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.


N. N. said...

In a previous discussion of ours, this bit from "Social Aspect of Language" came up:

We [normally understand what others say], much of the time, effortlessly, even automatically. We can do this because we have learned to talk pretty much as others do, and this explains why we generally understand without effort much that they say.I wonder if this can be used as a rough 'core' to the idea of same language. And the question of how far a way of talking must stray from automatic understanding between speaker and hearer before we begin to distinguish languages will then be a practical matter. That said, I think 'Jive' has strayed pretty far.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I think that is indeed how Davidson wants to talk about "natural languages" like English and German: they're the "pretty much the same" bits that "overlap" in (at least some) cases where "automatic understanding" is possible.

Though, one of the lines pressed in "Epitaphs" is that this "shared bit" isn't the sort of thing many philosophers & linguists would consider a language: for instance, it doesn't have a way to treat novel plurals, as the quote on p.105 of TLH shows. The "shared bit" can fall far short of being something possession of which would be sufficient for someone to count as "speaking English". Any English-speaker will, in addition to the shared bit, have a stock of more-or-less idiosyncratic habits of speech & writing. This is an instance of one of the other main claims of "Epitaphs": this sort of idiosyncrasy doesn't make communication impossible.

As to whether this "shared bit" could be fleshed out to rehabilitate a notion of "share language": What needs to be shared is much rougher than "a common language", in the sense of both speakers being English-speakers or German-speakers in the sense limned above. Speakers need to have encountered the right sorts of objects & events, need to find the right sorts of things salient in the situation, need to be attracted & repulsed by the same sorts of things... there's no limit on what *might* need to be shared, and no a priori standard as to what *must* be shared. (The things I just listed might not be shared in some situations, for instance, without this causing a breakdown in communication. Or they might all be shared without communication occurring. And of course understanding can be partial, which muddies the waters even further.)

On 'Jive': Watching the clip again before writing this post, I was surprised at how easy it was to understand the speakers, for the most part. Though I'm pretty sure the "I'll have the fish" line is just sheer nonsense, rather than actual 'Jive'.

Looking over this post again: I was insufficiently charitable to McDowell. In context, the claim about English I open with would more plausibly be read as a very sketchy attempt at saying what it is for several speakers to all "speak English". I think it's very hard to give a better-than-sketchily-unsatisfactory account of what "speaking English" involves, even if one wants to leave "hard cases" to the side. The sort of "here is a necessary condition on being an English-speaker" reading I gave it is stronger than McDowell probably meant it to be. If all he wanted to say was "speaking English vaguely requires something about recognizing or being recognized by other English-speakers", then that seems right. It still seems wrong to say that Davidson can't do justice to what's true here, but it has been made clear to me that justifying this claim requires a lot more work than I'd previously thought.

Thinking about the "gaydar" point more, I just missed what was surely McDowell's point: there are other indicators of gayness than being recognized by other gay people. That's not the case with "speaking English": gay people could, in theory, lack "gaydar" entirely; English-speakers necessarily have some sort of capacity to notice other English-speakers. (I am not at all sure how to precisify this "some sort".) English-speakers have to have some sort of connection to one another to be English-speakers; gay people could all be isolated while still being men that desired sex with other men. So the metaphor can do the work McDowell wanted it to. (Still, I think it's a funny metaphor.)

Sorry I haven't responded to your comments recently; schoolwork and the Anscombe Conference have kept me busy. (Today I decided I liked sleep more than getting up to hear Roedl, and the other two speakers just didn't move me enough to get over to campus in the rain. I will be headed over in an hour to hear McDowell, though, rain or shine. And I was there for all four speakers yesterday; Thompson was the best. I'll probably post at least sketchy comments on the whole thing once it's over.)

Ben Wolfson said...

Rödl's talk was very good.

It seems based on the remarks in the comments that Kang and Kodos, the aliens from the Simpsons, speak English, though they lack causal connections to anyone you might otherwise think of as English speakers. (Clearly they have causal connections to speakers of Rigellian.)

it doesn't have a way to treat novel plurals, as the quote on p.105 of TLH showsI don't have the volume to hand but this surprises me; I would have thought that, generally, people form plurals pretty regularly even with novel words.

