Sunday, September 21, 2014

'But is it art?' Wittgenstein on family resemblance concepts - explained!


But is it Art?

From my The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking. This introduces Wittgenstein on 'family resemblance' and the idea of 'necessary and sufficient conditions'.

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I mean they’d gone and fucking installed the work without me even being here. That’s just not on. This is my bed. If someone else installs it, it’s just dirty linen. If I do it, it’s art. Tracey Emin (artist), Evening Standard, 12/9/00.


Today it seems almost anything can be classified as a work of art: Damien Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, for example. But what is art, exactly? What is it that Macbeth, a piece of tribal sculpture, The Nutcracker Suite, the roof of the Sistene Chapel and Emin’s bed all have in common? What is the common denominator that makes each one of these things art? This is an extremely difficult question to answer. This chapter explains one of the leading theories, taking in one of Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) most important insights along the way.


What is a work of art?

The scene: an art gallery. Fox, an artist, is peering intently at a Rothko. O’Corky tries to engage him in conversation.

O’Corky. You know, I’m just not sure it’s art.
Fox: Of course it’s art. It’s hanging in an art gallery, isn’t it?
O’Corky: So you know art when you see it, do you?
Fox. I’m an artist myself. I have exhibits in the next gallery.
O’Corky: Well, if you’re an artist yourself, then you if anyone should know what art is.
Fox: I suppose so.
O’Corky: So tell me, what is art?

This deceptively simple-looking question can quickly tie you up in knots. We ordinarily think we know what art is. But do we? In fact we can easily construct counter-examples to most of the more obvious definitions of art. Take Fox’s first attempt, for example:

Fox: It seems to me that what qualifies something as a work of art is the fact that it is designed to be pleasing to our senses, to be beautiful.
O’Corky: That won’t do. Much traditional art is pretty. But there are works of art that are not and were not even intended to be at all beautiful. Take Tracy Emin’s unmade bed over there, for example. It’s not a particularly attractive, is it?
Fox: Well, I suppose not.
O’Corky: Yet you say it’s art, don’t you?
Fox: Er. Yes.
O’Corky: So there you are: it’s not necessary that a work of art be beautiful.

In order to try to deal with O’Corky’s objection, Fox might insist that Emin’s bed is in its own way beautiful. But then pretty much every artifact ends up qualifying as “beautiful” in this weak sense, even my socks. Yet my socks are not a work of art.
            Alternatively, Fox might insist that Emin’s bed is not really art, and so doesn’t provide a counter-example to Sam’s definition after all. Certainly many believe there is something of “the Emperor’s new clothes” about the suggestion that an unmade bed might be a work of art. But, we probably ought to be a little wary of such sceptical attitudes. Look back at the history of art and you will find that almost every new development was met with the reactionary claim that “it’s not really art”. That was exactly the attitude of many towards Impressionism, for example.

[[TEXT BOX: THINKING TOOLS: The search for necessary and sufficient conditions.

In pursuing the question “What is art?” we are seeking a certain sort of definition. Here are three examples of the kind of definition I have in mind:

Necessarily: something is a vixen if and only if it’s a female fox
Necessarily: someone is a brother if and only if they are a male sibling
Necessarily: something is a triangle if and only if it’s a three straight-sided plane figure

These are very unusual definitions. Each picks out a feature (or combination of features) that all and only the so-and-sos have, not just in the actual situation, but in any possible situation. For example, in any possible situation all and only the vixens are going to be both female and foxes.
We are pursuing a similar definition of art. We want the following filled out:

Necessarily: something is a work of art if and only if…

It won’t satisfy us, therefore, to explain what a work of art is simply by pointing out a few examples. Nor will it do to pick out some feature or features that works of art happen, merely as a matter of fact, to possess.
We want to know what’s essential. We want to know what in any possible situation is true of all and only the works of art. To adopt the jargon: We want to identify that feature possession of which is both necessary and sufficient to qualify something as a work of art. I call such definitions philosophical definitions. END OF TEXT BOX.]]]

The method of counterexamples

Fox’s definition of art clearly fails to meet O’Corky’s exacting standards. While it might be true of many works of art that they are beautiful, being beautiful is clearly not a necessary requirement. O’Corky demonstrates this by coming up with a counter-example.
A counter-example to a philosophical definition of X is some actual or possible thing that either: (i) is an example of X but fails to fit the definition, or (ii) fits the definition but is not an example of X.  O’Corky criticises Fox’s definition by coming up with a counter-example of the first sort: Tracy Emin’s bed is a piece of art but it’s not beautiful.
Fox has another attempt at producing a philosophical definition of art.

Fox: I think I can do better. Art need not be beautiful. It’s enough that it engage us. A work of art is simply that which is made to entertain us.
O’Corky: You’re wrong, I am afraid. Much that’s designed to entertain is not art. The game of hangman is not art but it engages and entertains. Toys, card games – there are innumerable things that entertain that aren’t art.

O’Corky has again come up with counter-examples. Notice that, this time, his counter-examples are all of the second sort: though they do fit the suggested definition, they aren’t art. Being engaging and entertaining is not sufficient to qualify something as a work of art.
And so the conversation continues. Fox comes up with various definitions of art, including the suggestions that art is, in essence, that which is designed to communicate some emotion, or that which has no purpose. But in each case O’Corky manages to devise a counter-example (you might wish to work out your own counter-examples to these suggestions).

O’Corky: You see. You thought you knew what art is. But you don’t. Not one of your definitions has been correct. In fact neither of us knows what art is!
Fox: I must admit, it’s harder to define “art” than I thought. Still, I’m not sure it follows that we don’t know what art is. After all, we both recognise that these counterexamples to my definitions are good counterexamples. How could we do that if we didn’t know what art is?

This is a good question. On the one hand, our inability to give a philosophical definition of art seems to indicate that we don’t know what art is. Yet, on the other hand, we are able to recognize the failings of the definitions that have been offered. How could we do that if we didn’t know what art is?

Socrates and the method of counter-examples

O’Corky and Fox’s are having a discussion of a fairly common sort. You hear similar conversations at dinner parties and in caf├ęs. Some of the earliest examples are found in the dialogues of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c.428-347 BC). In Plato’s dialogues, a character called Socrates, a real person about whom comparatively little is known and from whom Plato developed many of his own ideas, asks of various individuals, “What is beauty?” “What is justice?” “What is courage?” “What is knowledge” and so on. Socrates was also after philosophical definitions of these things. In each case, despite the fact that those of whom Socrates asks such questions are often supposed to exhibit the quality in question (for example, he asks a soldier what courage is) Socrates always manages to come up with a counter-example to their suggested definition.
In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates concludes that while we might think that we know what beauty, justice and courage are, in fact we don’t know. O’Corky, after constructing counter-examples to the definitions that Fox offer him, similarly concludes that neither he nor O’Corky know what art is, despite the fact that Fox is himself an artist.
In fact the history of Western philosophy is in large part constituted by similar dialogues between philosophers pursuing philosophical definitions. A philosopher comes up with a suggestion. A counter-example is produced. Another definition is offered. Another counter-example produced. And so on. In most cases, we have still not succeeded in pinning down what’s essential. The essence of art, beauty, justice and so on is, it seems, highly mysterious, the quest to reveal it producing a kind of mental cramp.

Wittgenstein on Family Resemblance

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein tries to provide some therapy for this cramp. Wittgenstein suggests that the philosophical quest to reveal these hidden essences is actually a wild goose chase.
Take a look at the following faces.

[ILLUSTRATE: 10 MR POTATO HEAD FACES: NONE SHARE ALL THE SAME CHARACTERISTICS, YET ALL ARE SIMILAR. I WILL SUPPLY ILLUSTRATION.]

You will notice a “family resemblance”. All the faces resemble each other to a certain extent. Some have the same pointy chin. Some have the wavy eyebrows. Some have the big ears. However, there is no one feature that all the faces have in common. Rather, there’s an overlapping series of similarities that links them together.
Wittgenstein suggests that very many of our concepts are similarly “family resemblance” concepts. He illustrates with the example of a game.

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? ­— Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’— For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!— Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared …[T]he result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping  and criss—crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. — And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.[i]


O’Corky and Fox both assume that there must be one feature that all works of art have in common – that feature that makes them works of art. Many philosophers of art make the same assumption. Here is Clive Bell, for example:

For either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of “works of art” we gibber. …There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist… What is this quality?[ii]

But why assume there must be one such feature? Why assume that, unless there is such a feature, when we speak of “works of art” we must gibber? Perhaps art is also a family resemblance concept. Perhaps there is merely an overlapping pattern of resemblances between works of art, just as in the case of games. Perhaps our inability to pin down the elusive, hidden essence of art is due, not to ignorance on our part, but to the mistaken assumption with which we begin – that there is such an essence. On Wittgenstein’s view, the feeling that we have failed to capture what is essential is produced in by part by the assumption that our ordinary everyday explanations of what we mean by “art” are somehow inadequate, that they fail to penetrate to the essence of the phenomenon. On Wittgenstein’s view, art’s hidden essence is a philosophical illusion.
            Of course, it’s not just the common nouns “game” and “art” to which Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance applies. We have seen that a similar sort of intellectual cramp can be produced by asking the questions: “What is knowledge?”, “What is courage?” and “What is justice?”. It’s even possible to produce the cramp by asking the question about ordinary household objects.
Try, for example, to provide a philosophical definition of the noun “chair”. You will find it’s not as easy as you might have thought. There are four legged chairs, three legged chairs, even one legged chairs. There are chairs with backs and chairs without. There are chairs with and without armrests. Some chairs are designed to be sat on, but not all (something might be used as and even properly described as a chair even though it was never designed for that purpose, e.g. we can imagine a cave dweller pointing to a chair-shaped rock and saying, quite correctly, “That's my chair”). And not everything that’s regularly used for sitting on is a chair (a conveniently situated log might be used that way, for example). So what is a chair? What’s the essential “something” that, necessarily, all and only the chairs have? The answer, perhaps, is that there is no such “something”. Chair is also a family resemblance concept.

