Saturday, February 19, 2011

Political nonsense and secondary sense

People's thinking about political matters often seems tangled. For instance, Morrissey's rejection of David Cameron's being a fan of The Smiths seems to combine opposition to animal cruelty with opposition to monarchy and the general socio-economic system that goes with it. This isn't necessarily a mistake, but it might partly explain why some people in Britain are so opposed to fox hunting, while no one in the United States seems to care about it at all. I'm sure some defenders of hunting rights in the US are also motivated in part by their dislike of "Yankees," or "liberal elites," or "do-gooder hippies," etc. So there's the hunting itself, which people might support or oppose for various reasons, and then also the symbolic value or social meaning of hunting, which also stirs emotions for and against it. I'm not sure how far we can separate the two, since it's hard to see how we can understand a practice without understanding its role or place in our lives. But it seems a good idea to try to keep the two apart (as much as we can without distorting the facts) in thinking about the issues.

I wonder whether something similar is involved in understanding the strange beliefs many people seem to have about evolution, global climate change, Obama's "real" country of birth, and so on. There's a good post about these shibboleths of the Republican Party by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber. He writes:
My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

The four possibilities listed here might be characterized as (in order) stupidity, lying, nonsense, and something like quibbling. But I wonder whether the last two might also, in some cases, be understood as cases of what Wittgenstein calls secondary uses of words. So the sentences "Obama was born in Kenya" and "Obama is a Muslim" are not believed in their literal sense, but are regarded as having a kind of symbolic value, and perhaps even as expressing a kind of truth other than the literal kind.

I am not suggesting that this justifies nonsense of this kind. I'm just trying to understand how so much bull is taken in and spouted by so many people. Perhaps we can understand the phenomenon better if we think of it as a (bad) kind of religious belief. And I think Wittgenstein's thinking is often helpful when trying to understand religious language and belief. But maybe 'doublethink' is a better term after all.

I might also need to do more to distinguish symbolic thinking from thinking that uses words in a secondary sense. They aren't the same thing. Morrissey might be failing to analyze the issues as much as he might, but he doesn't seem to be in the shibboleth business exactly. But I still feel as though there is a connection here that might be usefully articulated.

Or is this feeling an illusion?


  1. On Obama, I heard Michael Eric Dyson make a good case that the whole issue is probably a lot more tainted with implicit racism (or distrust, fear of the black man, etc.) than anyone would prefer to admit in a country where "race is no longer an issue." (This was at the Chuatauqua lecture he gave at EKU a few weeks ago.)

    I know of at least one person who, after voting for Obama, announced this by saying that he or she had "voted for the nigger." And I'm pretty sure this wasn't being used in a secondary sense sort of way.

    (Some) people want, I think, to believe fantastic things. Think about these studies where people are shown a performance by a "magician" and a large percentage believe that something supernatural occurred. Even after told that it's just an illusion, roughly the same percentage of people continue to believe that something supernatural occurred. (A psych prof told me about this recently.)

  2. Yes, I'm sure racism has a lot to do with the strange things people say about Obama. And if all they really mean is that they don't like him because he's African-American, then there is no secondary sense here. The more I think about all of this, the less I think that secondary sense comes into it, in fact.

    But there is symbolic thinking of some kind (in some cases, I mean, not necessarily the Obama ones), I'm pretty sure. There is a reason why the so-called reality-based community has something to contrast itself with. And I don't think that all of this is racism, stupidity, and lies (although that combination makes up much of it, no doubt). What I'm less sure about is whether this can be completely avoided and whether it is always a bad thing. Mostly, though, it seems to involve harmful fantasies.

  3. But I wonder whether the last two might also, in some cases, be understood as cases of what Wittgenstein calls secondary uses of words. So the sentences "Obama was born in Kenya" and "Obama is a Muslim" are not believed in their literal sense, but are regarded as having a kind of symbolic value, and perhaps even as expressing a kind of truth other than the literal kind.

    I have never found Old Witters's remarks on so-called "secondary use" to be particularly illuminating of anything; so I have serious doubts about whether they shed any light on the political utterances under discussion.

    Just to be exact about our source, I would point out that Witters does not, at least in the passage with which I am acquainted (PI, 3rd ed., p. 216), use the phrase 'secondary use'. His term is 'secondary meaning' (sekundäre Bedeutung). Anscombe translates 'Bedeutung' in this occurrence as 'sense', and elsewhere in the passage as 'meaning', making the passage read as if Witters is saying that we sometimes use a word with its customary meaning but a special secondary sense. In fact, he is simply inconsistent in the passage. First he says that when we say, e.g., that Wednesday is fat and Tuesday lean, 'fat' and 'lean' have their customary meaning (gewöhnliche Bedeutung); but just after that, he says that in such a case "one could speak of a 'primary' and a 'secondary' meaning of a word" ("Hier könnte man von 'primärer' und 'sekundärer' Bedeutung eines Wortes reden"). If one is intent on reconciling these two passages, it seems to me that one could only do so by laying stress on the word 'could'; but if Witters is not committing himself to a distinction between primary and secondary meaning, what is the point of the passage? If, on the other hand, he is proposing such a distinction, how is that to be reconciled with his saying that the words in question have only their customary meaning and not some other?

