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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Haunting Wordsworth: Romantic Poets and Monkeys With Typewriters

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 10/23/07 at 01:51 AM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

You might go on extending the list of explanations indefinitely, but you would find, we think, that all the explanations fall into two categories. You will either be ascribing these marks to some being capable of intentions (the living sea, the haunting Wordsworth, etc.), or you will count them as nonintentional effects of mechanical processes (erosion, percolation, etc.). But in the second case—where the marks now seem to be accidents—will they still seem to be words? Clearly not. They will merely seem to resemble words.
-Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory” (JSTOR link)

Suppose you confront a fallen pudding, or a toaster that would toast, but for that frayed power cord. It would be absurd to say, ‘I have no notion whatsoever what this...thing...is for.’ The fact that you call it a fallen pudding registers your awareness of what it was supposed to be for: eating.
-John Holbo, “Form, Function & Intention: Drafty Thoughts” (announcement and link here)

Under the fold: Thinking through the problem of intentionality with John Cage, Douglas Hofstadter, Percy Shelley, and Immanuel Kant, among others.

(UPDATED: I recommend the full text of Ray Davis’s post on the matter, available here.)

In their infamous article “Against Theory,” Knapp and Benn Michaels argued that if you happened across a reproduction of “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” and you decided that no purposive being was responsible, the illusion of meaning would vanish. In its place, you would merely have the curious presence of shapes resembling words.

In Holbo’s wonderfully provocative series of responses, continued with “Now God Help Thee, Poor Monkey!”, he drafted the outlines of an argument about replacing intention with function. For Holbo, the best way to understand language is by understanding what it does within a community: between people, rather than merely in the purposive mind of the author (which is nonetheless quite real). Holbo’s argument about normative function hasn’t assumed its final form, but I suspect it will have elective affinities with the account given by Ray Davis, who writes:

Most art is intentionally produced, and, depending on the skill and cultural distance of the artists, many of its effects may be intended. And yes, many people intentionally seek entertainment, instruction, or stimulation. But as with any human endeavor, that doesn’t cover the territory...Happy accident is key to the persistence of art across time, space, and community, and, recontextualized, any tool can become an object of delight or horror.

I generally agree with both Davis and Holbo: language is a functional melange of intention and accident. I would add that it is a functional result of intentions both conscious and unconscious. Bearing this in mind, let’s probe a little deeper into the specific examples that arise in these conversations.

The first example, provided by Knapp and Benn Michaels, is that of a Wordsworth poem appearing on a beach; the authors suggest a number of possible agents, including the “living sea” and “the haunting Wordsworth.” The play on “haunting” is instructive; as much as this is a fable about human speech, it is also the record of an anxiety about the meaning of natural landscapes and events. To the Romantics, Nature was meaningful and capable of expression; to Knapp and Benn Michaels, Nature is a series of meaningless “mechanical processes.” The beach is supposed to represent a blank slate upon which words either are or aren’t written. Really, however, it is a symbolic maneuver in a bizarre anti-Romantic fantasy. I imagine we have all had the experience of writing words in the wet sand of a beach, and then looking on as the surf gradually erases them. This is the world as the Romantics knew it:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In Shelley’s poem, Nature (particularly the natural process of decay) has an effect on the meaning of the inscription. It elevates it to the level of the sublime, in the full philosophical sense of the word. However, in “Against Theory,” the surf actually inscribes words, rather than washing them away. The result, that which “seems to resemble words,” brings us back to Immanuel Kant:

But what does even the most complete teleology prove in the end? Does it prove anything like that such an intelligent being exists? No; it proves nothing more than that because of the constitution of our cognitive faculties, and thus in the combination of experience with the supreme principles of reason, we cannot form any concept at all of the possibility of such a world except by conceiving of such an intentionally acting supreme cause. (Critique of the Power of Judgement, 5: 399)

Things in Nature seem to resemble words: they seem to have purposiveness. Kant’s fundamental insight was that order is purposive, but that the aesthetic is produced when you have the appearance of purposiveness without the knowledge of an end.

Thus, Kant is actually much more thorough and skeptical than Knapp and Benn Michaels. As several commenters on Holbo’s posts have noted, the argument in “Against Theory” isn’t very good, not least because it assumes that you can have knowledge of whether other beings are acting in an intentional manner in some direct, non-interpretive way. This amounts to completely dodging the so-called “problem of other minds.” Since you have to base your claims about intentionality on the fact that certain patterns appear to be intentional, which is circular, Knapp and Benn Michaels would have to conclude that an intentionally acting, supreme intelligent being does exist if similar-looking patterns appear in Nature (they do). Kant gets out of this problem by locating the circularity of this logic within the human mind, and calling the teleological assumption an inevitable result of the “constitution of our cognitive faculties.”

Holbo confronts the problem more directly. He cites Joseph Plunkett and William Paley on, respectively, the mystical and probabilistic arguments for a supreme cause, but rejects both of them. For Holbo, the liminal space between intentionality and mechanism becomes the realm of accident:

Suppose we find a screwdriver in the sand. Merely by seeing it as such, we register its function: driving screws. Also, if asked, we are prepared to presume it had a maker...We will not, certainly need not, assume anyone left this screwdriver as a message.

In short, he uses Paley’s argument from probability (it is very improbable that a universe ordered like ours could happen by accident) against Plunkett, and then uses the conjunction of intentionality (which is human) and accident (which manifests an absence of order) in order to refute Paley.

This brings us right back to Plunkett; you can’t use Paley to refute him if your next move is to refute Paley. Certainly, when it comes to small implements, the phenomenon of accident does not inspire a feeling of sublimity. In “Ozymandias,” however, the screwdriver in the sand does become something sublime. The tension between what is knowable and unknowable is the alternating presence and absence in things of an analogy with ourselves. We see ourselves in landscapes, animals, other people; then, just as quickly, they turn an alien face towards us, terrifying us with the prospect of destitution and oblivion.

I only have time to gesture at where this goes. People have a quite sophisticated grasp of the beautiful and the sublime; they write with sticks on the beach, watching in fascination as the surf rubs out each word, while simultaneously feeling in harmony with the larger pattern of the restless tide; they quote poetry to one another, unsure whether their own intentionality comes through when they repeat something originally written by Pablo Neruda or Bright Eyes. Meanwhile, scientists do all their work right at that line where the edifice of knowledge crumbles into guesswork.

Furthermore, we feel the acid of the sublime within our own selves, gnawing and disfiguring our words, threatening nonsense and madness. The reason that the image of the monkeys writing Shakespeare is so arresting is that we have typewriters (or laptops or what-have-you), and we don’t make particularly good use of them. Anybody who has ever tried to write a research paper or a dissertation can certainly identify with both of these paragraphs:

Moving from calculation to experiment, The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator, in existence since 2003 with a hundred monkeys typing at a vastly accelerated speed, has produced just nineteen letters from The Two Gentlemen of Verona after 42,162,500,000 billion monkey years: “Valentine. Cease to 1dor:eFLPoFRjWK78aXz …”

An enterprising experiment that involved real monkeys produced even more confounding results, not least because “they get bored and they shit on the keyboard rather than type …”

In the film Alien, human beings have to save themselves from the hideous alliance of computer (Ian Holm’s corporate android) and animal (the alien), notwithstanding the fact that they themselves are this hybrid. The problem with the monkey example is that the monkeys never pay attention to what they’re writing. They never develop any sort of organic, aesthetic relationship to it; if they did, it would compromise the randomness necessary for the experiment. However, if those monkeys were human beings, then the moment Shakespeare happened it would drag the whole bunch of monkeys along with it, away from the junkheap of “1dor:eFLPoFRjWK78aXz” and towards normativity. If that sounds like Harold Bloom, don’t blame me: I didn’t make Shakespeare the gold standard for monkey type. This is less Bloom than it is Douglas Hofstadter: in Godel Escher Bach, Hofstadter argues that a set of determinate formal parameters (in this case, the fact that the typewriter has a given number of keys, and is being typed on by monkeys) can eventually produce a self-referential system with the capacity for meaning. This meaning, however, is always haunted by its own incompleteness, amounting finally to Hofstadter’s own Godelian sublime.

In other words, we should not think of monkeys-with-typewriters as a story about the presence or absence of intentionality in the non-human world; it is really a story about the aleatory genesis of meaning by and for human beings.

Of course, it is possible to argue that we should not distort the meaning of the example of monkeys with typewriters: the fact that such monkeys might remind us of human beings is not germane to the point of the thought-experiment. Similarly, the fact that a beach is where shore meets ocean is not germane to the point in “Against Theory,” and the fact that the toaster is broken is not germane to the nature of a toaster.

Two responses:

1. Easy distinctions between “accidental” and “necessary” states or causes frequently break down themselves. I might assume that the function of a broken toaster is still to make toast, and that the malfunction is an accident. If, instead of a toaster, you have an iPod, that assumption is totally unwarranted. The batteries always run out, and the mechanism itself usually dies as a result of planned obsolescence.

2. The insistence on throwing away the ladder that delivers us to a logical equation is partly a result of our modern situation. In a comment, Holbo writes:

A magic elf has five dollars but gives three to John. How much money does the elf have now?

Bob has five dollars but gives three to John. How much money does Bob have now?

Swampman, a creature generated by thermodynamic miracle, has five dollars but gives three to John. How much money does Swampman have now?

It seems to me the answer, in each case, is 2 dollars.

In each case the answer is 2 dollars, because in each case the point of the statement is purely algebraic. If function y equals x - 3, and x = 5, then y(x) = 2. It doesn’t matter if you call y “magic elf” or “Bob.” This is the logic of capital—it doesn’t matter who buys a pair of shoes, the store still makes a net profit of $2 per customer. It is also the logic of the cellphone or instant messaging conversation. If cellphone interference produces a garbled sentence, I still assume that the person on the other end of the line meant to speak clearly, and I reconstruct their sentence to the best of my ability. Hofstadter mentions that most people can be fooled into thinking that a chat session with a computer is a conversation with a living human being: in the context of Internet chat, passing the Turing test becomes an achievable benchmark. So every time we do converse via computer with a human being, we have to do a lot of imaginative work making them live in all their glorious intentionality and complexity. There is always a strain involved, and hopefully it is clear that in many cases this continual digital remastering of the world is something of a comforting lie. Certainly, modern pop and punk music has benefited enormously by bringing finally to consciousness the wealth of distorted and atonal sounds we are normally supposed to ignore.

Speaking of aleatory things, I will end by pointing out that intentionality can enter into a relation with the sublime, something already suggested by the image of someone writing in anticipation of the surf. The Aeolian harp did not die out with Coleridge; John Cage created aleatory music by having multiple radios playing simultaneously on stage (as Hofstadter notes). To a greater or lesser extent, the aleatoric artist sets the parameters for the work, and these more blatantly open constructions take the place of the more conventional standards for achieved communication. We can use the Lilliputian, almost kindly language of accident to describe this aleatoric movement, or we can use the High Romantic vocabulary of wreckage and death. Regardless, we should not fail to see that Knapp and Benn Michaels have put Wordsworth on the beach in order to erase Wordsworth, and to erase Einstein on the beach, and finally to exorcise the sand and waves themselves: the haunting poet, the living sea.


Comments

Quite enjoyed this post.  Don’t have time for a real comment, but I wanted to contribute this quote to the conversation:

“If such a hypostasis, which changes the literary act into a literary object by the suppression of its intentional character, is not only possible but necessary in order to allow for a critical description, then we have not left the world in which the status of literary language is similar to that of a natural object.  This assumption rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of intentionality.  ‘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 for 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 determines 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 act of structurization to the structured object is altogether contingent. The structure of the chair is determined in all its components by the way 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 establishes this unity.”

-De Man, “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism,” in Blindness and Insight, p. 25

Not unproblematic, but the distinction between intentionality as a formal or structural property and intent as an empirical psychic or psychological state seems quite helpful to me in these sorts of discussions, and De Man’s treatment of the chair example seems a lot more to the point than screwdrivers in the sand: the latter leads us back from the functional object to its production in order to ground function in intention, but the former shows that when we get back to the act of production, it doesn’t guarantee intention, only intentionality.  The craftsman may be a copyist (See also Heidegger on mimesis the Nietzsche book), and copying may be mechanical - monkey see monkey do…

Regardless, all this talk about monkeys on typewriters seems like a good excuse for me to pick up “Typewriter Ribbon” next in my exam prep.  Maybe more later…

By surlacarte on 10/23/07 at 04:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"In each case the answer is 2 dollars, because in each case the point of the statement is purely algebraic. [...] This is the logic of capital [...]”

‘BEGONE, thou fond presumptuous Elf,’
Exclaimed an angry Voice,
‘Nor dare to thrust thy foolish self
Between me and my choice!’”

Elves give acorns, or sometimes leaves
That look like dollars, then fade away
If John gets three, under the tree
Who knows how much the elf displays?

Swampman’s dollars, too, are strange
Formed by lightning, swamp-bereft
With no odd tint, but from no mint
Does he have two *dollars* left?

The answer only stays the same
If capital asserts its claim
When language becomes atmospheric
Dollars themselves are not generic

By on 10/23/07 at 09:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Joseph. Good poem, Rich. And now, to bed. (More later.)

By John Holbo on 10/23/07 at 12:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know why I always feel that I must announce that I’m going to make a comment later, when I don’t have time to draft a proper one.  I suppose making my intentions public forces me to follow through with them.
This post is interesting and I’ll be back to say something about it.  I estimate this will occur on Thursday morning.

By on 10/23/07 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

surlacarte:

What a terrific contribution, thank you.

You raise a point that had, at some point or other, been intended (ha!) for this post and then mislaid, which is the phenomenon of mimesis without knowledge. It is quite possible for me to photocopy, print, or reproduce by hand a text that I do not understand, and to present that to another person who will understand it. This is what happens some of the time when a book is typeset; it is also fundamental to our thinking about plagiarism (if I go ahead and claim ownership of that text, and understanding of it). Obviously, my intention is not equivalent to the “intentionality” of the text, even though I’m the one (re)producing it.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/23/07 at 06:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An addendum to my last comment: This “nonetheless existent structural intentionality” is very much how Hofstadter understands the relationship between the conscious mind, which thinks, and the network of neurons that constitute that mind without “understanding” what they are constituting.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/23/07 at 06:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Couple of quick points. First, I have to say that I find the notion of intentionality as a ‘structural’ or ‘formal’ property - as opposed to a functional property (or as psychological backing) - to be mystification. That is, we get dragged back to really hopeless notions about intention as ‘realized structure’. You get this from Ransom and Wimsatt back in the New Criticism days. These notions have a certain Well Wrought Urn-ish charm. The rhetoric of intention ‘in the structure of the work’ is quite charming. But it doesn’t point in any analytically fruitful direction.

De Man makes a show of rejecting the ‘wine into bottles’ metaphor, which might seem to get him off this hook. But really he is saying the same thing about intentionality that Cleanth Brooks says when he tries to explain ‘irony as a principle of structure’. (I rather like New Criticism and have a soft spot for Brooks, in particular. So I speak these words not in anger but in friendly diagnosis. De Man’s position is much less sophisticated than his tangled post-Heideggerese makes it seem.)

Also, re: the screwdriver. According to surlacarte, it “leads us back from the functional object to its production in order to ground function in intention, but the former shows that when we get back to the act of production, it doesn’t guarantee intention, only intentionality.” I made a specific point of saying that we could recognizing the screwdriver as a functional object without thinking about its origins at all. So I think I was trying to make surlacarte’s very point. (I said that, if prompted, we would probably be prepared to say that the screwdriver was made by someone who intended to make one. But being willing to say so - much less actually thinking so - is not a condition of the possibility of recognizing a screwdriver.)

Quick response to Kugelmass: I think you have misread me in a few basic ways. Which probably is my fault, since really this piece is supposed to go with a frame I didn’t provide. But here’s a start at that: I don’t use Paley against Plunkett. I merely point out that even if Paley is right, that is still no argument for Plunkett. Quite a different point. So there is no inconsistency in then turning to attack Paley.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 03:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, I ripped surlacarte’s quote out of context, orphaning ‘the former’, leaving it to spin its anaphoric wheels in vain. “The former shows that when ...” should read ‘the case of the chair shows that when ...’ But again, my point was that the case of the screwdriver is the same as that of the chair. And I think surlacarte is making the same point I was making (modulo disagreements about the utility of De Man’s notions of structure.)

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 03:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ha - just noticed that Bill Benzon quoted the exact same passage here two weeks ago in the comments on the John’s “Form, Function, Intention” post.  I suppose I ought to go read that comment thread and come back.

By surlacarte on 10/24/07 at 04:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Another response to Joseph: “In each case the answer is 2 dollars, because in each case the point of the statement is purely algebraic.”

Not exactly, at least not in relation to the discussion to which this potted case was a contribution. John Emerson objected to thought-experiments contains things that are very unlikely to exist. My point is that thought-experiments set the likelihood of something’s existence at 1, for thought-experimental purposes. If John has 5 dollars and he gives 2 dollars to Mary, the likelihood that John exists = 1. The likelihood that he had 5 dollars = 1. So forth. For story-problem purposes. There may, of course, be intellectual problems with setting the likelihood of certain things at 1. But one cannot simply assume that this is a problem. (Rich’s point about disappearing elf-gold is a good one, actually. I thought about it myself after I posted, except I was going to make it by means of a silly story about Bob, the round-square, giving 3 dollars to Sally, who was the sum of 1 + 2 = 4. Something that shows we are imagining a ‘world’ in which basic truths of arithmetic may not hold. Rich’s poem does the same work, in effect.)

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 04:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I noticed that, too, surlacarte. (Just so Bill B doesn’t feel entirely left out of the conversation.)

