Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (2)

Consider the following two sentences.

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Bertrand Russell believed that language is basically assertive.

The first can be established merely by providing a reference (e.g., "Russell 1961: x", and the associated entry in the bibliography). I have claimed that Russell has written an eleven-word sentence. (As I pointed out yesterday, that claim is almost true: my memory got ten of those eleven words right. I'll address this issue on Friday.) The second, however, requires an argument, in which the first may play a role. The fact that Russell wrote a particular sentence will serve as evidence for the larger and much more interesting fact that he held a particular belief.

Notice that my claims about Russell's writing and Russell's mind themselves express beliefs—my beliefs. I believe that Russell wrote those words and I believe that he held that belief. Through my writing, I am hoping to persuade you to hold those same beliefs (what I believe about Russell, not what Russell believed about language). Now, I don't expect you to trust me blindly, certainly not when I'm writing for scholarly purposes, and that is why I will provide the reference for the quotation. You may or may not go back to my source to check my work, but the presence of the reference itself moves us beyond merely "blind" trust. After all, you can now assume that I at least looked at the page in question, and you can assume that one of my readers (perhaps one of my reviewers) has checked or will at some point check it. There's a fact in the world that corresponds to my claim and to the belief I want you to form, and I've told you exactly where you can see it for yourself.

Russell's state of mind in the early 1920s when he wrote those words is more difficult to establish, to be sure. But it is the presumption of scholarly prose that such states of mind are real and knowable. There is a kind of "fact of the matter" about what he meant. I'm not here talking about a general theory of mind, i.e., a philosophical position about the knowability of other people's state of mind. I'm talking about the knowability of the beliefs, opinions, ideas of other scholars, whose work we cite. We are naive, common-sense realists about the words they have written. And somewhat more sophisticated hermeneutic optimists about their meaning. That is, while we will always grant that there can be different interpretations, and while we may even grant that some of these disagreements are ultimately unresolvable (perhaps because of "the play of différance", perhaps because of "the death of the author"), we don't think that there is an entirely arbitrary relationship between the words a scholar puts on a page and the meaning that the scholar intended. Moreover, as scholars, we regularly invoke the intended meaning, committing both the original author and our fellow scholars to it. It's possible to get Russell's beliefs wrong, and being able to do so is an important part of being a philosopher.

I'll pick up the thread on Friday. Let me conclude today by marking two important limiting cases of this argument. First, when I say that there is a "fact of the matter" about what a scholar means, I do not mean that this fact is "empirical" and to be determined by the application of a "scientific method". I'm with Richard Biernacki on this point. Second, I want to stress again that this is neither a theory of mind nor a theory of language, nor even a theory of writing. It is a presumption about scholarly writing. It does not, for example, apply to the work (and perhaps not even the mind) of Gertrude Stein.


Presskorn said...

"It's possible to get Russell's beliefs wrong, and being able to do so is an important part of being a philosopher."?

Did you mean 'being a schorlarly writer' or? If not, it seems more characteristic of my mom than of me to be able to get Russell wrong. Or is the point that her guess would be so far off anyway that she is not even able to get Russell "wrong"?

Reading the sentence differently (non-standard, with "Russels beliefs" as the grammatical subject of "being able to"), it would also seem wrong that it is *important* part of being a philosopher to hold beliefs that are liable to be misunderstood...

Although something like that might of course actually be a good de facto or operative definition of a philosopher: A philosopher is someone who holds beliefs which are especially liable to be misunderstood :-)

Thomas said...

I didn't mean possible in the ordinary sense of "likely", or "probable", or (as you put it) "liable to be". I meant it simply as a logical possibility. If our mothers are similar on this point then, yes, what I mean is that they'd be "not even wrong" about Russell in most cases, nor is this ability important. You can't be a philosopher, however, if you're in that sense incapable of error about Russell's beliefs. Obviously, if you're a good philosopher, you'll avoid error, either by being right, or by keeping your mouth shut about Russell, confining your remarks to philosophers you know something about. That's part of your competence as a scholar of philosophy. It is rooted in the possibility (and importance) of meaningful error on the matter.

Presskorn said...

Ok, I like that invocation of a late Wittgensteinian (but non-standard) conception of "logic":

If a 4-year old says "Sir Bertrand Russell, the third Earl Russell, believed that language is essentially expressive", that sentence is not true or false. On *logical* grounds, it cannot be said to have a truth value at all.

Or in the terms of your last post: Some compentency with regard to maps is required to establish even the *logical* possiblity of navigating rightly or wrongly according to them.

Presskorn said...

Practical Question:

Today I am going to apply the following post:

However, it is not a for a paper, but for a theorectical chapter in my PhD. And I wonder what that change of context might mean.

As you know, your suggestion for a paper is:

1. Introduction (3 paras)
2. Historical Background (5)
3. State of the Art (5)
4. Critical Occasion (5)
5. Conceptual Analysis (3 x 5)
6. Discussion (5)
7. Conclusion (2)

Within the context of a dissertation chapter, I am thinking that 2-4 will have to be merged into one, since that stuff have already been established (or more generally: will usually have been established given the context of a chapter). Any other advice?

Jonathan said...

Russell is channeling, echoing Wittgenstein's position in this introduction. Russsell probably believed that language is assertive, too, but context is all-important here, since the introduction is in part a paraphrase of the book not a stand-alone summary of Russell's own beliefs. To say Russell believed something is less accurate than that he wrote something, at a particular time and in a particular context. After all, he could have changed his mind later.

Thomas said...

I agree, Jonathan. I certainly do think Russell believed what he said here about language. But if I were to make a case for his beliefs (in this period) I would want to cite something other than introduction he wrote to Wittgenstein's book. This sentence about "the essential business" is pretty good, though. So I'd quote it. But I'd also provide other reasons to think Russell believed it.

Thomas said...

@Presskorn: I'll give it some thought. I've been promising to rewrite my ideas about conceptual (and methodological) papers for some time. Coming soon.