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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Alan’s Bouquet

Posted by John Holbo on 09/06/07 at 08:23 AM

As mentioned before, I'm teaching "Philosophy and Literature" this semester. Here's a little something I whipped up for the kids, now adapted for this blog. They've been reading Wimsatt & Beardsley, Hirsch, Fish and Knapp and Michaels. The question is: how many senses of 'intention'? We mix in a bit of Grice (but I'm not making them read any).

We take a passage from Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped. David has just asked Alan what he thinks his audience - that is, John Breck - will make of this funny work Alan has improvised (crosstarrie, button and twigs). How will it be interpreted?

"Well," says Alan, "I wish he was a man of more penetration, for by my troth I am afraid he will make little enough of it! But this is what I have in my mind. This cross is something in the nature of the crosstarrie, or fiery cross, which is the signal of gathering in our clans; yet he will know well enough the clan is not to rise, for there it is standing in his window, and no word with it. So he will say to himsel', The clan is not to rise, but there is something. Then he will see my button, and that was Duncan Stewart's. And then he will say to himsel', The son of Duncan is in the heather, and has need of me."

"Well," said I, "it may be. But even supposing so, there is a good deal of heather between here and the Forth."

"And that is a very true word," says Alan. "But then John Breck will see the sprig of birch and the sprig of pine; and he will say to himsel' (if he is a man of any penetration at all, which I misdoubt), Alan will be lying in a wood which is both of pines and birches. Then he will think to himsel', that is no so very rife hereabout; and then he will come and give us a look up in Corrynakiegh. And if he does not, David, the devil may fly away with him, for what I care; for he will no be worth the salt to his porridge."

"Eh, man," said I, drolling with him a little, "you're very ingenious! But would it not be simpler for you to write him a few words in black and white?"

"And that is an excellent observe, Mr. Balfour of Shaws," says Alan, drolling with me; "and it would certainly be much simpler for me to write to him, but it would be a sore job for John Breck to read it. He would have to go to the school for two-three years; and it's possible we might be wearied waiting on him."

I got this example from Ruth Millikan, chapter 3 of Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories, [amazon - with search inside] which I am more and more convinced is a great book. (Unfortunately, the cheapest copy of another great Millikan text - ok, I'll pause here and ask you a tangential question. How and why should the one used paperback copy of White Queen Psychology and Other Essays For Alice [amazon] currently be priced at $213.51? What sort of person looks at a paperback and says to itself: I could sell this through Amazon for $213.51?)

As I was saying. Millikan has a story to tell, and glosses the moral thusly: "there are more differences between Alan's bouquet of cross, button, and twigs and a spoken or written natural-language message than have been penetrated by some philosophers." By 'some philosophers', she means, specifically, H.P. Grice (and like-minded sorts). Millikin's idea is: Alan's bouquet means as Grice says natural language does. From Grice's perspective, the bouquet is almost a picture-perfect paradigm of his theory in operation. Ergo, if, on further examination, the bouquet doesn't work like natural language, that is an argument that Grice is wrong/inadequate/provides an incomplete or partial account. I will take up the Kidnapped passage not by way of taking sides, but to teach you some Grice. The point of doing that is to highlight different senses of meaning and (more to the point) intention. The advantage of teaching Grice with the Stevenson passage is that it is utterly intuitive what is going on in the passage, in a general sort of way. On the other hand, when you try to express Grice's theory of meaning abstractly, it gets tangled. To keep your head clear, just keep repeating to yourself 'Grice says language works like Alan's bouquet. You won't go far wrong.

Right.

Grice is an intentionalist, like Hirsch (also like Knapp and Michaels, but let's leave them aside.) That is, Grice wants to explain meaning in terms of intentions. But his intentionalism is different than Hirsch's because Grice is using intention in a very different sense. You could say Grice's sense is built up as a compound of Hirsch's notion of intention as a phenomenological 'sphere of awareness', plus Wimsatt and Beardsley's notion of 'intentions to do, or realize certain effects', plus a couple other things. This is a bit misleading because Grice never actually talks about it in these terms and, so far as I know, wasn't interested in literary theory.

