January 22, 2015

Language and Politics

When discussing his research on this podcast, Jason Stanley says the following: 
I essentially got captured [early on] by topics in the theory of meaning: truth and meaning, and truth and reference. And I wanted to argue in my philosophy of language work that there was some systematic ways to understand each other. And you can see a connection here to questions in the foundations of democratic social theory. Is public discourse possible? Is objective public discourse possible? Are we forever misunderstanding each other? Or is there a crystalline structure of communication that can serve as a shared way of to grasp each others' thoughts? So it was that picture I was defending in my early work in philosophy of language. And I was always seeking some kind of method to think about the questions that fundamentally moved me, which I have come to realize are questions in social and political philosophy.
And ... six-seven years into my career as a professor I realized that philosophy of language wasn't giving me enough resources to grapple with those kinds of questions. So I had never taken a single undergraduate or graduate seminar on epistemology. Not a single one... I seriously turned to epistemology after I got tenure and I wrote my first book in epistemology, which people found weird since until then I had just published in the philosophy of language. I really thought that epistemology is going to be crucial for understanding some of the questions about knowledge and power I was thinking about. So I came into epistemology wanting answers to questions like, "How do practical and epistemic authority interact?" This is a question that is very central to political philosophy, especially social and political philosophy. Practical authority gives people a certain kind of epistemic advantage. So my first book is called "Knowledge and Practical Interests" and it is about the relation between practical concepts such as practical interests and knowledge. So there I am trying to grapple in an apolitical way with a central topic in social and political philosophy.
My other research area over the last fifteen years is in the service of arguing that knowledge of facts underlies what we take to be practical skill. And this is democratically important because the division between those who labor and those who reflect is extremely central to hierarchy in Western thought.
This is a very interesting narrative which raises many questions. One question it raises is: What is the relation between analytic philosophy of language/epistemology (Davidson, Dummett, Gettier and so on) and social theory (Arendt, Habermas, Dewey and so on)?

One way to understand Stanley's comments is that analytic philosophy of language underlies social theory. On this view, philosophy of language concerns the most basic aspects of communication, the most universal and fundamental aspects of linguistic use. It abstracts from the hurly-burly of sociology or anthropology, and considers the patterns intrinsic to any communicative act. And this is why it can then be connected to social theory, because seeing the fundamental structure of language helps to elucidate those features in more ordinary and intuitive contexts such as democratic practices or hierarchical structures in everyday life.

But there is an obvious question for this view: So in order to do social theory is it beneficial that one first spend a decade or two thinking about the debates between Davidson and Dummett on what a theory of meaning looks like, or Kripke and Searle on proper names? This seems unlikely. It is hard to see how thinking about whether or not proper names have senses is going to help to think about power dynamics within democracies. This presumably is why no philosophy of language or epistemology class I took ever made this connection. It seems as strange as saying that because metaphysics concerns the most fundamental issues of time and matter, it can help illuminate issues not just in the philosophy of physics, but in physics itself.

This is not to say there can be no connection between philosophy of language and social theory. Many people besides Stanley have tried to make such a connection, such as in somewhat different ways Habermas, Derrida, Rorty, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, and so on. In each of these cases the link was made by first poo-pooing Quine and Kripke style analytic philosophy of language as confused, or at any rate, just an extension of linguistics or psychology, and as being either politically neutral at best or retrograde and conservative at worst (because supposedly they are too "Cartesian" and not pragmatic enough). These authors, in order to make philosophy of language connected to social theory, first tried to make an internal critique of analytic philosophy of language, and argued instead for a Wittgensteinian or Heideggerian or Pragmatist philosophy of language, which they claimed connected more naturally to issues of social theory.

Rorty and West were reacting to what I will call the Carnap/Chomsky model of language and politics. On this model, philosophy of language and politics are separate domains, which aren't connected anymore than physics and politics are connected. Most of Carnap's philosophy reads to non-philosophers as deadly boring and as disconnected from the broad issues of the day; yet Carnap was of course very politically active. This is even clearer with Chomsky: he does his linguistics by day and politics by night, and he never felt the need to say that his linguistics or philosophy of language was connected to his politics. This is partly why the Chomsky-Foucault debate is so interesting and hilarious. Chomsky is intent on saying that there is a form of reason which is not contaminated by the forces of power, and he places at least the ideal of science as an embodiment of such reason, and Foucault insists there is no such neutral reason to be had. Here Chomsky and Foucault both agree that analytic philosophy of language tries to be politically neutral. Foucault sees that as a farce and Chomsky sees it as a noble ideal. Rorty was on the side of Foucault, arguing that the ideal of neutrality is an illusion, and that if we gave up projects for a theory of meaning, we can move on to contributing to the projects of democratic society theory.

