Saturday, April 19, 2014

Reality is not real

A memorable moment from this article about honor codes:
Ms. Liddell shares a similar sentiment: “The honor code is a nice idea and we don’t really need it.” So I asked her, “Isn’t that the opposite of what you tell people when you work as a tour guide — isn’t the honor code a critical sell?” She paused. “I do tell that to tours. But what is reality if not stories we tell ourselves? Stories about how the honor code means something, stories about the value of education that got you to Middlebury — all of that are just stories. It’s all important, but none of that has to be true or real.
 Sigh.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

San Diego

I'm going to the Pacific Division Meeting of the APA this week, so blogging might be light (or heavy or exactly the same). Is there anything I should make a point of seeing? I haven't read the whole program yet, but a quick search showed that the session I would most like to attend clashes with the one I'm part of. Oh well.

In other news, my book appears to be out now. At least I got my copies on Friday, so I assume others are available. Hooray.

Punk leads to Putin?

Jon Cogburn:
Punk is great art, but the nihilism leads to Putinism. Again, consider the United States. We had two punk eras, punk proper and grunge. Analogous  to Russian punk and Putinism, punk proper led to Thatcher/Reagan and grunge to Bush the younger.
Robert Paul Wolff:
All societies exist for the purpose of transferring wealth from those who create it -- the poor -- to those who do not -- the rich.  The academic professions exist for the purpose of rationalizing this transfer, the churches exist for the purpose of blessing it, and the arts exist for the purpose of decorating the transfer so as to make it as charming as possible [even though this often comes to nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.]
Cogburn is always right (in the sense that he is always edifying) even if some of his individual points are wrong (and he sometimes retracts things he's said, so he must be wrong sometimes). Here he looks wrong, but I think we have to go with the "nihilism leads to Putinism" part of the quote above rather than the "punk proper led to Thatcher" bit. Earlier on he says this:
For rock to be rock, there must be an audience base that believes in the possibility of liberation. Once that is gone, rock isn't really possible. And when rock stops being rock, its parents (blues and country) get a divorce. And, like a lot of children of divorce, rock gets angry and starts acting out. It becomes punk.
So the real problem, as he sees it, is the possibility of liberation, or the ability to believe in this possibility. And that ability apparently declined in the 1970s. Hence both David Bowie's "We never got it off on that revolution stuff/ What a drag--too many snags" and Hawkwind's "We used up all of our magic powers trying to do it in the road," in their rejection of Beatles politics in favor of violent revolution (the lines are from the song "Urban Guerrilla"). Bowie, too, rejects the Beatles and the Stones in favor of glam rock, which involves dressing like a queen but also kicking like a mule and drinking a lot of wine. Punk is roughly a combination of the would-be terrorist strain of hippiedom and the gaudy hooliganism of glam rock. It doesn't lead to Putin or Thatcher or Reagan, but the same despair that fuels it also opens the door to the likes of them. In short, Cogburn is right.

What about Wolff? It's not plausible that societies are a sort of con job that the poor are tricked into in order for the rich to be able to either take from them or use them to take from other poor people. Societies exist in the same kind of way that schools of fish and swarms of bees exist. That's just how human beings come: in packs. It's also relevant that we would struggle to survive otherwise.

But once we are in a society (which we are, as they say, always already) what then is the guiding mission of the society? Wolff's claim about the purpose of all societies looks plausible as an answer to this question. And the rest of what he says seems about right too. Except that there are norms internal to academia and the church and the arts that go against this idea. Academia might be allowed and even encouraged because it helps the rich get richer, but the norms of academia don't themselves directly promote this kind of useful idiocy. Nor, of course, do those of the churches or the arts. So I think views like Wolff's are true a lot of the time, maybe most of the time, maybe 90% of the time, but I don't think they are entirely true. Comically or not, I think he's exaggerating (and presumably he knows it, since I doubt he really thinks of himself as rationalizing the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich).