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 04:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I first quoted the De Man back in the days when I was a guest blogger. At that time I juxtaposed it against what cognitive linguists call the “conduit metaphor” for communication. You might want to review those few remarks on the conduit metaphor:

http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/de_man_fish_and_simulation/

I fear that Wordsworth on the beach is a last-ditch attempt to keep the conduit metaphor running in the face of obvious difficulties (e.g. the arbitrarieness of the sign).

BTW John, I think you’re right about what de Man is up to. And I’m doubtful about his chair example. If literary texts were like chairs in all important respects, only with more parts in more complex configurations, we wouldn’t have these problems. 

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/07 at 06:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Still haven’t read the comments to the “Form Function Intention” thread, but I did read the actual draft.  I have a follow-up question for John about the comment vis-a-vis the article so that I can be sure I understand the article before I respond to the comment:

Under what definition of function (preferably one given in the draft of your article) can we “recognize the screwdriver as a functional object without thinking about its origins at all,” specifically without necessarily being “prepared to say that the screwdriver was made by someone who intended to make one”?  And given such a definition, does the claim still apply to broken screwdrivers?

By surlacarte on 10/24/07 at 06:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Something that shows we are imagining a ‘world’ in which basic truths of arithmetic may not hold. Rich’s poem does the same work, in effect.”

Writing arguments as poems always seems like a good idea beforehand for some reason (to me, anyway), but it seems like most people just look at poems and drop them into a mental slot called [a poem], so they’re essentailly unread.  So I’m glad that you read this one.

But, since I’m now elaborating on it, I can say that I think my point was slightly stronger.  It’s not really that basic truths of arithmetic may not hold—I don’t think that anything in the given examples strikes at formally algebraic qualities—but that the same language that you use to describe the example necessarily means that you can’t have some kind of generic dollars in that same example. 

In the case of Swampman, for instance, his mere existence means that the word “person” is somehow called into question, in terms of the assumptions that have always gone along with it, so he can’t have simple dollars either.  The mere existence of the magical elf means that you can no longer assume that objects don’t appear or disappear, and that language that depends on that assumption—which “dollars” certainly does—can’t really be used without question.

But of course the use of dollars in the example also brings in a whole Marxist superstructure, because the assumption of indistinguishability is a key one for means of exchange.  (Thus the Wordsworth poem with the voice shouting “don’t stand between me and my choice” seemed appropriate.) Let’s say that instead they were giving each other apples, something that neither elves nor Swampmen typically are thought to transform.  (It seems more unlikely, anyway, that the original guy wandering in the swamp would have had 5 apples with him.) In that case some of the extra elements of complexity might go away. 

“My point is that thought-experiments set the likelihood of something’s existence at 1, for thought-experimental purposes.”

But that’s not really true, for physics thought-experiments.  In those, when you set the likelihood of something’s existence at 1, the important thing is not the mechanical bits, like Einstein’s elevator.  The important thing is that you’re imagining that the universe works in a certain way—that the likelihood of a physical law existing is 1, I suppose.  Then you use that assumption to predict what kinds of observations it would produce.  But there’s really no unlikelihood about it; if you’re right that it exists, it exists everywhere.

By on 10/24/07 at 07:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

surlacarte: “Under what definition of function (preferably one given in the draft of your article) can we “recognize the screwdriver as a functional object without thinking about its origins at all,” specifically without necessarily being “prepared to say that the screwdriver was made by someone who intended to make one”?  And given such a definition, does the claim still apply to broken screwdrivers?”

Well, suppose, for whatever reason, I teach my children that the contents of the toolbox grow on trees. (This is not something I have actually attempted.) Presumably, after a while, they would figure out that something didn’t add up here. But kids are pretty credulous. In the meantime, I take it they could identify the the hammer, the screwdriver, so forth. And even learn to use them. I’m not really sure how it is that I identify screwdrivers. I’m sure it’s a pretty complex interaction between my eye and brain - among other things. I very much doubt I’m equipped with any definition of ‘screwdriver’ whatsoever, let alone one that makes no reference to origins. But, given that you could certainly teach someone to identify screwdrivers without teaching anything about origins, there must be some way it could be done. Works for broken screwdrivers, too. That a screwdriver was made by someone for driving screws is an inference FROM the fact that it is a screwdriver, NOT some independent bit of data that helps me leverage my way to an awareness of screwdriveriness. (I do admit that if, in some case, I had special awareness that someone intended to make a screwdriver - say, a somewhat inaccurate drawing of one by a child - that would, admittedly, help me recognize it.)

Rich writes [first quoting me]: ‘“My point is that thought-experiments set the likelihood of something’s existence at 1, for thought-experimental purposes.”

But that’s not really true, for physics thought-experiments.  In those, when you set the likelihood of something’s existence at 1, the important thing is not the mechanical bits, like Einstein’s elevator.  The important thing is that you’re imagining that the universe works in a certain way—that the likelihood of a physical law existing is 1, I suppose.”

I’m not sure whether this is what Rich intended, but it seems like a strong argument in favor of the propriety of swampman cases. Because, in those cases, the important thing is not how swampman got made but a different thing. The question is not what the likelihood of swampman is but, given swampman, what would happen concerning something else. Right?

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s another way to answer surlacarte’s question. An analogy. If I thought someone had replaced my iPod with a bomb that would explode if I pressed play, I wouldn’t press play. But when I do press play - as I tend to - it is not because I have reasoned that no one has replaced it with a bomb. I am, of course, prepared to form the believe that no one has replaced it with a bomb, if prompted by the right sort of question. (’Do you believe someone has ...?’ ‘No.’) But in the ordinary course of events, the proposition ‘someone has replaced my iPod with a bomb’ really plays no role in my psychic economy. It is, at most, some potential energy stored in some sort of generally coiled spring. I am disposed to form beliefs, if prompted. Likewise, I think ‘this screwdriver was made by someone’ probably plays a pretty small role in my psychic economy. When I see one on the beach I think ‘a screwdriver’. Not: ‘a screwdriver. Someone must have made it, because they don’t occur naturally.’) Although I am disposed to form the belief that someone made it, from a lot of other beliefs, if prompted.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In response to John:

I merely point out that even if Paley is right, that is still no argument for Plunkett.

It’s also not an argument against Plunkett. At the core, it seems that your argument against Plunkett is that he’s either paranoid, or simply out-of-date for a modern reader. While that may be true of his religious literalism, it’s not true of the simple experience of finding meaning in a landscape. That’s why my post focused on the forced evacuation of Romanticism from a conversation ostensibly about human intentions. From my perspective, Plunkett is more right about human experience than either Paley or “Against Theory.”

My point is that thought-experiments set the likelihood of something’s existence at 1, for thought-experimental purposes.

And so they do; however, what that something is is a function of connotation, normative associations, and context. In your set of three word problems, it is obvious that the changing cast of improbable monsters really stand for a purely mathematical function: subtraction.

But that doesn’t change what those same monsters might mean in other contexts, particularly if they aren’t sandwiched next to other, deliberately parallel thought experiments. Benn Michaels and Knapp could respond to me by saying, “Oh, it didn’t have to be Wordsworth, and it didn’t have to be a beach. It could have been the opening page of Moby Dick written on an Etch-A-Sketch.” To which I would respond: yes, it could have been, but it wasn’t, and in that alternate universe a whole other set of “excessive” meanings would have been generated.

That a screwdriver was made by someone for driving screws is an inference FROM the fact that it is a screwdriver, NOT some independent bit of data that helps me leverage my way to an awareness of screwdriveriness.

Human beings constantly use natural things as tools, even though those things may not have been intended for such uses. I can manufacture a knife, or I can see a piece of already broken obsidian and use that. The independent data of sharpness helps me leverage my way to an awareness of “knifeliness” or knifely potential.

The same is true for meaning.

Likewise, I think ‘this screwdriver was made by someone’ probably plays a pretty small role in my psychic economy. When I see one on the beach I think ‘a screwdriver’. Not: ‘a screwdriver. Someone must have made it, because they don’t occur naturally.’

You can form all sorts of hypotheses about an object lying on the beach, some explicit ("a screwdriver") and some implicit ("made by somebody rather than by Nature"). Regardless, it doesn’t change the fundamental situation:

a) What something is to you is a function of its structure, and not of another person’s intention. If somebody tells you they’ve produced a lovely toaster, and you can’t make it work, all their talk won’t mean a thing.

b) The fact that something is meaningful to you doesn’t necessarily mean that it was intentionally created, as with the rocks and the sea, and furthermore there’s no reason to think that unintentional things can’t or shouldn’t be meaningful, or that such meaning is spurious.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Updated: added a link to Ray’s remarkable post.

Ray, apologies.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I also enjoyed the post and surlacarte’s remarks. One nit:

“I generally agree with both Davis and Holbo: language is a functional melange of intention and accident. I would add that it is a functional result of intentions both conscious and unconscious.”

I hope it’s clear from my post that I don’t believe conscious intent is all that’s involved here. My own stance, in fact, may be a bit more extreme than yours: what we choose to call “conscious intention” and “unconscious intention” might best be understood as results of a patterning drive (in particular, narrative-making) rather than causes. In developmental psychology, “I” develops by telling stories about the “I”.

To agree with John’s defense of bizarre thought experiments, in this discussion screwdrivers aren’t being used to tightly fasten objects but as story props. That first function may have little in common with the second one, and the second one can obviously be taken by science-fictional Big Dumb Objects. My objection to the thought experiments of some analytic philosophers is that they seem to seek out Big Dumb Objects that will let them tell unrealistically trite stories.

By Ray Davis on 10/24/07 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, goodness, Joseph, no problem—and thank you for the very kind words.

By Ray Davis on 10/24/07 at 11:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"The question is not what the likelihood of swampman is but, given swampman, what would happen concerning something else. Right?”

Nope.  In physics, the question is, given Swampman, what would you observe?  And then you notice that you don’t observe any of those things.  Ergo, no Swampman. 

In other words, in physics, this could be a sort of theory about thermodynamic miracles.  If they were more common, maybe we’d occasionally see Swampmen wandering around.  But they aren’t, so we don’t.  But probably it would really be about elementary particle combinations, such that if they happened more often than plain thermo would make us expect, it would lead to some kind of long-lasting thing that we could detect.  I think that Hawking’s bit about small black holes evaporating was of a similar order; if you assume that virtual particles work a certain way, you can sneak mass out of black holes, even though normal gravity says that you can’t.  And that’s detectable, at least in theory (I haven’t done physics in so long, I’ve forgotten whether someone has designed some clever experiment to detect it.)

By on 10/24/07 at 11:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In other words, in physics, if you design an experiment that should detect whatever your thought experiment predicts, and you don’t detect it, you have to give up on the thought experiment.  I took John Emerson’s objection to mean, at least in part, that even though philosophers don’t think that Swampman could ever really exist, they still don’t want to give up on the idea.

By on 10/24/07 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To agree with John’s defense of bizarre thought experiments, in this discussion screwdrivers aren’t being used to tightly fasten objects but as story props. That first function may have little in common with the second one, and the second one can obviously be taken by science-fictional Big Dumb Objects.

This gets at one of the most important issues here: the legitimacy of what Ray calls a “Big Dumb Object.” To begin with, few scientists interact with Big Dumb Objects. They’re out in the field, collecting quarrelsome, imperfect, complex data. Few literary critics encounter such things either, dealing as they must with character, setting, plot, implicature, and so on. Arguably, philosophy may have some use for the B.D.O., but not if it wants to discuss something as nuanced as intentionality. I want to highlight Ray’s use of the word “unrealistic”—the point is not to insult Knapp and Benn Michaels for telling a bad story, but rather to question whether denatured stories can make any claim to the truth in matters like these, other than revealing an authorial drive towards that very denaturing.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

With all due respect to Ray, the problem with these sorts of thought experiments isn’t that they are Big Dumb Objects - or Big Dumb Narrative Objects, as in Kaveney’s original formula, I think it was. I think philosophers gravitate, rather, to an ungainly sort of twee. The way you can tell that they aren’t BDNO’s is that no one writes fanfic about Putnam’s twin-earth. QED.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Nope.  In physics, the question is, given Swampman, what would you observe?  And then you notice that you don’t observe any of those things.  Ergo, no Swampman.”

But if it’s a thought-experiment, you won’t observe anything. I think you are confusing thought-experiments with plain old experiments, Rich.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 11:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"an ungainly sort of twee”

Best description of the literary frustrations of Hofstadter’s book, ever.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"What something is to you is a function of its structure, and not of another person’s intention.”

But this isn’t the case when you are considering, say, someone else’s actions - that is, something in which someone else’s intentions are an essential part. Or, to take an even simpler case: when the something IS another person’s intention. Not to be a pain about it, but this is sort of the point at issue.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, it’s a question of (...drumroll...) function.  A physicist would never design a thought-experiment that could not be confirmed or disconfirmed by observation.  That would be meaningless, within the context of physics.  Thought experiments aren’t real experiments, but they are supposed to lead to them, at least in theory.  Einstein’s work is remembered not because of the cool elevator thing, but because that idea led to experiments in which the effects were actually detected.

Which is not to say that philosophers are barred from thinking about purely imaginary things.  But the problem with Swampman is that it doesn’t seem to be about an imaginary thing.  Swampman is formed by a natural accident, not by a wizard’s spell.  Therefore a context is being imported that doesn’t apply.

By on 10/24/07 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To move on to Joseph’s second point: “The fact that something is meaningful to you doesn’t necessarily mean that it was intentionally created, as with the rocks and the sea, and furthermore there’s no reason to think that unintentional things can’t or shouldn’t be meaningful, or that such meaning is spurious.”

I think the problem here is that we are slopping across the line between presumptively different senses of meaning. The meaning/intention theses don’t purport to dictate what you can find significant - important, spiritually meaningful, large in existential implication. That’s something else entirely.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"A physicist would never design a thought-experiment that could not be confirmed or disconfirmed by observation.  That would be meaningless, within the context of physics.  Thought experiments aren’t real experiments, but they are supposed to lead to them, at least in theory.”

There’s something to this, but it is going to score against such a mass of philosophical thought-experiments - all of the ones ever used in ethics, for example - that I think it would have been sporting for the critics to announce at the start that they were really leading up to a demand for empirical testability.

I suppose I shouldn’t kick against the swamp pricks so hard, because I actually agree that the experiment is problematic - encourages bad intuitions. But I have haughtily rejected the grounds on which others have been inclined to reject him. ONLY I MAY REFUTE SWAMPMAN!

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 11:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And Hofstadter can’t even blame his tweeness on being a philosopher as he was trained as a physicist. But then, calling a physics book The Eightfold Way has a bit of twee about it, no?

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/07 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The meaning/intention theses don’t purport to dictate what you can find significant - important, spiritually meaningful, large in existential implication. That’s something else entirely.

They do, though—if I find a particular reading of a story important and spiritually meaningful, and then the author disavows that interpretation, intentionalism says that I must be wrong—or, if I am right, that communication still hasn’t been achieved. Whereas, from my point of view, if the reading holds up, then the author is wrong, and in fact there has been true understanding.

The only way to arrive at a knowledge of another person’s intentions is through their words and deeds, all of which constitute a text (since we aren’t telepaths). It is up to me, not them, to determine what their true intentions might be. I am free, if I wish, to put my faith in a particular assertion of theirs, even one that contradicts a general pattern, but this is a decision that I make as a reader, and not one they can make for me.

In other words, for Knapp and Benn Michaels there is a difference between communication and sympathy (as Emerson or Thoreau might have defined it). You can feel in subjective sympathy with anything, but you can only communicate with another purposive being according to its intentions. For me there is no difference, and I think this is why Knapp and Benn Michaels felt compelled to make their thought-experiment about Wordsworth—that infamous Aeolian harp—writing on a beach.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How important have “readings” been in cultural history? Does anyone actually care about readings outside of a small intellectual community that hardly even existed prior to the 20th century? How is it that this small community has arrived at the odd notion that their “readings” are the most important understandings of texts that we’ve got? How did all those writers and readers, story tellers and audiences, playwrights, actors, and audiences, ever get along without professional literary scholars telling them what texts mean?

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/07 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Readings” are just a contemporary term for modes of interpretation, criticism, and evaluation that have always existed. Certainly, Romanticism goes back a long way before the 20th Century.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"There’s something to this, but it is going to score against such a mass of philosophical thought-experiments - all of the ones ever used in ethics, for example - that I think it would have been sporting for the critics to announce at the start that they were really leading up to a demand for empirical testability.”

But no one really expects empirical testability for ethics.  People do expect that Swampmen emerging from a bolt of lightning and some muck do or do not exist, though.  It doesn’t really matter whether the philosopher announces that this isn’t intended to be an empirically testable Swampman; the context of that particular thought experiment demands it.

By on 10/24/07 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, a lot of conversation has happened since my last comment!  Thanks for the responses, John, but they don’t actually answer my question.  I’m not asking to be convinced that we can “recognize the screwdriver as a functional object without thinking about its origins at all.” I am actually quite convinced about this already.  I especially agree with your claim, “That a screwdriver was made by someone for driving screws is an inference FROM the fact that it is a screwdriver, NOT some independent bit of data that helps me leverage my way to an awareness of screwdriveriness.” But your claim is that this is because of function rather than structure, and I’m willing to entertain the conclusion that it’s because of function only on the condition that I know what function means, and that it is defined in such a way that it doesn’t require us to identify the origins of an object as a condition of identifying it’s function.  I don’t see a definition of function in your article that, at least as I understand it, allows us to conclude that a screwdriver on the beach is a screwdriver except on the condition that it was built with the intention of driving screws.

