Sunday, July 27, 2008


... is the number of the latest Philosophers' Carnival. So since nothing seems to be happening here, you better go over there.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Manfred Frank makes an important distinction

In The Subject and the Text, currently available only in a shamefully expensive hardcover edition from Cambridge, Manfred Frank tries to show how well Friedrich Schleiermacher "lends himself to getting the dialogue moving" between certain contemporary philosophical movements.
[In a few countries] there have been fruitful discussions between positions of analytical philosophy and of phenomenological hermeneutics. But the few, timorous attempts to initiate a discussion between representatives of these two movements and French post-structuralist semiologists have met with almost no response. [p. 1]
I'm not sure I would characterize What is Neo-structuralism? as "timorous", exactly. Maybe he's referring to attempts other than his own. In any case, a footnote insists on an important distinction to be made here.
My respect for the representatives of this direction of thought calls for a distinction to be made between them and those befuddled opponents of enlightenment (allegedly) following in Foucault's footsteps and above all the intellectual Calibans of the 'Anti-Oedipus', whose garbled 'discourses' one can hardly study without experiencing the sort of pleasure that Schopenhauer felt when reading Hegel.
From my brief perusal of that volume some time ago, I don't remember What is Neo-structuralism? being so harsh on Deleuze. "Intellectual Calibans," phew! I wonder what exactly set him off.

And unfortunately Google Books allows only brief glimpses of The Subject and the Text. So we'll have to leave it at that for now.

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 ...

Allons enfants

Allons, c'est à dire, à la Bastille Day edition de la Carnivale des Philosophes. D'accord?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Existential generalization

The latest issue of Newsweek (billed as The (mostly) Big Thoughts Edition) features a Quiz whereby one may test one's knowledge of important matters. As usual, some of the questions are easy if one has, over the past decade, been avoiding Mars ["Which of the following [alcohol, carbohydrates, protein, fat] contains the most calories?"], and some of them only purport to test one's knowledge, as opposed to one's ability to guess ["Between 1980 and 2006, how many weather-related disasters caused more than $1 billion in damages at the time of the event?"].

One question, though, was neither of these. "How many presidents," the Quiz demands to know, "achieved the rank of general or higher?" Our options: 2, 3, 5, 7. First off, "higher"? I don't suppose they mean Commander-in-Chief, because then the answer would, I imagine, be 43 (or 42, if we only count Cleveland once). And the only reason that we know that it is Presidents of the U.S.A. whom we are looking for (so Charles De Gaulle doesn't count) is a big picture (not the one above), of our 18th President. Now of course once we've established what we're talking about, anyone over the age of 30 should be able to get two more of these guys right away, as we went to grade school back in the days when such facts were impressed upon us as the branding iron is impressed upon the helpless calf. But I digress.

And this indeed is Newsweek's own answer: the guy pictured, that guy, and that guy. No more. But there are more, aren't there?

As it happens, Wikipedia is a bit coy w/r/t a couple of them, and I'm not so motivated as to, like, get out biographies from the library. But the other guys were certainly generals. I await the outraged cries, in next week's letters section, of the editors of X's collected correspondence, and the curator of the Y estate.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Party pooper

Professor Brooks seems ambivalent about readers' suggestions for the latest Philosophers' Carnival:
Unfortunately, while not all will appear, a great many do.
This is a job for Language Log!

[Thanx to Daniel for the LL tip!]