Can art be defined by a formula?

 Someone might insist that, even if there is no one feature common and peculiar to all works of art, nevertheless we should in principle be able to construct a formula that captures some more complex set of rules determining what is and isn’t art.
Here’s an example of such a formula. Suppose I introduce the term “fubbyloofer” like so:

Necessarily: something is a fubblyloofer if and only if it has at least three of the following six characteristics: wheels, steering wheel, engine, lights, suspension, seats.

Notice there is no feature that all fubbyloofers need have in common.

[ILLUSTRATE: “SOME FUBBYLOOFERS” MAKE SURE NOTHING IN COMMON.]

Still, the conditions under which something qualifies as a fubbyloofer are neatly captured by my formula. Similarly, even if there’s no one feature that all works of art must have in common, shouldn’t we at least be able to a construct a formula that neatly sets out precisely what is meant by “art”? Indeed, until we’re able to produce such a formula, don’t we somehow remain ignorant about what art is?
Not according to Wittgenstein, who again draws our attention back to games.
What does it mean to know what a game is? What does it mean, to know it and not be able to say it? Is this knowledge somehow equivalent to an unformulated definition? So that if it were formulated I should be able to recognise it as the expression of my knowledge? Isn’t my knowledge, my concept of a game, completely expressed in the explanations that I could give? That is, in my describing examples of various kinds of game; showing how all sorts of other games can be constructed on the analogy of these; saying that I should scarcely include this or this among games; and so on.[iii]

According to Wittgenstein, our ordinary explanations of what we mean by “game” – explanations that involve giving examples, drawing attention to similarities and differences, and so on – already capture precisely what we mean by “game”. The illusion of hidden depths to our language, depths that we must dig down to and formalize if we are truly to understand what “art” means, is generated by a failure to notice how our language actually functions. We don’t usually set up clear rules or boundaries fixing exactly what does and does not fall under a given concept. The practice of using a term like “game” is much more spontaneous and fluid than that. And there can be nothing more to the meaning of a term than is revealed in our ordinary practices of using and explaining its meaning to each other (otherwise how could we succeed in learning this meaning or teaching it to others?).
In short, we already know perfectly well what “game” means. Nothing is hidden. On Wittgenstein’s view, any formula that attempts to capture with more precision what we mean by “game” can only succeed in introducing new boundaries around what we mean by “game”, not reveal existing ones.
And the same, you might argue, is true of “art”, as well as a great many other terms.

The institutional theory

Some philosophers impressed by Wittgenstein’s comments about family resemblance still insist that a philosophical definition of art is possible. They admit that, were one to line up all and only those items that we call art and examine them one by one, one wouldn’t discover a common feature that everything else lacks. But still, art can be defined. According to the institutional theory, just two things are required if something it is to qualify as a work of art.
First, it must be an artifact, an artifact being something that has been worked on. The expression “worked on” is used quite loosely here – merely placing something in an art gallery counts as “working on” it. So a pebble deliberately positioned in an art gallery qualifies as an artifact.
Second, the artifact in question must have had the status of a work of art bestowed upon it by some member of the “artworld”, such as an author, gallery owner, publisher, collector or artist.
The institutional theory has the advantage of explaining why O’Corky and Fox are having difficulty finding that feature which is shared by all and only works of art. What qualifies an artifact as a work of art is not an intrinsic, exhibited feature of the object, but rather the attitude of members of a certain community towards it. What makes all and only these things works of art is not a feature one might discover by closely observing them.

According to the institutional theory, members of the “artworld” have the uncanny ability to make something a work of art just by deeming it to be one. A few years ago a cleaner left her bucket and mop in a modern art gallery. Passers-by took the bucket and mop to be a work of art. They were wrong, of course. But according to the institutional theory, if Tracy Emin had left the bucket and mop there as an exhibit, the passers by would have been right: those cleaning materials would have constituted a work of art. The institutional theory explains why this so. It explains what is otherwise very difficult to explain, namely, why, despite the fact that two mass-produced buckets with mops may be absolutely indistinguishable in every observable respect, one may be a work of art but not the other.

 

[ILLUSTRATION: TWO BUCKETS: “WORK OF ART” “NOT A WORK OF ART”


Criticism of the institutional theory

Some philosophers criticise that institutional theory on the grounds that, while it might tell us that members of the arts community bestow upon objects the status of art, it doesn’t explain why they do so. Clearly there are reasons why the status of art is bestowed up some objects but not others, reasons that the artist and other members of the art world can and often do give. The institutional theory fails to mention these reasons. It’s therefore inadequate as a definition of art (one might also add that, if these reasons determine what is and isn’t art, then shouldn’t we aim clearly to specifiy these reasons – wouldn’t that be philosophically far more informative than simply saying, “Art is whatever members of the art world decide to call art”).
Someone might also object that merely placing an object in a gallery does not make it work of art, no matter who places is it there. Even if Tracy Emin did place a bucket and mop in a gallery, these objects would not thereby come to be a work of art.
A defender of the institutional theory may insist that these objections muddle up two quite distinct issues. They may suggest that we need to distinguish art in the “classificatory” sense from art in the “evaluative” sense. Sometimes, by calling something a “work of art”, we don’t just classify at as such, we evaluate it: we are recommending it for appreciation. This evaluative sense is not what the institutional theory is concerned with, however. The first objection is therefore confused: it’s asking for the reasons why we consider this or that worthy of appreciation, but these reasons don’t determine what art is in the classificatory sense.
Arguably, the second objection also involves a muddle: that between art and good art. Perhaps an Emin-exhibited mop would not be good art. That doesn’t entail that it wouldn’t be art.
Another counter-example to the Institutional Theory is provided by the paintings of Alfred Wallis. Wallis painted seascapes in a primitive and haunting style. Wallis did not himself believe that what he was producing was art. But neither did any member of the art world at the time his earliest work was produced. The early pieces were recognised as art only later. But this entails that at the time Wallis produced his first paintings, they weren’t art. They only became art later. But this is counter-intuitive. Surely it’s true to say that what Wallis first produced was art, great art, even at the time he produced it. It simply wasn’t recognised as such.
It seems, then, that even the Institutional Theory won’t do.

The “definition game”
In this chapter we have been playing a famous kind of philosophical “game” – what one might call the definition game. We’ve been hunting for that feature (or combination of features) possession of which is both necessary and sufficient to qualify something as a work of art. Even the institutional theory claims that there is such a feature (it merely denies that it’s an exhibited feature). But perhaps there really is no such feature. Perhaps we have been hunting for what doesn’t exist. One of Wittgenstein’s great contributions to philosophy was to question the assumption that lies behind this millennia-old game.
When next you hear a dinner-part guest playing the definition game with “art” (or any other common noun, for that matter), try a Wittgensteinian approach. Ask him or her why they assume that there must be something that all and only works of art have in common.

What to read next?

For another example of how the definition game is played, try chapter XX “What is Knowledge?” You will find the method of counterexamples is also used repeatedly. Might Wittgenstein’s comments about family resemblance be relevant there too?

In chpt XX “The Meaning Mystery” I explain more of Wittgenstein’s views on meaning.

Further reading


·      Clive Bell, “Significant Form”, which appears as chapter 40 of Nigel Warburton (ed.), Philosophy: Basic Readings (London: Routledge, 1999).
·      Nigel Warburton, The Art Question (London: Routledge, 2002).



[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Part I, §§66-67.
[ii] Clive Bell, “Significant form”, in Nigel Warburton (ed.), Philosophy: Basic Readings (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 373.
[iii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Part I, §75.

61 comments:

Philolinguist said...

Part I

To avoid confusion, it may be worth mentioning that we don't identify something as an 'x' IN VIRTUE OF a family resemblance with other xs. The family resemblance model succumbs to the problem of underdeterminacy or open-ended texture. This can be illustrated by the following series (each letter represents a property).

Item_1: A B C D
Item_2: B C D E
Item_3: C D E F
Item_4: D E F G
Item_5: E F G H

Each item has a 'family resemblance' to one or more of the others, but the last item shares no properties with the first (anymore than I would resemble my great-great-great-grandparent, even though we belong to the same family).

To be charitable, I don't think Wittgenstein meant to say that we group things together under one concept BECAUSE they have a family resemblance (i.e. he wasn't proposing a 'family resemblance theory of meaning'). Rather, perhaps, he was arguing that what we assume to be an essential property could turn out, on closer inspection, to just be a family resemblance. Wittgenstein was always wary of generalizations, and I'm sure he would acknowledge that many concepts (particularly technical ones) do have necessary and sufficient properties (e.g. the geometrical definition of 'triangle'), though IN PRACTICE such properties are identified through ostensive rather than verbal definition.

Philolinguist said...
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Philolinguist said...
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Philolinguist said...

Part II

It seems that (the later) Wittgenstein would insist that such necessary and sufficient properties are not ESSENTIAL for language to function. If that is his claim, I would argue it is highly misleading. It is a formal requirement of language that something is an 'x' by virtue of having something than a non-x doesn't have. By 'formal requirement', I mean that it would be absurd to suggest that there is NOTHING non-random in virtue of which something is an 'x' (in a specific context of utterance).

That 'something' in virtue of which an x is an x CANNOT be a mere family resemblance, because of the problem of open texture. So it has to be something more like a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Indeed, I don't see how it could be anything OTHER than a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. This is closer to what Wittgenstein thought in the Tractatus.

