‘Policies have winners and losers; some people usually have to suffer a loss or forgo a gain, but hopefully there are always others who receive a greater benefit. It is the task of ethics to help us make these trade offs in ways that are acceptable to all, or at least are based on good reasons. If there was no scarcity, ethics would be largely unnecessary.‘
‘I don’t think that equality in itself is valuable. We should care about inequalities, but we shouldn’t try to deal with them by making people more equal; rather, we should help those who are worse off. In philosophical terms, that makes me a prioritarian rather than an egalitarian. A prioritarian holds that a unit of benefit has more value when it goes to a worse off person, and the worse off the person is, the greater its value; but she does not think it’s worth pursuing equality for its own sake.‘
‘Many philosophers tend to think of the demands of justice between us and future generations in terms of equality. Perhaps this is because they are attracted to the idea of equality when it comes to the distribution of benefits in the present, so they extend it to the future. But I think equality is even less attractive when it comes to our relations to
generations that will come much later in time. I don’t think that future generations should be just as well off as we are; I think they should be better off than we are, and we should make it possible for them to be so. In other words, I think progress is important.‘
Greg Bognar is a Senior Lecturer in Practical Philosophy at Stockholm University and a Senior Researcher at the Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics (CHE). His research is in normative and applied ethics, especially bioethics and what is known as politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE). In his writings, he often end up defending prioritarianism. Currently, he is interested in the ethical challenges raised by ageing, overpopulation, and demographic transitions. He also has an interest in moral relativism. For ethical reasons, he’s not on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Here he discusses the ethical position of treating disability as difference and why he rejects the position, the ethics of rationing in health care, equality, using empirical data to inform philosophical positions in ethics, climate change and the challenge of overpopulation.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher, and why practical philosophy?
Greg Bognar: I became a philosopher mostly by accident. I grew up in Hungary in the late1980s and early 1990s. This was the time the Berlin Wall came down. Like so many other young people, I was interested in politics; I wanted to understand the changes happening around me. I thought of becoming a journalist, but there were no university programs in journalism or politics. So I chose to study philosophy as the next best thing. I wanted to learn about political theory and
What I hadn’t realized was that philosophy programs at universities were changing too. Before communism collapsed, philosophy had been mainly just Marxism-Leninism. As the country was transitioning to democracy, philosophy programs were trying to adopt Western-style curricula. I was lucky becauseeverything was in flux and that enabled me to focus on what I was interested in
the most: political philosophy and ethics. I could largely avoid things I had little interest in, like Marxism or phenomenology. There was a small group of enthusiastic professors who kept up with current debates in philosophy in the
West, and I could complete my undergraduate studies, for the most part, by taking their courses. Soon, I was hooked.
For my graduate studies, I went to the Central European University (CEU). Things were unusual there too: since the university was less than ten years old, there wasn’t yet a Philosophy Department. Philosophy back then was part of the Political Science program. But that suited me perfectly, as I could also take courses in economics, politics, and other subjects I was interested in. So, officially, my degree isn’t even in Philosophy but in Political Science… After I finished, I spent a couple of years as a post-doc at the (now sadly defunct) Program in Ethics & Health at Harvard. By that time, my main interests
were more in ethics and public policy than in politics itself, and I ended up working in bioethics and at the intersection of politics, philosophy, and economics. It was a long and winding road!
3:AM: You’ve looked at the idea that disability is merely difference rather thansomething that is bad for you. Can you first sketch what the reasons are for arguing that disability is mere difference?
GB: Philosophy of disability is a young field, and the debates still revolve around some of the fundamental questions. I came to it through my work on human well-being and the value of health, where it is uncontroversial to hold that
it’s generally a good thing to prevent disability and to cure it if possible.This is because disability is a harm. However, many philosophers of disability claim that this belief expresses “ableist” prejudice. They claim that the disadvantages of people with disabilities are caused by the social environment, rather than their condition; remove these social factors, and disability is no harm at all. It’s more like other human differences, like race or sex. Remove the disadvantages caused by racial or gender-based prejudice, and one’s skin color or gender is no longer an obstacle to flourishing. On the mere difference view, disability is just like this.
