“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, October 14, 2004


My friend T. tells us that we should certainly move on from the Derrida issue. And we agree, but having started up the old philosophic engine – disinterred from the grease and newspapers in the garage – we’ve been thinking more of philosophers than of, say, those two great purveyors of philosophy, George W Bush (ardent student of Jesus H. Christ) and John Kerry (ardent student of Walter Lippman and Donald Duck’s secret lovechild). There was an op ed piece in the NYT this morning by Mark Taylor to balance out the Derrida as abstruse charlaton obit on Sunday. Taylor gets off to a rocky start by making Derrida one of the three great 20th century philosophers – Wittgenstein and Heidegger get to be the other two. That’s plainly nonsensical – whatever one claims for Derrida, he is not a figure in the same league as Husserl, or Russell. And of course there’s the little problem that making up these lists is time that could be spent more profitably masturbating. Taylor does do some nice abbreviated explaining, but then he spoils it all with a soft focus exit all about Derrida buying Halloween masks for his kids when he visited him in Paris one year. This, he claims, is deconstruction in action. This, LI would claim, is academia in full bourgeois decline.

Then there is Jerry Fodor’s essay on the LRB. We were referred to it through the Crooked Timber site. Fodor’s essay is about what happened to Analytic Philosophy, and his short answer is Kripke.

We always look forward to Fodor’s essays for the LRB. He’s turned into a model of lucidity. He begins his essay with a nice, unphilosophical question:

“Sometimes I wonder why nobody reads philosophy. It requires, to be sure, a degree of hyperbole to wonder this. Academics like me, who eke out their sustenance by writing and teaching the stuff, still browse in the journals; it's mainly the laity that seems to have lost interest. And it's mostly Anglophone analytic philosophy that it has lost interest in. As far as I can tell, 'Continental' philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the rest) continue to hold their market. Even Hegel has a vogue from time to time, though he is famous for being impossible to read. All this strikes me anew whenever I visit a bookstore. The place on the shelf where my stuff would be if they had it (but they don't) is just to the left of Foucault, of which there is always yards and yards. I'm huffy about that; I wish I had his royalties.”

Money, here, is a joke. Still, there is something about it that concentrates the mind at least as much as hanging. The upshot is this:

“So sometimes I wonder why nobody (except philosophers) reads (Anglophone, analytic) philosophy these days.

"But, having just worked through Christopher Hughes's Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity, I am no longer puzzled. That may sound as though I'm intending to dispraise the book, but to the contrary; I think it's a fine piece of work in lots of ways. To begin with, the topic is well chosen. By pretty general consent, Kripke's writings (including, especially, Naming and Necessity) have had more influence on philosophy in the US and the UK than any others since the death of Wittgenstein. Ask an expert whether there have been any philosophical geniuses in the last while, and you'll find that Kripke and Wittgenstein are the only candidates.”

Fodor spends the rest of the article explaining why Kripke’s genius was expended in differing a challenge to the very basis of conceptual analysis posed by Quine’s essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” In a large sense, what Quine did in that essay was challenge a distinction between the synthetic and the analytic that has a conceptual kinship with the challenge Derrida posed to the Saussurian distinction between the synchronic and the diachronic. In both cases, the distinctions are supplemented by shoring up work that, upon examination, is always insufficient:

“In a nutshell, Quine argued that there is no (intelligible, unquestion-begging) distinction between 'analytic' (linguistic/conceptual) truth and truth about matters of fact (synthetic/contingent truth). In particular, there are no a priori, necessary propositions (except, perhaps, for those of logic and mathematics). Quine's target was mainly the empiricist tradition in epistemology, but his conclusions were patently germane to the agenda of analytical philosophy. If there are no conceptual truths, there are no conceptual analyses either. If there are no conceptual analyses, analytic philosophers are in jeopardy of methodological unemployment.”

LI has never liked Kripke, although we find Naming and Necessity to be at least an interesting, and sometimes useful, book. However, we’ve never trusted the thesis of substituting a theory of possible worlds to explain proper names. Much of it, to us, seems like so much trickery, dressed up as counterfactuals. John Burgess at Princeton has a nice explanation of Kripke’s motives for devising a theory of modal necessity to explain names, laying out the salient elements of the dirty deed. First, Burgess explains the classical exampled learned by all first year philosophy grad students – the evening star and the morning star example. Here’s Burgess:

“…The puzzle that Russell (following Frege) addresses is this. Given that ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ denote the same individual, how can the following be true?