As I understand it, Stanley is trying to give up the Carnap/Chomsky model without giving up on traditional analytic philosophy. Unlike Chomsky, Stanley is drawing a clear link between his interests in philosophy of language and social issues. But unlike Rorty, Stanley is drawing such a link without saying that most analytic philosophy of language is confused, and in fact by saying that analytic philosophy of language can be relevant to social theory. I imagine many social theorists and analytic philosophers of language are asking themselves the same question: How? The issue is whether such a middle path between Chomsky and Rorty is actually possible.

Here is one way to walk the middle path:
(1) Wittgensteinian philosophy of language (language games, family resemblences, etc.) can be relevant to social theory.
(2) The issue of whether Wittgenstein's philosophy of language is right is a central question of traditional analytic philosophy of language. 
So (3) Traditional analytic philosophy of language can be relevant to social theory.
Normally most analytic philosophers deny (1) by saying that Rorty and West and the social theorists are misunderstanding Wittgenstein's views, and contorting them in ways which Wittgenstein himself never cared about (which mainly had to do with Frege and Russell). On this reasoning, (2) is true, but (1) and (3) are false. Stanley is claiming (1) and (2) are true, and so (3) also is true, and so his philosophy of language work can be relevant to social theory.

This raises the question: given that many social theorists and humanists believe (1), and (2) is obviously true, why don't social theorists also believe (3)? This was the heart of Stanley's exchange with Carlin Romano: What is the difference between, say, Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Stanley's Knowledge and Practical Interests such that most humanists see the former as helping with their projects in social theory but the latter leaves them uninterested?

Romano's claim that it is because Stanley used acronyms in his text seems a poor answer to this question. But the talk of acronyms is shorthand for something. A key difference between Rorty's and Stanley's texts is in terms of their, as it were, gravitational pull. Though Rorty engages with Sellars and Davidson (very traditional analytic philosophers of language), Rorty's book doesn't pull the reader into debates about whether Sellars or Davidson were right. To the contrary, the main effect of reading Rorty's text is to make the reader feel that one doesn't need to engage with those debates anymore, since Rorty has gotten what there is to be gotten out of them, and we can move on to other debates about public discourse which English or Sociology professors can themselves engage in as equals with philosophy professors. The effect of Rorty's text is to release the philosophical questions from the special expertise of academic philosophers, and to say that there is a sense of philosopher which is broader than academic philosopher, and which anyone can in principle lay claim to.

At least with Stanley's Knowledge and Practical Interests text (I don't know about his latest book), this is not the case. To me, and to Romano as can be seen from his comments, the gravitational pull of that text feels inner directed, towards the latest academic philosophy journals. Reading Stanley's text one feels left out of the know, that one is not qualified to speak about knowledge and action (if one doesn't know the texts Stanley discusses), and so one can't really use the ideas Stanley is defending without simply taking Stanley's word for it. Rorty's text made people feel that whatever nascent philosophical impulses they had was reason enough to enter into the communal conversation of philosophy. But since Stanley's text, like most academic philosophy texts, begins from within academic philosophy and treats that as knowledge which non-academic philosophers don't have, it is bound to make non-academic philosophers (and even academic philosophers whose expertise isn't the same as Stanley's) feel that they should simply remain quiet on these topics.

This highlights a problem with the above argument for the middle path. In (1) and (2) "Wittgenstein's philosophy of language" is being used very differently. In (1) it is really a short hand for Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy and his general skepticism of traditional academic philosophy. Most humanists who talk of family rememblences and seeing as are not interested in arguing for those ideas. They treat them the way Wittgenstein treated them: as common sense truths which academic philosophy tends to cover over, and so as ideas which they can use as much as any academic philosopher. But in (2), the way most analytic philosophers have engaged with Wittgenstein's philosophy is to treat Wittgenstein's work as itself the property of academic philosophy, and to try to, as it were, defang it by ignoring the metaphilosophy and find arguments in the text that could have been written in the journal format. Insofar as (2) is true, it is because most analytic philosophers have engaged with Wittgenstein's work in precisely the way that is uninteresting to social theorists. The same was true of how many analytic philosophers responded to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: the more academic philosophers chastised Rorty for misinterpreting Descartes or Davidson, and saying he is out of touch with the latest debates within analytic philosophy, the more most humanities people tuned out and held onto to whatever they found interesting in Rorty's text.

