Friday, January 29, 2021

"Shut the front door!"

Patterson again, Law and Truth

For Dworkin, understanding law is akin to understanding language. As we have noticed, Dworkin sees interpretation as a pervasive feature of many aspects of human existence. He believes it to be of central importance to jurisprudence. Dworkin explains that because “law is an interpretive concept, any jurisprudence worth having must be built on some view of what interpretation is.”98 As we shall see, Dworkin makes far too much of the work of interpretation.

Before turning to the role of interpretation in law, we need to look closely at Dworkin’s general claim that understanding in law (or any other social practice) is a matter of interpretation. Perhaps it is best to begin by reminding ourselves of the putative work of interpretation. To do this, recall the following statement by Dworkin: “We interpret the sounds or marks another person makes in order to decide what he has said.”99 What role does Dworkin assign to interpretation in his account of one person understanding the written or spoken words of another? In the sentence just quoted, it is fair to say that interpretation mediates between the sounds or signs emanating from the mouth or pen of another and the act of meaning apprehension on the part of the listener or reader. Interpretation, as Dworkin says, is something we do. And why do we do it? What results from it? We do it “in order to decide what [another person] has said.”100
Presumably, if we interpret another correctly, we have grasped the meaning of his words. If not, then we have interpreted him incorrectly. Whether correct or not, the act of interpretation is interposed between the utterance and our grasp of its meaning. Interpretation is an act of mediation: Done correctly, it results in the apprehension of meaning. Done poorly, comprehension eludes us.

Dworkin’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, understanding an utterance is not a matter of deriving its meaning through an act or operation of mind.101 The criterion for understanding an utterance is not engagement of a process; rather, it is acting appropriately in response to the utterance.102 For example, one evinces understanding of the request “Please pass the salt” by passing the salt or by explaining why it is impossible to do so. Understanding is made manifest in the act of passing the salt, and the act is a criterion for having understood the utterance.103 Understanding is acting properly in response to the request. If the request is vague or otherwise opaque, interpretation of the request may be necessary, otherwise not.

This last point suggests a certain logical problem endemic to accounts such as Dworkin’s, which assign a primordial role to interpretation in normative activities. As mentioned, interpretation is best thought of as an activity we engage in when our understanding of an utterance is somehow in question (e.g., a request to pass the salt when the salt is directly in front of the person making the request). Interpretation is an activity of clarification: we take the utterance in question and appraise competing construals or interpretations of it in an effort to clarify its meaning.104

If all understanding were interpretation, then each interpretation would itself stand in need of interpretation, and so on, infinitely regressing to infinity.105 This logical problem, one long ago recognized,106 suggests that there is something deeply wrong with assigning to interpretation a mediating role between utter- ances and the understanding of them. The only way out of this vicious regress is to recognize that the normativity of rule-guided behavior (e. g., law) lies not in the act of the individual (e.g., interpretation) but in a practice. Of course, Dworkin argues that law is a practice, and in this he is surely correct. He has simply misstated the role of interpretation in that practice.

[99-100, cite Dworkin, Law's Empire, the rest cite P.M.S. Hacker,  "Language, Rules and Pseudo-Rules" notes below in the original]

101. See Hacker, supra note 13, at 168 (arguing in the spirit of Wittgenstein that understanding is best explained as an ability).
102. Id. at 167—68 (“Understanding sentences of a language is a skill that is manifest in using sentences correctly in appropriate circumstances, in reacting appropriately to their use, and in explaining (if asked) what they mean.” (emphasis added)).
103. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty § 29 (G. E. M. Ansombe 8: G. H. von Wright
eds., Denis Paul 8: G. E. M. Anscombe trans, 1972) (“Practice in the use of the rule also shews what is a mistake in its employment.”)."
104. See Hacker, supra note 13, at 168 (arguing that interpretation is explanation and that explanation is usually required only when a statement contains “[o]bscurities, ambiguities, or complexities”).
105. A recent discussion of this problem in the context of rule-following is Charles Taylor, “To Follow a Rule,” in Rule: and Convention: 167 (Mette Hjort cd., 1992).
106. Wittgenstein mentions the problem in the following discussion: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here. It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we give one interpretation after another; as if each contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shews is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘obeying a rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases. Hence there is an inclination to say: every action ac- cording to the rule is an interpretation. But we ought to restrict the term ‘interpretation’ to the substitution of one expression of the rule for another.” Wittgenstein, supra note 1[Philosophical Investigations, Anscombe], at § 201. 

 Hacker, "Language, Rules and Pseudo-Rules"  

