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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Form, Function, Intention

Posted by John Holbo on 10/10/07 at 10:01 AM

I’m about to fly in a plane, so I probably won’t respond if you leave comments - not immediately, anyway. (But, please! Comments.) I’m going to the ALSC annual conference in Chicago. Man, I haven’t been to Chicago since 1990. Scott K. will be there, and Adam K. (Won’t we make a funny bunch?)

Anyway, this is a follow-up to my How To Do Things With Things post. I’ve tried to give a few more hints what I have in mind.

I am - once again - tackling good old Wordsworth on the beach. Knapp and Michaels stuff. (Again! you object. And that is very reasonable of you.) Well, in my defense, I’m not actually repeating myself this time. I am bouncing of their strong intentionalism, not so much because it clearly needs to be given another bounce, but because it is illustratively clear to start from an extreme position and roll back.

So here’s this thing a wrote: “Form, Function, Intention" (PDF). It’s not too long. 12 pages. Plus a few more tentative sketches for a next bit. About I haven’t put references in yet. Sorry. If you want to know where some quote is from, ask me.

UPDATE: As pointed out in comments, there is one seriously misleading aspect of the paper: I imply that Ruth Millikan and Donald Davidson have ‘similar’ or shared arguments. This is, in a sense, true. They are both, broadly ‘externalist’. But they disagree rather fundamentally about the details of all that. I wanted to skate over that, because I didn’t have any present need to settle on any version of externalism. Overlapping consensus that something ‘externalist’ is needed would do, for my argument. But it would be bad for readers, who get their Millikan and Davidson gossip through me, to take away an artificial sense of intellectual unity here.]

Don’t know what this Knapp and Michaels’ stuff is? Executive summary: they take the extreme position that textual meaning is necessarily identical with the author’s intention. They argue this by imagining words - apparently a Wordsworth poem - appearing by cosmic coincidence on a beach. Allegedly, if we were really sure no one wrote them - it was just freak tides and erosion - we would conclude they weren’t even words, after all.

I have actually warmed to good old Wordsworth on the beach. I’m still sure it’s all wrong, but more formidably wrong than I once supposed. I’ve come to realize that some of my old arguments didn’t quite do the necessary. But enough about me. By way of giving them some respect, before trying to clobber them again, let me give evidence that others besides me have bent over too far against them.

One of their main targets is Searle, who insists (quite uncontroversially, among philosophers of language) that we can perfectly well distinguish something like sentence-meaning from speaker-meaning. Knapp and Michaels deny this. So they are confused. Knapp and Michaels make things worse by quoting Searle, apparently against himself, insisting there is ‘no getting away from intentionality’. But this only shows that Knapp and Michaels are careless about distinguishing senses of ‘intention’. For Searle, ‘intentionality’ means anything that exhibits ‘aboutness’—beliefs, propositions, sentences. The fact that there is no getting away from intentionality is no argument for the proposition that there is no getting away from what some author intends. These are distinct employments of ‘intend’.

And yet, once upon a time, Searle anticipated Knapp and Michaels’ radical intentionalism, in passing, affirmed it as obvious—called its denial ‘absurd’. From “The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse”:

There used to be a school of literary critics who thought one should not consider the intentions of the author when examining a work of fiction. Perhaps there is some level of intention at which this extraordinary view is plausible; perhaps one should not consider an author’s ulterior motives when analyzing his work, but at the most basic level it is absurd to suppose a critic can completely ignore the intentions of the author, since even so much as to identify a text as a novel, a poem, or even as a text is already to make a claim about the author’s intentions. (p. 325)

Knapp and Michaels would say there is nothing more to their view than just this. To think of the thing in the sand as a poem is to imagine it as authored. Put it like that, it doesn’t sound half bad. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite right. And even if it were, it still wouldn’t follow that the poem’s meaning is identical to the author’s intention. But it makes their argument more interesting, maybe, that Searle was for it before he was against it. (I really hadn’t realized this until recently.)


A Wordsworth poem (let’s say The Prelude) appearing spontaneously on the beach would be so enormous a coincidence as to stretch our belief in coincidence beyond breaking poitn.  Like the infinite monkeys tapping out Shakespeare, it’s a thought-experiment too removed from actual experience to be terribly useful, I’d say.

Take instead, let’s say, wind-chimes; or the (to stay with a Romantics vibe) Aeolian Harp that so intrigued Coleridge.  The wind moves through the chimes and creates music; but K and M would argue that this isn’t music because the wind doesn’t intend to compose.  That’s daft.  Or, not to be merely dismissive, that multiplies entities unnecessarily ... because presumably K and M, given their premises, would need to distinguish between music (eg ‘Let’s Work’ by Mick Jagger) and ‘pretty music-esque noises that nevertheless aren’t music’ (like the wind chimes tinkling).  What are the benefits of introducing that complexity into the discussion?  But wouldn’t most reasonable people be happy enough calling both things music?

By Adam Roberts on 10/10/07 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, now that I think of it, bringing in Coleridge muddies my waters; because he believed that there was intention behind the music of the Aeolian harp, just not human intention: it was, he’d say, Nature, or God.  But we don’t have to agree with that, I think, to find the Aeolian Harping musical.

By Adam Roberts on 10/10/07 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t the musician of the wind-chimes music the designer of the wind chimes?  Similarly, the poet of an automatic poetry generating program is the programmer, etc.  I don’t think the thought experiment really works if a human being set up a restricted space within which variation occurs.

By on 10/10/07 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"but K and M would argue that this isn’t music because the wind doesn’t intend to compose.  That’s daft.”

Well, if you made the additional assumption that music must mean something - i.e. express semantic content, or have representational content - then they would deny that the wind could make music. But I think they could fairly object that it is rather daft of you to assume that music has to function by meaning something. It seems a fair assumption that music isn’t essentially a semantic phenomenon, no?

By John Holbo on 10/10/07 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John ‘I shan’t be commenting in this thread for several days’ H.: “Well, if you made the additional assumption that music must mean something - i.e. express semantic content, or have representational content

Why would you make that additional assumption?  Sounds like a rum definition of art.  Isn’t art in the aesthetics, not in the semantics?  By this definition a Rothko painting isn’t art.  Now, rust may make patterns on the side of an old water tank rather similar to Rothko, and the question then surely is: ‘is is beautiful?’ not ‘what’s it content?’

But then your second and third sentences seem to be making exactly this point, so I’m confused.

Rich, I’m not sure.  Let’s say that the random actions of wind and rain create a Wordsworth poem (this time let’s suppose, ‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’) in a child’s sandpit, does the maker of the sandpit get to create credit for the poem?  It’s the active agent, not the passive, that gets credit for creating, surely?

By Adam Roberts on 10/10/07 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Erratum: “the question then surely is: ‘is is beautiful?’ not ‘what’s its content?’ “

By Adam Roberts on 10/10/07 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

By which I meant: “the question then surely is: ‘is it beautiful?’ not ‘what’s its content?’ “

I need to go have a cup of tea I think.