Does punk then put lipstick on the pig? Real punk doesn't. This was always the complaint about disco and other kinds of mainstream pop music: they are and were a distraction from political reality, or perhaps just reality in general. Pretty much the definition of alternative music, which includes punk, is that it doesn't do this. The hard part is to be true to this ideal while not being godawful musically. It can be done, but the audience is always going to be relatively small. The Red Wedge tactic is never going to work. Which sounds like despair but only means that the goals of academia, religion, and the arts must be academic, religious, and artistic, not political. Art for art's sake, in other words.

Relativism as bullshit

A bullshitter does not primarily care whether what he says is true or false. His primary goal is to win votes, sell the car, get applause, make the teacher think he has read the paper he was supposed to read, generate buzz, or something of the sort. Bullshit is a sort of consequentialism in action (not that all consequentialism is bullshit, of course). If I don't know what I'm talking about (I haven't read the book, say) then I might sincerely hope that what I say is true, but first and foremost my concern is with appearing in a way that gets others to do what I want them to do. I am pretending.

Whenever anyone does anything they try to do it well, or properly, or at least adequately. Otherwise they are not really doing that thing but something else, such as pretending to do that thing or trying to make it look as though they have done that thing. If I mow the lawn and don't try to do even an adequate job then I am really just trying to pacify someone else (my neighbors, my wife, perhaps even my conscience), not to mow the lawn. I am making a show of mowing the lawn. And I will, in that case, care about putting on at least an adequate show.

Internal to everything we do is some sense of adequacy, if not goodness. We live by standards. We cannot do otherwise, but we also cannot live by standards while sincerely affirming that any standard whatsoever is just as good as any other. This would be one possible reason to deny that relativism exists at all. It's an impossible position to hold, so why bother trying to counter it? I agree that it is impossible to hold, in a way that is similar to the impossibility of thinking nonsense, but people still do utter (and 'think') nonsense. And I think they do fall into relativism, even of the very crude sort discussed in textbooks.  

Moral relativism typically shows up in the form of someone saying "it's all relative" when a discussion of ethics gets difficult (socially, intellectually, or in some other way). It's a way to disengage so as to avoid hurt feelings or hard work or boredom or whatever. Aesthetic relativism shows up when students treat artworks as something like bullshit, as content-irrelevant shows whose value is only to produce a certain effect. I once had a discussion with students who claimed not to care at all what the critical response had been to a movie. That is, they claimed it made no difference whatsoever to whether they would watch a movie if critics had universally praised or panned it. Of course they might have been exaggerating, but I think at least some of them really meant it. They had found no correlation at all between movies that get good reviews and movies that they enjoyed. (If you never read reviews this is hardly surprising, I suppose.) Their faculty for enjoying higher pleasures of the movie variety was seemingly non-existent.

There's a similar indifference to content in the way many students talk about responding to poetry. To hear them tell it, a typical essay about poetry is all bullshit. This probably is an exaggeration, and probably not exclusive to essays about poetry--minimum length requirements on any essay encourage bullshit, whatever compensating virtues they might have. But I bet most English professors encounter at least some bullshit when grading essays on poetry, and I expect there is more of it when it comes to poetry than in essays on, say, history or engineering where one can fall back on mindlessly listing facts. And it's not just students. Very large numbers of people, I think, really have no response to artworks beyond thumbs up or thumbs down.

That might be going too far, but I don't think it's going much too far. And so far as it is true, people can't be articulate about art because they have nothing to articulate. (Anything they do 'articulate' will be bullshit.) And then standards will be invisible to them.   

