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The Unmarked Font of Metaphysics and Truth: Helvetica and Belief

 

The Metaphysics of Fonts

My last post on the documentary Helvetica (2007) had me musing deeply today. Not only does one suddenly begin to notice fonts used in public signage, in omnipresent fashion that invokes thoughts of Ideology (a cultural perspective taken that must be taken for things to be seen clearly, coherently) – “No Parking” and “Please Clean Up After Your Dog” are two interpellative Helvetica commands I pleasingly read today, but one begins to think about metaphysics itself, the way in which metaphysics attempts lay hold of the very invisible, or largely unseen normative rules and restrictions which essentially condition our capacity to make sense of the world and others, as they are. In distinction from Ideology, Metaphysics is trans-historic, or aims to be. Can Helvetica and its largely ubiquitous, in-visible presence in Western Cultural centers of political command and commercial invitation, give us some clue or evidence towards bothMetaphysical aims, and Ideological functioning (with the understanding that Metaphysics and Ideology bear some relationship to each other)? And, in looking at the dominance of Helvetica, is there a metaphysical/epistemological position that may more coherently than others help us make sense just what is going on in Political imperative and Commercial invitation?

Now surely many others have written on Helvetica with far more erudition and historical knowledge, as the profound thoughts offered on the font by various designer/philosophers in the documentary reveal. These are merely the application of other thoughts I have thought in other contexts to the phenomena of Helvetica as social phenomena, as a point of musing. I have no special insight here, and would enjoy others bringing to my attention any studies/theories that would collaborate or counter my line of thinking.

What comes to mind though when one gazes at the clean, tailless, space-embraced lettering of Helvetica that in the 1950’s swept away so many inconcordant typefaces in both advertisements and eventually government documentation, is the fundamental distinction between the Marked and the Un-marked. An Un-marked element is one whose input or information passes relatively cleanly through it. It stands as clean of any distinction that would draw undue attention to its form (any sub-element that would be read as “marked” would direct the mind at least in part to the consideration of the making of the form itself, a looking into its own history which may or may not comment upon the substance of its report…to use an obvious example, drunken scrawl left from the night before might markedly direct one’s attention to suspicion about the accuracy (or alternately, inspiration) of the content.

The Marked and Un-Marked: Turning One’s Gaze

The concept of Marked and Un-Marked goes a very long way of giving us an epistemic, though non-essential, binary which may help explain why in Western Culture things like White and Non-White, or Male and Non-male, or Citizen and Non-citizen have such wide-spread and organizing determinations. The Un-marked allows information/content to pass rather cleanly through. The Marked causes us to pause, inspect and ultimately judge the worth of value of the report (and this rather inevitably seems to direct us to the bodily, affective realities of the Marked thing, ultimately viewing the report under an affective, imaginary register). Helvetica, as it’s cultural place has come to evolve and entrench itself in many modern, Political/Commercial, Western contexts, has become a near definitive Un-marked font. 

Now let me deviate for a moment so to pass back into metaphysics and an interesting disagreement that arose in succeeding generations in the mid 17th century, newly modern Dutch Republic. Descartes was all the rage, presenting to forward thinking persons of nearly every ilk, a remarkably clean, efficient, and decidedly mechanistic view of the world. As we all well know as inheritors of the Cartesian mindframe, the world was made up of two Substances, one of which was that of Extension, by which we could view everything as operating as a kind of machine of causes. The other was that of Soul, and the problem was in articulating how the one connected to the other. For Descartes, imbued with a Christian view of the world, a most required connective part was the Will (voluntas), a faculty of judgment with operated upon passive and effortless human perception and its ideas, actively assessing out from neutrality both those which were true, and those which were false. (In this neutrality, perhaps you get the first glimpse of where I am going as per the neutrality of Helvetica as a font.)

Descartes on the basic distinction between comprehension and assessment: 

“All that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive, without affirming or denying anything, the ideas which are subjects for possible judgments”

“That we have power.., to give or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us”

But, perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the next generation, the outcast Jew and microscope maker Baruch Spinoza, had a radically different correction to offer to Descartes’ idea of judgment.

The Elder, Truth

Though Truth and Falsehood bee Neare twins, yet Truth a little elder is.

–John Donne

Spinoza denied altogether the basic distinction between acts of comprehension and assessement, denying in fact the Cartesian freedom of Will. This is more than simply a perverse or subversive denial of free volitions as they seem to be to us most obviously. Rather it is part of a very different conception of Mind, and how it operates:

E2p49 – In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea.

Or, as James later will sum of Spinoza:

All propositions whether attributive or existential, are believed through the very fact of being conceived.

The above citations and framing of the question is drawn from one of the more interesting Spinoza-influenced articles I have read in my now growing years of reading Spinoza literature: “How Mental Systems Believe,” by Daniel T. Gilbert (Feb 1991, American Psychologist). [Click Here for Download]. The article covers the consequences of an elementary disagreement between Descartes and Spinoza, a forgotten disagreement. Gilbert argues that the loss of the disagreement has lead AI designers, who have largely inherited the Cartesian view of mind, to build cognitive models (at least up to the ’90s) on an unquestioned comprehension/assess distinction. This is how the author opens the essay, in the broadest of terms:

Everyone knows that understanding is one thing and believing is another, that people can consider ideas without considering them so, and that one must have an idea before one can determine its merit. “Everyone knows the difference… between supposing a proposition and acquiescing in its truth” (James, 1890, p. 283). Nonetheless, this article suggests that what everyone knows may be, at least in part, wrong. It will be argued that the comprehension and acceptance of ideas are not clearly separable psychological acts, but rather that comprehension includes acceptance of that which is comprehended.

The psychological tests the author appeals to in support of a Spinoza epistemology may very well have been superceded by others after it. I have not seen the direction of research that has followed. What is memorable about the article, and why I strongly recommend it, is that it helps to concretely explain a very fundamental difference in theory that may have quite lasting and rippling effects, not only across cognitive science, but also perhaps within social criticism, as I am attempting to draw forth in the example of the Helvetica font. It gives a sense how a rather arcane sounding distinction made in the 1600s may have a lasting effect on the powers of our present day descriptions.

The Library of Knowledges: Fiction and Non-Fiction

But let me press on. Gilbert by way of an expert analogy shows us just what the difference between a Cartesian and a Spinozist cognitive system is. He asks us to imagine a vast library into which new books are continually being introduced (generally, in the human mind perceptions and ideas). There are two main ways new books can be coded as fiction or non-fiction (true or false ideas), what he calls the “tagging system” of each…

Imagine a library of a few million volumes, of which only a small number are fiction. There are (at least) two reasonable methods by which one could tag the spines of books so that fiction could be distinguished from nonfiction at a glance. One method would be to paste a red tag on each volume of fiction and a blue tag on each volume of nonfiction. Another method would be to tag the fiction and leave the nonfiction untagged. Either of these systems would accomplish the goal of allowing a librarian to distinguish fiction from nonfiction without necessitating that he or she actually reread the book each time such a discrimination needed to be made.

It is only a mild oversimplification to say that Descartes considered the mind to be a library of ideas that used something akin to the red-blue tag system. A new book (new information) appeared in the library (was represented in the mind), its contents were read (assessed), and the book was then tagged (recoded or rerepresented)as either fiction (false) or nonfiction (true). New books unassessed ideas) lacked a tag, of course, and thus were not identifiable as either fiction or nonfiction until they had been read. Such new and unread books were “merely” represented in the library.

Spinoza, however, argued that the mind was more like a library that used a tagged-untagged system. In Spinoza’s view, books were represented before they were assessed; but because of the particular tagging system that was used to denote the outcome of that assessment, a new book that appeared without a tag looked exactly like a work of nonfiction. In a Spinozan library, a book’s spine always announced its contents; no book could be “merely” represented in the library, because the absence of a tag was itself informative (or misinformative) about the content of the book. Analogously, ideas whose truth had been ascertained through a rational assessment process were represented in the mind in precisely the same way as were ideas that had simply been comprehended; only ideas that were judged to be false were unaccepted, or given a special tag.

The author passes through a variety of comprehensive though anecdotal evidence that the Spinozistview is correct, credulity, initial correspondence of belief withcomprehension is supported by a child’s gullibility, which only latter grows discerning with experience and the suseptability to suggestion when persons are fatigued or purposivelytortured. (In fact it is with a view towards an economy of processing powers that Gilbert argues that the human mind evolved to believe first, and deny later.) Of interest for our examination of the font Helvetica is his solitation of marked and un-marked words, how the Un-marked term is conceptually more basic than its marked counterpart:

Unmarked terms are thought to describe operations that are more conceptually basic than their marked counterparts. The Spinozan hypothesis states that unacceptance is a more complex operation than is acceptance and, interestingly enough, the English words that indicate the acceptance of ideas are generally unmarked with respect to their antonyms. Thus, people speak of propositions as acceptable and unacceptable, but (unless one is a neologizing psychologist) not as rejectable and unrejectable. One’s statements may be true or untrue, but they may not be false and unfalse. People hope their ideas are correct, accurate, and credible rather than incorrect, inaccurate, and incredible, but they cannot grammatically wish to be unwrong. Indeed, people even speak of belief and disbelief more naturally than they speak of doubt and undoubt. To the extent that one’s words for mental processes do reveal something about the processes themselves, the structure of the English lexicon suggests (as did Spinoza, who wrote in Latin) that the rejection of false ideas is more complex than the acceptance of true ones.

For Gilbert, and I may well agree, there is an essential and operative binary here, in which initial embrace, belief-as-comprehension precedes the counterpart of negation. This allows him the conclusion that all sentences are coded as true until further critique is to be done on them. It is here that I want to depart from Gilbert’s paper which goes on to speak of experimental evidence for the Spinoza hypothesis (again, evidence that science may or may not have suprassed at this time). I want to turn to, in fact involve, this essential dichotomy of marked and unmarked to consider again the powers of the Helvetica font in our society.

 

The Powers of Helvetica

As I pointed out in my last post, there is much mystery about the lasting power of Helvetica, not to mention its strongly persuasive effects in both the political and the commercial realms. From the above description I feel it is safe to say that the sans-serif font Helvetica has come to be the Un-Marked font of both of these domains. And while it seems most likely that it would have been a sans-serif font that would become the un-marked term, there does seem something quite gridlike and balanced in the Helvetica that further enforces its unmarked status.

If we grasp Spinoza’s assertion plainly, we understand that the unmarked term/idea/concept/sentence is the one already believed in its very comprehension, a belief that might be equated to the powers or failings of children. When we read Helvetica, we partake not only in a certain kind of neutrality, but it is a neutrality of affirmation. What is printed in Helvetica by its very form is already a form of belief, we can say. And certainly there are other fonts in other conditions which are the unmarked form, for instance the serif Times New Roman is the glassy clear in textbooks or newspaper publications. Yet, Helvetica, as it stands towards all other fonts which we experience, perhaps because of its dominance of the most significant organizing spheres of our persons (political and commercial power), is Un-marked beyond all.

So, is Helveticaa kind of metaphysical font, a communication of the very weft and woof of perceptions, beliefs and truths? I think we can contingently go in this direction. Wittgenstein in his rejection of metaphysical speculation wanted to turn the most mysterious seeming statements like “All rods have a length” (withsome reference to Kant), into simple grammatical statements. The great truths of philosophy are just sentences which show how we use words, with nothing profound beneath them. For instance “All rods have length” just shows us how we use the words “rod” and “length” and no amount of experience withrods and length will give us evidence to falsify the claim. Grammatical statements are those which cannot be negated, not for mysterious reasons, but because negating them would end up producing nonsense.

As an appreciator of Spinoza you can tell that I cannot fully embrace Wittgenstein’s position, but it does do something to reveal the nature of Helvetica commands or invitations for purchase. In a sense, Helvetica has become the aesthetic manifestation of something close to the Grammatical Statement. Not only as an Un-marked form of a dominant sphere of social organization, and as such by default believed, the form itself induces a Grammatical Statement like bind wherein one can only deny the truth of the belief at some cost of coherence. The truth of the Helvetica-expressed idea, at least at this point in time, has a lasting, affective ballast, which I believe remains even after its negation or disbelief. Contingently a Helvetica expression may be false, but coherently it is true. In our society this is the two pronged force of the Law, and I believe it is Spinoza’s Marked and Un-marked conception of the Mind that points us to this realization.

It remains to be decided just how ideological and how metaphysical these effects are. That is to say, Do the powers of Helvetica participate in, not just historically contingent hegemonic organizations of persons and affects, but also within a more profound potentia  of belief? When Spinoza laid out his claim against the foremost philosopher of his Age, denying a fundamental freedom of the Will, grounding comprehension and perception itself in belief itself, he saw all belief to be an activity, an affirmation of one’s body in a very real and concrete sense. When we perceive we affirm our flesh under a certain degree of power. And we are only made more free through making more powerful affirmations of ourselves. If this is so, the very Un-marked clarity of Helvetica points a kind of absolute relation, a stream of power unto which we are forever orienting ourselves. And it is up to us to separate out our imaginary relations that for instance impell us to buy The Gap clothing out of its very Helvetic form, and the absolute value of the Un-marked itself. Or, to put it another way, we must see that Un-marked categories/terms/concepts/forms are not just devices of control, but also powers that derive their potency from a greater univocality. And it is the Marked term, in all of its developmental and expressive quality, that causes us to realize this.  

What we recall is that these issues and determinations are not those of armchair philosophies, of rare disciplines or their categories, but the very lived realities of experiential Marked and Un-marked Reals. Helvetica speaks metaphysical truths. And we daily read it. This makes room for both the grasp of and resisitance to, Helvetica.

Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

The Blanketing of the Truth

The problem is that Heidegger as he examines the Greek concept of truth (aletheia), even as it is investigated by Plato in The Sophist, begins with Aristotle. We can see this plainly in his recounting of the “history” of truth in his lectures on the Platonic Dialogue, as he moves as quickly as possible to the logos-determined, speaking realm of human beings. Heidegger wants to get onto the firm and comfortable ground of Dasein, of human-oriented Being-There. And in the quotation below we can see how in just a few strokes he gets from “Aletheia” (which is commonly translated into our word “truth”) to the albeit to be problemized “uncoveredness” of the legomenon, “the spoken thing”.

the history of the concept of truth

Alethes means literally “uncovered.” It is primarily things, the pragmata, that are uncovered. To pragmata alethes. This uncoveredness does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern. Accordingly uncoveredness is a specific accomplishment of Dasein, which has its being in the soul: aletheuei he psyche. Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things. That is, the determination of life, a determination that can be conceived of as logos, primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. Aletheuei ho logos, and precisely logos [speech, reason] as logein [to speak]. Insofar now as each logos is a self-expression and a communication, logos requires at once the meaning of the logomenon [the spoken thing]. And insofar as it is logos which aletheuei, logos qua logomenon is alethes. But strictly taken this is not the case. Nevertheless, isfaras speaking is a pronouncement and in the proposition aquires a proper existence, so that knowledge is preserved therein, even the logos as logomenon can be called alethes….Knowing or considering is always a speaking, whether vocalized or not. All disclosive comportment, not only everyday finding one’s way about, but also scientific knowledge, is carried out in speech. Legein primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. This legein is for the Greeks the basic determination of man: Zoon logon echon [an animal that holds speech]. And thus Aristotle achieves [in Nic. Eth. VI, 2], precisely in connection with this determination of man, i.e. the field of the logon echon and with respect to it, the first articulation of the five modes of altheuein. (Heidegger’s lectures on Plato’s Sophist, 18-19)

There are a few things to set straight right off. His simple, literal defintion of aletheia as  “uncoveredness” is an incredible simplification of the meanings and origins of the word, something he quickly has reduced, in largely Sophoclean fashion, to a trope of cloaking and residual depth. The power and sweep of this simplification should not be underestimated, for it directs the whole of the theoretical that follows. When something is “covered” our immediate questions inevitably turn to the nature of the thing that lies between it and us, how did it get there, what is it made of, can we remove it, what purpose does it serve. One can see how nicely such a condensed translation fits within the Idealist tradition which focuses on the Phenomenal and Ideational veil of Ideas.

Unfortunately, or we might say fortunately, the history of the concept of truth goes back much further than where Heidegger wants to take it. He wants us to see that A-letheia is a privative. It means A (not) letheia (covered). But does -letheia mean “covered”? Not really; at least it cannot be reduced to such without extensive distortion. We can recognize the name famous River of Lethe in the land of the Dead (so named by Ovid) in the word, a history of which we will return to in a moment. But the root comes from the Greek verb lanthánõ, which specifically means (LSJ):

A. in most of the act. tenses, to escape notice

B. causal, to make one forget a thing

As a signular note, a cloaked thing might or might not escape notice, and one might or might not forget a cloaked thing (in either case its very cloakedness could draw attention to it, as someone who kept their hand hidden behind their back has a certain obviousness to them). The Greek concept of Lethe is much more thorough than “cloakedness.” It is much closer to our notion of Oblivion. The forgetfulness of Lethe is more than the visual trope of “coveredness” gives us. It is the dissipation of difference. There is no difference there that matters, that makes a difference.

To bring out more of this concept of Aletheia, the a- (un) letheia (forgotten, obliteratered, lost) I want to turn to the Orphic mythologies that informed Plato’s own theories of truth, and likely formed a widespread and constitutive influence upon the very notion of aletheia in Greek culture. Below I quote from Guthries’s Classic text,  Orpheus and the Greek Religion, a selection which focuses on the occult knowledge of the Underworld given an Orphic Initiate regarding the topography of the land of the Dead, and their explicit instructions on how to avoid Lethe.

Keeping, then, to the right, the soul comes to a spring [on the right, having been warned not to drink from the spring of forgetfulness on the left], and addresses to the guardians that are before it a prayer that it may be allowed to drink of the water, of which it is in dire need: “I am parched with thirst and I perish”. We may presume that it has passed by the way that is described in the Republic as leading to the plain of Lethe, “through terrible and suffocating heat; for it is bare of trees and of all the fruits of the earth”. At the end of that journey too the souls are given water to drink. For the general belief that the dead are thirsty and in urgent need of water we have references which though not frequent are sufficient to indicate that it must have been widely held and not a particular tenet of the Orphics. The same prayer occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and had been adopted from it into the Hellenic religion of the same part of the world, as is shown by several sepulchral inscriptions, found, like the gold plates themselves, in Italy, with the formula: “May Osiris give thee the cold water”. No doubt the name of Osiris was taken by the Greeks because they found in the Egyptian religions an idea similar to that which they already held themselves.

The word yuxpro/n means of course not simply “cold” but “refreshing”. (The two are the same in Mediterranean countries.) It is of the same root as psyche, soul and Dieterich (Nekyia, 95) compares the word a)nayu=xai in the Orphic line which literally means “refreshed from evil”. The water is not ordinary water. It is water from the lake of Memory, and it is only the soul whose purity is vouched for which is to be allowed to drink from it. This is the soul which has escaped from the circle of birth, or evil, or woe, and is about to enter on the state of perfect divinity. Consequently it is not, like the souls in the Republic which are being prepared for a new incarnation, made to drink a certain measure of the water of Forgetfulness (Rep. 620a). That, without doubt, is the fountain on the left which it is told above all things to avoid. For it is reserved the water of life, which will enable it to retain full consciousness (Guthrie, Orpheus and the Greek Religion, 177)

How far we are from simple “covered” and “uncoveredness”, and even linguistic reductions of the determination of the human soul to that which is spoken. Rather, the depiction of Lethe and not-Lethe is expressed in very physical terms, in terms of refreshingly cold water as drink. The soul in the land of the dead has passed through extreme heat, and is bewildered by its thirst. It has been instructed not to drink of the fountain on the left, but on the right. Here I quote the already cited Orphic passage from the Republic:

[621a] And after it had passed through that, when the others also had passed, they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion [tes Lethes pedion], through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness [Ameleta potamon], whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things.

The word-choice here is telling. The soul has passed across the Plain of Oblivion (tes Lethes pedion), and the river that the reincarnating soul drinks from is not the River of Lethe, but the River of Ameleta, the River of Uncaring. Under Orphic telling, the aletheia is not the “uncovered” but “the not-uncaring”. Clearly, those that drink from the River of Mnemosyne instead of Ameleta, retain their cares and concerns. Quite to the contrary of Heidegger’s lexical reversion which will eventually make a “cloaking” out of human Dasein engagment with the pragmata (affairs, things of concern), the very nature of aletheia is that of retaining concerns and care. It is only through the retention of cares that the soul is refreshed of the heat of oblivion.

The Role of Care as Revelation

Importantly, Heidegger tells us in his history of the concept of the truth that “This uncoveredness [of aletheia] does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern.” Notice how this differs from the Orphic/Platonic tale of elementary care and concern. The concern is not with “objects” but with thirst itself, with the state of one’s own body. It is the purity of this sufferance, as a care, which in turn orients the soul both toward the gaurdian and the spring. And contrary to Heidegger’s assessment, it is indeed the care of the soul which orients it rightfully to the pragmata, “insofar as they are”. One must, in examining the history of the Greek notion of the truth acknowledge this fundamental equation.

It is for this reason that the optical metaphor of covered and uncovered that Heidegger adopts, while suited to the Idealist heritage he keeps, actually is insufficient to the Greek concept of truth (insofar as we can historically generalize). The the failure of cares in Oblivion is the detachment from one’s own state, to dissipate. It is not a condition of veiling, or coveredness, of something coming between the subject and the world, but rather is a constitutive internal relation, a failure of orientation towards one’s own health and dynamic expression, a failure to recall in one’s concerns the connections which “as they are” have constituted you.

In this correction we must keep track of Heidegger’s smooth move towards Aletheia of speaking being: “Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things.” One wants to stretch back to some time more distant than the benchmark for truth, Aristotle, and turn to Homer, the Iliad. Achilles is furious and in attendance of the Assembly where he is told that Agamemnon will take from him his beloved Briseis. Achilles has his hand on the hilt of his sword which he is in the act of drawing. Agamemnon is finished, yet:

The white-armed goddess Hera had sent her forth, [195] for in her heart she loved and cared for both men alike. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. (Book One, lines 195-200)

What is the “truth” status of Athena’s terribly flashing eyes? None of the others in the hall saw her (literally, she was coming to light [phanomene] to him alone, not the others).  Not only did he perceive her [gignosko] as generally present, but seemed to do so as particularized by the very manifestion of her eyes [phaanthen]. These eyes are the very epithetic status of the goddess herself, “Flash-eyed” Athena. I suggest really that it is not on this occasion of words (debate in a hall) that the most immediate form of “uncovering” is words, but rather of bodily seizure and distinctive identification. The pragmata of Achilles’ concern, that of Agamemnon’s unworthy stewardship of the Greek contingent, his love for Briseis, suddenly is invaded by the pragmata of his own condition, exposed in the glinting revelation of things as they are, the concerns of his very thumatic soul. But it is not a condition of layering, of things standing between what is and the perceiver. Nothing is hidden, rather the richness of connection is accomplished in care. We find this in the poem when Achilles finally achieves the ῎Ελεος of compassion for Hector’s father and his sworn enemy King Priam, Eleos, the God of Mercy. This is what is missing from Heidegger’s notion of “truth” as kinds of covering and uncovering, in an optical metaphor of distance.

Productively I feel that the order of these points against Heidegger should be framed within a large problem in the Idealist tradition that Heidegger participates in, and this is the absolute tendency to consider philosophical questions solely in terms of a fundamental dyad. This form of analysis is one that principally comes out of the European Christian concern of how to connect the human soul with God. The presumption was that the world simply interferred in some sense (which the exception of the Church, which faciliated the connection) As God came to be displaced, the fundamental question became epistemic, how does the human perceiving subject connect to the world (and the world’s surrogate, the “object”). In taking the philosophical question to be primarily a subject/object question, the great and constitutive third, others, came to be pushed aside. In general, as philosophies become discordantly engaged with one-to-one relationships, and their profusion of binaries, it is inherently insuffient and misguided (that is, it has decomplexified the relationships of the world to an unhelpful degree). It seems to me that as Heidegger turned to Aristotlean notions of truth, categorizing them widely as Greek, and adopted a primarly optical metaphor for qualifications of Being, he did so in a way quite friendly to the pre-existing Idealist dyad of self/world. In this fashion, in his foreclosure to the immanent capacities of “care” in the Greek mind, he obscured the very third leg of the triangle, others, which would otherwise show how “care” in all things, including things “non-human” is actively involved in our mutual construction of the world, in degrees of ontological freedom.  Because “aletheia” was for Idealist Heidegger primarily an EYE/OBJECT relation (that metaphor), the constitutive movment from “lethe” (dissipative oblivion) to “a-leth-eia” (condensed internal relations of expressive care) was robbed of the very depth of the dimensionality of others. More Augustine, more Achilles was needed.

Sarah Silverman’s Subversive Loyalty to the Pledge

I found comedian Sarah Silverman’s “solution” to the church/state inclusion of the phrase “one nation, under God…” in the pledge of allegiance both hilarious and penetrating. (It is located at the 3:45 minute mark in the above clip.) Someone like Zizek finds in this quotational subversion a deeper entrenchment of belief, a disquieted distancing of oneself in the ultimate power of words. He, no slouch in the realm of humor, talks about the distancing, postmodern lover who comically says to his beloved, “As the poet says, ‘I love you'”. Silverman here seems to be doing something more I think. Because her act falls within the very formalized text of an oath, she is using the quotation powers of truth to draw attention to the very act of pledging. Think of the further consequences if the word “nation” were air-quoted, or “stands”. Soon we would have evacuated the entire act of any content. It then becomes mere staging, a circulation, which carries its own substance. (What of air-quoting the entire act?) A distance is opened up between the ennunciation and the form expressed, a distance that can be then further politicized.

I think this is related to the so called “disquotational property” of truth. Famously, “The sentence ‘Snow is white’ is true” is thought to be the equivalent of simply claiming “Snow is white” (Tarski, etc.); with truth, one can simply take the quotes off. Yet when we place a phrase or sentence in quotes, we isolate it, not in terms of truth (which remains indeterminate), but in terms expression. We allow it its social autonomy, while exercizing protest, decentering its enunciation. This an the interesting thing about Sarah Silverman’s subversion. It suspends the expressional qualities of the phrase “under God” while preserving its possibility of truth. Further though, Sarah’s potest occurs in the form a joke told on television, and not simply performed in context. As such, it becomes a kind of prescrition, instead of a proscription. Of interest as well is that this suspension is accomplished bodily, yet with near-linguistic precision (she is not merely making a face while saying the phrase). She selects out the phrase with a bodily performance (now grown common) of a typographic mark. In a sense, she inscribes her body with scriptive importance. She is bodily adjunct to the meaning of here words.

Sarah Silverman and Golda Mier

If we striked the phrase, instead of Sarahized it, would this be as subversive? Or if we merely mouthed it? Does God intrude upon the speaker of the Pledge interpellating her, (as Althusser would have it), no matter what? Has Sarah succeeded in renouncing or even denouncing the Divinity of America’s origins? Or is Sarah really saying something akin to a line attributed to former Prime Minister of Israel Golda Mier, when answering the question of whether she believed in God: “I believe in the Jewish people, and they  believe in God” (paraphrased here).

Davidson, Spinoza, Aristotle: Veridicality and Organs

A ruminating thought floats behind these considerations.

Is there a connection between a). Davidson’s world thought to be the cause of our beliefs which assumes an inherent verdicality of belief, making of a triangulating community of language users a kind of organ of truth, b). Spinoza’s (proposed) expectation that interactions with his Ethics, that would cause increases in our power to act along a vector of Joy, the proofs of which serving as organs of mental perception, within a cohering affectively bonded sociability, c). and Aristotle’s functional defintion of the products our sense organs as incorrigable.

Further, aside from any imposed normativity, projected upon funcationality, such and organ bound communication of veridicality would open the question up along biological valences of affect and power. Organs can open up to an analysis of the Body Without Organs. Communicated action across functionality.