Let's call Grice's special brand of intentions m-intention. 'M' because these are intentions to mean something by something. By contrast, let's call Hirschian intentions a-intentions. 'A' because anything that is part of an author's awareness counts as an a-intention. The relevant sense of 'intention', for Hirsch, is 'intentionality' - i.e. anything mental that is about anything. (See below for evidence this is Hirsch's understanding.) Let's call Wimsatt and Beardsley's sort of intentions - the ones they want to rule out of consideration - d-intentions. 'D' because these are intentions to do. (See below for evidence this is W&B's understanding.)

Roughly, m-intentions turn out to be a species of d-intention concerned with (and requiring/fulfilled by means of) a-intentions.

Confused? Good!

Now, Alan's bouquet.

By making it, and placing it where John Breck is sure to find it, Alan m-intends 'I [Alan] am in the woods near Corrynakiegh and need you [John] to come help me'. You could gloss it in other ways equally well: 'You [John], come to the woods near Corrynakiegh and help me [Alan].' There is nothing about the bouquet to settle whether its mood should be construed as indicative or imperative. Is the bouquet a statement or a command? It's one or the other, or both, as you like it. I am inclined to say it is both, if you must have an answer.

How does it work - i.e. mean? There are two main ingredients. (Three, but the third is just to nail down pesky counter-examples.) Here I will mix specifics of our case with generalities, and also fudge certain indexical details that would be sorted out if I were to bother your poor head about the distinction between speaker's meaning and utterance meaning.)

I. Alan makes and places his bouquet d-intending the audience to entertain the thought that Alan is in the woods near Corrynakiegh and needs John Breck to come help him. (This is a d-intention because it is a plan, an intention to do, to have an effect.)

II. Alan d-intends his d-intention (per I) to be fulfilled via the mechanism of his audience's realization of his a-intentions. Most crucially, but not exclusively, the audience is d-intended to became aware of the a-intention that just is Alan's d-intention (per I). I am in the woods near Corrynakiegh and intend to get you to come help me. (This thought is an a-intention because it is, trivially, part of Alan's phenomenological sphere of awareness, while he is making and placing the bouquet.)

Iff I and II are satisfied, the italicized bit counts as an m-intention. Now, with that in pocket, we can say, as well: A speaker S means that P by work W, iff  S m-intends P by W. (Typically, W will be an utterance, but a cross, button and twigs will do, in a pinch.) This is speaker-meaning.

This is an abstract, confusing way of putting an incredibly intuitive point: namely, people come to know what we mean by the things we say (and do) by figuring out what we intend (to communicate). Which is not so tautological or useless a statement as it might seem, because often what people are up to - what they are planning; also what they might be thinking generally - are more available data points than what a certain sign is supposed to mean. You can approach the latter, starting from the former, and proceeding via various inferences to the best explanation. The only real advantage to formulating such an intuitive point in such a brain-killing way, per above, is to show how what Hirsch is talking about, and what Wimsatt and Beardsley are warning against, are built right into Gricean m-intentions.

(Oh yeah. What was the third ingredient? Grice thinks it's important that neither I or II involves certain sorts of intended deceptions. But I'm not going to go into that.)

My question for the kids is: is Alan's bouquet a good paradigm for poetry and literature generally? When we interpret a work, do we reason - broadly speaking - as Alan hopes John Breck will reason? I'll chat with them about that tomorrow.

The stakes here are, roughly, as follows: Wimsatt and Beardsley are insistent that a poem is quite unlike 'practical communication'. So they will want to insist this Gricean model of interpretation isn't a good one - not for poetry, though it may be fine for other sorts of language and sign use. By contrast, Fish more or less just assumes that his case of the student asking 'is there a text in this class' will do as a paradigm of a meaning situation. Whatever is true of this situation will be true of poetic interpretation, broadly. (He doesn't actually argue this, or even assert it in so many words, but he clearly thinks so.) So Fish is on Grice's side, against Wimsatt and Beardsley. Of course, this is not to say that Fish is a Gricean. In fact, much that Fish wants to insist on is radically inconsistent with what Grice thinks. Likewise, Knapp and Michaels really do not - cannot - agree with Grice. Because Grice wants to distinguish speaker-meaning from utterance-meaning and sentence-meaning. He wants to define the latter in terms of the former. Everything gets built up from speaker-meaning (which gets built up from m-intentions, which get built up from a-intentions and d-intentions). But let's leave different flavors of meaning, as opposed to different flavors of intention, to one side.

