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The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affect and Triangulation, Part II of IV

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A Davidsonian Completion of Wittgenstein: Two Pictures of Language 

[continued from Part I, here is Part III]

The second part of this paper seeks to answer the vexing question: Given the widest of views that Augustine’s description offers, that of a panpsychic reality understood and filtered through our linguistic capacities to describe as real, how do we get our footing in the kinds of relations which make up our capacity to language in the first place? Wittgenstein’s critique, designed as it was to level certain Cartesian assumptions, as they had been preserved in the language of philosophy in his day, seems lacking in the ability to be applied beyond the ends of their means. Appeals to images of games played and rules followed only seem to take us so far. This is not due to any failing on his part, but rather to the nature of his project, and the kinds of discourse that he was rebutting. Here I will be concerned with approaches to languaging, and what they imply, such as to more fully embrace Augustine’s deeper vision, that of an active and affective world, in communication. And here will be presented prospective thoughts, not wholly in argument, but in illustration of what is occurring when we speak, both about ourselves and about the world, working towards the possibility of a theory, if only in the widest sense of the Greek word theōrein.

If there is a way to sketch out the bounds of Wittgenstein’s thought, perhaps it can be found in his illustrative examples, the nature of which are designed to bring forth certain aspects of language which he would like to emphasize. They do not really work so much as arguments, but rather conceptual signposts, thought-experiments, highlighting important characteristics of language which otherwise might be missed. In their very nature they must also in their emphasis suppress, or cause to fall into the background, other features not germane to his line of thinking. One could not say that Wittgenstein has brought out every salient point of language in his examples; rather, in taking his method seriously, one must assume that there are other ways of picturing and thinking about language than those he considered. It is my hope to take up just such a position, not as to say that Wittgenstein was wrong in the picture he painted of language, but rather that his explication is necessarily incomplete. By considering alternate pictures of language, a further light may be cast upon Wittgenstein’s own. Hopefully, by bringing into some relief the illustrative choices he made, so too will be made clear the nature and limits of the arguments they supported. So the ambition is to supplement an already rich oeuvre, so as to turn its explanatory power towards something more than what it already has achieved.

If Wittgenstein’s later philosophy could be characterized by a single picture of language, it seems to be that “rule-following” pictures would carry the day. Of course no philosophy can be summed in this manner, but certain thought-pictures can express the kernel of thinking which larger, over-arching arguments then explicate. In Philosophical Investigations, the picture of language that comes to mind, are those presented in the first sections of the book. It is they that establish a conceptual base from which he works. It is that they are not meant to be full or complete explanations of how language works, but as Ur-presentations, they suitably set the reader off in a direction. Perhaps one could say that they form the “ancient city” around which the more straight-lined suburbs of Wittgenstein’s descriptions of language and meaning will be built. Among these are the Five Red Apples game of section one, the Language of the Builders of section 2 (and 8-10, and 19-21). These are both designed to point up the rule-following dimension of language use, and lead up to the general concept of “language game” itself. What they present is a wholly public, and learned-by-rule picture of language. This is central to Wittgenstein’s conception. The question is: Are there other, fundamentally different pictures of language, thought experiments, which might shed other light upon the nature of language itself? And what is it that such pictures, as effective as they are, lose in their emphasis?

What I have in mind to contrast with these is the primary language picture used by Donald Davidson, taken from his professor, Quine: that of the field linguist, which shall be summarized shortly. Like Wittgenstein’s use of elemental language games, such as the Language of the Builders, such a thought-experiment is not here meant to be an argument per se; that is, one that proves Wittgenstein wrong, and Davidson right. Rather, it should be meant to be set beside Wittgenstein’s, so as to draw out the delineations of his thought, as it is presented in such examples that begin his work. As Freud once said of analogies, the do not prove anything, but they help us feel more at home. In proposing an alternate thought-picture of language, one can suggest that there is more than one way to feel more at home, in language.

