A blog about belief

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page


In Art, Literature, Philosophy on September 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm

I used to claim that there was no such thing as self-expression in art. That’s not something I’d say any more, but not because I’ve changed my mind. Quite the opposite; I’ve gotten even more dead set against the dualism underlying the popular conception of self-expression than I was a couple years ago. I think it’s a worldview that makes an ideal of an empirical falsehood, causing a great deal of misery. But I’ve realized that a true materialism, one that really frees itself from that falsehood, can’t work entirely by negative definition. If the concept of the “true self” that was the fixation of the Modernists is incoherent, and I think that it is, then so is the statement that “there is no true self” with “true self” meant in that way. Reveling in superficiality as a response to Modernism’s failure is, to torture an expression, throwing out the baby and then taking a big drink of bathwater. What we need to do us come up with a new definition of self that isn’t at odds with materialism. As we do so, popular ideas like self-expression will be things we need to account for, not things we need to deny.

One reason I think that negativity has become so popular among literary scholars is that it’s associated, in no small part due to Hegel, with historicism, a philosophical approach that lends itself particularly well to supporting the importance of literature as an object of study. But I don’t want to discount the ethical case against the positive. One can find ample evidence in any history book that positive definitions of what it is to be human or American or a member of society can oppress. There is an ethical onus on the head of anyone who speaks positively about the human, to be sure. But ethics can be a problem for negative approaches as well, and I suspect that it is partially due to institutional constraints in the field of literary scholarship that the ethical arguments made in English departments have been skewed against the positive. A good epistemic standard is not all it takes to be responsible, but sticking to one generally is a prerequisite, and this is quite simply more difficult to do when speaking positively. Oftentimes to really back up a positive claim about the world takes experimental study, and for the most part the institutional support for serious experimental studies is not there in English departments.

This is something that I hope will change as technology makes empirical humanities more practical. Positive statements about culture and the “human” are not going to disappear, and denying them legitimacy in the intellectual world only insulates them from scrutiny. The U.S. is wanting for an institution that could serve as a legitimate place for such claims, where standards of responsibility can be entrenched as, if not explicit points of policy, at least norms of professionalism. If the right is trying to tear down the academy, that means it’s time to start building.


Quine as literary theory

In Literature, Philosophy on September 22, 2011 at 11:27 pm

W.V.O. Quine’s project in Word and Object is the derivation of a formal language suitable for scientific hypothesis in a way that does not rely, like logical positivism, on protocol sentences that are taken to communicate observations in impartial and objective terms, or the existence of “meaning” independently from language.  Instead of building his system from the ground up out of logical primitives, Quine derives something quite similar to the language of propositional logic from empirically-testable regularities in our natural ways of speaking.

What’s crucial to Quine’s project is the idea of paraphrase.  In Quine’s terms, we accept a sentence as a paraphrase of what we’ve said not because the two sentences express the same underlying meaning, but because we judge that the second would have served whatever our purpose was just as well.  Quine sets out in detail a procedure for transforming arbitrary sentences into clear logical form using only operations that normally, at least when we are trying to speak objectively, produce acceptable paraphrases.  The operations he chooses to use are not meant to apply with certainty in every single case, but their applicability is supposed to be empirically testable in a reasonable range of circumstances.  As I’ve noted before, Quine emphasizes that it’s the original speaker who must finally judge whether a paraphrase is acceptable.  Any supposition we might make about what the other person is getting at can ultimately be no more than an educated guess unless we ask them and have reason to trust in the truthfulness of their answer.

Since Quine’s primary interest is science, he proceeds in his regimentation of language by using operations that he thinks would normally produce acceptable paraphrases in scientific discourse.  What happens if we apply a similar approach to literature?  A canonical form that arises out of, say, poetry, might look quite different from what Quine comes up with for science.  I don’t have the space to try this out in this post, but I will sketch out how the process might go.

First off, arguments about authorial intent would have to be off-limits in a Quinean approach to literature.  The theory that Quine sets out puts the focus on the speaker, but he expects that, if we are in doubt of what someone’s getting at, we can actually ask them to confirm our paraphrase.  To apply his approach to literature, we would have to set the standard for paraphrase in reader-centric terms based on the effect that the work has on us, so that we have a reasonable epistemic standard.  An acceptable paraphrase of a poem, then, would be one that produces approximately the same response in us as the original.  With this definition in mind, we would proceed by examining what changes we could make that produce acceptable paraphrases, looking for regularities in the sorts of operations that tend to leave a poem’s effect intact and perhaps learning something, thereby, about how a poem does what it does.