I had a point but I seem to have lost sight of it. One (boring) thing I want to say is that relativism is bullshit, in its crudest form it's simply impossible to believe or to mean. The possibly less boring thing I wanted to say is that bullshit is produced by people who care about effects and appearances, not content, and that relativism about aesthetic matters encourages the production of bullshit. If you don't believe that there is a difference between good art and bad--that the only relevant differences are between what is liked and what is disliked--then you won't try to produce good art (or good criticism), just popular art (or criticism). And something similar goes for ethics. As far as you think of your own ethics as just a product of your culture or genes or upbringing, etc., you will take an external kind of view of them, as if they are just part of a chain of cause and effect, and not something whose contents can be evaluated. This is not a position you can actually live in, but it is possible to insist on talking as if it were.

(I'm not sure that I am not confused about this, but when I started to write this post--several days ago--I felt as though I had an insight to share. I'm posting it now for whatever it might be worth.)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Making meaning

Given that Americans call chips what English people call crisps there ought to be a ready made fish'n'chips pun that I could use when talking about Stanley Fish on "The air is crisp." But the pun is eluding me. Here's the page of Fish's essay that I want to quote (sorry that the text shrinks at the end):


I have some concerns about the way Fish puts things, which I've mentioned before, but I think he is basically right here. There is no two-stage procedure in which a reader or hearer first scrutinizes an utterance and then gives it a meaning. At least in normal circumstances there are not two stages. As Fish goes on to say, sometimes one does have to "self-consciously figure out what an utterance means." But usually one does not. In normal circumstances utterances are heard in a context such that they are only heard one way, and the hearer or reader is in no position to confer a meaning on the utterance. This is what I take myself to mean when I say that we do not normally interpret utterances. 

