Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Must You Mean What You Say?

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell once wrote a paper called "Must We Mean What We Say?" In it, he defended the methods of what today call ordinary language philosophers, i.e., those who assume that "what we ordinarily say and mean may have a direct and deep control over what we can philosophically say and mean". He begins the paper by noting that some find this notion "oppressive".

"What do you mean?" is sometimes interpreted as a polemical way of saying, "You're not making any sense! Do you have anything to say?" While, "How do you know?" is interpreted to mean "You don't know, do you?" There is something vaguely embarrassing about the questions. To avoid them, it is sometimes argued that we have no way of knowing anything, nor do we have any control over what our words mean. Questions like "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?" are dismissed as simple minded at best, oppressive at worst.

(That's as far as I'm going to get on this post this morning. Perhaps more later.)

3 comments:

Presskorn said...

”Must We Mean What We Say?” is one of Cavell’s greatest pieces, perhaps only superseded by some passages in “The Claim of Reason”.

I agree that we ought to interrogate academic texts with more “standard” questions like “What does he mean?” and “How does he know?”. But I wonder if there is really a nice continuity between these questions – To succeed the question “What does he mean?” by a second question “How does he know?” presupposes that the answer to the first question is some sort of knowledge claim. And is that always a correct presumption?

After all, is what an author “means” always a claim to knowledge?

Must we claim what we mean?



PS: This is equally (or perhaps more) a comment on your previous post…

Presskorn said...

BTW, to follow "What does he mean?" by "Why does he know?" would also be an interesting combo...

Perhaps a more Foucauldian one...

Thomas Basbøll said...

"Must we know what we're talking about?" "Must our knowledge constrain what we say?" The answer may only be yes in the case of academic writing. But there may be both descriptive and prescriptive reasons to answer yes much more generally.

Consider. Can we mean something by our words without knowing anything? Is our language use not always supported by knowledge?

So even in cases where the writing does not make an explicit knowledge claim, we can follow up "what does she mean?" with "how does she know?" How does she know what her utterances imply that she knows?

I agree that "why does she know?" would be a Foucauldian question. I take you would be looking for whatever caused the speaker to know. But I think it may much less "critical" to raise this question.