Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Notes on Bérubé

Over at the Valve, there has been a continuing month-long pile-up on Michael Bérubé's latest opus on literature and politics. Most of the commenters there are literature and politics types, so their comments are more germane to his ultimate ends than will be the following ill-mannered philosophical gripes; but hey, he's a big boy, and besides, he brought it up. In a nutshell: in one sense, Bérubé is too postmodern, while in another he isn't postmodern enough. It is only fair to note that this post will feature an irresponsibly large ratio of flat assertion to careful argument. You have been warned.

Ahem. Michael Bérubé devotes chapter 6 of his recent book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? to a discussion of an undergraduate honors seminar he teaches called "Postmodernism and American Fiction." He's a literature professor, not a philosopher, but the course naturally includes a discussion of some properly philosophical topics. At a couple of spots in What's Liberal, Bérubé (hereinafter MB, so I don't have to keep making those accent marks) tells us what "many philosophy professors" do, to wit: "They complain that we literary types like to 'reduce' everything to texts and discourses, and we don't understand that they are searching for the immutable, nondiscursive truths of the universe." That is, most philosophy professors are what we call "metaphysical realists," who think that "literary types" are relativists and skeptics. It is true that philosophy harbors many such; but there are actual relativists and skeptics in English departments too, so, so there. I'm no realist, but that doesn't mean I agree 100% with MB's account of the matter, which MB rightly associates with that of Richard Rorty. Let me elaborate; first his views, then mine.

As an example of a realist, MB could have cited any number of people, from Roger Kimball to Jerry Fodor, but he actually turns to "philosopher Sam Harris" (he of the anti-religion polemic The End of Faith). Harris is actually a grad student in neuroscience, not a philosopher, but he apparently took a few courses with Rorty at Stanford, and feels he knows enough to set Rorty straight in his book, from which (specifically, a section entitled The Demon of Relativism) MB quotes (pp. 180-81): "In philosophical terms, [MB's text has "then," here] pragmatism can be directly opposed to realism," which Harris then goes on to defend in a predictably obtuse and table-thumping manner. We may put all that, such as it is, to one side for now, and turn to MB's response. Actually, I need Harris's punch line to set it up: "To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered—and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them."

So now MB responds.
The reason I disagree with Harris, the reason I am not what he calls an "ethical realist," is that I believe that gravity and slavery are different kinds of things, and that objective, observer-independent knowledge about gravity is possible but should not be taken as a model for knowledge about human affairs. I believe that there are mind-independent entities, and that you can check this for yourself by kicking a stone; but I do not understand how people like Harris, who are so stringently skeptical about religious belief [this – the supposed incongruity of Harris's objection given his other views – is MB's reason for citing Harris rather than, as he does immediately below, a realist philosopher like Thomas Nagel], can insist on the existence of mind-independent concepts. And this, as my students gradually come to understand, is an incommensurability. It is not an incommensurability about slavery itself; both the ethical realists and I are against it. It is an incommensurability with regard to how one justifies one's being against it (pp. 263-4).
Far be it from me to dispute the difference in kind between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften. And that difference may even be enough to license MB's actual practices re: liberalism. So I don't want to hit him too hard here, lest I be rightly accused of academic pedantry and/or turf-warring. On the other hand it did indeed seem as if the properly philosophical issues MB and Harris both bungle disagree with me about are indeed where the action is (as MB suspected when he brought them up in the first place).

In fact, MB has already received some heat on this point. At his blog he elaborates (comment #10):
Seriously, when I object to the idea of mind-independent concepts, I’m objecting to the notion that “in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered” (as Harris puts it): concepts that exist independently of any mind [as opposed to: ind. of my mind]. I think it’s a kinda quasireligious belief, which is why I find it so strange that Harris professes so strong a faith in it.
This helps, a bit. As it was, the notion of "mind-independence" was hopelessly ambiguous, and now it is somewhat less so (but only somewhat). And the idea of "truths waiting to be discovered" does indeed go down more smoothly w/r/t inquiry into facts (i.e. not just science) than to value determination, which it seems we hammer out among ourselves in a way unlike that of physics (that is, the hammering-out seems more constitutive of the content of the result, where in physics it concerns the epistemic justification for believing what we take to have been "already true"); and again, maybe that will be enough to licence MB's actual practice (or theoretical practice). But once the philosophical idea of metaphysical realism has been brought up, we absolutely cannot leave it at that. This is especially true in MB's explicitly Rortyan context. To his credit, he realizes this (and I support 100% his pedagogical decision to turn to literature at this point in the course, given its aims):
I wrapped up this part of the course by telling my students that if they wanted to pursue this further, with real philosophers, they should consult Richard Rorty for (most of) my end of the discussion, and Thomas Nagel—in The View From Nowhere, for a start—for one of the most salient responses to Rorty (p. 264)
As it happens I am very much like MB in one respect: my most profound philosophical influence has been Rorty, a fact which my many serious and fundamental differences with him sometimes make me forget. But it's true. Before Rorty, no-one was talking about bringing together Quine, Sellars, and Davidson, on the one hand, with Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and phenomenological hermeneutics on the other, let alone in the context of a revival of Deweyan pragmatism. Unfortunately, Rorty messes up the execution of this project; however, it is in an instructive and helpful way that he does so. So I totally get where MB is coming from w/r/t anti-foundationalism and all that. These remarks are this "real philosopher's" suggestions about where to go from here. If they are phrased in terms of criticism of what MB has actually written, let that not be taken to imply that he has misled his students unnecessarily, or that his postmodernism course, as described in the book, is anything less than terrific.

Enough! Here, then, are my worries:

My first gripe concerns the cutting of philosophical corners. It's understandable that people, especially non-philosophers, try to deal with the issue of realism and relativism in the moral/political context without first deciding what to say about scientific or commonsense facts. After all, that's what MB is interested in, ultimately: moral disagreement (e.g. about the rights of the disabled). This, plus, again, the acknowledged difference in kind between the Natur- and Geisteswissenschaften, makes it tempting to split the difference, defending anti-realism about morality by conceding realism about commonsense facts (e.g. Searle's version). But on my view resistance to realism must be global. If we don't see how a proper account of belief and meaning and truth and whatnot requires the rejection of realism in the *latter* case, then we can't see how it does so in the former case either, once the pernicious metaphysics has gotten a foothold. It takes more work (*much* more work) to do it the long way, but it's worth it. Maybe this will come out as I continue. But that's my most general worry – cutting corners in this sense.