Gaukroger:

Secondly, perception of special sensibles is incorrigible for Aristotle because it is constitive of the very notion of veridicality. Vision under optimal conditions is the only criterion we posses by which to judge whether something has a particular colour: for example to view something under optimal conditions is to meet all the relevant conditions by which colour is determined. On this account, to distinguish between something really being red, and just looking red to someone with excellent eyesight who views the object under optimal lighting conditions, would simply make no sense…This is not an epistemological account of perception, in the sense of an account that tells of how the veridicality of our knowledge of the natural world can be secured…it is not just that the proper use of our sense organs automatically gaurentees the verdicality of what we perceive, but rather that, given their proper use (i.e. the proper use of normal sense organs operating under optimal conditions) the question of our being mistaken simply makes no sense (159-160).

- Intellectual Biography 159 – 160)

Aristotle, De Anima Book II Part VI (418):

In dealing with each of the senses we shall have first to speak of the objects which are perceptible by each. The term ‘object of sense’ covers three kinds of objects, two kinds of which are, in our language, directly perceptible, while the remaining one is only incidentally perceptible. Of the first two kinds one (a) consists of what is perceptible by a single sense, the other (b) of what is perceptible by any and all of the senses. I call by the name of special object of this or that sense that which cannot be perceived by any other sense than that one and in respect of which no error is possible; in this sense colour is the special object of sight, sound of hearing, flavour of taste. Touch, indeed, discriminates more than one set of different qualities. Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

Pythagorian Spinoza?

Leibniz’s Summation

Of some significance, here I post a summation of Spinoza’s philosophy, as passed through the mouth of a loyal friend, Tschirnhaus, and as relayed to Leibniz in 1675, originally published in English by Wim Klever. It draws out some curious Klever might say esoteric aspects of Spinoza’s thinking. Most distinct about it is the notion that Spinoza held a Pythagorian idea of a transmigration of the Mind. Besides the obvious distortions that can be brought about through one man telling another man what someone else believes, there remains the possibility that the account is somehow intentionally colored in details, either to couch Spinoza, or to put him in a personally favorable light:

As Klever relates:

“In spite of Spinoza’s warning that Tschirnhaus should be reluctant in communicating what he had received for private use, we know that Tschirnhaus nonetheless revealed many secrets to the inquisitive Leibniz. This appears from a note written by Leibniz which he must have made shortly after a meeting. I think it worthwhile to quote this note here in full because it enables us to see how Spinoza’s doctrine was perceived, understood, and explained by his friends and followers in or around 1675. A second reason is that this note which is not known by many scholars and iis not yet available otherwise in English contains several interesting points which cannot be found elsewhere and is also for that reason relevant:

Sir Tischirnhaus told me many things about the handwritten book of Spinoza. There is a merchant in Amsterdam, called Gerrit Gilles [Jarig Jelles] I think who supports Spinoza. Spinoza’s book will be about God, mind, happiness or the idea of the perfect man, the recovery of the mind and the recovery of the body. He asserts the demonstration of a number of things about God. The he alone is free. He supposes that freedom exists when the action or determination originates not from an external impact, but only from the nature of the actor. In this sense he justly ascribes freedom to God alone.

According to him the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God. He thinks that there is a sense in all things to the degrees of their existence. God is defined by him as an absolutely infinite Being, which contains all perfections, i.e. affirmations or realities or what may be conceived. Likewise only God would be substance or a Being which exists in itself, or which can be understood by itself; all creatures are nothing else other than modes. Man is free insofar as he is not determined by any external things. But because this is never the case, man is not free at all, though he participates more in freedom than the bodies.

The mind would be nothing but the idea of the body. He thinks that the unity of the bodies is caused by a certain pressure. Most people’s philosophy starts with creatures, Des Cartes started with the mind, he [Spinoza] starts with God. Extension does not imply divisibility as was unduly supposed by Descartes; although he supposed to see this also clearly, he fell into the error that the mind acts on the body or is acted upon by the body.

He thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge that he calls intuitive, of which of which only a few are conscious. Because knowledge is either sensual, imaginative, or intuitive. He believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that the mind goes from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher. He thinks that apart from thought and extension there are an infinity of other positive attributes, but that in all of them there is thought like here in extension. How they are constituted cannot be conceived by us but every one is infinite like space here (“Spinoza’s life and works” Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, 46-47)

 

I posted below some rough thoughts I had some time ago, and their related Spinoza texts. Klever’s evidence of a kind of at least percieved Pythagorian transmigration adds an esoteric meaning to Spinoza’s mathematization. And while I cannot conceive how such a transformation could be understood within the propositions of the Ethics [on what account is the preservation of identity maintained], it does give conceptual context for some of the more difficult to interpret passages on this issue.

Notable as well is the summation’s deviation from Spinoza’s theory of the three knowledges as found in the Ethics. Here, the trinity of “imaginary, rational, intuitive” has become “sensual, imaginary, intuitive”. Assuming an accurate translation of the passage, this may give some clue to the differences of Spinoza’s treatment of the Imaginary and Order (spoken about here, in Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order). Professor Della Rocca in correspondence had affirmed his belief that Spinoza is somewhat inconsistent in his treatment of “order” in the various parts of the Ethics. What is suggested by the Leibniz summation, perhaps, is that even the rational, propositional conception of true and free in Spinoza is still imaginary; this may be linked to Spinoza’s variation on whether we can or cannot ever have wholly Adequate Ideas.

Rorty and Davidson Talk

See and hear this 1997 conversation between philosophical fellow travelers Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson, posted by Gundlegung, which ends:

Davidson: “Well, it sounds to me that by your standards I am a straight-forward pragmatist.”

Rorty: “Even in the romantic sense?”

Davidson: “Even in the romantic sense.”

Rorty: “That’s nice.”

One gets the dramatic sense that these two souls are still in tension from their ethos, even though they repeatedly come to agreements in principle. There is a bodily sense in which the comfort of ideas tugs each in opposite directions. Rorty seems to work with the breadth of thinking, and Davidson with the micro-structures. Agreement seems to be what they have agreed upon.

Closely Related Post: Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet

The Objective truth of Rorty

Richard Rorty, more than any other philosopher, perhaps due to his apostasy from strict Analytic Philosophy, has become the symbol of a seen-to-be corrosive Relativism, one that distains any notion of truth or objectivity, besides the pragmatic regulative of “sentences which work”.

This manifested itself in a more than decade long debate between himself and Donald Davidson, a philosopher whom he held in great esteem, and whom he worked to help popularize in his best selling books and essays. Rorty wanted to tell Davidson that he was merely a pragmatist, who had failed to drop the last vestige of metaphysical thought, the notion of “truth” in need of a theory. And Davidson wanted to tell Rorty that the skeptic needed to be answered, that a theory of “truth” was the very thing that (neo) pragmatism was missing. The two intelligent readers talked “passed” each other in a spirited way, with Rorty trying to appropriate Davidson’s position, without Davidson’s permission.

Finally this stalemate broke with Bjorn Ramberg’s essay: “Post-Ontological Philosophy: Rorty vs. Davidson”. In it he told Rorty that he had been misreading Davidson’s concept of truth all along, and that if Rorty indeed was devoted to a notion of a community of values, he must be also devoted to a distinction of truth. To my surprise (when reading the volume, Rorty and His Critics), Rorty agreed.

I can think of no such a reversal in the context of modern contemporary philosophy, where a near-career-long position is abandoned in favor of a better argument, with that argument being presented in a single, turning essay (even if for literary effect). Surely there were many other factors involved, but for an intellectual authority as willful and criticized as Rorty enjoyed himself to be, to admit that he had always misunderstood the philosopher he had read closely, is an event worth commemorating.

Below are some of the worthy quotes from his response to Ramberg’s essay, those which characterize his admission that a theory of truth rests on the recognition that the prescriptive preceeds the descriptive.

Rorty, at times quoting Ramberg, at times referencing Davidson, wrote:

I have turned a blind eye to the fact that the mind-body distinction is intertwined with the person-thing distinction. I have not tried to relate the two distinctions. Davidson by combining a theory of action with a theory of truth and meaning, has. Ramberg helps bring Davidson’s two lines of inquiry together when he says that an account of truth is automatically an account of agency, and conversely. He helps us see that Davidson, like Dewey, is trying to break down the distinction between knowing, theorizing, spectatorial mind and the responsible participant in social practices…

…Ramberg suggests that we see the ability to ascribe rights and responsibilities (along the lines of Brandom’s “social practice” reconstruction of the vocabularies of logic and semantics) as (usually) a prerequisite for the ability to predict and describe. The key to understanding the relation between minds and bodies is not an understanding of the irreducibility of the intentional to the physical but the understanding of the inescapability of the normative…

…As Ramberg says “Describing anything, if Davidson is right, is an ability we have only because it is possible for others to see us as in general conforming to the norms that the predicates of agency embody.” Agency-the ability to offer descriptions rather than just make noise-only appears if a normative vocabulary is already being used: “descriptions emerge as descriptions of any sort at all only against a taken for granted background of purposive-hence normatively describable behavior on the part of the communicators involved…

…‘The basis of knowledge, any form of knowledge, whether of self, others, or shared world, is not a community of minds, in the sense of mutual knowledge of neighboring belief-systems…Rather, it is a community of minds, that is, a plurality of creatures engaged in the project of describing their world and interpreting each other’s descriptions of it. (Ramberg, pp. 361-2)’

I can epitomize what Ramberg has done for my understanding of Davidson by saying that he has helped me understand the point of a sentence of Davidson’s which I had previously found utterly opaque. Ramberg quotes Davidson as saying:

‘We depend on our linguistic interpretations with others to yield agreement on the properties of numbers and the sort of structures in nature that allow us to represent those structures in numbers. We cannot in the same way agree on the structure of sentences or thoughts we use to chart the thoughts and meaning of others, for the attempt to reach such agreement simply sends us back to the very process of interpretation on which all agreement depends.’

I did not understand the second sentence in this passage until I read it in Ramberg’s way. Read in that way, it can be paraphrased as saying, ‘Whereas you can, in the course of triangulation, criticize any given claim about anything you want to talk about, you cannot ask for agreement that others shall take part in the process of triangulation, for the attempt to reach such an agreement would just be more triangulation.’ The inescapability of norms is the inescapability, for both describers and agents, of triangulating.”

“Response to Ramberg,” in Rorty and His Critics, (371-374).

It still amazes me to hear a philosopher say of a sentence that she/he had read and reread countless times, “I did not understand this sentence”.

For myself, I think that there is indeed an analytic wisdom buried in the “the prescriptive precedes the descriptive”, something that upturns the is/ought distinction and chasm. Because prescription precedes description, a normativity of communication pervades any of our notions of “is” and guides our capacity to act, in a sensus communis, in the world.

 

Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

 The Mystery of the word Understands

Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God

Cordelia:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

This is the fairly concise wikipedia summation of his argument, taken from the second chapter of his Proslogion:

Anselm presents the ontological argument as part of a prayer directed at God. He starts with a definition of God, or a necessary assumption about the nature of God, or perhaps both.

“Now we believe that [the Lord] is something that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”
Then Anselm asks if God exists.

“Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not?”
To answer this, he first tries to show that God exists “in the understanding”:

“But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying-something than which nothing greater can be imagined-understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding, and another to understand that a thing is.”

Anselm goes on to justify his assumption, using the analogy of a painter:

“For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.

“Therefore, even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because, when he hears this, he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.”

Now Anselm introduces another assumption, which some authors have argued to have introduced a new version of the argument:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater.”

“Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be.”

Anselm has thus found the contradiction from which he draws his conclusion:

“There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”

Anselm responds to Guanilo’s critique of this so-called Ontological Proof of God with a metaphor of the sun, and the sun’s light. In a Plotinus-like analogy, he says that though we may not be able to look directly at the sun, that does not mean that we do not see the sun’s light, when we look at things in the world,

Do you not believe that the being of which these things are understood can be thought about or understood or be in the thought or understanding to some extent? For if he is not, then we cannot understand these things about him. If you say that he is not understood or in the understanding because he is not fully understood, say as well that one who cannot look directly at the sun does not see the light of day, which is nothing other than the light of the sun. Certainly “a being greater than which cannot be thought of” is understood and exists in the understanding at least to the extent that these statements about it are understood.

If you recall, Guanilo rebutted Anselm’s idea that merely because we can conceive of something perfect, does not mean that such a thing exists, hence imagining a perfect island does not mean that a perfect island exists. But Anselm wants Guanilo to see that thinking of a perfect island is not anything like understanding the concept of God, for God is not a “thing”, but really the condition for things to be things, the maximalization of all thought. One could say, without much distortion, that God is understood by Anselm to be the Principle of Coherence. And he is arguing that if indeed you understand what coherence is, you cannot argue against its existence. Apart from the meritoriousness of such an argument, what is key to seeing why Anselm is so convinced is that the argument trades upon the notion of what “understands” means.

It is for this reason that Anselm presents his “proof” not in syllogistic form, but in the narrative of an actual person engaging in the thought of God. He wants to question how someone can really understand something, and yet still deny it, an act that makes such a person a “fool”. This is how he frames it:

Chapter 4: How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought -How in the world could he have said in his heart what he could not think? Or how indeed could he not have thought what he said in his heart, since saying it in his heart is the same as thinking it? But if he really thought it because he said it in his heart, and did not say it in his heart because he could not possibly have thought it – and that seems to be precisely what happened – then there must be more than one way in which something can be said in one’s heart or thought. For a thing is thought in one way when the words signifying it are thought, and it is thought in quite another way when the thing signified is understood. God can be thought not to exist in the first way but not in the second. For no one who understands what God is can think that he does not exist. Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all. For God is that greater than which cannot be thought. Whoever understands this also understands that God exists in such a way that one cannot even think of him as not existing.

Proslogion 

If one examines his words closely, one can see that he says that there are two ways of thinking the words that are in your heart. The first is when the words themselves that are doing signifying, are merely thought. This has been translated to be something along the lines of “concieved”. The second is when the signified itself is understood (intellectum). In the second case, to deny this understanding is the sign of a fool. It is for this reason that the crux of his proof is put particularly in those terms, the terms of understanding:

Why therefore did the fool say in his heart “there is no God,” since it is so evident to any rational mind that you above all things exist? Why indeed, except precisely because he is stupid and foolish?

Chapter Three, Proslogion

Either the fool does not understand in the first place the concept of God, or, rather more absurdly for Anselm, he understands the concept, but still denies it. If we allow the transformation, something akin is in play in so many skeptical views towards knowing: if one understands what coherence is, it is absurd to deny that there is coherence.