Instead of a Language of Builders, Davidson, ala Quine, imagines as a fundamental picture of what goes on in language use, the occasion of a field linguist who is exposed to a native speaker whose language he knows nothing about. The reason for taking up such an example for Davidson is simple, we have no defendable account of how language is acquired, so we must make due with something more:

It might help if we knew how language came into existence in the first place, or at least could give an account of how an individual learns his first language, given that others in his environment are already linguistically accomplished. Failing such a knowledge or account, what we can do is instead ask how a competent interpreter (one with adequate conceptual resources and a language of his own) might come to understand the speaker of an alien tongue. An answer to this question should reveal some important features of communication, and throw indirect light on what makes possible a first entry into language (“Three Varieties of Knowledge.” 210)

 

 

 

 

 

When comparing these pictures of language, it is important to note that Wittgenstein’s language pictures of rule-followers operates somewhat rhetorically as mythic “primitive roots” of language use. He asks us for instance to understand The Language of the Builders as a “language more primitive than ours,” which nonetheless is “complete” (PI §8 ). In this way, such an imagined language operates in a mythical domain, one which conflates our unfortunate stereotype of one-word aboriginals who merely point, gesture and shout, with the very process we might ourselves undergo as children in a sufficient account of how we acquire language in the first place: how we might move from “training” to “thinking”. Apart from the cultural bias against such natives seen as “savages,” (perhaps ancient monument stone-stackers), upon which this example builds some of its satisfactory value, it is the way in which it subtly stands as a picture for aspects of language acquisition itself, that makes it both problematic, and effective. Davidson too returns to an idea of primitiveness, a seductive scene, but this time with the idea that whomever the interpreter is listening to (and in Wittgenstein’s example, we are invited to be interpreters, to understand how such a language is both like ours and not like ours, PI § 20), indeed has a complete and functioning, non-“primitive” language, just as we do.

As stated, the picture of language that Davidson begins from is that of a field linguist visiting a land with native speakers whose language is utterly unknown. It imagines a newly arrived anthropologist confronted with a native, who, in the presence of a rabbit which has just run by, shouts the word “gavagai” (Quine 52). Davidson is concerned, much like Quine before him but to much different ends (α), with what is it that is necessary to successfully interpret such a behavior/word. Quine will problematize even the translation of such a word “gavagai” into the one word sentence “Rabbit!,” but only insomuch as show the nature of an essential interdependence that does not rely on rule-following as a grounds for meaning (γ). There can be no appeal to rules between these languages. Davidson will find that what is necessary is not a specific training in language of the native, that is, an ostensive or rule-following pedagogy such that the field linguist can then justify his interpretations according to those rules, within that language, but rather, a generally assumed correspondence and coherence between his own speech (language) and that of the speaker’s (language), and the world it describes or responds to. He will follow a Tarksi-like conception of truth, such that the veracity of a sentence logically relies upon the veracity of another sentence in another language, such as in the classic example: “Snow is white” is true iff schnee ist weiß.

It is this fundamental co-incidence of sentences and effects in the world, which produces translation and meaning (β). What is important for our discussion here are not the immediate details of the justification of such an claim, but rather the elementary divergence between these two fundamental pictures of language. Each picture, those of a primitive language composed of orders and actions, and that of two language users coming to understand each other across the bounds of each of their languages, brings into clarity specific aspects of the nature of language use itself, as each thinker conceived them. Primarily, Wittgenstein’s Builders are rule-followers, Davidson’s linguist is an interpreter. These core pictures in this way allow us to see how much we are like each, rule-follower or interpreters.

Davidson in his “Three Varieties of Knowledge” thus offers a different sort of picture of what is going on at the primitive level of language use. What Davidson sees is that language use itself, even within languages that speakers share, is an occasion of interpretation. We are all, under Davidson’s picture of language, interpreters of others. All field linguists, by analogy. It is important that it be understood, much as Wittgenstein examples of rule-follower and game-players, that it is meant as an illumination, and not as a reduction, something that will “cast light” onto the nature of what we are doing (although Davidson’s example has the advantage of being something that actually occurs). What Davidson presents is a world in which people are not bound together in uses by the reference to shared rules or conventions which fix meanings and provide the sole process of justification, but rather one in which social relations are composed of a kind of immanent rationality, which displaces itself across a triangle of three domains. What Davidson will argue is that there is a trinity of knowledges of which or knowledge itself is composed: knowledge of ourselves, others, and that of the world; and that no one (or two) legs of this triangle can stand on its/their own. Any two assumes the third.

