Sunday, July 14, 2013

The (In)scrutability of Reference

In our post below (Doctor Justice’s Petting Zoo), we offered an ontological fable, inspired by Quine’s celebrated demonstration, in Word and Object and later writings, that an investigator faced with the problem of “radical translation” cannot determine, by behavioristic methods alone, whether the expression in the exotic language refers to rabbits as unified individual enduring entities, or as (potentially contingent) conglomerates of undetached rabbit parts, or as ontological instantons (what you see before your eyes right now), or individual doses of the mass-term Rabbit Fusion (the way puddles instantiate water), or as incarnations of the Urkaninchen, or what have you:  the reference of the expression is insofar inscrutable.   From this potential modus tollens  he decides to hang on to the behaviorism  and to ditch various purported mental entities instead -- a process which, if carried to what some (Scott Soames, for one) deem its logical conclusion, then  “Quine’s position has several consequences that are so unpalatable as to make it …  self-undermining.”  (Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century (2003), II 282).  But the spice of the tale is in the telling, and Quine tells it exceedingly well.

Likewise delightful is his fable of referential ontogenesis, a tale broached in Word and Object  and taken up again in Roots of Reference.  Here we are given poignant glimpses of Quine’s tortured infancy (“More mama!  More water!  More red!), and offered careful, psychologically plausible reconstructions of how we acquire mass terms, collectives, quantifiers, relative pronouns and so forth, along with their associated ontologies.
In “Reference and its Roots” (in: Hahn & Schilpp, eds., The Philosophy of W. V. Quine (1986), p. 523), Strawson has a bone to pick with Quine’s (psycho)logical account of the acquisition of singular versus general reference:

It must be part of [the learner’s] mastery of ‘Fido’, that Fido is unique.   A plurality of Fidos simutaneously soliciting his attention  must be ruled out by his understanding of the term -- semantically ruled out. … But if it is ruled out, then what becomes of the claim that ‘Fido’ is semantically simpler than ‘dog’? The answer  at least  is simple:  we just reverse the terms. … ‘Fido’ is a more, not a less, sophisticated acquisition than ‘dog’.  ‘Dog’ has individuation;  ‘Fido has individuation plus.

But here Quine is surely correct, as regards the sequential ontologenesis.  Initially, Mama (for let us revert to her, for dignity, leaving Fido in his kennel)  simply is what she is, as presented (well, and as supplemented by instinct, but in this connection  the point is a distraction, though we revert to it later):  Die Mutti ohne Eigenschaften, as it were (nurse, nurse, nurse).  There is initially no reason to posit that she, or Fido, are representatives of any  larger Natural Kind, any more than is Yuri the Unicorn (the family pet, and unique of his species, as it happens).  Later we learn and add layers to this initial baldly-presented UrMutti:  she turns out to be an example of the class of Women, and moreover a painter, and a Clinton Democrat, and foreign-born (which accounts, in retrospect, for certain oddities of her accent, though it sounded fine to us as an infant);  so eventually the term Mama does become enriched beyond that of woman;  it just happens that we met her prior to such enrichment, unlike the case of such other specializations as, say, topologist as against person, where we don’t meet the former term until our including ontologies are well in place.  -- The situation is quite general, not especially connected with singular terms.  As, there is a certain commonality in the notion ‘atom’ that has persisted since the days of Democritus, yet the concept has repeatedly deepened, from the periodic table and the notion of valence, to the Rutherford model, then the Bohr model, and eventually SU(3).


Let us now take leave of Quine’s idealized account of the logic of language acquistion -- take leave of philosophy altogether, and glance at actual acquisition,  in all its oddity.