Whether Stanley's middle path can work is a big and fascinating question, which is open ended. But I think in order to make it work there would have to be a balance in acknowledging not only how analytic philosophy of language (or epistemology) can be relevant to social theory, but also the difficulties in making such a connection. Otherwise it feels as if a slight of hand is being performed. Like when Stanley says that the view that knowledge of facts underlies practical skill helps to fight hierarchies in our society. Perhaps this explains biographically why Stanley defends intellectualism, but it mixes together vastly different issues. Even if intellectualism is right and the janitor's use of the mop involves knowledge of facts, that doesn't mean that janitors will be given PhDs and accorded prestige similar to academics. If anything, it seems to reinforce the elevated position of the academic in our society, because it suggests that in order to respect janitors we need to see that deep within them there is an inner academic who knows a bunch of facts about mopping.


  1. I'm not sure it's that complicated to steer the middle path you outlined. Take Rae Langton's work. She uses Austin's speech act theory to argue that pornography actively silences women, by disabling their capacity to say no. It's a very interesting and accessible argument, and it uses key concepts from speech act theory. It's also relevant to the debate on free speech more generally, as it argues that our concept of "speech" in "free speech" is too limited to be of use.

    Or her argument that pornographic material shift the presuppositions of our dealing with women. Again, this draws directly on Lewis account of score keeping in a language game. Or her argument against objetification. The list goes on. I personally think she's very successful in bringing traditional issues to the political arena (note that you don't have to agree with her to recognize that her arguments have force). From what I've seen elsewhere, Stanley is a big fan of her work, so it wouldn't surprise me if he's aiming at something similar with his new book.

    1. Daniel, Good point about the similarity to Rae Langton's work. Langton's work on pornography is definitely interesting, though I think some of the same questions arise there as well. Here is one way to put the dilemma. Either Austin's work on speech acts that Langton is using is controversial within philosophy of language or it is not. On the one hand, if it is controversial, then in relying on Austin's work, she is making her conclusion regarding pornography dependent on resolving the debate in philosophy of language; which seems unfortunate, for that makes it seem like we need to resolve issues in phil of language before we can tackle social issues. On the other hand, if the part of Austin that Langton is relying on isn't controversial, that is either because the issue has been settled within philosophy of language circles or because what Austin said is something anyone can agree on to begin with. I don't any substantive issues that have been settled in philosophy, so I think it is the latter. But then it is unclear in what way Langton is relying on issues in the philosophy of language, rather than on common sense distinctions which anyone could draw. Of course, with Austin this is all the more pertinent, since he himself thought that what he was doing was elucidating certain common obvious features of our language use, and not something which requires special phil of language education.

      My sense is that when Langton uses Austin's distinctions about speech acts she is mainly buffering her status in the debate re pornography. Some people in power think that pornography doesn't harm others because it is a kind of speech and so more about one's rights. You can respond to this by highlighting just what Austin says about saying and doing, but without his fancy words or even mentioning philosophy of language. But then those in power will ignore it as trivialities. But if you can say, as it were, "no, you people in power don't know how language works, and here I do because that is part of my expertise," then you can get traction. Here what is being used is not just Austin's ideas but the fact that he belongs to the structures of academic philosophy of language, and so has a kind of authority most people don't.

      I don't mean to say that Langton is doing something particularly wrong. Anything one can do to gain leverage against certain power structures, that's great. In fact, this is what most humanities people have been doing with Wittgenstein and Heidegger for decades. Is this because Wittgenstein discovered some deep truths which non-professional philosophers can use? No, I don't think so. Wittgenstein articulated some common sense truths which are normally forgotten, or not seen clearly. In fact, he thought that being a professional philosopher is a hinderance to seeing them as clearly. But people love Wittgenstein partly because he was a professional philosopher; because then they can quote those same truisms and be taken seriously, as if they have an expert on their side.