He also made a key distinction in the Tractatus, between our assumption of the existence of such properties THROUGH the formal requirements of language (which the Tractatus was attempting to explicate), and our ability to identify ACTUAL EXAMPLES of such properties (something which the Tractatus notoriously failed to do but which it can't be expected to do, since as Wittgenstein explained, such properties can only be SHOWN and not DESCRIBED. For the same banal reason that you need to intuitively grasp what a line is before you can describe it. The description can never do the job of whatever it is we grasp when we understand what 'line' means. A description is just a bunch of words, meanings are obviously something else).

When I say we can't identify actual examples of such necessary and sufficient properties, I mean that we can't identify them AS examples of such properties. I can show you a red patch as an example of 'red', but I can't TELL you what it is ABOUT the color of the patch that makes it NECESSARILY AND SUFFICIENTLY 'red'. THAT is what can only be shown, not described.

So the most we can say, I would suggest, is that we don't need to be able to DESCRIBE necessary and sufficient properties in order to know how to use words appropriately, but that is not the same as saying that language can function (as 'language') WITHOUT such properties. Of course, not every expression has such properties attached to it, but without such properties at the core, language wouldn't be 'language', it would just be a random series of sounds or shapes.

Philolinguist said...

The question of the meaning of 'art', I think, illustrates the deleterious influence of 'family resemblance' as a theory of meaning. I have argued above that there are no 'family resemblance concepts', so 'art' cannot be such a concept. But the idea of 'art' as such a concept pervades the contemporary art scene, and has a real practical effect on what is accepted as 'art'.

This is not to suggest that the meaning of 'art' has thereby changed radically. Rather, many art practitioners are engaged in a form of 'double-think' in which they know what art really is, but for ideological or socio-economic reasons, are second-guessing themselves into accepting faux-art as 'art'.

I think we can identify at least one necessary property of art. Art has to have lasting aesthetic value. By that, I mean that we think it's worthwhile to contemplate the same work of art not just once or twice, but repeatedly over long periods (ideally, for ever).

Why else would we have the same work of art in our home or a museum for decades? It serves no other purpose than to be contemplated (unless it's purely decorative, in which case it's like a flowery curtain, not there to be contemplated but rather, to beautify the place. We don't exhibit flowery curtains in art museums, unless they're worth contemplating, of course. And art doesn't have to be beautiful).

But in virtue of what does a work of art have lasting aesthetic value? Many art critics assume that it is the work of art ITSELF that has the lasting value, but this can't be true. After all, a painting is just paint on canvas, how fascinating can that possibly be? What's the point of looking at the same arrangement of paint over and over for decades?

Even if we transfer the locus of value to the idea EXPRESSED by the painting, it still falls flat. A painting of an apple expresses the idea of an apple, even if it's a moody apple. There's only so much that can be expressed by a work of art, it's not enough to warrant lasting aesthetic value.

So I would suggest that the lasting value has to lie elsewhere, in the JUXTAPOSITION of the work of art against its surroundings. It is not the expressive richness of the work of art that gives it lasting aesthetic value (some great art is very simple). Rather, it is the fact that the artwork is a FIXED POINT in a lived experience that is otherwise IN FLUX.

That is why we CONTEMPLATE a work of art, we STOP and look (or listen, etc). We don't just glance in passing, we STOP for it. That's why a Japanese tea ceremony is a work of art, because we STOP for that (and not just for the tea). But why stop just to contemplate art?

I think it's because art REMINDS us of something that has value, that we constantly FORGET. That's why we keep returning to the same work of art, not because it reveals something new each time, but because it reveals the SAME thing each time. The same thing, that we constantly forget (and here, there are parallels between art and philosophy. I don't think it's coincidental that we also stop and contemplate in religious observances).

If all this is true, then it follows that our lived experience is drawing our attention AWAY from what is really worth focusing on (hence the art). The existence of art testifies to the inauthenticity of our lived experience, the fact that we're alienated from what really matters.










Bernard Hurley said...

As I see it the main problem with the "institutional theory" of art completely fails to give any sane reason why anyone should be interested in art in the first place. If you are going to say that something is a work of art because it is deliberately exhibited as such in an art gallery or because it is deliberately produced as a work of art by an artist, then one has to go on to ask:

1] What is it that makes a particular institution an art gallery as opposed to, say, a museum of interesting artefacts?

and:

2] What is it that makes someone an artist as opposed to, say, a skilled crafts-person?

The answer to [1] is presumably that what it exhibits is art, and to [2] is presumably that what they produce is art. The whole thing becomes irredeemably circular.

Suppose I were to invent a new category of object, "blommig", say. Suppose in answer to the question "What is blommig?" I were to reply "Whatever is exhibited as such in my blommig gallery, and whatever is produced as such by blommigers." Suppose further, I were to say that what distinguished a blommig gallery was that it exhibited blommig and what distinguished a blommiger was that he or she produced blommig, then this would give no remotely sane reason why you or anyone else should be interested in blommig.

On this account, blommig has just as much right to be funded by a Blommig Council as art has to be funded by an Arts Council, and, indeed, it is a scandal that blommig is not held in such high esteem in our culture as is art.

Philip Rand said...

I love it Dr Law...

Especially:

"Necessarily: something is a vixen if and only if it’s a female fox

Necessarily: someone is a brother if and only if they are a male sibling

Necessarily: something is a triangle if and only if it’s a three straight-sided plane figure"

Spot on...INTERNAL RELATIONS!!!!

Richard Wein said...

Hi Philolinguist. I was interested to read your comments. I'd like to suggest that you haven't fully understood the idea of family resemblance, and that you might be more receptive if you understood it better. Perhaps it's difficult to appreciate family resemblance on its own, without a somewhat deeper knowledge of Wittgenstein's view of language.

I would describe my own view of language as "broadly Wittgensteinian". I don't claim to fully understand him, or to agree with everything that I've understood. But I think my views are in the ballpark of the later Wittgenstein, of Philosophical Investigations. I haven't read the Tractatus, but from what little I know of it, I don't think I'd like it.

What I think you haven't appreciated is the fuzziness of language. In fact I for one would put more emphasis on "fuzziness" than on "family resemblance". You seem to be thinking that there must be a determinate fact of the matter as to whether an object is an x. But there is often no such fact. For example, is there always a fact of the matter as to whether a person is a child? I would say no, because the child/adult distinction is not precise. (We may define a precise boundary for legal purposes, but I'm talking about the ordinary sense of the words, not any particular legal sense.) There are people in their teens for whom there is no fact of the matter as to whether they are children or adults. And this intermediate zone is itself not precisely-bounded. We can perhaps think in terms of a gray-scale, where it becomes gradually more appropriate to call someone an adult as they grow older. There are no necessary and sufficent conditions for a person to be correctly called a "child", though of course we can give a rough guide as to how to use the word. But we should not view such a rough guide as an approximation to a precise reality. There is no precise meaning to be approximated. (Of course, some guides may be rougher than others.)

It helps in this if we think about how and why language is used in practice, rather than thinking of it in the abstract as a system for labelling things. The latter approach inclines us wrongly to think that everything must have a determinate label. I would call that the "traditional" philosophical approach. And I use the term "naturalised" to refer to an approach that puts more emphasis on thinking about how language is used in practice. When we think about the practical use of the word "child", we can perhaps see that we don't need a determinate label for every case. Why does it matter whether we call a certain individual a "child"? There are many possible reasons. For example, we might want to convey something about the maturity (or lack of it) of that individual. If we use the word "maturity" we are more likely to see that we're talking about a matter of degree. But binary questions like "Is he a child?" make us feel we ought to be able to answer Yes or No, even when there is no determinate answer to be given.

Continued...

Richard Wein said...

...continued

Let me address your A-H example. First let's note that the properties A-H are themselves likely to be fuzzy to some degree. But more importantly, the family resemblance concept should not be read as entailing that the family can be stretched indefinitely. There is no precise boundary beyond which it cannot be stretched. But what gives a word its meaning is the way it's been used in the past, and the further you get from pre-existing usage, the less appropriate a proposed use becomes. Again, it helps to think of the use of particular words in practice, and ask what difference the choice of words makes in particular cases. In Wittgenstein's words: Don't think, look! (I take his "don't think" to mean "don't think so abstractly".)

Language is made up of discrete words, and that forces us to label things one way or another, i.e. to assign things to one of a discrete number of boxes. But reality does not fall so neatly into discrete boxes, and there is often no one right box into which a thing should be put. At other times, one box is somewhat more appropriate than others, but no significant fact hangs on which box that is. Philosophers often get into trouble because they assume there is just one right box, and that if they can discover which one it is, they will have established some significant substantive fact.

Philolinguist said...

@Richard Wein
Thank you for your comments, I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my remarks. I agree that concepts generally have fuzzy boundaries in the way you describe, but why does that preclude the existence of necessary and sufficient conditions? Just because the conditions are themselves fuzzy, does that mean they don't exist?

To refer to your example, there are conditions surrounding the proper use of the word 'child', are there not? We can't simply call anything a 'child'. Suppose you see a sign that says 'Proper swim suits are necessary and sufficient attire for entering the pool'. 'Proper swim suit' is a vague term, but does it follow that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for entering the pool?

Your response to the A-H example doesn't resolve the problem of open-endedness. We don't categorize people as belonging to the same family BECAUSE they have a resemblance (they have to be genealogically related). A chair has a resemblance to a table, but that is not why they are both 'furniture'. Dogs and cats are very similar, but they belong to different species.

Once you look at concrete examples, it becomes apparent that the 'family resemblance' model is virtually useless and highly misleading as an explanation of why an x is an 'x'. It merely states a vacuous truism, that things falling under the same category share some similarities. That doesn't EXPLAIN why something is an x and something else isn't. But in specific ACTUAL cases, stating a list of conditions often does (even if they only apply in a limited context, as is usually the case).

Richard Wein said...

@Philolinguist

Thanks for your reply. I too appreciate the opportunity to clarify my meaning.

You wrote: "I agree that concepts generally have fuzzy boundaries in the way you describe, but why does that preclude the existence of necessary and sufficient conditions?"

