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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

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Some Philosophical Help, Please

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/06/07 at 02:02 PM

I have a certain view about literary texts (and similar things) and I’d like to foist it off on some appropriate philosopher(s) if I can. The idea is that literary texts are very complex things, having, for all practical purposes, an unbounded number of properties and attributes. But not all of these properties are relevant in all contexts. Certain properties are relevant to shelving the text; a different, but partially overlapping, set of properties is relevant to using the text as a door stop; or recycled paper; or worm food, etc. And, of course, certain properties are relevant to reading the text in order to gain whatever it is that one gains from such things. These are the properties that are relevant to literary criticism.

What I wish to draw from this little story is the idea that simply isolating and describing the “literarily-active” properties is: 1) no small task, 2) the starting point into any investigation into the way such texts work in the mind.

As a rather simple example of what I have in mind, consider the distinction that linguists make between the phonetics and phonology. Phonetics is about actual speech sounds and involves, for example, the examination of sound spectra. In contrast, phonology is about the sounds that are active in a given speech system. For example, while /l/ and /r/ sound different, that difference is not linguistically significant in all languages (e.g. Japanese). The phonetician is interested in those sounds in all their details while the phonologist is interested in only those properties that have differential value in the sound system of a given language. These are known as distinctive features.

I am extending that distinction to the whole text, cf. my recent post on stylistic identity in graffs. I believe that the late Kenneth Pike did some such thing and constructed a complete theory of culture on that distinction, emics and etics he called them. I have not, alas, read Pike. But, getting back to the reason for this post, what philosophical authorities can I cite?



It’s a really interesting question; perhaps the answer depends on how exactly you mean “reading the text in order to gain whatever it is that one gains from such things.”

If you mean the cultural significance of the text, then you’re probably at least in the same ballpark as Claude Levi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology, where the text performs (as a repetition) certain central dilemmas within a given society. Thus Sophocles and his audience gain from Oedipus a “working-through” of the problem of origins.

If you mean the literary features of the text, such as symbolism and what-have-you, then your best bet is probably the deconstructionists, particularly Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Derrida’s Writing and Difference and de Man’s Aesthetic Ideology are both great sources of speculation about how we turn literary texts into the proper food of criticism.

If you mean the cognitive processes involved in the uptake of a text—a field of inquiry that could include the cognitive or developmental benefits of reading, or the sensory or pseudo-sensory activity of the imagination—then you yourself are much better equipped than me to answer the question.

Finally, if you mean the ethical significance of the text—that is, the capacity of a literary text to educate and improve its readers—where you go next somewhat depends on what you want to find. You could end up reading Matthew Arnold or Lionel Trilling, or you could end up reading Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille, depending on what texts and types of readership interest you.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/06/07 at 03:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not so interested in philosophers on literary texts, Joseph, as I am in philosophers on the complex nature of things, someone who says the world consists of pluripotent monads—perhaps that’s what Leibniz had in mind, it’s been years since I’ve read him. If that’s how the world is, then it is certainly true of literary texts. But the statement I’m looking for should start with things. Whether or not it works its way around to art is a secondary matter.

By Bill Benzon on 09/06/07 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Kenneth Pike on emics and etics:


By Bill Benzon on 09/06/07 at 04:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, might William James’s *A Pluralistic Universe* be what you’re looking for?  He basically argues for the irreducible complexity of the world, its resistance to any single frame of understanding.

By on 09/06/07 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll have to check it out, Luther. I do like the idea of claiming James as an intellectual ancestor. Thanks.

By Bill Benzon on 09/06/07 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was going to mention James, as well. Pragmatism generally tries to engage complexity rather than reduce it. The first chapter of Rorty’s _Philosophy and Social Hope_ doesn’t, as i recall, deal specifically with literary texts, but it is certainly a defense of complexity.

catchpa: over54. Yes, alas.

By jd on 09/06/07 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you want to read the cultural significance of “texts” as in common objects, how about Dick Hebdige’s _The Subculture of Style_? He makes some good points about how we use objects to symbolically resolve certain social contradictions, but that those resolutions might not actually be pragmatically useful or even harmful.

By Sisyphus on 09/06/07 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As far as theory/linguistics, you could turn to Chomsky perhaps? His philosophical status might be up for debate, but from a linguistic point of view he might serve your purpose.

As a point of departure perhaps Saussure (General Course on Linguistics)?

By on 09/06/07 at 11:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thinking of Pragmatism, or at least an Ilk of Pragmatists, what about Kenneth Burke? There’s a theory of significance that allows the widest possible context, and which talks about the literary features of the text as constituting a philosophical theory of the world to be tested. I think. It’s been a long time.

By on 09/07/07 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I get the sense you are looking for something a little further into propeller-head territory than what has so far been suggested, so I’ll mention that Jon Barwise and John Perry’s “situation semantics” seems to make some of the same points as you do above (specifically, about the partiality of assessment contexts).

By Jeff Rubard on 09/07/07 at 07:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the emic/etic distinction is a way out of the relativism vs. truth dog and pony show. There are an infinite number of etic differences. Among the etic differences, a very small number are selected to be marked as significant or meaningful. These are “distinctions”. In English, for another example, “p” and “b” are distinct. In Arabic, or some dialects anyway, “p” and “b” are interchangable. There’s an etic difference, but no emic distinction. In the other direction, among consonants English has an “s” and a “sh” ound, whereas Chinese has an “s”, a “sh”, and in between them, an “x” or “hs” (different romanizations).