I do agree that many of the disadvantages of people with disabilities are socially imposed, and I also do agree that all of the disadvantages due to one’s race or gender are socially imposed. A decent society will work towards eliminating these disadvantages. But I disagree that disability is just like race or sex. Even in a perfectly just and inclusive society, with no prejudice and discrimination, disability would remain an obstacle to human flourishing.
3:AM: ASo you don’t think the position that disability is mere difference can be defended?
GB: No, I don’t. But it’s important to be clear about what I mean when I say that disability is not just a form of human difference. I certainly don’t mean that if you are disabled, your life is necessarily bad. No philosopher who is
skeptical of the mere difference view — and I’m certainly not the only one — thinks that. People with disabilities can of course live perfectly happy, satisfying lives. Rather, the claim has an important “other things being equal” clause. Imagine two ways your life could go: in both of these lives, you would have the same interests, you would like to enjoy the same activities, you would want to take advantage of the same opportunities. The only difference is that in one of these lives you have a disability. Other things being equal, it would be worse for you to have the life with disability than the life without. For one thing, it would be more difficult to succeed in your life.
I don’t think this should be a controversial or particularly implausible thing to say. Most people will experience some form of disability in their lives. Many of them, even if they remain happy and satisfied, will consider that a bad thing.
3:AM: Many of these issues are about rationing — health care in particular. Can you sketch for us what you see as the main philosophical challenges that rationing raises?
GB: In the book I co-wrote with Iwao Hirose, The Ethics of Health Care Rationing, we provide an introduction for general readers to this area. We explain that since resource scarcity is inevitable, rationing — or priority setting, to use a less loaded word — is ubiquitous. It happens in rich and poor societies and in publicly funded and privately financed health care systems alike. So it’s important to make priority setting decisions on ethically acceptable grounds. We explain how different health states can be evaluated, how to make trade offs between maximizing health benefits and fairness, whether small benefits to a large number of people can outweigh large benefits to the few. We explore the moral role that considerations of personal responsibility, disability, or age can play in setting health care priorities.
3:AM: Speaking of age, what is the “fair innings” view concerning the treatment of the elderly?
GB: It’s rather a family of views, all based on the idea that when resources are scarce, you have to set priorities; and when it comes to medical resources, sometimes you can’t meet the health needs of everyone. In those cases, it’s not unfair to give priority to the needs of younger people. So, for instance, ifyou are over 70, you are not eligible for expensive, life-prolonging medical treatment as long as the resources can be used to prolong the lives of people who are below 70. You should still receive palliative care, but you’ve already had your “fair innings”, and it’s more important to enable others to get to where you already are.
3:AM: It seems pretty awful as a view.
GB: Yeah, but that’s because you’re forgetting about scarcity. If there was no resource scarcity, no one would advocate such views — there would be no need to. But there’s always scarcity. Policies have winners and losers; some people
usually have to suffer a loss or forgo a gain, but hopefully there are alwaysothers who receive a greater benefit. It is the task of ethics to help us make these trade offs in ways that are acceptable to all, or at least are based on good reasons. If there was no scarcity, ethics would be largely unnecessary.
My objection to many of these views is that they are too simplistic. There must be less crude ways to make such trade offs than to set a strict threshold at 70.
3:AM: But some of those advocating such an approach to allocating health care go further and prioritize 15 to 40 year olds. This again seems morally repugnant. What’s wrong with it?
GB: Many things… But here’s just one: I think it’s a mistake to try to come up with some age limit over or below which you are not eligible for certain forms of medical care. We should ask the question differently: how much value should societies give to additional years of life at different ages? Should we hold, for example, that it’s equally valuable to spend on medical research that promises to extend the life of octogenarians and to spend on medical research that enables more people to reach that age? I don’t think we shouldn’t spend on research or treatment that increases life spans at all — but I do think we have to make trade offs, and that it’s not indefensible to hold that an additional year of life has relatively smaller value when you are eighty compared to when you’re forty.
Accepting this would have far-reaching practical consequences. We would have to rethink a lot of our social policies. But it does not follow that we would have to abandon old people.