So what I’d really like is a definition of function rather than another thought experiment.  The screwdriver is just fine on its own, at least so far.

By surlacarte on 10/24/07 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"People do expect that Swampmen emerging from a bolt of lightning and some muck do or do not exist, though.  It doesn’t really matter whether the philosopher announces that this isn’t intended to be an empirically testable Swampman; the context of that particular thought experiment demands it.”

But this is precisely the issue, Rich. I say that they don’t expect this, so the context doesn’t demand it. You say they do. What you need to give me, Rich, is some reason to believe that people OUGHT to expect that swampman will be empirically testable, even if (like me) they presently think that’s not the issue.

surlacarte, I don’t think we actually do identify screwdrivers by means of definitions. I think it works some other way, so I can’t provide the definition that ‘allows us to conclude that a screwdriver on the beach is a screwdriver’. I think the answer to that question is: none. On the other hand, when theorizing about functions, I think we are tempted by an inconsistent mix of Cummins-functions and Wright-functions, per the draft. Cummins-functions, which are defined in terms of the contributions of the parts of the system to the whole (that’s an oversimple gloss), are your best candidates for what people actually ‘see’ when they pick up a screwdriver in the sand. The feature of this sort of function that is thought to make them paradoxical, as a general account - namely, radical interest relativity - is not a problem as a hypothesis about the minds of beachcombers.

I do see your point now. You are more or less hinting at a critique of strong Millikanism. Namely, origins can’t be everything, since they can’t be how we identify things in a preliminary sort of on-the-beach way. But I don’t think she would be committed to saying otherwise. (Still, it would be an interesting question to ask her. What pre-theoretic notion do people actually work with?)

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 07:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph [quoting me, to start with]: “The meaning/intention theses don’t purport to dictate what you can find significant - important, spiritually meaningful, large in existential implication. That’s something else entirely.

They do, though—if I find a particular reading of a story important and spiritually meaningful, and then the author disavows that interpretation, intentionalism says that I must be wrong.”

Some intentionalists - Hirsch, for example - draw the distinction explicitly (if not completely coherently.) Knapp and Michaels don’t draw it, but they pretty clearly need to. The distinction can be drawn. Intentionalism doesn’t have a snowball’s chance without it. Part of meaning is, for example, just natural implication. Bird tracks mean birds. That’s not semantics or intentionality, and it certainly needn’t be intended by any author (Plunkett notwithstanding.)

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 08:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph—It may well be that the term “readings” grandfathers in all sorts of things, but the kind of thing that has been routine in literature departments for 3/4s of a century is relatively rare outside those departments and was relatively rare prior to the 20th century. Even if I grant you back to Romanticism, most of literary history took place prior to it. For the most part, literary texts have managed to circulate through society without benefit of “readings,” just informal chit-chat among friends and acquaintances. Whatever literary culture depends on, it isn’t the activity of writing out interpretive readings for the consumption of a small body of people.

By Bill Benzon on 10/24/07 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

What do you mean by “drawing the distinction”? Of course we both agree about implicature, but how does that (or any particular distinction that might be drawn) resurrect intent in any extra-textual sense?

I want to briefly quote Knapp and Michaels, in order to clarify where I disagree with them:

From the standpoint of an argument against critical theory, then, the only important question about intention is whether there can in fact be intentionless meanings. If our argument against theory is to succeed, the answer to this question must be no.

From this point of view, then, you really cannot have meaning unless it is founded on intention, and you have to distinguish between the “interpretation of signs” in language and all other cases of inductive reasoning from indices, a move that cannot possibly be justified.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 09:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

For the most part, literary texts have managed to circulate through society without benefit of “readings,” just informal chit-chat among friends and acquaintances. Whatever literary culture depends on, it isn’t the activity of writing out interpretive readings for the consumption of a small body of people.

Well, literary criticism as part of Western literary culture has been around since the Greeks, and it has been vital since then. Even Plato’s commentaries on art qualify as “readings” of the art of his time. Then Aristotle’s Poetics, Longinus On The Sublime, and so forth. There are exegetical traditions within many different religions, of course, and not only in the West.

But even if criticism, or the meta-critical theories of perspectivism and existentialism, were relatively new (and aspects of them are), that wouldn’t diminish their potential truth-value. Many of our most fundamental ideas about the world come from the scientific revolutions of the 20th Century.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Of course we both agree about implicature, but how does that (or any particular distinction that might be drawn) resurrect intent in any extra-textual sense?”

I don’t really understand this, Joseph. Intent in an extra-textual sense would be any plan someone has, no? Also, we may or may not agree about implicature, but it isn’t obviously relevant. Implicature is an essentially intentional notion. Implication is not. I’m now confused about what point you are making.

By John Holbo on 10/24/07 at 09:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m also confused; you wrote that Michaels and Knapp failed to draw a distinction that they needed, and should have drawn, but I wasn’t quite clear on what the content of that distinction should have been.

I thought, at some point prior, that you were trying to distance yourself from surlacarte’s proferred “structural” theory of intent, a theory with which I agree. My comments were intended as a defense of that structural theory; perhaps the best thing is to see how you want to respond to surlacarte on the question of “function.” That will give me a better sense of what’s at stake for you here, and how I might contribute.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/24/07 at 09:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, re: “I don’t think we actually do identify screwdrivers by means of definitions” - I don’t think my comments suggest in any way that we identify screwdrivers by means of definitions.  Rather, I’m simply trying to understand the meaning of your claim that we can “recognize the screwdriver as a functional object without thinking about its origins at all,” i.e. without necessarily being “prepared to say that the screwdriver was made by someone who intended to make one.” I need to understand what you mean by functional object so that I can evaluate the validity of the second part of the claim.  Obviously you have some definition of “function” in mind or you wouldn’t have used the word in a sentence, no?

It’s a rather good strategy to avoid answering that question before you know my specific objection, but I’ll take “an inconsistent mix of Cummins-functions and Wright-functions” as at least a preliminary answer.  My hypothesis would be that in either case (Cummins and Wright functions) thinking that a screwdriver has a function always already requires that we be “prepared to say that the screwdriver was made by someone who intended to make one,” i.e. that in either case, going back to the origin is a “condition of the possibility of recognizing a screwdriver,” contrary to your earlier statement.

In the case of the Wright function, it’s fairly obvious that calling the screwdriver a functional object is synonymous with making a claim about its origin.  If we call the screwdriver a Wright function, we are saying that it is exists “because” it is capable of driving screws which is to say, we are making a claim about the cause of its existence.  If we identify it as a screwdriver but are not prepared to make a claim about its origin, then we are not calling the screwdriver a Wright function, and must concede that we’ve identified it as a screwdriver by some other means.

I’m not sure in the case of Cummins functions because I still don’t totally understand the concept or how the screwdriver would be a Cummins function.  What is the “whole” and what are the “parts” here?  Is driving screws the whole that is explained by the parts of the screwdriver, or is the screwdriver the part that is explained by its role in a larger system, which includes driving screws?

Anyway, in a sense, I’m doing exactly the opposite of what you suggest I’m doing.  “The critique of strong Millikanism,” that “origins can’t be everything, since they can’t be how we identify things in a preliminary sort of on-the-beach way” seems to be your claim (at least in your last two comments to me), rather than mine.  I’m actually suggesting that, as long as we define screwdrivers in terms of function, we do need to go back to the origin.  If we can identify screwdrivers without going back to the origin, it isn’t because of function.  I haven’t decided yet whether this suggestion is correct, nor whether the appropriate follow-up conclusion would be to go back to the origin and explain it without recourse to empirical, psychological intention (as, I think De Man attempts to do) or, alternatively, to abandon “function” as the basis of screwdriverness in favor of “structure.” But those follow-up conclusions are irrelevant until we decide whether it is possible to identify a screwdriver as a functional object (whatever that means...) without simultaneously implying a claim about its origins.

By surlacarte on 10/24/07 at 09:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies to Joseph, I’m not going to respond to your post because I don’t understand it. I do have something for John Holbo though, following up on

[O]rigins can’t be everything, since they can’t be how we identify things in a preliminary sort of on-the-beach way. But I don’t think [Millikan] would be committed to saying otherwise. (Still, it would be an interesting question to ask her. What pre-theoretic notion do people actually work with?)

What she calls “conceptions” (horrible terminology) are the ways we actually go about identifying things in the real world. We decide it’s a screwdriver because it looks so-and-so, because somebody called it a screwdriver (even though we can’t see it ourselves very well), because it’s obviously the object that that guy over there just used to put some screws in. These methods are all fallible, some very much so, and there’s no expectation that we all apply the same ones.

Her point is that there’s an ontological level at which it is really a screwdriver (based on origins) and an epistemic level at which we perceive it as a screwdriver. When things are working properly our perception is accurate (it’s adjusted for accuracy by our evolutionary history), but it can be fooled.

And she certainly isn’t saying that we are thinking about origins when we decide (on the beach) that the thing “is” a screwdriver. The point of the ontological level is that there should be a category of screwdrivers that is connected by origins (copying, causal links), because otherwise knowing things about one screwdriver won’t help you make predictions about another. (Or might help but only by accident; tools already start to challenge this idea, since they can be independantly invented and yet the constraints of their function will produce regularities that can support inductions.) But if that ontological-level category exists, it’s perfectly reasonable to use whatever fallible means you have available to get to grips with it.

With regard to “meaning” it comes down again to a distinction which she makes very systematically, between what’s “really” there at an ontological level (roughly, the intentional input by the author—although the conventional nature of the signs complicates matters) and what the interpreter perceives. A lot of the disagreements seem to come down to trying to say that “meaning” refers only or preferentially to one of these, or must necessarily refer to both. From my outside-the-field perspective it seems natural to respond by defining some more fine-grained terminology, and admitting that it doesn’t line up too closely with the normal use of the word “meaning”.

If you make this move, then the Knapp and Michaels quote Joseph singled out degenerates to tautology:

From the standpoint of an argument against critical theory, then, the only important question about intention is whether there can in fact be intentionless meanings-intended-by-the-author.

Of course there can’t be, and of course an interpreter can find music in the play of the waves or meaning(-as-significant-response) in a sunset. (Yes, linguistic meaning at the interpreter end is more systematic; I’m pushing the extreme argument for admitting the term is hopelessly ambivalent.)

By Tikitu on 10/25/07 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I should have been more careful about “meaning”: Millikan carefully distinguishes at least three types, none of which is exactly speaker intention. In very short, I have the same doubts as about tools --that regardless of origins the constraints of function can support inductions-- but multipled enormously: there isn’t much to words except function.

Put differently: we “should” align our concepts to ontologically-real natural kinds (dogs, water, etc.) because that way we can get around the world better. Why “should” we (in Millikan’s evolutionary sense) align our interpretations to the causal histories of the words? Or to speaker intentions? Clearly we should to some extent, but it’s much less clear that this should be exclusive, and particularly so in the case of literary (poetic) language.

By Tikitu on 10/25/07 at 02:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Tikitu.  I found both of your comments quite helpful.  A couple points:

1) Why does do you claim that even the “ontological level” is still necessarily determined by origin?  Doesn’t the distinction between ontology and perception simply reinscribe the same debate?  In other words, Millikan, as you describe her, might help us displace, as no longer relevant, arguments like Holbo’s about how we actually perceive the screwdriver, but does that necessarily mean that screwdriverness is still ontologically determined by origin rather than structure or function?

2) Even if we grant that “there should be a category of screwdrivers that is connected by origins” and we agree to call that “ontological” (and this is a move I’m certainly willing to consider), it doesn’t follow that “origin” is synonymous with author’s/maker’s intention, especially in the case of the literary text.  This, I think, allows me to express quite clearly why I needed the De Man quote and the discussion of the craftsman as copyist.  If the craftsman can learn to blindly copy without knowing what he copies (the chair is a bad example because it’s hard to imagine a craftsman who doesn’t know exactly what a chair is, but perhaps with a more complex object - a literary text or Holbo’s “lorem ipsum") then the functionality of the object is not contingent on the craftsman’s intention.  We might still account for the origin in terms of function (maybe the only reason there was a chair there to copy was because chairs are good for sitting on, and this particular chair would not exist without there being a chair there to copy), but the origin is now longer the labor of the craftsman (the origin is the original chair), and the ontology of the object is no longer controlled by his intention.  This, I would suggest, is exactly what happens in language, composed as it is of borrowed words, phrases, metaphors, genre forms, etc. from multiple overlapping traditions that one cannot master, gathered without necessarily being guided by a fixed intention.  In this way, Knapp & Michaels aren’t really stating a tautology - even when the word “meaning” is used to refer exclusively to origin, there can be intentionless meaning because writing is not inherently driven by intention.

Another way to explain this is to say that deconstruction formulates a “split origin,” an origin that is never one, never present, whether as a conscious intention of the author (What would this even mean?  Would a conscious intention be language in the thoughts of the author?  What, then would ground the meaning of these thought-words?) or even as unconscious intention insofar as the unconscious is thought of as an entity (homologous to consciousness but inaccessible to it) rather than a process by which the uncontrollable play of copies inscribe a trace.  This would amount to saying that all writing is similar in certain ways to Wordsworth’s words appearing on a beach - if all there is is author’s intention, then all poetry, or at least the best, no longer counts as language, in K & M’s definition, precisely because it doesn’t not originate in an empirical, psychological intention, but rather in the intentionless literary act that can be belatedly hypostatized into the intentional structure of a literary object.

By surlacarte on 10/25/07 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tikitu,

If there’s any way I can clarify the post, or at least parts of it, tell me; I would hate to leave things in obscurity.

The Millikan paraphrase:

The point of the ontological level is that there should be a category of screwdrivers that is connected by origins (copying, causal links), because otherwise knowing things about one screwdriver won’t help you make predictions about another.

Also:

Put differently: we “should” align our concepts to ontologically-real natural kinds (dogs, water, etc.) because that way we can get around the world better.

Certainly, human beings can create categories that have predictive value; they can identify patterns (such as a pattern that defines a given tool) and expect that pattern to recur.

However, there is no such thing as the ontological level of the screwdriver. For one thing, if there were no screws, a screwdriver would essentially be a chisel or prybar. The very existence of an “ontological level” implies a non-contextual Being of things. Is the ontological level of a German shepherd the same as that of a chihuahua? Certainly, in some circumstances, it is useful to call both animals “dogs,” as though they came from the same Platonic form, but in other contexts they are totally dissimilar. When human beings evolved from simians, did some new form burst into existence on the level of ontology? We should accept that, with no offense meant to inductive reasoning and categorical thought, these are the products of the human mind that enable us to interact with reality, not (ever) reality itself, about which nothing definitive can be said.

The situation gets even worse when it comes to human intentions. For Freud and other psychoanalysts, the “ontological” level of the mind is the unconscious. I don’t think we need to accept that hierarchy, but the reverse doesn’t work either.

The fundamental problem here is that our definition of “intention” is getting so rarefied that it’s just useless. If I write a diary that I hope no-one will read, and after my death it’s published as a book, are my readers deriving meaning because of my intention? What if the diary is an example of “automatic writing”? So then you have something that I did not consciously fashion, which I intended nobody to read, and yet which is still “intentional” because it was produced by me. So intention just means “the product of a human mind.” But are human beings really the only animals capable of conceiving of ends? Isn’t my neighbor’s cat capable of performing a series of actions in order to obtain food?

This is why we should not be asking questions about intention; we should be asking questions about meaning. Rather than asking “Is that what the author intended?”, we should be asking “What other relevant texts could we bring to bear on this text, with its problematic ambiguities?”

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/25/07 at 04:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I hadn’t read surlacarte’s comment before adding my own, but clearly there are enormous overlaps between the two enunciations. surlacarte and I might disagree about how “uncontrollable” the play of language really is, how much potential for novelty exists, and how much ambiguity texts contain, but we are drawing on the same critiques of the intentionalist account of mind and speech.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/25/07 at 05:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I retract my previous statement about making a comment, and I retract the previous half of this sentence because I’m obviously doing it right now.  Even now that I have a few hours of free time, I won’t be able to do any justice to the conversation here.  These things are paradoxically too close to my interests for me to be able to say anything about them now: I can’t prepare a proper response that addresses the currents of this conversation because such a thing would be roughly book length, and obviously I don’t have time to write a book about such things because I am already dedicating all of my time to laying down the preliminary research for the book I will write about exactly these things, to address these questions.
So instead I’ll just make vague pronouncements and anti-socially neglect to participate in conversation but instead deliver what is essentially a monologue.  In some ways, I think meaning might actually be an easier problem than function, but that’s probably only because my ideas about it are much less amorphous.  So I’m going to address the Knapp & Benn Michaels Wordsworth example, through a long and torturous route that passes through a bunch of things that you certainly already know and have already mentioned.

