19 April 2009

I want this to be true so badly

To be fair, when Russell was in full propaganda mode for the new logic he was quite capable of blaming subject-predicate logic for the oppression of women, famine in China, and the First World War.
From Brandom's "Hegel and Analytic Philosophy". Sadly, no footnotes to the relevant Russelliana are provided.

13 April 2009

Towards a Reading of McDowell on English in Hegel and Gay People

McDowell, from "Toward a Reading of Hegel on Action in the Reason Chapter of the Phenomenology". He's just invoked Wittgenstein's claim that "light dawns gradually over the whole" -- the capacity to think doesn't come piecemeal, but involves a metabasis eis allos genos, as Aristotle and Kierkegaard put it -- a leap into another kind.

Now suppose that light has dawned for one, in the specific way that consists in becoming a speaker of English. If there are other speakers of English around, they will recognize one as a speaker of English. That is not an empirical claim -- as if speakers of English just happen to be good at recognizing one another (like gay people, as some folk wisdom has it). Being a speaker of a language is not contingently connected with the ability to recognize one's fellow-speakers. It includes that ability. It makes no sense to suppose someone might be a speaker of English though people who recognize one another as speakers of English do not recognize her as one, or she does not recognize them as fellow-speakers. This is an a priori link between the status and the idea of recognition.
I think that speaking English is more like "gaydar" than McDowell sees. Consider the Jive-talking scene in Airplane!

I venture the following bold conjecture: The Jive-talkers here are speaking English. (If it please you, they are speaking a dialect of it, but I shan't suppose there is any other way to speak English than by speaking some dialect or other.) Further, I claim that the stewardess and the old lady who "speaks Jive" recognize one another as speakers of English.

Hence this scene serves as a counter-example to McDowell's claim: It not only makes sense to suppose that someone might speak English despite not being recognized by other English-speakers (who can recognize each other as English-speakers), but I find it hard to believe that such things don't actually happen. Some people have really thick accents, or speak with odd grammars (Ebonics comes to mind), or just have vocabularies which are unfamiliar to the point of not being immediately comprehensible. (Jargon.) Or to use one of Davidson's favorite examples: it is hard to buy that James Joyce wrote in something other than English, and it is easy to understand why someone would deny it. (There's more than one way to write "in English".)

A possible response: "Jive" really is not English. After all, the lady claims to "speak Jive" like one might claim to "speak Spanish". But the old lady's claim to "speak Jive" is of course a joke; Airplane! is a comedy. One can "speak Jive" only by speaking English.

I think this is even clearer in this parody from a terrible webcomic: "Does anyone here speak 1337?" The fellow who needs his pills is merely employing an odd typographical scheme (and some odd spellings), in one of the manners which constitutes the family of "13375|>34|<". One can't understand what "| n33d m4 p|11z" means without understanding what "I need my pills" means (or at least, that's not how it generally goes -- I suppose there's nothing stopping someone from learning 1337 as their primary English script). (We can imagine all of this happening in a chat room, to skirt the issue of how one can speak in a particular typographical scheme.) Here we have three monolingual English-speakers, two of whom can understand all three, and a third who can only understand one of the others. But everyone involved would select "English" when asked to select a language at the ATM.

Mutual recognition just isn't as closely linked to "speaking the same language" as McDowell claims it is; it's not transitive. Two English-speakers can recognize each other as such without it being the case that any English-speaker one of them can recognize as such could be recognized as such by the other. (The fellow in the fourth panel can recognize all parties involved as English-speakers-writers, even if the stewardess can't.)

Historical shifts work here, too; there's a diachronic as well as a synchronic sense in which "English" is not One Thing. As an empirical matter, I'm not at all sure that most of the people we can agree are English-speakers would be able to tell you that "And these few precepts in thy memory look thou character" is a sentence of English, as opposed to random English words in a string. A moment's inquiry has convinced me that I don't know what this sentence means, at least if I don't look at it in context. So, if I did manage to correctly guess that this is English, I would get its meaning wildly wrong, if I could even hazard a guess at it.

Now, all of this is pretty obvious. But overlooking the obvious is de riguer in philosophy. Especially if one tells oneself things like "Speaking English is a matter of being a member of the community of English speakers".