By Adam Roberts on 10/10/07 at 12:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think a sandpit would do it, no.  But the chimes make music-y sounds because they were designed to.  The various automatic poem generators (some use programs, some paper strips, etc.) all create words strung together in poem-y lines because they were designed to.  It seems to me that the intention in “I’m going to design some chimes so that they’ll make music-y sounds when the wind hits them” is similar to “I’m going to write a piece of music.” It’s not really the same as the uncanny words appearing out of randomness unguided by any human agency.

By on 10/10/07 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OT: When you’re in Chicago be sure to check out Millennium Park. It’s a blast.

By Bill Benzon on 10/10/07 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My plane doesn’t leave for a few more hours, thank you very much.

I was just pointing out that their thesis has no obvious application to music, since music doesn’t need to mean anything. They would only need to say that intentionless music wasn’t music if music was a semantic phenomenon. Since you don’t think that (since it obviously isn’t so) they are off the hook, right?

By John Holbo on 10/10/07 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, imagine that what showed up on the beach was something that looked an aweful lot like an arrangement of, say, “Greensleeves” in 16th century lute tablature (got to have a bit of exoticism to be properly philosophical). Is it music or not? That there is no semantic meaning involved seems to me irrelevant.

* * * * *

I’m interested in the mechanisms of language, in, among other things, how semantics actually works. What happens in the mind and brain when it sees written words? That’s what I want to know. From that point of view, whatever that process is, if it goes into action when it sees words inscribed on a deserted beach and then ponders the meaning of those words, why then, it’s made a mistake. It’s been fooled. Any of our perceptual and cognitive mechanisms can be fooled. So what?

Experimental psychology is replete with odd and ingenious ways of fooling the nervous system and thereby learning something about how it works. We don’t even need to invoke the psych lab. Think of movies. None of the images on the screen move, none of them. But we see motion because our visual system is tricked. And the nature of that trick tells us somthing about how the nervous system works,

I don’t see how this bit of philosophical foolery tells us much of anything how the system works. So, why’s it had such a long intellectual life? Just what is behind this bit of hypothication?

Is “intention” in these arguments merely a stand-in for processes we don’t understand very well? Implying that, if and when understanding is achieved, we can dispense with it entirely? (BTW, I suspect not, but . . . .)

By Bill Benzon on 10/10/07 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was looking for found poetry after pg 10. Also, seeking lighght

By nnyhav on 10/10/07 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Surely—surely!—one can maintain that <q>To think of the thing in the sand as a poem is to imagine it as authored.</q> without also maintaining that it’s the actual intentions of its actual author that give it its meaning.  I halfway think that I would maintain the former and not the latter, so I certainly hope it’s a surety that it’s possible.  Given this, there must be a misdescription of K&M’s position somewhere or other.  (Or, perhaps, they are very confused.)

By ben wolfson on 10/10/07 at 02:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think they are very confused. They miss the distinction between thinking there must be intentions behind it, in order for it as having meaning. And thinking that the intentions have to BE that meaning.

By John Holbo on 10/10/07 at 02:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Found poetry seems similar to the wind chimes / poetry generator.  It generally has better aesthetics than a truly randomly chosen block of text of equal size, especially in the first line (because that’s what caught the eye of the person who declared it to be found poetry) and the last line (because that’s where they thought it would be best to stop).

By on 10/10/07 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As you’re heading toward function, John, you might consider a passage from Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight from the essay “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism.” Consider this passage (p. 25, 2nd Edition, Revised):

“Intent” is seen, by analogy with a physical model, as a transfer of a psychic or mental content that exists in the mind of the poet to the mind of a reader, somewhat as one would pour wine from a jar into a glass. A certain content has to be transferred elsewhere, and the energy necessary to effect the transfer has to come from an outside source called intention. This is to ignore that the concept of intentionality is neither physical nor psychological in its nature, but structural, involving the activity of a subject regardless of its empirical concerns, except as far as they relate to the intentionality of the structure. The structural intentionality determins the relationship between the components of the resulting object in all its parts, but the relationship of the particular state of mind of the person engaged in the active of structuration to the structured object is altogether contingent. The structure of the chair is determined in all its components by the fact that it is destined to be sat on, but this structure in no way depends on the state of mind of the carpenter who is in the process of assembling its parts. The case of the work of literature is of course more complex, yet here also, the intentionality of the act, far from threatening the unity of the poetic entity, more definitely established that unity.

A bit later (28-29):

But from where then does the contextual unity, which the study of texts reconfirms over and over again and to which American criticism owes its effectiveness, stem? Is it not rather that this unity – which is in fact a semi-circularity – resides not in the poetic text as such, but in the act of interpretingt his text?

By Bill Benzon on 10/10/07 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The real problem with K&M’s argument is that while we can’t conceive of language except as a system in which meanings are communicated, and while the wind and waves can’t produce such meanings or signs which intend and express them, they can, just conceivably, produce a bunch of marks that literate language users recognise (or misrecognise) as meaningful written language. This is a case in which the production of meaning requires intent but the finding of it, does not.

By on 10/10/07 at 03:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s partly tangential to the main point of the essay (which I’ll get back to when the notes I’ve scribbled are a bit more coherent) but you should be cautious about invoking Millikan around swampmen (as in “a battery of broadly Davidsonian/Millikanesque arguments about swampmen"). She goes completely against Davidson on this, on the idea that our concepts have to track real natural/causal “clumps, humps and peaks” in the space of logical possibility ("have to” in an evolutionary sense: the ones that don’t end up being discarded).

I swear it’s just coincidence that I know this: our reading last week was “On Knowing The Meaning (with a coda on Swampman)”, where she quotes Davidson saying his replica cannot be said to mean anything by the sounds it makes or to have thoughts, and replies “On the contrary, I believe, if you take away the natural planks on which our words ‘recognise,’ ‘mean’ and ‘thought’ are resting, it is completely indeterminate where these words would come to rest.”

It’s not totally tangential, though, because the same applies to her notion of function (with its historical continuity component): it’s only appropriate in a world where swampmen and water poetry don’t occur. So while she’d have to say that Smith’s eyes aren’t really eyes (and the poem not made up of English words, not really a poem—since these are all defined functionally, requiring the right sort of causal history), she’d take you to task for trying to use the words “poem”, “word”, and “eye” in a world in which “the foundations, the clumps, humps and peaks, actually supporting [these] words have dissolved away”.

More, and more to the point, after I’ve read the “Against Theory” article. (As I understand K&M’s idea so far it’s trivially false, if you agree that the printer’s error “A slumber did my spirit sell” alters the meaning of the line; I guess if it was that simple there wouldn’t be so much furore, so I’m going back to the source to wise up.)