I want now to address immanentforms' comment here against this background. What follows is the whole comment (indented) with my responses inserted here and there:
I would be happy to define "meaning-making" as "making sense of": either describes a process through which we come to understand a text or utterance.
I am not sure, though, that there is always a process through which we come to understand a text or utterance. If there is no point at which a determination of an utterance's meaning has not been made, as Fish says, then in what sense can there be a process through which the meaning of the utterance is determined? (Presumably there is a physical process of light bouncing off the pages of a book or sound waves getting into my ears, and then something happens in the brain, but this physical process is not what we mean when we talk about understanding. Otherwise we'd be reading science rather than papers by people like Fish.) Sometimes I understand only after going through a process. Usually I understand immediately. Indeed usually there is no room for the possibility of a process: the context limits the possible meanings to one.    
Both descriptions also emphasize in their language that sense/meaning is something we make, and that is, I think, inescapably the case, but not in a Humpty-Dumpty sense (he believes his words mean precisely what he wants them to, no more and no less).
I take Humpty Dumpty's mistake to be thinking that he gets to dictate what words mean, not that he gets to determine precisely what they mean. The context (social, historical, etc.) determines the meaning, not any individual. That goes for the speaker and the hearer. 
On the contrary, I would argue that we always say both more and less than we mean, and that an utterance, once it leaves our lips or is inscribed on the page, operates beyond our control or our intentions. We can try to convince others to interpret what we said in a certain light, but, at that point, we become hearers who have to interpret the utterance like everyone else.
I basically agree, although I don't think meanings change so quickly that there is any cause for alarm about what our words might start to mean after they leave our lips. And the speaker is not in exactly the same position as any other hearer. We do tend to allow that the speaker has some authority.
I think I can address two of your concerns--1) thinking of language as a medium will draw us into an "information transfer" model, and 2) if readers make meanings, then... (I'm less certain of your concern here, but I think it may be some version of that old bogeyman "relativism"). 
I'm not sure what part of what I wrote you're referring to under 2. But I am concerned (in general, not necessarily in the passage you have in mind) about relativism. The textbook relativism that people like to deride is a real phenomenon. You seem to be against it yourself at times. Fish certainly is. Not every understanding of a text or position on an issue is equally good or plausible. You and Fish bother to point this out. I sometimes want to do so too. How is that being concerned with an "old bogeyman"?  
I think we can resolve both problems by seeing language as the medium in which we make meanings (not a medium that carries meanings).
I don't understand this. When you say 'language' do you mean written marks and uttered sounds that don't (yet) have meaning, or written and spoken words that do have meaning? If it's the latter then I don't see how we make meanings in a medium that already has meaning. I can make a sentence (which has a meaning) out of words (that are already in currency), but is that an instance of me making meaning? Or is it my audience that supposedly makes the meaning? I would have thought that if the words are already in use then they already have a meaning. If, on the other hand, you mean that we make meanings in the medium of marks and sounds then how do we create meaning from such lifeless things? Surely marks and sounds get meaning by being used in certain ways, and then the medium in which meaning is made is human life, not language. However I take this sentence (the one I'm responding to in this whole paragraph) it seems to say only that human beings (not us in a much more specific sense) give language its meaning. If that's what you mean then I agree, but I suspect I'm missing something.      
Meaning is a function of the relationships between the utterance, the hearer, and the context of interpretation (including especially the hearer's interpretive community). Language is a medium (I don't know what else we could call it), but it doesn't hold packets of meaning. It is the medium in which we hear utterances and in which we make sense of them for ourselves and for those around us.
Again, I find myself unsure whether by 'utterances' you mean sounds (or marks) or intelligible sentences. If it's the former then I would want to emphasize your idea of a relationship between the utterance, the hearer, and the context (and why not the utterer too?). And the hearer really has very little to do with it. If you say, "pass the milk, please," then the meaning of this utterance depends very largely on what that sentence means in our language, maybe a little bit on your intention ("I said 'pass the milk' but what I meant was pass the bread"), and not really at all on what I take you to be saying. This might be what you mean, but to say "we make sense of utterances for ourselves" makes it sound to my ears as though we, as audience, have way more control than we actually do over what words mean. Alternatively, you might mean that we make sense of utterances (understood as already meaningful sentences) in the medium of language. But then language is both what the utterances are made of and the medium in which we make sense of them. And I don't think you can mean that.  
If language were a medium and readers/hearers didn't construct meanings (or participate in their construction), then meaning would have to be already present and available in the text/utterance, in which case language would be a vehicle for communicating pre-existing packets of meaning. But, meaning is not a thing that exists within the text (or, in Humpty-Dumpty's case, within the intentions of the speaker); meaning is a function of the relationship between text and reader (within a context/community).
Let me see. Is this (at least an important part of) the idea?
  1. Utterances have meanings, i.e. meanings of utterances exist. 
  2. These meanings have to come from somewhere.  
  3. They cannot already be in the utterances before these reach an audience, because then meanings would exist independently of acts of communication
  4. So the audience must create the meaning, or at least play a part in its creation
If this were true then I wonder how anyone would ever know what to say or write. How do we manage to predict so well what meanings our audiences are going to construct for the things we utter? I agree that the audience has a part to play in some circumstances. If I come up with a novel use of a word or string of words and no one has a clue what I'm on about then I have spoken nonsense, whereas if everyone (or a significant number of people) gets it then I have not spoken nonsense but innovated successfully. For the most part, though, the broad context (including the history of our language and the way we live and use words) determines which words have a use or a meaning and what this meaning is. The existence of exceptions does not refute this general truth. (Or so it seems to me. That is, I don't see how a few exceptions could prove that the rule was not true in most other cases.)
Recognizing the presence of an interpretive community is important. For starters, we did not teach ourselves language as individuals: we receive it from others and it always operates within our relationship to other speakers. Because the individual hearer/reader does not make meaning on her own--she interprets within a community of interpreters--she is not free to create just any meaning (and if she tries to, we can call her on it by offering more plausible alternative interpretations). If she persists in her idiosyncratic reading, we call her a bad reader or a solipsist (but probably not a relativist; again, I'm not certain about the content of your second objection). 
I agree with all of this, with the possible exception of the words "interpretive community." Language-users speak as well as hear. We speak and hear within a community of speakers and hearers. And just as individual speakers do not, Humpty Dumpty-like, get to determine the meanings of their words, neither do individual hearers get to determine the meanings of other people's words. Your way of putting things, here and elsewhere, suggests (to my mind) an asymmetry in favor of the hearer. In most cases I think meaning is determined entirely by the rules of the game (as these have been created by the entire community of language-users) and the specific circumstances in which words from that language have been uttered. Hearers have no more authority than speakers as far as I can see (qua hearers and speakers).
Understanding any piece of language--whether a vocal utterance or a written text--requires a process through which we discover or construct (I think it is always a combination of those) the significance of the utterance. Words (spoken as much as written) are arbitrary, conventional signs operating within linguistic systems and social structures, and they always carry some ambiguity that needs parsing (at bare minimum, "is this language" and "is it addressed to me"). 
Why think this ambiguity is always present? If the word 'ambiguity' is to have a meaning, it seems to me, then it must be a label that applies to some things but not others. So if non-ambiguity is possible, why assume that it is never actual? And if non-ambiguity can be achieved, why can't any particular combination of conventional signs along with the linguistic systems and social structures within which they operate (along with the particular circumstances in which those signs are used on a particular occasion) achieve it?
If you want to reserve the term "interpretation" for the process of understanding particularly ambiguous utterances (and I can see some reasons why this would be attractive), then we need another term for "the process of coming to understand an utterance."
Why not call this 'understanding'?
You said that "reading" would be the banal term, but it isn't so banal to talk about "reading speech" (and it would have to mean something other than recognizing written characters). If we don't interpret language, how do we come to understand it? Where does its meaning come from?
I take interpretation to be a process very similar to translation. You say something that I don't understand, that means nothing to me, and I try putting it in words that do mean something to me. This depends on my already having a language that I understand. So saying that we always interpret language (in this sense of 'interpret') doesn't answer the question of how we come to understand language. At most it explains how we come to understand a second language.