Actually, the fact that you find these views morally repugnant may indicate how unwilling we are to think about scarcity. We’d like to believe we don’t have to make painful trade offs any more. That’s sadly just not true. But, in a way, it’s a good thing that there’s scarcity: a few generations ago we didn’t have to face such questions, since there was very little we could do to prolong life. It’s only because of the amazing progress in medicine that we now have to grapple with them.
3:AM: But doesn’t this mean that we have to give up on equality? For instance, on
equality between the young and the old?
GB: To some extent, yes. But I don’t think that equality in itself is valuable. We should care about inequalities, but we shouldn’t try to deal with them by making people more equal; rather, we should help those who are worse off. In philosophical terms, that makes me a prioritarian rather than an egalitarian. A prioritarian holds that a unit of benefit has more value when it goes to a worse off person, and the worse off the person is, the greater its value; but she does
not think it’s worth pursuing equality for its own sake. In practical terms, an egalitarian and a prioritarian would often make the same policy recommendations, but they would justify their recommendations in different ways.
There is, however, one kind of equality that is important: equality of opportunity. And with respect to this kind of equality, intergenerational inequalities abound. Consider the chronic unemployment and underemployment of young people in some countries, or the fact that young people in some places cannot afford to live in cities where the best jobs are, or that they can’t be
certain that they’ll have the same quality of life as their parents when they retire. In many countries, young people don’t have the same opportunities as their parents did at their age. We should think much more about the political implications of these trends, and what they might mean for the intergenerational cooperation that every society needs to survive.
3:AM: It seems a lot of what you write about is informed by demography.
GB: Absolutely. One reason intergenerational justice is such a fascinating topic is demographic trends. Many of the most affluent societies are aging rapidly; in a few decades, the over-60s will make up more than a third of their population. This will have profound social and economic consequences — rising health care and pension costs are just the most obvious. Social resources usually flow from the old to the young, but this has already started to reverse in some countries. We’re really sailing into uncharted waters here; no one knows what such an old society will look like. This is unprecedented in human history.
3:AM: What do we know about people’s moral views about justice between the old and the young? And, more generally, how should ethicists use empirical data? Carefully I guess is one answer — but it raises the bigger issue about whether armchair ethics is better than ethics using empirical findings. What do you think?
GB: There is the view that all you need for moral philosophy is a good armchair — what people’s actual moral beliefs are is irrelevant for ethics. My impression is that this view was much more prevalent when I started out in philosophy. I remember being asked at job interviews why we should care about what the average Joe or Jane believes. (Those job interviews usually didn’t go well.) These days, it’s much less common to dismiss empirical ethics out of hand.
So why should we care about the moral beliefs of average Joe and Jane? One reason is purely practical: by keeping up with the work social scientists do on moral beliefs, you can discover new questions or new angles to approach old philosophical questions. It’s a goldmine of ideas, if you take the trouble to explore it a bit.
More controversially, you can make the argument that you can’t do ethics without starting from some moral beliefs. A lot of ethics is about clarifying, justifying, and systematizing moral beliefs. One part of that is to work towards what is called “reflective equilibrium” — making your moral beliefs cohere with your moral principles, by using the moral beliefs you are unwilling to give up to test candidate moral principles, and using moral principles to assess your moral beliefs. At the end of this process, you hope to have a set of principles that is coherent with your moral beliefs, while also using those principles to filter your moral beliefs. Then you might have a theory that’s as coherent as can be.
So moral beliefs are a bit like a fairly poor data set. You want to develop a “hypothesis” (a principle) that fits the data best, while knowing that you have to throw out some — and perhaps most — of the data you have.
You could of course do this without looking any empirical research at all. You could just rely on your own moral beliefs — or moral intuitions — and use them as your data. Some philosophers do this, and they seem to discover astonishingly complex moral intuitions by considering imaginary cases that they construct. But the danger is that relying on your own moral beliefs will just lead you to conclusions you are already won’t to accept. Your data set is likely to be especially poor, especially if you already have theoretical commitments.