There was a time, I am told, by one in a position to know (I myself have no memory of it), when I uttered “Daddy” in the presence of any bald man.  What did I mean by this?   Did I actually mistake the gentlemen in question for my own father?  Was the word used as a metonym or simile -- “Lo, a man who reminds me of my father!”   Was it a way of saying (the word bald not yet being in my young vocabulary) “Behold, a bald man!”  Or is the reality behind the reference  truly inscrutable, my infantile mind not being yet up to the task of distinguishing among these variant interpretations.  (Such, indeed, was some of the thrust of my “Petting Zoo” parable:  Quine’s sophisticated picture of temporal rabbit-slices competing with Rabbithood and the Rabbit Fusion  for primacy, is comically at variance with his scenario of savages in the bush.)
The first hypothesis (debility in recognizing my own father) seems unlikely (certainly I blush to imagine it), and yet a somewhat similar situation occurred involving a friend of mine, who at the time was eight years old -- not eight months.  The lad was somewhat familiar with a friend of mine named Nick;  and one day, spotting a fellow who sported a sandy moustache like Nick’s, referred to him as “Nick”.   I said No, that’s not Nick, they just look somewhat alike.   To my surprise, the boy insisted that he was not mistaken, and was quite upset that I continued to contradict him.

Now, such anecdotes have a curious attraction, as offering rare insights into the no-longer-accessible logic of our own young minds.  (For another such, click here: Temps et durée chez une enfant de quatre ans.) But more significant -- and more disturbing -- are referential inscrutabilities that persist (often undetected) into our adult life.
The clearest examples are provided by the shifting, mixed figures of our own dreams.   Very often an individual in your dream is a sort of quantum superposition of a number of people you have known (and some, perhaps, that you have not precisely known personally, but are archetypes or something of the sort).  You seldom get “Daddy” in a pure state.  -- In film, such ambiguities were classically depicted in “Persona”.
By now we are on the boggy ground, not of Frege and Quine, but of Freud.   And the latter’s analysis of the Psychopathologie des Alltaglebens  is relevant here as well.  We can see this in standard-issue misspeakings (Versprechen).  One my wife spotted just an hour ago, when, referring to a phone conversation she had had with our son Steven concerning the Shakespeare course he’s now taking, I said, “Did you mention that you and Steven used to attend the Ashland Shakespeare festival?” -- but I should have said, “You and I”.  And this was indeed no mere unmotivated “slip of the tongue”; its psychological grounding was immediately apparent to analysis (for I live an examined life).   What was surprising was simply that the mixed quantum state here involved a melding of myself with my son, whereas the usual melding in my mind (originally pre-conscious, now familiar) is between my son and my younger brother.

Again, such blends are not restricted to persons.  Freud discovers many examples in Die Traumdeutung, under such designations as Mischbildung, Mischgebild, and Mittelding.  In extreme pathological cases, such blending can involve the rational and the inanimate, as in The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.  (The most nightmarish title  in the history of literature.)

Back to Quine.
His radical-translation fable was framed as a tale of linguistic anthropology; of rabbit-hunting, but really he was after bigger game.  As he later stated (“Ontological Relativity”):  referential inscrutability begins at home.
I was reminded of this earlier today, while perusing Scott Soames’ account of Kripke’s Naming and Necessity and its aftermath.  All sorts of ingenuity has been applied to the case, to try to tame its oddities and paradox (problems with Peano, Thales, etc.):  actuality operators, neo-descriptivism …  And I couldn’t help thinking:  quelle besogne ingrate.   Here some highly trained minds are applying techniques appropriate to philosophy and mathematics, largely with a view to constructing abstract semantic castles in the air, yet in part to model actual human linguistic behavior, at least in the sense of being inspired and corrected and tethered to the same -- much as the theoretical physicist, spinning his gossamer webs of Strings, must occasionally glance at the actual facts of the cosmos, to justify his departmental affiliation.  But human linguistic behavior -- human any behavior -- is simply too messy and defective to admit of such austere systematic description.  (Kripke’s point was indeed partly just that, and he left his lecture informal.)   Certainly mathematicians, when asking foundational questions, do not worry about what Joe Sixpack thinks about Zorn’s lemma.
Epigram:  The enterprise of linguistic philosophy is like that of “Consider a spherical cow” -- good mathematics, bad biology.

The larger problem that confronts us (and it is a perspective I have been brought to only reluctantly) is the truth of the following two factual complexes, either surprising in itself, but jointly infuriating:

(a)  the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Human Communication
(b)  the Utter Impotence of Human Communication

[More to come, if reader interest warrants]

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