Some Limitations of the Concept of World Disclosure
(Geoff Boucher 13/11/2013)
I have criticised Taylor on three grounds:
- Lack of emphasis on material domination
- Neglect of dissent and critique
- Exclusively moral focus
Now I want to focus on the final one of these, by suggesting that intersecting with the social imaginary there must be a cultural imaginary, responsible for the formation of personal subjectivity through the maintenance of underlying meanings in the lifeworld. If the social imaginary functions as a social cement because it provides the understandings that make cooperative actions (ie social practices) meaningful, then the cultural imaginary concerns the formation of individual life histories through the integration of cognitive, normative, expressive and teleological elements of the lifeworld into shared patterns of significance. There are two basic reasons for this supposition:
- An existential reason. Although it is a political embarrassment for forms of contemporary theory that wish to reduce subjectivity to its social component, methodologically eliminating interiority in quasi-behaviourist fashion by means of linguistic reductionism, biological individuation implies the privacy of experience in a psychological sense as well as the uniqueness of a person’s embodiment. Against the dogmatic conflation of the linguistic communication of experience with its linguistic constitution, the findings of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens and neo-pragmatic perspectives such as Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key imply that experience is partly formed from sensory images that, although they can be conceptualised as signs (specifically, as indices and icons), do not behave as linguistic signs (that is, as symbols). That the fact of biological individuation, with its attendant psychological interiority, is non-trivial is attested by the monumental three volume History of Private Life (edited by Philippe Aries), which traces the multiple trajectories of the practices and meanings that emerge at the joint between the social and the personal, from antiquity, through the medieval world and the Renaissance/(Counter-)Reformation, and into the modern world. Throughout Western history, individuals have been more than just clones of their social order. At the most general level, they have located themselves within that intersubjective space that is partly a representation and partly a presentation of individual experience (i.e., a communicative space where reference to the uniqueness of the “feeling of what happens” can be to some extent shared). This is also an imaginative universe within which individual life histories take shape as the stories of socially recognised personalities, life histories that are significant to the experiencing individual not just because they are accepted, but also because these project forms of individual satisfaction onto the social and natural worlds. In other words, the potential contradiction between biological individuation and social being entails the myths that we live out and constantly adapt in everyday experience, especially the myth of privacy, by which the interiority of incommunicable experience becomes intersubjectively accessible.
- A social-theoretical reason. Taylor’s social imaginary maps subjectivity onto the social system (economy, polity, the fiduciary system, the societal community, or, the economic, the political, the juridical, the ideological). It says nothing about the cultural system, that is, the forms of cognitive, normative, expressive and teleological symbolization that form what Habermas, for instance, calls the “lifeworld”. Taylor’s social imaginary emerges as a distinct region of beliefs from the darkness of a tradition in complicated evolution; it corresponds to “theology,” having little to say about the “religion” that it codifies. The cultural imaginary, on this suggestion, relatively unifies the forms of knowledge that make experience communicable, that is, which make learning processes arising from social practices, possible.
I am now going to go right out on a limb, because I want to speak about an idea that has been germinating for some time, but which is very far from being theoretically worked out.
I propose, following Theodor Gaster, to call this an “imaginative topocosm”. The imaginative topocosm locates individuals in the multiple worlds of possible experience (objective, social, subjective, extra-mundane) and somewhat restricts the possible forms of their relation to these by virtue of the cultural knowledge that its forms of symbolization render plausible. The imaginative topocosm is a contested space of communication/disclosure, constantly subject to the revision of what counts as plausible/implausible, shareable/idiosyncratic. One example of an imaginative topocosm is the biblical one perpetuated through medieval Christianity, which consists of a vertical spiritual hierarchy defining the spatial world, with all kinds of possible irruptions between levels, and a kind of eschatological sine curve defining temporal expectations, with some definite possible destinations. Contestation of this imaginary took all kinds of forms, from poetic representations of mystical visions that courted charges of heresy, through village variants that syncretically incorporated pagan beliefs, to philosophical reworkings of theology in light of Hellenistic theories that, via Thomism, sedimented themselves into the cultural imagination.
We might therefore suppose that all individuals must cope realistically with four existential dilemmas:
Human beings are limited, mortal beings who must deal with the life cycle including the process of ageing (finitude). They do this as embodied entities who experience love and hate (at least), coping with the facticity of their sexuation and the physical situatedness of the body (embodiment). The biological individuation of species members means minimal psychological uniqueness, irrespective of the conformity of personality structures in the society in question, with corresponding demands for the formation of a viable psychological identity around a narrated life history (individuation). And, finally, these finite, embodied individuals find themselves “thrown” into lifeworlds that demand imaginative engagement in order to insert the self into the world as a significant participant.
It seems to me that the imaginative topocosm of Western European culture is:
- Heteroclite: defined by the antagonism between Jerusalem and Athens, it is also influenced by the line of pagan mysticism that culminates in Romanticism
- Fourfold: it consists of “private life,” defined through finitude, embodiment, individuation and thrownness into the world.
