Monday, February 15, 2016

Problems with semantic externalism

There is no definite agreement about what semantics is, but the view semantic externalism supposes an answer. According to semantic externalism, the field of semantics is the study of words and their relationship to the world. If this conception is correct, the goal of semantics ought to be to discover what this relationship may be.

Semantic externalism is opposed to semantic internalism. Semantic internalists accept no such relationship as that between words and aspects of the world. As Steven Gross writes in "(Descriptive) Externalism in semantics,"
Internalist opponents maintain that semantics rather concerns, or ought to concern, only non-intentional relations among linguistic items and (other) mental structures... On their view, semantics lays out what concepts or thoughts expressions directly activate or express, without recourse to intentional relations to things external to the mind/brain.
The grand question that externalists seek to provide an answer to, Gross writes, is: "Should semantics include a characterization of intentional relations between linguistic items and aspects of the world?"

The internalist answer is no, and here it might be useful checking why. On many different grounds, internalists can be opposed to this word-world relation. Here are some examples that provide reasons to be skeptical of this conception of semantics.

If semantic externalism is true, it is unclear how we can say a river, which is supposed to have some real-world properties apart from the human mind, can dry up, be diverted, frozen over and become a road, and so on. This gives some credence to the fact that the meaning of river has more to do with what goes on in the head than with some external property that all rivers might have. River might be more a concept like Texas, which, if it has any properties at all, are the properties constructed by the human mind/brain and which have nothing to do with any necessary relationship between the words themselves and something in the world.

There are more examples. Take this sentence: "The book John wrote weighs two pounds." Somehow the book in this sentence is both an abstract and a concrete object. The concrete object weighs two pounds. The abstract object is what John wrote and may not be any particular book.

Another kind of word or concept for which it is difficult to find what the real-world correlate would be is something like the average American. What object in the world corresponds to the average American?

Or take fictional creatures. It is very unclear to see how Superman is supposed to be any particular object in the world, and yet it is perfectly intelligible what we mean when we talk about Superman. Yet it does not seem as though there is any way to make sense of the expression, "Superman is Clark Kent," if in the world there is no Superman and no Clark Kent.

How might semantic externalists reply? We'll take that up next time.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Postmodernism: the cultural logic of late capitalism

Anthropologist David Harvey, invoking the thesis of another scholar, calls postmodernism "the cultural logic of late capitalism." This thesis will require some analysis and justification, starting with what postmodernism means. Although there is no definite agreement on the term, the term is generally used to suggest that there is a real fragmentation and ephemerality to our personhood, our society, our economic and political systems, and our era and that this ephemerality and fragmentation is therefore basic to the human condition.

To understand more clearly what this means, contrast this way of thinking with a naive view. On the naive view, there are definite answers involved in understanding what a person is, how our society operates and its institutions operate, and what our place in the world is. It might not always be easy to uncover the facts of the matter but there are definite answers, according to the naive view. The Enlightenment project from the 18th century onward was an attempt to talk about these subjects and, to the extent possible, make these subjects amenable to scientific study.

The modernism of the late 19th and early 20th century did not necessarily contradict the attempts to conduct rational or scientific inquiry, nor to challenge the possibility of creation and representation in the sciences and arts, but it did try to show the limits of rational and creative intelligibility. Still, even on the modernist view, any inconsistencies, ironies, or downright contradictions were taken to be problems of knowledge, not really to the way the world fundamentally works. The modernist project did not rule out the possibility for deep inconsistencies in the nature of reality but the burden of proof would have to be on anyone who wanted to demonstrate them.

Postmodernism, however, a movement from the 1970s onward, proposed that the ironies, inconsistencies, and contradictions of everyday life were rooted in the way the world works. According to the postmodernist project, we have a difficult time inquiring and creating because there is no fact of the matter. There is instead superficial relations that we spot. The world just is one big ball of contradiction, no matter how you slice it. So is the human being. And so is language.

Comparing modernism and postmodernism, Harvey expresses the language issue this way:
Whereas modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relation between what was being said (the signified or 'message') and how it was being said (the signifier or 'medium'), poststructuralist thinking sees these as continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations.
Certain contradictions appear within the postmodernist project (ironically accepted because postmodernism can admit of all contradictions!), especially involving the actions and behaviors of postmodernist thinkers and artists themselves. On the postmodernist view, if it is true that all there is in the world is this sense of loose connection and superficiality among fragments of understanding and thinking and creating, no political project is entailed. Yet several of the thinkers and artists are left-wing and call for resistance to and suspicion of what they think of as oppressive regimes and institutions. Perhaps the only consistency to the thinking among the postmodernists is that there is no end-goal any of the social or political resistance is trying to achieve.

