Monday, July 14, 2008


This started out as another microreview, but it became both macro, on the one hand, and not so much a review of the book as another philosophical rant. Too bad, I should do more of the latter anyway.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori and Rom Brafman, is another pop-psych book, like Blink and The Tipping Point. It spends its time going over some things which may already be familiar, like the dollar auction (here, due to inflation, a twenty-dollar auction), group conformity experiments, the money-splitting experiment, etc. It's short, and these things are neat, so you might want to check it out. (That's the microreview part. On to the rant.)

Here are the authors on diagnosis bias. After relating how student evaluations of a visiting lecturer can depend to a surprising degree on whether the students are told in advance that he is regarded by others as "very warm" vs. "rather cold", they claim that this phenomenon extends as well to such things as dating, where we really might have thought we were reacting not to short descriptions we had heard in advance, but what we had experienced for ourselves over an entire evening:
[A] single word has the power to alter our whole perception of another person—and possibly sour the relationship before it even begins. When we hear a description of someone, no matter how brief, it inevitably shapes our experience of that person.
Fair enough, and of course this result is congenial to anyone suspicious of, say, the neutral Given. Here's their example (pp. 73-4):
Think how often we diagnose a person based on a casual description. Imagine you're set up on a blind date with a friend of a friend. When the big night arrives, you meet your date at a restaurant and make small talk while you wait for the appetizer to arrive. "So," you say, "what do you have planned for this weekend?" "Oh, probably what I do every weekend: stay home and read Hegel," your date responds with a straight face. Because your mutual friend described your date as "smart, funny, and interesting," you laugh, thinking to yourself that your friend was right, this person's deadpan sense of humor is right up your alley. And just like that, the date is off to a promising start. But what if the friend had described your date as "smart, serious, and interesting"? In that light, you might interpret the comment as genuine and instead think "How much Hegel can one person read?" Your entire perception of your date would be clouded; you'd spend the rest of dinner wracking your brain over the difference between Heidegger and Hegel and leave without ordering dessert.
Because of course no one who's smart, funny, and interesting could ever spend his or her weekends reading Hegel. That'd be crazy!

Seriously, though, the authors oversimplify. They make it sound like once you have preconceptions (which everyone does), you're irrevocably committed to a certain interpretation of your experience. This strikes me as a facile recoil from a naïve commitment to an impossible "objectivity" (in this sense, an ideal detachment from our subjective perceptions) to an implausible determinism, analogous to the relevant sense of "historicism," i.e., the sort of thing of which Gadamer is often accused by his realist critics.

As I read him, however, it is instead this recoil itself which is Gadamer's target (as well as Davidson's, mutatis mutandis). I'll put the point in Davidsonian terms, but if this isn't what Horizontverschmelzung is all about, then I'm not getting Gadamer at all (which is of course a possibility). The process of interpretation isn't simply one of gathering all your data as "objectively" as possible and (thus) only then engaging our subjective faculties to arrive at a possible meaning. It's interactive, in that we interact not only with other speakers, but also with the world. That is, interpretation (into meaning) and inquiry (into fact) are two aspects of the same process. We attribute belief and meaning to our interlocutor at the same time as confirming or modifying our own beliefs and meanings, and in conveying our interpretation to others (or simply manifesting it in our actions), we express our own beliefs and meanings simultaneously as well, for further interpreters to unpack, and so on.

This means that while our initial reactions may indeed depend (surprisingly) sensitively on our preconceptions – or "prejudices" (Vorurteile) as Gadamer provocatively calls them – we may find that modifying them will be necessary if we are to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation. In fact, again, since interpretation just is inquiry (and, crucially, vice versa), we can purposely tailor our interaction to subject our preconceptions, and (what Quine calls) our "analytical [semantic] hypotheses," to test.

Let's say I've been told my date is "serious." She deadpans that her weekends are dedicated to Hegel studies. Maybe I am indeed less likely to regard that comment as a joke than if she's been described to me as "funny." But that doesn't mean it's not a joke. In particular, I don't have to spend the rest of the date worrying about how I got stuck with such a geek (or, more likely in my case, about whether I should wait until the next date to propose marriage, or can I pop the question over dessert). Nor should I necessarily feel safe in laughing ironically, acknowledging her humor, if I've been told she's "funny." Maybe, although indeed funny, she's also a Hegel scholar, and to laugh at how she spends her weekends will be an insulting gaffe.

If there's any doubt – and why shouldn't there be some, as we've just met – I can just ask: "Really?" As with the original remark, here the right intonation can render this rejoinder perfectly noncommittal between acknowledging and continuing the joke, or taking it seriously and allowing an elaboration. Maybe I'll get
Yes, I'm currently rereading Glauben und Wissen – usually translated Faith and Knowledge, but "Glauben" means "belief" as well as "faith" – because I really think Hegel's conception of skepticism, especially early on, before the Phenomenology, is key to any really useful contemporary appropriation of his views.
Now I've learned something: she's probably serious (be still, my heart!). It could still be a joke; but even if so, I've learned that a) she knows something about Hegel, so she can't think it would be crazy to spend one's weekends on him; and b) her sense of humor is such as to try to squeeze every last drop of irony from one's facetious suggestions.

