Love, crime, sincerity and normality. Or: sameness claims in history

How do the things mentioned in the title hang together? – Read on, then! Think about this well known illusion: You see a stick in the water; the stick seems to be bent. What can you do to check whether it is really bent? – Knowing that water influences visual perception, you can change the conditions: You take it out of the water and realise that it is straight. Taking it out also allows for confirmation through a different sense modality: Touching the stick, you can compare the visual impression with the tactile one. Checking sense modalities and/or conditions against one another establishes an agreement in judgment and thus objectivity. If you only had the visual impression of the stick in the water, you could not form an objective judgment. For all you knew, the stick would be bent.

Now, objectivity is nice to have. But it requires a crucial presupposition that we have not considered so far: that the different perceptions are perceptions of the same thing. Identity assumptions about perceptual objects come easily. But, in principle, they could be challenged: How do you know that what you touch really is the same thing as the one you feel? Normally, yes: normally, you don’t ask that question. You presuppose that it’s the same thing. Of course, you might theorise about a wicked friend exchanging the sticks when you aren’t looking, but this is not the issue now. We need that presupposition; otherwise our world would fall apart. Cutting a long story short, to ‘have’ our world we need at least two things, then: (1) agreement in our tacit judgments (about perceptions) and agreement with the judgments of others: So when someone says it’s raining that judgment should agree with our perceptual judgments: “it’s raining” must agree with the noise we hear of the drops hitting the rooftop and the drops we see hitting the window; (2) and we must presuppose that all these judgments concern the same thing: the rain.

Now all hell breaks loose when such judgments are consistently challenged. What is it I hear, if not the rain? What do you mean when you say “it’s raining”, if not that it’s raining? Are you talking figuratively? Are you not sincere? – One might begin to distrust the speaker or even one’s senses (or the speaker’s senses). It might turn out that the sameness was but a presupposition. (Oh, and what guided the comparison between touch and vision in the first place? How do I know what it feels like to touch a thing looking like ‘that’? Best wishes from Mr Molyneux …)

Presuppositions about sameness and challenging them: this provides great plots for stories about love, crime, sincerity and normality. I leave it to your imagination to fill in the gaps now. Assumptions about sameness figure in judgments about sincerity, about objects, persons, about perceptions, just about everything. (Could it turn out that the Morning Star is not the Evening Star, after all?) It’s clear that we need such assumptions if we don’t want to go loopy, and it’s palpable what might happen if they are not confirmed. Disagreement in judgment can hurt and upset us greatly.

No surprise then that we read philosophical texts with similar assumptions. If your colleague writes a text entitled “on consciousness” or “on justice” you make assumptions about these ideas. Are these assumptions confirmed when you pick up a translation: “De conscientia” or “Über Bewusstsein”? Hmmm, does the Latin match? Let’s see! What you look for, at least when your suspicion is raised, is confirmation about the topic: Does it match what you take consciousness to be? But hang on! Perhaps you should check your linguistic assumptions first? Is it a good translation?

What you try to track is sameness, by tracking agreement in judgments about different kinds of facts. Linguistic facts have to match. But also assumptions about the topic. Now a new problem emerges: It might be that the translation is a match, but that you genuinely disagree with your colleage about what consciousness is. Or it might be that you agree about consciousness, but that the translation is incorrect. – How are you going to find out which disagreement actually obtains? – You can ask your colleage: What do you mean by “conscientia”? She then tells you that she means that conscientia is given if p and q obtain. You might now disagree: I think consciousness obtains when p and r obtain. Now you have a disagreement about the criteria for consciousness. – Really? Perhaps you now have disagreement of what “consciousness” means or you have a disagreement of what “conscientia” means. How do you figure that out? Oh, look into a canonical book on consciousness! – Let’s assume it even notes certain disagreements: What are the disagreements about?