By Tikitu on 10/11/07 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just gotta think, in the course of figuring out why I completely reject the Knapp & Michaels argument, that kauders’s comment is right: the reader who looks at the wave-generated beach poem would immediately think that God had written the poem on the beach miraculously (or a special wave-writing technology had been invented, yadda yadda), and attribute intention to the words, and thus generate meaning. And who has the universal scale in which to decide true readings from misreadings? We can only argue over the relative value of meanings here in our human, rhetorical space, in contingent circumstances. K & M are right that we always see intention, but the mental construct “the intention behind these words” is located in the reader’s mind. The author’s intention is still an abstraction in the reader’s mind, and readers will differ.

The Pragmatists cautioned us not to generate bizarre, hypothetical doubts where genuine doubts aren’t warranted; the beach-poem scenario is one of those. You can only imagine its consequences by realizing that the strolling beachcomber reader would never admit it was a coincidence, but would assume there was an author.

Is it not that simple? This is why I’m glad I’m in rhetoric. It doesn’t seem like the complexities of this argument are real. They seem like baroque reinventions of the same old distinctions, many of which don’t matter.

I dunno.

By on 10/11/07 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some time later… oooer, that does seem to be exactly what they’re saying. And actually I’m not sure their main point is worth the effort John has gone to in refuting it. (The interesting stuff is in his drafty appendix, if you ask me. I think my rabid Millikanitis might have something to add there too, but that’ll have to wait a day or two.)

They ask the question “But in the second case--where the marks now seem to be accidents--will they still seem to be words?” and answer immediately “Clearly not.” If you simply disagree with that intuition, as far as I can see you can walk away. Their case is built on this decision, and it is a decision: the decision to artificially fix the meaning of the words “language”, “meaning”, “word” and so on in a context where they don’t belong.

“Fix” could better be “restrict”. Because there’s obviously a practical common-sense reading of “meaning” under which the wave poem is meaningful, even if that meaning is in principle radically underdetermined; K&M’s approach amounts to something like saying “meaning is here a technical term, covering only ...”. And there’s the problem: spelling out exactly what the term is intended to cover makes the argument circular. If you share their intuition about what sense of “meaning” you’re interested in, you already believe that meaning is necessarily intentional. If you don’t believe it, you won’t accept that the wave poem isn’t composed of words and they won’t convince you of anything else either.

By Tikitu on 10/11/07 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It doesn’t seem like the complexities of this argument are real.


By Bill Benzon on 10/11/07 at 05:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It occurs to one that Jesus faces in toasted cheese sandwiches, or Madonna figures in water-damaged concrete walls, etc., are examples of the wave-poem scenario in real life.

One doesn’t know what to say about that, except to note that some say the image is miraculous, others say it is coincidental, but no one denies that he/she can see the image. Those images don’t become invisible to viewers who adopt a skeptical attitude. Everyone sees meaning, but some say the meaning is an illusion.

By on 10/11/07 at 08:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

rm and kauders: I think the point is that the two “meanings” in “producing meaning” and “finding meaning”, or of “seeing meaning” and miraculously instilling it, are different things. If I understand K&M at all, they’re unwilling to take the meaning we “find” or “see” as something ontologically real, since it’s in principle radically underdetermined (a point that John’s “my spirit animal took a nap” also addresses).

To that point, I actually agree with them: on a strictly ontological level, the words of the wave poem don’t belong to the same kind(*) as the words I’m writing here. The question is whether the ontological level is the one you want to attach (or restrict) the meaning of “meaning” to, and that’s where (as I say above) it comes down at first grasp to a decision rather than a reasoned argument.

(There’s a Millikanesque argument that you can’t restrict “meaning” like this, and it’s coming, I promise!)

*) This isn’t self-evident, especially given John’s observations on typography. It follows from the particular ontological commitments I’m taking from Millikan—and in fact there’s a shortcoming to that story which is particularly relevant for poetry and which I hope I’ll get time to try to spell out as well. (The very short version: artifacts (and, within limits, language) produced by non-humans seem to require a notion of “functional kind” which Millikan doesn’t have, but this notion risks underdetermining the real kinds --which isn’t acceptable at an ontological level, even if it’s ok at the epistemic or practical/empirical level of “seeing meaning"-- precisely because it gives up the causal interconnectedness which characterises all the kinds that Millikan explicitly recognises.)

By Tikitu on 10/12/07 at 04:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

ben wolfson: the above is also aimed at you, in a roundabout way: splitting meaning into two different animals, ontological (attach that to speaker intention if you like) and epistemic or empirical(*), explains the origin of the distinction you draw. (And, in a sense, K&M’s “confusion”: it’s a commitment to (only) the ontological view, which at first sight looks ... confused.)

*) I’m not sure yet which of these is the right view, or even if either exactly gets it. It’s definitely on the interpreter side though, and fallible (in the sense of not always tracking the ontological sense correctly), and subject to objections of indeterminism on principle.

By Tikitu on 10/12/07 at 04:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the good comments. I’ll respond a bit later. I’m a bit scattered, after my flight. Quick point in response to Tikitu: yeah, I’m fudging the difference betwee Davidson and Millikan pretty bad. I was aware of that, but was sort of skating over it out of a sense that the specific brand of externalism you favor doesn’t really matter, for purposes of what I was saying. (But I probably should have just said as much.) I tried to be weaselly and say Millikanesque and Davidsonian rather than Millikan’s and Davidson’s. Not good enough. I didn’t know of this Millikan paper that actually mentions swampman in the title. Is it a new one? Or have I forgotten, or overlooked it?

Re: the weirdness of the argument. My idea is to present the screwy wordsworth case - which I have done - then try to reinforce the point by making the same point with reference to less bizarre cases. Which I haven’t got to yet. I sympathize with the reaction that the example is just to weird: our intuition pumps get clogged with seawater.

By John Holbo on 10/12/07 at 06:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Swampman paper: We got it as a handout, and I can’t find any reference to it online. The most likely suspect on her CV is “Coda on nature’s humps and peaks, and the likely irrelevance of Swampman,” Australian Research School of Social Sciences, Canbera, July 13, 2006; but of course it’s nowhere online (couldn’t find anything called “On knowing the meaning” either). It could be it turns up as a chapter in one of her books, I haven’t seen all of them.

I’m writing something horribly long about the whole story at the moment, it expands on why that particular fudging is illicit. I’m actually much more interested in your typography argument, but to address that Millikanesquely (sorry...) I think you need the whole framework.

By Tikitu on 10/12/07 at 06:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Tikitu, I look forward to hearing your whole story. (I concede the illicitness freely. Now that I think about it, not mentioning the degree of slippage between Davidson and Millikan was pretty seriously confused on my part.)

I like my typography argument, too. I threw it in at the end, even though it’s not done, because I wanted to show I was going somewhere new with this, not just proving that ‘language is a tool’ or something like that.

By John Holbo on 10/12/07 at 06:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

So, John, why don’t you simply go full-tilt bozo into parody, you know, Wordsworth on a cheese sandwich or “to be or not to be” in the original Klingon.

