Max Weber On The Ubiquity Of ‘Meaning’ In ‘Social Life’ And ‘Nature’

In “The Concept of ‘Following a Rule'” (Weber: Selections in Translation, ed. W. G. Runciman, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 107) Max Weber writes:

If we separate in our minds the ‘meaning’ which we find ‘expressed’ in an object or event from those elements in the object or event which are left over when we abstract precisely that ‘meaning,’ and if we call an enquiry which considers only these latter elements a ‘naturalistic’ one, then we get a broader concept of ‘nature,’ which is quite distinct from the previous one. Nature is what is ‘meaningless’ – or, more correctly, an event becomes part of ‘nature’ if we do not ask for its ‘meaning.’ But plainly in that case the opposite of ‘nature,’ in the sense of the ‘meaningless,’ is not ‘social life’ but just the ‘meaningful’ – that is, the ‘meaning’ which can be attached to, or ‘found in,’ an event or object, from the metaphysical ‘meaning’ given to the cosmos in a system of religious doctrine down to the ‘meaning’ which the baying of one of Robinson Crusoe’s hounds ‘has’ when a wolf is approaching.

In ‘The Concept of ‘Following A Rule’ Weber was concerned to provide an extended critique of the notion put forward by Rudolf Stammler that–roughly–‘social’ life could be demarcated from ‘nature’ on the basis of the criteria that social life was characterized by rule-following; it is this ‘following a rule’ which generates the meaning attached to social events; Robinson Crusoe, bound ‘only’ by nature and his own desires and constraints follows no such rules; his is not a social life; it is life lived in ‘nature.’ As Weber went on to argue, such a distinction was not enough; Crusoe’s existence on his isolated island could be interpreted to be bound by ‘rules’ too; the curious social scientist just had to look farther afield, perhaps at the laws of nature that Crusoe was bound by, perhaps the rhythms of a daily routine that best served his continued existence and survival. The boundaries between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ cannot be so easily drawn; the social cannot so easily be described by a logic different from that used to describe nature.

In the passage above, Weber notes that ‘meaning’ is far too loose a notion to do the work that such a distinction would seek to make it do; ‘meaning’ is ubiquitous depending on the perspectives and interpretations at play; we can read meaning into and out of natural events just as easily as we do with social ones. If we are determined to describe ‘nature’ as ‘meaningless’ we will not obtain ‘social life’ as its converse, but rather, just the ‘meaningful,’ which will not map on precisely to what we understand in normal practice by ‘nature.’ This is a point that should be familiar to those who struggle to provide theories of meaning in the philosophy of language; far too much is found ‘meaningful’–using explicitly linguistic units or otherwise–for one all-encompassing theory to do do justice to the concept.

RIP Hilary Putnam 1926-2016

During the period of my graduate studies in philosophy,  it came to seem to me that William James‘ classic distinction between tough and tender-minded philosophers had been been reworked just a bit. The tough philosophers were still empiricists and positivists but they had begun to show some of the same inclinations that the supposedly tender-minded in James’ distinction did: they wanted grand over-arching systems, towering receptacles into which all of reality could be neatly poured; they were enamored of reductionism; they had acquired new idols, like science (and metaphysical realism) and new tools, those of mathematics and logic.

Hilary Putnam was claimed as a card-carrying member of this tough-minded group:  he was a logician, mathematician, computer scientist, and analytic philosopher of acute distinction. He wrote non-trivial papers on mathematics and computer science (the MRDP problem, the Davis-Putnam algorithm), philosophy of language (the causal theory of reference), and philosophy of mind (functionalism, the multiple realizability of the mental)–the grand trifecta of the no-bullshit, hard-headed analytic philosopher, the one capable of handing your  woolly, unclear, tender continental philosophy ass to you on a platter.

I read many of Putnam’s classic works as a graduate student; he was always a clear writer, even as he navigated the thickets of some uncompromisingly dense material. Along with Willard Van Orman Quine, he was clearly the idol of many analytic philosophers-in-training; we grew up on a diet of Quine-Putnam-Kripke. You thought of analytic philosophy, and you thought of Putnam. Whether it was this earth, or its twin, there he was.

I was already quite uncomfortable with analytical philosophy’s preoccupations, methods, and central claims as I finished my PhD; I had not become aware that the man I thought of as its standard-bearer had started to step down from that position before I even began graduate school. When I encountered him again, after I had finished my dissertation and my post-doctoral fellowship, I found a new Putnam.