If by 'interpretation' we mean "the process of coming to understand an utterance" then, equally, very little is explained by saying that we come to understand language by the process of coming to understand the utterances of which language consists. 

Having said that, I don't think that I have an answer to the question of where meaning comes from. But I don't think anyone does.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Taking things literally

It's hard to say what the word 'literally' means. When I was in graduate school someone suggested that the literal meaning of a word is its most common use, and Wikipedia echoes this in part. But I suspect the most common use of the word 'literal' itself is incorrect and therefore not literal. If someone says "It was literally raining cats and dogs" they (probably) mean it was raining as much as it does when people typically say "It is raining cats and dogs." They don't mean that it was literally raining cats and dogs, i.e. that animals are falling from the sky. Literal meaning is better understood, I think, as non-figurative rather than normal or common meaning.

Why should anybody care? I suppose because of the people who say we should read the Bible and the US Constitution (etc.) literally. It's a political issue, in other words, since literalism is generally used to support conservative views. Against those who emphasize the (supposedly) loving spirit of the Bible or the liberal (and, e.g., supposedly pro-choice) spirit of the Constitution, literalists will insist on following the letter of the law. Along with rights to guns and no rights for gays, this leads to such additional benefits as the denial of evolution. So it's a big deal.

Having said that, debates about constitutional interpretation tend not to focus on literalism but on such theories or positions as originalism. For a response to that position I defer to Sean Wilson. One problem with taking the Constitution literally is that doing so doesn't give people what they want. The House of Representatives is not literally a house (not only is it not a place inhabited by a family, it is not a building at all but a group of people), the right to bear arms is not literally just a right to carry weapons but to use them, and talk of rights is hard to take literally at all--what is a literal right? Words like 'rights' don't have a clear, non-figurative meaning. When people say they believe in taking the Constitution literally they mean that they support something like originalism, which is clearly a kind of interpretation, one way among a plurality of ways of taking the Constitution. In this case, then, literalism does not get us away from interpretation. There is no option but to interpret (or ignore) the Constitution in one way or another.