Consider people’s beliefs about the moral relevance of age. It turns out that the people asked in empirical studies deeply disagree on this issue. Roughly half of them say age should never be a criterion in priority setting; the rest think it’s obvious that more priority should be given to younger people. Since you said you found that idea pretty awful and morally repugnant, you seem to belong to the first group. If nothing else, we have learned from these studies that we shouldn’t take our own moral beliefs on this issue granted, since many other people, some of them surely just as reasonable as we are, disagree.
3:AM: The USA is pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement. Many environmentalists believe that climate change policy should be based on the precautionary principle. You have argued against this principle. So first of
all, what is this principle and why is it problematic for climate change policy?
The precautionary principle says, roughly, that policies and regulations should aim to avoid the worst possible outcomes when you lack precise information on the magnitude of the possible harms and their probabilities. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change called for something like this as the basis for climate change policy. But even though the idea might look reasonable, it’s hard to formulate this principle more precisely. So I suggested that we could borrow the central thought behind prioritarianism, which I described above, to make it more specific. That is, we should design policies and regulations that give more weight to benefits of the worse off — in this case, to improving the situation of the generation that would end up worse off given different policy alternatives. To simplify greatly, this comes down to giving more priority to avoiding the worst outcomes in climate change policy.
Where this matters is this: many philosophers tend to think of the demands of justice between us and future generations in terms of equality. Perhaps this is because they are attracted to the idea of equality when it comes to the distribution of benefits in the present, so they extend it to the future. But I think equality is even less attractive when it comes to our relations to
generations that will come much later in time. I don’t think that future generations should be just as well off as we are; I think they should be better off than we are, and we should make it possible for them to be so. In other words, I think progress is important.
3:AM: What other ethical issues should be part of the discussion on climate change?
GB: Since we’ve already talked about demography, I’ll give an example from there. It’s striking how little attention the problem of overpopulation receives, both in philosophy and in policy. Advocating any form of population policy is a taboo. (Well, except for restricting abortion and access to birth control, which are proposed by some people, while any proposal for population control is off the table.) The standard view is that overpopulation will solve itself as countries complete the demographic transition from high birth rates and high death rates to low birth rates and low death rates. Among other things, this view assumes without argument that the transition will have completed in time before overpopulation leads to irreversible consequences.
The latest IPCC report mentions that the improvements in energy efficiency between 2000 and 2010 almost offset all of the increase in CO2 emissions due to population growth. But that’s not how this piece of data should be read. For what the IPCC really says is that all of the gains in energy efficiency that the world achieved in a decade was more than wiped out by the growth in population. If we had been able to decrease the rate of population growth, we would now be closer to keeping climate change manageable. Yet the problem of overpopulation is simply not part of the discussion. That’s pretty amazing.
The point isn’t to advocate any sort of coercive policy for limiting population growth. There are much better ways. And of course once again there are trade offs: it would lead to problems if we ended up with societies that have become old before they have become affluent. This is one area where it would be useful to have more interchange between bioethics, climate change ethics, economics, and environmental policy.
3:AM: And finally, for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you can
recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
One of the first books I ever read in philosophy is Jonathan Glover’s
‘Social ontology is a rapidly growing research field which is about the foundation of society, or the nature and structure of social phenomena. In other words, social ontology is concerned with the metaphysics of the social world, for example, by trying to understand the nature of events such as the French Revolution, entities such as nations and companies, and institutions such as private property, or monarchy.‘
‘Power viewed as an ability can capture domination since you can be subject to someone’s arbitrary will even if power is not exercised over you. In contrast, a view of power as only existing when exercised would be too narrow to capture this important phenomena.‘
Åsa Burman is passionate about philosophy, human rights, and implementing good ideas. She has a broad background and professional experience from business, academia, and social entrepreneurship. Most of her research is about the concept of social power as well as providing a taxonomy of different kinds of power. She is currently engaged in work on the normativity of the social world, e.g. in viewing human rights from the perspective of social ontology. Other work consists both of a conceptual analysis of social entrepreneurship, drawing on definitions in the research literature, and viewing the field of social entrepreneurship from an ethical perspective, asking a central question: Are social entrepreneurs moral? Here she discusses social ontology, social power, the narrowness of current conceptions of deontic power, four ways of understanding social power, power as an ability, power to do and power over and why conflict of interest is not a necessary condition of power.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Åsa Burman: Looking back, I believe this journey began one special Christmas morning in my younger teens quite some time ago…
My parents gave me a philosophy book called Sophie’s World by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. I recall that I completely lost track of all other activities that Christmas because I was so curious and intrigued by the questions and the proposed answers in that book. In high school I was lucky to have very good teachers in the social sciences and philosophy which made my interest grow even more. So I decided to study philosophy at Lund University in Sweden.