Harvey writes:
The simple postmodernist answer is that coherent representation and action are either repressive or illusionary (and therefore doomed to be self-dissolving and self-defeating), we should not even try to engage in some global project.
But if this much is true, why advocate resistance at all, especially if there is no fact of the matter?

Postmodernists' theory of personality is in general the view that there is no deep self, only a success of thoughts and sensations in time. Personality traits are not real nor is there any deep sense as to what a human being is as a possessor of rights and responsibilities. Also, since there is no deep self or sense of what a person is, there can be no real oppression, on the postmodernist account, of anyone.

Continuing with Harvey:
A number of consequences follow from the domination of this motif in postmodernist thought. We can no longer conceive of the individual as alienated in the classical Marxist sense, because to be alienated presupposes a coherent rather than a fragmented sense of self from which to be alienated. It is only in terms of such a centred sense of personal identity that individuals can pursue projects over time, or think cogently about the product of a future significantly better than time present and time past.
Quoting another source, Harvey writes that postmodernists have transferred the acceptance of the possibility of the "alienation of the subject" to the acceptance of the "fragmentation of the subject." In other words, in past times, a person was seen as someone who has rights and freedoms, which can be given and taken away. He or she can also have meaningful work and a meaningful life, or fail to. Alienation was a possibility because a grander conception of who the person is was possible. Not so anymore, the postmodernists say. Now, all we are supposed to accept is that people are at best one lived moment after another: "The immediacy of events, the sensationalism of the spectacle (political, scientific, military, as well as those of entertainment), become the stuff of which consciousness if forged," as Harvey writes.

With the triumph and celebration of surface appearances in the world and with the self, it becomes unclear in what sense the scientific enterprise is meaningful anymore, a good life or good work is meaningful, what the importance of art is, and so on. Harvey frames the problem in the following way:
[H]ow can we build, represent, and attend to these surfaces with the requisite sympathy and seriousness in order to get behind them and identify essential meanings? Postmodernism, with its resignation to bottomless fragmentation and ephemerality, generally refuses to contemplate that question.
And as postmodernism as a movement has progressed, it has been very much inclined, at least more and more, to accept the status quo and to profit from it. Harvey writes that "much of postmodernism is consciously anti-auratic and anti-avant-garde and seeks to explore media and cultural arenas open to all." The artistic representations of postmodernism have been re-appropriated for corporate interests and have become part of common culture. This fragmented conception of self and society has become so generally accepted that, as Harvey writes, quoting another source, "the vaunted fragmentation of art is no longer an aesthetic choice: it is simply a cultural aspect of the economic and social fabric," citing advertising as the new popular domain of postmodernism and "the official art of capitalism."

What to make, then, of Harvey's claim that postmodernism is "the cultural logic of late capitalism"? Here he is quoting political theorist Fredric Jameson, who has written extensively on the topic of postmodernism. Late capitalism is the period of capitalism human beings are supposed to have entered some time since the mid-20th century onward. (It is debatable if this part of the characterization is correct.) Cultural logic is here meant the way in which our culture thinks of our everyday practices. To call postmodernism "the cultural logic of late capitalism" is to say that it is the way we cannot help but think about the world or create new forms.

Scant evidence has been given so far as to how this thesis can be true. More to come from Harvey's book The Condition of Postmodernity.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Semantics: a subject in search of an object

Semantics is a subject in search of an object. The objects of study are supposed to be meaning and reference. But these concepts are so elusive so as not to be able to warrant agreement about what they are among those who study them.

Linguists who study semantics break into largely two camps. There are what are called semantic internalists and semantic externalists. Semantic internalists believe the study of meaning involves mainly what is going on inside the heads of a language user. Semantic externalists on the other hand believe meaning has something to do with the relation between words and expressions and objects and states of affairs in the world.

Semanticists also tend to study meaning in a few different ways. Some focus exclusively on the psychological processes or properties that would have to be the case for expressions to be meaningful. Others abstract from natural languages certain sets of principles and generate idealized languages in order to determine properties of meaning. Still others focus on environmental conditions, thinking that meaning has more to do with social or environmental properties than with what is in the head or in the expressions themselves.

In the next post on semantics, I will discuss semantic externalism and the views for and against it.

