Tuesday, December 31, 2013

No sweater

Thought of a sample case that suggests that ordinary language as a direct source of philosophical truth is either wrong-headed or more complicated than the name suggests. I was looking at a story about the ship of Theseus and started thinking about the paper title “A sweater unraveled” (which I have not read).

I thought about someone holding up a pile of yarn and saying “Look at my sweater!!!” Someone might say “We say ‘Look at my sweater!!!’ when displaying an unraveled sweater; therefore the yarn is the sweater, even though it is unraveled.” That doesn’t seem right. I’d say it is more complicated than that.

For one, one might argue that what is meant is “Look what happened to my sweater!” or “This is all that is left of my sweater!” In neither case is it implied that the yarn is the sweater. I think one could argue that because these meanings seem roughly interchangeable, “what we say” seems ambiguous in its logical implications.

Another interpretation of this gesture also doesn’t really seem to support the view that “what we say” settles the matter. It might make sense to say that we do consider the sweater to be the pile of remaining yarn, but not because of the interjection “Look at my sweater!!!” It seems reasonable to make some set of claims about “the sweater” being a functional concept that covers the pile of unraveled yarn. For example, the owner may handle the pile in a special way that suggests it is not “just” a pile of yarn, especially if she thinks it can be repaired, returned to a store, used in a lawsuit, etc.

You could make such arguments. But then you’d probably only want to if you were paid to be a philosopher. And only others paid for similar reasons would probably want to read such things.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The conversation frame

A kind of implicit pattern I have become more aware of recently is the quid pro quo nature of conversation. It is insidiously difficult to break out of this pattern. It is practically true that to say anything at all with an audience (actual or potential) is to accept this game. Why?

Most of the time people say things and they implicitly await the reply. Literally or figuratively, they leave space for the reply. In a verbal dispute, they are left at the mercy of the reply at that moment. By merely awaiting the reply, they already lend it credence. “Your turn.” The reply is the reason everyone has fallen silent momentarily.

Furthermore, by awaiting the reply and then allowing it to emerge in full, we force ourselves to deal with it. This is a burden we give ourselves by accepting the conversation frame. This is work we have created for ourselves, though the interlocutor is a crucial player in the game.

Of course, in a verbal dispute, we could act like the reply is not worth our attention and refuse to respond. Yet this is still a kind of response. Such specious insouciance is already belied by our awaiting the reply, allowing it to emerge, and considering whether to "respond" or not. So, to a certain degree, by the very existence of the reply, we are already losing in such disputes. Besides, acting like one is merely ignoring the reply is a dangerous proposition. Doing so is often taken by interlocutors and onlookers as lacking a response. It looks like a loss.

More often, of course, the choice is to construct one’s own response to the reply. This affords it still more credence. It is work to come up with a response. It is dangerous in an argument, since the longer the verbal tennis continues, the greater the opportunity for sudden and devastating loss. And just by staying in such a dispute for an extended period suggests holistically that the conversation, and the opinion of your opponent, are worth (at least some of) your time and effort.

To break out of this pattern, as I suggested, is difficult. One basic issue on which to gain clarity is: “Why am I saying anything at all?” It may be that you want to engage in dialogue, in which case there is not as much reason to consider breaking the pattern. Seeking feedback, even when it is risky, can be valuable.

Sometimes, though, saying something has value in itself. We may want only to express things. We may want to think things out in words. We may simply want to say things that we know are true. Given such circumstances, it is worth asking ourselves: "How likely is it that a reply to what I am saying is something that I will value?" Sometimes this question impels us to remain silent; other times it demands that we find ways to break the dialogic pattern.