One footnote: you might wonder how Grice could be so thick as to think that Alan's bouquet works exactly like natural language, when the obvious difference is that there are are all sorts of semantic (and syntactic) conventions that save us from having to improvise in this kludgy way. The reason we send kids to school to learn to read - unlike poor John Breck - is so we don't have to be concocting semiotic bouquets on the spot, then hoping someone solves our riddle. The thing about Grice is: he sees his account of meaning as more of a long view. Alan makes his bouquet. Then later, if Alan is in trouble in the heather again, needs John Breck's help again, things will be simpler the second time around. The riddle gets easier to solve. Eventually the bouquet will grow into (a part of) natural language. Then you can teach kids to read this stuff in school. Anyway, Grice thinks he can analyze meaning - specifically, sentence meaning - in terms of speaker meaning. The latter notion is conceptually prior. But it is also true, Grice thinks, that we reason this way all the time, to some extent. It's just that English makes the riddles easier to solve. They are still riddles, in a small way. Every English sentence is a bit like Alan's bouquet. (We could get in a debate about how to read Grice.)

Now, to close out: a few relevant quotes from Wimsatt and Beardsley (just for reference). Here I would insist only that what they say is consistent with what I say they say. You might protest that they are being a bit approximate and sloppy. Maybe, maybe. From "The Intentional Fallacy":

"Intention," as we shall use the term, corresponds to what he intended in a formula which more or less explicitly has had wide acceptance. "In order to judge the poet's performance, we must know what he intended." Intention is design or plan in the author's mind.

Also:

Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. It is only because an artifact works that we infer the intention of an artificer. "A poem should not mean but be." A poem can be only through its meaning ‑ since its medium is words ‑ yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant. Poetry is a feat of style by which a complex of meaning is handled all at once. Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrevelant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and "bugs" from machinery. In this respect poetry differs from practical messages, which are successful if and only if we correctly infer the intention. They are more abstract than poetry.

This is unclear and pretty clearly wrong. (Who thinks that you can't tell what a fallen pudding was supposed to be like? Or what a faulty machine part was supposed to do?) But there you go.

It is significant that this sense of 'intention' as 'plan' or 'intention to do' is quite different from Hirsch's. From "Objective Intepretation" (in Validity in Interpretation):

The relation between an act of awareness and its object Husserl calls "intention," using the term in its traditional philosophical sense, which is much broader than that of "purpose" and is roughly equivalent to "awareness." (When I employ the word subsequently, I shall be using it in Husserl's sense.)  .... The general term for all intentional objects is meaning ... Verbal meaning is, by definition, that aspect of a speaker's intention which, under linguistic conventions, may be shared by others. Anything not sharable in this sense does not belong to the verbal intention or verbal meaning.

It follows, more or less directly, that Alan's bouquet has no verbal meaning. Since it is not linguistic and, if - implausibly - you insisted it was a 'text' written in a new language, invented on the spot, it would still lack conventions. Probably if you asked him, Hirsch would say he was thinking about something more like what Grice said. But he didn't actually say it. And, frankly, he's not in a position to say it. Because it is not obviously true that the sorts of phenomenological data he cites, to settle disputes, are m-intentions, in Grice's sense.


Comments

Alan d-intends his d-intention (per I) to be fulfilled via the mechanism of his audience’s realization of his a-intentions. Most crucially, but not exclusively, the audience is d-intended to became aware of the a-intention that just is Alan’s d-intention (per I). I am in the woods near Corrynakiegh and intend to get you to come help me. (This thought is an a-intention because it is, trivially, part of Alan’s phenomenological sphere of awareness, while he is making and placing the bouquet.)

I am confused, though not perhaps for the reasons you anticipated.  Normally “to realize an intention” involves the accomplishing an intention to do something, but a-intentions are just awarenesses of some sort and cannot be realized.  The audience can realize that Alan had certain a-intentions.  And the fact that Alan has an intention to do something doesn’t mean that that intention is (a-)intended-to in Husserl’s sense.  Well, maybe it does, but that would depend on an analysis of intendings-to-do.