By Bill Benzon on 10/12/07 at 07:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wordsworth on the beach is in monkey-typewriter territory. Not formally impossible, but actually impossible. I am in favor of banning all monkey-typewriter arguments from all forms of discourse. Even by Narnians.

By John Emerson on 10/12/07 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, Wordsworth on a cheese sandwich is just more sand. Not better, not worse. The hypothesis that Shakespeare was originally translated from the Klingon - that, I’ll grant, is something else. Not my cup of tea.

John, I suppose I could be a pain and say it’s not actually impossible, merely very, very, very unlikely. I believe current physics agrees with me about that. But seriously. You have a point. The problem with such thought-experiments is not that it is unreasonable to ask what the relation between meaning and intention might be, by sort of solving for a variable - suppose no author, then what? The problem is that the stage-setting, intended to promote vividness, encourages a sort of confusion of roles. If we were actually on the beach, we wouldn’t even consider that the poems were authorless. We’d keep looking for an author. And if we did convince ourselves something cosmically strange happened we would hardly feel the need to use our old vocabulary of ‘word’, so forth, in a normal way. It’s not a normal situation. Whatever would be said on that beach is no guide to our normal usage, probably. Why should words be used normally to describe it? All this is fair to note. I still need to write the next part where I attempt to provide less outlandishly absurd thought-experiments, to solve for all this.

By John Holbo on 10/12/07 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, John, but the beach is hallowed by tradition, while the cheese sandwich is distincly low-rent.

In any event, I second Emerson’s motion to banish monkeys & their typewriters from arguments.

By Bill Benzon on 10/12/07 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was just setting this one up. Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World, 1929, p. 72):

The reason why we ignore this chance may be seen by a rather classical illustration. .... If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British museum, The chance of their doing so is decidedly more favorable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.

Note that Eddington takes the monkey-typewriter example as impossible, and points out that a very limited time reversal (involving about 300 cc of air) would be even more impossible.

I think that thermodynamic impossibility should be allowed as a form of actual impossibility, and that “very large numbers” (e.g., the number of electrons in the universe squared) should be treated as infinite numbers whenever real-world topics are discussed. Essentially this means taking thermodynamic physics as seriously as fundamental (particle, astro-) physics.

People are already avoiding trolley-car problems whenever I’m around. Monkey-typewriter examples are the next target for my terrorist activity.

By John Emerson on 10/12/07 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Or how about this: any time anyone describes thermodynamic impossibility as merely “very unlikely”, they should have to write “very” one thousand times, followed by an ellipsis.....

The conventions of language allow us to express ginormous concepts in tiny little words, but in some cases that’s misleading, and the expanded expression should be used.

By John Emerson on 10/12/07 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I chanced upon an uncommon sight
Beside a windblown weed,
A sentence there were none to write
And very few to read:

A poem by a wordless hand
Half hidden from the eye!
–Clear as a text, had it been planned
To clearly signify.

Twas formed unseen, and none could know
Why these shapes came to be;
But they are in the sand, and, oh,
The difference to me!

By eb on 10/13/07 at 02:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d go for a different final line:

“They’ll make a fine career for thee!”

By Bill Benzon on 10/13/07 at 05:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Or to put it differently, the compact, tidy, seemingly-reasonable little phrase “very unlikely” obscures the overwhelming, stunning enormousness of the “very” in a way that a thousand “verys” would not.

Eddington proposed that thermodynamics should be taken as one of the fundamental* laws of the universe almost on a par with quantum theory, relativity and Newtonian mechanics, and Prigogine and Reichenbach developed that idea, but no one got the message.

No more monkey-pianos!

*Not more fundamental than the other three, and not applicable to the pure, simple systems they study, but always there in human experience including all scientific experimentation.

By John Emerson on 10/13/07 at 06:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I think you are probably just kidding with me, but - if not - the point of the thought-experiment is not that the thing in question is at all likely to happen. So, no the seemingly-reasonable phrase ‘very unlikely’ does NOT obscure the overwhelming enormousness. Rather, the ‘very unlikely’ is a knowing wink to everyone who already perfectly well appreciates the overwhelming enormousness. Surely you aren’t worried I would mislead some innocent readers into thinking we are in even long-shot danger of swampmen.

eb, that’s great!

By John Holbo on 10/13/07 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I do think there is an interesting issue here, and it’s one about rhetoric. Why all the exotic trappings of Wordsworth on the beach? As far as I can tell there’s nothing of substance there beyond observing that the marks on the page are, in themselves, just that. The meaning is not somehow inherent in the marks, it’s not in their shapes, nor in the individual molecules of ink waiting to leap into the brain of a reader. The meaning is somewhere else. Where? In the intention of the writer, that’s where.

Well, that’s not much of an answer.

I can’t help but think of the exotic recasting as some kind of feint or distraction, a conjurer’s trick. You get your reader imagining this exotic setting and this wildly improbably event—how could the wind and waves ever do that? gee aren’t those palm trees lovely, and the tropical birds—and they’re in a frame of mind to see Great Significance and Deep Wisdom in the ensuring argument. When, in fact, there’s not much there other than an admission that we don’t know what’s going on.

By Bill Benzon on 10/13/07 at 09:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But I confess that Swampman now embarrasses me. The reason is that science fiction stories that imagine things that never happen provide a poor testing ground for our intuitions concerning concepts like the concept of a person, or what constitutes thought. These common concepts work as well as required in the world as we know it. We have multiple criteria for applying most important concepts, and the imagined cases are ones in which these criteria, which normally go together, point in different directions. We ask what we would say in such cases? Who knows? Why should we care?”

---Donald Davidson, “Interpretation: Hard in Theory, Easy in Practice”

By on 10/13/07 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: “I’d go for a different final line:

‘They’ll make a fine career for thee!’”

You have to watch your prosody, though.  “A fine career for thee!” preserves the same rhythm as “The difference to me!”.

I was always more interested in intentionality as it affects real-world situations.  For instance, in several of Adam Roberts’ threads we’ve “translated” French poetry through a sort of original rough translation furnished by Adam followed by a many monkeys approach (though not millions of monkeys).  The resulting poem is a sort of blended result of the intentions of the original writer, and Adam, and everyone in the comment thread who suggested modifications.  That’s not a very unusual situation; every movie is the product of many hands.  But for people who like illustrations with simple, poetic texts, it seems like some of the systems of intentionality would founder.

By on 10/13/07 at 09:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Good edit, Rich.

And thanks for reminding me about movies as a collective product. Very important.

I wonder how things were in Shakespeare’s company? The fact that he wrote for a specific company, with specific actors in mind for the parts is important. It gives his texts a collaborative dimension. perhaps comparable to Duke Ellingtson’s compositions.

By Bill Benzon on 10/13/07 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I actual think that totally implausible hypotheticals shouldn’t be used.