Let's turn to Rorty, who does not cut corners in this way, but is admirably consistent in his rejection of realism. Unfortunately, this single-mindedness can result in some carelessness on his part. Rorty rightly pegs realism as a Cartesian position, committed to a metaphysical dualism of subject and object. And he is right again to reject the (rather silly, but remarkably persistent) idea that one avoids this dualism simply by rejecting its substance-dualistic manifestation and embracing materialism instead (a mistake Rorty himself seemed to be making even as late as chapter 2 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). And he does some other things right, which we'll get to. But he fails to understand how a conceptual dualism works -- and thus how easy it is to throw it out the window only to let it in through the back door (as materialists do). So in a sense he cuts corners as well, but in a different way.

In particular, Rorty has trouble keeping in mind that our primary target is not realism, but dualism, of which realism is but a symptom. The way he sees it, the problem with realism is its obsession with a "non-human authority" (i.e. a transcendent "real world"), which he sees (in Nietzschean fashion, or so he thinks) as a secular substitute for a transcendent deity. And now of course the pragmatist solution is to turn from metaphysical fantasy to practical reality. So while Rorty sometimes insists that he wants to reject the traditional philosophical oppositions (the "made" vs. the "found," etc.), what he actually ends up doing, a lot of the time, is rejecting them not by overcoming the dualism (which is hard), but instead by leaving it in place and simply erasing the transcendent disjunct (here, the "found"). Just as materialism does: in each case, the move is not from two distinct types of thing to one, as promised, but from two full boxes to ... two boxes, one full and one empty. This does not help.

Here's an example. Rorty has always insisted that the traditional problem of skepticism is of no interest once we see its roots in a pernicious conception of knowledge. And this is partly right: if we believe there is no transcendental gap between our internal states and what they "represent," then we are indeed not in the market for any philosophical bridges to cross that gap. However, that's only the beginning of that conversation, not the end. But I don't want to talk about the epistemological problem here. My point is this: since Rorty sees "skepticism" as essentially a problem for dogmatists (i.e., realists who hold we can bridge a transcendental gap between knower and known), we can avoid skepticism, on his view, by renouncing any desire to cross the gap in the first place. But this just is skepticism, of the Pyrrhonian variety. Again Rorty leaves the dualism in place.

It does not help here to push the skeptical attitude to the metalevel. MB applauds Rorty for not claiming that what he says (about truth and knowledge) is true, but saying instead merely that it's useful to act as if it were true. MB says this on his own behalf in other places, seeing this as a virtuous consistency, necessary to foil the traditional realist accusation of self-refutation. (Is Rorty's pragmatism "really true"? If we answer "yes," the familiar thought goes, then we affirm and renounce its truth in the same breath, a contradiction; but if we answer "no," then, Rorty feels, there's no problem.) Again, this is skepticism; and the problem with skepticism is that it makes hash of the notion of belief (and with it of meaning; of this more below). It is true that in particular cases we may intelligibly advocate acting, for instrumental reasons, as if something were true that we do not in fact believe to be the case. But this cannot be our general attitude. It makes no sense to argue passionately for a particular view, and then, when familiar muddles cause the conversation to grind to a halt, or spin its wheels uselessly, to cut the Gordian knot by saying, "oh well, I wasn't saying my view is true." Of course you were. If you weren't, then I was wrong to take you as believing it, and now I am more confused than ever. After all, if at the beginning I had said the things you say, wouldn't you have agreed? You wouldn't have said, no, I don't believe that -- but I do think we should act as if that were the case. That qualification only shows up when disagreement threatens. But then it means -- once belief is off the table -- that "disagreement" can't be the proper description of our problem. Again, this leads not only into the epistemological issues I have postponed, but also into my own highly unpopular take on them. I'll just claim here, as below, that I may consistently speak of truth without committing myself to the dreaded transcendental gap, nor reducing truth to consensus. Let's move on.

Wait, one more thing about this. MB mentions that Sartre quote about how if the fascists take over then fascism will be "the truth of man," and then so much the worse for us, and admires the "humility" he sees in Rorty's version of/attitude toward it. Here again, one person's "humility" is another's craven (and pointless!) skepticism. How can you refer to fascism being the "truth" -- even in that counterfactual situation -- if you don't believe it yourself? Feh. Belief is belief true, and vice versa; and abjuring belief is skepticism; and skepticism -- even the pre-Cartesian kind, in our context anyway -- is a dualistic position.

Now. Here's why that little dance -- pushing skepticism to the metalevel in order to justify (i.e. pragmatically) "belief" at the object level -- looks attractive to Rorty. He hasn't forgotten his rejection of dualism; it's just (on my account) that his anti-dualist strategy is fubar. Rorty believes (or whatever) that we can overcome the realism-antirealism dualism by seeing both positions as committed to an unacceptable "representationalism." Instead of trying to represent the "real world" outside us (an irretrievably Cartesian notion, in his view), we should abandon such fantasies and turn toward each other ("other inquirers huddled together against the dark," or something; you know, "solidarity" in his sense). If we allowed any normative connection to the world (i.e. "getting it right," as beliefs attempt to do), then that would screw up his anti-dualist strategy and force a choice between realism and anti-realism, which is what he is trying to avoid. Again, this is partly right, and indeed inspiring. Realism and anti-realism (including, ironically, Rorty's own) are indeed dualistically opposed, and can indeed be disposed of together once we see what they share; but what that is is not "representationalism" -- like "correspondence," a perfectly innocuous idea, properly construed -- but a conception of objectivity as dualistically opposed to subjectivity, metaphysically speaking. (Yet even that promising slogan is empty without a lot of unpacking.)

This leads to another of Rorty's favorite shibboleths, one which MB picks up as well. Following Dewey (and his similar rejection of the Cartesian "spectator theory of knowledge"), Rorty puts great stock in rejecting the "correspondence theory of truth" in favor of a "coherence" view. Again, the reason "coherence" looks to Rorty like an improvement over "correspondence" is that it allows him to say that our justificatory obligations are not to the world but instead, on the one hand, to the rest of our beliefs (with which the new belief must fit), and on the other, to our fellow inquirers (our relations with the world being "merely causal"). But this cannot eliminate the (normative) relation to the world. For something to be a belief at all -- and, not coincidentally, for the concepts that make it up to mean what they do in expressing the belief in question -- it must be held to be true of the world.