    Witters does say that, in the context in question, the words 'fat' and 'lean' have "eine andere Verwendung," which Anscombe translates as "a different use." But if I am not mistaken, 'Verwendung' is closer in sense to 'application' than to 'use'. In contrast to 'Gebrauch', it does not mean a repeatable way of using a word but rather an instance in which a word is used in combination with particular other words or with reference to a particular thing. So when Witters says, in answer to the question, "Haben nun hier 'fett' und 'mager' eine andere, als ihre gewöhnliche Bedeutung?", "Sie haben eine andere Verwendung," he is not giving an informative answer to the question but putting off his questioner with a banality. Of course the words are being used in a different application from their ordinary one! They are being applied to days of the week rather than to bodily things! The phrase "eine andere Verwendung" does not introduce a new concept of "secondary use of words" but is simply an attempt to evade or to stupefy our demand for an explanation of what is going on here.

    Lest this point seem to hinge on the translation of one particular German noun, just suppose that we translate Witters's answer to his interlocutor as Anscombe does: "They [the words 'fat' and 'lean'] have a different use." Well, is this "use" one that extends to other things besides days of the week? If someone says, e.g., that the piano sonatas of Beethoven are fat and those of Schubert are lean, is this the "same use" or a different one? I take it that the question is patently senseless, because we have no basis for determining sameness or difference of "use" here.

    (Break because of excessive length; comment continued below.)

  4. (Continuation:)

    Witters never says in general terms what the phenomenon is that he means to examine, and his chosen example is, for me at least, anything but compelling: I have no inclination to say that Wednesday is fat and Tuesday lean or the other way around, and I don't see why I should care if someone else has got an inclination to say the one or the other. We are, therefore, left to our own devices to figure out what he is talking about. It seems to me that he is talking about uses of words that have the following characteristics: (1) We (whichever speakers are concerned) apply the word in a fashion that we know to be logically incongruous: we apply it to a thing in the wrong logical category. (2) We intend the word to have no meaning other than its ordinary meaning. (3) The ability to make or understand such an application of the word depends on a command of its ordinary use. (4) We cannot express what we mean by means of other concepts. (Witters does say Begriffe--translated (perversely, I think) by Anscombe as 'ideas'--and not 'Worte' at this point, and also at the beginning of the passage.) (5) We are not speaking metaphorically.

    I take these to be the defining features of the linguistic phenomenon that Witters is talking about. Of these, which ones can possibly apply to the utterances of birthers and conservative wackos? I would say, working backwards: (5) (not metaphor), definitely; (4) (not expressible in different concepts), almost certainly--setting aside difficulties arising from the indeterminacy of what we mean here by 'same' or 'different'; (3) (use depends on command of ordinary use), certainly; (2) (ordinary meaning of words), probably; but (1) (willful category mistake), certainly not. There is a factual falsehood and improbability in these utterances; but there is certainly no transgression of logical categories. Further the fact that people who make these assertions commonly offer arguments in support of them and attempt to refute counterarguments renders it extremely unlikely that they intend anything other than a plain and literal assertion.

    Your post raised interesting issues for me (hence my writing a comment that is longer than in), but I don't think that your idea gets off the ground.

  5. Thanks, MKR. I think I have more time for the concept of secondary use than you do, but I agree with your 5-point analysis (which is helpful--thanks) and your final verdict on the main idea in my post--it doesn't really get off the ground. I'm glad it at least raised some interesting issues.

    I wonder what to say about the 'doublethink' cases, if there are any. These are the people who know that Obama was born in Hawaii "in some mundane sense" but also "believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer." What is going on here would depend, I suppose, on what kind of contrast we should draw between the mundane sense and the other, ideologically-motivated sense. But I think the right term for the latter would simply be nonsense.

  6. I recall reading a discussion of the high percentage of Republicans in polls purporting to doubt that Obama was born in the US which argued that such reactions are rather a kind of blind gesture of discontent and distrust than a sincere profession of belief or disbelief. Unfortunately, I don't recall the particulars of the argument or where I saw the article. But I am not sure that it makes much difference if such people suffer from a failure of cognition of the external world (doubting beyond reasonable doubt) or a failure of cognition of self (professing doubts that they do not genuinely feel): one way or the other, they exhibit a dire cognitive impairment.

    The only discussion of Wittgenstein on secondary use of words that I have read is Tilghman's in the last chapter of But Is It Art? (1984); but it seems that several articles on the subject have been published in recent years by Michel Ter Hark. I found references to the following articles, the first of which is, at the moment at least, available on line:

    Michel ter Hark. Coloured Vowels: Wittgenstein on Synaesthesia and Secondary Meaning. Philosophia Volume 37, Number 4, 589-604

    Michel Ter Hark (2007). Tennis Without a Ball' : Wittgenstein on Secondary Sense. In Danièle Moyal-Sharrock (ed.), Perspicuous Presentations: Essays on Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Psychology. Palgrave Macmillan.

    Michel ter Hark (2010). Experience of Meaning, Secondary Use and Aesthetics. Philosophical Investigations 33 (2): 142-158.

    Michel ter Hark (2008). Wittgenstein, the Secondary Use of Words and Child Psychology. In David K. Levy & Edoardo Zamuner (eds.), Wittgenstein's Enduring Arguments. Routledge.

  7. Yes, something is going wrong cognitively in these cases. I think it would be good to pin down exactly what it is, partly just so that we can understand it and partly so that we c an address the problem. Everyone who teaches critical thinking ought to be concerned about this kind of thing, and almost every college teacher in the USA at least claims to teach critical thinking.

    I have read (and liked, as I recall) some of Michel ter Hark's work. I think it was the third of the papers you list above. Thanks for the references. I like Cora Diamond's essay "Secondary Sense" in The Realistic Spirit and Stephen Mulhall's discussion of the idea in his book on Wittgenstein's idea of private language. I don't think either is online, but Google books might be some help.