I guess the situation is not all that different when we read historical texts. Perhaps a bit worse actually. We just invoke some more ways of establishing sameness: the so-called context. What is context? Let’s say we invoke a bunch of other texts. So we look at “conscientia” in Descartes. Should we look at Augustine? Some contemporaries? At Dennett? At some scholastic authors? Paulus? The Bible? How do we determine which context is the right one for establishing sameness. And is consciousness even a thing? A natural kind about which sameness claims can be well established? – Oh, and was Descartes sincere when he introduced God in the Meditations?

Sometimes disagreements among historians and philosophers remind me of the question which interpretation of a piece of music is the proper one. There is a right answer: it’s whichever interpretation you’ve listened to first. Everything else will sound more or less off, different in any case. That’s where all your initial presuppositions were rooted. Is it the same piece as the later interpretations? Is it better? How? Why do I like it? How do I recognise it as the same or similar? And I need a second coffee now!

I reach to my cup and find the coffee in there lukewarm – is it really my coffee, or indeed coffee?

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Whilst I’m at it: Many thanks to all the students in my course on methodology in the history of philosophy, conveniently called “Core Issues: Philosophy and Its Past”. The recent discussions were very intriguing again. And over the years, the participants in this course inspired a lot of ideas going into this blog.

Do rejections of our claims presuppose that we are abnormal?

Discussions about meaning and truth are often taken as merely theoretical issues in semantics. But as soon as you consider them in relation to interactions between interlocutors, it’s clear that they are closely related to our psychology. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that people questioning our claims might in fact be questioning whether we are normal people. Sounds odd? Please hear me out. Let’s begin with a well known issue in semantics:

Imagine you’re a linguist, studying a foreign language of a completely unknown people. You’re with one of the speakers of that language when a white rabbit runs past. The speaker says “gavagai”. Now what does “gavagai” mean?

According to Quine, who introduced the gavagai example, the expression could mean anything. It might mean: “Look, there’s a rabbit” or “Lovely lunch” or “That’s very white” or “Rabbithood instantiated”. The problem is that you cannot determine what “gavagai” means. Our ontology is relative to the target language we’re translating into. And you cannot be sure that the source language carves up the world in the same way ours does. Now it is crucial to see that this is not just an issue of translation. The problem of indeterminacy starts at home: meaning is indeterminate. And this means that the problems of translations also figure in the interaction between speakers and hearers of the same language.

Now Davidson famously turns the issue upside down: we don’t begin with meaning but with truth. We don’t start out by asking what “gavagai” means. If we assume that the speaker is sincere, we’ll just translate the sentence in such a way that it matches what we take to be the truth. So we start by thinking: “Gavagai” means something like “Look, there’s a rabbit”, because that’s the belief we form in the presence of the rabbit. So we start out by ascribing the same belief to the speaker of the foreign language and translate accordingly. That we start out this way is not optional. We’d never get anywhere, if we were to start out by wondering what “gavagai” might or might not mean. Rather we cannot but start out from what we take to be true.

Although Davidson makes an intriguing point, I don’t think he makes a compelling case against relativism. When he claims that we translate the utterances of others into what we take to be true, I think he is stating a psychological fact. If we take someone else to be a fellow human being and think that she or he is sincere, then translating her or his utterances in a way that makes them come out true is what we count as normal behaviour. Conversely, to start from the assumption that our interlocutor is wrong and to translate the other’s utterances as something alien or blatantly false, would amount an abnormal behaviour on our part (unless we have reason to think that our interlocutor is seriously impaired). The point I want to make is that sincerity and confirmation of what we take to be true will correlate with normality.