I'm not saying it precludes the existence of necessary and sufficient conditions. But it shows why there do not need to be such conditions. You seemed to be asserting that there must be such conditions, and I'm responding to that assertion. Once you understand why there needn't be any necessary and sufficient conditions, I think you will see language in a rather different light, and you will probably be less inclined to look for or see such conditions. (I don't say there are never any necessary and sufficient conditions.)

You seem to be thinking along the following lines. For a word to be applicable, a number of discrete conditions (e.g. your A-B-C-D) must be met, but each of those conditions individually can be fuzzy. I would say that it's often not appropriate to think in terms of discrete conditions, but let's say we're talking about a case where it's reasonable to think in those terms. Then I would say that it's not just the extent of the individual conditions which can be fuzzy, but also which conditions are applied. Meeting conditions A-B-C or B-C-D may be sufficient. A good match (to past usage) on 3 conditions may be better than a weaker match on 4 conditions. Once you've accepted that concepts can have fuzzy boundaries, why limit fuzziness to the first sort (extent) and deny the second sort (choice of conditions)?

You wrote: "A chair has a resemblance to a table, but that is not why they are both 'furniture'."

Family resemblance isn't limited to appearance or physical form. It can include less tangible considerations, like use and purpose. What is it that makes chairs and tables both furniture if it isn't similarities of some sort?

You wrote: "[Family resemblance] doesn't EXPLAIN why something is an x and something else isn't. But in specific ACTUAL cases, stating a list of conditions often does (even if they only apply in a limited context, as is usually the case)."

Well, of course the general point about family resemblance doesn't address specific cases. But you can also talk about the nature of the family resemblance in a specific case if you want to. You can give a rough guide as to what items of furniture have in common. The point of family resemblance is not that you can't say anything at all about specific cases, but that there isn't available the kind of precise definition that philosophers often assume must exist. I don't object to the statement that knowledge is justified true belief, as long as we take it to be just a rough guide, without much significance, not much more than a dictionary definition.

Philolinguist said...
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Philolinguist said...
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Philolinguist said...
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Philolinguist said...

@Richard Wein said..."why ... deny the second sort (choice of conditions)?"

I don't. The conditions vary with the context, but it's not a matter of 'choice'. E.g., if you're buying a train ticket, a 'child' is someone under 12. To a psychologist, a child is someone with the appropriate mental age. Just because the conditions for the use of 'x' vary with context, it doesn't follow that there are no conditions, or that the conditions form an open-ended set (except in the sense that meanings evolve constantly. In practice, the set of conditions is closed by the context. It usually doesn't matter what 'x' USED to mean, or what it WILL mean in future. In most cases, what matters is what 'x' means HERE and NOW).

Your use of the expression 'choice of conditions' demonstrates the confusion engendered by the family resemblance 'theory' of meaning (I place 'theory' in quotes because I don't think it's a theory as much as an excuse for double-mindedness and dissemblance). We don't choose the conditions for the correct use of expressions, we choose the expressions. In other words, I don't choose what a word means, I choose my words.

Of course, none of this precludes the interrogation of meanings to uncover their possibly ideological origins, but even if it turns out, for example, that the word 'true' really just means whatever beliefs are epistemically privileged in the current socio-economic arrangement, it still doesn't follow that 'true' means anything you like, or nothing.

The meaning may vary with context (as in a work of art being 'true' compared to a statement being 'true'), but that doesn't entail there are no conditions that apply in each context, by which one may judge that a word is being used in a way that is incorrect, misleading, deceptive or in bad faith.

BTW, I'm not defending all of the Tractatus or rubbishing Wittgenstein's later work. I'm just saying the former isn't entirely wrong and the latter isn't completely right. Nor am I saying that ALL words have necessary and sufficient conditions of use. But I am saying that at it's CORE, that is how language operates, even if there are all sorts of other ways to use words too (just as there are all sorts of moves in chess, but the game still has rules. Indeed there wouldn't be any POINT to all those moves if there were no rules). Apart from the above, I pretty much agree with everything else you've said.

Lastly, I should explain why this issue matters. There's a growing intellectual current that is pushing the idea that language is pragmatics 'all the way down', that words are just tools for getting things done, and words like 'meaning' or 'true' are just tools like all the rest, and tools can be used any way you please, as long as you get the job done.

Wittgenstein's famous 'toolbox' analogy is often quoted in this context, and the 'family resemblance theory' lends itself readily to this approach (after all, how one thing resembles another depends very much on which aspects you choose to draw attention to. Perhaps that is what you meant by 'choice of conditions'?).

This idea that language is really all about pragmatics is not a new one, the approach used to be called 'sophistry'. There's a reason why sophistry has a bad press; because it's a form of bad faith, it debases the currency of language, and corrupts our thinking (and paradoxically, sophistry's bait-and-switch strategy is parasitic on words having determinate meanings. Like a parasite, it destroys the very thing on which it feeds). So they don't call it 'sophistry' any more, but it still travels under a number of other names.

Richard Wein said...

@Philolinguist

I'm afraid my use of the word "choice" has caused confusion. I was just using "choice of conditions" as a shorthand referring back to a previously introduced subject, namely the question of which conditions must hold for a word's use to be appropriate. I'll try to make my point again more clearly.

You've allowed that not all words have necessary and sufficient conditions for use, but you seem to think that they typically do. (Does that mean you accept the appropriateness of family resemblance in at least some of those cases where there are no necessary and sufficient conditions?) Please take the following paragraph as referring to those typical cases where you think there must be necessary and sufficient conditions.

You seem to be saying that the necessary and sufficient conditions (for use of a word) can vary from utterance to utterance, but that in the case of any given utterance there must be a specific set of necessary and sufficient conditions. (By "utterance" I mean one single case of someone using the word in question.) I'm not clear, though, whether you think the same is true for the boundaries of the conditions. You gave an example (child under 12) with a pretty precise boundary (though I'd say it's not absolutely precise, since there is no absolutely precise moment of birth). Your second example ("appropriate mental age") was unclear as to whether you see a precise boundary. If you accept that for a given utterance the conditions can lack precise boundaries--i.e. they can be fuzzy--then my previous question still applies. Why accept that the individual conditions can be fuzzy (for a given utterance) but insist that there can be no fuzziness in regard to which conditions must hold (for a given utterance)?

Continued...

Richard Wein said...

...continued

You wrote: "...it still doesn't follow that 'true' means anything you like, or nothing."

I'm not saying it does. I think you see a false dichotomy: either our word use (for a given utterance) must conform to a set of rules in quite a formulaic sense, or else our words are completely meaningless (or can mean anything we like). I'm saying that there's a third alternative, but I haven't attempted to explain it any depth. That would take too long, and I probably wouldn't make a very good job of it. Wittgenstein wrote at much greater length, and many readers (perhaps the majority) still misunderstand him. I'm just hoping to give you a few pointers in the right direction, and at least get you to see that family resemblance is not as obviously misguided as you seemed to think.

I think it might be useful to say something briefly on the subject of "rules". A lot hangs on what we mean by "rules" and "conforming to rules". Typically we take "rule" to mean some formula for telling us what is allowed, such as a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, or some other sort of definition. But I don't accept that we need any such formulas for our words to have meaning.

Young children are able to speak appropriately without apparently having learnt any formulas for appropriate speech. They have acquired appropriate habits of speech, and we might describe the process of acquiring such habits as "learning the rules of speech". I'm not saying that such a description is wrong, provided we don't interpret "learning rules" to mean "learning formulas". (It's because I want to distinguish between different senses of the word "rules" that I've adopted the term "formulas" to refer to this formulaic sense of "rules".) If you doubt that it's possible in principle to learn appropriate habits of behaviour without learning formulas, I would refer you to the example of artificial neural networks. (You might suggest that our brains non-consciously construct and follow formulas for speech. I'm just trying to give a plausible explanation here, not argue that it's the true explanation. So I won't attempt to refute such a hypothesis. I'll just say that such a hypothesis is unnecessary.)

Our words have comprehensible meaning by virtue of the fact that we are using them in appropriate ways. We can understand each other because both speakers and listeners have acquired similar habits of speech and understanding. It's not necessary (or possible in practice) that our habits of speech be absolutely identical to other people's. None of this need involve any formulas. We can often use formulas to roughly describe our habits of speech, but it's a mistake to see such rough descriptions as somehow underlying our speech, or to see our descriptions as rather precise, when they must often be very rough indeed. (Perhaps I should add that the language of a fully abstract system like mathematics can be absolutely precise in a way that most language is not.)

Of course, occasionally we do bring a formula (e.g. a definition) to mind and are guided by it. But that's the exception. Generally we speak instinctively without reference to such formulas. Note that to use any formula we bring to mind, we must understand the language in which the formula is expressed. If understanding language always required a formula, we would be faced with an infinite regress of formulas.

I think I'll stop there, as I find these comments take me a long time to write. (And yet I still find I haven't chosen my words carefully enough!) I hope I've managed to convey at least a little about my/Wittgenstein's view of language. Thanks for taking the time to read me.

Philolinguist said...

@Richard Wein said..."Why accept that the individual conditions can be fuzzy (for a given utterance) but insist that there can be no fuzziness in regard to which conditions must hold (for a given utterance)?"

'Fuzziness' is a word in language, so the conditions for what counts as 'fuzzy' depends on the context of use. You seem to be trying to 'step outside' of any context in claiming that meaning is GENERALLY 'fuzzy'.

As such, you're making a vacuous assertion, because the meaning of 'generally fuzzy' is under-determined. When you order eggs for breakfast, there is usually no 'fuzziness' about what lands on your plate, or in many if not most instances of language-use. There are situations where words are vague or ambiguous, but such circumstances are exceptions, not the rule.

Of course, you can find 'fuzziness' anywhere if you look for it, but that doesn't say anything profound about language, anymore than it does about everything else, in which 'fuzziness' can also be found.