In his fight against "correspondence," Rorty has appealed to Davidson, who at first seems to agree -- though Davidson's commitment to "coherence" is half-hearted in spots (see "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," anthologized here) -- but it is Davidsonian considerations that thwart him (and eventually Davidson himself; but that's another story). For a belief to have the content it does -- for it to be a belief that P -- it must be appropriately sensitive to evidence that P is actually the case. That is, in order for you to convince me that X is indeed saying what you say X is saying -- that your interpretation of his words is correct -- you must show that the beliefs you ascribe to him in so doing are (that is, that he is) appropriately sensitive (whatever that may mean in the context) to evidence that the world is not that way. Which way? The way he believes it to be, on your account of what "P" means in his mouth when he asserts it. Naturally you will use your own terms, and refer to the world as you believe it to be, when telling me this. But that's okay; I'm in the same position w/r/t your utterances as you are to his, so that's been taken into account. And so on. All this is thoroughly Davidsonian (see "Three Varieties of Knowledge, in that same collection); which is one reason why we critics accuse Rorty's pragmatism -- here, in accepting "coherence" as a substitute for "correspondence" -- of being not pragmatist enough by his own lights (let alone ours).

I have similar gripes about Rorty's (and MB's) appeal to "anti-foundationalism," and their retreat to epistemological fallibilism. Fallibilism, qua skepticism, is fool's gold; and "anti-foundationalism," like "solidarity," moves the focus toward epistemology and away from the more general problem of how to overcome dualism(s), where it needs to be for several consecutive moves if we are to get anywhere. Onward.

Another brief aside. One of my least favorite terms (along with "mind-(in)dependent") is "incommensurability." The massive ambiguity of this term is another reason why you risk disaster by going directly to the moral case, before the semantic (and epistemological, and metaphysical, and metaphilosophical) cases are aligned properly. [I started to go into it here, but it got unwieldy, so let's come back to that one in another post. Let's just say you need to be really careful with this term.]

Almost done. Here's a criticism which is no doubt unfair, but that, as I like to say, is how the bowling ball bounces. For a sixty-seven-page description of a course on postmodernism, one in the English department no less, there is surprisingly little in MB's chapter -- or the book as a whole -- about hermeneutics. In fact there's none at all: the index contains zero references to hermeneutics, zero to Gadamer, zero to Ricoeur, and one to Heidegger (an interesting point on p. 200, the chapter preceding that on postmodernism, about Gatsby's "new world" being uncanny in the Heideggerian sense, i.e. one in which he was "not at home" (unheimlich)). I suppose that's okay, given that it's not a philosophy course; but in my view, given what he ends up saying about it, the time MB spends on the Habermas-Lyotard debate might have been better spent on the Habermas-Gadamer debate.

Of course this may be because I suspect that Lyotard really is a relativist where Gadamer is not; but it's also because MB's final word on the subject in What's Liberal is, again, that maybe objects are "mind-independent" while concepts are not. But what are concepts, and what is it to say what their content is -- that is, what makes them the concepts they are? Answering this question, especially in an explicitly Rortyan context, puts us squarely in the territory Davidson (also zero refs in WL) shares with Gadamer. On the other hand, Habermas never really seems to get what Gadamer is doing, so as a debate maybe it's not as good as the one with Lyotard (with whom I am not that familiar). In any case, the best counter to Habermas's obsession with "universality" and the critical function of reason is to hold his feet to the Davidsonian (and Wittgensteinian) fire concerning the nature and practice of linguistic communication and interpretation; this, perhaps, could shake loose some of his more unacceptable realist/dogmatist commitments. More specifically, it is the Davidsonian focus on rejecting the scheme-content dualism that allows the right sort of connection to the world (which I would describe as "linguistically mediated" if the word "mediated" were not itself so fraught with theoretical peril). We might also note that at one point, in the context of trying to appropriate Davidson's work, MB's hero Rorty actually defines pragmatism as "something Davidson approves of: getting rid of the scheme-content distinction." (This allowed some hostile critic – possibly Susan Haack, I don't remember – to cite this quote, but just up to the colon, making Rorty look like a frivolous sycophant. Naughty, naughty!)

Also, the Gadamerian context provides a safe place to appropriate the healthy aspects of Heideggerian phenomenology -- the ones that insist that inquiry and reference and rationality are practices of engaged, embodied, situated individual agents -- without getting sucked, or geworfen, into the whole Heideggerian morass. Better yet is to emphasize the Davidson/Gadamer connection, which puts us onto drier land still. The downside of this, I must admit, is that most Davidson scholars (exceptions being Jeff Malpas and Bjorn Ramberg) take an incorrigibly analytic line, preferring to speak mostly of Tarskian truth-theories and anomalous monism (see this recent anthology, with articles by the usual analytic suspects such as Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim; Gadamer doesn't make that index either, although there is an article by Samuel Wheeler which compares him to Derrida). Another downside is that phenomenologists tend to see Davidson as do most analytics, i.e., as just another analytic, committed, and I am not making this up, to metaphysical realism (see Charles Taylor, who explicitly contrasts Davidson with the "three H's", i.e. Hamann, Humboldt, and Herder -- although I must admit Taylor developed this attitude in the 70's, back when it was much more justified than it is 25 years later). Related to this, there is a continuing brouhaha, with much noise coming from that direction, over the issue of "non-conceptual content" and whatnot. So we'd have to deal with that (but we would eventually anyway).

One last thing. MB points his realist student "Stan" (or wishes he had so pointed him, in a pang of l'esprit de l'escalier) to Wittgenstein's "private language argument." But while (the later) Wittgenstein seems to be the very opposite of a systematic thinker, it is very difficult to pull specific arguments out of the context of his thought. Not to say that MB is wrong here -- a turn in that direction is what I also would recommend -- but we would need to say much more here, as I don't think the PLA can do that much on its own in this context. In my unpublished and still being worked out view, Wittgenstein provides the key piece to the puzzle; but we can't see this unless the other pieces are ready to go -- the catch being that this precondition can itself require that the Wittgensteinian vision has been already grasped. This catch (not catch-22, that's something else) is part of what accounts for Wittgenstein's unusual writing style -- why he feels he must "travel criss-cross" over the same territory over and over in different directions. But that is yet another story for yet another day.

30 comments:

Russell Arben Fox said...

Dang it! You've stolen half of my post on the book--I was also going to talk a little bit about the Habermas-Gadamer debate, and the Taylor-Rorty debate as well. Oh well, that's what I get for being slow. This is an excellent summary of the issues, Dave; the only thing I would add is that MB's embrace of Rorty's causal elision of the real nature of dualism very likely does complicate his invocation of "the difference in kind between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften" as a support and/or justification for his own "actual practices re: liberalism." This gets into serious questions that Rorty has been dealing with ever since he began writing on more explicitly political topics: it is an odd and not always particularly democratic liberalism which centers itself in pluralistic and fundamentally incommesnurable and subjective assumptions about the "truth" re: slavery, the rights of the handicapped, etc. It may appear to the casual observer--which, given his lack of training in philosophy, MB may ultimately be insofar as this argument goes--that by rejecting foundational fiats and respecting all possible beliefs you're being exceptionally open-minded and democratic, but in practice what you're actually doing is privileging the critics, the debaters, the people with the resources and opportunities to ignore actual (and potentially threatening) historical contestation over the fundamentals of democracy. Richard Bernstein's old piece on Rorty, "One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards" is a good guide here.