In a certain sense, Wittgenstein can be said to be, because he is arguing against a Cartesian framework of knowledge, still caught in the picture of Self/world, or Self/other, as he uses rule-following to upend one leg of the triangle or another. Adequately he plays one aspect of contiguity against another, but is yet unable to take them up into a whole, partly because he is not concerned with doing so. Philosophy has long found itself run aground upon the reefs of skepticism, either of other minds, or of the world itself, and Wittgenstein points clear of such reefs, articulating the wholeness of our communications, their fabriced interweave of interpenetrations. But perhaps because he seeks to bring out certain features of language, against mistakes made due to Cartesian pictures of bewitchment, he is confined within the space in which he engages others. The triangle cannot be taken as a whole. In a sense, Davidson’s view, when put besides Wittgenstein’s, subsumes it, and makes it more clear. It may be that within Davidson’s conception of triangulation, Wittgenstein’s standard of rule-following makes the most sense (δ).

Again, Davidson, like Wittgenstein, will turn to examples of learning, but here how one learns by what others are reacting to. Much as Wittgenstein’s primitive Five Red Apples language (PI §1) is meant to point up the poverty of ostensive definition explanations, and at the same time illustrate the kinds of elementary rule-following that indeed does appear to go on in language acquisition, Davidson will question, more conceptually, what happens when someone learns the use of words as meaningful in the world. The question is: Is there a fundamental acuity in interpretation, which is not reducible to rule-following? This will hopefully expose a primary facility of triangulation which will underlie rule-following itself.

Davidson begins with a larger description, when speaking about how objects and “aspect of the world’ get classified. All creatures indeed do classify objects, under our description, as one kind or another, but do so without language, in that they “treat stimuli as more alike than others” (212); a wolf is able to react to a sheep, as a kind of thing, just as an amoeba is able to react to either another predator amoeba, or a nutrient grade as a kind of thing. Davidson asks, what is the criterion for us saying that this is so, as observers?

The criterion of such a classifying activity is similarity of response. Evolution and subsequent learning no doubt explain these patterns of behavior. But from what point of view can these be called patterns? The criterion on the basis of which a creature can be said to be treating stimuli as similar, as belonging to a class, is the similarity of the creature’s responses to those stimuli (212)

This should be plain enough. What makes us call the behaviors of these creatures, “classification” is our observation that their behaviors before such stimuli have a similarity about them. When an amoeba is in the presence of what we might call a “predator” it behaves in a certain way, it “flees” or “hides,” but when it is in the presence of a nutrient grade, it “approaches” and “feeds”. But Davidson asks the further question, what is the “criterion of a similarity of responses” themselves? What is the standard by which we can say that their responses are similar to each other?

This criterion cannot be derived from a creature’s responses; it can only come from the response of an observer to the responses of the creature. And it is only when an observer consciously correlates the responses of another creature with objects and events in the observer’s world that there is any basis for saying the creature is responding to those objects or event rather than any other objects and events (212)

Our own classification of the similarity of another creature’s behavior, that is our own similarity of responses to that behavior, and its cause, grounds our interpretation of their behaviors, such that we can at the very least say that they are reacting to something that we too are. We are, in the most primitive sense, in agreement. And this sets up the fundamental conception of triangulation which Davidson uses to illuminate what is happening in language. An event or object in the world is taken to affect both us and another in such a way that we are able to make sense of the behavior of that other, as responding to that shared-world event. Thus there is a primary causal picture wherein the world is seen to affect both us and others.