Meaning is not profitably thought of as a substance, though the usage of the word in everyday language treats it as though it is one.  If we locate some words, we can’t point a microscope at them and find the particles of meaning.  Possibly the meaning is a metaphysical substance which my soul is excreting all over these words as I write them, and which will be absorbed by yours upon reading (provided you don’t have a corrupt soul and interpret them wrongly.) Some people may prefer this interpretation.  We’re probably looking for something that can be couched in more materialistic terms.
So we look closer at what happens “when meaning is going on”, for instance during the act of reading.  When I read words, in whatever form they may take, photons bounce into my retinas, which activate rods and cones, neurons fire, you know the basic drill.  Somewhere around here, meaning is going on.
The short story of it is that in this case at least, meaning is a product of my interaction with various physical forms, in an interpretational process.  Meaning isn’t stored as a substance in words, as something we encounter, or send back and forth to each other.  Instead it’s something we create dynamically.  But it’s important to note that it’s not typically an arbitrary process; it’s constrained by at least two variables:  the words involved (for the moment we’re restricting this meaning discussion to the limited domain of words and sentences) and the interpretive faculties used to process them.
Even if we fix the former variable for the purposes of discussion, the possibility for a multiplicity of interpretations of particular sentences is obvious.  Much literary and philosophical discussion of meaning essentially amounts to trying to locate the most important, or most correct, or “one true” meaning (or at least propose narrower guidelines for what meanings are acceptable.) From different perspectives, this is either a noble goal or patently ridiculous.  I’m going to start with the latter.
It’s ridiculous because given only the elements we have in our little model (words, interpretive structures, meanings produced) we don’t really have what’s necessary to discriminate between them in this way.  We can imagine an infinite (or at least large number) of distinguishable interpretive structures which render different meanings when exposed to the same sentence.  I am talking combinatorial possibilities; not just the ones you’re likely to encounter, but all possible meanings that can be extracted from a particular sentence in all possible languages by all possible interpreting beings.  I am reminded of the Borges story concerning a certain very large library.
Obviously some of these come off as sensible and some, quite schizophrenic, but within the confines of our system, we don’t have the capacity to make judgments about them.  Since the only way meanings seem to be actually associated with words is through interpretive structures, and we have a variety of interpretive structures which don’t come automatically associated with value judgments, we end up with a series of meanings that we can’t associate with value judgments without bringing in something from the outside.
We could perfectly well stop here, conclude “we’re free!” and piss off a lot of analytic philosophers.  But we’re going to go on because the impulse that drives people to narrow the acceptable meanings is still there.  After all, it does seem like some meanings should be privileged over others, otherwise we’d have a very hard time communicating.
So you might have guessed, the next step is to start looking at the interpretive mechanisms involved, and bring in information from the outside.  It gets very complex at this point and I don’t have time to flesh out an entire argument.  To simplify things greatly, we can say that certain strategies of interpretation are more pragmatically useful than others in different contexts.  We have an easier time making judgments about meanings when we have to put them to use.  So we end up looking for criteria by which to judge which interpretation strategies work best in which situations.
I suggest that these criteria are more often than not social ones, based on what we use language for.  It’s easy to imagine an evolutionary framework here, but I’ll resist.  We want to select interpretive frameworks which allow us to communicate, so I suggest that we have a tendency to work towards developing interpretive frameworks that function (pragmatically, judged through common interactions and predictions) relatively similarly to those held by people which we must communicate with.  In many cases people use language because they want the interpreter of their utterances or writings to understand their intentions, and it is extremely advantageous for us to develop faculties for teasing out human intent out of language.  This is a prime social example of selection for interpretive frameworks.  But it’s not the only possible framework of interpretation, just a frequently important one, and I think this is where Knapp and Benn Michaels go wrong.
The Wordsworth on the beach example removes the context of communication and thus rules out the use of that interpretive framework.  But it doesn’t prevent me from attempting to interpret what I see in different ways.  It doesn’t stop me from seeing the possibility for words or meaning (unlike the aforementioned authors, the idea of a word does not necessarily imply the presence of an author to me).  Similarly, when I look at a normal piece of writing I am not necessarily constrained to consideration of the author’s intent.  Certainly, there is a high probability that interpreting it this way will be fruitful, but if I have other intentions, I can make what I want of this language (though it may be taboo and it may prevent me from communicating with others about it effectively.) I suggest that in many circumstances, poetry, for instance, texts are not necessarily written in the strict communicative context that we make use of that interpretive framework for.  Language may of course, not be meant to convey a specific meaning, but be open to whatever the reader brings to it.
Unfortunately, I have to stop writing now, as I have other obligations this evening.  In characteristic style, I still have the urge to dwell on my point, but I lack the time.
You may feel that something is missing from this account, and rightly so:  I have discussed the production and selection of meaning but I have tried to carefully avoid making it necessary to define the term.  If it comes up, I’ll maybe I’ll talk about that later.

By on 10/25/07 at 05:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is the ontological level of a German shepherd the same as that of a chihuahua? Certainly, in some circumstances, it is useful to call both animals “dogs,” as though they came from the same Platonic form, but in other contexts they are totally dissimilar.

There is a rich empirical literature on this subject involving cross-cultural studies of folk taxonomy, laboratory observation, conceptual development, and the brain. You don’t have to speculate in the abstract; you can actually bring real evidence to bear on the matter.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/07 at 06:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The short story of it is that in this case at least, meaning is a product of my interaction with various physical forms, in an interpretational process.  Meaning isn’t stored as a substance in words, as something we encounter, or send back and forth to each other.  Instead it’s something we create dynamically.

This is what Walter Freeman argues on a neural basis. Actually, it’s pretty much how he defines meaning in Societies of Brains. This implies that meaning is subjective, it exists only inside a system that is interacting with the world. We can, at least in principle, examine how such a system operates. But we cannot, even in principle, situate ourselves inside such a system and somehow determine the meanings it is generating. We can observe what it’s doing, but we can’t actually become it. Hence, it’s meanings are inscrutible to us.

By Bill Benzon on 10/25/07 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m swamped. No more swampman or screwdrivers for me until tomorrow. (But then I’ll be back.)

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

Will you be back as a swampman?

By surlacarte on 10/25/07 at 09:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:  I had time to read the introductory chapter on meaning in Walter Freeman’s How Brains Make Up Their Minds tonight.  His account is indeed similar to mine, though at least in that book, he has a bit of a different focus and I suspect our relation to/understanding of the significance of pragmatism is different (though we both stress it).  Plus he seems to still be doing neuroscience of a certain sort, and while the degree I’m working on is going to say “Cognitive Science” on it, I’m definitely more focused on the philosophical big picture than the implementation details (though they are crucial and fascinating.)

By on 10/25/07 at 11:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All I can say for sure is that you won’t be able to tell the difference. In the meantime, you should all contribute Mary Sue-style swampman fanfic to this thread.

By John Holbo on 10/25/07 at 11:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked that bit about the swampman in your article.  I think it goes quite well with this attempt to think the author as a non-intentional origin that I’m proposing.  De Man has a certain tendency to treat men as swampmen, whether as a condition of the act of reading (hypostasis) as in the above quote or (especially in the later texts, “The Concept of Irony” for example) as a more radical critique of inner experience and the notion of the subject, in ways that perhaps align with what Joe’s getting out of Hofstadter.  But I’ll wait to see what you have to say.

Apologies in advance, by the way, for getting a bit impatient in my last response to you, John.

By surlacarte on 10/26/07 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh I didn’t mean to be all high-handed with ‘you won’t be able to tell the difference’, surlacarte. I meant it entirely jokingly and friendlily. Didn’t mean to hint that you weren’t able to draw important distinctions. It is always simply stipulated in swampman stories that you can’t tell the difference. So if I’m swampman when I come back, you’ll never know the difference. By definition.

By John Holbo on 10/26/07 at 03:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I might be swampman already.

By John Holbo on 10/26/07 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Not high handed at all.  I got the joke.  It just reminded me that the undecidability of swampmen wasn’t so far off from my actual argument…

By surlacarte on 10/26/07 at 07:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: no criticism intended, it’s a background thing. I’ve got no background at all in literary criticism, instead I’m trying to build (more or less) formal systems to tackle these problems. I can appreciate the last sentence of your post, but I can’t relate it to how I’m picturing the debate. It’s my interpretative problem, certainly not that your post is obscure.

By Tikitu on 10/26/07 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

surlacarte: Why do you claim that even the “ontological level” is still necessarily determined by origin?  Doesn’t the distinction between ontology and perception simply reinscribe the same debate?

I’m lifting this directly from Millikan, but calling it “origin” is misleading (especially now I’ve re-read your De Man quote more carefully). She’s talking explicitly about lineages of copying (which might indeed include “blind copies”—photocopies of poems and so on). I think you might take her notions as making more precise “intentionality as a structural property”, although here I’m on shakier ground. Certainly she makes a consistent distinction between proper functions (which I think would confer intentionality in the structural sense) and speaker intentions ("intent as psychological").

(Millikan’s proper functions are, very roughly, the reasons why things continue to be copied: you photocopy the poem rather than a monkey-typed page because it is successfully conveying something to the reader; the proper function of the shapes on the page is to produce particular interpretative effects in its readers.)


In other words, Millikan, as you describe her, might help us displace, as no longer relevant, arguments like Holbo’s about how we actually perceive the screwdriver, but does that necessarily mean that screwdriverness is still ontologically determined by origin rather than structure or function?

I’m not sure that I want to displace that argument as no longer relevant. I want to insist that it’s talking about something different, and that it’s a mistake to conflate the two concepts just because our normal-language term “meaning” seems to cover them both. Distinguishing between the ontological level and the epistemic undercuts K&M because their argument seems to be tautological at the ontological level and just plain wrong at the epistemic; it seems to rely crucially on this conflation. (More below about whether their ontological-level reading really is tautological.)

The question whether “screwdriverness” is ontologically defined or functionally is again a slightly different one. Being very careful, I would want to say

1. There are objects in the real world joined by causal chains of copying that we usually call screwdrivers; anything not in those causal chains does not belong in the same ontological category. (Note my hedge about tools above; in class we’ve wrangled the concession out of Millikan that the “right” ontological category for tools probably contains multiple distinct causal chains, since screwdrivers might be independantly invented in different societies.)

2. The term “screwdriver” and the corresponding concept we have of “screwdriverness” is stabilised by referring usually to these objects. If we didn’t usually refer to a causally-connected “clump” of real-world stuff, we wouldn’t be able to make inductive generalisations about screwdrivers so we would stop thinking about them as a single unified notion.

3. Our methods of identifying this particular ontological clump might be wildly divergent and must be in principle fallible. They work enough of the time that we usually pick out the causally-connected clump.

So there are at least two distinct ways you might be “wrong” about identifying something as a screwdriver. You could be fooled by your perceptions, when in fact it’s just a shadow on the beach. Then, fairly clearly, you’re just plain wrong. Or somebody might make a paint-tin-opener that just happens to look (and work) exactly like a screwdriver. The point of being very precise about this is that now we can object: in the second case you’re not really “wrong” at all. You’re applying the word in a way that hasn’t previously stabilised it (since you’re not pointing at part of the causally-linked clump) but that is pretty much guaranteed to stabilise it in the future. It looks and works like a screwdriver, it will be copied by people who need screwdrivers, so it will give rise to the sort of lineage of copies that define causally-connected clumps.

I’m not sure that Millikan would endorse this future-oriented perspective, but it’s one way of grounding the intuition that an interpreter is not “wrong” when they “take out” of a work meaning that the author hasn’t “put in”. (Scare quotes very deliberate—read “put in” as something like “the causal chains of copying that lead to the inclusion of particular words in the work”, and “take out” as something like “the causal chains of copying that the work is going to give rise to after interpretation”.)

By Tikitu on 10/26/07 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: [I]f there were no screws, a screwdriver would essentially be a chisel or prybar. [...] Is the ontological level of a German shepherd the same as that of a chihuahua? Certainly, in some circumstances, it is useful to call both animals “dogs,” as though they came from the same Platonic form, but in other contexts they are totally dissimilar. When human beings evolved from simians, did some new form burst into existence on the level of ontology?

I’m pretty sure we actually agree, but the unusual use Millikan makes of these terms is obscuring the fact. (Bear with me on the dogs issue, I’ll get to the same basic agreement on intentions in a moment.) There’s no Platonic form unifying chihuahuas and great danes, but they are connected by causal-historical links (evolutionary ones, in this case). There is an ontological “clump” that includes them both, but there are also ontological clumps that keep them separate (more recent evolutionary histories). The fact that we happen to use one term and one concept for both is testament to the fact that the more inclusive clump is still coherent enough to support inductions that are useful in normal life.

The ontological clumps Millikan is talking about are vague. Particularly looking “down through history”, there is (of course) no new “form” “bursting into existence”. But across history (in the here-and-now) there is a definite gap between the causally-connected clump of humanity and the causally connected lump of dogkind. Here maybe we do disagree:


We should accept that, with no offense meant to inductive reasoning and categorical thought, these are the products of the human mind that enable us to interact with reality, not (ever) reality itself, about which nothing definitive can be said.

There are properties of reality that support inductive reasoning: causal chains of copying. A puppy is like its parent because the copying process that produces new puppies is fairly high-fidelity. That’s why some inductions across dogs work. This doesn’t mean there is an ontological category of dogs, particularly “down-through-history”, but there is a clump that we latch onto with the term, and about which something definitive can be said.


The fundamental problem here is that our definition of “intention” is getting so rarefied that it’s just useless. If I write a diary that I hope no-one will read, and after my death it’s published as a book, are my readers deriving meaning because of my intention? What if the diary is an example of “automatic writing”? So then you have something that I did not consciously fashion, which I intended nobody to read, and yet which is still “intentional” because it was produced by me. So intention just means “the product of a human mind.” But are human beings really the only animals capable of conceiving of ends? Isn’t my neighbor’s cat capable of performing a series of actions in order to obtain food?

I wanted to cut this quote down, but in the end every sentence gets a different, strong, reaction.  I don’t agree that “intention” in this sense becomes useless. What saves the notion is distinguishing psychological-intent and intentionality-as-proper-function. Animal behaviours have proper functions and intentionality (the cat’s pounce fails when it misses the mouse) without (necessarily) involving intent. (If you think cats intend then take more explicitly biological functions: the heart fails when it goes into cardiac arrest, without any intent. Its function is to beat, the possibility of failure introduces intentionality; this isn’t just loose talk, because one heart is there because of a lineage of other previous hearts that successfully fulfilled their functions.)

So the readers of your diary are deriving meaning because your words are written in English, which is to say that they are copied from other English words you’ve seen in the past, and their function is to convey their conventional meanings. They may fail to do so, if your handwriting is unreadable or if your family respect your wishes and burn the notebook. But that psychological intent is at a whole different level to the process of copying that gives rise to the particular words you write down. (You don’t consciously intend the word “dog” to refer to dogs, but that is its function; you can consciously intend it to mean something different, but then you’d better signal that intention somehow or your intended meaning won’t get through.)

(As others have pointed out, pure psychological intent doesn’t confer meaning: when I write “there’s glory for you” I can just possibly mean “there’s a knock-down argument” but I certainly can’t mean “there’s an icecream” just by intending it so. The lineage of copying, and the fact that you might be causally linked to it by having read Carroll or Davidson, is what allows me to successfully translate my intent into meaning in the one case, and the absence of such a causal link is why the other case doesn’t work.)


This is why we should not be asking questions about intention; we should be asking questions about meaning. Rather than asking “Is that what the author intended?”, we should be asking “What other relevant texts could we bring to bear on this text, with its problematic ambiguities?”

And finally, I think we largely agree here too. Except that what we know about the author’s (psychological) intent is a relevant text: it helps to explain the causal history of (word-)copying that gave rise to that particular text and thereby suggests one of the meanings we can ascribe to the text (the one based on causal history, not causal future). Bringing to bear texts that are not in the causal history of the one under examination (that were written after, for example) is irrelevant for that component of meaning, but surely not irrelevant for the future-directed component that corresponds to the intuitive notion of “interpreters meaning”.

On the other hand to “ask questions about meaning” erases this distinction and leads to people like K&M saying that “meaning” must be only one of the two, which ... leads to long discussion threads. [After preview: and excessively long comments. I’ll be quiet for a while now I think.]

By Tikitu on 10/26/07 at 12:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One last, short (I promise) comment on surlacarte’s

This, I would suggest, is exactly what happens in language, composed as it is of borrowed words, phrases, metaphors, genre forms, etc. from multiple overlapping traditions that one cannot master, gathered without necessarily being guided by a fixed intention.  In this way, Knapp & Michaels aren’t really stating a tautology - even when the word “meaning” is used to refer exclusively to origin, there can be intentionless meaning because writing is not inherently driven by intention.

The first sentence is precisely a Millikanite view of language (she talks about “criss-crossing conventions").

The second one pins down why I think K&M are wrong: there can trivially be no meaning-as-intention without intention, but meaning-as-intention isn’t what we want “meaning” to mean. Their example doesn’t show that without intention the poem is meaningless, if you object that the poem also lacks intentionality in the sense of causal-history-of-copying. There can be intentionless meaning-as-intentionality (causal-history)—think photocopies—so if that’s (part of) what meanings are then the answer isn’t “no” and their attack on theory fails.

By Tikitu on 10/26/07 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The first sentence is precisely a Millikanite view of language (she talks about “criss-crossing conventions")."

Cool - perhaps I’m a closet Millikanite.  Aren’t they one of the peoples that lives in Oz?  Regardless, I will add Millikan to that long list of things I ought to read one day, in theory.  At the very least, I’m content with the way Millikan would go after K&M.  Whether the sympathies go much farther than that would require much more thought.

By surlacarte on 10/26/07 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to admit that I would follow these arguments better if everyone had to write them as poems (washed up on the beach or not, by preference).  That involves less rigor, more form, or, if you prefer, less intention, more ambiguity.

Going way, way back to something probably long forgotten:
“But this is precisely the issue, Rich. I say that they don’t expect this, so the context doesn’t demand it. You say they do. What you need to give me, Rich, is some reason to believe that people OUGHT to expect that swampman will be empirically testable, even if (like me) they presently think that’s not the issue.”