I'm not trying to do metaphysics here, to 'step outside' of language into some Platonic realm of necessary and sufficient conditions. But if you claim that language is 'generally fuzzy', you're making a claim that is neither confirmable or falsifiable in any practical sense.

As such, I now realise that I made a mistake earlier in conceding that there is 'general fuzziness' in individual conditions. I therefore withdraw that claim, with apologies.

The claim has no truth-value, because the meaning of 'generally fuzzy' isn't fixed by any context. But like many empty slogans, it can be a convenient excuse for sophistry (as in "Meaning is generally fuzzy, so let's not bother debating, we can just shift the goal-posts by re-defining words. After all, that's what everybody is really doing").

I, on the other hand, am not trying to make a general observation about ALL of language. I recognize that there is great variety in language-use, but would argue that in many cases, there are conditions (sufficiently clear for the purpose) for what makes an x an 'x'. I further argue that it is integral to the meaning of 'language' (at least in many contexts of use), that there should be such conditions. I don't think that's a radical claim.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Philolinguist.

We're clearly not going to agree on this. I'd just like to add one final remark. Family resemblance and the other views I've defended do not justify shifting the goal-posts by redefinition, or other misguided positions that you've raised concerns about. Sure, some people who've misunderstood Wittgenstein have misused him to justify misguided positions, though I haven't myself seen anyone use him to justify moving the goal-posts.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Stephen, can I suggest an excellent Keynote paper given by Donald Brook at a conference in Sydney in 2011 entitled "Experimental Art."? I think it may shed some light on the question of what art actually is and of why it is not always to be found in the artefacts of the artworld.

Best

Jim

Jim Hamlyn said...

Here's the link: http://www.materialthinking.org/sites/default/files/papers/SMT_V8_P12_Brook_0.pdf

Philip Rand said...

Hi Jim Hamlyn...

I had a read of that paper you linked. It appears that the two key words that summarise this chap's "realist" paper concerning "What is Art?" are "inteligablity", i.e. cognition and "experimental", i.e. epistimelogical.

Wwhat he is saying is that an artist reads off from reality how an art work is to be made and that the intelligibility of an art work is constituted (at least partly) by its form corresponding to a part of reality.

BUT!

The problem with this approach is that we CANNOT know that any work of art is intelligible but that it is UNDETERMINED what test an intelligible work of art should pass.

What should we test on an art work to determine that it is art?

I mean, why think the thought "This is art" as a fact about the art object being looked upon?

His paper exposes not that we cannot answer the question...

Rather it reveals that what question ought to be asked of an art work is UNDETERMINED. (Though the author totally missed the consequence of his paper's real conclusion).

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for link Jim.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Philip Rand, I think you've read an entirely different paper than the one I linked to by Donald Brook. I don't recognise anything you say at all.

Brook argues that the word "art" is a homonym that is commonly applied to two quite different entities: artworks on the one hand and memetic innovation (art) on the other. According to this theory artworks are quite comfortably defined by the Institutional Theory whereas art is to be found in any area of culture where discoveries are made that are then imitated and refined. To this extent artworks actually contain relatively little (if any) art since art is the emergence of new and previously unexpected ways of doing things. Most of what we call "art" produced in the artworld is actually craft: the skilful imitation and recombination of already familiar memes.

Brook also offers a significant contribution to meme theory in the observation that memes are not artefacts. If I hold up a rabbit and exclaim "Here is a gene," then it is quite obvious where my gene theory is faulty. Nonetheless meme theorists are quite happy to call slogans, songs, toasters and mobile phones memes. Brook argues that memes are repeatable actions, not the products of these actions. Perhaps this insight explains the doldrums meme theory has fallen into of late.

Philip Rand said...

I like your answer to what is Art?

i.e.

"art is the emergence of new and previously unexpected ways of doing things."

OK, if I work with this definition and use Brook's idea of "experimental art" then what follows?

Well, the first thing is that in any "experiment" the experimenter must first understand how the tools, i.e. his palette works before he creates "art"...so all ready even before the art work is created the artist knows he is creating art.

Say, we consider a work by Pollock, Pollock understands his paint, his canvas, etc. He also knows that the end result will be a painting, i.e. an art work...though he may not know the end result.

There is a Japanese artist (his name escapes me) who creates photographs of electrostatic flashes on film...again, here the artist understands how his equipment works and he knows the end result will be a work of art though he does not know the result...

There is a female artist (again the name escapes me) who creates bronze sculpture of the result of her peeing in snow...again, she understands how the equipment she is using works...but again she does not know the result of her work of art.

So, what is the single test that determines that these three works of art are in fact art?

I mean, Giorgione was perhaps the greatest innovator of painting...was this simply skill?

If say, a painting by Pollock is art and a painting by Giorgione is art...what is it that makes them art.

If you are saying that it is institutional...then all you are saying is that art is what a particular audience says is art...

But, this doesn't answer the question of what art is at all.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Thanks Philip,

It is necessary to distinguish between the emergence of new ways of doing things (art or memetic innovation) and works of art or artworks.

when Hiroshi Sugimoto or Helen Chadwick (two artists you mention) make works of art they are working from within a tradition and they are imitating methods that have been used by numerous artists before them. It may be true (although not necessarily) that they may have discovered a new way of combining these previously discovered memes. It may also be true that they have discovered a genuinely new way of doing things: art. But the test of this art is not whether it is accepted by the artworld but whether it is imitated by others because it is genuinely useful.

Philip Rand said...

I see Jim Hamlyn...your last sentence in your post above is interesting (your comment concerning "useful" is what I referred to in my initial post that the link was essentially a "realist" interpretation of art.

But, what about this:

Say, someone takes a photographic image of a bubble chamber result in the LHC super collider...plenty of particle trajectories (bubbles), i.e. like Sugimoto (thanks for the names by the way).

This is an experiment that is useful and will be replicated though the physicists are not aware of doing art.

But, if I return to the picture of a particular result...enlarge the picture of the trajectories and frame it...and title the picture (using a Hirst type title):

"You see him here, you seem him there...that damned Higg's is everywhere."

Would this result in the LHC being classified as an artistic medium that generates useful art?

Thing is where is the dividing line between what the physicists are doing and what the artist is doing?

Philip Rand said...
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Jim Hamlyn said...

The line is clearly situated between memetic innovation on the one hand and the vicissitudes of the artworld on the other.

Philip Rand said...

Possibly Jim (if I may call you that)...

So the defining line is psychological then?

Thing is, we want to nail down what art is...it's "essence" as it were...clearly, the ideas of Wittgenstein mean we can't do it using language.

Earlier, I had a quick glance at your blog...you seem to suggest that "mimicry" is important, i.e. behaviour (this I think is a good approach).

Therefore, it follows that if one wants to get deeper to discover the answer to the question "What is Art?" one has to have a psychological model.

Now, say humans have no private language...then it follows that "art" must serve a purpose...in my behaviourist type model:

Human sees a picture, i.e. a sensory event...Now, say we analyse this event in terms of the appropriate motor response.

First, the human removes the stimulus; second, to adopt a posture to limit further stimulation; and third, to seek safety (i.e. get away from the picture) or to enjoy the picture...in both cases it is relief of the stimulation.

I suggest all of these mechanisms are pre-cognitive, i.e. one does not think about them, they simply stimulate motor and pre-motor parts of the brain, i.e. no language.

The interesting thing is how is this mediated...well, a very interesting avenue of new research concerns Adenosine Triphosphate molecules (I leave it to you to look it up)...but what is interesting is that the breakdown of ATP into ADP facilitates (amongst many other things) nerve transmission...

Now in theory while our bodies can produce all the ATP we need, the fact is that it doesn't.

The interesting thing is that this breakdown creates micro-currents in the human body (actually all animals function like this)...these micro-currents produce fields.

There exist medical techniques to use devices to create additional micro-currents to affect healing, i.e. it is used a lot with horses...

One can also use breathing techniques to increase ATP in ones body.

BUT...the really interesting thing is that it has been mooted in the scientific field that these micro-currents were the pre-cursor to human language (this is very new), all be it when humans were extremely primitive, i.e. they could sense differing field levels of this current in different members of the group, i.e. low level therefore a group member is sad, frightened, i.e. feelings (behaviour) and requires assistance.

This will probably sound quite crazy to you...but I think it would be well worth your while to look into these theories...because I think then you would be able to at least come up with a theory as to why art is useful to humans.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Philip,
People are interested in artworks for all kinds of reasons but there is no "essence" that inheres in each work, as Stephen (pace Wittgenstein) has already elucidated. In any case whatever this essence could be, it could only be an attribution (meaning) and never an attribute (property) of artworks so the quest for anything less abstract than a general principle, such as the Institutional Theory is nothing more than a folly.

Philip Rand said...

Well Jim...what I have to say about this topic is rather complex...the one thing I always try to avoid is jargon and exposition (for me always an indication that someone doesn't know what they are talking about)...

So I can only go piece meal with this topic...

But, consider first what Dr Law says concerning "Chairs" in his article.

He says that there is nothing in common with chairs.

But, here you have to remember Dr Law's view of the world, i.e. probabilistic, no purpose...

But really, what makes various things all members of the class Chair?

Clearly, a chair is being a seat for one person. Being a seat for one person is just being manufactured for the purpose of being sat upon by one person at a time.

Now, if Dr Law is correct and there are no purposes in the world, then it is a mythology that all chairs have something in common...consequently, there are also no such things as beliefs...and furthermore if you carry this through with this line of reasoning...THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS CHAIRS!

So something is wrong with his argument...art must have some form of family resemblance.

Jim Hamlyn said...

That doesn't work for me Philip. It's like saying that because some things are alike all things must be alike and if all things are not alike then nothing is.

Philip Rand said...

Well Jim...

