Monday, January 21, 2008

Postmodernism and language

Kelly Gorski is pessimistic about language. I must say, I don't share Kelly's pessimism.

She quotes Derrida approvingly. But Derrida's genius was that he raised complete and utter bullshit to a high art. One must stand in speechless admiration of his skill, but it's a mistake to take him too seriously, at least after abandoning the notion of The One Truth, which he relentlessly and justly mocks.

We can never completely rigorously formalize our notions of truth and bullshit, but that doesn't mean that truth and bullshit lose all meaning, it just means rigorous formalization itself isn't all that and a bag of chips. Language transcends formalization, and it always has; formalization, although of no small value, is a specialized and late-appearing tool.

Look at Auster, for instance. Do nouns represent functions? Often, yes. Is function The One Truth of a noun's meaning? Well, if one takes postmodernism seriously, there is no One Truth about a noun's meaning: Nouns don't capture the "essence" of things, not because they (or we) are somehow deficient, but because there is no "the essence" to be captured. There are only the myriad ways individuals relate to objects, language describes those relationships, thus all language is relative. But relativism doesn't entail total vacuity or meaninglessness.

Half the postmodernist bullshit is a demand for a new absolutism, a new One True Essence, a new "modernism"; such a demand is a betrayal of the pioneering postmodernists who showed that the idea of absolute truth (independent of the speaker's and lister's relationship to the world) is nonsense.

The other half of postmodernist bullshit (and anti-postmodern bullshit) is the idea that relativism entails nihilism, vacuity, meaninglessness. And that's bullshit. Yes, language expresses relations, but I am still me and you are still you (and that guy over there is still him), we're real people, and our relationships to reality are real.

No, I don't know what you mean... but then again, do you yourself even have exactly One True meaning? Which you? The you now or the you in the past that expressed the words? Your whole mind or some of the parts?

Words aren't dead; even if their writer is dead, the words belong in part to the reader, and the words are alive so long as the reader is alive.

12 comments:

  1. Hi Larry,

    You mention in the post about

    pioneering postmodernists who showed that the idea of absolute truth (independent of the speaker's and lister's relationship to the world) is nonsense.

    Can you suggest some reading. I'd like to investigate that argument.

    Thanks,
    CelticChimp

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  2. I'm a lousy scholar. I tend to read things, incorporate their ideas, and then forget about the authors. Also, I don't read very much actual philosophy, either academic work or work in the canon; I read a lot of other stuff, and construct my own philosophical ideas around that.

    One also has to read between the lines to extract a postmodern message from many works. Quine, for instance, would probably object to being called a postmodern relativist, but a degree of relativism is the inescapable conclusion to his critique of radical translation in Word and Object, even though I don't think Quine squarely faces the implications of his critique.

    The scientific method is very postmodern, although again, I think you have to read between the lines. What really puts science in the postmodern realm is the notion that hypothesis creation is formally unspecified. "Truth" becomes a comparative, a relation: one theory can be more truthful than another, but the notion of the truthfulness of a theory in isolation is undefined.

    I think to understand postmodernism, one has to read, not just philosophy, but also a lot of stuff about science and mathematics.

    I would recommend

    Number, the Language of Science by Tobias Dantzig

    Everything you can get your hands on regarding Special and General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

    Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould

    In philosophy:

    Word and Object by W. V. O. Quine

    The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations by Karl Popper (his social philosophy is good too)

    A lot of science fiction, especially Stanislaw Lem and Greg Egan. Ursula K. LeGuin's later science fiction anthropology is very good too. And not just LeGuin; sf anthro has become its own sub-genre.

    Jacques Derrida is impossible to actually read; you more or less just "experience" Derrida. Still, Derrida for Beginners is a good (and humorous) explanation of his philosophy, at least to the extent that his ideas can be represented in ordinary language.

    Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter is a good introduction to the inherent limits of logical formalisms.

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  3. The "Introducing" series from Icon Books in the UK is an excellent primer to any number of subjects, including thinkers like Derrida.

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  4. "(But) relativism doesn't entail total vacuity or meaninglessness."

    Bravo. Almost enough said right there. Of course, the relative vacuity and/or meaninglessness must be judged on a case-by-case basis.

    "I am still me and you are still you (and that guy over there is still him), we're real people, and our relationships to reality are real."

    Really? :-) Ook-ook-a-chook sir! I am the Walrus.

    Words and language exist like paint and brushes and canvas. Even a bad artist can tell a story, and even the best artist's work is subject to interpretations that never occurred to the artist.

    Then again, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." - Freud. Sig., not Ann or Sang.

    Nouns are like stick figures, symbolic without being iconic. Like paint, the trick is to use them. If you rub paint between your fingers to discover its essence, you get sticky fingers. Far better just to put it where it's wanted and not worry about it too much. More productive to admire (or worry about) the effect, than the aspect.

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  5. I see every artistic medium as a means of communication, and language is definitely one of those mediums. Language itself is an art, and no art is objective, so no message perfectly conveys authorial intent.