The reason why people ought to expect that swampman will be empirically testable is because the thought experiment appears to rely for its force on events that happen in an apparently real world.  One could specify that Swampman appears in, say, Narnia.  In which case the proper response to the thought experiment is something like “So what?  Maybe in Narnia Swampmen appear and disappear all the time.  I don’t see why we should care about this thought experiment.” It seems to be that there is an implicit premise of this thought experiment that goes something like, “The Swampman thought experiment tells us something that is relevant to the way we think because it is couched in terms that imply the kind of thing that we can imagine actually happening.” If you kept the same example, but said that Swampman was created by a magic spell, people would be much more likely to say “Why does this tell us anything about how we should think about things?  Magic spells don’t exist.” If you say that it isn’t empirically testable, you’re attacking the reason why anyone should think about Swampman, but subtly, so that you can sneak the premise in and disavow it later.

By on 10/26/07 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This is a good thread. I owe a few of you some answers but I think most of the trouble is due to a failure to frame my original points in the right way. I’ll try to go off and build a suitable frame, rather than picking on the disputed details in ways that would probably be less than optimal, comprehension-wise.

Rich, how do you explain how thought experiments like John has 5 dollars and gives 3 dollars to Mary work? Do you regard them as invitations to empirical confirmation? Are they invalid if not empirical testable? Do you think that since it isn’t empirically testable (well, it isn’t - John doesn’t exist) I’m sneaking in an illicit premise?

By John Holbo on 10/27/07 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t understand how the example isn’t empirically testable.  People named John have five dollars and give people named Mary three of them quite often, presumably, and it’s conceivable that you could monitor people somehow until you saw it happening.  If you want to say that this is a special particular John who doesn’t exist, as opposed to the generic use of John to refer to all people named that, or really, as a generic marker for any person, you’re introducing new data that wasn’t in the thought experiment.

If you super-specifically described a person named John for the thought experiment, and then at the end said, “Aha, I caught you, John doesn’t exist”, then no one would care because no one would care about the thought experiment.  They only work if they imply categories of things.

By on 10/27/07 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, the question isn’t really whether it’s testable but whether it needs to be empirically tested to be a valid experiment.

That is, do you regard the answer to the story problem as uncertain until a suitable John has been secured and the experiment run?

By John Holbo on 10/27/07 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, they’re two very different things.  If had to go for a quick generalization, I’d say that thought experiments in physics have to be tested, thought experiments in philosophy have to be testable.  Even the ones in ethics tend to presume that ethically better results might be discerneable in real life, somehow.

By on 10/27/07 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tikitu,

I am sincerely sorry; a page refresh error yesterday swallowed quite a large response that I had written to your excellent comments.

Each of the ways in which you, possibly following Millikan, sub-divide bits of reality makes sense to me; for example, separating humans from dogs, or separating one kind of dog from another.

In your comment, you put into practice several different ways of cutting up reality. In order to group dogs into the same ontological category, you talk about evolutionary causation down through history. In order to separate human beings from other animals, you cut “across” history, gesturing towards the practical value of certain distinctions in the present (whereas the diachronic, evolutionary view would reveal a convergence).

All of these are valid methods, and all of them, in my opinion, are mimetic of reality insofar as they are adequate to certain tasks. However, I want to stress the pragmatic criterion of adequacy, and the poetic element (in Heidegger’s terms) of poeisis, translated as “bringing forth” or “unconcealment.” You can bring a certain thing to light (such as a dog) in a number of different, incommensurable ways, such that ultimately you are responsible for that perceptual act and its consequences.

The best way to understand this is through Heidegger’s proto-environmentalist examples, discussed before here on the Valve: the question of whether you see a forest as a source of timber (valid), or as a place of beauty and refuge (also ontologically valid, but with very different consequences).

Certainly, there are times when bringing texts forth in terms of their author is the best possible approach; if I didn’t believe that, there’d be no point in reading an author’s biography and personal correspondence. But from Barthes’s more formalistic approach, and Foucault’s more historical approach, I take away the value of other methods that replace the primacy of the author with structural or historical frames.

I like your emphasis on the process of copying, and would want to link that with many of the critiques of intentionalism, rooted as it is in exaggerated accounts of agency and originality.

Rather than the strongly intentionalist term “function,” I would prefer to employ the term “effect.” There are several reasons for this—first of all, all the problems we encountered trying to describe the “function” of a screwdriver; second, the fact that things like the sound of words, the shape of words (typesetting, graphic design), and the material accidents words undergo (Sappho) all effect meaning, despite the fact that they may not have been created with those specific “functions” in mind.

***

John,

In a way, this evolving discussion between you and Rich reminds me a little of the conversation that happened about The Road, which I compared to The Grapes of Wrath. Both books are fictional, and thus “thought experiments” in a sense; both concern versions of an apocalypse, and present characters who survive in the aftermath through mutuality and generosity.

However, it’s my position that The Grapes of Wrath is a superior novel precisely because it reckons more complexly with real desperation, real catastrophe, and real human societies. Both thought experiments are fundamentally acceptable as such, but one is more useful.

Also, I think Rich is trying to avoid the following logical fallacy, which has to do with the artificial syntheses that fictions create:

Imagine there is John and a swampman.

If John has five dollars, and he gives the swampman three, he has two dollars.

Thus, the swampman exists and can be used effectively in thought experiments.

Not really; the “swampman” only exists for the duration of this particular thought experiment, in large part because he has to do very little (impoverishing John). Such an example cannot lend a different mini-fiction legitimacy.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/27/07 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

John put it well:

“The question isn’t really whether it’s testable but whether it needs to be empirically tested to be a valid experiment.”

Substituting “inference” or “statement” for experiment, it’s not my contention that basic dialogues about the way we use words have to be founded on cognitive research, particularly in cases where I’m working directly with Kant, truly a speculative philosopher rather than a cognitive researcher.

That said, a cognitive perspective inevitably adds to the conversation; you have much more experience and background knowledge than me in this field, and perhaps could point us towards some of the research to which you refer.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/27/07 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’ve probably covered this, as I’m once again jumping into the conversation late, but I think testability is probably not all that important of a factor when it comes to philosophical thought experiments.
I do think the important aspect of a philosophical thought experiment is that it’s logically possible that the events being described could occur in our world.  Like Rich was saying, thought experiments about worlds other than ours, don’t really tell us much about ours.  Most philosophical thought experiments aren’t testable and the reason is that they don’t have a strong predictive element. Philosophical thought experiments are about how we would/could/should think about something if it did happen.  Let’s consider what role testing can play in giving us information about that.  First, we can’t really prove, through testing and without a doubt, that something can’t happen, but we can conduct scientific investigations that rule it out of the things we’re willing to consider possible, in which case we’ve learned something about physics and not the subject of our thought experiment.  Likewise, there’s only one way to prove something absolutely CAN happen.  Most of the time we have to deal with putting things in the category of what we call possible, which of course, is exactly where we started.  The way to prove something can happen is to observe it actually happening.  The odd thing is, for most philosophical thought experiments, we don’t really even gain anything here.  If a swampman did materialize and we had to ask ourselves whether he was identical to his original or not, we’ve not really gained anything to contribute to our discussion other than a visceral example and the knowledge that this is something we apparently actually have to worry about.  So while testing is of course incredibly important, it doesn’t really help us for a lot of problems of philosophy.
I suggest that’s essentially why these are problems of philosophy.  Sometimes problems about how to think about things are easily solvable, in that we can agree that our thinking about something makes predictions that don’t pan out, or it leads us to incompatible conclusions about other things.  Philosophical problems are potentially amenable to the latter type of solution.  We can argue about things, draw out their consequences and find out that a way of thinking about something that we’re committed to is not compatible with the way of thinking about something else in question.
But in certain circumstances, we’re left with a plurality of different ways of thinking about things, that only have consequences in the way we think or talk about other things, and they never really seem to run aground of fully entrenched though structures or predictive consequences in the real world.  I suggest these are most of the problems of philosophy.

I originally felt discomfort about philosophical thought experiments around the example of the swampman, and also a certain dissasemblable ship.  They’re based on the fact that our everyday concepts such as identity between objects or people are essentially based around the kinds of things we experience everyday and may not be fully extensible to every possible situation, at least without modification.  As a note, I guess this kind of work is in certain ways important to do, but it’s always felt sort of like toy puzzles to me.  Granted, my endless pondering of things like form, organization and complexity probably seem like toy problems to other people.  Still, the kind of philosophy I want to do is the kind that describes problems like these on a higher level and lets us see why they are so hard.

By on 10/27/07 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph, that’s a damn shame. I’m getting more an more the sense that we’re really saying very similar things, only the overlap of terms used in different ways is obscuring the commonalities. (I’d love to try to hash this stuff out over a beer sometime; if anyone plans to stop by Amsterdam anytime soon let me know.)

I’d be worried again about radical indeterminism, if I’m understanding poeisis correctly. But that’s my hobbyhorse not yours (I didn’t catch the discussion of Heideggerian environmentalism, will check it out).

We part company again over “function”, but that’s because I’m particularly interested in whether Millikan’s notion of function makes sense in this context (I’m fairly satisfied for the screwdriver, although others might disagree, but words and meanings get problematic in interesting ways). I’m afraid I’ve done a bit of thread-hijacking—it’s hard to resist when the discussion comes so close to my current obsession…

By Tikitu on 10/27/07 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Substituting “inference” or “statement” for experiment, it’s not my contention that basic dialogues about the way we use words have to be founded on cognitive research, particularly in cases where I’m working directly with Kant, truly a speculative philosopher rather than a cognitive researcher.

So what happens if evidence about how people use words contradicts philosophical speculation? Do we declare reality invalid or does philosophy start paying attention to empirical evidence?

As for pointing you to evidence, discussions around this place are so blithely, blissfully and relentlessly a-empirical, if not actually anti-empirical, that I can’t see any point in making much of an effort on recommendations. It’s not as though the information is hard to find for anyone who’s interested. However, you might start with Steven Pinker’s current book, The Stuff of Thought. There’s some important stuff that’s missing from the book (e.g. folk taxonomy), but it’s a good place to start. And he discusses Kant.

By Bill Benzon on 10/27/07 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph writes: “Substituting “inference” or “statement” for experiment, it’s not my contention that basic dialogues about the way we use words have to be founded on cognitive research, particularly in cases where I’m working directly with Kant, truly a speculative philosopher rather than a cognitive researcher.”

I have to say: I get off the bus here. You cannot substitute ‘inference’ or ‘statement’. (The former might be ok, but the latter is certainly not. An experiment is not a statement.) There are, possibly (but this is already a serious claim) such things as valid, or at least intellectually consideration-worthy thought-experiments that do not, additionally, require empirical verification. (I wish I hadn’t backed into defending this proposition with specific reference to swampman, who is arguably not a poster-child for it, but such is life. I still believe in the utility of abstract thought-experiments, at least in principle.) But you have to concede that if there is actually positive empirical evidence AGAINST what you are saying, that’s a problem. (It’s not game-over, because there are often ways of massaging ‘evidence’, conceptually, which can be perfectly legitimate.) If you retreat to Kant, to get clear of all that, that’s fine, but then you are just doing Kant exegesis - which is rather a different thing.

Also, I don’t think this can be conceived as dialogue about ‘the way we use words’. First, if it is that, it is straightforwardly an empirical question (although intuitions have a lot of authority about usage); second, if it is that, it is not such a philosophically interesting question, I think. (I don’t think the Wordsworth on the beach case has any interest, if it is just conceived of as an investigation of word use, instead of concept-contours.) Third, if it is a word usage question, all the wild thought-experiments are transparently invalid, because it is unreasonable to suppose that word usage will remain constant in really weird situations.

To this it will be objected: words usage and concept contours are hardly clearly distinct. Fair enough. Nor are they identical. The point, I think, is to find some way of talking about words and text and meanings and intentions that is philosophically satisfactory. Probably this will involve salvaging most of our ordinary intuitions about these things, but it needn’t involve salvaging all of our ordinary intuitions. Swampman is just a colorful way of solving for certain variables here. (Which is why I think Rich and John’s concerns that people are going to be mislead into thinking swampman is more likely than he really is are somewhat beside the point. But I do agree that the color can be distracting, rather than helpfully vivid.)

By John Holbo on 10/28/07 at 01:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I probably shouldn’t try to answer this now, but I’ll give it a shot.  It’s really not a “concern that people are going to be mislead into thinking swampman is more likely than he really is”, at least on my part; I’ll let John E. write for himself.  I think that it’s a fundamental problem with this whole class of thought experiments.

Take the “Twin Earth” one for instance.  I just don’t see how it can work.  The two earths are supposed to be identical, except that one has water made of H2O, the other has water made of XYZ.  But that’s physically impossible in our universe.  I’m not talking about the statistical unlikelihood of their being two Earths; I’m talking about the fact that, according to our current knowledge anyway, it’s impossible for something that behaves just like water to be made of anything but H2O.  You just can’t use this thought experiment as an argument for semantic externalism, because once you say that meanings “aren’t just in your head”, then you have to confront the fact that the things not in the heads of the people in the thought experiment are entirely imaginary.

Similarly, with Swampman the problem is not misleading people that it’s likely, the problem is that as far as we know this is never going to happen in the life of our universe.  So the whole question of how to think about Swampman has no relevance to our universe.

Of course I was, in detail, wrong when I generalized above that thought experiments should be testable.  They don’t all have to be.  But the ones that seem to say something about our universe should be.  Words and text and meanings and intentions are all phenomena that happen in our universe.  Once you’ve left it, it’s not just a problem that the very language that you’re using within the thought experiment may take on different meanings than the usual ones.  It’s also that there’s fundamentally no reason to be interested in the thought experiment except as a game.  On the Twin Earth in which Swampmen appear, there is an alternate TDavison who can make a legitimate thought experiment of this kind.  But that’s not our universe.

By on 10/28/07 at 02:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: First, if it is that, it is straightforwardly an empirical question

How so?  Perhaps I’ve not caught your meaning, but I tend to disagree.  Dialogues about “the way we use words” can provide some of the most clear examples of things that are not empirically assailable.  Granted, we can observe how the different parties use the words, and we can come to understand each other by locating where and how we disagree.  But, for the most part, we can’t really empirically verify things like whose usage is correct, unless you’re willing to admit a sort of democratic standard of correctness.

In certain circumstances word usage and conceptual contours are roughly the same thing.  For instance, take any philosophical thought experiment that revolves around the question “are these two things identical?” Well, obviously the first step is to ask “what do we mean by ‘identical’?” which for nearly all intents and purposes is the same as “how are we willing to use the word ‘identical’?” We get at the conceptual contours of identity directly through the word usage, and so disputes on these issues boil down to arguments about word usage.  Identity seems like it would be a pretty fundamental concept, but it turns out it’s not necessarily so simple.  We can’t treat concepts like they are objects that we simply encounter in the world.  We can’t consult the originals to determine whose description of them is more accurate.  We make all of our concepts and so it’s your word against mine unless our ideas differ as to what commonly understandable predictions they make (or in a lot of ways, how well they interface with other sets of ideas.)
Now, I do agree that it’s nonsense to suppose that word usage will remain constant in really weird situations, but like I was saying earlier, I think this also means it’s sort of unreasonable to expect that concepts will also accurately describe weird situations.  Yes, this might mean there are better concepts out there to more accurately describe said situations, but it’s likely that they’re unwieldy and for everyday usage we get along quite fine with our everyday concepts (like how we can describe quite a number of things perfectly well with just Newtonian dynamics.) I think our everyday intuitions are salvageable for the most part, and under everyday domains.
And yes, these types of problems are made less philosophically interesting by treating them as word usage problems, but the problem is that’s exactly what they are and it turns out that they’re just not very interesting unless you’re really into that sort of thing.
But!
Not all philosophical problems are these types of problems.  I do think Wordsworth on the beach is worth thinking about because it doesn’t hinge on the usage of one or a small number of essentially synonymous words.  As is apparent from my earlier post, I think there’s a path to seeing why the thought experiment doesn’t work, if one investigates the processes that produce meaning.  But that’s an issue that doesn’t just hinge on the usage of the word “meaning”, but real questions which involve the way we employ a number of different concepts, and relate to the world perhaps in ways which allow for a certain amount of empirical investigation.

By on 10/28/07 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

...although intuitions have a lot of authority about usage...

If you look at the early Chomsky literature, considerable attention was given to linguistic intuition. Chomsky had construed syntax on the model of a logical or mathematical system, with a sharp division between statements that are valid within the system and those that are not. The linguist used his intuition to determine whether or not a given example was syntactically valid. The grammar was to account for only and all syntactically valid sentences. And if two linguists don’t agree on the validity of this or that example . . . . well, Cambridge, we have a problem.

I don’t know whether or not linguistic intuition is discussed these days in Chomsky circles as I don’t read that literation, but, for better or worse, it’s not discussed in, e.g. cognitive linguistics, that I know of. One thing that has happened since the 60s is that linguists have gathered various standard bodies of examples of real usage that investigators use. That is, in at least some circles, arguments are no longer couched exclusively in terms of examples that the linguists themselves make up. Rather, one sifts though some standard publically available corpus for examples bearing on a given issue.

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/07 at 05:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But, for the most part, we can’t really empirically verify things like whose usage is correct, unless you’re willing to admit a sort of democratic standard of correctness.

It’s not a matter of “correct” usage, but simply of what the usage is at all. Why is it, for example, that the languages of preliterate cultures will have words comparable to “dog,” “cat,” and “cow” but not “animal”? Nor do they have a word comparable to “plant”? That’s what work on folk taxonomy indicates. Now, why is that the case? As far as I know, there isn’t any widely accepted theory about it.

What’s so philosophically interesting about Wordsworth on the beach? To the extent that it’s an argument that intention somehow leaps from the page into the mind of the reader, it’s simply wrong. Nothing “leaps” from the page to the reader except, perhaps, photons (depending on how you are willing to use “leap"). If you use it to argue that meaning simply isn’t in the signs as physical objects, well, we’ve known that for a century. The example adds nothing to that knowledge beyond the film-flammery of “holy moses batman, how’d the wind and waves do that” - that’s just a distraction - “nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeve, and now RABBIT OUT OF A HAT!”