Davidson goes on, and extends this essential relation to language use and interpretation itself, drawing forth what happens when we as language users encounter a foreign tongue we are attempting to translate:

As would be interpreters of the verbal behavior of the speaker of an alien language, we group distinct verbal acts of the speaker together: ‘Mother’, ‘Snow’, ‘Table’, when repeated as one-word sentences, sound similar if we are appropriately attuned. When we discover kind of objects or events in the world we can correlate with the utterances of the speaker, we are on the way to interpreting in the simplest of linguistic behavior (212)

Note how this picture subtly diverges from the kernel of Wittgenstein’s imagined picture of rule-following. It is not simply a matter of learning to repeat actions under command, but a larger idea of understanding that the world itself causes certain reactions, so much as to set up a connection between them. Like our interpretation of the behavior of an amoeba, what we do is correlate the behavior of the creature with events in the world assumed to be shared. In this view the events in the world have a causal relation to the behavior we are interpreting, even linguistic behavior. This is something that even non-linguistic beings do, in fact it seems, must necessarily do, and something that hence must lie very near the roots of what we do in language. When we interpret the occasions of the pronouncement of an alien word for “Table” in the presence of a regularity of an object of a recognizable kind, we are not just being given a “rule” for how to use the word “table”, as a Wittgensteinian might say. Although descriptively we can call the results of such learned behavior “rule-following” what is involved it is not reducible to such a description; rather, it is perhaps better to say that one is experiencing a causal relationship to the world and others, one in which events in the world are experienced to effect both the speaker and the interpreter. Just as we are able to correlate and interpret the behavior of an ameba as caused by the presence of an object to which we are both oriented, so too we are able to correlate the presence of an object in the world, especially in occasions of learned ostensive definition, such that object causes in some sense the behavior of the speaker. Against such a backdrop, rule-following gains stronger footing.

Davidson then turns to the supposed instance of actual language instruction, showing how as instructors we are governed by this sense of causal triangulation, such that the very orientation to a common cause in the world is the thing that helps one understand that behavior as meaningful:

If we are teaching someone a language, the situation become more complex, but more clearly interpersonal. What seems basic is this: an observer (or teacher) finds (or instills) a regularity in verbal behavior on the informant (or learner) which he can correlate with events and objects in the environment…For until the triangulation is completed connecting two creatures, and each creature with common features in the world, there can be no answer to the question whether a creature, in discriminating between stimuli, is discriminating between a stimuli at the sensory surfaces or somewhere further out, or further in (212).

In this way a causal relation to the world becomes principal in our understanding of the behavior of other creatures. The final sentences are paramount. The only thing that tells us that a creature (or speaker) is reacting to things in the world, and not to events occurring on the surface of his/her/its skin, or things below its skin (descriptions of which are readily available in science), is our correlation of their behavior with a causal connection to a shared world. What makes behavior, “behavior,” is that is can shed light upon the nature of the world itself, as an objective thing. And this stems from fundamental triangulation. It is the conceptual triangulation which at its basis gives our thought any content in the first place. Un-triangulated thought would not be “about” anything:

Without this sharing of reactions to common stimuli, thought and speech would have no particular content-that is, no content at all. It takes two points of view to give a location to the cause of a thought, and thus to define its content. We may think of it as a form of triangulation: each of two people is reacting differently to sensory stimuli streaming in from a certain direction. Projecting the incoming lines outward, the common cause is at their intersection (213)

Thus what gives thought its shape and form, and the world its confirmed substantiality is the triangulation of effects between the world, others and ourselves.

This triangulating approach to the nature of thinking, perceiving and interpreting, leads Davidson to a conception of belief that is causal. That is, because we understand others primarily through our ability to see their behavior as in some sense caused by the same things that cause our reactions as well, we come to understand the contents of the thoughts we attribute to others, as caused by events that surround them in the world. Programmed by language, events in the world can cause us to hold beliefs, fears, desires, and reasons (what can be classified as “mental predicates”). It is because we employ these predicates in our ability to get around in the world, and to understand others, this causal connection is fundamental to our knowledge of anything. And in this way, the same mental predicates conceptually act as causes of interpretable behavior themselves. To take one example of a myriad of those available, the fear I had of bees caused me to run into the house. It is core to our interpretations of mental predicates that they be understood as both caused by the world and the causes of our intentional behavior.