I have great favor for critiques of coherence, either as an absolute, or in its concrete examples. The worlds of Derrida, Lacan and Adorno play with the light and dark possibilities of sense. But I think we are forced to engage Anselm’s analysis, to some degree, on its own ground.

R. W. Southern locates the precise fulcrum of Anselm’s argument in his debate with Guanilo. It is that for Anselm “understanding” is both ontological and experiential. Understaning the signified of God is a shift in ontological status in the thinker, and this shift is experienced in a direct way.

Southern writes,

[Anselm thinks] “if God exists, there must be a level of experience at which it is impossible to think of God as not existing”. So it is nearly beatific experience.

Responsio editoris 9, 138, 13-4.

As Eileen C. Sweeny observes, Anselm believes that if someone disagrees with his argument, he simply does not understand it. Besides the happenstance that this pretty much how all of us feel when others do not agree with us, because Anselm is dealing with the very limits of thought, (a thing which no greater a thing can be conceived and with coherence itself), one must ask, is there something to this notion of “understands” as experienced.

Wittgenstein’s Lion

There is a very different, in appearance, use of “understands” many centuries later that perhaps sheds light upon what Anselm is trying to say. It is in Wittgenstein gnomic and tantalizing reference to a lion imagined to speak:

If a lion could talk we could not understand (verstehen) him (Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, p. 190).

This is a poetic and interesting thing to say, but what does it mean? Wittgenstein is said to be drawing out just how much the meanings in our language are dependent upon our “forms of life”, and he is suggesting that a “form of life” (its concerns and practices) maybe so divergent of our own that we could not understand whatever such a lion would mean. Quite unlike Anselm’s notion of “if you understand me, you will agree with me,” does it not rely upon a particularly opaque use of the word “understand”? For instance, an ethologist in Africa we would say “understands” lions, in a way that the average urban person does not, (as does perhaps an experienced lion tamer). So certainly the use of the word “understand,” even when there is no strict “talking” present, has meaning in the context of lions. One would imagine that given the addition of speech, such specialists indeed would only “understand” them better. Now why, on principle, would a lion imagined to speak then be incapable of being understood? What would be the measure of “understanding” be? Fluency?

My suspicion is that there is something in this analogy which is confessional, that is, Wittgenstein as a brilliant, German Jew, was a kind of un-understandable “lion” among the carefully kept minds of the English at Cambridge, as can be seen in the paragraph preceding the citation, where he speaks of “transparency” in the context of coming to the customs of a foreign country:

We also say of people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given the mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand (versteht) the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them (ibid).

 

 

Taken together, it would seem that Wittgenstein would like to say, “We would not be able to understand a lion if she could speak, that is, we would not be able to ‘find our feet with her’, but we would be able to know what she is saying to herself”. There would be a degree of separability which would not be conceptual. We may be able to read someone’s thoughts, but not their intentions (seen in the paragraph that follows).

When considering “real” lions (and does not Wittgenstein always want us to return to the concrete circumstances of communication), this seems like an odd thing to conclude, for it is really that ethnologists (and lion tamers), indeed do well predicting intentions (actions), and one would imagine that this would only be facilitated by the capacity for speech. After a few brief observations which speak to the community of knowledges, Wittgenstein ends up making a point about the instrumental “foundation” of predictions of behaviors. A third person pov has a different foundation for his prediction of my behavior, than I do:

Two points, however, are important: one, that in many cases someone else cannot predict my actions, whereas I foresee them in my intentions; the other, that my prediction (in my expression of intention) has not the same foundation as his prediction of what I shall do, and the conclusions to be drawn from these predictions are quite different.

I can be as certain of someone else’s sensations as of any fact. But this does not make the propositions “He is much depressed”, “25 x 25 =625″ and “I am sixty years old” into similar instruments. The explanation suggests itself that the certainty is of a different kind.–This seems to point to a psychological difference. But the difference is logical (logischer) (ibid).

What began as a meditational approach to cultural (and perhaps even species) estrangement, the lack of understanding has dissolved into a point “logical”, the differing of “instruments”. What has happened to the claim that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him? If we accept Wittgenstein’s story of alienation and “not getting our feet” with someone (anyone?), understanding itself, as it is experienced, remains in tact. The instruments work together. Transparency, as he named it, exists, if only in degrees. And no one who can be said to communicate is utterly opaque, or what Wittgenstein calls a “complete enigma”. Instead really, it is against the backdrop of understanding that any failure to understand, takes place.

I believe here, in the very experience of understanding, of coherence, as it presents itself, that Anselm’s experiential proof lies.

 

Donald Davidson’s Unquestionable Belief

The last stop in the tour of understanding is philosopher Donald Davidson’s rebuttal of the skeptic who claims that it is possible that all our beliefs are false. Davidson’s reply, in short, is much like Anselm’s. If indeed the skeptic, or anyone else, understandswhat a belief is, he must understand that beliefs are by the very nature both veridical, and holistic in nature. Any doubt of a particular belief precludes the doubt of all beliefs.

This is the core of his argumentation:

What is needed to answer the skeptic is to show that someone with a (more or less) coherent set of beliefs has a reason to suppose that his beliefs are not mistaken in the main. What we have shown is that it is absurd to look for a justifying ground for the totality of beliefs, something outside this totality which we can use to test or compare with our beliefs. The answer to our problem must be to find a reason for supposing most of our beliefs are true.that is not a form of evidence.

My argument has two parts.First I urge that a correct understanding of the speech, beliefs, desires, intentions, and other propositional attitudes of a person leads to the conclusion that most of a person’s beliefs are true, and so there is a legitimate presumption that any one of them, if it coheres with most of the rest, is true. Then I go on to claim that anyone with thoughts, and so in particular anyone who wonders he has any reason to suppose he is generally right about the nature of his environment, must know what a belief is, and how in general beliefs are to be detected and interpreted. These being perfectly general facts we cannot fail to use when we communicate with others, or when we try to communicate with others, or even when we merely think we are communicating with others, there is a pretty strong sense in which we can be said to know that there is a presumption in favor of the overall truthfulness of anyone’s beliefs, including our own. So it is bootless for anyone to ask for some further reassurance; that can only add to his stock of beliefs. All that is needed is that he recognize that belief is inherently veridical…

…Take for example the interdependence of belief and meaning. What a sentence means depends partly on the external circumstances that cause it to win some degree of conviction; and partly on the relations, grammatical or logical, that the sentence has to other sentences held true with varying degrees of conviction…it is impossible for a speaker to understand a speaker and at the same time to discover the speaker to be largely wrong about the world. For the interpreter interprets sentences held true (which is not to be distinguished from attributing beliefs) according to the events and objects in the outside world that cause the sentences to be held true….

…What stands in the way of global skepticism of the senses is, in my view, that fact that we must, in the plainest and methodologically most basic cases, take the objects of a belief, to be the causes of that belief. And what we, as interpreters, must take them to be is what they in fact are. Communication begins where causes converge: your utterance means what mine does if belief in its truth is systematically caused by the same events and objects…

…All beliefs are justified in this sense: they are supported by numerous other beliefs (otherwise they wouldn’t be the beliefs that they are), and have a presumption in favor of their truth. The presumption increases the larger and more significant the body of beliefs which which a belief coheres and, there being no such thing as an isolated belief, there is no belief without a presumption in its favor.

“A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge”

Much like Anselm’s notion of understand, Davidson argues, though in a different fashion, for the logical coherence of beliefs, such that the very nature of beliefs precludes their global falsity. Because beliefs are an explanatory attribution (we atttribute them to explain the rationality of behavior) and do not exist apart from any such explanatory apparatus, it makes no sense to say that all our beliefs might be false. To put it another way, with each “might be false” that is added to the last “might be false”, when attending to beliefs, there is an geometric descrease in likelihood of falsity. At the lower end of any such approach to a “completely false” totality of beliefs, these simply are no longer beliefs. They would not longer be functioning as the explanation of behavior taken to be rational.

The skeptical problem arises in thinking that one belief can be held up to the world, and compared, in isolation from all other beliefs, and still remain a belief. It arises from thinking of correspondence as the determination of the “truth” of belief. Beliefs are something we do, and not merely have.

In a certain sense, to use a mechanical analogy, any one part of a machine could be broken (let us say, if it is not functioning up to par, but still functioning quite well), and there is even a possibility that this part is broken, and that part is broken, and that part too is broken. But the entire process of diagnosis which involves checking parts (like checking beliefs) would be meaningless if you therefore concluded “Hey, ALL parts might be broken”. This would change the notion of what a part is, and what broken is.

(This is why Spinoza, when taking up the possibility, changes the notion of “know” and says that falsity is only a privation.)

I believe that something of Anselm’s experiential, even beatific, foundations for conviction of coherence (God), and Davidson’s logical argument for the essential veridicality and coherent nature of belief, is what brackets what “understanding” means. Despite Wittgenstein’s claim about his lion, (and we all have experienced those that mystify us, with whom we can never get our feet), in principle, not only must a speaking lion be understandable, but she also must be predictable, for the very nature of understanding is that it provides prediction.

And though Wittgenstein would like to argue for a differential “foundation” for the prediction of behavior, where in you, “in many cases” are not able to predict what I will do while I seem quite privileged in the fact, because of a more ubiquitous quality to understanding, we each can become alienated from ourselves, saying nothing of customs, strange lands, and traditions, wherein the “foundation” of the observations of others can prove better able to predict our actions than we.

Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet

 


 

Ὁ ἄναξ οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.

The lord whose oracle is at Delphi, neither tells nor conceals, but indicates.
– Heraclitus, fragment 93

 

 

This study takes as its basis the stark distinction made by philosopher Donald Davidson in his essay “What Metaphors Mean”: what metaphors mean is exactly what they say, literally, and that what they mean is patently false. Thus, “That man is a wolf” is false. Davidson, in an assertion that has caused much debate, denied that there is any other kind of meaning in a metaphor besides this literally false one. And in this way he confines both meaning and metaphorical truth to seemingly irreconcilable domains. It is not my contention that such a distinction need be true, but only useful in delineating formal, near context-free aspects of language use, and the seeming operational fluidity with which such meanings are produced.

A turn to the 18th century philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico’s work New Science is also made to possibly shed some light upon the nature of this chasm between the formal and the performed. It was Vico’s ambition to unlock through historical investigation the secret of the rational nature of human truth, the limits of what can be known. Key to his understanding of history as a progression of constructed truths, was his discovered belief that humans did not always think as modern people did. They did not categorize things by properties that they shared, as is exemplified by Aristotle’s logic, but had a primitive logic of their own, as they organized the world in pictures, figures and images. He called these classifications “Imaginative Universals”. And as Vico saw it, these universals exhibited themselves in literatures and institutions, as an expression of human needs. Following this theme of pragmatic need, the capacity to imagine identities in terms of images and figure, and the exemplification of such in institutions and texts, gave Vico a gateway into the minds and past cultures, and also the means for narrating the progression to contemporary times.

Because Vico’s concept of “Imaginative Universals” shares with Davidson’s concept of metaphor an alogical character, this makes for a readily available axis of comparison. I start with Davidson’s sharply drawn distinction between a metaphor’s literal meaning and its use, it is my tact to use such a polarity to clear theoretical ground which is particularly fertile to Vico’s conception of the “Imaginative Universal”. In focusing on the univocal character of identities asserted by such universals—the ability to state two or more things to be identical which no rational logic would support—I hope to bring forth both the affective and ideological character of metaphorical speech. Because figurative thinking in Vico was essential to human organization, as it is institutionally and textually expressed, so too may the identities asserted by such universals still be essential to that continued process. The affective nature of figurative identities, that that thing makes me affectively feel the same as that other thing makes me feel, may prove to both shed light on an archaic means of social organization, as Vico theorized, but also a contemporary means of language growth, as Davidson might suggest. As a modern, near-deflationary theory of truth comes is put in contact with the 18th century discovery of the historical foundation of truth, the product of the two puts metaphorical thought both at the forefront of discovery and invention, and at its root.

 

 

 

 

As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can ;
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man ;

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.

“The Ecstasy”, John Donne

 

In the debate over metaphors, when Donald Davidson asks what metaphors mean, he is asking a particular question (α) . He is questioning the popular view of metaphorical truth, and controversially answers that there is no such thing as the truth of metaphorical sentences. Metaphors have long been used to communicate what is thought to be that which could not be said otherwise, and for that reason the commonsense view of metaphors is that they render clear, meanings that resist plain language statement. It is particularly upon this gap between the reported insight of metaphors and plain language statement that Davidson lays his focus. What ultimately comes into question is, Are there truths, is there meaning, beyond things that can be stated literally?

Davidson says that metaphors have no non-literal meaning. He does not equivocate: “The concept of metaphor as primarily a vehicle for conveying ideas, even unusual ones, seems to me as wrong as the parent idea that a metaphor has special meaning”; he continues on to link this restriction to the sense in which metaphors cannot be more plainly said, “I agree with the view that metaphors cannot be paraphrased, but I think this is not because metaphors say something too novel for literal expression but because there is nothing there to paraphrase” (246). Taking to task any attempt to explicate the meaning of a metaphor, he quotes Max Black’s making explicit what seems implicit:

When Schopenhauer called geometric proof a mousetrap, he was, according to such a view, saying (though not explicitly): ‘A geometrical proof is like a mousetrap, since both offer a delusive reward, entice their victims by degrees, lead to a disagreeable surprise, etc.’ (254)

Davidson argues that, Schopenhauer actually said none of these things that Black attributes to him. What he said was solely that geometric proof is a mousetrap. He points out that Max Black lists three similarities, but the list could go on forever (255).

Paraphrase restates what has already been stated. The inefficacy of metaphorical paraphrase for Davidson points directly to the fact that no meaning has been strictly been stated in the first place. He takes as an illustrative example the sentence ‘Tolstoy is a great moralizing infant’, a thought expressed by a literary critic (248). If metaphors call our attention to some likeness, what such a sentence tells us to do is picture a class of objects which includes all infants, plus Tolstoy. The temptation is to say that given enough time and intelligence we could come up with the right words to define what infantness is, the property which all these objects, infants and Tolstoy, share. Davidson’s claim is that no matter the perfection of the words one comes up with, one could never exhaust the implications of such a phrase. His conclusion will be that such an ambition is misguided.