(2.1) It is a substantive astronomical discovery that Hesperus is Phosphorus.

According to Russell, this would be impossible if each of ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ were name in the ideal sense of ‘a simple symbol directly designating an individual which is its meaning’. For if the meaning of each name is simply the individual it designates, then since both denote the same object, the two have the same meaning, from which it would seem to follow that ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ has the same meaning as ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’. And that, surely, is no substantive astronomical discovery! In the statement of the puzzle one may replace ‘substantive astronomical discovery’ by ‘not analytic’ or ‘not a priori’ — or if George is an astronomical ignoramus, by ‘not known to George’ or ‘not believed by George’.

Russell offered a famous theory of descriptions intended to explain why the puzzle does not arise in the case of descriptions as opposed to names. But even without going into Russell’s theory it is perhaps obvious that

(2.2) It is a substantive astronomical discovery that the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the western horizon after sunset is the same as the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise.

can easily be true. (Certainly Frege, who did not have Russell’s theory of descriptions, found it so.)
Russell’s solution to the puzzle is that ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’, and more generally names in the ordinary sense, are not names in his ideal sense. Rather, each is associated with some description that constitutes its definition…”

Well, as you can imagine, that is a theory that needs some work. Things change over time, and that means that any description one comes up with will be inaccurate at least to the extent that something has changed – in other words, descriptions are always vulnerable to the effects of before/after. The refutation of Russell’s theory, taken as a strict identity between a proper name and a canonical definition, is easily available. Go to your local grocery store, look in the back of the Redbook, and notice the advertisement for the dietary supplement that shows Mrs. Smith at 300 pounds in 1999, and Mrs. Smith at a svelte 150 now.

It is important to keep your eye on the temporal dimension of this refutation. It is the object of the Kripke school to overlook it. To get back to Burgess, later in the paper he returns to the Hesperus/Phosphorus dilemma from Kripke’s side:

“Kripke has yet another argument against descriptive theories of names. A passing comet might have dislocated the planets, so that while Venus was still the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the western horizon after sunset, Mars rather than Venus was the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise. But even so, Venus, alias, Hesperus, alias Phosphorus, would not have been anything other than itself, Venus, alias Phosphorus, alias Hesperus. Thus

(7.1) Hesperus is the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise. would have been false, while

(7.2) Hesperus is Phosphorus.

still would have been true. This is so even if, in the counterfactual situation being contemplated, it were Mars that was called ‘Phosphorus’, while it were still Venus that was called ‘Hesperus’. It follows that Phosphorus is not by definition the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the eastern horizon before sunrise (and by similar reasoning, Hesperus is not by definition the brightest celestial object regularly seen near the western horizon after sunset).”

Before we go on, notice something about the method here. This is something Fodor doesn’t mention, but something that should strike anybody who has ever read any analytic philosophy. That is the inference, from the affordances of some language in some particular grammatical structure, to a metaphysical argument that supposedly makes those affordances understandable. This is called intuition, by the analytics.

For those not familiar with the term affordances – its from engineering. Donald Norman book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, popularized the word, which he claims to have taken from J.J. Gibson. Here’s what he has to say about it:

“The word "affordance" was invented by the perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson (1977, 1979) to refer to the actionable properties between the world and an actor (a person or animal).

In POET, I argued that understanding how to operate a novel device had three major dimensions: conceptual models, constraints, and affordances. These three concepts have had a mixed reception.
To me, the most important part of a successful design is the underlying conceptual model. This is the hard part of design: formulating an appropriate conceptual model and then assuring that everything else be consistent with it. I see lots of token acceptance of this idea, but far to little serious work. The power of constraints has largely been ignored. To my great surprise, the concept of affordance was adopted by the design community, especially graphical and industrial design. Alas, yes, the concept has caught on, but not always with complete understanding.”
Here’s a plain jane example:
“The computer system already comes with built-in physical affordances. The computer, with its keyboard, display screen, pointing device and selection buttons (e.g., mouse buttons) affords pointing, touching, looking, and clicking on every pixel of the screen.”

The affordances of the proper name give us various tagging affordances. It isn’t, we think, the purpose of the proper name to imply a moment of pure presence to itself, to use the Derridean term. It is to provide an affordance across changing circumstances. The philosophic assumption must be –oh, then it is about an unchanging thing, or what remains the same, over changing circumstances. But why should we assume that? Mrs. Smith wants to show that she has changed, not that she has remained the same.

Damn, what's the time? We should be writing on our novel. So we will abruptly cut this here.

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