If I maintain my noncommittal tone, the ball begins to shift (if I may so abuse this metaphor) over to her court. If she's joking, she will probably eventually need some overt acknowledgment from me that I have so understood her. She may escalate the facetious scenario to more and more outrageous heights, to provoke an actual laugh. Maybe she'll tell me that she reads Kierkegaard in the shower, and puts Adorno's Negative Dialectics under her pillow at night in lieu of actually reading it. It would be a good idea for me to laugh at this point, if only to curtail a line of conversation which is providing diminishing humorous returns (or to confirm that she is in fact joking rather than very unusual indeed, and perhaps not as marriageable as all that). Or she'll laugh herself and acknowledge the joke, perhaps continuing in an overtly humorous rather than ironic vein. ("No, I'm kidding, I was a philosophy major, but now I'm all dialectic-ed out; actually I just use the Phenomenology to prop up the air conditioner.") And of course I might have gotten that last one as an immediate response to my initial "Really?"

My point is not that our interpretive preconceptions can be overcome with careful inquiry. Maybe they can, in particular cases, or even most; but a general claim to that effect would simply be a re-recoil back to a dogmatic commitment to ideal objectivity – a one-sided assimilation of interpretation to ("objective") inquiry, rather than a recognition of their interconstitutive nature. We hardly need chaos theory to tell us that the course of a conversation may well be significantly constrained by how it begins – we all know the experience of getting off on the wrong foot (i.e., and never regaining our footing). But significant constraint falls well short of determination. More to the point, our interpretive practices, qua doxastic as well as semantic, are designed precisely so that we may use the third point of the interpretive triangle, our shared yet objective world, as leverage.

This would also be a good time to note that Gadamer's ideal of Horizontverschmelzung is just that: a fusion of horizons, not anything more drastic. When we have so fused our horizons, we're still a) two different people; b) with (some) divergent beliefs; and c) (some) divergent linguistic dispositions. We have simply come to understand each other, to the degree appropriate to that judgment in the context. We've overcome what are interpretable in retrospect as obstacles; yet while we can now see ourselves as occupying the same space, we may still be standing as far away from each other as we started out. Which is why hermeneutic philosophy may not be so opposed to Wittgensteinian "quietism" as people think: in the former case as well as the latter, the idea is not so much to go somewhere as to find out where we are, even while allowing that doing so need not require that we stand stock-still in order to find our bearings. Of course, Wittgenstein himself could be clearer on this point ...


N. N. said...

I'm trying to get a handle on the middle ground between the "naïve commitment to an impossible 'objectivity'" and the "facile recoil [...] to an implausible determinism."

[W]hile our initial reactions may indeed depend (surprisingly) sensitively on our preconceptions [...] we may find that modifying them will be necessary if we are to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation.

Do the modifications have to be free from our preconceptions? It seems that to correct a mistaken preconception, we must be able to objectively ground our corrections. Is this where we use our shared objective world as leverage?

Suppose I have a mistaken preconception (P1) that I modify (with M1). If M1 is also the result of a mistaken preconception (P2), then to arrive at a correct interpretation I must also modify P2 (with M2). Either this regress continues indefinitely, in which case I cannot get free of my preconceptions, or eventually I'll make contact (so to speak) with the objective world. If sooner or later I always ground my interpretation in the objective world, doesn't this support the general claim that "our interpretive preconceptions can be overcome with careful inquiry"?

My intuition is that Davidson would reject the possibility of a regress that cannot be broken out of. (This is based on my understanding of "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme"; but I'm still digesting that article, so I am hesitant to draw any conclusions. By the way, Hacker has also written on this in "On Davidson's Idea of a Conceptual Scheme," The Philosophical Quarterly, 1996; I wonder if he misreads Davidson there too.)

Duck said...

What makes you think there's a regress here? (And what's "objective grounding," for that matter?)

Gadamer's use of "prejudice" (Vorurteile = "pre-judgments") is provocative in that he defends them as necessary and ineliminable rather than, as the traditional conception of objective inquiry demands, as necessarily distorting (qua subjective) and, ideally at least, to be overcome. This naturally invites accusations of relativism (or, again, "historicism" in the relevant sense, where each of us is stuck in his or her own cultural episteme (now using Foucault's term)).

Maybe my "preconceptions" don't need to be "overcome" at all – which is not to say that they need to be "grounded" either. Let's go back to your "regress". If you stipulate that P1 and P2 are "mistaken," then I guess they're mistaken. But why is P3 "mistaken"? Because I believed it before engaging in inquiry/interpretation? Where does that come from? And how could the agent make that judgment – that his own beliefs are ipso facto unreliable (and "ungrounded")?

Putting the idea of "objective grounding" to one side, my demurral from "the general claim that 'our interpretive preconceptions can be overcome with careful inquiry'" was not so much meant to indicate that there's something we can't do (as the "historicist" seems to claim), but that there's no reason to think that that's something we need to do, i.e., again, that "preconceptions" are ipso facto questionable and need some sort of "grounding" they don't already have. Whenever we learn something, or interpret someone, we may end up giving up some of our previous commitments (interpreting them in retrospect as "prejudices" in the bad sense) to accommodate the new ones. Big theoretical deal. And no regress in sight.

Duck said...

Gadamer's use of "prejudice" (Vorurteile = "pre-judgments") is provocative in that he defends them as necessary and ineliminable

"Ineliminable" in general or as a group, that is. I've already said we can modify our commitments as we see fit. But then those will be our new "prejudices". Not to say that this process is easy, or even to deny that some (say, cultural) commitments may be beyond our power to jettison (due to a failure of imagination, for example). But the same is true of inquiry in general (that some truths are contingently "inaccessible" to us). Again, big theoretical deal.

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