If this last point is correct, it has a rather problematic consequence: If you tell me that I’m wrong after I have sincerely spoken what I take to be the truth, this will render either me or you as abnormal. Unless we think that something is wrong with ourselves, we will be inclined to think that people who listen to us but reject our claims are abnormal. This is obvious when you imagine someone stating that there is no rabbit while you clearly take yourself to be seeing a rabbit. When the “evidence” for a claim is more abstract, in philosophical debates for instance, we are of course more charitable, at least so long as we can’t be sure that we both have considered the same evidence. Alternatively, we might think the disagreement is only verbal. But what if we think that we both have considered the relevant evidence and still disagree? Would a rejection not amount to a rejection of the normality of our interlocutor?

Philosophical genres. A response to Peter Adamson

Would you say that the novel is of a more proper literary genre than poetry? Or would you say that the pop song is less of a musical genre than the sonata? To me these questions make no sense. Both poems and novels form literary genres; both pop songs and sonatas form musical genres. And while you might have a personal preference for one over the other, I can’t see a justification for principally privileging one over the other. The same is of course true of philosophical genres: A commentary on a philosophical text is no less of a philosophical genre than the typical essay or paper.* Wait! What?

Looking at current trends that show up in publication lists, hiring practices, student assignments etc., articles (preferably in peer-reviewed journals) are the leading genre. While books still count as important contributions in various fields, my feeling is that the paper culture is beginning to dominate everything else. But what about commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews? Although people in the profession still recognise that these genres involve work and (increasingly rare) expertise, they usually don’t count as important contributions, even in history of philosophy. I think this trend is highly problematic for various reasons. But most of all it really impoverishes the philosophical landscape. Not only will it lead to a monoculture in publishing; also our teaching of philosophy increasingly focuses on paper production. But what does this trend mean? Why don’t we hold other genres at least in equally high esteem?

What seemingly unites commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews is that they focus on the presentation of the ideas of others. Thus, my hunch is that we seem to think more highly of people presenting their own ideas than those presenting the ideas of others. In a recent blog post, Peter Adamson notes the following:

“Nowadays we respect the original, innovative thinker more than the careful interpreter. That is rather an anomaly, though. […]

[I]t was understood that commenting is itself a creative activity, which might involve giving improved arguments for a school’s positions, or subtle, previously overlooked readings of the text being commented upon.”

Looking at ancient, medieval and even early modern traditions, the obsession with what counts as originality is an anomaly indeed. I say “obsession” because this trend is quite harmful. Not only does it impoverish our philosophical knowledge and skills, it also destroys a necessary division of labour. Why on earth should every one of us toss out “original claims” by the minute? Why not think hard about what other people wrote for a change? Why not train your philosophical chops by doing a translation? Of course the idea that originality consists in expressing one’s own ideas is fallacious anyway, since thinking is dialogical. If we stop trying to understand and uncover other texts, outside of our paper culture, our thinking will become more and more self-referential and turn into a freely spinning wheel… I’m exaggerating of course, but perhaps only a bit. We don’t even need the medieval commentary traditions to remind ourselves. Just remember that it was, amongst other things, Chomsky’s review of Skinner that changed the field of linguistics. Today, writing reviews, working on editions and translations doesn’t get you a grant, let alone a job. While we desperately need new editions, translations and materials for research and teaching, these works are esteemed more like a pastime or retirement hobby.**

Of course, many if not most of us know that this monoculture is problematic. I just don’t know how we got there that quickly. When I began to study, the work on editions and translations still seemed to flourish, at least in Germany. But it quickly died out, history of philosophy was abandoned or ‘integrated’ in positions in theoretical or practical philosophy, and many people who then worked very hard on the texts that are available in shiny editions are now without a job.

If we go on like this, we’ll soon find that no one will be able to read or work on past texts. We should then teach our students that real philosophy didn’t begin to evolve before 1970 anyway. Until it gets that bad I would plead for reintroducing a sensible division of labour, both in research and teaching. If you plan your assignments next time, don’t just offer your students to write an essay. Why not have them choose between an annotated translation, a careful commentary on a difficult passage or a review? Oh, of course, they may write an essay, too. But it’s just one of many philosophical genres, many more than I listed here.

