Studies in the way of words

“So one might, in the end, be faced with the alternatives of either reverting to their theoretically unambitious style or giving up hope altogether of systematizing the linguistic phenomena of natural discourse. To me, neither alternative is very attractive.”
Paul Grice, Studies in the way of words, Prolegomena, p. 4, Harvard University Press, 1989.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 08-03-2009. Good intentions, but as usual no follow-through. Anyway, these are the origins of quadrialectics.]

I have decided to re-read Grice after completing my reading of Davidson. I think it more and more likely that some kind of “stepping stone theory of language” – as per  my not (yet?) published thesis on common sense reasoning – might just be the sort of alternative that Grice would have found attractive.

That’s of course not much more, presently, than a hunch but it’s precisely things like hunches that continue to present difficulties for theories like the one of Davidson (it will be necessary for the reader to bear with me even more than usual, my sincerest apologies). A hunch is not something irrational (let alone antirational) even if it is in itself theoretically unambitious. Hunches do not commit someone to give up hope of a systematic treatment of natural reasoning, not even the hope of a systematic treatment of hunches.

Truth be told, hunches and intuition are suspect because they tend to be spoken by ‘believers’ that not just lack intellectual ambition but are proudly affirming that it is a sort of sin (mystery-murder!) to have any ambition beyond them. Such a point of view is, not just merely unattractive, but positively lethal (albeit temporarily cosy). A hunch is indeed a call to action but it’s a call to a specific sort of action i.e. the action of an investigation into the rational merits of the hunch – any other action on hunches can only be justified by appeal to lack of time or another rational argument preventing a subject to thinking on the actual merits of what your hunch is about. This being said, I do not doubt (although I do not know for sure) whether there are no intuitions that don’t admit of further rationalizing (philosophical litterature suggest there are some such), but if this were the case it would not prevent us from at least having ambition to detail which intuitions are of this kind and why this is so (contra Grice – he implies that the 2 alternatives are equally unattractive and this is not so unless he is sure a third alternative exists, which he says he is not).

Before saying anything ambitiously positive I feel compelled to add such a third alternative: the alternative of overly ambitious regimentation. The traditional rationalist assumption that everything can be systematized, because everything is systematic, is also lethal (Popper said how, Quine/Davidson say why). Regimenting the facts, in some or other preconceived scheme, always leads to paradoxes (call it, on a lighter note, the Kantian hunch). Either these paradoxes are assimilated as mysteries in a scheme (and so back to lack of ambition, cfr. scientism) or they are denied (and then we have the overambitious that looks eerily similar to the overzealous but is worse: the overzealous always contains a rest fraction of mystery, and therefore at least some openness to novelty). So, again contra Grice, the implicature that there are only 3 alternatives is a real error (there are at least 4) and the topological map of the ones described here at least supports the hunch that more theoretical ambition isn’t necessarily better.

So why the hell quote something and then go off on a tangent condemning it? Well I don’t know; these things just happen but – as it happens – it allows me to express something I wanted to express: Grice’s hunch is, I think, correctly critical of a certain strand of thought coming from the great Witt over people like Ryle, Austin, Strawson to him: they are theoretically too unambitious. At the same time, I think, another strand of thought running over both Quine and Davidson is, for all they say themselves, theoretically too ambitious. How’s that possible? Is there some ideal level of ambition in between? And what would it be for there to be some sufficiently unambitious level of ambition?

I do not think we need to bother too long with such paradoxes; these two strands of thought – that is at least my conjecture, or hunch – deal with two qualitatively different aspects of a (still assumed indivisible) phenomenon of human thought.

Davidson’s tradition is focused on standard (deductive) reasoning and – in line with the nature of logic – it is theoretically ambitious. Grice’s tradition on the other hand focuses on common sense (inductive) reasoning and – in line with the tendenciy of common sense – is theoretically unambitious. The problem for both traditions (& maybe not for Wittgenstein because he suitably split himself in two) is that they discuss things as if there were only one aspect, as if deduction, knowledge and beliefs are things single isolated humans do on the background or as if the fuzziness of the type of human acting we know from individuals is a fact about this world.

The former therefore tends to overregiment (even if the stated goal is not to do so) and, more specifically, assume humans have intellectual superpowers (e.g. a consistent belief system) that happen to be impaired by the lack of adequate processing powers. In the latter we see the theoretical lack of ambition Grice is on about. By the way, Wittgenstein in this sense doesn’t have the better of anybody because the guy didn’t attempt to integrate, only to delineate.

The truth then is probably  – turning the ‘probably’ of a hunch into something more definite would be a worthy project indeed – and quite symbolically not in the middle. The truth, according to my present hunch, consists in systematic interactions between the purity, the extensionality and eternality of logic (with pure combinatorial productivity) and the fuzzy, intensional here-and-now-ness of our practical reasoning (with its impredictable creativity of imagination).

I think Grice launched himself into a project at the level of the ‘systematic’ in the (alas, too long) sentence before this. But – from the angle of his tradition – he thought it was about unfuzzying the fuzzy of the last part of the sentence. Thence the charges of ‘theoretically unambitious’ and a lack of mention of  theoretically overambitious alternatives.

I have to stop here: I think I have (for myself at least clarified) what program is there to be had. I think it is an important program because it enables to find a real and systematic place for the traditional dichotomies of static and dynamic, synchronic and diachronic and pure and practical reason. The important corrolary is in ethics where we can move on from the stalemate of relativism vs. absolutism. A nice corrolary will be that the field of common sense reasoning can finally be discussed on its own merits (and relatively unknown philosophers like Kyburg saved from oblivion).

[Whilst I realize that this is practically incomprehensible I have to say that I am in awe of my former self. It is not because something is incompetently phrased that it is without great merit.]

[Whilst writing this I was listening to “Stimmung”, KarlHeinz Stockhausen, by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, published by harmonia mundi.]

One response to “Studies in the way of words

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Tunnel: So Alone « The Weblog

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