Every once in a while someone sees the face of Jesus, their own name, etc. in some sort of a natural pattern. When they take it seriously we regard them as either stupid or hopelessly superstitious, unless we have a reason to believe someone deliberately put it there.

The Wordsworth on the beach case would be the same, EXCEPT that it’s thermodynamically (statistically) impossible, so that assuming that someone put it there would be the only reasonable conclusion.

When someone says that X is not impossible, but merely very unlikely, “very unlikely” is misleading. We already use “very unlikely” to mean one in a thousand or one in a million chances. But the thermodynamic “very unlikely” is quite a different thing.

By John Emerson on 10/13/07 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, would you be willing to bite the bullet and argue that Einstein’s famous elevator thought-experiment is invalid because it wouldn’t actually be possible to build such a thing? That is, the existence of such a thing is past the point of unlikely, to the point of being merely conceivable?

By John Holbo on 10/13/07 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Brad, thanks for that quote from Davidson. I didn’t know that one - although, since I am his former student, I remember him saying such things with a somewhat abashed grin.

By John Holbo on 10/13/07 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you still waiting for your plane, John?

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/07 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Naw, the plane came and I got on. I just sat on my panel with our SEK and Adam Kotsko this morning, thank you very much. Scott and I are going to the Art Institute presently (unless I fall hopelessly asleep.) Tonight James Wood is giving the speech at the banquet. I’m quite looking forward.

By John Holbo on 10/13/07 at 02:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s two ‘thank you very muches’ from John H, to me in this thread alone.  One more and I’m planning to redeem them for their cash value.

Hope the panel went well.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/07 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I give Einstein a pass, John. Not you. he probably should have kept his thought experiment to itself, considering all the harm it did.

By John Emerson on 10/13/07 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So if you give Einstein a pass, how do you modify your stricture to allow for the pass?

By John Holbo on 10/13/07 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait a minute.  Assuming that we’re thinking of the same thought experiment, I don’t see how they’re similar cases at all.  Einstein’s describes what would actually happen, every time, if you were in such an elevator.  The only difficulty in making it actually happen would be in the engineering task of building it, and I don’t see how it’s that hard—it only has to accelerate to one gravity.  While the other case involves a thermodynamic miracle, probably.

By on 10/13/07 at 08:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nobelists only. If you plan to get a Nobel, you’ll be retroactively safe once you do.

Econ and Peace Nobels don’t count. Must be real, Swedish Nobels awarded by the Nobel foundation, not Norwegian or Bank of Sweden counterfeits. You know how I feel about intellectual property.

Far-fetched hypotheticals are somewhat intrinsic to fundamental physics (quantum, astro-, relativity), which is mostly counterintuitive in reality.

I seriously do believe that people abuse and misunderstand the “merely very unlikely” vs. “formally impossible” difference. Thermodynamic unlikeliness is more like impossibility than it is like a million-to-one chance.

By John Emerson on 10/13/07 at 11:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich makes a good point. I had remembered the elevator moving closer to the speed of light. Which might tax the finest engineer. So I chose a bad example. Point taken.

I think the general point I was trying to make about thought-experiments is sound. Namely, the point (re: my case, anyway) isn’t anything to do with fudging the distinction between ‘merey very unlikely’ and ‘fucking thermodynamically miraculous.’ I do admit the gulf is vast, but I don’t think anyone is actually likely to be misled about that, nor does the point play on any confusion between those two. I do admit - have admitted - that the example is problematic. Intuition pumps clogged with seawater, etc. Per above.

I think of far-fetched hypotheticals as somewhat intrinsic to philosophy, not just due to some lame, ill-advised science envy, but because the investigations are conceptual. So why should likelihood be so decisive? Often conceptual investigations are tainted by irrelevant dramatic cajolings, and I think the present case probably qualifies, but that is strictly a separate question.

James Wood gave a very nice talk - very long. Scott thinks he grossly misrepresented William Gass. I have no opinion about that. It was good, I felt.

By John Holbo on 10/14/07 at 12:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nothing wrong with well crafted thought experiments. The question is whether or not the current example would still be current if not for “irrelevant dramatic cajolings.” Who’s the first one to have used it, and when? I heard it in undergraduate philosophy at Hopkins in the late 60s, though I believe it was The Lord’s Prayer that showed up rather than A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.

By Bill Benzon on 10/14/07 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, I’m not sure what’s at issue exactly with the example, but I think that any reasonable person [who understood thermodynamic impossibility] seeing an intelligible piece of text of any kind anywhere (longer than about 5 or 10 letters) would assume that it was produced by some being capable of intelligible discourse. They would not consider the possibility of accidental production by wind and wave action, or monkey-typewriter production. Dabbling in the reversal of thermodynamics is fun science fiction, but a variety of (bad) reasons make people feel it’s more than that.

Some natural patterns might seem like the unknown script of an unknown language. But that’s utterly different.

So the question of intentionality or whatever is not affected by the example.

I suppose I’m trolling again, but you all should know that when I gain control of the philosophy world philosophers will find themselves strongly impelled to use ludicrous hypothetical examples only in fear and trembling, not casually like picking up some whore in a bar.

By John Emerson on 10/14/07 at 06:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As punishment, how about having an offending philosopher placed in a cage along with 100s of hungry monkeys, each having a tatoo needle. The monkeys will be fed bananas as a reward for tatooing designs on the philosopher’s skin. If and when those designs should spell out the offending hypothetical, thus making the philosopher a living display of his or her offense, the bananas will cease and the philosopher released. During the process the philosopher is free to cadge bananas from the monkeys.

By Bill Benzon on 10/14/07 at 09:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, the question isn’t what the people on the beach would think, but how we would describe the situation - given the stipulated parameters of the thought-experiment. (I make this point in the paper. We, the experiment’s audience, know something that no one in the situation actually would know.) I agree that it is a problem that the thought experiment encourages a confusion of roles. But that is not actually an intellectual flaw in the experiment, more a presentational hazard of it. I do concede the latter, but it is important to distinguish between thought-experiments that will be predictably misunderstood - i.e. may induce some people to pump the wrong intuitions - and just plain invalid thought-experiments.

By John Holbo on 10/14/07 at 10:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sigh. After writing six pages I’ve convinced myself that Millikan’s story doesn’t help dispose of Smith in a satisfying way. I think she’s forced to say that the shapes Smith makes aren’t “really” (ontologically) words (that is, don’t belong in the same ontological kind as Wordsworth’s words). Her objection to swampman is to say “If this happens often enough, the notion of ‘word’ should be different (or absent entirely) because there isn’t an ontological kind that it can track reliably” but this doesn’t help: it is simply to note that if the utterly impossibly unlikely happens then we will pretty surely misinterpret it.

(What her story adds to the Davidson quote above is a reason why our criteria will diverge in this case, although she would object to ‘criteria’ I think.)