I suspect that the modern western cultural imaginary involves a radical break with the medieval topocosm:
- The shift in the meaning of death
- A definition of inclusive and universal humanity located in the capacity to suffer and the valorisation of human happiness, understood as pleasure, as a legitimate goal
- The romantic utopia of companionate marriage
- The provisionality of the imagination and the indexing of spiritual orders to personal visions
Now, if anything might qualify as the product of world-disclosing language use, then it would be the imaginative topocosm of a society. What I want to do next is to distinguish between two versions of this idea, between, that is, relativism and relativity.
The lazy interpretation—ontological relativism
There are analytic and hermeneutic versions of this. I am going to use QUINE and Heidegger as examples (QUINE is an interpretation of Quine).
The analytic version is presented by QUINE (here is a link to his paper on “Ontological Relativity”).
The claim made in that paper is that meaning and reference are distinct—the planet Venus can be referred to by two expressions, “the evening star” and “the morning star,” whose meaning is different (because the observation statement is different). Then the paper proposes that we have to deal with the “inscrutability of reference” and the “indeterminacy of translation”.
- Reference: every symbolic language (including a natural language) presupposes an “apparatus of individuation” in its syntax together with certain ontological commitments in its semantics. But it is perfectly possible to have two theories of the same domain (or two natural language descriptions of the same stimulus) that deal equally well with the evidence but which imply completely different ontologies. For instance, mathematics (a theory) relies on numbers, but numbers can be constructed as Frege-Russell sets (based on relations of equivalence) or as Neumann (and later, Zermello-Frankel) sets (based on the null set). To what does a mathematical theorem refer, then? We could adopt a truth-semantic approach, and be agnostic about this: the theorem is consistent, but its referent is merely a theoretical posit with instrumental (i.e., mathematical) significance. QUINE thinks that we should have the courage to recognise that we are dealing with two ontologies, relative to the mathematical theory. In “Ontological Relativity,” the example is a native informant pointing out a rabbit to the anthropologist and exclaiming “gavagai!” QUINE’s claim is that we cannot decide whether what is meant is a rabbit’s ear, a young rabbit or a whole adult rabbit, without making some assumptions about how the informant’s natural language’s “apparatus of individuation” divides the world up. The referent of “gavagai” is relative to an analytic hypothesis about the divisibility and individuation of things in the target language, so that it is perfectly possible that two anthropologists will arrive at ontologically distinct manuals of translation for the native discourse (e.g., in manual one, the living whole animal precludes separate iteration of its parts (part-rabbit is always just “rabbit,” as with “water”), while in manual two, the separate parts retain their identity irrespective of their combination with other parts). Alex Orenstein explains it like this: “The essence of inscrutability of reference is the phenomenon that, given an empiricism with its observational base made up of holophrastically construed [i.e., the sentence is the unit of meaning—GB] observation statements, the question of the referents required for the truths that we accept in terms of the base turn out to be whatever objects serve to preserve these truths” (70).
- Meaning: QUINE’s treatment of meaning aims to demolish an “irresponsible semantics” based on the “myth of the museum,” “in which words were related to ideas much as labels are related to the exhibits in a museum”. The target, then, is the view that meanings are ideas, or perhaps, abstract entities known as “intensional objects” (such as properties and predicates). The myth of the museum states that a sentence is meaningful when there is an object (an idea, an intensional object) that is its sense. As Orenstein explains: “According to the [mythic] view, two expressions are synonymous when they are related to a unique meaning, like two labels for the same painting, so that two sentences are said to be synonymous when they express the same proposition. QUINE thinks that it is not necessary to posit abstract entities of this kind because the meaning of a sentence is just its coordination with observable behaviour. But what that entails is the possibility that two manuals of translation might equally well account for observed behaviour (for instance, responses to the anthropologist’s formulating interrogative sentences about “gavagai” whilst holding up bloodied rabbit portions), yet provide entirely different equivalents in the translation language. “The manuals might be indistinguishable in terms of any native behaviour that they give reason to expect, and yet each manual might prescribe some translations that the other translator might reject”. Meanings are relative to the analytical hypotheses that formulate the interpretation between target and translation language.
Now, the problem here is that despite having separated meaning and reference, QUINE appears to have collapsed them after all: meaning determines reference. This is problematic, because it excludes the possibility of learning processes. When a scientific paradigm shifts—for instance, an astronomical theory—on QUINE’s description, the new paradigm now refers to something entirely different from the old paradigm. This leads rapidly to the notion of incommensurable worldviews that tempts hermeneutics into its flirtation with contextualism, that is, with forms of relativism whose flipside is a despairing scepticism. What is rendered inexplicable on this account is the rather common phenomenon that scientists, for instance, document the improved accuracy that their theoretical advances make possible, without that necessarily entailing a dogmatic belief in a metaphysically realist conception of the referent. On QUINE’s view, scientific advance is nonsense, since “learning processes” actually consist of shifts sideways. And yet Quine, the author, as a naturalistic empiricist, is clearly committed to this kind of process, up to and including the fact that his own philosophy was mainly dedicated to clearing away unnecessary ontological posits in order to make conceptual advances possible.