But before that I studied political science and economics and then history of ideas. The first course in political science was about political theory and I thought I was at exactly the right place! Rawls’s Theory of Justice was discussed and of course the issue of just institutions. But I did not get an answer to the question: What is an institution? These institutions played such a big role both in Rawls’s theory of justice and within political science and economics as well, but I still did not have an answer to that fundamental question. It would take a few more years until I got an answer in Berkeley…
I spent some years of my undergraduate and graduate education at Berkeley and took several classes on the philosophy of social science. This was at a time when John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality was starting to get a lot of attention and I finally got an answer to my initial question: an institution is a system of constitutive rules. At this time, the field of social ontology started to grow as well and I decided to write my dissertation in this field.
3:AM: You’re interested in social power based on developments in social ontology. So to start with, can you say what we’re to understand by the term ‘social ontology’?
AB: Social ontology is a rapidly growing research field which is about the foundation of society, or the nature and structure of social phenomena. In other words, social ontology is concerned with the metaphysics of the social world, for example, by trying to understand the nature of events such as the French Revolution, entities such as nations and companies, and institutions such as private property, or monarchy. A related area in this field addresses social groups – what distinguishes a social group from a collection of individuals? – and how should we analyze collective action?
Other important phenomena to analyze is gender and race (analyzed by many philosophers in this field as social kinds) and of course social power which was the topic of my dissertation Power and Social Ontology (Bokbox Publications 2007)
To make some of the questions of social ontology more concrete/tangible, you can reflect on your day so far: On your way to work or university, you had the right to travel by bus or train because you paid the ticket. And if you, for instance, are a teacher at a university you have a right to a salary and an obligation to correct your students’ exams within a certain timeframe due to being employed by the university, while your students have a right to receive their grade within the time frame. And on your way home from work you might have read some news about Britain’s Prime Minister.
The fact that Theresa May is Britain’s prime minister or that you are employed by the university are examples of so-called institutional facts, that is, facts that depend on a society to exist, or more precisely, institutions to exist. Societies consist largely of such institutional facts, or ”status functions”. Examples of status functions is that someone is a student at the LSE or that someone is a UK citizen. And with these status features come new rights and obligations, so-called positive deontic powers (e.g. the right to receive the exam result within a certain time frame) and negative deontic powers (e.g. the obligation to grade the exam within the time frame), which in turn regulates our behavior and thus make society possible.
3:AM: What do you mean when you say that different types of social power are explained by the social phenomena they depend on to exist? Can you give an example of this?
AB: Sure. In the story above I mentioned one type of power – deontic power – which is a type of power which is necessarily known or transparent to the participants of the society in question. This type of power is dependent on status functions to exist as illustrated by the teacher example. But there are other types of power in society; power which is unknown, or opaque, to the participants in a society, e.g. a class structure or a gender structure. This type of power – opaque power- depends of the existence of opaque kinds of social facts, that is, kinds of facts which are unknown, or opaque, to people. These types of facts in turn depend on institutional facts to exist. To make this clearer, it is helpful to think about it in terms of ”first-order” and ”second-order” social facts, that is, in terms of a distinction between social facts which are directly dependent on collective intentionality to exist and social facts which are indirectly dependent on collective intentionality to exist. In the former case, collective beliefs about that very kind of social fact, say money, is partly constitutive of the social phenomena in question, while the latter exists due to collective beliefs about other social phenomena. For example, a recession can exist without any collective beliefs that the economy is in a state of recession, but it cannot exist without any collective beliefs about money.
With this terminology in place, we can say that deontic power is dependent on first-order social phenomena to exist while opaque power is dependent on second-order social phenomena to exist.
