How Hard It Is to Know What You’re Talking About, Composing, 12/05/2016

Back in my academy days, I used to have some really frustrating conversations with other philosophers. In short form, we always used to talk past one another. 

I would use a word one way, and my conversation partner would be used to it meaning something different. We’d get into this ridiculous argument where each of us thinks the other is completely out to lunch. 

Sometimes philosophical arguments end up as intense as
a Klingon bat'leth battle to the death. Then we all have a
laugh about it and have made a bunch of new friends.
One of these conversations was once actually over the meaning of the expression “talking past one another.” And yet the actors I work with keep asking me where I learned to write comedy dialogue so well. Girlfriend, you don’t know shit.

We’re all well-informed intelligent people. So why do we end up in these stupidly counter-productive conversations? I think the answer lies in the nature of disciplines. Every knowledge tradition has its own specialized vocabulary. 

In those vocabs, words that are easily understood in everyday conversations often take on specialized technical meanings. And each disciplinary community is its own diverging path, so the technical meanings of a common word in one community might end up being wildly different than the technical meanings of the same word in another group.

That’s a perfect recipe for misunderstanding, frustration, and the slow-burning resentment of mutual hostility. 

Fairly frequently, I’d find that the most intense and entrenched quarrelling camps in different sub-disciplines of academic philosophy came down to these conflicts of definition. No one in either camp could get to a point of critical distance from their own debates to realize that they were talking about different processes with the same words. 

I feel like philosophy in the universities would be a lot more productive if more people realized that you weren’t supposed to argue over the precise meanings of each aphorism late-period Ludwig Wittgenstein said. You were supposed to read Philosophical Investigations like a guidebook on argumentation styles to avoid.

Wittgenstein is another thinker who I think
people take the wrong messages from.
There's an enormous number of academic
books and articles arguing over the precise
meanings and implications of his work, and
whether his various ideas are right or wrong.
But he wrote guides on how to recognize
whether a problem is real or a result of
confusion. The real dispute comes over
which of those guidelines you think should
apply when.
I discuss one example of these disciplinary wars over nothing for a moment in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. Short version. It’s part of a discussion of very primordial forms of subjectivity. The kinds of perception that single-celled organisms do. 

There's a dispute in philosophy of mind over the nature of cognition, between those who think it’s about forming linguistic propositions and those who think it’s about practical action in the world. Following Manuel DeLanda’s really quite insightful distinction that not enough people take seriously, this dispute comes down to no real difference.

One talks about how to create signification, semantic meaning. One talks about how to create significance in the world, practical value. They’re entirely different processes, but these academics think they have conflicting views of the same process because they call the topic of their study ‘cognition.’ 

I close the argument with a joke that I probably think is a lot funnier than it really is, about two groups of people talking past each other. 
“It’s as if a group of silver miners walked into an office full of statisticians at Google, to tell them they’ll never discover the data they’re mining without proper drilling equipment, while the data miners are incredulous that the silver miners achieve anything without programming skills.”
As I read back through Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity to prepare for my panel on it in Calgary at the end of the month, I’m noticing some of my own argument techniques more explicitly than I used to. And this is a style I use quite a lot. 

Deflating an intense dispute within a discipline by showing that it’s based on a category mistake. That there isn’t really a substantive difference between the two (or more) sides. Just a different set of definitions, people using the same words to refer to different problems and processes, then getting into fights when they talk to each other. 

Or rather, talk past each other. Another thing I noticed over the years is that none of these critiques ever go over that well. And discussions in philosophy can get very intense and heated. But we usually all make up and have a beer afterward. Nobody takes it personally.

Except when I make one of these fundamental criticisms. Saying that the basic foundations of a disciplinary dispute are based on a very simple misunderstanding, and that realizing this makes your debate fade away into utter meaninglessness or trivia?

That seems to upset people quite a bit.

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