Still interested in typography though, and perhaps her story can deal with collective authorship more easily than a simplistic reading of the intention-as-meaning idea.

By Tikitu on 10/14/07 at 11:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Tikitu, feel free to send me your six pages. I’d be curious. Re: typography. I might have added, in the paper, that I don’t think Millikan would have any special difficulty acknowledging the sorts of points I made. It’s not that her theory can’t handle them. It’s just that, in fact, she clearly wasn’t thinking about that angle when she dismissed the idea that we classify words as shapes. (A simple analogy: the word ‘seal’ is like a swiss army knife. It’s really ONE tool, in a lorem ipsum shape sense. But it has highly ambiguous proper functions. We can say either that it is really several words, or just one word with several functions. Not sure whether that works, but it seems ok to me.)

By John Holbo on 10/14/07 at 11:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t follow your simple swiss army knife analogy. But there is empirical evidence on the matter of how we perceive words. I think it favors the idea that we do perceive overall word shapes rather than simply reading the individual letters; but you should check it out.

By Bill Benzon on 10/14/07 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: I put a newer version online, at

I think there is a sense in which Millikan’s story has problems with “found typography”: she has to say that the typographer is wrong about the letters; that he has a confused concept of a letter. (Recognising them by shapes is our fallible means of getting access to an objectively real class of causally related objects. The beach letters aren’t causally related to ordinary letters, so the typographer is confused.)

This seems wrong, because in a sense a typographer treating them as letters makes them letters. It’s that sense that I’m pushing towards in the new version, with a parable about you building a poem in your backyard out of found bits of seaweed.

(The original six pages were working towards saying something confused about Millikan’s stance on meaning, and when I made it less confused it turned out it wasn’t what I wanted. Best to skip it I think.)

By Tikitu on 10/14/07 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apropos the swiss-army-knife, as I understand Millikan’s story she’d have to say that there were separate kinds corresponding to the different senses of “seal”. The fact that we can be confused about the sense intended is a sign of our fallible means of identifying these kinds, but according to her they’re objectively there underneath.

But then there are (at least) two concepts attached to “word”, with different identity conditions giving the two readings you give. ("It’s really one tool” means you’ve decided on one of them, “It’s really two tools with the same shape” chooses for the other. “Really” isn’t really appropriate in either of the two.)

So yes, I agree that there’s no obvious problem here. It’s the notion of “letter” or “word” as a functional category that intrigues me, because (somewhat surprisingly) I don’t think it comes out completely simply from her story.

(And in fact the swiss army knife is a very nice analogy in a different way. Because copying a swiss army knife isn’t the same as copying its sawblade or can-opener, and using “seal” deliberately as ambiguous counts as copying too. It’s unlikely to be useful enough to be a stable function, but there might be examples with other words where this is more sensible.)

By Tikitu on 10/14/07 at 03:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why not use as an example something that does happen? We’ve all misheard pop lyrics, for example. For years I thought the line was “A pinball wizard’s got / Such a subtle wrist.” Then I learned it was a “supple” wrist. I like “subtle” better, but can I say there was any intention in its use? Is it meaningless because apparently there is no intention? I simply misheard. The intention of the “writer” from a common sense approach doesn’t matter; the syntactical place of the word suggests its possible interpretations.

I wouldn’t go as far as the New Critics with their handwringing over the “intentional fallacy,” but I do think we can get lost in hair splitting.

By on 10/15/07 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gerrold: I don’t know if I’m barking up a different tree to the real literature people around here. But I think the point of using intention as your criterion for meaning is to justify saying that you misunderstood the meaning.

It’s not that there was no intention in the use of “subtle”, it’s that “subtle” wasn’t used and the line itself still means “a supple wrist”. Your version of the line is a different animal; if we let the line (on the radio, as a real-world soundwave phenomenon) mean “a subtle wrist” simply because you hear it so, then an audience of thousands hearing the same line will likely give it thousands of different meanings.

Not that this is necessarily wrong (it is certainly one ordinary-language usage of “meaning”, what the line “means to me"), but we also need another notion of “meaning” which justifies the normativity of “hearing it wrong” (as opposed to just “hearing it differently").

By Tikitu on 10/16/07 at 07:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Yes, but since “subtle” appeared out of nowhere, it’s analogous to the poem appearing on the beach. Regardless of whether others misheard the line as I did, it still with “subtle” has meaning because it’s locked into a syntactical context that determines (to a degree) its interpretation.

I find it difficult to accept that a fully wrought poem randomly appearing on the beach doesn’t “mean” anything because we can’t ascribe a Creator’s intention to it. Possible “meanings” are generated by the reader in response to conditions created by context. I wouldn’t go so far as to say a Creator’s intention is meaningless, but in practice we often ascribe that intention from the work (such as we do with those anonymous medieval poems).

My real point is that I’d consider it strange to dismiss the poem on the beach simply because we believe it was randomnly generated (I won’t even get into the possibility that a Creator using processes we don’t understand manipulated the Laws of the Universe” to “create” the poem).

I’ve thought about mishearing lyrics for years, but usually in the context of creativity. Who created the line with “subtle” in it? The singer by singing the song in such a way that listeners could hear that word? Or the listener? Is it a creative usage or just a mistake? And what’s the difference? There is a cottage industry in diagnosing Van Gogh with various mental illnesses. If his works were created using an “abnormal” lens, do we try to filter out the illness to see where he is truly creative, whatever that means? If a cubist really saw a geometric world from multiple angles, does that diminish their art works?

By on 10/16/07 at 09:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I don’t think we’re disagreeing fundamentally, we’re just using “mean” in different senses. I’m trying to insist on two rigorously distinct senses of “meaning”, one of which has some sort of ontological support (which is where I’m following Millikan, more or less) and is housed in the text as a physical object, and one of which is housed in the mind of the interpreter.

As I understand it, K&M do the same except they go on to dismiss the second type of meaning—I agree completely with you that the poem on the beach has meaning in this second sense, and I think they’re wrong to dismiss the possibility.

On the other hand there is a valid point there as well: how can we give this sort of meaning a (reasonably equal) share in the word “meaning” without opening ourselves up to radical indeterminism?

It’s possible that we do disagree over exactly what the objects being studied are. What I tried to say above is that the line coming over the radio, “such a supple wrist”, and the one you heard, “such a subtle wrist”, are physically different objects. One is a collection of sound waves, and one a collection of brain activation states. They both mean what you’d expect them to mean, in the first sense above; what needs explaining is how they relate to one another. What I’m resisting is the notion that the meaning of the phrase in your head should strongly influence the meaning of the phrase on the airwaves. (Side note: I’m not trying to say that meaning is neurological; if you’re distracted by the “brain states”, imagine saying the line out loud and call that the second phrase.)

About the creativity angle, I don’t have an opinion I think. At least it seems that the tools I’m using to attack the meaning case simply aren’t applicable there, and I’m not sure I’d know how to recognise a good answer anyway.

