Recently I was reading Erika Lindemann’s book A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). I was preparing for class and needed some inspiration from someone far smarter. I found that inspiration in Lindemann’s chapter “What Do Teachers Need to Know about Linguistics?” I won’t go into how I used that chapter for class but would like to expand on what Lindemann calls “graphic conventions” (62).
Focusing on the “role language plays in composing, especially at the writing and rewriting stages,” Lindemann argues that writing instructors need a greater facility with English linguistics to understand the composition process—specifically, to understand how students select and appropriate diction (60). This premise leads Lindemann into a discussion of alphabets and symbols with linguistic values (62).
Lindemann’s claims about how matters of taste are always braided with “our assumptions about what language should and shouldn’t be” are interesting, but this post discusses what language might be.
Language can become a vehicle for discovering “truth.” Literature, made up of language, can become, to employ Kenneth Burke’s phrase, equipment for living. By “truth” I don’t necessarily mean moral truth. I mean physical truth. Language is a system of meaning that makes truth—the referent—intelligible even if it only signifies or stands in the place of reality.
Language always has a utilitarian purpose—it always adapts to its environment much like organisms adapt to their environments by evolutionary processes. We no longer use Roman numerals—even though we retain a Roman alphabet—because they aren’t practical. We use Arabic numerals because they’re more efficient: easier to mark, write, and count.
The particular mathematical language we use does not matter so long as it signals or explains some truth. Numbers are signs—languages—that people arrange to understand truths about the world. The symbol π, for instance, has no clear referent, but students and mathematicians use it to arrive at solutions to patterns and problems (and problematic patterns). π signifies something like 3.14, but people using π understand the symbol to entail an endless chain of signification, an et cetera without end. (A friend informs me that a computer recently outdid man by solving pi.) The sign may be arbitrary, but the meaning it conveys or supports is not.
We can—indeed must—invest the meaningless with meaning that is not arbitrary. That is why numbers and other mathematical symbols stand for concepts that can be used to bring about tangible results (e.g., the engineering of a building or a railroad). That is why, in short, language can clarify—discover—truths about the world.
Lindermann makes room for these sorts of digressions when she says things like “Groups of sounds that have meaning—linguists call them morphs—denote the realities of our culture and connote the values we assign those realities” (64). She focuses on the socially constructed values that we communicate through language, but what would she say about mathematics? There are probably value-laden systems of mathematics that I neither know of nor understand. But the “gist” of mathematics—if that’s the right word—is valueless. Math appears, for the most part, socially and morally neutral, except in the way people use or appropriate it to service ideological projects.
How does “fluency” in mathematics allow one to speak about the world in a way that is “true”?