I think, that we imagine that there is a content to be captured when all the while we are in fact focusing on what the metaphor makes us notice. If what the metaphor makes us notice were finite in scope and propositional in nature, this would not in itself make trouble; we would simply project the content the metaphor brought to mind onto the metaphor. But in fact there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention, and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character (262-63)

When we are caused to imagine Tolstoy as an infant, the qualities of infantness give rise to an endless stream of possible propositional statements. An unlimited flow of associations and images come to mind, but Davidson denies these cognitive status as meanings. In order to understand this denial one must first appreciate Davidson’s concept of the truth of sentences—that only propositions can be true—and therefore his restrictive understanding of what can qualify as meaning.

Digging into the idea that metaphors contain two kinds of meaning, a literal and a figurative one, he asks for the rule that connects the figurative to the literal, for otherwise the metaphor just slides into ambiguity (250). He tells us to imagine teaching a visitor from the planet Saturn the meaning of the word “floor.” Through various tappings, pointings and other ostensive gestures, coupled with our speaking of the word “floor”, pretty soon our Saturnian appears to get the idea of the word “floor.” Its use gives it its meaning. Davidson then asks us to imagine that our friend transports us to Saturn, and that “looking back remotely at the earth you say to him, nodding at the earth, ‘floor’…as you were remembering how Dante, from a similar place in the heavens, saw the inhabited earth as ‘the small round floor that makes us passionate’” (251). Davidson questions, how our Saturn friend is to know if you are teaching him a new use of the word “floor” (continuing your point-and-speak method), or teaching him something new about the world. It is a subtle distinction, but for Davidson an important and illustrative one. During the “lesson” the Saturnian was learning something about language, how it connects to the world; but in referring to the earth as ‘floor’ from Saturn, if this is to be understood metaphorically, he is no longer learning something about language, but about the world and one’s relationship to it. It is not simply a new literal use of an old word, but a use whose falseness invites invention. It is upon this differential that Davidson applies the full force of his interpretation of how metaphors work. They work through literal falsehood, by being propositionally untrue. Hence, metaphors cannot be said to have expanded, or even second-order meanings that reference the same thing that literal meanings reference: “That man is a wolf,” is distinctly different from “That man is very much like a wolf” (257), though they both call our attention to similar things. One states something literally false, the other something trivially true (258).

In keeping with the uniqueness of metaphorical play—and its resistance to literalization—Davidson stresses that unlike new literal uses of an old word, the novelty of a metaphor does not wear off. He calls it a “built-in aesthetic feature we can experience again and again, like the surprise in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, or a familiar deceptive cadence” (253). So when Yeats writes, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea,” the effect seems to re-enact itself no matter our explanation of its meaning or the repetition of it. This eternal youth of a metaphor, Davidson argues, is due to its patent falseness. Only fabric is literally torn, only living things can be literally tormented by gongs. So, specific to Davidson’s interpretative enterprise is his restrictive sense of what meaning means: truth is a property of propositions (not of ideas, intuitions or feelings) and as such, requires truth conditions (β) ; for a statement to be said to have meaning, for Davidson it must be a meaning free from immediate context, and be of a propositional nature.

Eva Kittay, while presenting an alternate theory of metaphor in her book Metaphor, usefully summarizes Davidson’s position in this way:

1). Meaning in language is context-free (γ).
2). Aspects of language which are not context-free are not questions of language meaning but of language use.
3). Metaphorical interpretation is context-bound hence it is not a question of meaning, but of use.
4). Therefore there is no meaning of metaphorical utterances beyond their literal meaning.
5). If there is only literal meaning of metaphorical utterances, then any cognitive content they possess must be expressible in a literal utterance.
6). Whatever is interesting about metaphor must therefore lie in a use of language and cannot be a question of an unparaphraseable cognitive content. (97)

She further adduces for Davidson the Tarski-like sentence limitation, “‘Man is a wolf’ is true if and only if man is a wolf.” One can see the conceptual base from which Davidson is denying the meaning of metaphors, and from which he is attributing their unique power in use (δ) . But more interestingly, Kittay recognizes that Davidson may be at a nexus of a change in his idea of rule-governed, formal linguistic meanings, and what will be made more evident in his not-yet-written 1986 essay “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” where he moves from “truth-condition semantics” to a provocative concept of language as the convergence of “passing theories” sharing inferential methods (118). One is left with the impression that Davidson, while in theory explicitly restricting the realm of metaphor to literal falseness and linguistic use, in the gap between formal/literal meanings and linguistic performance, he has opened the door to a larger meaning-field, that in terms of a potentiality of meanings produced.

So as one comes to grapple with what “use” means in the world, and how metaphors may come to eventually “die” after long periods of a “figurative” life—in the way that bottles and rivers have come literally to have “mouths”—one might see how falsity can have a productive effect on the future use of words, and thus how something literally false may be taken as the causative basis of future literal truths. In this way the prospects of understanding language itself as an institutionalized limit of social capabilities, a formal grounds or horizon whose very broken formality, of which metaphor is a primary example, constitutes the possibility of its growth and capability through repair and inclusion. Between the formal truth of propositions, and the richness of linguistic performances, lies, one might claim: invention. This could be called the difference between Okham’s Razor and Vico’s magnet (ε) .

 

 

 

…it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the phrase with their lips but have nothing in their minds, for what they have in their mind is a falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails them to form a vast false image.

– Giambattista Vico, New Science §378

 

When considering the possibility and consequence of meanings that are not literally true in the Davidsonian sense—as we draw out from the narrowness of an academic debate, to the relevance of the social organization of the world that philosophy and sociology seek to describe—it may be instructive to look to the original concepts employed by Giambattista Vico in his Scienza Nuova. Vico’s work rests at the nexus when philosophy first came to realize the possibility of historically constructed truths. And while it is not necessary to take in the full scope of this remarkable and imaginative work, it will pay to unlock the novelty of his approach to history, truth and ideas, and examine the constitutive role given by him to kinds of human thinking in the concretization of events and institutions. For it was this role of kinds of thinking that he imagined he had discovered, and which he called “the master key” to a new science (New Science §34).

It is helpful to first retrace Vico’s epistemic turn from the world of Nature, to the world of man-made things. In this way his ideas of the imagination can best be situated in his discovery that what’s ‘true’ can be known through history (ζ) . Vico’s New Science (1730/1744) was aimed broadly at—yet beyond—his realization that “the true and the made are transposable,” (verum et factum convertuntur), or more simply put, “the true is the made,” a principle he first presented in Ancient Wisdom (1710). This was his radical break from Descartes’ claim to have internal knowledge which could be a foundation for the sciences. By the logic of this stated principle, Vico argued that God alone was given the possibility of a knowledge of the physical world, for only God had made it (Verene 37-40). Yet, though this verum-factum principle indeed cleaved man from scientifically knowing the intelligibles of the universe, it also placed mathematics and geometry within the purview of the knowable, because as he argued, points, lines and planes were in fact made by men. In this way, by analogy, as God had made the universe and so knows it, so men have made geometry and know it. It is intelligible to them. So this division between Nature and the things man has made was the first logical move that would allow Vico to turn his attention to other things understood also to be made by men.

This verum-factum principle had prepared the ground for a second seminal thought, first presented in Universal Law (1720), ten years later. “The certain is part of the true” (certum est pars veri), a necessary connection seen between the rationally true, and the historically known, between ideas and language, and between ratio and auctoritas (Fassò 4-6, Fisch 408, Verene 56). The emphasis had shifted from the distinction between the divine and the human, to two aspects of the humanly made: the true and the known. By the time of the New Science Vico’s distinction is such that, The true is still the intelligible; the certain now is the ascertainable. The intelligible is that which may be understood by reason, in terms of causes, universals, laws. The ascertainable is that which may be witnessed, or suffered, or known by testimony of witnesses or from competent authority (Fisch 412).

These two principles—that the objects of science are only things made, and then the realization that Nations are made by laws, languages and customs produced by human choice as the world is experienced and rationally conceived—allow Vico the full scientific shift from the natural world, to history itself, as accomplished in his New Science:

§138 Philosophy contemplates reason, whence comes knowledge of the true; philology observes that which human choice is author, whence comes consciousness of the certain [163, 325].

§140 This same axiom shows how philosophers failed by half in not giving certainty to their reasoning by appeal to the authority of the philologians, and likewise how the latter failed by half in not taking care to give their authority to the sanction truth by appeal to the reasoning of the philosophers. (η)

Vico conceives of a geometry “more real than just points lines, surfaces and figures,” a geometry of choice-made history, that brings reason and authority together in analysis (§349, §392), achieved through a verstehen (θ), or imaginary re-experience of the sensus communis of past Nations through the rational consideration of the historical evidence it has produced (Verene 55). Central to this analysis, and lastly more germane to our issue of metaphor, is his claim that humanity has gone through distinct historical stages, and that at each stage, as reflected in their laws, institutions and texts, human beings have thought, and even perceived, fundamentally differently. Strikingly, for Vico the abstractions that distinguish modern thought were not at all possible for the first kinds of humans, who were like beasts; (for example the classification of objects, for instance “lions,” by virtue of a property that can be attributed to them, “are four legged,” is not available to earliest humanity). The obvious and significant questions are: How would such kinds of humans organize their sensations; how would they see the world, if classification by properties was not part of their capacity? What kind of “thinking” were such primitives capable of if not the categorical thought that modern humans habitually seem to use? Giambattista Vico’s answer was that the first two stages of humanity, the Age of Gods and then the Age of Heroes, used “Imaginative Universals,” which he contrasted with “Intelligible Universals,” the kinds of thought genera clearly laid out by Aristotle. Earliest humans simply could not think like Aristotle, nor even perhaps like the average Greek of the agora of Aristotle’s day.

Vico had a variety of terms for “Imaginative Universals”: caratteri poetici, generi fantastici, and universali fantastici, (Verene 65-66), but these terms all coalesce around a fabulous use of language in which several particulars are condensed into the identity of a single ideal thing, a portrait, a picture, an image. What is core to this idea for our purposes is that though this condensation defies the modern logic of semantic meanings—in that particulars have a shared identity and not shared properties—such aboriginal universals would still be a mode of thinking, and so might give clue to the way contemporary metaphors work to organize meanings that when put into plain language can be read by Davidson as literally false (ι).

Vico makes his starting place the attempted difficult verstehen of the past, “…we can now scarcely understand and cannot at all imagine how the first men thought[,] who founded gentile humanity. For their minds were so limited to particulars that they regarded every change in facial expression as a new face” (NS §700). He glimpses how original humanity was dramatically charged with the need for separating out the instances of sensation, immediacy, without having the conceptual tools of modern abstractions. And though his fantasy of an infinity of faces in the same face betrays perhaps believability, the trope of its meaning is clear. The uniting of the dissimilar as One is the first metaphorical act of human understanding (κ). There is for Vico a bodily force of human need, of utility, which drives the archaic class of images in a pragmatism of making (λ); he is wrestling with proto-conceptual perception at the level of emotions, as passions bring needs to the world in situ, and order it pictorially, that is, make/invent it in terms of a poiesis that would come to be in history literally sung (μ). He extends the power of this originary clustering of the real in the sung, to the second Age of Heroes, and sees it exemplified in Homeric metaphorical language, and even seen in reason-deprived men of the modern age:

§227…natural speech was succeeded by the poetic locution of images, similes, comparisons, and natural properties.

§228. Mutes utter formless sounds by singing, and stammers by singing teach their tongues to pronounce.

§229 Men vent great passions by breaking into song, as we observe in the most grief-stricken and the most joyful.
§230 …it follows that the founders of the gentile nations, having wandered about in the dumb state of wild beasts and being therefore sluggish, were inexpressive save under the impulse of violent passions, and formed their first languages by singing.

To give sight into how Vico conceived that such metaphorical, indeed fabulous thinking might work, and remain focused on metaphor, one must examine the univocal character of that kind of thought, that is the ways in which it is able to assert a truth that is logically nonsensical.

If we consider the matter well, poetic truth is metaphysical truth, and physical truth which is not in conformity with it should be considered false. Thence springs this important consideration in poetic theory: the true war chief, for example, is the Godfrey that Torquato Tasso imagines; and all the chiefs who do not conform throughout to Godfrey are not true chiefs of war (New Science §205).

Donald Verene brings into bolder relief this univocal quality, pushing forward the kinds of alogical truths that fabulous thoughts present. Universali fantastici declare identities, not similarities:
The poetic mind can make assertions that are nonsense for the rational mind. It can assert meaningfully for or to itself that each member of the class of wise men is literally Ulysses, not that each individual is a Ulysses or is like Ulysses, but that each is identical with Ulysses. Each individual can be said to be Ulysses in the sense that Ulysses is their reality (77).

The very epistemic reality of a particular thing is found in its ideal pictorial form. A “wise” person actually has existence—that is, we at a fabulous and primitive time would be aware of his existence, our ability to assert it as a thing—only as Ulysses, a reality to which all physical truth must yield. Hillard Aronovitch rightly expresses the bodily source of this univocality, as coming out of the sensus communis of a people, “imaginative universals are sensed and felt, and so brought into being” (220-221) (ν). In the shadow of Davidson’s prohibition of attributing literal meaning to metaphorical statements, one can see that Vico’s universali fantastici potentially step in to fill the void where Davidson has permitted only linguistic use and not meaning. For it is through this vertical apparatus of imaginative identities that statements that are literally false in semantic terms, can be seen as assertively true.

The facticity of metaphorical truth can be followed as Vico makes the requisite bridge from the fantastic thinking of primitives to the literary use of the tropes and metaphor in particular:
All the first tropes [metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony] are corollaries of this poetic logic. The most luminous and therefore the most necessary and frequent is metaphor. It is most praised when it give sense and passion to insensate things…by which the first poets attributed to bodies the being of animate substances, with capacities measured by their own, namely sense and passion, and in this way made fables of them. Thus every metaphor is a fable in brief (§404).

