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Tricked by grammar?

From Milan Kundera’s new book, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts:

You say they detest you? But what does “they” mean? Everyone detests you in a different way, and you can be sure that among them there are some who love you. Through its prestidigitation, grammar can transform a multitude of individuals into a single entity, a single subject, a single “subjectum” that is called “we” or “they” but that does not exist as a concrete reality. [pp 164-5]

Kundera goes on to celebrate how Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, narrated as it is by a multitude of distinct individuals, shows an “inclination to demolish the grammatical trickery of the plural” (emphasis in original), but the application of his thought about “they” and “we” is obviously pertinent to contemporary political argument as well. It’s an interesting way to put it, coming as it does from a writer: that it is grammar itself, with its conjuring tricks, which is the enemy. But this reminded me of another more general recent argument that blames much of our philosophical bamboozlement, too, on the mere availability of certain linguistic operations. It occurs in John Searle’s new volume, Freedom And Neurobiology: Reflections on Free Will, Language, And Political Power:

In order to state how things are in the world we have to introduce general terms to describe how they are. Thus we say, “That is a horse”, or “That is green”. The introduction of general terms immediately allows us to form corresponding noun phrases and to use these expressions referentially. Instead of saying, “This is green”, we can say, “This object has the property of greenness” or “exemplifies the color green”; instead of saying, “That is a horse”, we can say, “That object has the property of being a horse”. The introduction of these abstract entities – the property of being green or the property of being a horse – does not introduce a new ontological realm but is just a manner of speaking. […] I cannot in this brief space tell how you much confusion has been generated over the centuries ranging from the Platonic doctrine of the universal forms right up to Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment. […] There is no separate realm of universals, but rather there are alternative ways of talking about the single realm in which we all live, the real world. [pp 24-5]

Are Kundera’s and Searle’s claims somehow related? Are they both describing species of Unspeak?

  1. 1  Iain Coleman  March 2, 2007, 12:20 pm 

    Nietzsche wrote along similar lines, such as when he said “I fear we have not got rid of God because we still believe in grammar”.

  2. 2  Steven  March 2, 2007, 12:45 pm 

    Yes! Very nice example.
    Also there is Wittgenstein in eg Philosophical Investigations §90:

    Our investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.

    (Although some people thought W was using “grammar” in a rather strange sense.)

  3. 3  JCR  March 2, 2007, 1:58 pm 

    John Searle seems to be describing the exact opposite of unspeak – that there are many ways to truthfully describe the realm in which we live. As we go from the specific to the general (e.g., from “a horse” to “The Horse”) the truth of the issue becomes greater. An individual horse may have only one eye, but “The Horse” more correctly has two. Thus the idea of The Horse encompasses ultimate truth about horses, regardless of extraneous specifics that may not. (This is hardly a new idea by the way, the Greek philosphers wrote about the concept of the perfect form more than 25 centuries ago).

    How is this the opposite of Unspeak? The Greek concept of the perfect form assumes intellectual honesty, that the observer will actually use a horse as the basis for defining horsiness, or a cow to define cowiness, or will recognize that a one-eyed horse is still a horse and not a new animal. The users of Unspeak pervert the Greek concept of logical thought and intellectual honesty (which is, BTW, one of the basic pillars of western civlization) by parsing general Truths into such extreme specifics that it is possible to create ambiguous facts. They then use these “facts” to re-define the original Truth – usually to a new self-serving definition. For example, the Unspeaker, having a horse but needing a cow, parses the concept of The Horse through greater and greater specifics until it becomes an animal with four hooves – and then insists that it is a cow with “cowiness”. More real-life examples are the infamous Bush statement that “We make our own reality”; and the morphing of some aluminum rocket casings into aluminum centrifuge tubes (Well, they did both have aluminum, right?).

    This is an interesting way to think about Unspeak. I have long recognized that a principle tool of Unspeak is to find a small fact that supports the needed position and then apply it to the entire issue whether it really fits or not, re-defining “truth”.