Ethically, culturally, etc., there are enormous differences in the ways in which maleness, for example, or decency, or adulthood are marked or distinquished. Unmarked differences aren’t denied; they just aren’t systematically used and recognized as critical or important.

To me tremendous proportion of philosophy and “theory” seems like clumsy attempts to universalize and ontologize some of the elementary insights and working principles of anthropology. I think that people would do better to begin by studying anthropology iself, and then proceed to apply anthropological insights to the fill historical range of civilized cultures.

From a historical point of view, of course, not all cultural sets of emic distinctions are equal. For example, elaborately coded ritual societies tend to be less powerful and less productive than more simply coded societies coded on pragmatic or instrumental principles.

By John Emerson on 09/08/07 at 07:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some of the questions you are pondering sound like the kind of thing a phenomenological theory of literature such as Roman Ingarden’s (The Literary Work of Art: An Investigation on the Borderlines of Ontology, Logic, and Theory of Literature.  Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973). Ingarden classifies different “levels” at which we may consider a work - as an alternative “world” with its own properties, as a set of “perspectives” on that world, as a verbal object, as a physical text, etc.

By JoseAngel on 09/08/07 at 09:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There is a concept in linguistics that may be apropos: dot object. Consider the sentence:

Both I and the silverfish enjoyed the book.

The book in question is the same book but taken first as something legible and then as something edible. The book is thus a dot object on the analogy (I guess) with a dot product in linear algebra.

I associate the term with the linguist Ray Jackendoff but have yet to read a full account of his rationale for it.

By Jim Harrison on 09/09/07 at 01:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The idea of finding a principled way of distinguishing the critically relevant properties of a text from the other properties is a tantalizing one, but there are some reasons to suspect it can’t be done. 

In recent work Alexander Nehamas has argued that whenever we try to draw such a distinction, all properties, including, for example, being printed on acid free paper, or ‘having a blue dot in the top left hand corner’, end up being on the critically relevant side.  There’s a good discussion of this in his Only a Promise of Happiness .

By Chris Mole on 09/09/07 at 07:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I quite agree. Relevance is relational, it depends on text and context alike. But nevertheless some pointers can be drawn. For instance, some copies of Pride and Prejudice will be printed on acid free paper, others won’t. But all of them will feature such and such charactes, plot, etc. Which is to say that this is a characteristic of Pride and Prejudice as a literary work, not of the specific book object in which we read it. And so on und so weiter.

By JoseAngel on 09/09/07 at 09:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nehamas on beauty and judgment:


By Bill Benzon on 09/09/07 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It occurs to me that Kenneth PIkes’s emics are, in fact, the memes that Dawkins was talking about. If so, then they are under study and have been so for awhile. But the connection hasn’t been made to the notion of evolution.

By Bill Benzon on 09/10/07 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Memes are a lot of things. Emic / etic marking is a pretty specific form of cultural marking of differences. One thing characteristic of these distinctions is that they usually cohere into systems. For example, the p/b, t/d and k/g distinctions are the same in English.

By John Emerson on 09/10/07 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . they usually cohere into systems.

And that’s what you’d want of the genetic elements of culture.

Most discussions of memes are bullshit, and the people who talk about memes don’t seem to have a very sophisticated grasp of culture. What we want is entities that play the role in cultural processes than genes play in biological processes. I think that those emic entities are what we’re looking for.

By Bill Benzon on 09/10/07 at 12:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that emic entities are genetic elements of culture, but I’m not sure that that’s how Dawkins understood memes. So if you’re saying that memes should be understood from an emic point of view, I absolutely agree.

I do think of memes as atomic as well as systematic, which is one reason why I like them. For example, when a practice or artifact of any kind passes from one culture to another unaccompanied by its cultural matrix, memetics (the way I use it) works better than emics.

By John Emerson on 09/10/07 at 07:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Dawkins didn’t understand memes very well at all, but he does seem to have been looking for the genetic elements of culture. He just didn’t and doesn’t know enough about culture to know what those might be.

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

Monroe Beardsley wrote an essay (collected later in a book of the same name) called “The Aesthetic Point of View” in which he discusses all the avrious ways in which we might call an object “good”. . .only one of which is the “aesthetic good”.

He does not talk about literature in that essay, but the general discussion seems to be what you want.  And in his book “Aesthetics: problems in the Philosphy of Criticism” he does talk about literature specifically, making the point that the truth of a literary work is not among its aestheticvally relevant properties.  (he makes a similar point in his essays, with William K. Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy").

In a ddition, Arnold Isenberg in “The Problem Of Belief” and “The esthetic Function Of Language” tries to determine which lingustic properties of a literary work are aesthetically relevant. . .and concludes that truth is NOT.

Finally. . .on the broader aesthetic question, J.O. Urmson’s “Aesthetics and the looks of things” also examines the question of which of an objects properties are relevant to our aesthetic appreciation of it.

By phosphorious on 09/10/07 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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