Incidentally, I think Taylor has talked a bit more sympathetically about David's contributions to these problems in essays of his written post-Sources of the Self. I'd have to rummage around to cite actual examples though.

Uncle Meat said...

Like Rorty, perhaps you might re-aquaint yourself with the admirable aesthetic credo of Polonius:

"Brevity is the soul of wit."

We might do well to recall the criticisms of pragmatism raised by Russell, however quaint or boring they may seem now: if the pragmatist's account of Truth (synthetic a posteriori) is not a matter of reference (or falsification, verification, etc.) but of "warranted assertibility" or the Cash value of ideas (i.e.-- beliefs are no longer based on the truth or falsity of events, facts, states of affairs-- but satisfactory and useful in some fashion-) -then a commonly accepted historical truth (--Caesar crossed the Rubicon--or say the Beer Hall Putsch--) could, it would seem, be altered, erased, or reversed could it not, to make facts a bit more satisfying for the cultural or social environment, in Deweyan terms. Thus BR touched upon a sort of Orwellian issue: a sort of invented, pleasant (or useful and convenient) reality replaces the historical record.
And in a very real sense, that is what Literature, a very useful doctrine, often does: it replaces the historical record (and really science, to a large degree) with an invented reality, a construct. Those invented realities of course might be useful for either the PC marxist-left or monarchist right.

Duck said...

Russell: Ha! Better luck next time! Still, the more the merrier - join in, and let's see if you can say it better than I. Of course you may be right about this "casual elision" [what does it say about us that I keep wanting to -- and you actually did -- write this word as "causal"?] and its effect on MB's actual practice; I was simply bending over backward to leave open the possibility that it *might not* have any ill effect (so I wouldn't have to talk about it -- heh heh). Your worry about pluralism is certainly a perennial, as debates with Rorty on political issues continue to show. Thanks for the Bernstein reference -- I may have that somewhere. Re: Taylor, I am going by what he says in the final two papers in vol. 1 of his collected papers, written in the late 70's, I think; and nothing that I can see in Philosophical Arguments contradicts this. His is pretty much the standard phenomenological line, echoed in contemporary attacks on McDowell's purported realism (or linguistic idealism -- well, which is it, fellas?): Davidson's obsession with truth blinds him to the possibility of pre-linguistic experience. This would be true, if it weren't false.

Uncle Meat: You're right about brevity, but I wasn't making a joke (not one big one, anyway). Besides, you're one to talk -- you have just as much fondness for the parenthetical aside as I do. And if you want Polonius's philosophy, you're welcome to it. You're right about "warranted assertibility," which I never liked, as it conflates semantic issues and epistemological ones, screwing them both up in the bargain. Still, I do think that talking about the "cash value" of ideas, and of utility in general, need not crowd out talk of truth. And politically, it seems we have just as much to fear from good old realist outright lying as we do from well-intentioned erasure cum reconstruction.

Uncle Meat said...

There's another issue here that troubles a bit. Berube, as with many literature professors, seems to hold that Lit. has something to do with Ethics broadly construed, and suggests that Literary texts have ethical lessons to teach, or impart, or convey in some manner. I believe that any sort of philosophically- minded person-- realist, skeptic, materialist, dilettante, or otherwise--definitely has grounds to question the English teacher's implicit faith that literature teaches ethics by proxy, and has important moral lessons to impart.

There are historical records--and photographs--- of the big WWI battles. And there exists literature concerning, or related to, those horrible battles in some way--say Hemingway's Soldier's Home. Is there some necessary moral lesson? War is hell, more or less, at least for some. It could be that the story-construct actually attenuates if not distracts from the history lesson (my own contention is that Lit. generally functions in that manner--and the "moral" of course is usually not the raison d'etre of a story or novel either, except in some trivial Readers Digest fashion). What sort of ethics lessons does one get from Shakespearean tragedy--Kill the king? (and it's easy enough to imagine other problems with upholding the Lit. as Ethics school--e.g. De Sade, Poe, beatniks, LF Celine, etc.). There is a type of fallacy involved there--Ad Belle-lettres if you will.

As far as the gravity vs. slavery issue, that is really not so far from traditional ethical disputes going back to at least Hobbes, if not before. How about gravity vs. objective statements regarding a group of chimpanzees that live on a jungle river? The methods of physics hardly equal ethical discussion, but the methods of physics do not equal biology either. Yes, Doc Berube, providing justifications for any ethical perspective based on secularist or naturalist premises is not an easy feat, but the incommensurability does not seem so obvious. (a great deal of this type of discussion seems a footnote to an old celebrity death match of the Baroque: Descartes vs. Hobbes)

John Emerson said...

I'll state my own semi-Rortyan ethical principles in purely assertive Ten Commandment form. It's constructed freelance without much contct with contemporary ethics.

1. Historically all people live in societies, and all soceities functionally require some sort of ethics.

2. It is unreasonable to propose that ethical principles are in principle not valid, unless you propose a way for societies to exist without ethics, or for people to exist outside societies.

3. It is of the nature of ethical principles to be authoritative rather than optional, subjective, or private.

4.Ethical principles vary from society to society.

5. Thus, universality is not required for ethical principles to be valid.

5a. At the same time, where two ethical zones overlap, the conflict between the two different ethical systems will cause problems which are often serious.

6. Ethical princiles are imperatives and not statements of fact, so they cannot be true anyway.

7. Likewise, it's hard to think of ethical principles as objects or things, so there's no ontology of ethics.

8. Wittgenstein may have been right when he denied that there can be ethical propositions. He probably overtsated it though.

9. Anyone who wants to can challenge or defy any ethical principle, but no one else is under any obligation to respect their opinion.

10. Ethical entrepreneurs trying to abolish old ethical principles (e.g. chastity) or establish new ones (anti-slavery) can go right ahead, but it's up to them to persuade others by whatever method works.

Duck said...

