winston Smith only achieves a glimpse of what freedom might mean via his work on altering newspaper reports, his constant exposure to physical evidence that all available information is being made to conform to current political narratives.

Smith’s awareness that things have been different gives him a limited ability to see that there are alternatives to official narratives. Unfortunately for him, he only sees what may be a deliberately constructed alternative – Goldstein’s ideology of dissent.

Without Smith's exposure to physical evidence, we may assume he would never have strayed that far. Even without the full implementation of Newspeak, he would have had insufficient exposure to any standpoint beyond established political norms. He and his fellow citizens cannot think out of the box if the box is all there is.

So Orwell was right. In a monolithic totalitarian culture, Newspeak is not only possible, but may even be inevitable.

4 comments:

Sackerson said...

What sentence provoked Quine's as an automatic response?

A K Haart said...

Sackers - it's the range of possible responses that is automatic. As for Quine it could have been anything. Possibly a comment about logic initially.

Roger said...

You touch upon something current here. With the assumption of pervasive surveillance and probable means of heading off any protest I suspect people may more rarely express dissent overtly, but save their ire for the ballot box and dare I say the largely pointless mumblings on the blogs. Emmanuel is probably a long term civil servant and as we speak he is looking forward to sherry and then lunch followed by a precis of the blogs and the marking of certain cards.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I've been thinking along those lines too. It may be the function of blogs - an outlet for ire.