If one’s analytic gaze remains upon the construction of metaphorical meanings, upon their non-analogical nature, being clear that when fabulous identities are made, in that particularities are brought under a single ideal image, one sees that they are essentialized. It is metaphor’s “unity-in-difference”, and not analogy’s “combination of elements” (Verene 41) (ξ). Because this univocal nature is not the predication of properties by the minds of distant poets, but rather of identities themselves, Vico’s is not a euhemeristic theory of myth, that is, myths are not fabulous “embellishments” of events otherwise first perceived in a historical, “empirically ordered” way (Verene 70-71). Poets do not ornament but rather record. Fables are vera narratio, they tell us exactly how sensations are produced by perceiving minds, in real, literal histories. Again the strict believability of such an insistence will not prove necessary to feel the weight of Vico’s theory; it will not matter if in Homeric times the mind was only capable of organizing perceptions precisely as the poet “Homer” was able to express them—though it is Vico’ contention that the sensus communis of Greece wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and not a man named Homer (§780ff). What is pertinent is that fabulous language has a univocal effect upon perception itself, as it asserts and expresses essentializing identities through portraiture; it both shapes and enables the lens of epistemic witness. In this way, Vico’s is the possibility that primitive humanity—much as animals themselves might—organized sensation entirely through images, a process of which modern metaphorical language, and even contemporary arts, can be seen as a powerful remnant.

Vico turns this exploration into fabulous perceptions back onto the histories of peoples themselves. He sees in myth a reflection of the actual needs and their institutions, given the perceptual capacities of the humans of their time. This is his New Science,

It follows that the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables… By such a method the beginnings of the sciences as well as of nations are to be discovered, for they sprang from the nations and from no other source. It will be shown throughout this work that they had their beginnings in the public needs or utilities of the people and that they were later perfected as acute individuals applied their reflection to them [498] (§51 italics mine).

For Vico scientific thought can trace two ways: up to universaling truth of made rational principles, which is the pursuit of philosophy, or back down to the particular of the “certain,” which he calls the field of philology, but which we might call sociology, or historical ethnography. The relatedness of bodily sensations which are expressed in the earliest pictorial universali fantastici, is for Vico joined in a double progressive move to the concretized linguistic, legislative and institutional forms—all the civic things that humanity produces, what Cicero called the res publica—and as well to the reflective categorical abstractions of philosophical understanding. He describes the direction up from bodily metaphor and then down to rational reflection this way,

§208 Men at first feel without perceiving, then they percieve with a troubled and agitated spirit, finally they reflect with a clear mind.

§209 This axiom is the principle of poetic sentences [703f], which are formed by feelings of passion and emotion, whereas philosophic sentences are formed by reflection and reasoning. The more the latter rise toward universals, the closer they approach the truth; the more the former descend to particulars, the more certain they become.

What remains to be uncovered—if indeed Vico’s metaphorical “thought” fits into the aporia of use left by Davidson’s strict exclusions—is the way in which univerali fantastici become or co-exist with universali intelligibili; and if so connected, do the univocal operations of Vico’s fabulous language identities still function in present day? A baseline for a linking such interpretative imaginations of the past with contemporary meanings can perhaps be found in Cohen and Nagel’s discussion of the “logic of fictions,” from their book An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, as Donald Verene suggests,

Metaphors may thus be viewed as expressing the vague and confused by primal perception of identity, which subsequent processes of discrimination transform nto a conscious and expressed analogy between different things, and which further reflection transforms into the clear assertion of an identity or common element (or relation) which the two different things possess (qtd. in Verene 79).

Vico was under the view that he lived in the age of men, cut off from the poetry of past ages, a rational realm of ironic distance that lacked the ability to percieve somatically as ancient humanity once had. Yet if we are to consider the degree to which imaginative universals are not just past identities, but perhaps active consolidations of social meanings in language and figure that later become literalized, we might do well to distinguish just what these “subsequent processes of discrimination” are, and how, beyond the simple breakdown of pictures into categories, do such pictures become real? In this way the firm line that Davidson draws in metaphor might become a line of luminance, one that allows us to set into bold relief the factual, institutional, literal constituents of life, the things agreed upon in practice, and the affective unions that underwrite and give birth to them.

 

 

5.472 The description of the most general propositional form is the description of the one and only general primitive sign in logic.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must remain silent.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

 

A Juxtaposition of the Two Views (ο)

1. A Vico-inspired sociological reading of Davidson’s dichotomy of literal meanings and use is aided by a return to his parable of the teaching of an alien visitor the meaning of the word ‘floor’. (Recall that this involved pointing at various floors, and speaking the word ‘floor’ aloud.) There is in this example something of what is involved in the use of use that metaphor is supposed to entail. Davidson writes:

Should we call this process learning something about the world or learning something about language? An odd question, since what is learned is that a bit of language refers to a bit of the world. Still it is easy to distinguish between the business of learning the meaning of a word and using the word once the meaning is learned. Comparing these two activities, it is natural to say that the first concerns learning something about language, while the second is typically learning something about the world. If your Saturnian friend has learned how to use the word ‘floor’, you may try telling him something new, that here is a floor. If he has mastered the word trick, you have told him something about the world. (251)

Note that he re-inflates the distinction that he momentarily collapses: “An odd question…” becomes “Still it is easy to distinguish…”. Learning that some bits refer to other bits indeed is important. When one has learned meaning, in particular how these bits are used, one can then learn something about the world, that is you can use them. What is missing from this dichotomy of the things you can learn about when learning language—and this is key to an ideological component of metaphors—is that when learning language you are learning something also about one’s relationship to the world.

2. When you turn to earth from the distance of Saturn, and metaphorically point saying ‘floor’, the reason why this is not simply a new use for an old word, a simple adding to its meaning and the things we know about language, is that one is telling our Saturn friend how we relate to earth, and inviting her to, at least empathetically, relate to it in the same way.

3. “Earth makes me feel the same way that floor makes me feel, it puts me in a similar state.”

4. This is not to say that this is the cognitive content of the metaphor, or meaning, but rather its effect. Body states are invited to be superimposed, and this effect is most efficiently accomplished through literal falsity. When a statement is literally false, but still presumed by situation to be of communicative value, the fuller affective status of figurative “meanings” can take place. The invitation is to affectively and non-systematically feel about this bit of the world in a non-literal fashion, to experience a sensus communis. Because of this socialization through affect, the viewer, reader, listener becomes ideologically fixed, affectively oriented.

5. The work of a metaphor is compared by Davidson to that of a joke, and this is a good point for comparison:

A metaphor does its work through other intermediaries—to suppose that it can be effective only by conveying a coded message is like thinking a joke or a dream makes some statement which a clever interpreter can restate in plain prose. Joke or dream or metaphor can, like a picture or a bump on the head, make us appreciate some fact—but not by standing for, or expressing, the fact. (262)

Upon the hearing of a politically incorrect joke, the simple occasion of “getting of it”, of finding the humor, puts one in an affective state that orients oneself to the world, completely without one’s choice. The “logic” of the joke comes through as true or real, implicating the listener however vociferously she or he might protest its factuality. Those that don’t “get” the joke are simply the ideologically uncoded, and those offended by it are the ideologically polarized, dissonantly recognizing the affective unity that it represents.

6. Because Davidson’s point about meaning and use is one of effect, one can see that there is no strict “logic” of the joke at all, nor of the metaphor or the dream. There is no propositional content—though the use of explanatory sentences could get one to “see” its point if one missed it; jokes can be explained, metaphors analogized, dreams interpreted.

7. Thus, the sensus communis produced by metaphors, jokes and pictures is an affective sociological move, a power move, the binding of bodies through sub-linguistic states. It is precisely because they are not literally true that they are so productive in their use. They foreground the use of meanings, but cannot justify them. Yet, what is the nature of this “finding it” or “getting it”, the seeing of the connection?

8. In looking to make clear the distinction between the literal and the figurative—to bring out both the formal and ideological-affective components—examine an illustrative story from my childhood. From a very young age, perhaps four of five, I learned chess by watching my father and his playing partner play for hours at the kitchen table. They would spend the entire day and night in contest. Some of my earliest memories are of being at the board and watching the pieces move. In the beginning my father was a bit like the Davidson’s earthling, teaching me between games what things were by pointing to them and pronouncing their names. Learning to set up the board in the starting position was perhaps my first formal achievement. At times I cannot remember, surely the rules were then explained to me: the way that pieces moved, the aims and restrictions involved, the literal limits of the game. Beyond this I would watch silently for hours, and learn more about the game, guessing at strategies and counter-strategies, discovering rules of thumb, recognizing opening patterns. It came to the point that I had a fairly literal sense of how the game was played: all the actions could be explained recursively within the vocabulary of the “game” (π).

9. Yet my father’s partner had a certain verve for life, an intensity with which he would move the pieces, the way he would say “Check!” with authority. And he had a particular anomalous habit. At times of game importance, when attacking the queen, instead of saying with customary etiquette “Queen check,” he would baritone “Guard your whore!”, snapping his piece down so it would rap. Putting aside the argument that the piece name ‘queen’ already has a figurative component, and also the convention of informing an opponent of a queen attack, in this proclamation one can see that “whore” ideologically codes the affective experience of the literal piece called the “queen”. The affective associations of attack, defense, honor, femininity, excess, lewdness, power, dignity all coalesce in a single literal move and pronouncement. The figurative force of the name ‘queen’ also is brought into play, yet all of the capabilities of the piece remain the same. No literal change has occurred (ρ). Yet participants are put into a sensus communis. As a child I am not sure how much I understood this then, but this example captures something of the invitation to see-as that metaphor brings about.

10. Such a move in chess accomplishes the two dimensions of “seeing” that Davidson uses to distinguish meaning from use: seeing-that and seeing-as. To illuminate these Davidson recalls Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit, and writes:

[if I say] ‘It’s a duck’, then with luck you see it as a duck: if I say, ‘It’s a rabbit’, you see it as a rabbit. But no proposition expresses what I have lead you to see. Perhaps you have come to know this without ever seeing the drawing as a duck or as a rabbit. Seeing as is not seeing that. Metaphor makes us see one thing as another by making some literal statement that prompts or inspires insight (263, italics mine) (σ).

 

 (τ)

 

My father’s sailor-mouthed chess partner lead my father to see-that his queen was checked by the rules of chess, but also caused him—and to some degree me—to see the queen as a “whore”. To draw the comparison, Vico had ostensibly argued that earliest man lacked even the capacity to see-that, only engaging the world in the seeing-as of Imaginative Universals.

11. The distinction of seeing-as, when put up against the seeing-that categories of formal reasoning and literal truths, seems to require a theory that incorporates creative capacities into the very definition of what is human knowing. Only such a theory could serve to buttress this distinction, for there are no rules to follow in order to see something as something else.

12. With this need in mind let me turn to the discipline of Rhetoric. In his book Rhetoric as Philosophy Ernesto Grassi seeks to rehabilitate the Italian Humanist tradition. In doing so he reflects upon the aporia at the roots of deductive proof, a long standing rational approach to truth. In this way he addresses something of the formal characteristics of truth that Davidson is using to distinguish the meaning of metaphors from its use (υ). He contends that first-principles argument—the deduction of truth from originally true premises—can never be justified in the rational sense; one rather is forced in such occasions to rely upon a non-demonstrative (that is non-apodictic), non-deducible persistence of premise. Such premising is a principle glimpsing of similarity. He summarizes his seeing-as point in terms of indicative speech,

…indicative or allusive [semeinein] speech provides the framework within which the proof can come into existence. Furthermore, if rationality is identified with the process of clarification, we are forced to admit that the primary clarity of the principles is not rational and recognize that the corresponding language in its indicative structure has an ‘evangelic’ character, in the original Greek sense of this word, i.e., ‘noticing’. (20)

Such speech is immediately a ‘showing’—and for this reason ‘figurative’ or ‘imaginative,’ and thus in the original sense ‘theoretical’ [theorein—i.e., to see] It is metaphorical, i.e., it shows something which has a sense, and this means to that figure, to that which is shown, the speech transfers [metapherein] a signification: in this way the speech which realizes the showing ‘leads before the eyes’ [phainesthai] a signification. This speech is and must be an imaginative language. (65)

13. Grassi traces this capacity to “see” back to Aristotle, through the authors of Rhetoric Pico, Polizano, Quintilian and Cicero. There he comes to what Aristotle describes as a fundamental search for “topics” or topoi or common places, which are required when forming syllogisms and arguments (enthymemes) (φ); When approaching a topic one has to recognize relevant distinctions. There are no rules for this recognition. Or as a Wittgensteinian might say, there are no rules for how to follow a rule. The discovery of relations or commonplaces that are necessary for persuasion or proof requires a creative act. It requires a seeing-as; differences must be seen as the same. This creativity is what Cicero called ingenium (Grassi 8, 43, 96), and it was ingenium that Vico had in mind when picturing earliest humanity as primordial poets (χ).

14. With such a view of indicative language, an inventive, metaphorical act is not only at the root of philosophical proof and knowledge, but antecedent to social organization itself. Communal holdings of recognition, a fundamental seeing-as, appear to consolidate, and then later to develop, into a literal and institutional seeing-thats; in this way arguments from first principles, and arguments of persuasion fall back into a rhetorical domain, that of language and its uses.

15. A consequence of this emphasis on use and inventive finding is the unlikely, but possible pairing of latter-Wittgenstein and Cicero. Grassi puts the use/public aspect of Cicero’s thinking briefly in this way:

Since the essence of res (things) is revealed only in their ingenious utilization [usus] in the context of the social and political community, res proves to be res publica, and the state, in its concrete historical situation, turns out to be its original horizon. Only with his efforts on the res publica does man grasp the deep meaning of his labor (9).

By virtue of these homologies of use, it could be said that the Wittgensteinian formation of meaning as use—words of course are public things—is prefigured by Cicero to some degree; and one could also suggest that just as the historic State is seen as the original horizon of meaning for Cicero, so does Wittgenstein see the Lebensform (a Life-form produced by the practices of living) (ψ) as the horizon of meaning (ω). What for Wittgenstein is a form of shared language use, for Cicero is a shared political state.

16. And is not the realization that the “thing” is ultimately the “public thing”, exactly the means by which Wittgenstein denies the possibility of a Private Language—that is a language that one could only speak to oneself, impossible to translate (75-79; prop. 243-264)?

17. Because “first principles” argument cannot ground itself in anything other than the invention of a non-demonstrable, purely indicative source, can it really be that philosophy has found its way back to Cicero and rhetoric through Pragmatism, Wittgenstein, Holism and Davidson, with their combined emphasis on use and public meanings?