This Putnam was a philosopher who had moved away from metaphysical realism and scientism, who had found something to admire in the American pragmatists, who had become enamored of the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. He now dismissed the fact-value dichotomy and indeed, now wrote on subjects that ‘tough-minded analytic philosophers’ from his former camps would not be caught dead writing: political theory and religion in particular. He even fraternized with the enemy, drawing inspiration, for instance, from Jürgen Habermas.

My own distaste for scientism and my interest in pragmatism (of the paleo and neo– varietals) and the late Wittgenstein meant that the new Putnam was an intellectual delight for me. (His 1964 paper ‘Robots: Machines or Artificially Created Life?’ significantly influenced my thoughts as I wrote my book on a legal theory for autonomous artificial agents.)  I read his later works with great relish and marveled at his tone of writing: he was ecumenical, gentle, tolerant, and crucially, wise. He had lived and learned; he had traversed great spaces of learning, finding that many philosophical perspectives abounded, and he had, as a good thinker must, struggled to integrate them into his intellectual framework. He seemed to have realized that the most acute philosophical ideal of all was a constant taking on and trying out of ideas, seeing if they worked in consonance with your life projects and those of the ones you cared for (this latter group can be as broad as the human community.) I was reading a philosopher who seemed to be doing philosophy in the way I understood it, as a way of making sense of this world without dogma.

I never had any personal contact with him, so I cannot share stories or anecdotes, no tales of directed inspiration or encouragement. But I can try to gesture in the direction of the pleasure he provided in his writing and his always visible willingness to work through the challenges of this world, this endlessly complicated existence. Through his life and work he provided an ideal of the engaged philosopher.

RIP Hilary Putnam.

Chatwin And Nietzsche On Metaphors, Words, And Concepts

Writing of the Yaghan people and Thomas BridgesYaghan Dictionary, Bruce Chatwin writes:

Finding in primitive languages a dearth of words for moral ideas, many people assumed these ideas did not exist, but the concepts of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ so essential to Western thought are meaningless unless they are rooted to things. The first speakers of language took the raw material of their surroundings and pressed it into metaphor to suggest abstract ideas. The Yaghan tongue–and by inference all language–proceeds as a system of navigation. Named things are fixed points, aligned or compared, which allow the speaker to plot the next move.  [In Patagonia, Penguin, New York, 1977, pp. 136]

Chatwin then goes on to describe some of the extraordinarily rich range of metaphorical allusion found in the Yaghan language. His analysis finds resonance in Nietzsche‘s thoughts on language in ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘:

What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds….One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one….It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities….Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases…Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf.”

The Yaghan language helps its speakers and users plot and live a particular a form of life. If it at all it is infected by a ‘dearth of moral ideas’ it is not because the moral–or aesthetic–concepts in question are lacking. Rather, the concept is manifest in altogether another fashion: the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’ are visible and operative in its concrete instances, as examples of what to do and what not to do, in what worked and did not, in that which helped and that which was unhelpful, in that which was praiseworthy or not. A nominalistic language then, is not inferior to one that traffics more extravagantly with universals; it is merely more nominalistic; it has evolved to suit and conform to, another way of life, of doing things, of relating to a very particular environment in a particular time and place. The language of universals, as Nietzsche notes, has not brought us closer to reality’s ‘ultimate forms’ – whatever that may mean.  

Getting Philosophy Syllabi Right

Student evaluations can be flattering; they can be unfair; they can be good reminders to get our act together. A few weeks ago, I received my student evaluations for the ‘Twentieth Century Philosophy’ class I taught this past spring semester. As I read them, I came upon one that brought me up short, because it stung:

I appreciated the professor’s enthusiasm about the early portion of the class, but I was annoyed that it resulted in the syllabus being rewritten so that the already extremely minimal number of female and minority voices was further reduced.

My initial syllabus included readings by: Russell, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Austin, Quine, Davidson, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Beauvoir, Irigaray, Du Bois, Rawls, Macintyre, Dewey, Rorty, Taylor. In the first class meeting, I discovered half of my students had no prior background in philosophy. As a result, in the course of assigning and discussing Russell, Wittgenstein, and Ayer, I provided my students a crash course in introductory philosophy just so I could establish some elementary metaphysical and epistemological definitions and distinctions. This slowed us down considerably; I spent two weeks on Russell, two on Wittgenstein, and one on Ayer. Needless to say, I had to drop some portions of the syllabus. I could have shitcanned Ayer, but I ended up getting rid of Austin, Davidson, Heidegger, Irigaray, Rawls, Macintyre, Rorty, and Taylor. Drastic surgery indeed but by then, I had realized my original syllabus had been too ambitious–the length of some of the assigned excerpts was non-trivial for undergraduates–and that it was better to slow down, and get straight about the most important issues at play. (In my defense, I will make the claim–one confirmed by some students–that I was able to show my students how twentieth century analytical philosophy of language was relevant to our reading and understanding of Foucault, Gadamer, and Derrida.)

