Essay 105: The Captive Mind Book and Intellectual Danger

The Captive Mind, by Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, is a classic work in the domain of “mental freedom” and resistance to propaganda and every kind of brainwashing. Every nation state is to some extent a “lie factory” and a “deception machine.” A person has to “fend off” this manipulative or ideological power grab.

This very handbook of mini-essays, “Meta Intelligence,” is itself partly a defense of the non-captive mind, in the tradition of the Miłosz book. On the other hand, there’s a danger here “on the other side” since there’s a “free floating intellectual” temptation to take a sneering attitude towards all belief systems and to look down on the average person. There are dangers on all sides of this “non-captivity” of the mind. By embracing globalized and cosmopolitan education and by looking for knowledge connections in lectures, fields, universities, we look for a mental stance which is non-captive but not dismissive of believers. The French have a saying for this sense of intellectual superiority, “de haut en bas,” talking from “high to low,” from top to bottom.

Our purpose is to promote educational understanding, re-enchantment and “homemade” exercises in holism and not to promote superiority attitudes. Herman Melville’s Ishmael, the only survivor in Moby-Dick is tolerant and cosmopolitan and not exclusionary or monomaniacal like Ahab or Starbuck. Ishmael’s receptivity to things is a good model for such improved education, whether by life, whaling ships, academe.

The Captive Mind (Polish: Zniewolony umysł) is a 1953 work of nonfiction by Polish writer, poet, academic and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz.

It was first published in English translation by Secker and Warburg in 1953. The work was written soon after the author’s defection from Stalinist Poland in 1951. While writing The Captive Mind, Miłosz drew upon his experiences as an illegal author during the Nazi Occupation and of being a member of the ruling class of the postwar People’s Republic of Poland. The book attempts to explain the allure of Stalinism to intellectuals, the thought processes of those who believe in it, and the existence of both dissent and collaboration within the post-war Soviet Bloc. Miłosz describes the book as having been written “under great inner conflict.”

Czesław Miłosz was a Polish-American poet, prose writer, translator, and diplomat. Regarded as one of the great poets of the twentieth century, he won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Born: June 30, 1911, Šeteniai, Lithuania
Died: August 14, 2004, Kraków, Poland
Awards: Nobel Prize in Literature

Essay 37: The Language Phenomenon in Education

Wittgenstein (1889–1951) identifies language as the principal “confusion-machine” within philosophy:

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.

“What is your aim in philosophy?—To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

Education if deep and meaningful would put language itself in front of a student to understand the “bewitchment” and to perhaps “escape from the fly-bottle.” The fly-bottle is roughly “the captive mind syndrome” described by Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet-thinker.

There are various aspects of this language-watching:

Hans-Georg Gadamer (Heidegger’s successor, who died in 2002) writes:

“It is not that scientific methods are mistaken, but ‘this does not mean that people would be able to solve the problems that face us, peaceful coexistence of peoples and the preservation of the balance of nature, with science as such. It is obvious that not mathematics but the linguistic nature of people is the basis of civilization.’”

(German Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 122/123)

This is readily seeable. Imagine Einstein and Kurt Gödel walking near the Princeton campus. They speak to each other in German, their native tongue which they both “inhabit.” Gödel communicates the limits to logic and Einstein the limits to modern physics such as quantum mechanics. They bring in Bohr and Heisenberg and the “Copenhagen Interpretation” as a counter-view. They refer to equations and experiments and conjectures and puzzles, current papers and conferences.

They take “communicative action” by use of speech using German as a means.

There are two levels here that are always confused: the ontological (i.e., all the why-questions people ask using language) and the ontic level, all the how-questions people pose using mathematics and laboratory results (e.g., Higgs boson).

Gödel once made the observation that if you look at language as a kind of logical system, it’s absolutely puzzling that people can communicate at all since language is so utterly ambiguous and “polyvalent.”

Take the sentence: “Men now count.” Out of context, does it mean count as in the sense of numeracy, one, two, three apples in front of me or do you mean perhaps that men in a certain country were given the right to vote and now “count” politically. Without the context and the ability to contextualize, no sentence by itself makes certain sense at all.

This is partly why Wittgenstein sees philosophy problems as “language games.”

Heidegger coming from “being-in-the-world” as foundational, and calls language “the house of being.”

You inhabit a native language the way you “inhabit” a family home or a home town. You flow through.

When a child of ten plays marbles (as analyzed by Piaget) and his native language (say French) comes pouring out of him in a spontaneous gusher, how can we really explain it since the child doesn’t look up syntactical rules and grammatical definitions when he speaks. The words flow.

Heidegger retorts that language speaks you in other words, you’re channeling the language in a way a songwriter explains how a song comes to him. In the end, it’s something spontaneous and not propositional like grammar is.

A moment’s reflection shows you how “slippery” language is: 

A man driving to New York says to you, “the car died on me halfway there.”  He does not mean the car was “on” him physically. To die on doesn’t really mean perish forever, it means, on average, stopped to function in a way that usually can be fixed in the garage.  It means this reparable conking out of the car gave him a big headache and aggravation as he waited for the Triple A people to get there and do the paperwork. You visualize all these layers and twists.

Again, without a human context, the sentence “the car died on me” makes little sense. Without a human context, “the sky is blue” makes incomplete sense too. Does a camel or cricket see a blue sky?

A full education would explore these dimensions of language and this has nothing to do with bringing back Latin or Greek or studying a foreign language to meet a Ph.D. requirement.  Formal linguistics à la Chomsky, Fodor, Katz, etc. is not what’s being discussed, as interesting as all that might be.

It also is not about language genes such as FAP-2 or how vocal cords work since these questions are ontic (i.e., how does it work?) and not ontological (i.e., what does something mean or imply?). Thinking about language in an engineering sense with the human mouth as a “buccal cavity” is quite legitimate and a voice coach might do well to do that.  We are talking about something else:  the centrality of language in human self-understanding, functioning and the making of meaning.