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/07 at 07:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

J.S. Nelson: “For instance, take any philosophical thought experiment that revolves around the question “are these two things identical?” Well, obviously the first step is to ask “what do we mean by ‘identical’?” which for nearly all intents and purposes is the same as “how are we willing to use the word ‘identical’?””

I know that you’re developing this as an example of how some thought experiments boil down to word usage on the way to something else, but I don’t think that the example actually works in this way.  Instead I think it’s a good example of how physics encroaches on philosophy.  I would think that if someone starts acking how *things* are identical (rather than, say, meanings), you couldn’t help but bring the current physical understanding of things into it.  And then someone could say, well, you want to look at it as a problem of word usage, but really two things are identical if they’re in the same quantum state.

And the person who wants to talk about word usage might say that’s all very well, but since ordinary objects that we encounter in daily life are many out of large numbers of elementary particles, bringing up quantum mechanics is sort of a distraction; it’s not like two dice, say, are ever going to be in the same quantum state.  The first person could object that physical identity is “really” a QM problem, but that “really” can be dismissed.

OK—then people start doing experiments with quantum entanglement, and the EPR paradox becomes better known, and that leads to actual objects that use quantum teleportation.  By the time people are doing quantum computing, much less having phones that teleport messages to each other or something, the philosopher really can no longer get away with saying that it’s a problem of word usage.

So the principle that John Emerson brought up, and I stated as a premise that thought experiments shouldn’t really on thermodynamic miracles or the equivalent, really has a more general application, covering all sorts of thought experiments that seem to say something about the world in some way, as the question of identity of things most definitely does. 

I don’t think that the people think Bill Benzon reads are anywhere near there yet, but of course this could affect even identity of meaning as well.  When someone says that meaning only occurs as a brain function, and that they can measure the precise sequence of neural firings or whatever that describe the meaning that someone takes in something, it’s no longer a question of word usage.  The philosophical aspect hasn’t exactly been superceded, but it’s at least been strongly bounded.

By on 10/28/07 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm, I really mashed that comment; typed too fast too early.  “Acking” should be “asking”, “many out of large numbers of elementary particles” should be “made out of large numbers of elementary particles”, “I don’t think that the people think Bill Benzon reads” shoud be “I don’t think that the people Bill Benzon reads”, etc.

I had also meant to point out that the EPR paradox is a pretty interesting thought experiment in its own right.  It’s as if Davidson had come up with Swampman as an illustration of why things couldn’t really be that way, since Swampman goes against out intuitions about how things work, and then people detected real Swampmen so many times that they just said, fine, we have to give up on our intuitions about how things work.

By on 10/28/07 at 10:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “Also, I think Rich is trying to avoid the following logical fallacy, which has to do with the artificial syntheses that fictions create:

Imagine there is John and a swampman.

If John has five dollars, and he gives the swampman three, he has two dollars.

Thus, the swampman exists and can be used effectively in thought experiments.

Not really; the “swampman” only exists for the duration of this particular thought experiment, in large part because he has to do very little (impoverishing John). Such an example cannot lend a different mini-fiction legitimacy.”

This is a very good point, and is probably more immediately useful to this group of people than the quasi-scientistic bit that I’ve been arguing for. 

And there are other ways beyond having the same character appear in more than one short-short story in which fictions lend legitimacy.  The use of “color” in these examples is more troubling than John’s “the color can be distracting, rather than helpfully vivid.” It’s their insistent use of a protagonist in the first place.  Twin Earth has Toscar, Davidson’s story had Swampman / Davidson himself (a case of self-insertion, as John, I think, hinted earlier—I don’t think it’s really a Mary Sue unless Davidson-as-Swampman also battles costumed villains.) The brain in a vat is also an example, of course.  And they invite reader identification: you could be Toscar, you could be Swampman, you could be the brain in a vat, since in none of these cases could you really tell whether you were or not.

By on 10/28/07 at 11:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: The first person could object that physical identity is “really” a QM problem, but that “really” can be dismissed. [...] By the time people are doing quantum computing, much less having phones that teleport messages to each other or something, the philosopher really can no longer get away with saying that it’s a problem of word usage.

Calling it “a problem of word usage” doesn’t have to be dismissive. Radical indeterminacy isn’t usually a problem because our word usages are highly constrained by how the world works: they have to correspond pretty closely to something objectively real or they won’t be learnable (our children won’t be able to see when to apply the same word, since the “same” situation won’t be clearly determined). But it’s not just corresponding to reality that’s important, it’s doing so in a useful way.

If you look at what has stabilised the use of a particular word in the past (what it has been used for successfully that has lead to its continued reuse) then you have a more objective handle on what it “should” be used for in the future. (Here I’m again following Millikan, although she’s very careful to insist that this is only one component of, or type of, “meaning”.)

The advantage of this is that you can choose which thought experiments to object to: the ones that undercut exactly the conditions that have previously stabilised the words --or concepts-- they’re trying to investigate. So swampman can take John’s money because the setup (impossible though it is) doesn’t undercut the regularities in the world that allow us to count coins; he can’t give John coins from his pocket, because the regularities stabilising the notion of “coin” have explicitly been undercut. (I’m not saying that they’re not coins and hence he can’t give them, I’m saying the question of whether they are coins has no determinate answer because of the terms of the setup.)

Likewise the regularities that stabilise the (commonsense) notion of “intention” can’t be assumed to hold in a world where swampman exists (this is explicitly part of the setup) so you can object that the thought experiment doesn’t enlighten us in that particular regard.

The EPR-and-identity case is perfect for this story. You’ll grant, I guess, that at present our use of the word “identical” is stabilised by macroscopic rather than quantum-level regularities. I’d go further: there’s no justification for saying that “really” only quantum-identical objects are identical. The ideal extreme plays no part in making sure that the concept is useful.

(My guess is that if EPR teleportation becomes a common reality we’ll end up with seperate concepts of identity and what counts as being identical, one quantum-level and one macroscopic—we might use the word “identical” ambiguously, or we might introduce a new term, but the macroscopic notion is so obviously useful in normal life that I can’t imagine it being relegated to the status of a mere approximation.)

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

(If this story is halfway correct then it’s not having a protagonist itself that’s the problem with these experiments, it’s that they are at once investigating and undercutting the notion of identity. Saying it’s John taking money from his twin brother isn’t problematic; while there is a problem with him taking money from the swampman, the problem is with the coins not the characters. And so on.)

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Identity can be pretty interesting without even getting to the quantum-level. Consider the problem of great-grandfather’s knife. Grandfather replaced the handle; father replaced the blade. In what sense is the knife that I now own identical to great-grandfather’s knife. Physically it’s not the same, though it may appear so. The identity seems to be lodged in historical continuity. So, that’s one issue.

And then we have the mysterious identity that obtains between the acorn and the subsequent oak, the caterpillar and the subsequent butterfly. Establshing those identities required some careful observation. I’ve been reading a book on the history of post-Renaissance that points out that the question of whether or not the flora and fauna described by the ancients were identical with contemporary flora and fauna was a real, and puzzling, question. Attempts to deal with it led more accurate description and classification of flora and fauna, including the creation of reference collections of specimens.

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/07 at 12:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"So swampman can take John’s money because the setup (impossible though it is) doesn’t undercut the regularities in the world that allow us to count coins; he can’t give John coins from his pocket, because the regularities stabilising the notion of “coin” have explicitly been undercut. (I’m not saying that they’re not coins and hence he can’t give them, I’m saying the question of whether they are coins has no determinate answer because of the terms of the setup.)”

That’s a good point.  I knew that there was something wrong with Swampman giving John Swampman-dollars (or even things that just possibly could be Swampman-dollars), but, you’re right, the other direction is less problematic.  It is a little bit more problematic then you seem to imply, though, if you consider the question of whether Swampman is a person to invalidate the verb “giving”; it might have to be “giving” in a similar sense to that which you give coins to a piggy bank.  “John gives three dollars to Mary” and “John gives three dollars to a sort of natural nonhuman phenomenon that carries them away” are not usually considered to be equivalent, even though John has three dollars less in each case.

As for the EPR paradox, I strongly agree “that at present our use of the word “identical” is stabilised by macroscopic rather than quantum-level regularities.” But I’m not sure whether that makes philosophic difference.  You write that “the macroscopic notion is so obviously useful in normal life that I can’t imagine it being relegated to the status of a mere approximation”, and that seems true to me, but isn’t philosophy not really supposed to be about approximations where non-approximations are available?  No one is asking the philosopher to actually find the quantum state of any particular macroscopic object, so the philosopher might as well give the non-approximate answer.  (This goes back to the difference between empirical testing and empirical testability.)

This suggested approach (of word usage stabilizing concepts) does seem to get around one difficulty, though, the knowledge that we’re always somewhat wrong.  Someone dismissing the Twin Earth paradox through the kind of reasoning that I describe above has to abruptly non-dismiss it if we discover that basic physical laws do change from one part of the universe to another.  But I don’t really see this as a problem, it’s not like civilization only had one chance ever to think of the Twin Earth paradox, and if it was dismissed in the 20th century they’d never think of it again when they discovered tha variability of physical law in the 22nd.

By on 10/28/07 at 12:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: on “giving”, you’re quite right; it’s a question again of what you’re trying to show with the thought experiment. Being more careful I’d say that after John hands them over the swampman has five coins in his pocket (nothing in the setup undercuts this) but if you’re explicitly investigating the notion of “giving” then indeed you shouldn’t be using this story.

About the EPR paradox, the point of taking this stance is to suggest that the philospher is doing something very strange in taking the non-approximation. They’re talking about a notion of identity or identicalness which explicitly has nothing to do with how the word “identical” is used normally. Talking about stabilising function is an attempt to give “used normally” some bite: we’re not taking averages or majority democratic views, we’re looking at the reason we have the concept in the first place.

(Not that the philosopher is necessarily wrong: if the EPR paradox starts showing up in natural life then musing on an exact notion of identity becomes very relevant. But not for the current notion of identity, only for how we’re going to have to conceptualise the world in the future. An interesting thing about these radical scientific discoveries is that they leave completely open how we should adapt our previous concepts to the new world they open up.)

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: good call on identity. That’s one reason Millikan says so carefully that stabilising function is only one type of meaning. I think she’d say that the philosopher’s axe is a marginal example and that our notion of identity survives despite such examples, because it works unproblematically in most cases. (More carefully: that calling the knife “the same” after all components are replaced is not an example of the stabilising function of “the same”; that’s not to say that it’s not the same knife afterwards, just that if this were really the commonest situation for calling things “the same” then the term would mean something different.)

The acorn/oak identity is also nice for this point of view. What the two have in common is a particular kind of causal connection through history (the oak is causally linked to the acorn; the knife with parts replaced is causally linked to its original). But it’s simply a matter of the usefulness of the notion that acorn-to-oak causal connections are normally considered to preserve identity, while oak-to-acorn ones aren’t.

(Suppose the oak only sheds a single acorn, then dies off and makes room for a new oak in the same place… should we call it “the same”? It’s not thermodynamically impossible, but it’s so remote from the stabilising function of “the same” that there doesn’t seem to be any interest in answering the question either way. The fact that we probably won’t call it “the same” says something about the fallible means we use for recognising these causal connections, but nothing, I would suggest, about any (ontological, “real") relation of identity that should be defined so as to exclude this particular case.)

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 12:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not that the philosopher is necessarily wrong

By “wrong” I meant something like “doing something useless”. I think it is wrong to consider this “explicating the concept of identicalness”, but there are other things the results might be useful for.

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Damnit, you people write so much faster than me.
I think discussing these things as issues of word usage is confusing because I (ironically) have a too wide usage of “word usage”. 
I’ll explain how I think of it and then maybe we can talk about these things in different ways.
I divide the ways we use concepts to understand the world into roughly two categories: descriptively and predictively.  Descriptive concepts are the ones that allow us to take our experience and parse it into categories and words.  They vary enormously between people, even ones who are from the same culture and speak the same language.  Predictive concepts are a little bit deeper, in that they are what lays the foundation for what we expect out of our experience.  Obviously predictive concepts make use of descriptive concepts in the process of interpretation.
Now, I think that we can take two people who use entirely different descriptive concepts but relatively functionally similar* predictive concepts and find a working translation between them.  I wish I had a good example of this, but it escapes me right now.  The thing is, this is something we do every day.  If you’re confused about how someone is thinking about something, and you figure it out and it turns out that you ultimately agree on some deeper level but you were just dividing your experience up in different ways, you’ve demonstrated that different descriptive concepts are “isomorphic” to one another, given the deeper structures that govern them.  But in some disagreements it might turn out that you can’t do this.  For instance, if I contest that chairs regularly transform themselves into lizards, we can talk it out and find out that we agree as to how we’re employing the concepts of chairs, lizards and transformation, but that we have a real contradiction on our hands.  Luckily for us, these types of problems are the ones amenable to empirical assaults.  We can observe chairs and conclude that no they don’t transform into lizards, at least not regularly, and if I still want to use the concepts involved in the same way, I have to agree.  So we can locate these two classes of problems which are in practice very hard to separate, but are importantly distinct: one where we disagree about how we describe the world and one where we disagree about how the world works.  For the former, argumentation is amenable to social approaches of resolution; the later allows for scientific work.
So when I talk about word usage, I really mean descriptive concept usage and so this is a bad description on my part because it does imply that words and concepts are the same and they’re totally not.

Now, I do think I’m backed into a corner here regarding interesting and uninteresting problems.  For one thing, when I discussed the Wordsworth example, it’s pretty clear I meant just word usage.  For another thing, even if I backpedal and say “except for that, I meant descriptive concept usage this whole time”, I seem to imply that being in that category is all that’s necessary to make a problem uninteresting.  The issue with that is that I think that the vast majority of philosophical problems are pretty much within the domain of the employment of different descriptive concepts, and some of them are quite interesting.  Now I can revise my position and claim that the descriptive concept category has quite a bit of depth to it.  Certain problems can seem to be really intractable but when viewed through my perspective they turn out to be relatively near the surface of conceptual analysis.  The deeper down you go, the more translation you have to do between conceptual schema, and the more these things branch out to have connections of predictive problems.
I still think the various identity problems are pretty near the surface.  Tikitu said most of what I was going to about this.  Identity in everyday usage is almost certainly not the same as more complex quantum mechanical usage, and I think it’s hard to apply to even grandfather-knife type situations.  We have certain situations that the everyday concept of identity works just fine, but you can stretch that concept beyond its limits.  If these problematic examples become everyday issues, we’re provided with a good reason to work on our concept.  Now we can imagine that there are definitions of identity that can handle all the examples and we can say “now this looks like a job for a philosopher!” but it’s exactly these problems I had in mind as uninteresting.  I guess that’s totally just opinion on my part.  I don’t know why I argued that Wordsworth on the beach was a more interesting problem, I think it was just because you can’t point to a single word and say “well if we could all agree on that right there, this problem would be solved.” But then again, I do think there are other, relatively easy ways to get past this problem, and I consider it more “solved” than I do even grandfather-knife problems, so I guess that was just my intuition.

* “Functionally similar” is a good place to call me out, but please don’t because if you think I’m too wordy now, you have no idea.

By on 10/28/07 at 01:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

J.S. Nelson: Now we can imagine that there are definitions of identity that can handle all the examples and we can say “now this looks like a job for a philosopher!” but it’s exactly these problems I had in mind as uninteresting.  I guess that’s totally just opinion on my part.

I agree with that opinion, with two hedges. The first is that there’s (I think) a stronger-than-opinion reason to object: if the philosopher does come up with such a definition, but it’s manifestly not the same as the common-sense notion (the successful use of which has accounted for our continuing use of the word and our general agreement that we can use it consistently across cases), then what is it exactly a definition of? What we should have been intending when we used the word? Or (heavens above), what we really were intending but we didn’t realise it?

The “manifestly” needs arguing for in particular cases. The “stabilising function” view is a way of making sense of the idea that we can have perfectly coherent and useful concepts without there being even in principle such a definition possible. It follows, though, that if there really is some natural regularity underpinning a concept we attach to a particular word, and if the philosopher figures out what that is, then they’ve done something much stronger than simply “defining a concept”. They’ve pinned down why we have that concept, why it’s useful and coherent to chop the world up in that way. The stabilising-function view also suggests, though, why that sort of discovery is more often done by natural scientists than by philosophers.

The second hedge is “if these problematic examples become everyday issues”. If you base concepts on stabilising functions, if the situation changes such that new functions arise (for instance, latching onto regularities that weren’t there before) then the concepts need to change too. Of course identity conditions for concepts are even more fluid in this picture than for knives and oak trees…

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 02:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Tikitu:  I agree.  When I say “handles all the examples” I mean “works well for everyday concepts as well as special cases”.  If someone produces a concept like this, they’re certainly not changing the intentions of previously made statements, and maybe they believe that we should have meant this but that’s a weird normative judgment on their part.
I think they just produce a new concept but functionally similar concept that we can use in place of the old one without any problems.  In a certain way it “includes” the old concept, though I’m uncomfortable with that usage.
However, if the new concept rules out old usage patterns, it applies to different things and all it has in common is a few examples and a name.  I think this is a relatively bad practice (at least to do intentionally) because it can generate confusion but of course it happens all the time.

By on 10/28/07 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Descriptive concepts are the ones that allow us to take our experience and parse it into categories and words.  They vary enormously between people, even ones who are from the same culture and speak the same language.