(Actually those tools are already a bit odd in the case of “meaning”. If you read my pdf response to John’s beach draft you might notice that I start with questions of identity: is it really a poem, are they really words, and letters? I think I have a grip on that aspect of the situation, but I’m not sure that it pins down meaning quite as well. I’m quite sure it won’t do for creativity in the sense you’re interested in.)

By Tikitu on 10/16/07 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...one of which has some sort of ontological support (which is where I’m following Millikan, more or less) and is housed in the text as a physical object...

What’s this stuff? There is no meaning “physically” in the text. The text can be meaningful to someone who, by virtue of past experience, is equipped to read it. That’s it. Typically such texts are produced by individuals who, by virtue of past experience, know what such things mean.

As for mistaking what one hears on the radio, that’s all there is, a mistake.

By Bill Benzon on 10/16/07 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: you’re right, I need to back off on that one.

What I stick to is that there’s a question of identity that is ontologically based, under which the wave poem is not a poem and is not composed of letters. And again, backing off (this time by saying precisely what I mean rather than admitting I meant something just plain wrong): the letter-like shapes on the beach don’t belong in the same (causally-related) kind as the letters you’re reading now.

The illicit leap that I have to retract is to assume that the link from these kinds to meaning is clear: it isn’t. I hope I’ve been more careful in the pdf.

By Tikitu on 10/16/07 at 04:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(That said, combining Millikan and K&M would suggest that there is a meaning physically in the text: for K&M it’s the author’s intention, and one aim of Millikan’s work is to give the notion of intention external (objective, ontological-level, physical) grounding. I’m pretty sure Millikan would object to K&M’s half of the combination though—I don’t dare speculate as to what they would say about her half.)

Rereading, “housed in the text as a physical object” is also unnecessarily vague. I meant rather that meaning (and I should have meant identity as-a-poem or as-a-letter) is housed in the causal history of the text as a physical object—it’s not mystically present in the thing as it is, it’s a property of the way that thing came to be as it is.

(Which ties back in to the inherent weirdness of the beach experiment: we as beachcombers don’t have access to that causal history and we naturally posit a hypothetical normal history for the poem we find; we as philosophers --or whatever we are-- do have access to the relevant causal history but it’s so unnatural that it’s difficult to force our intuitions to take it seriously.)

Back to mistaking what one hears on the radio, though, if the text is meaningful only to someone who is equipped to read it, how do you judge the “misreading” as a mistake? What criteria are there for saying that one reading is privileged above another?

By Tikitu on 10/16/07 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . combining Millikan and K&M would suggest that there is a meaning physically in the text: for K&M it’s the author’s intention . . .

Is the author’s intention a physical thing? If not, then it doesn’t work. If so, what sort of physical thing is it? It might be a series of brain states, for example. But if that’s what it is, then it’s in the author’s brain, not on the page, or in the air (in the case of speech).

As for misheard lyrics on the radio, etc. That’s a real practical situation for me and most musicians who’ve transcribed lyrics from recordings. It can be very difficult as recordings are often very muddy - the lyrics to “Louie, Louie” are notorious in this respect. You do the best you can, making guesses as to what words the sounds embody. And the guesses you make influence how you hear the words. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. How do you know? Sooner or later you come across the correct lyrics; then you know. But there’s nothing metaphysically mysterious about this process.

Note that for the most part this is not the sort of interpretation that gets literary critics all hot and bothered. No one’s dickering over whether or not the word is “seal” or “wheel.” They’re dickering about what the correct words mean “beneath the surface.”

Now, I said “for the most part.” There is the case of what’s called textual criticism. You’re preparing an edition of Shakespeare and you know that the only existing texts have printer’s errors. And where you have two texts for the same play, they’re not identical. Now the question of just what words Shakespeare intended is a real question. Lot’s of ink has been spilt on sullied/solid, thus (from Harold Bloom):

We are left alone with Hamlet for the first of his seven soliloquies. Its opening lines carry us a long way into the labyrinths of his spirit:

“O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew . . .” [I.ii.129-30]

The First Folio gives us “solid flesh,” while the Second Quarto reads “sallied flesh.” While “sallied” could mean “assailed,” it is probably a variant for “sullied.” Hamlet’s recoil from sullied flesh justifies D. H. Lawrence’s dark observation that “a sense of corruption in the flesh makes Hamlet frenzied, for he will never admit that it is his own flesh.” Lawrence’s aversion remains very striking: “A creeping, unclean thing he seems. . . . His nasty poking and sniffling at his mother, his traps for the King, his conceited perversion with Ophelia make him always intolerable.” Though Lawrence’s perspective is disputable, we need not contest it, because Lawrence himself did: “For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go . . . and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence.” We can sympathize with Lawrence’s ambivalence: that “a creeping, unclean thing” should also be “as sincere as the Holy Spirit” is the essence of Hamlet’s view of humankind, and of himself in particular.

By Bill Benzon on 10/16/07 at 07:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Glad the conversation kept up without me, while I was flying across the ocean. Two points: first, I think the mishearing example is a good one - although I’m not exactly sure what it shows. Oddly, I was discussing misheard lyrics/poetry here not long ago. One thing worth noting is that misheard lyrics are not ‘randomly’ generated but presumably - like pareidolia generally - a function of the brain overreaching for sense structures of certain sorts. Of course when we mishear ‘Our lips are sealed’ as ‘Islands of seals’, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but presumably some part of the brain was associating islands-beaches-places where seals might be. So it isn’t just ‘random’. Interesting case.

Second, re: the ‘physical’ status of meaning. Take a related case (this is one of the ‘realistic’ cases I intend to substitute for silly old Smith.) Take a species of butterflies. Call them B’s. In their home environment, valley P, their coloration is ‘for’ warning predators. Red dots on their wings ‘mean’ - ‘don’t eat me, I taste bad’. They are poisonous. (There is a bit of a stretch saying that their wings really have intentional, let alone semantic properties, like this. But run with me on this one. Let’s say such butterfly wings have as-if or proto-intentional properties.)

Now, a large number of these B’s are transplanted to a new environment, valley M, where - by happy coincidence - the B’s wing patterns turn out to resemble those of another, indigenous butterfly species, B2, sufficiently to fool the perceptual systems of certain predators in M. B2’s are poisonous to these predators, but the newly-imported B’s would not be. Happily, the B’ are poised on arrival to make a smooth transition into a second career as mimics. And so they do. The predators leave them alone. (A note about cosmic coincidences. I intend this scenario to be like winning with a pick-5 lottery ticket. That is, immigrants turning out to match the inhabitants, coloration-wise is a one-in-a-million exadaptational long-shot, rather than a thermodynamic miracle. I expect things like this have actually happened in the history of life on this planet, although biologists would probably never be sure in any given case that the lottery fluke explanation was the correct one.)