  4. 4  Steven  March 2, 2007, 2:06 pm 

    I rather read Searle as saying that moving to The Horse may be a confusion, rather than a clarification, if it entices us to think that “The Horse” has a separate existence from horses. He actually says that the Platonic notion of ideal forms is exactly one type of such confusion. I was too enthusastic in editing with ellipses: one bit I left out, which I’ve now put back in, is:

    I cannot in this brief space tell you how much confusion has been generated over the centuries ranging from the Platonic doctrine of the universal forms right up to Quine’s criterion of ontological commitment.

    Similarly, we might think that moving from specific acts of murder by specific murderers with specific political stances, to a general idea of “terror”, is in danger of causing confusion too.

  5. 5  JCR  March 2, 2007, 2:38 pm 

    Hmmmm. I’ll think about this, but my intuition (always suspect as a source of information) tells me that the creation of an ideal form clarifies concepts, not confuses them. They allow the myriad non-ideal descriptions available in language to be distilled into a very non-confusing archetype. We all know in our heads what a horse is – there is no confusion among 3 billion individual brains.

    Searle is very right that there are many very confusing ways to describe the same form, but I suspect he went one step too far in including the Greek Ideal Form in that list.

    Thanks for reminding me of “Ideal Form” – I had forgotten the exact terminology, but “perfect form” was a good guess.

  6. 6  Graham Giblin  March 2, 2007, 5:19 pm 

    I (whatever that might be) seem to have what I call a ‘thought’ that a person who I believe existed (though I have never met him) constructed works formed of words and put, or pretended to put, ‘words’ somehow relevant to this conversation in the mouth of the Ruler of the Universe.

    “…What’s your name?”
    The man looked at them doubtfully.
    “I don’t know. Why, do you think I should have one? It seems very odd to give a bundle of vague sensory perceptions a name.”
    “How can I tell,” said the man, “that the past isn’t a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and my state of mind?”
    “I only decide about my Universe,” continued the man quietly. “My Universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay.”

    Or perhaps you are just singing to my cat.
    Or to Rupert Sheldrake.

    P.S. Please can you have Melanie Phillips back? Please?

  7. 7  Giles  March 2, 2007, 5:29 pm 

    I expect the extent to which an archetype confuses or clarifies depends on how closely the objects it purports to describe happen to correspond to the archetype and each other? Archetypes seem to me to have been useful in number theory but probably harmful in literary criticism; they’re a handy clarifier if you use horses for agriculture but likely to lead to error in studying the evolutionary changes involved in their domestication.

    I think this is a bit subtler than making a cow into a “horse”: you can furnish pretty good evidence that all horses have two eyes, and then sell someone a one-eyed racehorse on the basis of that ‘fact’. And similarly for “them” hating “us”.

    This is about as deep into this as I dare get, since I’ve never seen a definition of “predicate” that I thought made much sense. Maybe Searle agrees.

    Kundera goes too far, though, seeming to claim that there’s no such thing as groups at all.

  8. 8  Steven  March 2, 2007, 6:50 pm 

    I’m not sure Searle is sceptical of statements like “The Horse has two eyes” – as a rule-of-thumb way of speaking, ie “the horse” in general, ie “horses in general” – so much as he is of statements like “There exists a Quintessence of Horse that exists in a special ontological realm separate from the world in which we find actual horses.” As I read him, he is lamenting the fact that people have been tempted to say things like the latter only through reading something unjustified into a linguistic habit. Your point that it’s not a very useful way to talk about evolution, either, is a very interesting one – although would not the (changing) genotype still at least be a better candidate for something we wanted to call the (changing) Quintessence of Horse (if we wanted to call something that) than anything else? (It still doesn’t exist anywhere but in the real world, though.)

    Re Kundera, I’m not sure he’s saying that people never in fact form groups; just that language can be used to conjure up ideas of homogeneous groups that don’t actually exist. (This is quite close, too, to the stuff I write about uses of the word “Community” in Unspeak.)

    Will I have “Melanie Phillips” back? I must confess I never had her in the first place.

  9. 9  abb1  March 5, 2007, 1:10 pm 

    There is no separate realm of universals, but rather there are alternative ways of talking about the single realm in which we all live, the real world.

    I dunno. One of the problems with “The Horse” is that horses you observe wherever you are might look very different from the horses that live around here, and yet we use the same word. Hence the confusion; we are indeed talking about different realms. To avoid this, we would have to observe the real world always together, like living in the same village. Even that probably leaves enough space for confusion.