    Language evolves with culture, so perhaps we can fill the void of necessity through this adaption. My concern, however, is that language has not adapted quick enough to culture, and too much is being lost in translation when that doesn't have to be the case (what gets lost in translation oftentimes is the core of conflict). We can't continue to use the same set of dead symbols for something actively alive, as I wrote in the post. I don't think I'm pessimistic by any means, but maybe I'm being a cynical realist. :)

    In truth, we do need something better to communicate the abstract, but one cannot make a science out of an art.

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  6. My concern, however, is that language has not adapted quick enough to culture, and too much is being lost in translation when that doesn't have to be the case (what gets lost in translation oftentimes is the core of conflict).

    As noted, I don't share your concern. Why put the blame on language? How do you know anything's actually being lost at all, much less specifically in translation? (And wouldn't that make translation the problem, not language?)

    We can't continue to use the same set of dead symbols for something actively alive.

    Why not? Why should we consider the dead/alive dichotomy anything more than an artifact of how you chose to express yourself, rather than a fundamental limitation of language?

    A physicist can describe a dynamic system using static symbols in a differential equation.

    I think you're asking language to do the impossible, and putting the blame on language because you don't want to put the blame on thought itself. And even "blame" is not quite correct: language and thought might well be as good as it gets.

    Language cannot perfectly convey "authorial intent" because the notion of some singular, definable authorial intent is itself a fiction.

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  7. Why put the blame on language?

    It's our primary medium of communication.

    How do you know anything's actually being lost at all, much less specifically in translation? (And wouldn't that make translation the problem, not language?)

    Language itself is a translation. It communicates experience into words, and I think the primary objective of utilizing language is, in itself, to be understood. But if we cannot communicate experience accurately, then we can't be understood, but we still prefer the illusion of being understood to actual understanding--without really knowing it.

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  8. But Kelly, you have not yet established that actual understanding is possible, at least not in the sense you seem to imply, that there is anything at all so well-defined that can be understood so precisely. Perhaps it is that we can be understood that is the illusion.

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  9. I would like to point out that no aspect of experience is "complete". That painting you just saw also reflects light in wavelengths you don't perceive. So, your experience of it is incomplete, an incompleteness that is exactly apposite to the incompleteness of language (and communication) Kelly identifies.

    The barefoot bum is onto something. Can the perfect be justifiably acknowledged as a real option to the good, if perfect is a figment of your imagination?

    Additionally, it seems somewhat ungracious to bemoan the incompleteness of language and communication in the way Kelly does. Would language be open-ended enough for it's purpose, if it were as tightly wound and concretely anchored, as Kelly would seem to desire?

    It is precisely the interplay between predictable substrate and novel arrangement that makes language up to it's task.

    Even so, the situation is not so bleak as Kelli's argument supposes.

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  10. BB: But Kelly, you have not yet established that actual understanding is possible...

    SW: Additionally, it seems somewhat ungracious to bemoan the incompleteness of language and communication in the way Kelly does.

    And I don't think it is possible, and I never intended to even imply that, but yes, Steve, I do bemoan it. For humanity as a collective group of social creatures, communication is essential, and objectivity in communication should be our goal; however, it isn't. I think far too many people are willing to accept the illusion of being understood rather than making sure (to the best of their abilities) that they've actually been understood.

    I think I'm asking language to do something outside of its own nature, which renders my pessimistic idealization somewhat impossible, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it. If there is a more effective manner by which we can communicate, I want to know, and I want to use it. Deferment saturates language, and I’d like to see that lessened, if not eradicated.

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  11. Why should we strive for perfection in communication? To communicate perfectly would require complete specification. For instance, to completely communicate about a duck, one would have to completely specify what is is to be a duck which would include an entire summation of the evolutionary history of the object in question. This would quickly degenerate to an infinite regress of description since it would be impossible to describe dinosaurs without, for instance, a complete specification of the history of the object that impacted earth that contributed to the demise of most dinosaur lineages, etc. etc.

    It is the very notion of complete specification that is bankrupt here. Since it is impossible, how can it be an acceptable standard by which to judge whether communication is "good enough"?

    Is complete specification an essential element of objectivity? I think not. If complete specification is impossible then any conception of objectivity that requires it can't be a well formed conception of objectivity.

    There is an arrogance to criticisms of perception/language/objectivity of the sort Kelly raises, which, in an unfunny way, is the same sort of arrogance one sees in religious believers. Where the heck do we humans get off demanding complete specification (i.e., certainty)when the conditions of our existence rule it out as a logical possiblity that might be attainable? Do we "deserve" a reality other than the reality we inhabit?

    Yes, language is indeed an art. Perceiving is an art. As someone once noted, there are a whole lot more ways to be dead than there are to be alive. Being alive, in a non-trivial sense, is an art. It is a spontaneously creative activity at its very root.

    Evolution is a "sufficing" type of operation. It doesn't select for perfection. It selects for good enough to get the job done. Language, and our use of it, is also a sufficing type of operation. As users of language it is our job to select for good enough to get the job done while remembering that a logical impossiblity; i.e., complete specification, isn't a job we CAN engage in.

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  12. I think Kelly's position is mistaken, but I don't think it's specifically arrogant in anything like the same way that Theism is arrogant.

    Kelly is just demanding perfection; she's not asserting that such perfection exists and was built for her personal benefit, in the same way that theistards think God created the universe to give cosmic purpose to their stupid and insignificant lives.

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