Some reduction of the syllabus, and the compressed nature of the later discussions in the semester was forced upon me by the need to provide an extended introduction in the beginning of the semester. This same lack of student preparation also slowed down my discussion of Quine; my discussion of Gadamer also went on longer than I expected. Later in the semester, I added Nietzsche’s ‘Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’–even though not strictly ‘twentieth century’– to supplement Foucault on truth. 

My initial selection was not ideal. Too many men; not enough women; Du Bois all by himself. I have some excuses to offer. Mostly: I made the syllabus in a hurry, and I lacked preparation in some issues and authors I could have included.  Most problematically, I simply excluded non-Western philosophical traditions. I then chose the path of least resistance; I picked an anthology of readings that seemed to strike a good balance between analytical and continental thought, and which, besides the usual metaphysical and epistemological readings, included social and political philosophy, existentialism, pragmatism, and feminism. (I was struck by the fact that most twentieth century philosophy syllabi I saw online were less varied than mine, which suggests the lack of variety complained about by my student might be a problem for others too.)

I can, and I think I will, do much better by simply planning my syllabus preparation better the next time around.

Photocopiers and the Failure to Agree on Meaning

Brett Weiner at The New York Times has put together an amusing Op-Doc titled “Verbatim: What is a photocopier“? As  Weiner describes the provenance of the piece:

In a deposition in Ohio, a lawyer became embroiled in an absurd argument about the definition of a photocopier….The dialogue was so sharp, inane and fully realized that I assumed it was fiction. I traced the deposition back to the Ohio Supreme Court and downloaded hundreds of pages of legal documents from the case. To my pleasant surprise, it was as strange as it was true.

In this short film, I sought to creatively reinterpret the original events….My primary rule was the performance had to be verbatim — no words could be modified or changed from the original legal transcripts. Nor did I internally edit the document to compress time. What you see is, word for word, an excerpt from what the record shows to have actually unfolded.

Wiener’s short film is entertaining enough; the conversation is exasperatingly funny.  My first  response to viewing it–on a friend’s Facebook pages–expressed the suspicion that The New York Times‘ readers might rest content with snickering at just legal conversations:

I hope people don’t think – as the New York Times seems to want them to – that this captures some conversational dysfunction unique to the legal profession or to its discourse.

The New York Times, of course,  seems to think it is on to a good thing when it comes to showing us how dysfunctional it thinks legal discourse can be:

This marks the debut of a new series, presented by Op-Docs, that transforms verbatim…legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic, performances. Here you will find re-creations of actual events from the halls of law and government.

But the dysfunction on display in Weiner’s short film is far more ubiquitous and widespread – it is not confined to the legal sphere. This should be evident from the fact that the conversational interlocutors cannot and will not agree on the meaning of a widely used term; such disagreements are not unknown elsewhere, precisely so many conversations between humans are adversarial (like that between the lawyer and his unfortunate witness). In these settings, the acknowledgment of a shared meaning can  all too often entail the concession of a debating point, a rhetorical disadvantage that may seem unbearable enough to seek refuge in obfuscation. At those moments the failure to agree on meaning is a tactic to retain conversational advantage; it allows for the creation of an ambiguity where definite resolution would lead to unfavorable outcomes. (The witness in the video above is clearly worried he might concede too much by agreeing on a meaning of the term ‘photocopier’).

The most common and painful instance of this occurs in arguments between couples headed for a break-up: as the relationship disintegrates and falls apart, so do the conversations between the former lovers. (Our literature is replete with these; the mastery of a novelist is often displayed in his or her recreation of these agonizing moments.) These become increasingly conflicted and intractable; the shortest, simplest resolutions cannot be arrived at. All too suddenly, a pair of humans who had once imagined their significant other could actually intuit their inner feelings and sensibilities, find themselves unable to make their simplest pleas and requests comprehended and heard. Failures of memory are a well-established trope of these conversations, of course–“You hurt me when you did X?” “But I didn’t do X, so I have no idea what you are talking about”  – but so are failures of commonly understood meanings. We find out that our former lover ascribes meanings to “respect” or “commitment” or “listening” or “fidelity” that we don’t; our best attempts to point out we once shared meanings flounder. My examples are all of terms that are quite complex but as folks engaged in break-ups find out soon enough, you can’t agree about the meaning of just about anything as things get worse.

Failure to agree on meanings is more common than we imagine; it is how we indicate to our interlocutors we are not full, or even partial, participants in our conversation; it is how we indicate that our ends are different and will be achieved in our own distinctive ways.