The upshot of all this is, I think, that McDowell's initial supposition doesn't make sense. There is no specific way of having "light dawn on one" that is "becoming a speaker of English". There are many such ways to become the many such things which fall under the vague umbrella-heading of "speaker of English".

Now, even if McDowell's universal claim fails, there's clearly a weaker claim that's right: Being an English-speaker requires there being some other English-speakers that recognize you as an English-speaker. (Here "there being" should be read broadly: they can all be dead, and none of the ones that would recognize you need to have ever recognized you as an English-speaker, since you could learn the language from audio tapes.) Stronger than that: There have to be some causal connections of the right kind connecting one English-speaker up to some other English-speakers -- it has to be possible to tell a story about why a particular speaker counts as an "English-speaker" rather than a speaker of some other kind. The stories could be convoluted, in particular instances. But some sort of story has to be capable of being told, in principle, even if no one actually knows all the details.

This weaker claim, though, is compatible with taking Davidson's line on "natural languages" like English: Speaking English is a matter of being able to understand other English-speakers, more or less, much of the time, for the most part, in many cases, etc.. It's not cleaner-cut than that. (We can draw firmer lines, if we like, for particular purposes. Maybe there's good reason to not teach Ebonics-friendly grammar in middle-school English courses. If we like, these could also be grounds to say that Ebonics "isn't English". Or we could simply say they're reasons not to teach that sort of grammar to students, and remain silent on whether or not Ebonics "is English".) There is no one thing that is "knowing how to speak English". Speaking English is a motley.

McDowell seems to be a bit unfair to Davidson, in addition to being wrong about English. In introducing the notion of a broadly Hegelian approach to practices such as "speaking a language", he notes that it's not a given that this is a viable approach. "Donald Davidson, for instance, argues that there is nothing essentially communal about the ability to make oneself understood by, say, doing what we call "speaking English.""

In one sense, this is right: There's no identifiable community that we can point to as the body which is capable of judging what is or is not "speaking English". There is no such "community", if communities are entities with identity. (The French pretend to have such a body, but I think that is all they do: pretend. People speak French as they please, and the official body tries to make them stop using English loan-words.) This is presumably how McDowell meant to be understood, in context. It strikes me as rash to think that there's anything un-Hegelian in this. (More on that in a moment.)

In another sense, this is just wrong: "speaking the same language" for Davidson is a matter of frequently converging on passing theories, and this can hold between many speakers all at once. Adam and Betty and Charles can all frequently converge on passing theories when speaking to one another, and this would mean they all "speak the same language". Davidson does focus on the minimal case of two speakers trying to communicate with each other, but the sort of communality which is in play here isn't limited to groups of two. In the sense in which "speaking English" is mentioned at all, it's a case of this wider communality. One has to frequently converge with many speakers, at least counterfactually, to be a speaker of something like "English". (It's important to not take Davidson's position as more radical than it is. He thinks we should take measures to preserve Basque, for instance. He sees no puzzle in the idea that there are speakers of Basque, or of German, or of French, or of English. It's just that many philosophers and linguists have made it impossible to get what that involves into view, because of prior commitments about what "languages" are.)

The sense in which McDowell is right about Davidson is that there is no notion of the community which can be appealed to to make sense of "speaking English". But there are many groupings which we appeal to to make sense of someone who "speaks English", and Davidson recognizes this. From the response to Pereda in the appendix to "Truth, Language, History": "Pereda has the sensible idea of trying to reconcile the Wittgensteinian and Tarskian modes by emphasizing the importance of a general background against which deviant verbal behavior is understood.... I see nothing wrong with Pereda's view, as long as it is taken as saying that members of a "speech community" share a host of overlapping, non-identical, habits of speech, and have corresponding expectations about what others in the community will mean by what they say (such a set of expectations is what is characterized by what I called a "prior theory"). It's worth noting that Davidson's treatment of metaphors also requires this sort of general background be in view: only if the literal meanings of words is settled can metaphors be employed.

In the context of McDowell's article (which is a response to Pippin's most recent views about Hegel on action), the remarks about Davidson are a preamble. But the reason the preamble exists is because McDowell claims that we have to assume that Davidson is wrong about language if we are to take a Hegelian view of action (such as saying that things are thus-and-so). This would be unfortunate, if true. (Certainly I have a fair bit invested in its being wrong.) But I don't think the conditional holds.