Daniel Lindquist said...

I got a synopsis of Rodl's talk afterwards; I'm sorry to have missed it.

"I don't have the volume to hand but this surprises me; I would have thought that, generally, people form plurals pretty regularly even with novel words."

Well, in a sense they do: each person has their own little system (set of rules, guidelines, whatever). Any given person generally forms novel plurals in fairly regular ways. But "English-speakers" as a group do not agree as to how to form plurals of novel words. (Octopi, Octopuses, Octopoda, etc.) So if "English" is supposed to just be what English-speakers have in common, then it's not something the possession of which would qualify anyone to be an English-speaker.

Several notions come to mind as to how to handle Kang & Kodos:

1)They can speak English because they observe what happens on Earth (and occasionally abduct people etc.), so there are causal links: we can suppose they learned English that way.

2)They actually speak Rigellian, and we just see them as speaking English in the show because it's easier that way (the same way they sometimes show foreigners on the show speaking accented English in their home countries). When they speak to Earthlings in some episodes, they are understood through Mysterious Alien Technologies or telepathy or some other magic. They do not actually speak English in any way.

3)Impossible things can happen in works of fiction, like the time Homer was shown walking past the window while he was sitting inside (just after a joke about how people who made cartoons didn't pay attention to continuity, IIRC). So the aliens can speak English without coming into contact with other English-speakers, just as Homer can be in two places at once without ever having split into two bodies or anything.

4)By sheer chance, Kang & Kodos make the same sounds as English-speakers make in similar contexts. In reality the chances of this happening are vanishingly small, but there's no clear reason why you couldn't have two isolated tribes who independently spoke the same. Whether you want to call such a case "two different languages which are indistinguishable" or "one language which arose in two unrelated contexts" strikes me as a question which doesn't need answering a priori: what decides it is just what makes for a more efficient management of the weird situation.

I'm inclined to go with 1) as a matter of Simpsoniana, since it allows for the fact that Kang & Kodos speak a bit oddly sometimes. Though I think 4) might actually have been used to explain it at some point (or maybe it was a similar joke in Futurama): they really are speaking Rigelian, it just so happens that English-speakers and Rigelian-speakers can understand one another without any effort.

Ben Wolfson said...

Though I think 4) might actually have been used to explain it at some point (or maybe it was a similar joke in Futurama): they really are speaking Rigelian, it just so happens that English-speakers and Rigelian-speakers can understand one another without any effort.Yeah, when they're introduced Lisa marvels that they speak English and they rejoin that they speak Rigellian, which just happens to be exactly the same (though it isn't exactly the same, especially in the matter of names). Obviously science-fictional examples don't really settle anything, but if you really want to stick to your causal guns I don't see why you'd also say that "what decides it is just what makes for a more efficient management of the weird situation"; it seems that, well, if you don't have the causality, you don't have the causality. I am inclined to say there's no point in settling the question a priori, or way to do it; but I also have nothing in particular invested in there being causal connections here.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"if you really want to stick to your causal guns I don't see why you'd also say that "what decides it is just what makes for a more efficient management of the weird situation"; it seems that, well, if you don't have the causality, you don't have the causality. I am inclined to say there's no point in settling the question a priori, or way to do it; but I also have nothing in particular invested in there being causal connections here."

Yeah, I find this compelling. Though this line makes McDowell's claim look even worse, since it looks like even my weaker condition isn't a necessary one.

kvond said...

Really beautifully conceived essay. One wonders the connection between Sittlichkeit, and "rule following", the implicit recognition that others are "rule followers" too. I can sense the absolute tension between the "*community* of minds" that Rorty finally recognized as paramount for understanding Davidson (in his late reversal on the issue of truth), and the rationality beneath, or woven into the very notion of "community" itself. One wants to say with Wittgenstein, while rule-following (the following of specific, historically contingent rules) follows a genetic model, there also seems to be the generic "these are rule-followers" that underwrites these historical presentations and prescriptions. I can't see how ultimately an over-arching "whole" of community adds something to this, at least something logically necessary - or at least such "wholes" are transposable and ad hoc, created of ever shifting borders.