Yet there is a distinction to be made, for it does not seem that the way in which we speak of billiard balls is not the same way that we speak of fears and beliefs. Davidson explains that indeed there is a fundamental difference in the way that we relate to causes in the world, and the causal conception of mental predicates which govern our ability to understand the intentional actions of others (ε). Because we read the behaviors of others as interpretations of the world itself, our ability to causally connect those behaviors (the beliefs, desire and reasons) to the world presents a disjunction that makes our concepts about the world distinct from those that govern intentionality. To show how the causes of the world and the causal conceptions we have of beliefs and desires are distinct, he takes up the difference in the kinds of descriptions that may be thought of as causal, for instance those of physical properties such as “the rigidity of the wing caused its failure” and those of mental states, such as “his desire to be healthy caused him to go on a diet”:

In the case of causal properties like elasticity, slipperiness, malleability, or solubility, we tend to think, rightly or wrongly, that what they leave unexplained can be (or already has been) explained by the advance of science…Mental concepts and explanations are not like this. They appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent (216)

In this way, there is a divide in the manner in which we interpret the events of the world, and events of intention, though both are causally understood. “Descriptions of objects, states and events” fall under the capacity for “strict, exceptionless laws,” yet do not contain “causal concepts” (216).  Another way of putting this is that our language games about what occurs outside of us is fundamentally different than that which occurs within or between us, and with this Wittgenstein would have no problem at all-in many senses this is his main point. What Davidson adds to this though, is that these two ways of speaking, that of how the world is, and how we are, are related in that one employs causal laws in one (for instance the Newton’s Law of Gravity), and for the other, causal concepts (that is that our mental states can cause us to act in one way or another, and that these states can be caused by the world).

It is here that we stumble upon a very deep divide between the thinkers, for Wittgenstein makes a rather strong distinction between a reason and cause, in some sense vital to his criterion for what makes a language a language. In his rule-following vision, what is linguistic is the reference to an independent standard for correctness, without which we would not even have the idea of correctness in play. This lies that the core of his so-named Private Language argument. So when envisioning the possibility of a private language, he questions how a distinction one makes for oneself, in a wholly private way, could even be considered a distinction:

But “I impress it on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we cannot talk about ‘right’ (PI §258 )

Davidson agrees with the impossibility of a private language, but grounds his perspective not on a question of rule-following, and justification, but upon an overall coherence of knowledge about the world and others, one such that enables language to get off the ground in the first place. What Wittgenstein importantly tries to do, instead, is place within the domain of the privately inner, a possible world of causation, events that may or may not happen in the head in a patterned manner, reference to which would only be like “buying several copies of the morning newspaper” to check for error (PI §265), or an empty “ceremony” (PI §258), or “a wheel that can be turned though nothing moves with it, is not part of the mechanism” (PI §271), which is distinct from the world of reasons, that which appeals to an outside, independent standards of use. It is upon this independent criterion of use that the possibility of a private language is foreclosed. In this sense, both thinkers agree that it is the connection with the outside world which makes linguistic distinctions linguistic, but in Davidson’s case it is the entire causal connections between world and fellow users, while for Wittgenstein the argument is narrowed to the idea of rule-following alone, something that requires him to entertain a primary difference between reasons (independently confirmed) and causes (internal events).

 

Wittgenstein puts forth his most clear conception of the difference between a cause and reason in the first pages of  The Blue Book. The difference is between something that just happens to happen in one’s head, in a causal fashion, and the appeal to a rule that has been taught you to:

Suppose I pointed to a piece of paper and said to someone: “this colour I call ‘red'”. Afterwards I gave him the order: “now paint me a red patch”. I then ask him: “why, in carrying out my order, did you paint just his colour?” His answer could then be: “This colour (pointing to the sample) which I have given him was called red; and the patch I have painted has, as you see, the colour of the sample.” He has now given me a reason for carrying out the order in the way he did. Giving the reason for something one did or said means showing a way which leads to this action (11).

Notice the distinct difference in language-picture Wittgenstein holds from Davidson, at this level. Where Wittgenstein imagines an elementary use of “samples” and “rules”, serving as a kind of template for how language operates, Davidson sees a causal picture wherein, for instance, in the presence of the color red, that similarity of stimuli, the subject is caused, due to being conditioned by language, to holding the belief that “that is red,” and hence led to proposing a rule to be followed. The student of red, who in Wittgenstein’s case is merely learning a rule, in Davidson’s case might still be said to be learning a rule, but a rule that is grounded in a larger triangulation of causes, which gives the world its objective appearance, (and also implies a necessary knowledge of other minds).

