What are we on about? Making claims about claims

A: Can you see that?

B: What?

A: [Points to the ceiling:] That thing right there!

B: No. Could you point a bit more clearly?

You probably know this, too. Someone points somewhere assuming that pointing gestures are sufficient. But they are not. If you’re pointing, you’re always pointing at a multitude of things. And we can’t see unless we already know what kind of thing we’re supposed to look for. Pointing gestures might help, but without prior or additional information they are underdetermined. Of course we can try and tell our interlocutor what kind of thing we’re pointing at. But the problem is that quite often we don’t know ourselves what kind of thing we’re pointing at. So we end up saying something like “the black one there”. Now the worry I’d like to address today is that texts offer the same kind of challenge. What is this text about? What does it claim? These are recurrent and tricky questions. And if you want to produce silence in a lively course, just ask one of them.

But why are such questions so tricky? My hunch is that we notoriously mistake the question for something else. The question suggests that the answer could be discovered by looking into the text. In some sense, this is of course a good strategy. But without further information the question is as underdetermined as a pointing gesture. “Try some of those words” doesn’t help. We need to know what kind of text it is. But most things that can be said about the text are not to be found in the text. One might even claim that there is hardly anything to discover in the text. That’s why I prefer to speak of “determining” the claim rather than “finding out” what it is about.

In saying this I don’t want to discourage you from reading. Read the text, by all means! But I think it’s important to take the question about the claim of a text in the right way. Let’s look at some tacit presuppositions first. The question will have a different ring in a police station and a seminar room or lecture hall. If we’re in a seminar room, we might indeed assume that there is a claim to be found. So the very room matters. The date matters. The place of origin matters. Authorship matters. Sincerity matters. In addition to these non-textual factors, the genre and language matter. So what if we’re having a poem in front of us, perhaps a very prosaic poem? And is the author sincere or joking? How do you figure this out?

But, you will retort, there is the text itself. It does carry information. OK then. Let’s assume all of the above matters are settled. How do you get to the claim? A straightforward way seems to be to figure out what a text is intended to explain or argue for. For illustrating this exercise, I often like to pick Ockham’s Summa logicae. It’s a lovely text with a title and a preface indicating what it is about. So, it’s about logic, innit? Well, back in the day I read and even added to a number of studies determining what the first chapters of that book are about. In those chapters, Ockham talks about something called “mental propositions”, and my question is: what are mental propositions supposed to account for? Here are a few answers:

  • Peter Geach: Mental propositions are invoked to explain grammatical features of Latin (1957)
  • John Trentman: Mental propositions form an ideal language, roughly in the Fregean sense (1970)
  • Joan Gibson: Mental propositions form a communication system for angels (1976)
  • Calvin Normore: Mental propositions form a mental language, like Fodor’s mentalese (1990)
  • Sonja Schierbaum: Ockham isn’t Fodor (2014)

Now imagine this great group of people in a seminar and tell them who gave the right answer. But note that all of them have read more than one of Ockham’s texts carefully and provided succinct arguments for their reading. In fact, most of them are talking to one another and respectfully agree on many things before giving their verdicts on what the texts on mental propositions claim. All of them point at the same texts, what they “discover” there is quite different, though. And as you will probably know, by determining the claim you also settle what counts as a support or argument for the claim. And depending on whether you look out for arguments supporting an angelic communication system or the mental language humans think in, you will find what you discover better or worse.

So what is it that determines the claim of a text?* By and large it might be governed by what we find (philosophically) relevant. This is tied to the question why a certain problem arises for you in the first place. While many factors are set by the norms and terms of the scholarly discussion that is already underway, the claims seem to go with the preferred or fashionable trends in philosophy. While John Trentman seems to have favoured early analytic ideal language philosophy, Calvin Normore was clearly guided by one of the leading figures in the philosophy of mind. Although Peter Geach is rather dismissive, all of these works are intriguing interpretations of Ockham’s text. That said, we all should get together more often to discuss what we are actually on about when we determine the claims of texts. At least if we want to avoid that we are mostly greeted with the parroting of the most influential interpretations.

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* You’ll find more on this question in my follow-up piece.

Mistakes and objectivity. Myths in the history of philosophy (Part II)

“It’s raining.” While reading or writing this sentence now, I think many things. I think that the sentence is a rather common example in certain textbooks. I also think that it has a slightly sentimental ring. Etc. But there is one thing I can’t bring myself to think now: that it is true. Worse still, if someone sincerely uttered this sentence now in my vicinity, I would think that there is something severely wrong. A charitable view would be that I misheard or that he or she made a linguistic mistake. But I can’t bring myself to disagree with what I take to be the facts. The same is true when reading philosophy. If someone disagrees with what I take to be the facts, then … what?  – Since I am a historian of philosophy, people often seem to assume that I am able to suspend judgment in such cases. That is, I am taken to report what someone thought without judging whether the ideas in question are true or false. “Historians are interested in what people thought, not in the truth”, it is said. This idea of neutrality or objectivity is a rather pervasive myth. In what follows, I’d like to explain what I think is wrong with it.

Let’s begin by asking why this myth might be so pervasive. So why do we – wrongly – assume that we can think about the thoughts of others without judging them to be true or false? One reason might be the simple fact that we can use quotations. Accordingly, I’d like to trace this myth back to what I call the quotation illusion. Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining”. Ha! Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. What’s more, at least in the wake of Skinner, this neutral style is often taken as a virtue, and transgression is chided as anachronism (see my earlier post on this).

But the question is not whether you can quote without believing what you quote. Of course you can. The question is whether you can understand a sentence or passage without judging its truth. I think you can’t. (Yes, reading Davidson convinced me that the principle of charity is not optional.) However, some people will argue that you can. “Just like you can figure out the meaning of a sentence without judging its truth”, they will say, “you can understand and report sentences without judgment.” I beg to differ. You could not understand the sentence “It’s raining” without acknowledging that it is false, here and now at least. And this means that you can’t grasp the meaning without knowing what would have to be the case for it to be true. – The same goes for reading historical texts. Given certain convictions about, say, abstract objects, you cannot read, say, Frege without thinking that he must be wrong.

Did I just say that Frege was wrong? – I take that back. Of course, if a view does not agree with your beliefs, it seems a natural response to think that the author is wrong. But whenever people are quick to draw that conclusion, I start to feel uneasy. And this kind of hesitation might be another reason for why the myth of neutrality is so pervasive. On closer inspection, however, the feeling of uneasiness might not be owing to the supposed neutrality. Rather there is always the possibility that not the author but something else might be wrong. I might be wrong about the facts or I might just misunderstand the text. Even the text might be corrupt (a negation particle might be missing) or a pervasive canonical reading might prevent me from developing a different understanding.

The intriguing task is to figure out what exactly might be wrong. This is neither achieved by pretending to suspend judgment nor by calling every opponent wrong, but rather by exposing one’s own take to an open discussion. It is the multitude of different perspectives that affords objectivity, not their elimination.