As Cristina Lafont points out in her book on The Linguistic Turn in Hermeneutic Philosophy (pp264-265), QUINE defends the implicitly relativist view when he maintains that “meaning determines reference within each fixed ontology”. Now, that might mean the factual claim that in order to decide what thing, or part/stage of a thing, is described by a sentence, we have to know the global system of classification, with its implied ontology, that the language in question uses. That is trivially true. But it might also mean that the referent of a statement is provincial, that is, is located within the language, i.e., the referent is intralinguistic, not extralinguistic, then this is certainly false.
Unfortunately, just such a view is implied by the claim in “Ontological Relativity” that “how to slice [e.g., a rabbit] is what ostension, or simple conditioning, however persistently repeated, cannot teach” (189). The QUINEAN claim here is that ostension is the zero degree of reference, and that no learning processes are connected to it, because “meaning determines reference within each fixed ontology”.
Cristina Lafont uses ideas drawn from Kevin Donnellan and Hilary Putnam to refute this kind of claim. In a nutshell, it comes down to the following:
- We can refer in two distinct ways—there is a distinction between designation and attribution. When I ask at a cocktail party, “who is that woman over there drinking a martini?” the use is probably designative. I am interested in the answer to the question “who is that woman,” and the fact that she is in fact drinking water is irrelevant. But when I ask at an alcoholics anonymous fundraiser, “who is that woman over there drinking a martini?” the use is almost certainly attributive. Her turning out to be drinking water will make a great difference to her being asked to leave, or to stay.
- Every theory designates some specific region of the world (as evidentially relevant) as part of its process of attribution (of theoretical description, including ontological population). The process of debate—that is, the possibility of dissent—relies on the “internally realist” presupposition that the designated referent can ideally be agreed on by all. That is what gives the process of statement and rejoinder its meaningfulness as a discussion “about something”.
Taylor’s view is a recasting of the lazy hermeneutics of Heidegger. In Taylor’s case, the relevant distinction is not between meaning and reference so much as between the significance and the success of a practice. Taylor collapses the two dimensions into a one-dimensional account of practice as action-cum-meaningfulness. But it is a commonplace of social history that sometimes the success of practices has been contested despite a preservation of their significance (this is sometimes known as “regulated improvisation”) and sometimes the significance of practices has been contested despite perpetuation of them as successful actions (this is especially the case with the profanation of ritualised practices into instrumental actions).
The problem with lazy hermeneutics is that it makes no sense. Different worlds are supposed to be separated out from a continuum by arche-decisions about divisibility and individuation—but from the hypothesis itself, no continuum exists before its differentiation, so there is no relevant term of comparison by which one might assert that there exist incommensurable worldviews. It is like saying that other universes exist. How on earth would you know?
The more demanding interpretation—ontological relativity.
Quine possibly did not intend to generate the QUINEAN interpretation of Quine’s papers; after all, he entitles the paper “relativity,” not “relativism”. What stops Quine from agreement with QUINE is a series of qualifications introduced along the way, but bustled over without due acknowledgement of their force. We can get to the whole series by thinking about Quine’s proposition that “radical translation begins at home,” that is, that logically speaking, speakers of a language community actually confront the same problem as the anthropologist in the field (200). If ostension cannot teach things with certainty, if “we can never settle the matter simply by ostension” (188, emphasis added), then every child must construct their own translation manual in order to learn a natural language. “In practice,” he says, directly contradicting this, “we end the regress of coordinate systems by something like pointing. And in practice, we end the regress of background languages in discussions of the coordinate systems of reference, by acquiescing to our mother tongue and taking its words at face value” (201).
So why, given this contradiction, does Quine imagine that he has successfully learnt to speak English? Because he can reproduce the relation between observed behaviour and meaningful statements as everybody else within his language community—i.e., because as a speaker, he adopts the pragmatic attitude that truth is warranted assertion, which dispenses with anxieties about correct reference and certain meaning, and joyfully embraces a degree of imprecision and uncertainty.
This pragmatic, anthropocentric dimension is under-theorised in Quine’s account. But it is present in claims such as that there is great psychological plausibility in the principle that a moving object against an undifferentiated background is probably the referent of a one term exclamation (191). Against the background of pragmatic assumptions we can manage to point successfully at “something,” and as soon as we reflect on this, we notice that this pointing was accomplished relative to a coordinate system. Just as in Einstein’s theory of relativity, it is the constant speed of light that makes it possible to meaningfully speak of the relativity of coordinate frames, so too Quine’s claim that “it makes no sense to say what the objects of a theory are, beyond saying how to interpret or reinterpret that theory in another” (202) really only has radical bite relative to the very possibility of interpretation itself, which comes down to the ability to point at intelligible things (ie to designation). By intelligible, I mean: anthropocentrically significant—e.g., a moving object against an undifferentiated background. As Orenstein says, the big ontological differences open up where “the collateral information [by which we might decide how to saliently use the sentence to guide behaviour] is remote from the relevant stimulation” (136).
There is not, really, much ontological debate about how to successfully skin a rabbit. Different ontologies come into play in the question of whether to skin it and what role it plays in the world.