Those who’ve made a fair effort at understanding both analytic and continental philosophy won’t be surprised that, by applying Quine’s approach to literature, we’ve gotten quite close to deconstruction.  Both approaches avoid having to talk about meaning by focusing on the relationships between different pieces of language.  There is a difference in valence, though, and I think the Quinean approach has an advantage – it would, I think, be able to avoid making everything look like a “surface.”  The question that a deconstructionist asks is what difference it would make if another word were used in a particular spot – she aims to get everything she can out of the little textual details, with the assumption that every word has an equal chance at significance.  Instead, we would be looking for changes that wouldn’t make much of a difference, with the aim of stripping out all but a skeleton.  In the process we would be building a logic of poetry in terms of connectives and quantifiers like the structuralists tried to do, but we wouldn’t be building them from the ground up.  We would be enmeshing our theory with a living body of poetry.

This approach has an obvious affinity for the Imagists, and in particular the eliminative editing style of Ezra Pound, but I don’t think it would take us back to the Modernist distinction between surface and essence that has been rightly criticized from so many quarters.  Instead, it provides an explanation of what Pound was doing if he wasn’t finding poetry’s essence.  It would also provide, if it were to succeed, a class of literary universals that consists not of supposed “objective correlatives” between image and emotion, but, instead, of invariancies under transformation.


In Philosophy on September 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I’ve been reading Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, which Bryant and his publisher have kindly made available for free online ahead of print.  I’m generally sympathetic to the speculative realist movement’s opposition to what they call correlationism, the belief that objects only exist insofar as we think them or posit them through language, but I haven’t yet been won over by any of the widely divergent ontologies that the prominent thinkers who are associated with the movement – Bryant, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, etc. – offer as alternatives.   The argument Bryant adapts from Roy Bhaskar in section 1 is promising:

Bhaskar argues that the condition under which science is possible is the existence of what he calls “intransitive objects” which are real structures that exist independently of our minds and that are often “out of phase” with actual patterns of events. As Bhaskar articulates it,

…the intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge of them: they are the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world; and for the most part they are quite independent of us. They are not unknowable, because as a matter of fact quite a bit is known about them… But neither are they in any way dependent upon our knowledge, let alone perception, of them.

The claim that intransitive objects are invariant to our knowledge of them is not equivalent to the claim that intransitive objects are invariant. Rather, the point is that these objects would do what they do regardless of whether anyone knew about them or perceived them. The claim that intransitive objects can be “out of phase” with actual patterns of events is the claim that these intransitive objects can act or be dormant, thereby not producing certain events that they would produce in other settings or contexts.

Put simply, science cannot be possible unless this claim is true, because the practice of experiment depends on the existence of “hidden or disguised powers of objects” which only become realized as actions or relations under conditions that can be created artificially.  I need to dig deeper to confirm that this argument really works, but it aligns with my intuitions about “what the world must be like for science to be possible”.  However, I am fairly certain that the argument with which Bryant follows this one is wrong.

A second line of argument holds that it is impossible to intelligibly think a world without men because, in the very act of thinking such a world, we are picturing ourselves as present to this world. The thesis here is that every picturing of the world includes ourselves in that picture. However, as Quentin Meillassoux has convincingly argued, such a line of argument leads to the conclusion that the thought of our own death is unintelligible or that we are necessarily immortal. For if it is true that we cannot think the world without thinking our presence to the world, then it follows that even the thought of our own death requires the presence of our thinking, thereby undermining the possibility of dying. As Meillassoux formulates this line of argument, “I can only think of myself as existing, and as existing the way I exist; thus, I cannot but exist, and always exist as I exist now”.