If one reads Dr Law's section in his article concerning "Chair" it is a belief-fixation account and purpose is not accounted for, i.e. no purpose therefore no such thing as chairs.

However, if one says:

"A chair is a seat for one person."

We get an internal relation (like the examples Dr Law gives earlier, i.e. vixen...fox.

Now, the chair internal relation I have given can be considered a stereotype meaning (you might call it a meme).

The idea that it is a stereotype tells us something however, because "Chair" can also mean a person in charge of a meeting.

So two things come to light with "Chair".

The first is to recognise that it is a stereotype and the second is that the statement concerning a chair is true of a situation just in case it would be correct to use the words of which the statement consists in that way in describing the situation, i.e. meaning is use.

This means that only a well sufficiently well placed speaker can make the statement.

In the present case, I consider myself a well placed speaker because as I write I am sitting in a chair (meaning is use heee,heee, heee).

This, I suggest is the kind of approach one should use for art (at least the surface grammar part).

Philolinguist said...

= MJA said..."Slowing down could be the key to seeing art."

Couldn't agree more. As I mentioned in my 3rd comment above, the practice of stopping or slowing down seems to be integral to the 'aesthetic perspective'. A work of art is viewed as standing outside the normal rhythm and concerns of life, and the contemplation of art is an end in itself (unlike much of everyday life). I'm not sure if it matters much what the art object is (as your comment indicates, it could be just about anything).

The art object is just an opportunity for us to exercise an 'aesthetic faculty', whose ideal object is something that is an end in itself and is absent from our lived experience. Perhaps the art object stands as a substitute (I believe the technical term is 'icon') for that ideal object, which is itself not in the world.

So the art object is like the empty chair at the dinner table that symbolizes an absent guest. Perhaps there are certain structural qualities that render an object more suitable for that kind of contemplation (such as 'framing' it in various ways, both literally and/or metaphorically), but I suspect that the nature of the object itself is a secondary issue.

Both the creative and critical aesthetic faculties are probably one and the same. In other words, the artist isn't expressing an IDEA in creating an artwork (so the idea isn't what essentially matters). Rather, she is exercising the aesthetic faculty itself.

On this view, the aesthetic qualities of an artwork DON'T reside in the ideas expressed or evoked by the work. This is consistent with our actual experience of art. We rarely THINK when contemplating art, at least not discursively. The artwork isn't really what we're contemplating anyway. Rather, I would suggest that we are using the artwork as an icon, an aid to exercising an aesthetic faculty whose ideal object is actually absent.

That may be why art is difficult to do well, because it's pretty hard to evoke the right response when everyone KNOWS the artwork is just a poor substitute for the real thing. This would also explain why people are so capricious and hard-to-please when it comes to art, because they know they're kind of fooling themselves when they exercise the aesthetic faculty on a painted canvas or a tune.

You can only suspend credulity in short flitting bursts, or you start to feel a little silly, once you realise you're just pretending. Perhaps there are parallels here with romantic love, which has the same quality of capriciousness, fleetingness and often, the suspension of credulity? That too is extremely difficult to pull off for any length of time.

Philolinguist said...

I'm currently writing a blog article on the family resemblance theory, thought I would post excerpts from it here to clarify my earlier comments:

Part I -

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that some concepts apply by virtue of a ‘family resemblance’, rather than a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. A family resemblance concept has an open-ended set of identifying properties, such that a) not all the properties need be instantiated for the concept to apply, and b) the properties do not form an exhaustive list (but may be added or subtracted as the concept evolves). In Philosophical Investigations, he cites as candidates the concepts ‘language’, ‘game’ and ‘number’:

"Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, - but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all "language"" (§65).

"Consider for example the proceedings that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' " - but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look!" (§66).

"I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. - And I shall say: 'games' form a family … And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres" (§67).

‘Family resemblance’ is one of the few technical ideas in philosophy that has successfully crossed over into other disciplines, such as art theory, literary studies, psychology, law and political science; as well as into ‘middle-brow’ discourse generally. By now, the notion is so well-entrenched that hardly anyone would think of questioning it’s applicability to a wide range of concepts, such as ‘art’, ‘justice’ and ‘mind’ (and some would argue, to all concepts).

Philolinguist said...

Part II -

The popularity of this approach is understandable. The concepts which are claimed to be of the family resemblance type are often difficult (if not impossible) to define. The family resemblance model does away with the need for a definition, thus obviating a number of thorny philosophical problems; on the grounds that questions such as ‘What is Art?’ or ‘What is Justice?’ are seeking a definition where none is necessary.

Family resemblance also offer a simple solution to the Sorites Paradox, as in the question ‘How many grains make a heap?’. If ‘heap’ is a family resemblance concept, then there is no fixed number of grains that make a heap, anymore than there are a fixed number of legs that make a table.

Politics is another reason for widespread acceptance of the family resemblance theory. If any definition of a family resemblance concept is necessarily partial, and therefore selective, then the possibility arises that the selection may be politically weighted. For example, if ‘female’ is a family resemblance term, then it can be argued that definitions of ‘female’ often include traits that serve the purpose of naturalizing and legitimizing patriarchy.

Feminists can then counter these patriarchal definitions by emphasizing a different set of traits as ‘feminine’, including adding and subtracting traits to change the concept altogether (or even doing away with the concept, in favor of a variety of gender categories as in ‘LGBTQIA’).

The family resemblance paradigm offers a philosophical justification for the strategy of moving semantic goalposts to bolster the position of underprivileged classes, a practice that is the bread-and-butter of critical studies and postmodern thought in general.

A third reason for the popularity of the family resemblance idea is its intuitive appeal. After all, even mundane concepts like ‘chair’ defy definition into a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. It seems obvious that no set of such conditions could possibly allow us to pick out all and only chairs, let alone more nebulous objects such as games.

However, there is a major problem with the family resemblance approach. In essence, the problem is that everything resembles everything else, and everything is different from everything else. Proponents of the family resemblance theory would be quick to reply that there are degrees of resemblance; that tables resemble each other more than they do cats, for example.

But where is the evidence that our recognition of these ‘degrees of resemblance’ is logically prior to our understanding the concepts ‘table’ and ‘cat’? In other words, do we group tables together because they resemble each other, or do we view tables as resembling each other because we have already picked out certain resemblances as being pertinent when comparing tables (and contrasting them with other things which we have already categorised in other ways)? After all, cats and tables do resemble each other in many respects, but we do not usually regard those respects as relevant.

Philolinguist said...

Part III -

Some may respond by echoing Wittgenstein, “Look! Can’t you just see the resemblances (and differences)?” Oddly enough, this was an approach that Wittgenstein himself criticized in the Investigations, outside his remarks on family resemblance; for example, when he dismissed the argument that criteria for ‘absolute identity’ can be derived from the perfect identity that a thing has with itself.

"For identity we seem to have an infallible paradigm: namely, in the identity of a thing with itself. I feel like saying: "Here at any rate, there can't be different interpretations. If someone sees a thing, he sees identity, too." Then are two things the same when they are what one thing is? And how am I to apply what the one thing shows me to the case of two things?" (§215).

Wittgenstein argued that the inference from everything being identical with itself to the existence of criteria for ‘absolute identity’ is a false move, an empty gesture. In making the move, one is misled by the grammar of the sentence ‘x is identical with itself’, into thinking the sentence is logically equivalent to ‘x is identical to y’ where x and y are two spatio-temporally separate things.

The truth of the former statement does not rest on criteria of ‘absolute identity’ by which x is compared with itself, so no such criteria can be carried over to verify the truth of the latter statement. The sentence ‘x is identical with itself’ certainly describes a paradigm case of identity, but offers no formula by which degrees of identity may be measured off from that paradigm.

""A thing is identical with itself." -- There is no finer example of a useless sentence, which nevertheless is connected with a certain play of the imagination. It is as if in our imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted." (§216)

One may be tempted to reply, “Look! Can’t you just see that x is absolutely identical with itself?” The problem lies not in what we see, but in the conclusions drawn from what we see; as in the unwarranted move from a) the observation that things falling under the same concept resemble each other, to b) the conclusion that things fall under the same concept because they resemble each other.

Some advocates for the family resemblance paradigm may reply that even non-human animals, with no capacity for language, seem to be able to identify things by similarity. Surely, this shows that the ability to group objects by similarity is pre-linguistic, and therefore likely proto-linguistic?

This argument from animal behavior is a non-starter, because it takes a human language-user to tell you that a non-language-using non-human animal (or for that matter, a human baby) is ‘grouping things by similarity’.

A pig hunting for truffles does not view itself as ‘grouping truffles by similarity of scent’, it is merely acting on instinct. When we say that non-human (non-language-using) animals are ‘picking out similar objects’, we are really using the expression anthropomorphically, ascribing the traits of a language-user to a non-language-using creature.

Nothing in the behavior of non-language-using non-humans supports the view that self-consciously grouping things by similarity is pre-linguistic, let alone proto-linguistic. It takes language to self-consciously ‘group things together by similarity’ or to ascribe the behavior to someone else.

So are we recognizing similarities before we learn a language, or does learning a language result in us dividing the world up into things which are ‘similar’ and ‘different’, based on criteria which are not themselves grounded in similarity and difference? It’s a chicken-or-egg question, but appealing to ‘family resemblance’ does not settle the question one way or the other.

Jim Hamlyn said...

I don't agree with your analysis at all Ph. If you take that route then you will find that you have no principled way of explaining the emergence of language out of more rudimentary practices of representation. The baby is capable of mimicry long before she is capable grouping coloured objects and she is capable of grouping similar coloured objects long before she enters into language. Why do you need to "self consciously" group things to be able to group them? Are infants self conscious? Is a Bower bird?

Philip Rand said...

I think I am with Jim on this one PH!

You see the sentence:

""A thing is identical with itself."

is not useless...it is quite informative actually because it is similar to Wittgenstein's:

"What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?"