18. Because in Davidson’s rather technical point the use of metaphors is at stake, and not their meanings, disagreements over the possibility of the content of any figurative form of expression really fall into a sociological or psychological domains. Exiled from philosophy is a whole host of questions of meaning that long had been held in its purview. Such questions become questions of value and function; and insomuch as they become questions of value, they become questions of social justification and of politics. In that they are things held in common, they are res publica.

19. Consider Richard Rorty’s treatment of Davidson’s approach to metaphor. It is helpful, for he connects it to later developments in Davidson’s philosophy, opening its applicability to a more thorough vision of language as use. In order to get Davidson’s point Rorty asks us to understand language use as the philosopher W.V.O. Quine once expressed it in terms of meaning:
In Quine’s image, the realm of meaning is a relatively small ‘cleared’ area within the jungle of use, one whose boundaries are constantly being both extended and encroached upon. To say, as Davidson does, that ‘metaphor belongs exclusively to the domain of use’ is simply to say that, because metaphors (while still alive) are unparaphrasable, they fall outside the cleared area.” (Rorty 1991, 164)

By talking about language use in such spatial terms, incorporating ideas of domestication and institutional order—the kinds of agricultural and urban practices that delimit an actual jungle from what is not the jungle, the predictable from the unpredictable—Rorty is treading upon Vico-friendly ground; the “word” as it was used and institutionalized, in Vico’s view, is exactly what tames the jungle.

20. Rorty’s interpretation draws on the reasoning behind Davidson’s speculative essay, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (αα). In this essay Davidson is looking to explain language use in terms of communicative competence and coping strategies alone (ββ): Rorty summarizes Davidson’s attempt to radically describe how language could work without any formal rules in this way:

Davidson tries to undermine the notion of languages as entities by developing the notion of what he calls “a passing theory” about the noises and inscriptions presently being produced by a fellow human being. Think of such a theory as part of a larger “passing theory” about this person’s total behavior – a set of guesses about what she will do under conditions. Such a theory is “passing” because it must constantly be corrected to allow for mumbles, stumbles, malapropisms, metaphors, tics, seizures, psychotic symptoms, egregious stupidity, strokes of genius, and the like. To make things easier, imagine that I am forming a theory about the current behavior of a native of an exotic culture into which I have unexpectedly parachuted. This strange person, who presumably finds me equally strange, will simultaneously be busy forming a theory about my behavior. If we ever succeed in communicating easily and happily, it will be because her guesses about what I am going to do next, including what noises I’m going to make next, and my own expectations about what I shall do or say under certain circumstances, come more or less to coincide, and because the converse is also true. She and I are coping with each other as we might cope with mangoes or boa constrictors – we are not trying to be taken by surprise. (1989, 14)

21. This reprise of Davidson places us in a situation similar to the one Vico’s fantasizes about when picturing how human ur-speech developed, a realm of universali fantastici and invention. Questions of coping, ordering and prediction are paramount. The domain of literal truths insisted upon by Davidson in “What Metaphors Mean” has vanished such that only pure use remains, and no formal “meaning”. This apogee of sense is important, not for its literal value—whether we really are only making passing guesses at each other’s meanings, left and right—but as an aid to understand the nature of the distinction that Davidson draws regarding metaphors in his earlier essay. The cleared away ground within the jungle of use, is a particular way of using language under specific conditions. What Rorty sees Davidson arguing against, when depriving metaphors of any meaning other than their literal falsity, is the possibility for the hidden content of metaphors and figurative language to serve as justification for, that is the reason behind, beliefs.

22. Thus, the effects of metaphors are causal. They lie in the jungle of linguistic events like phenomena of the world, outside of explanatory reasons and cleared-away meanings (γγ).

23. A turn to Vico’s conception of the first word, the first universali fantastici may perhaps serve to subsidize this phenomenalization of metaphorical speech. Before abstract rational thought, it may be reasoned, Imaginative Universals operated more like causes rather than reasons. The first Imaginative Universal was, according to Vico, “JOVE” (§193), an onomatopoeic representation of a thunderclap—which Joyce on the first page his of Finnegan’s Wake, in homage to Vico, rendered as a hundred-letter word:

 “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthuntrovarrhounawwntoohoordenenthurnuk”—and for the Greeks it was DSUES, the sound of its lightening strike (Verene 83-84).

24. Apart from the fantastic and projective aspects of these re-imaginations, what is significant is the affective nature of this condensation into an image and word. As Vico saw it, when thunder and its lightening happened, there was an affective, that is bodily reaction among the giants of earliest humanity, and it was this sensus communis (δδ); this shared-body state that produced the ability to project such a thing upon the sky, came to signify the power that bound them. From this primordial condensation of human fear, the gradual literalization and institutionalization of that Universal produced human organization itself. Pervasive JOVE became Jove became law (§398), as theocracies and priests-poets, and then aristocracies and heroes, and then senates and scientists, came into existence to facilitate and interpret the socially constructed signs of the divine. Upon this fundamental trope of an affective sensus communis projected into forms of increasing abstraction, articulation, and institutionality, Vico builds a conception of a history of man.

25. Taken in this way, present-day metaphors—because they are literally false in the Davidsonian formal sense—could be seen as new Vichian affective identities, a breaking of the laws of strict meaning, the figurative intrusion of seeing-as that works to inform the seeing-that of institutional and literal discourse that establishes an inter-objective world. They are the creation of affective possibilities through the very things they cause us to notice. In their causal nature, they are much more like man-made happenings, and as such would have no more a secondary or systematic meaning than thunderclaps or dreams would (εε).

26. As metaphors and other univocal affective identities become actualized in literal and institutional uses, as things one has been brought to notice in sensus communis are formulated in factualizations and legal acts of endowment, they participate in a process by which such identities become effective, dependable means of communication and social organization.

27. When a literal falsity in even the simplest metaphor is put forth in situations of presumed communication about the world, the rationality of the discourse grants weight to that utterance. Thus…

 

28. “Man is a wolf,” (for instance homo homini lupus est), invites us to form an Imaginative Universal, to project the affective state we feel in regard to wolves, upon what we should feel in regards to “man”. Man literally is a wolf, for all affective intents and purposes, in the brevity of that consideration. This identity allows “knowledge” to grow, as one is called to notice wolfish things about man (producing an attribution of shared properties perhaps), to imagine that others see them as well, and as these things noticed add to our ability to socially organize the “truth” of such a metaphor, it becomes more real. It gives us a sense that the metaphor had a meaning in the first place.

29. This “reality” of the metaphor can exhibit itself in models of how the universe analogically might work, such as in the phrases “the brain is a computer,” or “the heart is a pump,” causing us to notice things that lead to pragmatic pursuits of operational knowledge…or it can show itself through social organization alone, such as the affective Universal identities, “that man is black”, or “she is a whore” wherein we are invited to experience one thing under the affective state of another (that one thing makes me feel the way that other thing makes me feel), and literalize that “truth,”—for instance in legal actualizations such as the Octoroon or Indecency which instantiate and codify, literalizing univocal identities. It is the foundational status of this power that is at stake in the seemingly benign question as to whether metaphors have meaning.

30. Davidson’s deflation of metaphorical meaning can be seen in the context of a larger project of the deflation of philosophy itself, in the way that what is called “true” becomes much more an expression of our human ends, and not the metaphysical authority of “the nature of things,” or “how things really are,” to which philosophers or even scientists are special attendants (ζζ). In this way Davidson can be seen in harmony with Vico’s view of human truths, in that the institutional manifestations of human needs, the constant invention and imposed rationality of social organizations, serve as a limit of what we can know. What we know, is a product of what we value. Prescription precedes description. And the true is the made.

31. Primordial affective universals that Vico theorized had once dominated earliest human beings—so that they thought in ways which he said we could hardly imagine—still are prevalent and bind us today. Perhaps only the complexity of our interrelation, (the resonant changes of connection in fields of linguistic abstraction, technology and law) has changed, as the ways in which two or more bodies can be linked have been multiplied.

32. The some form of concept universali fantastici perhaps belongs within philosophical circulation and debate, in recognition of non-justified univocal identities that are occasions of seeing-as that take on importance in a post-Wittgensteinian era when meaning is defined as use, and use is a public affair. Those seeing-as universals, in the figures of metaphor, depiction and visual portraiture, in condensations of bodily states that become literalized and formalized in institutional uses, can be said to still guide us. They may be the fount of our capacities and the limits of their domain. And this sensus communis such that it readily appears, there, eventually and literally true, is both the means, and the barrier, for achieving change.

33. “…it neither tells nor conceals, but indicates…οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει” Heraclitus, fragment 93.

 

 

 

Endnotes

α. Davidson is responding to the view forwarded by Max Black in his influential essay “Metaphor,” in which Black seeks to resolve the unsatisfying vagueness of simply calling metaphors “comparisons”. Black put forth an “interaction theory of metaphor”, giving metaphors “irreducible meaning” and “cognitive content” (following Kittay’s summation, 6). By breaking down metaphorical meaning into “principle” and “subsidiary” subjects, and theorizing a cognitive interaction between them, Black is asserting that there are “systems of implication,” (181), and it is against this systemic claim, with a deflationary concept of the kinds of things that can be claimed, that Davidson is staking out his ground.

β. A distinction is set forth in Davidson’s “Radical Interpretation”:

The first step identifies predicates, singular terms, quantifiers, connectives, and identity; in theory it settles matters of logical form. The second step concentrates on sentences with indexicals; those sentences sometimes held true and sometimes false according to discoverable changes in the world. This step in conjunction with the first limits the possibilities for interpreting individual predicates. The last step deals with remaining sentences, those of which there is not uniform agreement, or those whose truth value does not depend systematically on changes in the environment (136).

By knowing only under the conditions under which speakers hold sentences true, we can come out, given a satisfactory theory, with an interpretation of each sentence. It remains to make good on this last claim. The theory itself at best gives truth conditions (137).

γ. This is a contentious description. Stout, Godlove, Rorty and Penner all dispute this claim (177 Frankenberry).

δ. Alfred Tarski put forward a deflationary theory of truth that has been credited with making clear the “disquotational property” of truth. This is a theory of truth in formal languages such that ‘P’ is True if and only if p. It is upon this formal definition of truth, that a measure of Davidson’s theory rests, in that the disquotation of a metaphorical sentence does not satisfactorily seem to result in its factuality. There is between the disquotation effects of translation for instance: “‘Snow is white’ if and only if la nieve es blanca” seems to provide a basis for truth that “‘He has a heart of ice’ if and only if he has a heart of ice” does not.

ε. Citation unknown.

ζ. This is a larger issue point for Rorty with which I am in agreement. “If one holds a different conception of the limits of semantics and of philosophical explanation, as Black and Hesse do, one has a different conception of the reach of philosophy. Davidson’s metaphilosophical approach differs from theirs, as Newton’s metascientific approach to dynamics differs from Leibniz’s” (Rorty 1991 164).

η. Guido Fassò argues that Vico’s preoccupation with this differential goes as far back as 1708, in his study of Roman Law, (De nostril temporis studiorum ratione): “Here Vico insists above all on the contrast between Roman ius civile, based on authority alone, and the ius honorarium, based on equity or reason: on the contrast in other words, between the certain and the true in law (10). Indeed, when extended to the scientific study of the world, this is nothing other than history, instead of merely law, read as it is both synchronically ideal and as it is diachronically produced.

θ. Aronovitch questions the capacity of an imaginary, that is empathetic, re-making put forth by Donald Verene, as well as the space/time transcendence of the imagination espoused by Sir Isiah Berlin in Vico and Herder (Viking Press, 1976), “…that really to think with or like the primitive mind we should have to treat metaphorical truth as literal truth, signs and symbols of things themselves, and personified types as actual existences, whereas the interpretive understanding depicted above depends on employing these very distinctions to show how the first men apprehended differently from us in not keeping to them (221).” I will propose that the literalization of the metaphor is precisely the process that bifurcates our understanding, and allows historical knowledge. By reading metaphors as bodily effects, the univocality of their reality is re-experienced, but in the context of present day meanings. Though we will lack the complete collapse of distance to our subject that a Homeric man might have had when seeing an army move like flies over a bucket of milk, or Athena implanting a flame in one’s brow, it is that bodily re-experiencing of the literal via the imagination, that leads to the explanatory forces felt in a commonality of senses. It is the very immanence of those affects, which were literalized in language and custom (§313), that poetic thought creates, and hence that provide historical reflection. Even when recollecting the past of one’s own life, the affects of experience are repeated, and reimagined, but in new rational contexts; they carry with them the immance of the rationalities of the past as real and affective, but that immanence need not eclipse the rationality of our own comprehension. One feels in part what the past felt in whole. Or perhaps prospectively put in Vician terms, one experiences the certum of the past in the verum of the present.

ι. In this way metaphorical sentences can prospectively be read as sentences of identity, identity expressed through affective experience, and not literal, or even figurative truths of shared properties.

κ. Nietzsche makes a similar point regarding metaphor and the use of any word or idea, primitivizing rationality: “A nerve stimulus, first transformed into a percept! First metaphor! The percept again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one” (178), and “As certainly as no one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain is it that the idea “leaf” has been formed through an arbitrary omission of these individual differences” (179).

μ. Ernesto Grassi sees that for Vico, the originality of the imagination, the ingenium, occurs in a fundamental and creative nexus between human needs and the sensed, which are joined through the invention of similarities: “The ingenious act of imagination is original because the capacity to lend meanings (meta-phe-rein) – the imaginative activity – itself presupposes seeing similarities (similitudines) between that which the senses reveal and human needs that must be satisfied: ‘Ingenium enables man to recognize similar things and to create them.’ ‘Imagination is the eye of the ingenium’.” (Ernesto Grassi, “Vico Versus Freud: Creativity and the Unconscious” p.147. Grassi’s quoted material is from: De antiquissma Italorum sapient, in Opera di Giambattista Vico, ed. Fausto Nicolini. Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1953, p.300 and 303).

ν. Grassi expresses the “musical” core of the fashioning of communal awareness: “Musike-not musi, but the organizing power of the muses and poets-creates the measure for everything that is not merely ‘outside’ of man in the form of ‘external nature,’ but which also manifests itself in him, in his drives and passions. Poetic, figurative, and hence ‘metaphorical’ activities provide the possibility of mankind liberating himself from the immediate strictures of nature. This possibility proves itself in the ‘festival'; humanity is celebrated in the freedom that is attained in the power of the metaphor” (1980, 75).