Something similar goes for the Bible too. No sane person would deny that there is figurative language in the Bible. People who say they want to take the text literally don't really mean that. They mean they want to avoid over-interpretation (who doesn't?) and that they believe other people are guilty of such over-interpretation. This position faces problems, such as how to deal with the apparent contradictions in the Bible and what it could mean for the Earth and sun (and everything else) to have been created in six literal days, but these are not necessarily insurmountable. The point I want to make is that Biblical "literalists" don't actually take the Bible literally (i.e. completely non-figuratively). They support a particular kind of interpretation.

Does it follow that no utterances have a literal meaning, that all call for interpretation? No. However unlikely it might be, I could mean "It's raining cats and dogs" literally. Do utterances always need interpretation? No. They always need to be understood (if they are to be understood) but nothing is gained by calling understanding interpretation. Does understanding always take place within a context? Of course. Does this context matter to the meanings of words? Of course. Is understanding therefore always in fact a case of interpretation? No.

What about literature? Does a novel or poem have a literal meaning? I don't see why we shouldn't say so. Some literature is more figurative, some less so. "I caught this morning morning's minion" should not be taken literally: he wasn't out catching birds. But is he talking about a literal falcon or is this a metaphor? Or both? These seem like reasonable questions. It is useful to be able to distinguish a literal from a figurative reading, so why not allow for such distinctions? Is the literal reading not an interpretation? It is a way of taking the poem. And in the case of this particular poem, which is full of figurative language, it seems that any way of taking it is going to be an interpretation. But I don't see that anything is gained by saying that all takings are interpretations. If you recite a poem about an old man from Nantucket who has an unfortunate episode with a bucket, and I laugh then I am not interpreting your poem as funny. I do, I suppose, take it to be funny, but even that is a bit of an odd way to put the point. I just react.

Now, it might be objected that I don't just react. I react within a certain context, which has historical, political, social, etc. aspects. That's true. But it's also true that I react within a certain physical context: I am breathing air near the surface of the planet, etc. It's still true that I just react because "just react" means react-without-having-to-do-any-such-thing-as-stop-and-think. It does not mean that I react and do nothing else whatsoever, including existing within various kinds of contexts. Nor does it deny that these contexts affect the way (or fact that) I react. We shouldn't take the word 'just' here literally.            

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thanks

From the acknowledgements in my new book:
I have many people to thank for what is good and none to blame (except myself) for what is bad in this book. I should first thank Jon Woronoff for inviting me to engage in what has been a great exercise in re-reading and trying to articulate clearly thoughts that I have, in some cases, never had to write out before now. These thoughts have been shaped mostly by Wittgenstein himself of course, but my reading of Wittgenstein has been inspired and influenced by a series of teachers. My first philosophy teachers, Edmund Prestwich and Geoff Willis, were not Wittgensteinians but did inspire in me a love of the subject. I was really introduced to Wittgenstein’s work by my friend Jane Davies, who studied his work formally with Stephen Mulhall. As a graduate student at Swansea I learned from Rush Rhees, my supervisor D. Z. Phillips, and my friend Catherine Gardner. I was also introduced there to the work of Cora Diamond, who was later my dissertation adviser at the University of Virginia. Since then, in developing the understanding that was reflected in the first edition of this book, I benefited from discussions with Bill Brenner, Lars Hertzberg, Tim Kjeldsen, Stuart Mirsky, Guenter Trendler, Kirby Urner, and T. P. Uschanov. That was almost a decade ago. In the intervening time I have continued to learn from some of the people I named above and from some new people, notably the members of the Virginia Wittgenstein Workshop started by James C. Klagge, from commenters on my blog, especially Reshef Agam-Segal, Philip Cartwright, Joshua Kortbein, and Matthew Pianalto, and from my students at the Virginia Military Institute. I am grateful to them all.
I hope I'm right that dmf prefers anonymity, but thanks to you too.