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Monday, September 24, 2007

Oliver Twist asks for more modalization, please

I have always liked the idea of the linguistic middle man – the guy who can go stalking deep into the technical jargon of some specialty and come back out and explain it in a ordinary language. Now, this isn’t really a knock against technical jargon – every groupuscule has one, from beggars to ex presidents. But the faith of the great middle men (o those incorrigible whigs!), the Edmund Wilson types, is that the technical jargon is merely a preliminary stage in intellectual discovery. Some of that jargon should slip under the bars and become vulgate. Some must remain behind. And, of course, the vulgar shouldn’t be so shit ignorant that they use a little unfamiliarity as an excuse to keep their heads firmly stuck up their asses.

All of which is to say that I am worried that, in my previous posts, I haven’t quite explained what I mean by modalization.

Now that is bad. It is bad because I need the term to explain the history of a social phenomena – the creation and diffusion of a way of speaking of emotions, feelings, and attitude that organizes these things according to whether they are positive or negative. That history is riven – the motives of the participants in it are distinct, and their objects are distinct, even as the model they created eventually melted together those distinctions and erased the differences.

Those various motives and objects can be organized by looking at them modally. And, as I said in my modal post, by modally I am not speaking just of the logician’s idea of modal. I am thinking, instead, of the semiotician’s use of the term, which is slightly different. So, to make this clearer, let me quote a nineteenth century philosopher, John Stuart Mill’s friend, William Hamilton. In Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic, he writes:

“Pure propositions are those in which the predicate is categorically affirmed or denied of the subject, simply, without any qualification; Modal, those in which the predicate is categorically affirmed or denied of the subject, under some mode or qualifying determination. For example, - Alexander conquered Darius, is a pure, - Alexander conquered Darius honourably, is a modal proposition.”

Hamilton adds that he finds this distinction bogus: “Nothing can be more futile than this distinction. The mode in such a proposition is nothing more than a part of the predicate.”

He then takes up the more strict use of modal by logicians:

‘But logicians, after Aristotle, have principally considered as modal propositions those that are modified by the four attributions of Necessity, Impossibility, Contingence and Possibility.”

However, Hamilton still isn’t buying it: “But, in regard to these, the case is precisely the same; the mode is merely a part of the predicate, and if so, nothing can be more unwarranted than on this accidental, on this extra-logical, circumstance to establish a great division of logical propositions.”

In the 20th century, Quine agreed with Hamilton, Carnap disagreed, and in general philosophers decided this question on the basis, I think, of boredom: since analytic philosophy discovered everything it was going to discover by 1950, they took on modal logic because they had nothing else to do… Oh oh, I’m being unfair. I’m only joking! I’m only making with the funny business!

Still, disregarding Hamilton’s dismissal of modals, his account of them is what is behind modalization in semiotics – a merging of the rhetorical account of modals and the logical account. The higher level, in semiotics, is logical, with the next level having to do with cognitive and affective attitudes.

There, does that make sense? Are we out of the thickets? Can I say modalization without feeling like I’m resorting to some abracadabra? Yes, I think yes, yes she said yes…

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