Here's how McDowell puts the upshot of the Phenomenology: "The point is to equip the consciousness that is the recipient of the education recapitulated in the Phenomenology with a satisfactory conception of what it is to be an autonomous inhabitant of the space of reasons at all.... What is needed is awareness that one is in touch with reasons only by virtue of one's formation in a Sittlichkeit, combined with a critical attitude to the conception of reasons one finds oneself with." I think this is entirely compatible with Davidson, given a certain reading of "formation in a Sittlichkeit".

It would certainly be Davidsonian to claim that one can be in touch with reasons only by having been made a member of the "community of minds", and that it is in dialogue that understanding is reached -- not only understanding of others, but also of oneself, and of our shared world. This gives us the two parts of the Hegelian requirement McDowell mentions: the critical attitude is that openness to the other that characterizes genuine dialogue, which Davidson tends to thematize as the "understanding of the possibility of error", and the "formation in a Sittlichkeit" is just that whereby one has been made capable of coming to be a dialogue-partner at all: membership in the community of minds.

(I hasten to add that dialogue can involve more than two parties, as is the norm in Plato's dialogues. To put the point in a way McDowell should like: dialogue is not simply a matter of "I-Thou" relations between speakers, but is a matter of speakers coming under the sway of the dialogue itself; that I am a participant in the dialogue is thus a salient "I-We" relation. I can be made sense of, even in my self-understanding, only with reference to the dialogue, which can involve an open-ended number of participants. Apart from such ongoing enterprises of inquiry, I could not be in touch with reasons at all. And contrariwise, for a period of time I can be the only participant in a dialogue, soliloquizing. I can do this only against the background of inquiry in common with others, who are also capable of passing judgement on the notions I produce in my temporary solitude.)

Now, it's reasonable to think that I've here pushed the Hegelian notion of Sittlichkeit to the breaking point: such fluid and open-ended communities as "wherever conversations happen" don't seem to be the sort of thing Hegel meant. Sittlichkeit is more closely tied to World-History and the State, in Hegel. Forms of Sittlichkeit are the sort of thing that can be conceived as elements in the World-Historical unfolding of the Idea (from the Orient to the Germanic nations by way of Greece and Rome). So, "formation in a Sittlichkeit" must be more-or-less "becoming a citizen in some state or other". But I think this betrays the bad orientation towards Sittlichkeit that Hegel identifies with Greek culture: one's Sittlichkeit is simply given and stands independent of one. The proper, modern orientation is rather to see one's Sittlichkeit as not independent of one's subjectivity, but partly constituted by it: I am a moment of it, in my free particularity. There is nothing freestanding that I could be related to that would do the job of a Sittlichkeit; I simply find myself in the midst of a mass of concerns, and this is being formed into a moment of Sittlichkeit. There's nothing in the notion of Sittlichkeit as such that demands more than this. It takes more work for Hegel to show that the notion of "lots of subjects interacting with one another" has more structure than this, that it is and ought to be laid out in the way states are. Such concerns, I think, carry us beyond the arena McDowell is concerned with. A more chaotic, Davidsonian conception of what Sittlichkeits are will do as well for the purpose of providing a context in which mindedness can come on the scene. The question whether or not the very idea of responsiveness to reasons as such has any necessary connection to any particular way of organizing ourselves can be set to the side.

This approach also seems to fit more nicely with the "modernist" Hegel that McDowell takes over from Pippin: "In reflecting about how to think and act, we cannot take on trust the deliverances of any received authority. We are entirely on our own." Who the relevant "we" is can't be "taken on trust" either, but is also up for reflecting on. I have to judge for myself who my dialogue-partners are, and what the dialogue is about, and if there's even anything like this at all.

A postscript about the reading of Hegel that forms the bulk of the article: It all looks right to me; McDowell's reading here seems as able as his reading in Heterodox Lordship and Bondage. His reading here is less radical, though, since his opponent is just Pippin, rather than the received view of the "master-slave dialectic". McDowell seems to me to ably put paid to Pippin's view, both in itself and as a reading of Hegel.