Now, let’s return to an example with a gender structure : In a much discussed article in Nature researchers Agnes Wold and Christine Wennerås showed that women had to be 2.5 times more productive than men to receive the same scientific competence score (in the context of post doc applications). Before the publication few people in Swedish society knew about this fact. And if we take this fact as an indication of a gender structure in Swedish (research) society, then we can see how this opaque power, which was disadvantageous to women and advantageous to men, depends on a gender structure to exist.
This example also illustrates one of my main claims; that the current notion of deontic power in some major works in social ontology is way too narrow; to adequately account for these and other similar examples, we must add other forms of power into the picture such as opaque power. In other words, I emphasize that we/social ontologists must also take forms of power dependent on second-order social facts into account, and then I propose an account of social power that does so.
3:AM: So it seems that there are several competing theories of power to the one you propose. So, first could you say something about the choices on offer in social ontology?
ÅB: Sure. The above example actually illustrates one of my main claims; that the current notion of deontic power present in much research in social ontology, (e.g. John Searle’s view, which is much discussed by Raimo Tuomela and Frank Hindriks among others), is way too narrow. The reason is that to adequately account for examples like the gender case above, we must add other forms of power into the picture such as opaque power. In other words, I emphasize that social ontologists must also take forms of power dependent on second-order social facts into account, and then I propose an account of social power that does so.
3:AM: So what is social power according to you? And can you sketch for us the competing positions?
ÅB: There are at least four central dividing lines in philosophical discussions of power:
a) Is power an ability, or does power exist only when it is exercised?
b) Is power about having the power-to do certain things or having power-over others?
c) Does exercising power necessarily include an intention on behalf of the power-holder?
d) Is conflict of interests necessary for power?
The general definition of power I suggest is this: An agent A has social power if and only if A has an ability, which is existentially dependent on collective intentionality, to effect a specific outcome. This definition manages to capture both deontic power and opaque power.
3:AM: Why do you think this is the best way of understanding the phenomenon? & what role, if any, do social structures and other social facts have in social power analysis?
ÅB: The definition implies that power is an ability and that it is always agents that have power. So social structures per se do not have power but they are still extremely important since they serve to enable some agents’s social powers while it reduces some other agents’ power, as in the previous example with the gender structure.
3:AM: Why do you think this is the best way of understanding the phenomenon? Doesn’t your view risk becoming too broad since it implies that agents can have power even though it is never exercised?
ÅB: A reason why I regard power as an ability rather than as only existing when exercised is that I think social ontologists should be able to capture the phenomena of domination in line with Philip Pettit’s view of domination as being subject to someone’s arbitrary will. This kind of power – domination – consists in a relation between actors, but this relation is necessarily of an asymmetric kind.
Power viewed as an ability can capture domination since you can be subject to someone’s arbitrary will even if power is not exercised over you. In contrast, a view of power as only existing when exercised would be too narrow to capture this important phenomena.
3:AM: It looks like your view runs contrary to Steven Lukes’s influential works on power, for example his first edition of Power: A Radical View. His view presupposes that a conflict of interest between a power-holder and a subject is necessary for there to be a power relations, while this is not the case according to your definition.
ÅB: Yes, indeed. Your point also relates to the second question – is power about having the power-to do certain things or having power-over others? – since I have a broader notion of power than Lukes has in mind. I am interested in both the power-to do certain things and having power over others while Lukes is interested in the latter notion. Having the power-to do certain things does not necessarily involve a conflict of interest, since you can have many abilities to do things without there being any conflicts of interests with other agents. For example, when grocery shopping, which involves different powers to do things, it is in the interest of both the cashier and other customers that you buy enough items for him to keep his job and the store to be kept open.