  10. 10  lamentreat  March 5, 2007, 9:40 pm 

    What about impersonal third persons, though, like “on” in French or “man” in German? How do they fit in? (and, for that matter, in French is Kundera using “ils” or “on”?) It doesn’t seem like they are the same. They seem more like an “indefinite” plural compare to “we” or “they” as a “definite” plural, if I can apply the terms normally given to articles.

  11. 11  Richard  March 5, 2007, 11:05 pm 

    like living in the same village

    this seems to me the example par excellence of the slippage of tongue and mind between ideal and observed. The village is a posited unity, within which individual observers are conceived as interchangeable in outlook – but do any such villages exist anywhere? As part of the mid-century myth-structure of anthropology, the village was imagined as a social unit or laboratory: closed, uniform, a fit object of sealed study. A great deal was written in the 60’s through 90’s about how this unit was in fact in communication with the outside (i.e. ‘modern’) world, but the point that it might not be a unitary creature itself is very often glossed over (even by Anderson, who appeals to communities larger than villages as bring necesssarily ‘imagined’ by their members). The ability to discuss it and its inmates in the same terms perpetuates the imaginary construct, in academic writing, political structures and policy.

  12. 12  Steven  March 6, 2007, 12:23 am 

    in French is Kundera using “ils” or “on”?

    That’s a very good question. I’m currently in England, but will try to find a French edition when I get back, and report.

    They seem more like an “indefinite” plural compare to “we” or “they” as a “definite” plural, if I can apply the terms normally given to articles.

    I agree about on, at least: it’s very often used to construct sentences that in English would be in the passive voice. And to say on vous déteste would mean something more like “Everyone detests you”, rather than, as the translator has it, “They detest you”. But it’s worth checking.

    Meanwhile, I agree that even living in the same Hillaryesque village is no guarantee of agreement on the quintessence of horses or anything else.

  13. 13  Giles  March 6, 2007, 11:44 am 

    Re 8: I’d don’t think you can really speak of the genotype of a population, just the frequencies of different genotypes (or alleles). But more importantly, the genotype doesn’t really embody the ‘essence’ of an organism. In a decent-sized wild population, there is usually a great deal of variation that isn’t normally visible – this is why there are so many wildly varying breeds of dog, or other domestic animals. All the varied alleles were already present in the wild population, but tending to cancel out. It also seems that populations tend to be structured by mating behaviours and other factors in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. These variations are the raw material of both evolution and the study of genetics. Darwin’s breakthrough is sometimes described as precisely that: treating variation rather than essence as key to biology. Prior to 1859, the difference between individuals of a species was often treated as noise by biologists, including evolutionists.

    You’re right, I think, about the Kundera, but I’m not sure it’s helpful – philosophically or linguistically, it’s clearly both right and important politically – without a clear idea of how to tell when we can treat a “multitude of individuals” as a single subject with a “concrete reality”, and when we’re being misled by grammar. Does he goes on to suggest such criteria?

  14. 14  abb1  March 6, 2007, 3:09 pm 

    Farmstead, then. My buddy and I, we dwell in the same farm, and we sure know what “they” is and it sure does exist as a concrete reality. Not to mention “the horse”.

  15. 15  Steven  March 7, 2007, 7:11 pm 

    Giles, thanks for the evo info (again). You ask, quite rightly, whether Kundera suggests criteria for knowing when it is proper to say “we” and “they”. Actually, he doesn’t. But this is a book of fragments, of flashes of tangential insight and surprising readings of certain novels. In such a context, noting that there can be “trickery” involved in the use of such pronouns is a usefully provocative point in itself.

  16. 16  dave  March 9, 2007, 4:15 pm 

    Re the politics of pronouns, I was reminded of a sentence from J. H. Prynne’s poem QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING’ (published 1969 & subsequently): ‘Revisionist plots / are everywhere and our pronouns haven’t even / drawn up plans for the first coup.’

  17. 17  Steven  March 13, 2007, 12:11 am 

    Always a pleasure to have someone citing Prynne: thank you.

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