Philosophers, unlike linguists, are not typically tempted to assimilate mastery of a language to a mental state. They recognize that it is an ability. But they insist that this ability can only correctly be characterized by reference to a theory of meaning for the language. They point out correctly that an ability is characterized by specification of what it is an ability to do. The investigation and determination of a person’s abilities involve studying the exercises of his abilities in practice. But philosophers are immediately thrown off the track by the idea that to understand a sentence is to assign to it its truth-conditions, and by the correct observation that there is no limit to the number of sentences that a speaker of a language can understand (although this platitude is usually cast in the form of the incorrect claim that one can understand an infinite number of sentences).From this it seems to follow that since one cannot list all the sentences of a language and pair them with their truth-conditions, one must construct a recursive theory consisting of axioms, rules and principles which can ‘generate’ the truth-conditions of any arbitrary sentence of the language. Such a theory will, it is held, be a ‘model’ of what it is to understand a language. There are many reasons for doubting the coherence of this picture. Here I shall point out only one salient disturbing feature. Assigning truth-conditions to a sentence is not an act which human beings engage in; it is not a piece of human behaviour  that manifests the ability that we call ‘understanding a language’. Asking and answering questions, issuing requests, pleas or orders and complying with them, passing judgment, making statements, describing things are exercises of one’s linguistic abilities. These and a myriad other acts (including buying and selling, signing cheques, making contracts and wills, following instructions, obeying regulations, building and using complex machines) manifest one’s understanding of a language. But these are not, nor do they involve, acts of assigning truth-conditions to sentences.Understanding sentences of a language is a skill that is manifest in using sentences correctly in appropriate circumstances, in reacting appropriately to their use, and in explaining (if asked) what they mean.

To understand an utterance is not to perform any act of derivation whereby the meaning of the utterance, conceived as its truth-condition, is derived from the meanings of its constituents and its structure in accord with the rules and principles of a theory of meaning. The criteria for whether someone has understood an utterance are not criteria for the performance of a derivation of a theorem from axioms and rules. To understand the question ‘Is the door shut?‘, the request ‘Shut the door, please’ or the assertion ‘The door is shut’ is not to engage in any computational process, although it is of course true that if one does not know what ‘door’ means, one will probably not understand these utterances. A person manifests his understanding of the question ‘Is the door shut?’ by answering ‘Yes, it is’ or ‘No, it isn’t’ or ‘I can’t see from here’ etc.; but not by absurdly saying ‘It is a theorem of English that “The door is shut” is true if and only if the door is shut’.

Similarly it is a grievous error to think that in understanding an utterance one always or even usually engages in interpretation. To interpret an utterance is to explain it, typically to paraphrase it in the same language or to translate it into a different language. But when I ask ‘What is the time?’ I understand what I have said without interpreting my own words, and if my addressee speaks English he too will understand my words without interpreting them. Obscurities, ambiguities or complexities may call out for an interpretation, but it would be wholly incoherent to think that all understanding is interpreting. For then the interpretation given, i.e. the paraphrase, would itself stand in need of an interpretation in order to be understood; and a vicious regress would be generated. This misconception has manifold roots. One is the bizarre idea that what we hear or utter are mere sounds which have to be correlated with or mapped on to meanings in order to be understood. But we no more hear or utter mere sounds than we see or paint mere patches of colour. We hear and utter meaningful words and sentences, just as we see multicoloured objects such as chairs and tables, trees and flowers. The idea that all understanding is interpreting is a transposition onto a linguistic plane of the empiricist dogma of the ‘bare given’ (sense data, sensibilia, ideas or impressions) that constitutes the raw data of experience. A second source of misunderstanding is the correct insight that if someone understands an utterance he can explain what it means. Indeed, how a person explains as sentence uttered on an occasion is one criterion for whether he understands it. But it does not follow that to understand is to explain or interpret. For another criterion of understanding is what one does in response to an utterance. One manifests one’s understanding of the request ‘Shut the door, please’ by shutting the door, not (typically) by saying ‘I take it that you wish me to close the portal’.

T.S. Eliot, "Hamlet and his Problems"

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know. Mr. Robertson points out, very pertinently, how critics have failed in their “interpretation” of Hamlet by ignoring what ought to be very obvious: that Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors. The Hamlet of Shakespeare will appear to us very differently if, instead of treating the whole action of the play as due to Shakespeare’s design, we perceive his Hamlet to be superposed upon much cruder material which persists even in the final form. 
Hacker, "To understand the question ‘Is the door shut?‘, the request ‘Shut the door, please’ or the assertion ‘The door is shut’ is not to engage in any computational process"
"Shut the front door, Robot" Question Begging 101, with Prof. Descartes, aka The Wizard.  “That which cannot be said must not be said. That which cannot be said, one must be silent thereof.” Getting Is from Ought. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" Replacing Chomskian absurdity with more of the same.  Jesus fuck. [video added 2/05, because why not?]

Patterson again, "Against a Theory of Meaning" 
A language is not something about which one can have a theory. Nor is a language itself a theory. Quantum mechanics and historical materialism are theories. Each is formulated in a language in terms of laws and explanatory principles. Thus, to construct a theory, one must already have mastered a language. A fortiori, it is implausible to speak -as Chomsky does 1-of children learning their native language by constructing theories of grammar. 2

1. See Noam Chomsky, A Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behaviour, 35 LANGUAGE 26,57 (1959) ("The child who learns a language has in some sense constructed the grammar for himself on the basis of his observation of sentences and non-sentences (i.e. corrections by the verbal community).").
2. The most complete and thoroughgoing rout of the philosophical excesses of linguistics is GORDON B. BAKER & PETER M. HACKER, LANGUAGE, SENSE AND NONSENSE (1984).
Patterson: You can't make series of observations and inferences without language. Bullshit.
Reminds me of the first time I read Searle, beyond his exchanges with Dennett. All the same shit. At some point it all comes down to an assumption: a virgin birth, a can opener, a self.

See previous, Glenn Gould and Wittgenstein.
Patterson and Hacker from 2010. I forget these things.

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