But let us turn to Wittgenstein’s example of what is not a reason:

[if you ask] “Why did you pain just this colour when I told you to paint a red patch?” you may give the answer: “I have been shown a sample of this colour and the word “red” was pronounced to me at the same time; and therefore this colour now always comes to my mind when I hear the word ‘red'”, then you have given a cause for your action and not a reason (15)

From this distinction one can plainly see the same distinction which works in Wittgenstein’s argument against private languages. The domain of the inner, is that of mental events seems to circulate without justification, or appeal to an outside standard. There is no sense of right or wrong, no difference between merely thinking you are following a rule, and actually following a rule.

And Wittgenstein clarifies the reasons why he is not concerned with statement of the kind “this colour now always comes to my mind”, a description of causes, that is, because he is not interested in science or natural history: “But our interest does not fall back upon these possible causes of the formation of concepts; we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history…” (PI p 195). Quite rightly, Davidson would agree with not wanted to do science, for such an approach would be attempting to speak of the intentional, in the language of strict laws which mark out the way we speak of the world. There is a quintessential dividing line there, but such a line, for Davidson, does not cover mental predicates.

Wittgenstein’s strong distinction between reason and cause seems to cover over their relation. We would agree that saying that the this is the color that pops into my mind when I hear the word “red” tells us next to nothing, yet, we should also agree that “His belief that this color is ‘red’ caused him to paint such a color” not only makes sense (ζ), but also is illuminative. This is because, Davidson would tell us, there is a holism of beliefs, that is, we attribute beliefs (and other mental predicates) to others and ourselves in a rational manner, such that they cohere together in such a way that assumed beliefs shed light on other beliefs also attributed or expressed, and these beliefs are largely taken to be true about the world. Assumed beliefs is what positions us in a field of knowledge of others and the world. He puts it this way:

Any particular belief may indeed by false; but enough in the framework and fabric of our beliefs must be true to give content to the rest. The conceptual connections between our knowledge of our own minds [that is, to possess a first person authority] and our knowledge of the world of nature are not definitional but holistic. The same is true of the conceptual connections between our knowledge of behavior and our knowledge of other minds (214)

In the simplest of examples, the mental predication “I fear bees” may be thought of as coherent with other beliefs such as “Bees exist”, “That is a bee”, “Bees will sting me”, “It is difficult to escape bees”, “Bee are unpredictable” and a panoply of unstated others. In principle, it is this shift from definition to holism which allows Davidson to indeed say that our connections between ourselves, others and the world are not fully enough explained by any reference to “sample” and “rule”. Rather, it is the way that we indeed do understand others as having expressed, and very much non-expressed beliefs (desires, fears, etc.), such that they hang together, that gives us to understand “reasons” as caused. We may very well exercise the processes of justification which Wittgenstein champions, pointing to samples, evoking rules which justify our actions, but this can only be done in the larger context of a triangulation in which our beliefs and reasons are seen to be caused by a shared world, and cause (explain) our actions, for only in such a determination are the proper aspects of the world picked out between speakers.

Davidson finalizes his triangulation as an incorporation of both a Correspondence Theory and a Coherence Theory, wherein each plays its indispensable part in stabilizing discourse, an assumption which is regularly and necessarily made in the spirit of charity, maximizes the interpretability of speech.

The Principle of Coherence prompts the interpreter to discover a degree of logical consistency in the thought of the speaker; the Principle of Correspondence prompts the interpreter to take the speaker to be responding to the same features of the world that he (the interpreter) would be responding to under similar circumstances. Both principles can (and have been) called principles of charity (211)

We understand the world, and we understand others because we have formed, within the capacities of language, the possibility to hold beliefs about the world, and attribute beliefs about the world to others, even those with whom we share no language at all (in the case of the field linguist). Indeed there need not be reference to any rule (or sample) at all to understand others (though it can always help). This coherence of beliefs indeed provides something more than knowledge, either of ourselves, or others or the world. It has a normativity, in fact an inescapable normativity, which governs the interpretability of our actions. Apart from our ability to point to samples and rules, in occasions of justification, it is over all our ability to appear relatively coherent in our beliefs, such as others can ascribe them to us, that provides the backdrop for all our communicative action.