I will not push the point that it is apparently impossible to think the subjective experience of death, because it could still be possible (as it seems to be) to imagine the world after our death.  But I do think that when we imagine this, we must necessarily do it from the perspective of another human subject, if only an assumed one.  If this is true, then it does not, as Bryant seems to think, follow from the conceivability of a world without oneself that it is possible to conceive of a world without any subject at all.  We can think of the state of the world after the extinction of human life, but it seems to me that we can only do so as if from the perspective of, if not necessarily a human, a being with similar sensory apparatus to ours.  This doesn’t mean that Bryant’s conclusion is wrong, but I don’t think an argument from conceivability is the way to get there.

Definition of universality, pt. 2

In Philosophy on September 14, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Recently, I started looking for a way to formalize what seems to me essential to the definition of “universality,” that a universal claim must say something meaningful (meaning falsifiable) about every element of the set across which it quantifies – that, to put it another way, if what it says about the elements is contingent, it cannot be contingent in such a way that certain elements will be excluded in all possible circumstances.  We could do this by requiring that if the universal claim has the form ∀x (Qx → Px), it must be possible that Q be true of any x; but I also want to cover cases in which the contingency is “hidden” in the definition of a predicate.  What I came up with this this: a statement ∀x Px is universal iff

∀x ⋄(¬Px ∧ ∀y(y ≠ x → Py))

What this states is that any element x of the universal set can in some possible future be a lone counterexample to the claim that ∀x Px.  But we still do not specifically require that Px says something “about” x; all we are really guaranteeing is that there are, numerically, as many ways of falsifying the universal as there are elements x.  I noted in the last post that this method breaks down when the universal set is infinite (because, of course, one can exclude some elements of an infinite set without changing its cardinality), but there is a similar problem that can arise in finite cases.

Suppose that there are 100 balls, 50 of them red and 50 green.  Let us assume that the color of a given ball is fixed, and that no ball can be both red and green.  Suppose also that each of the balls can be striped, and that each can be spotted, and that a ball can be both spotted and striped at once or be neither.  Now consider the claim that all of the green balls are both spotted and striped.  This claim does not really “say” something about all 100 of the balls, but we can finagle it into the form ∀x Px such that P meets the condition given above, like so.  Let f be a bijection from the set of all red balls onto the set of all green balls.  Such a function must exist because the number of red balls is equal to the number of green balls.  If x is a green ball, let Px be true iff x is spotted; if x is a red ball, let Px be true iff f(x) is striped.  ∀x Px is true, then, iff all of the green balls satisfy P (meaning that all the green balls are spotted) and all of the red balls satisfy P (meaning that all of the counterparts of the red balls, i.e. of all the green balls, are striped).  This is equivalent to our original statement of the claim.  Under this definition, P can be false of any x while being true of everything else.  If a red ball x fails to be spotted, Px will be false, and if a red ball x fails to be striped, Py will be false of its green counterpart y.  The claim only “says” something about 50 of the balls, but because there are two different ways in which a red ball can counter our claim (either by failing in spottedness or by failing in stripedness), we can find 100 ways in which the claim could be disproven.

Instead of requiring that any presently-existing x could in the future serve as a counterexample while the rule continues to apply universally elsewhere, let us now require that any presently-existing x could in the future serve as a counterexample in the absence of any other objects.  Formally,

∀x ⋄(¬Px ∧ ∀y(y = x))

It is easy to see that the example claim about the red and green balls does not meet this modified standard.  If it is possible that all balls be extinguished except for one, our definition of P is incoherent inside the modal qualifier because the bijection f does exist in all possible futures.  We cannot define an arbitrary counterpart relation that can be applied across time if things we want to make counterparts are existentially independent.

Hume, Lewis, and anti-ethics

In Philosophy on September 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I’ve been thinking about Hume lately – specifically, the ethical theory in Treatise of Human Nature.  The idea that the grounds for morality is in learned impulses rather than reason is easy enough for an empiricist like me to pick up, but it’s hard to share Hume’s confidence that a moral society is an inevitable result of our nature.  Hume thinks that moral laws arise as conventions, meaning regularities of behavior that people follow because, perceiving that others follow them, they have reason to think it is in their best interest to conform.  The convention of property, which Hume takes as fundamental, could certainly be propagated in this way, but it’s not too hard to think up other practices that could meet Hume’s definition just as well but that are hardly, by anything like a folk definition, moral.  If one perceives that everyone else is carrying a loaded gun, one has a good reason to carry one too.  One could argue that this arrangement is not conventional because it doesn’t really serve anyone’s interest, but all it takes is a premise about the virtue of “defending one’s honor” or some such to counter this claim.  Without appealing to an inherent goodness in “human nature,” is there any reason to think that people are more likely to form conventions we would think of as moral than they are to conventionalize evil?