Uncle Meat: I don't know about capital-E Ethics, but it seems undeniable that great literature (you do believe there is such a thing, right?) can have substantial ethical import. Michael can speak for himself (you should read his book, he writes very well), but I don't think literature professors think that "literature teaches ethics by proxy," and he would surely agree that reading and teaching literature, let alone writing it, as some big "ethical lesson" would be crudely didactic. You are right that biology is importantly different from physics; this alone should keep us from seeing "scientific explanation" as some monolithic category. And once we are used to explaining things in various ways, we might very well feel free to move beyond the strictly scientific (perhaps even to the philosophical??). I just don't think that we need to deny that what we say is true in order to have the right to do that. As for Descartes vs. Hobbes, I don't think I have a duck in that fight. Let's fast forward 150 years or so.

John E: Much of your decalogue strikes me as truistic, but some of it is iffy. I guess I'd need to know exactly what a "principle" is, as this is one of the big fudge words in philosophy. Are there non-ethical "principles"? What makes them all "principles" and not, I don't know, maxims or desiderata or even guidelines?

Uncle Meat said...

Rawls if not Hobbes and the utilitarians begin with that acknowledgment of ethical relativism. The point is to overcome that by something other than making obvious "pragmaticist" points such as "Ethical principles vary from society to society," or "the law of gravity is not like a statement about ethics." Beheading people--sya adulterers, or prostitutes, or homosexuals-- is not just another groovy cultural tradition, regardless if 75% of people in a muslim country supported it or not. When you start to think about it, you realize the wrongness of beheading seems more like, well, a universal, though admittedly justifying that would be difficult. The act of beheading partakes of some sort of horrible form of Injustice (partly related to a person's own status as a human in some sense) which sane people would not uphold. And "Do not Behead people, even guilty people"--is not merely an abstract Kantian sort of imperative, nor does it seem to be a matter of consensus. It is objectively wrong owing to more Platonic than utilitarian grounds (though that most sane, intelligent people would agree that beheading is a horrible atrocity should be considered evidence of some sort). And a rational argument against beheading is not impossible. You cannot imagine a situation where you would want yourself or others--family members-- beheaded (--except perhaps for Hitler-Stalin like actions--) and seeing a video tape of a beheading you are overcome with nausea (in some sense vicariously experiencing the pain and extreme suffering) thus, you hold it to be objectively wrong, and would vote (at least theoretically) against any laws or policies which would allow beheading.

Uncle Meat said...

And the Justice issue applies to the shortcomings of utilitarian as well as pragmatic ethics, does it not (and util. and prag. relativism do not seem so unrelated): if 25% of the population of the state of, er, Gonzalopolis were illegal immigrants from Tazmania, and they were committing the great majority of crimes (and say getting away with it, usually), liquidating the Tazmanians as a whole would produce a greater good for the rest of the State (and perhaps would be lent support by a Off the Tasmanian proposition on the Gonzalopolis Ballot), yet that would hardly be considered Just. That'a bit obvious, but anyone arguing for non-objective, ethics-by-consensus (or say versions of the language game, multiculturalism etc.) perspective runs into that problem.

John Emerson said...

I strikes me as truistic too, but it seems like a fairly good statement of a non-foundational ethics like Rorty's.

Actually what I said was directed at something Holbo said, and should have been posted there. I think that the point of Rorty's imagined "world in which we no longer think this way" is that it will be about the same as a foundationalist world in which we do think this way, except that people wouldn't be arguing about foundations of ethics, or of ethical truths which exist for us to find. The actual ethical problems of the non-foundational world would be the same as those of the foundational world, but just argued differently. In the foundational world there would still be ethical disagreement, and in the non-foundational world there still would be ethical authority.

Clark Goble said...

Great post and I look forward to your returning to your tangent on incommensurateness.

Russell, I fully agree that one big problem with cohrency, relativism and related movements is that they do privilege the powerful - i.e. the members of the academy and their biases. Truth as will to power but hidden as such. Reminds me of Nietzsche and his view of the priests and their flock.

BTW - for an interesting take on Rorty's pragmatism and where he gets Dewey (and Peirce) wrong check out David Hildebrand's Beyond Realism and Anti-Realism. I rather liked it and commented on it several times, such as this post.

Duck, out of curiosity, how do you respond to the critique of Davidson that his appeal to language is too narrow. That is he focuses in on spoken language to the exclusion of other kinds of signification. (Say body language for instance) One might say that the big difference between Peirce and Davidson (whom seem to have much in common) is that Peirce pushes for a general semiotic whereas Davidson stays with a more traditional philosophy of language.

Duck said...

Clark: Thanks for your comment. I have the Hildebrand book, but I've only dipped into it. From what I know, though, I think he and I are going to have to throw down (is that the phrase?). He thinks the problem with Rorty is not simply that he gets Dewey wrong -- we knew that already -- but that Rorty is a "linguistic pragmatist" where what one should be is more like the Deweyan version of Heidegger, with preverbal engaged coping taking metaphysical priority over discursive rationality. This is what in the post I called the phenomenological criticism, and of course since this implicates Davidson and McDowell as well as Rorty, I must protest. That's why I think that the Gadamerian context might be a good place to hash this out.

Davidson's subject is verbal language, the redundancy of which phrase should jump out at us. That's what has the constitutive relation to rationality and belief and truth. "Body language" is language in name only; it doesn't have a formal semantics, compositional or otherwise. If someone grimaces, what I say to you is that he is in pain, not that [grimace]. Of course I can imitate his grimace if I want; but that's not the semantic content of -- well, of what he did. In this sense we don't ignore "body language," or even deny that it has some significant regularity. After all, that's why, with Wittgenstein, we regard someone's pain, expressed via a grimace, as "public" in the way it is: I don't infer that someone is in pain when I see the grimace, but in a sense see it directly -- yet of course he may be shamming. Nor can I say that [grimace] is true, or plug it into the antecedent of "if [grimace], then [get aspirin]", even if do reach automatically for the bottle. In the interpretive situation, it's just another environmental factor, like tone of voice or something. Not semantic. So if Peirce does that, then yes there is a difference there. But I don't know that side of Peirce that well.

I had thought you might say "to the exclusion of written language," on the way to making a Derridean point. But I take written language as well to be within the scope of Davidson's purview, even if there are some important differences between it and speech. Surely in either case we have the "iterability of the sign," even if it's more obvious in the written case. But let's not get started about that.

Uncle Meat said...

Consider this situation (most humans who have finished an ethics class are familiar with some version of it): Somebody has raped Mrs. Higginsbottham at the mall--. The town is up in arms. Vigilante squads form: and yet no one is found matching her description. After a few months, the cops locate a bum, X, who vaguely looks like the suspect, but who is in fact innocent (say he has a criminal record as well). They arrest him and charge him with the crime; put him up for trial; he doesn't have much cash, and he takes the public defender and the jury finds him guilty. Say there was no DNA evidence however. (Or imagine more sinister scenarios--falsified evidence, etc.--not uncommon). The townspeople are relieved; the newpaper features the bum as Hannibal Lector du jour etc. X's off to Pelican Bay.