I’m unwilling to accept this at face value. For example, the folk taxonomy literature says that people is widely different cultures divide up the macro-scale biological world in much the same way, and that that way is is pretty close agreement with modern taxonomy. Now, our concepts of plants and animals certainly do not constitute all of our common usage, but they’re not a trivial subset either. It is by no means obvious to me that our understanding of common terms does vary enormously between individuals. If such a statement is to have substantive meaning, there needs to be explicit evidence about how people do understand a reasonable sample of terms.

You example of chairs and lizards fails on two counts: 1) it’s but a single anecdote, and 2) that’s not a likely confusion. Lizards and snakes might be more likely, as would chairs and stools. It’s not at all obvious to me, however, how far you can get but looking for such liminal cases.

By Bill Benzon on 10/28/07 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

J.S. Nelson: “I still think the various identity problems are pretty near the surface.  Tikitu said most of what I was going to about this.  Identity in everyday usage is almost certainly not the same as more complex quantum mechanical usage, and I think it’s hard to apply to even grandfather-knife type situations.  We have certain situations that the everyday concept of identity works just fine, but you can stretch that concept beyond its limits.”

The question is why you’re concerned with everyday usage.  That question can be approached by looking at which discipline is asking the question.  If a linguist asks “what does it mean when we say two things are identical?”, that’s a different question than if a sociologist, a physicist, or a philosopher is asking it.  The original Knapp and Michaels paper was in the discipline of literary studies, I believe, so answers in this context are naturally going to come back to words.

But I’m really not sure whether they always should.  If you are a naturalist rather than a supernaturalist, then you pretty much have to consider the kinds of things that physicists study to be the ground of being.  If there is a kind of answer that a physicist can give, it’s in some sense more basic than the other answers, no matter what usefulness the other answers may have.

That brings me to an interesting, failed book, Wilson’s Consilience.  I think of it as failed because I don’t remember Wilson seeming to have that much grasp that there are whole areas of phenomena that only emerge as you go to more up a chain that I’ll tentatively and somewhat misleadingly call “scale”: from physics to chemistry to biology to cognitive science to the social sciences (leaving the humanities out entirely for now).  Sure, in theory chemistry is derivable from physics, in the sense that if you know the properties of elementary particles then you could in theory figure out how nonbiological molecules interact, and so on up the chain, but really, no one currently has the knowledge and intelligence to do this.  So there are emergent properties of chemicals that you can’t know just from studying physics, of life forms that you can’t know just from studying chemistry, and so on.

I suppose that I generally think that if you define a problem as a philosophical problem, though, you’re in some way asking for the most basic answer, so if physics can supply it, you’re stuck with a question that seems in some way to already be answered.  That’s sort of why the three big fields for thought experiments are physics, philosophy, and math.  (And law, apparently, which I suppose thinks of itself as the base level for society.)

By the way, I don’t see the big deal at all in the replaced axe or acorn / oak things.  The parts of the axe clearly serve as the model for the replacement parts.  If you wanted to get fancy about it, you could think of the axe’s passage through time as a sort of wave; bits of matter go into it and leave it but the wave itself persists as an entity for a while.  The acorn-oak thing seems immediately solveable by plant biology; you can see whether their DNA is different, but even if it’s the same, developmental influences will mean that the two will not be exactly alike.

By on 10/28/07 at 06:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: quick response to the low-hanging fruit. “Scale” looks like what some people call “emergent properties”, a pretty big gap indeed… despite which, the table of contents for Consilience looks fascinating. It goes on my reading list.

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 07:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich asks J.S. Nelson, The question is why you’re concerned with everyday usage. [...] If you are a naturalist rather than a supernaturalist, then you pretty much have to consider the kinds of things that physicists study to be the ground of being.

I’m obviously not speaking for J.S. (I don’t think I can reproduce the descriptive/predictive distinction clearly in the framework I’m committed to). My story has a sort of alternative to this though.

So yep, agreed, physics has objective priority… but physics doesn’t determine the categories (or concepts) we chop the world into. The point for me of the axe and the oak is to call into question the notion that objective reality contains anything like objects with identities extended through time.

(As I understand quantum physics, it’s not even clear that subatomic particles have “identity” in the way you’d expect; certainly at the macroscale we want to say that personal identity persists despite enormous numbers of atoms being exchanged, without falling back on anything mystical.)

Your “wave” --or may I say “template"-- story for the axe doesn’t solve the basic problem, since if I reuse the cast-off pieces I end up with two axes both deriving from the same template, and no clear criterion for deciding which of them is “still” the original.

Likewise for the oak, I’ll happily move to a plant that reproduces asexually to counter the DNA argument, and point out that developemental influences mean you aren’t the same as you were ten years ago. I guess that whatever criterion you come up with I can find examples where it fails (probably without violating thermodynamic probability, although I’d better be a bit cautious on that one) and yet that common usage would accept.

“Identity” is a concept we apply to nature, constrained but not determined by physics. (And it’s a philosophical favourite because it turns out to be tricksy, but to some extent the same argument applies to lots of cases that are more cut-and-dried. Reality contains an enormous number of causally-related bits-and-pieces, of which we select only certain clumps to correspond to our concepts.)

So the question is again: if the physicist comes up with a definition of “identity” that doesn’t match common usage of the term, why should we accept that definition? Isn’t it defining something else? I’m not denying the (more) objective status of physical descriptions here, just questioning how they relate to the concepts we want to apply to everyday objects.

And again, “common usage” degenerates into radical relativism if it isn’t given some bite. Averaging or majority-rules isn’t going to do the trick, but I think something like stabilising function will—and part of that story is that comparing your concepts with those of other people is a great way to reinforce the ones that “work” (latch onto objectively connected clumps of reality) and discard the ones that don’t. Which of course brings in language again…

By Tikitu on 10/28/07 at 07:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The question is why you’re concerned with everyday usage.  That question can be approached by looking at which discipline is asking the question.  If a linguist asks “what does it mean when we say two things are identical?”, that’s a different question than if a sociologist, a physicist, or a philosopher is asking it.  The original Knapp and Michaels paper was in the discipline of literary studies, I believe, so answers in this context are naturally going to come back to words.
I’ve spent a long time trying to answer this question fully, but I don’t know if I want to right here and right now, so I’ll just gesture towards a reason.  I’m not interested solely in everyday usage; I just tend to use it as a measure of priority.  Problems in everyday usage take precedence over problems in technical usage because they affect everyday people.  I think people make compromises in their thought and rely on ill conceived or incomplete conceptual understandings as a rule and not an exception, and I think it’s best to try and tackle the more egregious problems first, and if not totally settle them, at least get some work done.
If you are a naturalist rather than a supernaturalist, then you pretty much have to consider the kinds of things that physicists study to be the ground of being.
Physics is the motivating factor for why I divide up the world the way I do.  Let’s take string theory (or superstring or M-theory or whatever), which I’m not a huge fan of for practical reasons, but which serves as a good example.  I’m speaking from memory here, so if I get the details wrong and there are any physicists out there who would like to correct me, feel free.  It turns out there are basically a ton of different formulations of the most fundamental theories right now.  The deal is, some of them have been proven to be equivalent to each other, mathematically speaking.  You can convert them into one another.  Now these are supposed to be the most fundamental forces and elements of the universe and it seems there’s a plurality of ways to describe them.  If we didn’t know the different ways of describing them were actually equivalent, we’d think we were disagreeing if we used different (highly technical, mathematical) language to describe them.  So, descriptive problems go all the way down.  In physics it’s readily apparent because fundamental physics relies on mathematical systems and given any mathematical system you can surely expect to be able to find another which is isomorphic to it.
It’s important for us to know that not any method of describing things will fly, basically.  If we suspect that two theories are inconsistent, what do we do?  Well, we ask, are they describing the same things?  If we can’t prove they have any implications for the behavior of a common interpretation of the same entities, we can’t prove that they agree or disagree at all because we don’t know if they’re even talking about the same thing.  Physical theories should have consequences at higher levels obviously, and so we take things up to the quantum mechanical level and we find out that our theories have consequences in that domain.  And it’s there that the scientific way of asking the question, “do these theories contradict each other?” becomes “do these theories make different predictions?” And so, the predictive side of concepts goes all the way down too.  It turns out that string theory complicates these things because the places where some of the different theories do tend to disagree are places which are impossible to test for essentially practical reasons and that’s why a lot of people don’t like string theory.
We can bring Kant into this obviously, but I’m not going to right now.
It seems like I was going somewhere else with this in the end, but I lost my train of thought.  A few notes:

Rich, I don’t totally know how to interpret your paragraph on E. O. Wilson’s book, mostly because I don’t know how to fit it in with the rest of your post.  I agree that’s one of the problems with that book and I totally endorse the idea of emergent properties of systems but I haven’t given them enough thought to be able to say how exactly they fit into my framework of describing things.  Perhaps you could elaborate.  At the risk of derailing this thread beyond all measure, I’d be willing think out loud about that.

Oddly, Consilience played a big role in my intellectual development.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s deeply flawed, but I have sympathy for the motivations of the book.  I’m one of those weird kids who got really into that stuff and like Karl Popper at about the same time I was getting into social constructivism and various anthropological world views.  I didn’t see anything wrong with trying to take all that stuff seriously at once.  Something like that motivation is still with me.

Bill, see my discussion of physics for a better example.  Perhaps “enormously” is overstating things, but it’s the vibe I get.  I think the difficulties involved in translating between two languages is evidence enough that descriptive schema vary.

By on 10/28/07 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The question is why you’re concerned with everyday usage.  That question can be approached by looking at which discipline is asking the question.  If a linguist asks “what does it mean when we say two things are identical?”, that’s a different question than if a sociologist, a physicist, or a philosopher is asking it.  The original Knapp and Michaels paper was in the discipline of literary studies, I believe, so answers in this context are naturally going to come back to words.

I’ve spent a long time trying to answer this question fully, but I don’t know if I want to right here and right now, so I’ll just gesture towards a reason.  I’m not interested solely in everyday usage; I just tend to use it as a measure of priority.  Problems in everyday usage take precedence over problems in technical usage because they affect everyday people.  I think people make compromises in their thought and rely on ill conceived or incomplete conceptual understandings as a rule and not an exception, and I think it’s best to try and tackle the more egregious problems first, and if not totally settle them, at least get some work done.

If you are a naturalist rather than a supernaturalist, then you pretty much have to consider the kinds of things that physicists study to be the ground of being.

Physics is the motivating factor for why I divide up the world the way I do.  Let’s take string theory (or superstring or M-theory or whatever), which I’m not a huge fan of for practical reasons, but which serves as a good example.  I’m speaking from memory here, so if I get the details wrong and there are any physicists out there who would like to correct me, feel free.  It turns out there are basically a ton of different formulations of the most fundamental theories right now.  The deal is, some of them have been proven to be equivalent to each other, mathematically speaking.  You can convert them into one another.  Now these are supposed to be the most fundamental forces and elements of the universe and it seems there’s a plurality of ways to describe them.  If we didn’t know the different ways of describing them were actually equivalent, we’d think we were disagreeing if we used different (highly technical, mathematical) language to describe them.  So, descriptive problems go all the way down.  In physics it’s readily apparent because fundamental physics relies on mathematical systems and given any mathematical system you can surely expect to be able to find another which is isomorphic to it.
It’s important for us to know that not any method of describing things will fly, basically.  If we suspect that two theories are inconsistent, what do we do?  Well, we ask, are they describing the same things?  If we can’t prove they have any implications for the behavior of a common interpretation of the same entities, we can’t prove that they agree or disagree at all because we don’t know if they’re even talking about the same thing.  Physical theories should have consequences at higher levels obviously, and so we take things up to the quantum mechanical level and we find out that our theories have consequences in that domain.  And it’s there that the scientific way of asking the question, “do these theories contradict each other?” becomes “do these theories make different predictions?” And so, the predictive side of concepts goes all the way down too.  It turns out that string theory complicates these things because the places where some of the different theories do tend to disagree are places which are impossible to test for essentially practical reasons and that’s why a lot of people don’t like string theory.
We can bring Kant into this obviously, but I’m not going to right now.
It seems like I was going somewhere else with this in the end, but I lost my train of thought.  A few notes:

Rich, I don’t totally know how to interpret your paragraph on E. O. Wilson’s book, mostly because I don’t know how to fit it in with the rest of your post.  I agree that’s one of the problems with that book and I totally endorse the idea of emergent properties of systems but I haven’t given them enough thought to be able to say how exactly they fit into my framework of describing things.  Perhaps you could elaborate.  At the risk of derailing this thread beyond all measure, I’d be willing think out loud about that.

Oddly, Consilience played a big role in my intellectual development.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s deeply flawed, but I have sympathy for the motivations of the book.  I’m one of those weird kids who got really into that stuff and like Karl Popper at about the same time I was getting into social constructivism and various anthropological world views.  I didn’t see anything wrong with trying to take all that stuff seriously at once.  Something like that motivation is still with me.

Bill, see my discussion of physics for a better example.  Perhaps “enormously” is overstating things, but it’s the vibe I get.  I think the difficulties involved in translating between two languages is evidence enough that descriptive schema vary.

P.S. The first time I submitted this, it didn’t tell me my comment was sent to a moderator, so I submitted it again.  Hope I don’t double post.

By on 10/28/07 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Augh, it totally did.

By on 10/28/07 at 10:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Rich, I don’t totally know how to interpret your paragraph on E. O. Wilson’s book, mostly because I don’t know how to fit it in with the rest of your post.”

Wilson seemed to think that you could in some sense understand the humanities through an understanding of science, or at least usefully link them together.  For instance, through an understanding of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, you might understand the basic principles of esthetics, or at least feel that there was some kind of link between them.  I think that the whole idea is flawed because of emergent properties.  The lower levels on the scale progression may put some limits on the upper levels—for instance, our sense of esthetics for visual objects is clearly limited by our biologically determined vision to only apply to the kinds of things that we can see—but I don’t think the lower levels put strong enough limits on those above them so that you can usefully address a question further up.  (And, of course, further down is even worse.) If that’s the case, then the whole thing degenerates into a sort of belief in naturalism, which really doesn’t need that kind of effort to support it.

So I brought it up in order to agree with the suggestion that you can’t just give a physicist’s answer to the question of identity and have it apply all the way up.  That’s a little too scientistic for me.  I do think, though, that if physics can usefully answer a question, then that pretty much shuts philosophy out of answering the same question.  If someone is going to ask about identity of objects in a very basic, broad sense, I don’t think they can ignore physics.  If they want to ask about what people ordinarily mean by the identity of things, it’s hard to see why it’s a philosophical question.  You’d think it would be linguistics or sociology or cognitive science or something.

Of course, the original paper about Wordsworth on the beach wasn’t formally philosophy, I think.  But John seems to be treating it as such.  In general, I think that it’s hard to avoid treating Theory-inflected questions as philosophical ones.

By on 10/29/07 at 12:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes.  I’m still relatively committed to the idea that it’s a worthwhile project to make sure different domains of knowledge don’t contradict, and there aren’t huge gaps between them, but I think E.O. Wilson’s scientific towel of babel is a little over the top, and largely unnecessary.

I don’t really want to engage much in actual discussion of problems of identity but I’m going to just say that I don’t think physics has much help to offer with the identity of objects.  Modern physics is all about particles, and Newtonian physics deals with masses, but the concept of an object as distinct from a particular set of particles is definitely a product of how we interact with the world at a much higher level.  I know this is totally counterintuitive but it’s true.  Our ideas about the permanence of things, especially things which don’t necessarily need to be composed of the same material all the time (like things with replaceable parts, rivers, organisms) are contingent on high level facts about how we perceive and interact with these things, and so a physical account would need to describe the functioning of our cognitive apparatuses and so it’d be largely superfluous.  Physics does take priority in questions where it offers the simplest and most basic answer to the question at hand, but what I know about physics and mathematics just tells me that in this example that’s not the case.

By on 10/29/07 at 01:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For instance, through an understanding of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, you might understand the basic principles of esthetics, or at least feel that there was some kind of link between them.  I think that the whole idea is flawed because of emergent properties.

For the most part I agree. But I do think we need to formulate accounts of, e.g. literature, in terms that are commensurate with those of biology and cognitive science. We’re not anywhere near doing that.

Perhaps “enormously” is overstating things, but it’s the vibe I get.  I think the difficulties involved in translating between two languages is evidence enough that descriptive schema vary.

“Vibe” is a bit, loose, no?

By Bill Benzon on 10/29/07 at 06:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Okay, how about “impression”?  It’s an opinion, formed by the ways I understand conflicts that I see in literature and in my daily life.

By on 10/29/07 at 11:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

J. S. Nelson: “Our ideas about the permanence of things, especially things which don’t necessarily need to be composed of the same material all the time (like things with replaceable parts, rivers, organisms) are contingent on high level facts about how we perceive and interact with these things”

Just a side note: physics, in addition to concerning itself with elementary particles and with Newton-level objects, also concerns itself with waves.  Things that don’t necessarily need to be composed of the same material all the time, if they aren’t biological, are often wavelike systems—or, at least, physics has well-known methodologies for handling “objects” that matter is always moving in and out of.  For biological entities, physics is clearly going to be inadequate, but then you could make the same objection against philosophy on behalf of biology.  And if you don’t care about either of those at a basic level, but rather about how people talk about or think of things, then I think you’d want some kind of linguistics or social science.  In short, I can certainly see why someone would be interested in what people ordinarily mean by identity of objects, but I don’t see how it can any longer be a philosophical question.

By on 10/29/07 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For biological entities, physics is clearly going to be inadequate, but then you could make the same objection against philosophy on behalf of biology.

Haha! Yep—or you could take a biologically-based notion like “stabilising function” and use that as a basis for an externalist ontology and epistemology—still pretty serious philosophy, but grounded in biology and ultimately in physics.