Whereas Wittgenstein might turn to the idea of whether indeed someone did or did not follow a rule so as to ascertain whether they were “right,” Davidson would say that the vital difference is between true and false belief about the world, in that, “…an interpreter must separate meaning from opinion partly on normative grounds by deciding what, from his point of view, maximizes intelligibility” (215).  It is not that one has incorrectly pointed to a sample, and played the rules of the game wrong, fundamentally so, but that one has expressed a belief in some way which has shown itself to be false or incoherent with others. Indeed there is an independent standard which justifies our actions, but this is the triangulation of the world, others and ourselves, as it plays out. And this shows itself in Davidson’s principal thought experiment about language, that of the field interpreter alone in a strange land. Missing are any of the recognizable references to rules which make up his own linguistic practices, but in fact he would be able to eventually understand the words and gestures of a native, across conventions. Interestingly, Wittgenstein himself alludes to such a capability at PI §206, “The common behavior of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language”. But Wittgenstein only has it partly right, Davidson would say. In invoking a “system of reference” found only in behavior, Wittgenstein is perhaps still a bit too much of a behaviorist, despite his self-inoculations against the position. There is no “system of reference” per se. Such a commonality is, rather than that of behavior alone, the linguistic capacity to hold beliefs, which hold together in a largely rational whole, such that others can ascribe them to us, and we to others; and such that they can be said to be caused by the world, and in turn cause our intentional actions. If Davidson is right, Wittgenstein’s behavioral “system of reference” is none other the capacity to triangulate the world.

  

 


  

Endnotes

α. It is important to note that Quine is an empiricist, and that his thought experiment is designed to isolate specific kinds of stimulus-meaning sentences, as privileged above others. Davidson see no such capacity, and attacks this empiricist line of thinking rather thoroughly in his “On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” (196).

β. “Consider ‘gavagai’. Who knows the objects to which the term applies are not rabbits after all, but mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits? In either event the stimulus situations that prompt assent to “Gavagai” would be the same for “Rabbit.” Or perhaps the objects to which “Gavagai” applies are all sundry and detached parts of rabbits: again the stimulus meaning would register no difference. When from sameness of stimulus meaning of “Gavagai” and “Rabbit” the linguist leaps to the conclusion that a gavagai is a whole enduring rabbit, he is just raking for granted that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for rabbits and no brief general term for rabbit-stages or parts” (52).

γ. Davidson’s crystallization of truth as interpretation, which he calls “Radical Interpretation” runs as follows: “The intrepid interpreter, working without a bilingual trot, seeks to assign a propositional content to the utterances of a speaker. In effect he assigns a sentence of his own to each of the sentences of the speaker. To the extent that he gets things right, the interpreter’s sentences  provide the truth conditions of the speaker’s sentences, and hence supply the basis for the interpretation of the speaker’s utterances. The result can be thought of as a recursive characterization of truth, by the interpreter, of the sentences, and hence actual and potential utterances, of the speaker” (210).

δ. Davidson himself addresses the Wittgenstein origin of such pursuits, but also suggests the incompleteness of that treatment: “Someone who has a belief about the world-or anything else-must grasp the concept of objective truth, of what is the case independent of what he or she thinks. We must ask, therefore, after the source of the concept of truth. Wittgenstein puts us on the track of the only possible answer to this question, whether or not his problem was as broad as ours, and whether or not he believed in answers to philosophical problems. The source of the concept of objective truth is interpersonal communication” (209).

ε. He stakes this difference upon Quine’s essential difference between the Underdetermination of Theory and the Indeterminancy of Translation, a specific argument of differences which I will not approach in detail here.

ζ. That is, sentences of this kind are part of the “grammar” of the word belief.

 

[Part III here]

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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

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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]