Later, police locate the real perp. Y: and he is say, a cop himself or some local professional with kids and wife, etc. If he goes down the city will be in an uproar--plus problems for his family, or his pals on the PD, etc. So the DA sees the police report--and the DNA matches Y's. The DA, Skankly, has read a bit of anti-foundational ethics (and maybe some utilitarians as well) and says, X is just a bum, and Y is a respected member of the community. He decides not to file the case.

What can the ethical relativist or anti-foundationalist really say about this? More pleasure was provided to the community by not upholding justice; the "facts" of the matter it could be argued were shaped for a good purpose; it was more useful to deny the truth (doesn't "use" have something to do with effects, and effects with pleasure/satisfaction, yada yada yada), put away the innocent, then it was to prosecute the evil-doer. But most people would say that was horribly unethical on the part of the DA, regardless of the amount of pleasure or satisfaction provided, right: and that the injustice of the DA's actions (not to file) is not simply a matter of what a majority of people would say about it.

Duck said...

Uncle M: You present your example as a knockdown case against your opponents -- and btw utilitaritanism, ethical relativism, and anti-foundationalism are three different things -- but do you really think it has never occurred to them? Of the three, I have some sympathy only for anti-foundationalism (as I said in the post, I think that way of putting the anti-Cartesian point is a tactical error), but in fact I don't see how this puts any real pressure on any of them, theoretically speaking. Utilitarianism is a normative-ethical position, not an applied-ethical one: it doesn't give us an algorithm for deciding cases, but tells us in what the morality of moral actions consists. The moral thing to do here is to prosecute. Deontologists explain this w/r/t moral rules, but a utilitarian is free to say, plausibly enough, that the value of living in a community that punishes the truly guilty and frees the wrongly convicted outweighs any unpleasantness associated with the fall of a public figure. And who says the community wouldn't turn on the guy once they found out he was a rapist? I haven't heard anybody say Ted Haggard got railroaded, even his most fervent supporters, once the truth came out.

Relativism is a harder case, depending on what this actually means, but I'm not a relativist so I can't say (and I don't think Bérubé is either; incidentally he has a post up defending himself against an attack from his (political and theoretical) left, here). But anti-foundationalism is even compatible with deontology; it's just that the moral rules which determine the morality of our actions don't have any transcendent metaphysical ground (natural or supernatural). No particular hard case -- and this one isn't even that hard -- can put pressure on that. You'd need some reason having to do with, well, metaphysics, to show that I need such a thing in order for our practices to be coherent. And this is where foundationalists just splutter.

Uncle Meat said...

One argues the point--most ordinary uses of Justice in a civil society depend on an objective, individual-independent view of Justice and not as a matter of consensus or satisfaction; the metaphysics then follows.

And utilitarianism is closely tied to ethical relativism. If it's simply a matter of deciding on the quantity of pleasure produced (and who is the pleasure decider? that would seem to be a matter of consensus as well, ultimately, according to util.) then the situation described could often be a preferred scenario (as would an argument saying "cover-ups are ok to protect certain people" if the results are satisfactory). And it's acknowledged as such (skeptic-naturalist JL Mackie--whose text I have around somewhere--argued that sort of situation (putting away an innocent person) was a fairly powerful rebuttal of utilitarianism and consequentialist ethics--it could be modified--i.e. the real rapist was never found)

I realize pragmatism is a different issue, but not entirely different. As Russell notes in his comments on Dewey's warranted assertibility, if belief is not a matter of T-ness or not T-ness, and facts are made to fit future events (in hopes of producing a more satisifactory/gratifying social environment or what have you: I admit I have not yet mastered pragmatism in regards to values/politics), then facts could be changed to produce a more harmonious-- or politically correct--- situation; or that seems far more likely with the Deweyan/James sort of Cash Value of ideas concept, at least in regards to ethics issues. (A similar situation has occurred with ID politics and the post modernist left). Rational ethics and ethical universalism may have problems (as Kant's imperative does), but the alternatives --contracturalism, utilitarianism, machiavellianism, etc.--seem quite a bit more problematic. (Another problem with naturalist-secular ethics--the case of the successful criminal--say a hitman--how does any secular ethics prevent/forbid a "don't get caught" meme? Hard to say).

Deontology does not have to rely on some necessary account of transcendental metaphysics or abstract entities; or the argument could proceed the other way--the use if you like of Justice seems to indicate an universal. I mean, if Jr. is performing a reductio ad absurdum--or calculus problem for that matter-- Jr. does not stop in the middle of it because he senses that the law of the excluded middle (or, say, identity) seems to be a given which the system itself cannot justify, or because he feels logic/math rests on some vaguely platonic schema which cannot itself be established, does he? No.

Duck said...

"Deontology does not have to rely on some necessary account of transcendental metaphysics or abstract entities."

That's right ... so it's not true that "the metaphysics then follows," even from deontology (for which I have even less sympathy than for utilitarianism). On the other hand, as a matter of contingent fact, deontologists as a rule (heh heh) tend to appeal to tendentious conceptions of objectivity (as you do, running it together with universality) to justify their normative-ethical theory.

Clark Goble said...

Interesting. BTW while Derrida talks a lot about writing I think what he almost always means is a general semiotic. Thus his (sometime) use of arche-writing.

With regards to body language not having content. I disagree. You are telling me a story and I frown and make a face. Clearly I'm saying I don't believe you and have disagreements just as much as if I constructed a sentence asserting that. Now I'm open to the conscious/unconscious move a bit more. Most body language is unconscious. But I think one big error a lot of philosophy of language makes is only focusing on the "presence" aspects of language. (Which is a Derridean point I guess)

But I'll avoid going down a tangent. (grin)

I do hope you'll post on Hildebrand and his theory though. I confess my knowledge of Dewey is on par with my knowledge of Kant. Yeah I know about him, but not enough to get into nuanced argument - more how he is "received."

Your point about a "Heideggarian Dewey" (or was it a Deweyified Heidegger?) is intriguing. Reminds me a tad of the Wittgenstein inspired readings of Heidegger popularized by Dreyfus and his classes at Berkeley.

Regarding Davidson I guess I always find Derrida speaking softly in my ear as I read him. I still find Davidson my favorite analytic philosopher. But I do find some of the narrowness of his approaches problematic.

As to what Peirce would say, I think that gets into his issue of representations and what a proposition is. I don't want to get into that here. It might make an interesting post at my blog though.

Duck said...

Clark: I doubt that I would agree much with Dreyfus about Wittgenstein. Has he written on him somewhere?