And in both cases the answer is quite simple (and I mean really simple...but extremely difficult to see...but once you get it...it is trivial!)

It is a bit like this riddle:

"You see a bee flying in front of you...you grab the bee with your hand, holding it."

The question is:

What do you see?

Richard Wein said...

I agree with Jim. But let me add some further detail.

--A pig hunting for truffles does not view itself as ‘grouping truffles by similarity of scent’, it is merely acting on instinct. When we say that non-human (non-language-using) animals are ‘picking out similar objects’, we are really using the expression anthropomorphically, ascribing the traits of a language-user to a non-language-using creature.--

It's irrelevant how we "see ourselves". We don't need to be seeing ourselves as using language when we use language. Most of the time we use language instinctively. Sure, sometimes (unlike the pig) we reflect on what we're doing. We may think about what we going to say before we say it. We may even bring to mind definitions and grammatical rules. But most of the time we pick our words instinctively, and I recommend concentrating on that sort of normal usage rather than on our occasional more reflective language use.

There can surely be no doubt that animals do make distinctions between different groups of similar things. They distinguish between different types of prey, between different types of predators, between members of their pack and non-members, etc. Of course I don't mean by this that they say to themselves, "This is a member of my pack." But they behave differently towards members of a group and non-members of the group. That's all I mean by "distinguish". I don't see this sort of instinctive differentiation as fundamentally different from the differentiations that humans make when they instinctively apply different labels to different groups. Yes, sometimes we may distinguish in a more reflective way that animals are not capable of. But there are no grounds for insisting that words like "pick out" and "distinguish" can only correctly refer to more reflective behaviours.

In any case, we must try to focus on the substantive question, and try not to be misled by the words that we use to discuss it. It doesn't matter whether we call non-reflective differentiation "distinguishing" or not. We can call it "non-reflective differentiation" or use some other term that you prefer. The substantive point is that much of our language use is of this sort. (I would say that mistaking linguistic distinctions for substantive ones is a common symptom of the essentialistic view of language that Wittgenstein was warning against.)

[continued...]

Richard Wein said...

[...continued]

In choosing animal examples, it might be helpful to take one which is closer to language use. If I remember correctly, there are monkeys which have different warning calls for different types of predators. I don't know the details, but let's suppose there is a particular call for leopards, i.e. the monkeys typically make that particular call when they see a leopard, and not when they see other species. Surely monkeys don't understand the concept of species. So what causes them to use the leopard-call when they see a leopard? I would say roughly speaking that they've learned to associate various traits (e.g. size, colouring, etc) with the leopard-call, and if they detect enough of those traits they make the leopard-call. But they don't apply a rule, in the sense of ticking off traits and counting how many they've ticked off. In fact, detection of each individual trait is likely to be a matter of degree, not a binary: present or not present. When the various leopard-indicating factors are strong enough in combination, the monkey is triggered into making the leopard-call. I present this as the most plausible explanation of the monkey's behaviour.

Now consider a young child who has learnt to use the words "cat" and "dog", but knows nothing about species. How do you think that child is able to distinguish between cats and dogs, and use those terms correctly? I suggest that it is in broadly the same way that I've described for the monkey. Our adult usage is no doubt more refined than the child's. We will be more inclined, for example, to distinguish between dogs and wolves. But I suggest that much (not all) of our adult usage is broadly of this sort.

--It’s a chicken-or-egg question, but appealing to ‘family resemblance’ does not settle the question one way or the other.--

"Family resemblance" is part of Wittgenstein's view of language. It isn't an argument in support of that view.

Philolinguist said...

Jim Hamlyn said...Why do you need to "self consciously" group things to be able to group them? Are infants self conscious? Is a Bower bird?

Hi Jim, thx for the comment. No, you don't need to be self-conscious to group things (a machine can do that), but you need to be a language-user to be able to describe an activity as one of 'grouping things'. Let me explain why that's a problem, via a reply to your other point:

Jim Hamlyn said..."If you take that route then you will find that you have no principled way of explaining the emergence of language out of more rudimentary practices of representation."

Your point seems to be that if I deny the argument from animal behavior to language as family resemblance (i.e. from animals grouping things to language, via humans grouping things), then I can't offer a naturalistic account of the origin of language.

Any attempt to give a naturalistic account of language origin runs into the Observer Effect. We use our cognitive faculties to assess the evidence for naturalistic theories of language origin. But we can't account for the role that those cognitive faculties play in structuring the data, because we have to rely on those very faculties to account for such a role.

So we observe animals, and we describe their behavior as 'grouping things', then we theorise that this kind of grouping behavior explains the origin of human language. So far so good.

Presumably, such a naturalistic account is open to the possibility that the acquisition of language has played a massive role in the evolution of our cognitive faculties. Welcome to the Observer Effect.

In other words, there is no way to demonstrate the veracity of any naturalistic account of the origin of human language, because we can't account for the impact of language acquisition on the evolution of the human cognitive faculties, the very faculties we are using to assess the evidence for the naturalistic account.

I know, it's shocking and might take a while to sink in, because we've been constantly told by scientists that we're really just evolved animals; but that theory runs into the Observer Effect too.

So does any naturalistic theory of the origin of the universe, the constitution of matter and the source of consciousness (because all those theories have, or could have, implications for the way our cognitive faculties are configured).

Richard Wein said...

Hi Ph,

--Any attempt to give a naturalistic account of language origin runs into the Observer Effect. We use our cognitive faculties to assess the evidence for naturalistic theories of language origin. But we can't account for the role that those cognitive faculties play in structuring the data, because we have to rely on those very faculties to account for such a role.--

Non sequitur. Why can't we use our faculties in that way?

This looks like a variant on Ye Olde Argument From Reason. Such arguments are misguided. They seem to be based on a false analogy between cognition and argument: using a faculty to learn about itself is circular, and therefore as inappropriate as using a premise to justify itself. But these things are not alike, or even commensurable. The analogy commits a kind of category error. Faculties are not premises (or even propositions). Language use and cognition are not arguments (though we sometimes make arguments in the course of language use and cognition). There's nothing wrong with using a faculty to learn (or talk) about itself. We can use our eyes in learning about our eyes. We can use our language faculty to discuss our language faculty. And we can use our cognitive faculties to think about our cognitive faculties.

What's more, there's nothing in the argument above that's specific to naturalistic theories. Expressing and assessing non-naturalistic theories of language and cognitive origin also requires us to use the very faculties that are being considered. The argument engages in special pleading.

Philolinguist said...

Richard Wein said: "We can use our eyes in learning about our eyes. We can use our language faculty to discuss our language faculty. And we can use our cognitive faculties to think about our cognitive faculties."

My argument from the Observer Effect hangs on a distinction between veracity and predictive power. 'Veracity' refers to whether a theory is true independently of minds or observers. 'Predictive power' is a theory's ability to make predictions within human experience.

So predictive power doesn't hang on veracity. Even if we're all just a program running on a computer, biological theories about how our (non-existent) bodies work would still have predictive power within our experience.

So your statement (quoted above) is absolutely right when it comes to predictive power. I can use my eyes to make predictions about how my eyes work within my experience, and one can substitute 'eyes' for 'language' or 'cognitive faculties', etc.

But empirical observation and induction alone cannot prove veracity (even probabilistically). So a theory based on those methods alone cannot rule out the possibility that the theory lacks veracity.

For example, a theory about the origin of human language cannot rule out the possibility that language didn't originate that way, and we were 'fooled' by our cognitive faculties into thinking it did.

The whole point of an empirical theory is to show that some outcomes are more probable than others. An empirical theory can do this for predictions within human experience, it cannot do so when it comes to veracity.

An empirical theory has to assign equal probability to all the possible worlds where the theory lacks veracity. A deductive philosophical theory may be able to narrow some of those possibilities down, which brings me to your other point:

Richard Wein said: "there's nothing in the argument above that's specific to naturalistic theories. Expressing and assessing non-naturalistic theories of language and cognitive origin also requires us to use the very faculties that are being considered."

It is at least theoretically possible for a deductive philosophical theory to narrow down the range of possible worlds. For example, if a philosophical theory can prove that atoms necessarily don't exist, then atoms don't exist in any possible world.

The reason a philosophical theory can do this is because it deals with concepts and necessary truths. If a concept can be shown to be internally contradictory, then that concept (e.g. a square circle) cannot be instantiated in any possible world. Empirical theories deal with contingent truths, what is observed to be true (but which is still possibly false).

Jim Hamlyn said...

Ph,
Veracity is a linguistic term, not a nonverbal one. Truth is likewise a concept that emerged with language. I think your issues lie there. If you focus on efficacy instead, then the whole picture becomes much clearer. Nonverbal communication is efficacious—massively so. Evolution doesn't give a damn about truth. Mimicry and imitation match the things they represent in a whole variety of respects and to the extent that they do, they are objectively verifiable. It is our skills of efficacious sensory discrimination and nonverbal representation that underpin our intelligence, not language or the concepts it enables.

Philolinguist said...

Jim Hamlyn said: "Mimicry and imitation match the things they represent in a whole variety of respects and to the extent that they do, they are objectively verifiable."

Verifiable through our cognitive faculties? And those faculties are reliable because ... ?

Richard Wein said...

Hi Ph,

I note that you haven't defended the specific claim that I objected to, but have instead switched to a broad attack on all empirical thinking, which includes science. If you think that science cannot tell us anything about the world, then I think you're taking an absurd position, and I'm not interested in arguing with you. If you think science (or broader empirical thinking) can tell us about the world, then (in the absence of any specific reason for thinking otherwise) it can tell us about the origins of our linguistic and cognitive faculties.

If you say that empirical thinking cannot tell us the "truth", then you seem to be adopting some special sense of the word "truth", and I'm not interested in that sense. Do you really want to deny it's true that the Earth is round (rather than flat), and that we know the shape of the Earth from empirical thinking (i.e. from using our cognitive faculties to consider the evidence)?

