Friday, May 11, 2012

Marc Staudacher: Use Theories of Meaning (2010)

Martin recommended this recent PhD thesis as an up-to-date survey of contemporary philosophies of language. I had a printed version standing around in my office, but it's also available via the ILLC repository of dissertations.

Conventions and Social Norms

The subtitle of the dissertation is "between conventions and social norms," and this is also the central theme of the text: Is meaning a social norm, or is it just a regularity in behavior? In other words, do we conform to the dictionary because we are morally obliged to, or for purely practical reasons?

In chapter 2 of the dissertation, Staudacher reiterates a number of arguments for each of these options. He evaluates two of them as particularly strong, so I will briefly run through those.

Contra: Section 2.1.2

The strong argument against the obligatory and normative nature of meaning comes from a paper by Akeel Bilgrami (from an anthology with discussions of Donald Davidson's philosophy of language).

Bilgrami's claim is that philosophers' urge to give meaning a normative character comes from the fact that they want meaning to depend on something more than mere behavior. In particular, they want to know "what concept" a person's use of a word is supposed to reflect. he argues that this is empirically unnecessary and thus a piece of unnecessary metaphysical fat.

His main example can roughly be restated like this: Imagine an otherwise competent English-speaker that one day says "I have such a horrible headache in my shoulder." The concept-hungry philosopher would then try to uncover some (new) underlying rule or concept behind this (new) application of the word; but Bilgrami emphasizes that we actually don't need such a rule to describe or explain the speaker's behavior. Meaning is thus not essentially normative.

Pro: Section 2.2.3

The argument in favor of a normative concept of meaning is "the argument from mistakes."

This is the observation that we feel inclined to correct people's incorrect use of a word, even if we understand perfectly well what they mean. Think for instance about confusions of the effective/efficient distinction.

It is of course an open question whether such a correction should be seen as benevolent, practical advice or as an expression of moral standards. Perhaps they can be compared to the pragmatic ambiguity of utterances like "You are not allowed to smoke in here."

A Dissociation Device: Section 2.5

In his discussion of the two perspectives on meaning, Staudacher plays around with the idea of a society of completely pragmatic speakers. These mostly use words in their usual meaning, but for reasons that are purely practical rather than ethical. This is a quite useful way of searching out the empirical differences between the two hypotheses.

The most interesting difference between this norm-free universe and the normative one is that hearers will not have any option of condemning speakers for giving false information, and speakers cannot blame hearers for interpreting words in a wrong way. Hearers will thus treat speakers as imperfectly reliable sources of information, like reasonably good thermometers, and speakers will treat hearers as imperfectly reliable reaction machines.

In the terminology of Brown and Levinson, this means that all positive face demands fall out of the game of talking and interpreting. As long as the negative face interests of the two players coincide perfectly (say, they have to communicate in order to row a boat in sync) this will not differ from the normative case. But when one of them has no negative face interests in the situation, or even opposing face interests, then the two hypotheses will be empirically different.

Can Regularities Be Non-Normative?

One thing that I have been speculating about a lot while reading Staudacher's chapter 2 is whether group regularities automatically produces norm enforcement. For instance, if all members of a community drink white wine, will they then necessarily develop a hostile behavior towards people who drink red wine?

The claim of both structuralism and poststructuralism is that they will, since social groups have a tendency to assign meaning to any parameters that distinguish them from others, thus introducing a taboo against borderline cases. The question is (1) whether this is true, and (2) whether this should be explained in terms of individual self-protection or group protection.

This is a quite intricate question and touches on some deeper problems with separating a norm from a regularity. But consider some of these cases of non-conform behavior:
  • One child a school class is smarter than the others; the rest of the class bullies that child.
  • You have had dinner at a restaurant with two friends. They have just ordered a dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce, and you then order a dessert of low-fat sorbet with a piece of fresh fruit.
  • You have just had dinner with your two friends, and they have both ordered vanilla ice cream. You then order chocolate ice cream.
  • You take a walk on the street, naked.
The question is what the source of the social pressure in these situation is, if there is any. In particular, it is interesting to what degree normalization is good for the group or for any individual.

Right now, my thinking is that social behavior should be understood as stemming from four different sources:
  1. Individual impulse (do whatever you feel like)
  2. Deliberation (do what is expedient and serves your own interests)
  3. Conformity (do whatever everyone else does)
  4. Deliberation for the group (do what serves the common good)
These four dimensions correspond roughly to the pleasure principle and the reality principle of the negative and the positive face of a person, respectively. Note than any two of the dimension can be in conflict with each other. In particular, giving absolute priority to one dogma will yield four characteristic types of behavior:
  1. Whimsical child (Tourette's syndrome)
  2. Clever egotist (psychopathy)
  3. Anxious teenager (sheep behavior)
  4. Paternalistic saint (otherwordly goodness)
With respect to language use, they might be instantiated as follows:
  1. Say what ever you comes into your mind; use Humpty Dumpty meanings
  2. Use words in ways that maximize the desired effects; lie if it helps you.
  3. Use words in standard ways; say standard things; avoid conflict
  4. Speak truthfully; be relevant; be precise.
I don't know if this model of behavior will be adequate, but it does have the advantage of mapping quite easily onto both some theories from cognitive psychology (frontal control vs. no frontal control) and some theories in sociology (self-interest vs. internalized norms). It would also generalize the conflicting aims of cooperative conversation in a way that would allow us to introduce non-cooperative aspects into pragmatics.

No comments :

Post a Comment