(This is terribly unfair of me, since I haven’t been arguing that “stabilising function” is biological. But in fact that’s the perspective Ruth Millikan’s work on function comes from, which is all I’m recycling here. Her book On Clear and Confused Ideas I think would deal best with this side of her work, without getting too sidetracked by the language side.)

By Tikitu on 10/29/07 at 11:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe you know more about physics than me.  I’ll have to ask the local physics expert (AKA my girlfriend) for more information.

Next, I’m not just asking what people mean when they use everyday terms and then saying that my work is done.  Yes, that would be a problem that falls more in the domain of linguistics or social science, or perhaps the construction of a dictionary.  When we have a philosophical problem asking what people mean when they use terms is only the first step in locating where the problem lies.  This is because if there is a disagreement in any domain whatsoever, the first step toward solving it is to locate precisely what is being disagreed about, and in the case of many philosophical problems, the easiest place to check is how they’re using the terms at hand.  If the terms are being used in different ways, I try to see what can be done to mediate this disagreement.  Perhaps one of these people is overextending a metaphor or using the term at hand in a nonstandard way, or one’s concept is just clearly preferable in some way.  Or perhaps that’s not the case but it seems there’s some common ground and we’d like to find out what it is.  Then we get in the business of producing new concepts and we’re trying to produce a concept which both can agree to use when talking about the things at hand.  Perhaps we have to get all the way down to physics to do this, but perhaps we can find a concept that alleviates the problem being dealt with at the moment and doesn’t require that the participants in the discussion do any multivariable calculus.  I find the latter preferable for the purposes of most discussions, because I think people do have a pragmatic attitude toward modifying their ideas (they change only what is necessary to get along) and I think this is the most effective way to influence how the discourse on a particular subject plays out.  I call this philosophy, because I think of philosophy as a kind of group therapy and because it has a somewhat normative aspect to it unlike most of linguistics.

Also, yes we can answer some of these problems with tools from other disciplines, but not always without philosophical tools.  We all know semantics as a part of linguistics largely overlaps with philosophy.  Since I come from philosophy, I tend to think of what I’m doing in this case as just open minded philosophy.  Philosophy, to me, is a domain where approaches from physics, biology, linguistics, cognitive science etc. are all fair game.  Maybe I’m wrong and asking linguistic questions for philosophical reasons isn’t actually doing philosophy.  But I don’t really care what you call what I’m doing, and right now this feels like a “you got your philosophy in my linguistics!” “No, you got your linguistics in my philosophy” type of thing.  It’s another good example of a (primarily) descriptive problem from everyday life.

Tikitu:  I’ll have to check out Millikan’s work. I’ve felt this whole discussion that what we’ve been saying is in some way pretty compatible and it’s been interesting to see things come at from an angle I’m not accustomed to.

By on 10/29/07 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We all know semantics as a part of linguistics largely overlaps with philosophy.

At this point the question is whether or not philosophy has anything useful to say about semantics. From my POV, it doesn’t seem very relevant. I suppose that, to some extent, this is a matter of mere semantics. For example, I think the work Peter Gardenfors has been doing on conceptual spaces is very interesting. I believe he was trained as a philosopher, but his work seems more computational, empirical, and mathematical than philosophical. It’s lacking in the twiddling earnestness I associate with much post-Wittgenstein phil of language. If you want to claim Gardenfors for philosophy, that’s fine by me.

By Bill Benzon on 10/29/07 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s another good example of a (primarily) descriptive problem from everyday life.

It’s not clear to me that anything at The Valve can reasonably be described as a “descriptive problem from everyday life.” We’re in pretty abstract intellectual territory most of the time and what we argue about has little to do with ordinary life. This abstract and sparsely explored intellectual territory is where I’d expect to find disagreements that are sometimes mere semantics, often substantive, with it being difficult to figure which is which.

By Bill Benzon on 10/29/07 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:  I figured someone was going to call me on that last one.  I do think it’s weird to have to make a distinction between what I say here and my life, but I’ll totally concede that this isn’t stuff you can expect to have to deal with when you’re talking about like, last night’s television.  In a broader sense, how we divide up the disciplines and determine what work is called what and where it’s sorted between departments is a question that does have an effect on the lives of academics and the college students that have to take their classes, but I’m willing to concede there’s much more substantive stuff going on there than in the example.

I was just looking at Gardenfors’ book last night.  Odd coincidence.  I don’t necessarily claim that work like his is philosophy, but I can use it for my own purposes which I’d like to call philosophical.  And I’d like to think I have something to say about semantics.  But my categorization of my thought as philosophical one is a personal and contingent one. I’m working on a degree in cognitive science right now, but I’m probably going to end up in a philosophy department.  That’s possibly only because it’s hard for me to really fit in anywhere else.  The cognitive science department at my school is pretty anti-theoretical.  CT scans and calculus are not really what I want to be doing with my life, at least not primarily.  So I expect to end up in a philosophy department somewhere, writing about physics, mathematics, cognitive science, linguistics and the odd purely philosophical problem.
Maybe that’s an atypical example of philosophical work.  Maybe it’s not even the best thing to call it.  Who knows; I’m still an undergraduate right now, so I don’t have these distinctions totally nailed down and I’m still kind of wet behind the ears with this whole critical thinking thing.

On that note, I should get back to work.

By on 10/29/07 at 05:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: “At this point the question is whether or not philosophy has anything useful to say about semantics.”

This seems to me like an awfully parochial attitude, Bill. Are you serious?

By John Holbo on 10/29/07 at 10:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, John, I’m serious. Though it’s not so much that I have no use for philosophy. It’s that the philosophy I’ve found useful is getting rather old.

I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate, lost interest, and haven’t felt any particular need to keep up with it though I’ve been working on semantic issues off and on ever since then. Other than questions of whether or not someone like Gardenfors is working in philosophy, the intellectual action seems to have moved on. The stuff you’re saying about “natural meaning,” for example, seems promising. But, I’ve been deep in the mechanisms of this natural meaning for 30 years; somehow knowing that philosophy recognizes the existence of this natural meaning doesn’t get me all that excited when what I really need to know is how it works, where “how it works” seems to be a pile of fairly specific mechanisms.

Then you have the odd case of George Lakoff (linguist) and Mark Johnson (philosopher) working together on cognitive metaphor. Trouble is, that work is way over-extended. Philosophy in the Flesh was so weak that whether or not it’s philosophy or linguistics or cognitive psychology is not terribly interesting.

And then there’s logic. Philosophy? Mathematics? It’s own subject? I don’t know. What about knowledge representation? AI, philosophy, logic? Who knows.

The most promising remark I’ve read in awhile was in Coliin McGinn’s review of Pinker’s latest book: “The chapter on naming achieves something I thought was impossible: it gives an accurate exposition of the philosopher Saul Kripke’s classic discussion of proper names by a nonphilosopher—the gist of which is that the reference of a name is fixed not by the descriptive information in the mind of the speaker but by a chain of uses stretching back to an initial identification.” If Pinker got it right, do I have any need to go back to Kripke? If I’m going to write on that subject, then probably I should. But such nuggets seem few and far between.

Is my view of semantics wrong? Quite possibly. However, I read cognitive psychology, developmental psych, linguistics, psycholinguistics, anthropology, AI, and neuroscience. So if my approach to semantics is wrong, it’s not through mere parochialism.

By Bill Benzon on 10/30/07 at 03:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lakoff and Johnson are just terrible. We don’t need to fight about them, unless it is to figure out which discipline will be forced to take them, to its discredit.

I guess it seems to me that you must be doing one of the following: 1) assuming that you can do semantics without studying philosophy of language/mind/intentionality, so forth; 2) assuming that all the philosophy of language/mind/intentionality is just not very good.

It looks to me as though you are stumping for 2, which is less bad than 1, but still pretty blinkered. I find it surprising that you are so sweepingly dismissive of philosophy, as a discipline, frankly. Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle, Dennett, Putnam, Kripke, Davidson, lord knows I can rattle on if you get me started ... it’s all crap, or arid twiddling, you assume? You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. I’m not offended, or anything, but I’m a bit surprised. It’s a fairly unusual attitude for someone to take, unless they are either 1) John Emerson; 2) strongly committed to continental philosophy, from which perspective all the analytic stuff looks crap; 3) opposed to interdisciplinarity, per se. You don’t look any of 1-3, so I’m just surprised.

By John Holbo on 10/30/07 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Basically, John, I read the stuff that helps me with the problems I’m working on. Philosophy hasn’t really done it since I was an undergraduate, though I read quite a bit then, continental and analytic.

Note that I added a qualifier after I first published the comment: “It’s that the philosophy I’ve found useful is getting rather old.” The older stuff (pre, say, 1970) has been absorbed by other disciplines. For example, back in the 60s (+ & -) a guy named Sommers did some work on ontology, which was central to a book by Frank Keil on Semantic and Conceptual Development (Harvard 1979), where I found it. Now if any philosopher has taken Sommers up and gone further with that work, I need to know about it. Otherwise, I assume that it’s been absorbed into empirical psychology. FWIW, Pinker in 2007 is citing Sommers 1963 but gives no obvious indication of newer work along those lines.

Then I mentioned McGinn’s praise for Pinker’s explication of Kripke on naming. So I’ve been digging around on my shelves and came up with a 1977 anthology on Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds. I bought it some years ago for Quine on natural kinds, but thumbing through it now I notice that it’s got Kripke in it, among anothers. But what really got my attention is that the introduction, by the editor, Stephen Schwartz, makes a big deal out of “H2O” and “water.” That got my attention because I’ve published (a very little) on “salt” and “NaCl.” I think that issue is a tricky one. So that book goes back on my stack.

But, the pickings are slim, and that stuff is over 30 years old.

Now, if there’s a philosopher of science writing about the epistemology of plain old description in zoology and botany between, say, 1500 and 1900, I want to read that. That’s important. Without all that descriptive biology (and the taxonomy that arose from it) Darwin would have been nowhere. And it’s not so much that I’m interested in that biology or in Darwin, but that I think literary studies need to regroup around better descriptions of our primary materials, the texts. So I’m looking to biology as an example from which we can learn something.

By Bill Benzon on 10/30/07 at 08:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill is, in fact, me. I never expected anyone to guess that.

By John Emerson on 10/30/07 at 08:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Nah. Me Walrus, you swampman.

Goo goo gajoob!

By Bill Benzon on 10/30/07 at 11:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

experts textperts choking smokers don’t you think the joker laughs at you?

I think some of the earlier comments help clarify where we are, and why.

I made a comment about the different ways in which context influences the analysis of being: “Is the ontological level of a German shepherd the same as that of a chihuahua? Certainly, in some circumstances, it is useful to call both animals ‘dogs,’ as though they came from the same Platonic form, but in other contexts they are totally dissimilar. When human beings evolved from simians, did some new form burst into existence on the level of ontology? We should accept that, with no offense meant to inductive reasoning and categorical thought, these are the products of the human mind that enable us to interact with reality, not (ever) reality itself, about which nothing definitive can be said.”

Bill pointed me towards empirical research on the subject of overlapping definitions: “There is a rich empirical literature on this subject involving cross-cultural studies of folk taxonomy, laboratory observation, conceptual development, and the brain. You don’t have to speculate in the abstract; you can actually bring real evidence to bear on the matter.”

The argument for going in search of this empirical evidence is as follows: if you are going to talk about the products of the human mind, you should do so via cognitive science (the brain and conceptual development), laboratory science (studies of dogs), and comparative linguistics (folk taxonomy).

I got the feeling that I was simply being upbraided for being unrigorous, a feeling that likely made my own response, in turn, less than optimal.  I brought in the comment from John Holbo because it struck me that (within the same thread) he was also engaged in a conversation about what disciplinary material necessarily bears on (and perhaps invalidates) a philosophical thought-experiment.

Here’s what John said: “Sorry, the question isn’t really whether it’s testable but whether it needs to be empirically tested to be a valid experiment.” Here “experiment” stands in for “thought experiment.”

Rich replied: “If had to go for a quick generalization, I’d say that thought experiments in physics have to be tested, thought experiments in philosophy have to be testable.  Even the ones in ethics tend to presume that ethically better results might be discerneable in real life, somehow.”

I wrote: “Substituting ‘inference’ or ‘statement’ for experiment, it’s not my contention that basic dialogues about the way we use words have to be founded on cognitive research, particularly in cases where I’m working directly with Kant, truly a speculative philosopher rather than a cognitive researcher.”

John responded that it was illegitimate to substitute “inference” or “statement” for “experiment.”

From this point on, a series of disciplinary divisions have emerged:

1) Empirical science, including the “soft sciences” and cognitive science.

2) Philosophy, which uses paradigmatic thought experiments.

3) “Consilience,” for lack of a better word, meaning faith in a holistic or synthetic relationship between different disciplines of knowledge.

Speaking very generally, as I’ve read through these responses, I’ve had the following reactions:

1) The tendency of the emergent conversation has been once again to downplay implicit metaphors, rhetorical frames, questions of literary genre (e.g. the swampman as sci-fi), and so on—in other words, to downplay the methods and findings of literary analysis. In my view this is unjustifiable, for all the reasons I’ve articulated upthread and in the original post.

2) Philosophical thought-experiments are not comparable to real experiments, because they are rigged. They are rhetorical in nature: they present situations which are either semi-universal, or analogous to present realities, as paradigmatic examples of a particular claim. Once more: they exemplify a claim. They do not test out a claim. That is why they are related to statements of belief and logical inferences, both of which produce claims. It is also why they do not need to be empirically testable; they merely need to be analogous to something real. In many cases they foreground a particular aspect of reality: for example, Davidson’s swampman foregrounds the fact that we live in real ignorance of other minds.

3) Scientists trained to do empirical research have a tendency to make empirical research the ultimate arbiter of all questions of knowledge. If the definition of “empirical” is too narrow, this is a serious mistake. For example, when a question of identity arises, a scientist can tell us that all the materials in a knife have been replaced, and a scientist can confirm that the new knife is functionally and formally similar to the original knife. What a scientist cannot do is tell us whether or not we should regard the knife as the same. Even if a brain scan could confirm that the knife was perceived by Person X the same way before and after its re-constitution, that would not determine whether Person X was perceiving the matter correctly. Furthermore, a philosopher who was not also somewhat conversant with literary analysis might miss the familial themes that run throughout the short anecdote of the knife. As a student of literature, the fact that the knife is preserved from one generation to the next, with all the pathos inherent in treating it as something unchanged, stands out most forcefully to me. The normative frame that informs literary analysis is based on arduous research and broad experience with the deliberate artifacts of culture: it need not go begging from the other disciplines for a scrap of legitimacy.

4) (This last is something of an article of faith.) Consilience may have been a failed book—I don’t know, having not yet had the chance to read it—but the humanistic principle of interdisciplinary thought is by no means a failure. It goes without saying that there are good reasons for maintaining standards for intellectual competency and expertise, and for acknowledging that parallel, incommensurate interpretations are preferable to spurious or vague syntheses. If, however, we retreat from the aspiration towards consilience, in my experience we gravitate in an opposite direction—towards the belief that our particular discipline is the only legitimate foundation of knowledge, towards hasty and uninformed dismissals of the intellectual labor of others, and towards a superficial regard for “lucky guesses” by people doing other sorts of knowledge work. You can see this attitude in later generations of psychoanalytic speculation, in the dogmatic products of dialectical materialism, and in the attitudes of some religious groups towards the Big Bang theory or secular art. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 10/30/07 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting comment, Joseph.  I’ll respond to your numbered reactions:

1. I don’t think literary analysis has been completely downplayed (see, e.g., here).  But insofar as it has, I think that there’s a part of this discussion that (in my opinion) is about the relationship between philosophy and literary analysis.  If one assumes that different disciplines can ask the same question and get different answers, I think that the Wordsworth on the beach example may “succeed”, or at least be more interesting, as a question in literary analysis than it is in philosophy.

2.  I think that this eliminates the difference between thought experiments and rhetorical claims too much.  The tension that I see is precisely in “they merely need to be analogous to something real”; to me, something that relies on its force for being analogous to something real should be testable in theory.  Davidson’s Swampman may “foreground the fact that we live in real ignorance of other minds”, but, increasingly, we don’t, if you assume that minds are a direct product of brains.

3.  I think that literary analysis is as capable of giving an answer to the question of the identity of the replaced knife as any other discipline—an answer suitable to what that discipline studies.  But “What a scientist cannot do is tell us whether or not we should regard the knife as the same” is a partial statement.  By the same logic, literary analysis can’t tell us whether or not we should regard the knife as the same.  With that “should” in there, I’m not sure whether any discipline can.  They can only tell us how and in what ways we would regard the knife as the same, and how and in what ways we would regard it as different.

4.  Whatever the benefits of interdisciplinary work, there are always areas where different disciplines bump against each other and start to conflict over the same ground.  I think that physics and philosophy have been conflicting over “ground of being” questions for some time—philosophy because it occupies this position in the humanities, physics because it occupies this position in the sciences.

By on 10/30/07 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: ““Is the ontological level of a German shepherd the same as that of a chihuahua? Certainly, in some circumstances, it is useful to call both animals ‘dogs,’ as though they came from the same Platonic form, but in other contexts they are totally dissimilar. When human beings evolved from simians, did some new form burst into existence on the level of ontology? We should accept that ...”

Macbeth: “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs/Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept/All by the name of dogs.”

I always wondered what a water-rug was.

By John Holbo on 10/30/07 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Also: if you stage “Macbeth” on twin-earth, they are twater-rugs. Quoth Twin-Banquo: “The earth hath bubbles, as the XYZ hath.”

By John Holbo on 10/30/07 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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