--But empirical observation and induction alone cannot prove veracity (even probabilistically). So a theory based on those methods alone cannot rule out the possibility that the theory lacks veracity.--

We can never absolutely rule out the possibility of error, even when we use deduction. We could be mistaken in the premises of our deduction, and we could have made a fallacious deductive step. All we can do is our fallible best, and as far as we can tell, we seem to do reasonably well. That's as good as it gets. Demanding absolute guarantees of correctness (either correctness of our conclusions or correctness of our ways of thinking) is futile. If we can't know the "truth" without such guarantees, then we can't know the "truth" period. But we seem to manage well enough without such "truth".

I think this confusion over the word "truth" is a case of the sort of "bewitchment of our intellect by our language" that the later Wittgenstein warned against.

Philolinguist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philolinguist said...

Richard Wein said: "If you think that science cannot tell us anything about the world, then I think you're taking an absurd position, and I'm not interested in arguing with you."

I think you're exaggerating the scope of my argument. Science can tell us plenty about what is true in human experience. It just can't tell us what role our cognitive faculties (as typically configured) play in shaping that experience.

Imagine that we all see the world through faulty binoculars that we can't take off. How would we know the binoculars were faulty? If your's developed an extra fault, I can detect that, but I can't detect the original fault that's in all our binoculars.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Ph,

--"I think you're exaggerating the scope of my argument. Science can tell us plenty about what is true in human experience. It just can't tell us what role our cognitive faculties (as typically configured) play in shaping that experience."

Sorry, Ph, but I think you're equivocating between your original claim about naturalistic accounts of our cognitive faculties (which claim you've still done nothing meaningfully to defend), and a much broader claim about what we can know from empirical thinking.

None of the argument in your previous comment was specific to the original claim. You wrote:

--But empirical observation and induction alone cannot prove veracity (even probabilistically). So a theory based on those methods alone cannot rule out the possibility that the theory lacks veracity.

For example, a theory about the origin of human language cannot rule out the possibility that language didn't originate that way, and we were 'fooled' by our cognitive faculties into thinking it did.--

Your mention of an origins theory was just as an example of a more general claim about empirical thinking. Contrary to your latest comment, your claim wasn't limited to just that one case, or any other limited subset of empirical thinking. You'd switched from defending the original specific claim to attacking all empirical knowledge. The equivocation was compounded by the equivocal nature of the general attack. Were you denying that we could have empirical knowledge of the world, or only denying that such knowledge amounts to "truth" in some special sense which goes beyond ordinary knowledge, e.g. comes with an absolutely guarantee? The former claim is absurd. The latter claim is merely pointless. Neither alternative helps your case, but equivocating between them may create the false appearance of a substantive argument.

Further ambiguity arises from your use of the expression "in human experience". Can empirical thinking tell us that the Earth is round, or only that it's round in human experience? If you deny the former, then I think you're retreating into absurdity. If you agree to both, then adding the qualification "in human experience" was a red herring.

I don't mean to say that you are knowingly equivocating. Accidental equivocation is a common error. But it's still very frustrating to be presented with such highly equivocal arguments.

--Imagine that we all see the world through faulty binoculars that we can't take off. How would we know the binoculars were faulty? If your's developed an extra fault, I can detect that, but I can't detect the original fault that's in all our binoculars.--

If our cognitive faculties are misleading us in a way that we can't detect, then there's nothing we can do about it. So what good does it do to raise that possibility? In any case, it's no use raising general concerns about the reliability of our cognitive faculties when you claim to be arguing specifically about the ability of our cognitive faculties to produce a particular sort of account (namely a naturalistic account of our cognitive faculties). I won't spend any more time responding to such general points. They're a red herring.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I wrote: --If you agree to both, then adding the qualification "in human experience" was a red herring.--

I should have written: --If you accept the former, then adding the qualification "in human experience" was a red herring.--

Richard Wein said...

P.P.S. I've perhaps been too free in my use of the word "absurd". There have been respected philosophers who have said such things as denying that we can have empirical knowledge. Arguably, they are not so much believing something absurd, as using language in a misguided way. They are making statements which are absurd when read in an ordinary way, but the philosophers in question are not speaking in an ordinary way. In any case, it's very hard to have a sensible substantive discussion when people are speaking in such misguided ways.

Philolinguist said...

Richard Wein said: "You'd switched from defending the original specific claim to attacking all empirical knowledge."

No, I merely explained the problem with naturalistic accounts of language origin by referring to a broader underlying problem, with empirical theories that actually or potentially have implications for the way our cognitive faculties are configured. I'm sure you know the difference between equivocation and setting a problem in a larger context.

Richard Wein said: "Can empirical thinking tell us that the Earth is round, or only that it's round in human experience?"

The Earth is round (i.e spherical) in human experience, but the caveat is usually left out because it rarely matters. Perhaps there are beings that live in only two dimensions of our universe, for whom the concept 'round' doesn't even exist (and for whom the Earth is certainly not round). Someone wrote a famous book about that, called 'Flatland'.

The same could perhaps be said for beings that live in four or more dimensions of our universe (which some scientists claim has 10 dimensions), but I don't know enough geometry to confirm that. But possibilities like that don't generally concern us, so we usually leave out the 'in human experience' disclaimer.

As long as we keep the veracity/prediction distinction in mind, there's nothing wrong with having a naturalistic theory that helps us make accurate predictions about how language works.

But the veracity issue does limit the scope of the theory, in a way that is particularly problematic for any claim to be a theory of language 'origin'.

It's like someone with amnesia who has to learn everything about himself only from the Internet. Yes, he has a theory about his origins, but he can't account for what the Internet has done with the data.

"If our cognitive faculties are misleading us in a way that we can't detect, then there's nothing we can do about it. So what good does it do to raise that possibility?"

I think the possibility is worth raising, because scientists often exaggerate the scope of their theories, which gives us a false sense of scientific progress, that we're moving ever-closer to knowing where we came from and what we are fundamentally.

I suspect that we're not fundamentally animals, we're not composed of atoms, and there's an intimate connection between how we think and the way the world appears to us (perhaps the two are one and the same).

So for me, it is significant that the probability of those suspicions being true has not been diminished in the slightest by all the scientific progress we've made (and has indeed been hinted at by findings in quantum physics, for example in this article by a physics professor at Johns Hopkins - http://henry.pha.jhu.edu/The.mental.universe.pdf)

But I acknowledge that someone who doesn't share my suspicions may not find the possibility at all interesting, and that may well be the majority of people:)

Richard Wein said...

--No, I merely explained the problem with naturalistic accounts of language origin by referring to a broader underlying problem, with empirical theories that actually or potentially have implications for the way our cognitive faculties are configured.--

I suggest you re-read your own comments. I've just done so, and can confirm that you made no argument specific to such theories, apart from the original one, which I described as a non sequitur. In response to a charge of non sequitur, I would expect you to clarify how the conclusion is supposed to follow. But since then you've only made general points about all empirical thinking, not specific points about the theories in question. (Of course, if those points apply to all empirical theories, then they apply to the theories in question. But then any alleged problems are problems for all empirical theories, not just the ones in question.) I still haven't the faintest idea how your argument is supposed to work. As far as I'm concerned it remains an utter non sequitur.

On reflection, some of my remarks have been uncharitable. We all wander off the point, and fail to see that we haven't argued as clearly as we might have thought. I should have just asked you to clarify your argument. Though I must say that I think the sort of argument you're trying to make is hopeless.

Philolinguist said...

Richard Wein said: You made no argument specific to such theories [i.e. naturalistic accounts of the origin of language].

I'll spell it out with reference to the specific theory mentioned by both you and Jim Hamlyn.

Excuse me if I simplify it for the sake of brevity, but the basic theory is that we can observe animals grouping things, so we can theorise that this grouping behavior evolved into a proto-language, and is thereby the basis for human language.

My reply is that we can't rule out the possibility that our characterization of the animal behavior as one of 'grouping things' is a result of the way our cognitive faculties are configured.

Someone with differently configured cognitive faculties may not see the animals as grouping things (anymore than a two-dimensional being would see the Earth as spherical), and therefore would not explain the origin of language in that way.

So does the perceived grouping behavior explain the origin of language, or is the perception itself a result of the evolution of both language and our cognitive faculties, from a cause unrelated to 'grouping behavior'?

I argued that empirical science alone cannot settle the question, because of the Observer Effect.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Ph, you write:

"I suspect that we're not fundamentally animals, we're not composed of atoms."

Then there is probably nothing more to discuss.

Richard Wein said...

Hi Ph,

Thanks for trying to clarify your argument, but I still can't make much sense of it. It seems to start from the premise that we and some aliens might have very different languages, and so describe the origins of our language use in very different ways. OK so far. But so what? Let's assume the alien account is true. (If it isn't, then how's it relevant?) Then, if it contradicts our account, our account must be false. OK, we might be wrong, but that's a possibility regardless of the existence of an alien account, so the alien account is irrelevant. So let's say the alien account doesn't contradict ours. Then where's the problem?

Maybe your point is that the two accounts could mention different causes without contradicting each other. But, if our account says that grouping behaviour is a central cause of the explanation of language origin, and their account doesn't mention that cause in some way (perhaps a very different way), isn't that an implicit contradiction?

So I still can't see any good argument. But I think I've spent enough time on this subject now, so I won't ask you to clarify further. Thanks anyway.

Philip Rand said...

Actually Phi...

Don't loose too much heart over the criticisms over:

"I suspect that we're not fundamentally animals, we're not composed of atoms."

Because what you really are saying (I think) is that what fundamentally animals are is not "stuff" but rather "relations".

Both scientifically and philosophically a perfectly reasonable theory given the scientific evidence and a particular model, i.e. information physics.

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