Bodily movements are actions like any other. You may manifest your disagreement by frowning, or simply by acting as if what I said were not the case. The issue of body "language" is a red herring. You're not *saying* anything by frowning. You are encouraging me to infer it, but that's not the same. That frowning is somewhat conventional doesn't mean it's a "language" -- this is of course a Davidsonian point. Whether conscious or unconscious, it doesn't matter. It's not language, and doesn't have properly semantic content, even if you intend it to cause me to believe something about your beliefs. But now I'm repeating myself. Time for bed!

Uncle Meat said...

""deontologists as a rule (heh heh) tend to appeal to tendentious conceptions of objectivity""

Skeptics and naturalists, it could be argued, tend to be just as tendentious--but that is sort of beside the point. In terms of ethics qua ethics (and I think the semantics game/language of pain is etc is a bit misleading--but then there are plenty of grounds for viewing Wittgenstein as certifiably insane, as the Poker incident revealed), there have been arguments offered against Hume's skeptical chestnut which holds that one cannot derive an "ought from an is" (fact/value distinction). One of Rorty's mentors, Gewirth, argued for a rationalist ethics which he felt was sufficient to overturn the Humean/util./hedonist school. Gewirth's argument is quite convincing, though it's probably not so appealing to literary hipsters or postmods: his argument is based on what sorts of rights (or a freedom from being constrained) any rational agent claims--and values-- simply by being an agent: most normal humans value a "right" of some sort --or at least the absence of constraints and limitations--to pursue and attain one's economic/biological/social needs and requirements (say, like, education, employment, a mate etc). Thus it's reasonable to assume most normal human agents value their own freedom to attain their ends as well; indeed, Gewirth argues that's its necessary for people to do so (though one could imagine various Malthusian/anarchistic scenarios where that identity is erased). There may be ways to counter Gewirth, but there does seem to be a "moral fact"
involved in an agent's own pursuit of the goods and resources needed to sustain his own life, and his own valuing of his freedom to act--and it's not a great stretch to see that other agents also need (and value) the same freedom to pursue their own ends, and that agent X is obligated to recognize agent Y's own entitlement as it were, given a sort of human-identity criteria. During a war-- or a Katrina--, yes it might be hard to uphold such a view, and marxists or mafioso would probably object; at the very least, Gewirth put Master Hume in check.

Rawls offers another method for getting around the fact/value issue, related to Hobbes: asked to choose a society (and with a high probability of living in the world he chooses), one would probably choose various policies (or Hobbes' covenants) which are more or less "just" in conventional terms (say, to honor contracts/promises): that one should honor the contracts one consents to does seem to be a "fact" of civil society (and justifiable on utilitarian grounds as well)--most rational humans would choose to live in a society where their contracts were honored (that's a simplication, but will suffice for a comment box).

Thus there are various ways to get around Hume (and utilitarianism, instrumentalism--which may owe something to Hume--and amoralism), however quaint or moralistic or tendentious they appear. If one simply takes the Humean dicta--or say a pure egoism-- as faith (and many humans--even ones in philosophy departments--obviously do take amoral hedonism or machiavellianism as an item of faith) then, well, it is as pointless to discuss the issue, as it would be to discuss religion with a fundamentalist Xtian or mooslim.

Duck said...

Uncle Meat, I think you're shadowboxing again. I've already argued explicitly for what you say "could be argued," w/r/t skeptics, naturalists, and the fact/value dualism (although I don't know anything about Gewirth). I see, btw, that your posts are becoming somewhat less Polonian as you get worked up. That's okay -- to thine own self be true. And there's no point in rising to your baiting of Wittgenstein -- yes he was a weird dude, we know that already; get over it.

Incidentally, if anyone happens to have gotten here from someplace other than the Valve, you should know that there is another discussion happening (although in slow motion thanks to the holiday) at that site, here, where some of these same issues are coming up.

Uncle Meat said...

Of course, the Machiavellian-Aristotelian school (and Nietzsche also not far from a sort of updating of the Nichomachean Ethics) cares little for any sort of axiomatic ethics, deontological, contractural or otherwise; and in a very real sense, most American institutions--whether education, business, bureaucracy, journalism--uphold that vaguely stoical and nationalistic "force-policy" to some degree, and one doesn't have to dig Foocault to perceive that. And even a hip Stanford-like pragmatist--or literatteur-- probably prefers some flavor of Machiavelli to, like, Kant...........

Uncle Meat said...

Es Toot mir Leid. But it's amusing when people invoke ethics--as Berube and you have done, and others from the Valve--and then shy away from any substantial discussion of ethical theory, or, say, challenging the fact/value distinction.; perhaps ethics is obvious and/or boor-ring to some professional philosophy types (who prefer say the semantics game), but ethical issues are usually being hinted at in any political discussion, and in Kultur chitchat as well. I tend to believe most academics are quasi-Humeans or naturalists (and that is not incompatible with a type of egotistic machiavellian perspective, if you will excuse a bit more tradition mongering); even when arguing against slavery, say, they proceed more from hedonistic premises (also foreshadowed by Hume's assertion that reason and values follow from desires, passions, etc) than from "deontology" (which may be a somewhat misleading term) or from a perspective related to some variety of ethical universalism, secular or religious. Later.

Uncle Meat said...

And really, the endless terminology quibbles are mostly misleading. (btw there are some who object to the Valve's stalinist moderation policies as well as the sort of chi chi aestheticism, and don't bother to post there). The real issue doesn't concern applied ethics so much but whether the fact-value distinction of Hume (his skeptical claim that one cannot derive an ought from an is) can be overcome (and utilitarianism itself a direct descendent of Hume's skeptical-hedonistic perspective); there might be various arguments (which might be classified as rational, contractural, naturalist, etc.) one could advance against Hume's skeptical claim, but until that issue is dealt with, one might as well discuss, like, literature. There are at least two fairly powerful arguments contra-Humean (ethical skepticism); one was put forth by Gewirth (a rationalist argument) and another by Rawls and his supporters ( a contracturalist argument). (And really one might say there is a behaviorist-naturalist perspective denying ethics of any sort--or at least those based on agency or choice) Yet these contra-Hume positions are not so widely discussed, and rarely if ever appear on the philosophy blogs.

Duck said...

The Valve's "stalinist moderation policies"? Please. When you behave yourself and make real points, not only are you not disemvoweled, but everyone is perfectly civil to you. You were there just the other day.

Uncle Meat said...

Well, there were a few substantial aesthetic issues being addressed Re Zappa. And then I managed to sneak in a few comments contra-Mill, perhaps one of the greatest fools ever in the history of Thought, before Comrade Holblow called the KGB.