Friday, February 5, 2016

From modernity to postmodernity

Patrick Henry Bruce, Painting (1929/1930)
The anthropologist David Harvey characterizes the changes that occurred during the postmodern transition around 1972 as being largely superficial in view of the social and economic changes that occurred in the 70s, and to the extent that postmodernism demonstrates social and economic progress it is more as a reaction to the changes rather than internal to postmodern thought itself. Harvey writes that the ideas of postmodernism, "when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more as shits in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society." In order not to prejudge Harvey's conclusion it might be useful to examine the route to these new ideas and what these ideas are.

Examining the route to these ideas will be what this discussion is, and then in a later post we will examine the ideas themselves. Our trajectory begins with the Enlightenment, which originated in the 18th century. The Enlightenment was characterized by the belief that no authority by virtue of their position as authority has the right answers to the way the world works or how we ought to treat other people. We need to become our own teachers and the beliefs that we have need to be justified.

David Harvey asserts, without explanation, that the Enlightenment project "took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question. From this it followed that the would could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and represent it rightly." Some Enlightenment figures may have asserted as much but there is nothing in the Enlightenment ideal that would make this necessarily the case. In fact, it is not even the basic mark of Enlightenment values.

Believing the caricature sketched above by Harvey makes it easier for people to perceive the Enlightenment as continuous with the emerging worldview of domination and oppression of the fascist regimes of World War II. The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972) by Horkheimer and Adorno makes just such an argument. If the Enlightenment requires one correct answer to world problems, and if a group of self-appointed enlightened persons reason their way to the wrong solution, it would be possible to have a system of thought and political behaviors like fascism.

Modernism emerged during the late 19th century. The movement permeated the arts and sciences and everyday life. The mark of modernism was that the old ideas had to be discarded for novel ones and that the limits of rational and aesthetic intelligibility had to be pushed to the limits. Also, it was assumed in modernism that the proper position from which to undertake study and creativity were from the inside, examining the world from the first-person point of view. Modernism was not a political movement but this belief in novelty, subjectivity, and the limits of intelligibility required some stance toward politics. If all traditional forms are to be discarded, there arises the question of what ought to replace it. For some modernists, this meant inaugurating new traditions. For others, it meant getting comfortable with the flux. For still others, it meant creating more flux. No wonder, then, that the late 19th to early 20th century gave rise to fascist and anarchist movements, both sides of the extreme.

Postmodernism supposedly came in the wake of the Enlightenment and modernism. Yet many people think that this retelling of the history of ideas is misguided and that the Enlightenment and modernist projects never went away.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

4.1 Perception

A big debate about perception involves how it is we perceive anything at all. There are perhaps three stances we could take toward the issue of perception. First, we have direct access to the world outside of us through our senses. Second, we have indirect access to the world outside of us through our senses and a mediating Representation. Third, we have no access to the world outside of us but only Representations.

First possibility: We have direct access to the world outside of us through our senses. (direct realism)
Consider this first possibility. It is what is often called "direct realism." So when I look at my laptop, for example, I am seeing my laptop. Sure, there's a complicated story to tell about how the brain does it, and a complicated physiological story about how my eyes work, but basically there's a one-to-one correspondence between my seeing to see a laptop and that I see a laptop. But consider the perception again. What I see isn't an object with all of its 4 dimensions. I see one aspect of what I assume to be an object. I see, for example, this side from this distance, under this light, etc. I can't see the back of the laptop nor can I see underneath it. All of this gives me some suspicion that what I see is not exactly something else directly in the world but certain aspects of what could be directly out there in the world.

You could say the same about optical illusions and rainbows. Optical illusions are basically the brain's failure to perceive something for what it objectively is and instead perceive patterns, distances, and directions that are not there. Rainbows seem to be objects that eventually touch the ground but the closer you are to them they recede.

Rainbows, optical illusions, and the talk of the laptop suggest the second or third possibility. So let's consider...

Second possibility: We have indirect access to the world through our senses and a mediating Representation (indirect realism).
I capitalize Representation here so as to distinguish the word from at least one philosophical tradition that requires that representations are representations of some other object and to define it instead as some complex manifold of percepts, what might have to be given a better understanding through neuroscience or some of the other natural sciences.