      I worry about the idea that we can just take phil of language debates and connect them to political issues. Because they suggest a kind of ease of moving between the specialists' debates and more public discourse, and I think this covers over the tension between the two. These are issues that arise for anyone trying to occupy at the same time the roles of a specialist and a public intellectual.

    2. Bharath, that's a nice discussion. One alternative that doesn't appear in your comment, though, is that perhaps Austin's (and Lewis's) work is controversial, but that controversy can't or shouldn't be settled exclusively by analytic philosophy of language. That is, perhaps we should bring that controversy to bear on larger issues (such as free speech theory) in order to see the real import of the distinctions. That's what I think Langton is in part doing, and I think that's what Jason may take himself to be doing.

      (Slightly off topic, this can lead to an interesting issue: suppose a certain view in philosophy of language leads to disastrous moral or political conclusions. Should the view be rejected?)

    3. Daniel, I think there is no "real" import of any concept or view. There are many ways that a concept can be used, and what is fruitfully evaluated are people's use of the concept or view. Langton made one use of Austin's work on speech acts; Searle made a very different use in constructing a theory out of it; Cavell made yet a different use of it in connectng it to the kind of speech philosophy can be, and so on. I see the heart of philosophy as generating new and interesting uses of some foundational concepts, or even of some new concepts that get created along the way. When we reach a question like say, "Is compatibilism or incompatibilism about free will right?", we have reached a kind of limit of the old uses of the concepts at issue, and the way to make progress is to create new uses of the relevant concepts or views. As I see it, that is one thing Langton did: she took a familiar sets of concepts and applied them in a new context and so created new, interesting pathways those concepts can be taken, and in the process connected phil lang to social issues. I think I basically agree with what you say: what matters is not saying "yay" or "nay" about a view, but doing something interesting with the view so that it sheds light on things that are important to us.

      Similarly, I am not sure a philosophy of language view can lead to disastrous conclusions, but what a philosopher does with a view can. And that would be a reason to reject that use of the view. As I see it, philosophical views are everyday truisms coveted over by layers of uses of those truisms. So when we ask, "is this view right?" we are really evaluting a particular use of that view which is salient in that context, and asking if that use is good, productive, etc. If we forget this and think that we are asking about the view itself independent of any particular use, then that shows that the use in question has become so ingrained in us that we assume it is a feature of reality itself.

  2. Bharath - thanks for this post. You are right about some of your speculations (I'm giving up on the idea of neutrality, for example). Many of the questions you raise can only be answered by reading my forthcoming book, where, as you suspect, I try to pull off exactly what you describe. The book is I think accessible to people with no philosophy at all, but maybe not people with no academic background at all. It's really epistemology that does the bulk of the work, though there is one chapter on philosophy of language, which, a la Daniel Nagase's comment, is deeply influenced by Rae Langton's work. I should say that one reason for the complexity of Knowledge and Practical Interests is that it was essential to me to work the ideas out and have them pass muster in an essentially nonpolitical environment, as analytic epistemology is. I felt then, as I do now, that the fact that the ideas passed muster in that environment makes them all the more powerful when brought to bear on social justice.

    1. Jason, Thanks for your comment. Your new book sounds very interesting. I hope my post didn't make it seem as if I think the middle path can't work or is somehow wrong. I don't think that. In fact, as with Langton's work, I find the project important and inspiring. Part of what I liked about Wittgenstein was that they could be connected to broad social issues, and I was not able to see how something similar can be true of Lewis or Williamson, etc. Am happy to be learning about how they can be. It resonates with me that there is no deep divide between Cavell and Lewis, as if one of their philosophies is somehow more conservative than the others. I believe ideas themselves are not intrinsically political or apolitical; it is what we do with them that matters. Ironically, it took me leaving academia to learn how academic philosophy can be so good, and that is something I could have been proud to do. As it turns out, it is not my path, but I respect it. As a nonacademic, I am interested in fostering philosophy outside academia, and for that it is helpful to think about some of the limitations of academic philosophy, just as it is also helpful to think about some of the limitations of doing it outside academia.

      What you say regarding Knowledge and Practical Interests makes sense. I feel similarly about this blog. Though I am outside academia, some, or even much, of what I am writing is probably not easily understandable to nonacademics. But it is helpful for me to process and gain more understanding for myself.