And this: “Alan makes and places his bouquet d-intending the audience to entertain the thought that p“, well, it’s not yet obvious that this is a plan to do anything. (Similarly with locutions like “the audience is d-intended to ... “.  What is being done?) We amend: Alan d-intends to get the audience to entertain the thought that p.  By what means? He d-intends to get the audience to entertain the thought that p by getting them to become aware of that very d-intention to get them to entertain the thought that p by getting them to become aware etc..  I really don’t see how “the a-intention that just is Alan’s d-intention” clarifies anything; in fact, it’s confusing, because a-intentions were supposed to be different things from d-intentions.

Of course Alan’s own account of how he intends to get his audience to entertain the thought that p is rather different.  He doesn’t want to get John Breck to realize that he’s in the woods by means of getting John to realize anything about his intentions, he wants to get John to realize that he’s in the woods by interpreting the bouquet.  John need never trouble himself about Alan’s intentions, and if Alan had pieced together the bouquet in idle moments and then accidentally dropped it, John could have interpreted it in exactly the same way—and of course no mere intention of Alan’s is going to govern the way John actually does interpret it or, for that matter, if he takes it as an interpretandum at all, which seems to be at least as important a difference between the bouquet and utterances of a language as that the latter is syntactic and the former not (if it’s not): utterances, writings, etc are used to communicate, and if John could read, if something written found its way to him it would presumably be a bit of communication to someone.  Whereas outside of prior agreements there’s no reason to think that a bouquet one finds someplace is supposed to be communicative.

By ben wolfson on 09/07/07 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, also, you can get White Queen Psychology for $30 on alibris.

By ben wolfson on 09/07/07 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Ben, I probably need to work on it. But here goes. Well, first a general note: analytically, it isn’t such a hot idea to explain Grice in terms of W&B and Hirsch, except in a pedagogic context where W&B and Hirsch have just been read. Because, frankly, it isn’t clear what they mean by ‘intention’. So this Gricean analysis of mine really serves best, not to teach Grice, but to clarify W&B and H. (Maybe.)

You write:

“the fact that Alan has an intention to do something doesn’t mean that that intention is (a-)intended-to in Husserl’s sense.”

I should have been clearer about it. It seems to me all d-intentions are going to be a-intentions. The former is a subset of the latter. (Talking about intentions as forms of ‘awareness’ is awkward, but I think the fix for that is to modify Hirsch. He is really concerned with the set of all mental states that exhibit ‘aboutness’.) I needn’t have mentioned a-intentions at all, in giving the analysis, but I wanted to emphasize that John’s interpretation of the bouquet really has to proceed via an exploration of Alan’s ‘sphere of awareness’ (the set of his intentional states, beyond the specific thought ‘I mean you to come help me in the heather’.) More plainly, John wouldn’t be able to solve this riddle if he didn’t know what sort of person Alan is, i.e. not a joker who likes to make and leave bouquets and was probably just saying ‘ta, I dropped by and you weren’t here’ but a serious person who is, moreover, knowledgeable about plants, likely to get himself in trouble, and likely to hide in the wilderness. (This isn’t explicit in the passage, but seems true.) But you are right about one thing, and it is important and I mean to go on to talk about it in class: a lot of the ‘meaning’ in this situation is natural meaning, in Grice’s sense: facts about where trees grow. Facts about who owned what button.

To put it briefly: I think there are a lot of ‘riddles’ of this form that could be solved without any reference to the author’s specific sphere of awareness. As you say. Maybe you need to posit an author, but it could just be ‘Agent X’, as Nabokov says. I don’t think this is one of those cases. John can only solve it by thinking about the kind of person Alan is - his specific, likely set of beliefs and desires. But often, yes, you solve these things not by thinking about thoughts but about things. This is something that Hirsch is entirely unclear about. This is the point I was sort of working up to a couple months ago when I posted about Dretske, if you remember. A lot of what people think of as literary meaning is actually natural (as opposed to non-natural) meaning, in Grice’s sense. No one has ever really made this basic point in these sorts of discussions, so far as I can see. (In practice, people have accommodated it, of course, but in theory the idea that meaning could every be ‘natural’ seems obviously wrong, so it never gets said. Still, it’s right, I think.)

By John Holbo on 09/07/07 at 11:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I loved your piece.

Makes me doubt about,

“Do not multiply intentions beyond necessity”.

Surely I want to say that your d-intending and your a-intending reduces to m-intending!

I may have more to say about this at the Grice club, granting that you are onto B&W, not Grice!

By J. L. Speranza, on 06/09/10 at 01:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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