Setting that issue aside, the view espoused here is often called "indirect realism," indirect because there is something intermediary between us and the world. Given that when I reflect on what I perceive I realize I never perceive anything in its totality. But maybe that is not exactly right. Surely I do not see everything in its totality only certain aspects of it, but this is to say nothing yet of the other senses. For example, it does not even seem intelligible to me to say that I did not taste a bite of food 'in its totality.' I can say, however, that I "half-heard a conversation," but regarding smell it might seem stranger to say that I 'partially' smelled it. Or regarding touch, the touch of something often appears immediate.

This diversity of perception and the way the world subsequently seems to us coupled with my reflections about what it seems appropriate to say might say more about language than it does about the five senses. Nevertheless, it seems to hint that the only reason we infer the existence of objects in the world and a world outside of our perception is because we are so designed to operate as if everything we perceive is natural and so. Furthermore, we can rationalize that the world is so and that objects are actually there and perdure through time because that seems to be an inference to the best explanation: If there were not a world external to the mind/brain, it would be a lot of information for little old me to carry around in his head absent some world of objects providing me with input.

Third possibility: We have no access to the world outside of us but only our Representations (idealism).
Assume for the moment that I perceive that the world is such because of evolution and a kind of mental confabulation that allows me to believe that there is a world and it is a place full of persons and other entities. If this much were true, then we would have the position often called "idealism." I want to give some credence to idealism if it is properly construed.

If the claim and this whole direct-realism, indirect-realism, idealism debate is really about our epistemic limitations, then idealism looks to be correct. I mean, if this third possibility "idealism" really means "We cannot know that there is a world outside of us, only that we have Representations," that much seems to be true. If it is a claim about metaphysics, meaning "There is no world outside of us but only our Representations," that position would be more difficult to affirm.

As far as epistemology goes, we could go right on assuming that the world is metaphysically full of people and objects and so on but it is just that, an assumption. As far as the limited position we're in, we can't ever know for sure that the Representations have some reality correspondence. We just have to build theories that are intelligible and explanatory to understand how the world seems to work and modify our thinking after that.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

3.4 Why Coherentism?

First, to attack coherentism, let's consider what the foundationalists could say in the way of some basic beliefs. What about "I have a headache" or "Two plus two equals four"? Surely those beliefs are basic...

Coherentists could still say Nope. Each of those beliefs could have other beliefs given as reasons for them. Like I said previously, "I have a headache" or "Two plus two equals for" at least assumes other beliefs about how those words match to concepts. Now someone might ask, But then why don't more people ask for those reasons? And the answer I'd give is: For pragmatic reasons. If somebody says, "I have a headache," and someone else asks "How do you know?" that person would really be looked at as an odd duck. But that doesn't mean that other reasons couldn't be given, only that, practically speaking we don't ask or look for those other reasons. In those situations, we just don't do philosophy.

3.3 Why Foundationalism?

Many people are sympathetic to foundationalism. In some respects, they think it accords with our common sense. Like this, for example. Because I'm looking at a Christmas tree in my house that has been up now past Christmas, because I have this belief, and this belief looks to me to be caused by the most immediate experiences I'm having, something like foundationalism must be true. I must have at least some basic beliefs.

Nobody is going to doubt that my perception of the Christmas tree is immediate to me. But what they very well could doubt is that any subsequent beliefs I have about the Christmas tree, even that I see it, could be supported by any number of beliefs connected to my perception of the tree.

One of the objections to any alternative to foundationalism, according to the SEP article on epistemology, is the regress argument. The argument is something as simple and stupid like: But if I need to give a reasons for my belief in terms of another belief, don't I need to give a reason for that belief in terms of another, and in terms of another, blah ditty blah blah? Therefore, foundationalism is true.

Even assuming that it somehow follows that foundationalism is true from this half an argument, the premises don't work. Like, the assumption is that each belief needs another belief to be justification for another. So, for example, B1 (belief 1) justifies B2 which justifies B3, and so on. But think about how explanation works, both formally and informally. Once we hit a certain point in our understanding, we just accept that there is no explanation past some such beliefs or we give a circular justification. That likely means that something like coherentism is true. There is always possibility for other beliefs we have that are reasons for the immediate beliefs we have, and this all go together in a kind of chain, it seems.

Another argument for foundationalism is that the alternative coherentism does not allow the possibility that our beliefs are actually in contact with the world. Foundationalism as a position does, so we're supposed to accept that. But that's malarkey because if you accept that idea that it's impossible to make the world in its totality intelligible with one's beliefs, then the most we can hope for is having the best beliefs in light of the best and most explanatory theories, formally and informally. Nothing wrong with that. Are minds are not designed such that we're guaranteed complete understanding of the world, you know.