ξ. I shall leave behind for the moment the apparent ideological component buried in this example of Ulysses, only to return to it later (for as unrealistic as this kind of perceptive mode may sound at first blush, it does bear notable resemblance to ideological thinking on race, gender and class).

ο. Vico makes this distinction explicit when he compares mythologies, of which metaphors are of but an example, to allegories which in the modern mind are based on the attribution of predicates:

“…the mythologies must have been the allegories corresponding to them. Allegory is defined as diversiloquium [210], insofar as, by identity not of proportion but (to speak scholastically) of predicablity…So that they must have a univocal signification connoting a quality common to all their species and individuals (as Achilles connotes an idea of valor common to all strong men)” (§403). In that mythologies do not share properties in the abstract, as their imposed allegorical interpretations do (First New Science §23), poetic identities carry a vertical, essentializing truth.

π. It should be noted from the start that Davidson’s position would deny Vico’s universali fantasitici any cognitive status. While this would be central in terms of the justification of beliefs, the universali fantasitici are here considered as univocal awarenesses of “same” which help socially organize behaviors which fall into Davidson’s category of “use”.

ρ. Consider Wittgenstein’s musing: “The question ‘What is a word really?’ is analogous to ‘What is a piece in chess?'” (40, prop. 10eight)

σ. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s observation of the “meaning” of a word that changes with emphasis, “When I pronounce this word while reading with expression it is completely filled with meaning.–“How can this be, if meaning is the use of the word?” Well, what I said was intended figuratively. Not that I chose the figure: it forced itself on me.–But the figurative employment of the word can’t get into conflict with the original one” (183).

τ. (166).

υ. This is what Wittgenstein calls “noticing an aspect” (165):

“I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape. [or a rabbit when one had only seen a duck]–My visual impression has changed;–what was it like before and what is it like now?-If I represent it by means of an exact copy-and isn’t that a good representation of it?-no change is shown.
And above all I do not say “After all my visual impression isn’t the drawing; it is this-which I can’t shew to anyone.”-Of course it is not the drawing, but neither is it anything of the same category, which I carry within myself. (167)”

φ. What in Davidson can be characterized as a literal semantics of truth-conditions, in Grassi would be the indicative assertion of premises from which deduction can be performed.

χ. Yarbrough summing and quoting Jacques Brunschwig, “. In the Topics , topoi “are not retrospectively related to a number of already produced syllogisms, but prospectively related to a number of syllogisms still to be produced out of them” (1996, 41). Whereas in the Rhetoric the focus is upon finding the appropriate, because habitually used, topoi for a given problem…(1996. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a ‘Counterpart’ to Dialectic.” In Essays on Aristotle’s Rhetoric , ed. Améle Oksenberg Rorty, 34-55. Berkeley: U of California P.); (81-82).

ψ. Providence has well arranged human things by awakening in the human mind first topics, and then critique, just as cognition of things precedes judgment about them. For topics is the faculty which makes minds ‘ingenious’, just as critique makes them precise; and in early times the question was, above all, to find those things that are necessary for human life, and finding is a property of ingenium (Vico, Scienza nuova, qtd. in Grassi 45).

ω. Wittgenstein writes: “Proposition 241-‘So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?’-It is what human beings say that is true or false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in Lebensform” (75); compare this to Cicero’s proto-Holism put in the mouth of Crassus: “…there exists no class of things which can stand by itself, severed from the rest, or which the rest can dispense with and yet be able to preserve their own force and everlasting existence” (de Oratore III, 19).

αα. Grassi brings out Cicero’s redress of the Greek philosophical interest first principles argument, and the consequential devotion to the “res obscurae” and “non necessariae”. This produces a dichotomy between the “knower” and the one “capable of speaking” [“alii nos sapere, allii dicere docerent,” Cicero De oratore 3.61] (9). It is precisely this division between the knower and the rhetor that Wittgenstein works to dissolve.

ββ. Note that this is the very place Eva Kittay had argued Davidson was eventually heading towards, but had not yet reached in his formulations on metaphor (118).

γγ. Stephen R. Yarbrough in “Passing Theories through Topical Heuristics” takes up the same essay, forming a connection between Davidson and Aristotle, using Aristotle’s concept of topoi as a nexus point (the very same topoi which Grassi had independently stressed in his interpretation of Vico). He explains that what Davidson calls the “mysterious process” of a shared inferential method between language users is actually the recognition and use of such topoi, allowing speakers to form passing yet converging theories on the fly, that is, “communicate”. Thus, the constant invention of solutions to pragmatic questions of everyday communication, through the inferential grasp of topical relations, places ingenium at the core of linguistic competence.

Davidson will claim that communicative competence “cannot be taught.” By “cannot be taught,” it should now be clear, Davidson means that the process cannot be conveyed merely formally in the way one can convey, say, mathematics. Discourse, like all intercourse, is a skill that can be developed not through “book learning” but through a process of interaction with things and people. We may learn in abstraction what a topical relation is formally, but we can learn what it means pragmatically only through discursive interaction, through the back and forth of anticipation and revision of our words’ effects. The chef ephebe must learn through trial and error, through attempt and correction, through question and answer with the master how and to what degree each ingredient, temperature alteration, and so on, affects the balance of tastes, the consistency, and the texture of a base and so the very meaning of “First you make a roux.” A recipe hardly conveys this knowledge, this skill of adjustment and interaction, and the recipe alone means little if anything to anyone who does not already understand the topical relations the recipe implies. The beginner cook cannot really understand the language of the recipe, the intention of the writer, until he has made the étouffée, and made it properly (88-89).

That Grassi finds Aristotelian topoi at the center of metaphor use, and Yarbrough finds it integral to Davidson’s evolved emphasis on discourse competence, suggests that that it is a productive conceptual link between the two aspects of Davidson’s thinking.

δδ. “Metaphors often make us notice aspects of things we did not notice before; no doubt they bring surprising analogies and similarities to our attention…’ But notice that the same can be said about anomalous non-linguistic phenomena like platypuses and pulsars. The latter do not (literally) tell us anything, but they make us notice things and start looking for analogies and similarities” (Rorty 1991, 167).

εε. Heraclitus’,”The thunderbolt steers the totality of things,” (fragment 64), now points toward both an affective community of bodily states, and the institutional practices of authority set up to interpret and literalize these states.

ζζ. “Davidson lets us see metaphors on the model of unfamiliar events in the natural world-causes of changing beliefs and desires-rather than on the model or representations of unfamiliar worlds, worlds which are ‘symbolic’ rather than ‘natural’. He lets us see the metaphors which make possible novel scientific theories as causes of our ability to know more about the world, rather than expressions of such knowledge” (Rorty 1991, 163).

ηη. This is a larger issue point for Rorty with which I am in agreement. “If one holds a different conception of the limits of semantics and of philosophical explanation, as Black and Hesse do, one has a different conception of the reach of philosophy. Davidson’s metaphilosophical approach differs from theirs, as Newton’s metascientific approach to dynamics differs from Leibniz’s” (Rorty 1991 164).

 

Works Cited

Aronovitch, Hillard. “Vico and Verstehen.” Vico Past and Present. Ed. by Giorgio Tagliacozzo. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981.

Black, Max. “Metaphor.” in Models and Metaphors, Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962; originally published in Proceedings from the Aristotle Society, 55, 1954.

Davidson, Donald. “What Metaphors Mean.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
–. “Radical Interpretation.” Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Fassò, Guido. “The Problem of Law and the Historical Origin of the New Science.” Giambattista Vico’s Science of Humanity. Ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Donald Phillip Verene. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Fisch, Max Harold. “Vico and Pragmatism.” Giambattista Vico: An International Symposium, Ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo and Hayden V. White. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1969.

Frankenberry, Nancy K.. Religion as a “mobile army of metaphors.” Radical Interpretation of Religion.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Grassi, Ernesto. “Vico Versus Freud: Creativity and the Unconscious.” Vico Past and Present. Ed. Giorgio Tagliacozzo. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1981.
–. Rhetoric as Philosophy. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Kittay, Eva. Metaphor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Falsity In An Extramoral Sense”. Early Greek Philosophy & Other Essays. Trans. Maximlian A Mügge. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
–. “Unfamiliar noises: Hesse and Davidson on metaphor.” Objectivity, relativism and truth: Philosophical papers, volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Verene, Donald Phillip. Vico’s Science of Imagination. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. 1744. Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithica: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Third edition, revised. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

Yarbrough, Stephen R.. “Passing Theories through Topical Heuristics: Donald Davidson, Aristotle, and the Conditions of Discursive Competence.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. Volume 37, Number 1, 2004.

[written May 6, 2006]

Cookery, Cuisine and the Truth: Plato’s Gorgias

 

From Plato’s Gorgias:

Polus: But what do you consider rhetoric to be? [462c]
Socrates: A thing which you say–in the treatise which I read of late–“made art.”
Polus: What thing do you mean?
Socrates: I mean a certain habitude.
Polus: Then do you take rhetoric to be a habitude?
Socrates: I do, if you have no other suggestion.
Polus: Habitude of what?
Socrates: Of producing a kind of gratification and pleasure.
Polus: Then you take rhetoric to be something fine–an ability to gratify people?
Socrates: How now, Polus? Have you as yet heard me tell you [462d] what I say it is, that you ask what should follow that–whether I do not take it to be fine?
Polus: Why, did I not hear you call it a certain habitude?
Socrates: Then please–since you value “gratification”–be so good as gratify me in a small matter.
Polus: I will.
Socrates: Ask me now what art I take cookery to be.
Polus: Then I ask you, what art is cookery ? [462e]
Socrates: Then I reply, a certain habitude.
Polus: Of what? Tell me.
Socrates: Then I reply, of production of gratification and pleasure, Polus.
Polus: So cookery and rhetoric are the same thing?
Socrates: Not at all, only parts of the same practice.
Polus: What practice do you mean?

Socrates, in the Gorgias, compares rhetoric, that is the art of speaking, to cookery [opsopoiike ]. He distinguishes it from arts [techne ], calling it merely a practice [or habituation, empeirian ], or worse a routine [tribe ], and as cookery, it falls into being a subdivision of a larger devotion [epitedeuseos ], which is flattery [kolakeian ]. He contrasts cooking to medicine, and distinguishes that medicine is something that, unlike mere cooking, tells us the real nature of things [phusis ]. And he bases this distinction upon the idea that it is the soul commands the body:

For indeed, if the soul were not in command of the body, but the latter had charge of itself, and so cookery and medicine were not surveyed and distinguished by the soul, but the body itself were the judge, forming its own estimate of them by the gratification they gave it…everything would be jumbled together.

Now, a thinker like Nietzsche, (and in a way, one like Spinoza), would turn to the Latin word for wisdom, sapientia, and speak of how such a word is derived from the sense of experiencing, or literally tasting, and suggest that such a dichotomy between cooking and medicine is not so strict. Also, as the body/soul distinction begins to break down, does not the rhetoric/truth distinction also begin to break down? Is it not, in any particular monism one might have, that when we encounter a thought, we “taste” it, as if it were cooked up, and find ourself either repelled or attracted to it, almost instinctively. And is it not the case that through familiarizing ourselves with certain abstract “cuisines,” we can acquire a taste for them, become able to digest with pleasure what in the past might have repelled us? And as we familiarize ourselves with these “practices,” we even can become expert enough to cook some up ourselves, so that others who share our taste, in tasting them might like them?

And what of medicine itself. Would it not be more wise to consider medicine a sub-division, a derivative of cooking? Are not pharmaceuticals really very narrowly defined recipes of “cooked things,” both in history (let’s say from the processes of alchemy to those of chemistry), and in actual practice? Could this not be said of “truths,” a series of cultural practices which “taste” has lead a community of thinkers to produce? And in the opposite direction, I have always found interesting the philosophical concept of “essence”. How like in cooking, I am thinking of French Cuisine, does one try to reduce things to thier essential parts, boil it down to a concentrated form, whose digestion has a remarkable effect. Is it not a mistake to have taken Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum to be something other than a French reduction, a boiling down of the bones and juice so as to make a sauce, designed to have appetitive affect (perhaps that Rosecrusian was himself confused).

Could it be that all this distillation and cooking has been meant to be nothing more than something experiential, a kind of cooking that aims for pleasure, (not the kind of “immoral” pleasure that rationality fights against), the kind of pleasure that comes with health and experience. There is a funny thing that happens when you study a philosophy in its detail, tasting all its distillations, all the recipes you have worked to become acquainted with: you begin to experience the world differently.

Perhaps Socrates got it wrong. The Body does do the discerning, and the result is not that all things are jumbled together. But rather that the body is wise, is tasting. And the result of this tasting, are things such as medicine, science and ethics (among so many other things, with which they are not jumbled). Is it not that with even the most abstract things we are still tasters, that work to refine and enhance our tasting capacities.

Cicero was of the opinion that Socrates in his division of rhetoric from philosophy did a great dis-service to both. It deprived rhetoricians of important things to say, and philosophy ways of saying them. It made philosohy otherworldly, meant to exist apart from the community of users (“tasters”) that together made philosophy both possible and important. Achilles, by Homer, is described as being great in speech and deeds. He is both knowledgable in medicine, but also notably in preparing meals. Would it not be advisable to see clear, once again, the connection between cooking and thinking, and hence between thinking and community?

…What the word does is open one up to both the biological and cultural (historical) origins of discernment. Further, I think it demystifies judgments to a degree. We certainly don’t know how “taste” works in any determinant experiential manner, but it is not mysterious. We accept the “foundationless” nature of taste without fearing that such a foundationlessness will fall into relativism. If we taste propositions, and either like them or not, we might not be so deluded into thinking it is due to something entirely ahistorical. And there is something potentializing in thinking about philosophies, or arguments as recipes. Or even essences as “reductions”. This of course is not without precedence, for Plato in the Phaedrus, in telling the orgins of the written word, speaks speaks of writting as the “pharmakon” (which can mean either “poison” or “medicine”), properly the “potion”. This is something that Derrida makes a great deal about, the inherent polysemy of words and meanings. Written texts are recipes that produce a multiplicity of effects.

 

[written September 5, 2006]

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