Really, consequentialism works, baby, for most things political, ethical, or otherwise. Who would deny that in many if not most circumstances that a possible act or policy decision--at either personal level or political -- must be assessed in regards to the possible effects entailed by implementing the proposed policy? ( environmental concerns--say regarding cattle , or petroleum--- certainly depend on consequentialist views). But consequentialism doesn't appear to work in ALL circumstances (i.e. Justice), and consequentialism could possibly be injust in certain situations (a tyranny of the majority etc.). And justifying egalitarianism, or perhaps denying it--does not seem to be purely a matter of consequentialism (Hobbes assumes some degree of egalitarianism as a given, and Rawls seems to suggest that is the rational choice). Do Plato and Herr Doktor Kant ever sit down with Lord Hume and maybe Hobbes somewhere like in purgatory, and come to some agreement on ethics, or other matters? Perhaps not.

Clark Goble said...

Regarding Dreyfus on Wittgenstein - you know, I'm not aware of anything that is just about Wittgenstein. His reading of Being and Time is frequently described as a Wittgenstein reading. But I suppose it might just be picking pieces of Wittgenstein as a way to think about Heidegger rather than Wittgenstein proper. I really can't speak to that.

Apparently he does read Wittgenstein in his commentary on B&T. I don't have it so I can't comment on it.

In one paper he does write the following, "In spite of the obvious irony, in Heidegger’s conclusion that “publicness primarily controls every way in which the world and Dasein get interpreted, and it is always right” (165), I concluded that, for both Heidegger and Wittgenstein, the source of the intelligibility of the world and of Dasein is the average public practices articulated in ordinary language. This interpretation still seems right to me, but I went on, mistakenly, to conclude from the basis of intelligibility in average understanding and ordinary language that for Heidegger, as for Wittgenstein, there was no other kind of intelligibility."

You have me curious now though. Of course how many people agree on what Wittgenstein thought in his later years? He was kind of enigmatic at times and not systematic.

Duck said...

Hmmm. There's an APA Pacific Division Presidential Address by Dreyfus where he attacks McDowell along the lines I have indicated, but I stopped reading it after the first bit. Maybe he says more about Wittgenstein there. I must say I distrust him though. I have Being-in-the-World, so I'll take a look in the index. Note the ambiguity of the final sentence you quote. My guess is he means that his mistake was w/r/t Heidegger's view only, not both, and that he still thinks that Wittgenstein thought there was "no other kind of intelligibility" -- whatever that means.

Wittgenstein, "enigmatic at times"? Surely you jest! =8-0 In any case I haven't seen a vast chorus of voices proclaiming interpretations like mine, but Cavell and D. Z. Phillips come close at times, plus of course McDowell, who actually only has a few articles on him.

BTW, Happy Thanksgiving, and don't eat too much chocolate! (You too, Uncle Meat!)

John said...

Please forgive a belated query from a total amateur, but why is dualism the target?

And does targeting dualism itself involve a dualistic move (namely, the dualistic v. the non-dualistic)? I can't help but wonder whether this latter question merely results from a verbal illusion, and yet, could it be the crux from a pragmatic p.o.v.? To proceed "as if" dualism was erroneous doesn't "defeat" it, but it may have the virtue of avoiding a (quasi-?) dualistic trap of "anti-dualism."

Also, I have to ask why one would want to separate spoken language from the body, as you do in your denunciation of "body language." Spoken language is a complex inter-modal system that includes body language, intonation, timbre, pitch, and volume, as well as words, phrases, and syntax, each component of which acts "as a language" in the sense that it communicates possible meanings from a socially intelligible pattern. The verbal content of spoken language conveys only a portion of its content, and often not the most significant or most important portion. Written language lacks the intermodality of spoken language, but I'm not sure of the point or value of taking written language as the norm.

Interesting discussion. Again, forgive me for intruding on a discussion about which I know very little. The reason to target dualism may be perfectly obvious to those more in the know. Thanks.

-- John Shaw

Duck said...

John -

Such modesty! Both of your questions are excellent ones. Let me answer the second first. I don't think I was "denouncing" body "language" except w/r/t the idea that it itself is a form of "language" in the sense that verbal language is. (It would be the proponent of that idea, not me, who "separates" the two, as different forms of language.) I agree completely with what you say *except* that when the topic is philosophical semantics -- which includes an account of the relation of compositional semantics to formal logic, e.g. as manifested in arguments -- this requires that we construe the notions of "language," "meaning" and "content" more specifically than you do here. No-one could deny that I understand someone much less well, and perhaps not even at all, if I only read a transcript of his words than if he is interacting with me non-verbally as well. It's just that the very intermodality of actual language use makes it difficult to explain what it is that the verbal part is doing, and why we can use it in the way we do (e.g. truth-functionally).

So talking this way is not giving a priority to verbal language, period; it's "giving it priority" in a particular respect, when it is the particular focus of our inquiry. Now that does mean that we must be on guard not to abstract away carelessly from the embodied phenomenon that is language use -- that's why, in the post, I urged that we find a way to appropriate the insights of the phenomenological tradition to that effect. In any case the position I favor allows for the contribution of non-verbal factors (as I also try to make clear in my response to Clark). If someone says X while winking at me, naturally I must take account of the wink in deciding "what he means"; but part of that account must also be what X "normally" means, i.e., semantically -- after all, if X meant something else (say, which captured his own non-ironic meaning), then he wouldn't have to wink, and now the wink goes unexplained. I could also refer here to Davidson on metaphor, but if you really are a "total amateur" that won't mean much to you.

As for prioritizing written language, that's Derrida who does that, not me; but I think I see his point (dimly) in so doing. I won't go into it, but I think that move is not necessary to avoid the mistake he would have us avoid. Of course written language is interesting in its own right too.

Your first question is even better. Let me think about how to respond, which I will do in a new post rather than in comments.

Thanks!

John said...

Dear Duck,

Thanks very much for your clarification -- you're right; I was misconstruing what you were getting at.

It's interesting how internet discourse has given rise to the parenthetical description of the writer's chosen facial expression, usually for cheerful irony. "[g]" for "grin" is a common notation; and I love the word "emoticon"! (Note: I had to revise the notation because blogger mistook the use of "<" as html! And so I substituted "[" around the grinning "g".)

Regarding amateurishness -- please, trust me on this [wince, rueful shake of head]. Perhaps "dilettante" would be more accurate. You've been very kind.

Duck said...

I'm sure there's a dissertation there: (S)mile(y)s Ahead: The Evolution of Emoticons in the Post-HTML Blogosphere.