Fast forward a couple thousand generations. The BP’s (that is, the butterflies living in P) are making their way autonomously from the BM’s (that is, the butterflies living in M). There is no communication between the populations. Let’s suppose the two groups have not drifted apart genetically (if this means the initial population import into M had to be large and representative, then fine, fine, imagine away.) After a while we will probably be inclined to say that the ‘function’ of the wing coloration has shifted, in the M population. The BP’s remain poisonous (in a Wright-function sense). The BM’s are now no longer poisonous but mimics (in a Wright-function sense.)

We could quibble: maybe we would want to say that the BM’s are both poisonous and mimics, whereas the BP’s are only poisonous. I could tweak my example in pesky ways. Suppose all the BP’s went extinct recently? Are the BM’s still poisonous as well as being mimics. Let’s skip over all that.

Suppose someone gives you a lovely, pin-mounted specimen in a box - look: a B - and asks you what its wing spots are ‘for’ (is this butterfly warning us that, in life, is was poisonous? or is it pretending to be poisonous? both? neither?) Your answer would presumably be: no physical fact about the specimen can answer this question. Not because there is some mystical fact of the matter, but because the question concerns which valley the specimen came from. No label on the box tells us (let’s suppose.) If it’s from P, it’s poisonous. if it’s from M, it’s a mimic. Last but not least, if it was generated due to some thermodynamic miracle on a beach, it’s neither P nor M. (S, for Smith. Call these butterflies BS, per Emerson’s intuitions about such cases.) Randomly generated butterflies don’t have biological functions.

This case is a lot like Dennett’s so-called ‘wandering two-bitser’, if you happen to know it, so I should probably give the butterfly some name that nods in that direction (even though I came up with the case before reading Dennett’s paper).

By John Holbo on 10/17/07 at 03:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One final note: sometimes when I use this example, it has been objected that it is more than a 1-in-a-million long-shot that two species could be twins, wing-wise. Let’s solve that one, if it bothers you, by imagining that the predators have pretty crude detection equipment, so that it doesn’t take such great resemblance to trigger it.

By John Holbo on 10/17/07 at 03:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Also, when I say ‘proto-intentional’ above, I don’t mean that the butterflies intend their wings to mean anything. I’m using ‘intentional’ in the technical, philosophical sense: the wings are ‘proto-intentional’ in the sense that they are somehow ‘about’ something. They are states of affairs that are ‘directed at’ other states of affairs.

By John Holbo on 10/17/07 at 04:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is the author’s intention a physical thing? If not, then it doesn’t work. If so, what sort of physical thing is it? It might be a series of brain states, for example. But if that’s what it is, then it’s in the author’s brain, not on the page, or in the air (in the case of speech).

That’s where I would (mis)use Millikan’s side of the story: the intention is tied up with the function which is tied up with the causal history of the text. (I corrected the “in the text” to “in the causal history of the text” in the very next paragraph, but apparently didn’t re-read properly.) The point of “physical” is to emphasise that this (causal history) is something that exists in the real world. Put very crudely, the singer actually sang “supple” because the word was copied from other tokens of “supple”, not of “subtle”; intentionality comes in through the question “why copy that word and not another?” but it’s not a part of the criterion for deciding which word was actually spoken.

(This is a token-level story; when you photocopy a lyrics sheet the new tokens of words on the page don’t have any intentionality directly behind them, you have to look back through their causal history to the words they were photocopied from that were written down intentionally.)

John’s butterflies story gets to the same point: Your answer would presumably be: no physical fact about the specimen can answer this question. Not because there is some mystical fact of the matter, but because the question concerns which valley the specimen came from. Except that I want to say that there is a fact of the matter, bound up in the physical causal history of the butterfly you’re holding; it’s not mystical but it’s also not accessible just by looking at the physical object in the here-and-now.

So my apologies for repeatedly using the same confusing shorthand; for me “physically in the text” means “in the physical causal history of the text”, to be contrasted with “in the interpreter”.

Note that for the most part this is not the sort of interpretation that gets literary critics all hot and bothered. No one’s dickering over whether or not the word is “seal” or “wheel.” They’re dickering about what the correct words mean “beneath the surface.”

Yes, but as I understand it this is just an extreme form of the same question: a case where the physical text gives very few clues about the causal history that lead to it being the way it is. It’s John’s butterfly all over again: the “beneath the surface” admits that the surface looks the same, but asks about something that might nonetheless be different in the thing itself (i.e., its causal history) rather than in the mind of its interpreter.

The practical problem of misheard lyrics is somewhat similar: the actual soundwaves given out by a cheap radio playing “Louie, Louie” on a stormy day don’t give you many clues about the relevant parts of the causal history of copying that lead to them (partly because several of the copying mechanisms involved are low-fidelity in ways we depend on). The main difference is that it’s relatively easy to find out about that causal history in other ways: as you say, you look up the lyrics somewhere else. (Why does that tell you about the radio broadcast? Because they’re causally connected; they’re both copied ultimately from a single source.)

There’s another complication to the story, which John has again jumped on: mishearing lyrics happens non-randomly because of biases in our perceptual systems. You need to systematically distinguish between what the words are (in a causal-history sense) and what we hear them as (in a perceptual sense); this gets much murkier when you get to literary criticism, because “what the meaning is (in a causal sense)” is probably impossible to observe, while “what we see the meaning as (in a perceptual sense)” is much less determined by the text than what we see the words as (at least, I presume, in the cases that attract this sort of criticism; nobody is arguing that “See Spot run” has any particularly unexpected meaning, I guess).

If you follow Millikan rigorously, the fact that we can have so many arguments about this “deep” level of meaning might suggest that it isn’t supported by anything at all, at the ontological level of causal history. (Or, I hasten to add, it might just mean that our perceptual apparatus is not attuned to these particular types of causal histories, because they haven’t been sufficiently useful in our evolutionary past.)

By Tikitu on 10/17/07 at 04:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: how about we release some of your BMs back into valley P?

When we first let them go, what are their spots for? And a half hour later, when they haven’t been eaten?

And how is this different (if it is) to you putting the seaweed back on the beach? (When you’ve had time to glance through my pdf.)

... And now I’m off to my course with Millikan. I’ll ask about the Swampman paper.

By Tikitu on 10/17/07 at 05:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Protective mimicry:


By Bill Benzon on 10/17/07 at 05:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The question for practical literary criticism is not whether or not authors intend texts (in the philosophical sense). They obviously do. So what? If your answer to that question is “it’s the critic’s job to determine authorial intention” then the critic needs a procedure for doing that. As far as I can tell, none of the intentionalists have seen fit to produce a procedure that’s any better than any one we had, say, 40 years ago.

By Bill Benzon on 10/17/07 at 05:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’m afraid my reply’s no more helpful to your project than Bill Benzon’s or John Emerson’s were, but at least some of the jokes are different. Since I required a visual aid, it’s posted at home.

By Ray Davis on 10/21/07 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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