We can find some reason to think so in the Twentieth Century’s preeminent philosopher of convention, David Lewis.  Using Lewis’s game-theoretical terms, Hume requires that a convention be a Nash equilibrium, a state in which, all else being equal, no agent can make things better for themselves by changing what they do.  Lewis goes further than this (at least in Convention) and requires that a convention be what he calls a coordination equilibrium: the outcome cannot improve for anyone as a result of some single person ceasing to conform.  It is easy to see that the practice of universal gun-toting does not meet this condition, because if someone refuses to carry a weapon, that is to the benefit of at least those who might want to rob them.  In Lewis’s definition, a true convention gives people not only a reason to conform, but a reason to enforce conformity on others.  All else being equal, practices that meet this stronger definition should theoretically be more robust than those that don’t.  Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that we’ve adopted an ethics that tells us to consider the interests of others.

Definition of universality

In Philosophy on September 4, 2011 at 7:33 pm

It is not only in a Kantian system that universal claims play a role in ethics.  An ethical system that finds its roots in human nature could also involve statements that are universal with respect to humanity, and if we’re thinking that way we would do well to clarify what our notion of universality entails.  It isn’t enough to call a statement “universal” iff it begins with a universal quantifier, because any statement can massaged into that form: Px becomes ∀y (y = x → Py).  A similar type of manipulation would be saying something like, it is true of everyone that they like Jerry Lewis when they are of French ancestry.  Such a statement does, at the linguistic surface, say the same thing about everyone, but it would be facetious to call it a universal.  Statements would seem to qualify for universality only when their implications affect each member of the universal set in an in-some-way equitable fashion.  One way of formalizing this fuzzy definition would be to make universality about properties, not predicates, but I’d prefer to avoid bringing in the ontological baggage of properties.  The definition I have in mind is epistemic.  To call a statement universal is to say that, essentially, it can be falsified by new information that’s discovered about any one member of the universal set.  Formally, a statement ∀x Px is universal iff

∀x ⋄(¬Px ∧ ∀y(y ≠ x → Py))

I mean ⋄ to be interpreted in terms of branching-time semantics, with ⋄p meaning it is possible that, at some time in the future, p.  The formula is epistemic in the sense that it gives us ways of falsifying our original statement – specifically, it asserts that there are as many different possible ways of the statement being falsified as there are elements in the universal set, with the effect of excluding statements that, like the facetious example given above, don’t really say something about every one of those elements*.  An obvious way of falsifying the statement that everyone of French ancestry likes Jerry Lewis would be to find a French person who doesn’t like Jerry Lewis, but ∀x Px with P defined such that Px is true iff x is not such a person would only meet the first conjunct of the formula if it is possible for any given person x to be the eventual falsifying case.  Although it is reasonable to claim that it is possible for anyone to become a detractor of Jerry Lewis in the future, it is certainly not possible for any given person to become French by ancestry.  The second conjunct of the formula, ∀y(y ≠ x → Py), is meant to exclude the trickery of defining Px such that its truth value has nothing to do with x – defining it, for instance, as true for any x iff all people of French ancestry presently like Jerry Lewis.  The negation of that Px for any given x could possibly become true in the future, and then would trivially suffice to falsify the claim that everyone of French ancestry likes Jerry Lewis.  But ∀x Px with P defined in that way would not satisfy our formula because this P necessarily has the same truth value for every x at any given time.  Note that the formula excludes universality in cases where coordination of the members of the universal set is necessarily true.  Thus, if at any given moment it is necessary that either all grues are green or all grues are red, then we cannot say that the statement of their common redness at this moment is a universal statement.  The same would hold if it were necessary that all grues are red at all times, period.  Universality, as I’ve defined it, only applies when it is possible that things be otherwise.  This is a definition for a world without a priori truths.

*Actually, for full generality, an exception would have to be made for objects in their last moment of existence.  However, bringing in the machinery needed to formalize that exception would needlessly complicate this post.  We would also run into trouble if the universal set is infinite, but assuming we are talking about extant people this is not a problem.