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* In view of the teaching practice that follows from the focus on essay writing, I’d adjust the opening analogy as follows: Imagine the music performed by a jazz combo solely consisting of soloists and no rhythm section. And imagine that all music instruction would from now on be geared towards soloing only… (Of course, this analogy would capture the skills rather than the genre.)

** See Eric Schliesser’s intriguing reply to this idea.

On translating as a philosophical skill

Having been raised as a medievalist, doing translations was part of my education. I don’t think highly of my own few translations, but I think translating should figure in philosophical curricula. Yes, I mean philosophical, not merely historical curricula! The reason is that doing translations will familiarise you with what is often praised as “rigour” among philosophers. Although most philosophers think that logics (and sometimes statistics) are crucial, I think that the subtleties of ordinary language can be explored quite thoroughly by trying to translate a small piece of text. It keeps you pacing through all the nuances of formulations. But what is it that keeps you going? Perhaps it is the fact that you have to succeed somehow, while a perfect translation remains impossible.

Have you ever pored over a sentence for hours on end? Once you’ve figured out the grammatical construction and have an idea of the standard word meanings, the real fun might just begin. I remember finishing the translation of a short text by Ockham and not understanding a word of the German that I had just jotted down. It was on the question of whether articles of faith can be demonstrated. The Latin was easy, but the terminology remained a mystery, and it seemed as if a whole theory was lurking behind every expression. I had not read any other text dealing with the same problem. I had no real idea about the tradition of translations, i.e. other translations of such texts, and as far as I could see, there was no secondary literature available. Now I had a text in my native language and didn’t understand a word of it. – To cut a long story short: I turned my work on that text into my MA thesis. This way, I went from complete blankness (in my mind) to an attempt of actually explaining what I found out. Yes, sometimes I even enjoyed it…

Now what is it that makes translating also a philosophical rather than merely a historical or philological skill? It is often assumed that translating requires a good command of the source language (i.e. the language you’re translating from). That might be true, but it’s your target language (i.e. the language you’re translating into, mostly your native language) that is truly challenging. Whatever you lack in your target language, will be lost. The process of translating makes you believe in the possibility of a correct translation, perhaps because failure is always with you. And it is this belief that keeps you pacing through your mental lexicon until it “clicks”. Understanding or perhaps even justifying what that click means, is where you begin to see the limits of your language as the limits of your world.

I think there are two extreme ways of viewing this clicking. (1) You might think that you finally found a translation that matches your source. But then doubts will arise as to what it actually is that guarantees that match. (Think of Quine’s Gavagai example, if you like) Aren’t you bringing in your presuppositions? Should you not try to replace them by more knowledge about the context? This is the view that you need to figure out the meaning of sentences. (2) The other way is to think that that you cannot even hope to rid yourself of your presuppositions. Rather you have to embrace them. If you take the source to be sincere, any translation that will make the sentence come out true in the target language will be fine. And you will pick the context in accordance with what you believe to be true. (Think of Davidson’s critique of relativism, if you like) This is the view that meaning presupposes an understanding of what makes a sentences true. – Yes, sorry, this paragraph is a bit dense. I’ll translate or reformulate it some other time.*

For the moment, I would just like to ask you to consider adding translating to the philosophical curriculum. In philosophy language is crucial. And except for writing and conversing, translating is perhaps the most intimate way of engaging with other people’s texts and one’s own shortcomings. In addition to that, our philosophical culture is lacking respect: translations are still too rarely acknowledged as serious work. Even if we can’t teach all the languages it takes to keep up the conversation in a global world, we need to teach the appropriate sensibilties that provide at least a glimpse of the efforts necessary for moving between the languages.

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*I think that Quine and Davidson can be read as endorsing two opposing  ways of viewing the Gavagai example: a relatvist one, prioritising meaning over truth, and an anti-relativist one, prioritising truth over meaning. I’ll happily go into that another time.