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Cormac McCarthy Returns to the Kekulé Problem

Answers to questions and questions that cannot be answered.

Robert Musil, in his Man Without Qualities, wrote that a Soul is “That which crawls away and hides whenever someone mentions algebra.”…By Cormac McCarthy

Robert Musil, in his Man Without Qualities, wrote that a Soul is “That which crawls away and hides whenever someone mentions algebra.” According to his friend, Elias Canetti, Musil “felt at home and seemed natural among scientists,” as distinct from most “people against whom his only defense was silence.” These sentiments might be attached to Cormac McCarthy, hence the astonishment of many to his recent article in this magazine, “The Kekulé Problem,” where his scientific imagination set out for a wide-ranging constitutional in the territories of linguistic provenance before returning to the sanctuary of our mountain community.

The region Cormac sought to explore was the intersection of organic and cultural evolution as revealed by that remarkable human instrument—combinatorial grammar. It is the enigma of the material brain—in almost all particulars indistinguishable from those of our nearest primate cousins—acquiring through the unknown mechanics of culture an ability that enables the gifts of poetry, prose, mathematics, and material and temporal transcendence.

Readers wrote to Cormac with appreciation, suggestions, criticisms, prior claims, essays, unpublished and unpublishable monographs, and genuine interest in an author condensing into a scholarly mind from the mists of narrative invention.

Here is his reply. It is an honest work of discussion leavened by mischief. I would reckon that this contribution marks a close to Cormac’s participation in this public debate.

—David Krakauer
President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Santa Fe Institute (SFI)


My brother Dennis has brought me a fat stack of comments on “The Kekulé Problem” as published in Nautilus. A few of these I thought might be commented on in turn.

I havent read the William Burroughs book that several people mentioned in which apparently language is compared to a virus. The only Burroughs book I’ve read is Naked Lunch. One reader seemed to know that that is just what I would say. Bloody McCarthy lies about everything. Naked Lunch was supposedly so named by Jack Kerouac. When Burroughs wanted to know what it meant, Kerouac said that it was that frozen moment when everybody sees what’s on the end of the fork. Or so the story.

Sarah wrote with a number of questions that are my questions too.

I would not have thought that the distinction between useful and necessary—as regards language—would pose a difficulty for the average bear. The fact that language has found its way into the portfolio of but a single species should be all that one needs to know in order to properly categorize it. But apparently not. Some of the biolinguistic people do admit that the mission upon which they are bent is looking increasingly intractable. But the notion that language is a human invention—like parcheesi or marmalade—seems to be distressing to them. Resistance to reasonable ideas in science and elsewhere is often influenced more by what we know than what we dont. Entrenched ideas can be difficult to dislocate.

There is nothing in nature to suggest that a sound can be representative of an object.

One reader writes: “The vast majority of dreams and reveries dont involve major problems in the history of science.” Baffling. Who would suggest such a thing?

The difference between the conscious and the unconscious is not a function of language and the paper suggests no such thing.

There is no claim in the paper that the unconscious is “language free.” Quite the opposite.

I would have thought that everyone knows why we have diverse languages. It’s why we cant read Old English. It’s why Finns and Hungarians cant converse.

Some were exercised about the paper’s claim that the pictorial arts preceded language in our evolutionary history. How do we know that? Here’s how we know that: The pictorial is a first order representation. A picture of a deer can be understood to be a deer without further explication. But the word deer represents another category. It is a second order representation. It cannot be understood on its own. The naming of things is a wholly artificial construct. There is nothing in nature to suggest that a sound can be representative of an object. Before you leap to your computer to argue please reflect on this. It is what takes place at the well in The Miracle Worker. The word water is water and it is so solely because we say it is.

Children raised in a feral state do not learn to speak. Do they learn to draw?

Some readers wrote about the subconscious. I dont know what that is.

What is true is that the world has a great deal to tell us while we have nothing at all to tell it.

The evolution of the eye has been frequently trotted out by the intelligent designers as an example of the designated. The teleological. Some very thoughtful evolutionary biologists think that there is something missing in the present Darwinian schema. Darwin himself is among them. The eye has been constructed—and several times over—in the absolute absence of any idea of such an apparatus—by simply deleting anything not conducive to eyehood in what we have as we go along. There are other ways of putting this. Some of them fairly brutal.

Moving along. Language being so useful it would most likely have showed up—if it were biological—a number of times in a number of species by now. Everything else did. You probably dont even need to be all that smart. Granted that even dull humans are fairly bright on the general scale of intelligence, still you have to dredge fairly deep to find people who cant talk. Feeding and dressing oneself may actually be more difficult. Until fairly recently it was at least conjectured that faculties such as vision might well have a single ancestor. The thinking was that anything so unique was unlikely to appear with any great frequency. Today our view is pretty much the opposite and we have hard evidence for the evolution of vision—our popular example—quite a number of times. What we have no evidence for is language evolving a number of times. The reason being of course that language is not a biological innovation. It is a human invention, and human inventions are magical in that they give life to what heretofore had no existence. Our good working ideas have the capacity to direct our lives in a manner indistinguishable from any other reality. There’s more. The way in which the reality of the world becomes incorporated into our being, while poorly understood, is the salient fact of our existence. It is not true of course that we are born blank slates. What is true is that the world has a great deal to tell us while we have nothing at all to tell it.

The Kekulé Problem

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague...READ MORE

At least one reader wrote in to say that McCarthy is not writing about linguistics. Nevertheless other readers wrote in to suggest that he take some “classes in basic linguistics.” Actually at SFI we’ve tracked the doings of the linguistic folks out there for some time. With a certain bemusement. Finally Murray Gell-Mann—one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute and a long time friend of this writer—established a linguistics program for us, using money given to him by the MacArthur Foundation. We were immediately swamped with queries from top linguists all over the world. Sergei Starostin became an active member immediately and spent a good part of each year with us until his untimely death in 2005. He published his Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages while at SFI and I worked with him on the English translation until we got it done. You could hear us laughing all over the building. Lovely man. I seldom had a better time. If this seems unlikely, you’ll find my name acknowledged in the book. Sergei’s son Georgiy Starostin—himself a distinguished linguist and a good friend—is on our faculty and spends time with us every year. A few years ago there was a lengthy piece in The New York Times that aimed at bringing their readers up to date on the status of the science of linguistics. We read it with some interest if not trepidation. It was close to book length but we persevered. And we breathed a sigh of relief to find that the linguistics program at the Santa Fe Institute was not even mentioned.

A good part of the work that our linguists at SFI have been engaged in consists in tracing the histories of the world’s languages. We believe that these languages share a common origin. We believe in an Ur language. We believe that language is based on an idea. The idea of representation. And although this seems a simple enough notion it apparently is not. And while there is every evidence that language is an idea there is no evidence that it was thought of more than once. Which of course is all that would be required.

They are the languages of this world but they are not—that we know of—languages of the universe.

No one seemed particularly interested in Helen Keller. Or the question of how her unconscious managed to communicate with her. It could neither speak to her nor draw pictures. Isnt that tantamount to saying that for all practical purposes she had no unconscious? Something missing in this scenario.

The universe in its billions of years remains a creation of total silence and total blackness. The incendiary explosions of the novae can be no more than optical constructions and no matter what your view of the nature of reality they can have no existence in the absence of an eye or something very like it. And the likelihood of such an instrument coming into being anywhere other than in the natural history of the earth seems more than vanishingly slim. The truth is that there is limited evidence for the existence of the visual. (What? What’s he saying?) To what might it be compared? That which is seen is pretty much left to speak for itself. As is that which is said.

There is more to be considered concerning the structure of language. Our understanding of the world at large is formed by our experience of that world in a way which is difficult to exaggerate. This is Nietzsche on the subject, even if he doesnt go far enough:

However far human knowledge may extend or however objective that knowledge may appear to be it is nevertheless largely only our own life stories.

We’ve little reason to assume that the common structure of language—which all human languages share—is either the most effective or indeed the only form which language can take. The fact that all languages can be translated one into the other should tell us something about the common nature of their histories. The structure of these languages—their syntax and grammar and their general form—more than suggests that they have a single origin. But it further elicits the question as to whether or not this is a structure which enjoys an independent standing. Or whether other forms might be not only possible but even preferable. If intelligent beings from other parts of the universe should attempt to converse with us would their language be translatable? Would it share enough of our notions of how to go about describing the world for us to correlate it? Our languages in their form and in their structure are a single language. They are the languages of this world but they are not—that we know of—languages of the universe. We’ve no reason to believe that there is, or could be, such a thing. We might further consider that the form of language and its usage have at once influenced our view of reality as indeed has our experience of the world continued to influence our language. There is little evidence for selection in the shaping of language. A good part of what we experience appears in the form of frozen accident. As indeed does a good part of human experience in general.

Before language men did not know that other men dreamt.


Cormac McCarthy is a board member and senior fellow of the Santa Fe Institute.

Lead photo: Jim Spellman / Contributor / Getty Images

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