The same holds, however, for power-over, i.e. I do not think that a conflict of interest is necessary here either, due to two reasons. First, we must recognize that people can be powerful by advancing someone’s interests, e.g. a social worker arranging housing for a client. Second, given certain conditions, you can have power over someone even if they would perform a certain action anyway. Consider a football team. The star player would run five kilometers a day even if the coach did not push her to do it, while the other players run five kilometers because the coach orders them to do so. Does the coach have power over all the players including the star player? I think it is plausible to say that she does; the sports coach is in a position of authority in relation to all players. Authority (a form of power) is here understood as the right to command, given one’s formal position. We need to account for the ways in which one’s formal position in an organization gives rise to the right to command, whether or not the subject of the authority would perform that action anyway. So, I do not view a conflict of interest as a necessary condition for power, either for power-to or for power-over, although, of course, in many cases a power relation does involve a conflict of interests.
3:AM: And for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that would take us further into your philosophical world?
“Bringing together Northern Soul and laboratory Cytology for the first time, Richard Brammer’s Girl at End is UK literary subculture at its best.
– Isabel Waidner, author ofGaudy Bauble
Obscure soul records and obscure pap smear specimens. Fluid, fluidity and inflammation at 45 revolutions per minute. Girl at End was written during periodic bouts of hypomania (literally and not figuratively).
– Richard Brammer
[Time allowed: 1 hour]
Write a composition on one of the following subjects:
1. Write a composition that ends – ‘I hope I shall never go there again’.
2. Describe two very different buildings that you have found interesting.
3. Explain the pleasures of some active hobby, e.g. sailing.
4. A long-distance lorry driver taking a snack in a cafe.
5. The blackness of winter.
Today is the 9th November 1989. Girl at End digs into a box of forgotten records in a record shop just around the corner from Superheaven and pulls out Vikki Styles’ little known 7-inch ‘The Tears Won’t Stop Falling’. Does she play it on the portable turntable that she carries everywhere? What do you think?
Today is only 34 days since Bette Davis died – one last flash of her “popping, neurotic eyes” and today is 39 days since Nathan’s Famous opened the first hot dog stand in Moscow. Today is 8,440 days since Darrell Banks’ mid-tempo classic ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ was released in 1966 on Revilot Records in the USA. 
Do you think Girl at End knew that? She knew it. Girl at End is connoisseur. She is definitely connoisseur. She knows all of this.
On first listen, she can tell that Vikki Styles ‘The Tears Won’t Stop Falling’ is heavily indebted to the Darrell Banks classic, it has the same vocal melody but different lyrics, the same horns but Vikki’s version has a faster tempo. This sped up tempo is ironic because the Darrell Banks  version had been written originally by Donnie Elbert  under the title (still, its legal title) ‘Baby, Walk Right In’. The new title was the result of an attempt by Darrell Banks to release the record behind Donnie Elbert’s back but right in Donnie Elbert’s face whilst Donnie Elbert was on tour. Maybe they – Donnie and Darrell – laugh about it later, we don’t know but what we do know is that Darrell simply speeds up the song, changes the title and claims 100% credit for it. It doesn’t work, he doesn’t get 100% credit but he does end up getting royalties on 50% of a soul-classic despite having never written a note of it. But hey, that was Darrell Banks and, as they say, Darrell Banks isn’t Girl at End. Girl at End isn’t responsible for the actions of Darrell Banks.
It isn’t easy to find the year of release for the Vikki Styles version on the actual physical vinyl but this can wait because Girl at End has her rigorous cataloguing system. She can’t deal with the year until she’s looked into and identified the colour of the record’s label. She can’t decide whether the label is best described as Indian-red or mulberry so she summons Birdman. As everybody knows, Birdman is a doyen of Japanese colour systems. He’s here already. Birdman is fast. He holds the record up to the light and reads the label, it says Odex Records, he comments on that decorative typeface but Girl at End has zero interest in typefaces and is in fact typeface-blind, unable to differentiate one from another. At school they bullied her. They put Helvetica in front of her and played the popular game, ‘Name That Typeface?’ Back then she didn’t know better. She’d guess ‘Garamond’. They’d laugh at her for her typeface ineptitude. Children of graphic designers can be cruel. Once they took out her sandwiches and hid International Style favourite Akzidenz-Grotesk in her lunchbox. She remembers this with fondness now. Birdman knows nothing of her typeface blindness. He isn’t being malicious when he brings it up. He examines the colour. He says it doesn’t conform exactly to a Japanese colour but that it is closest to botan-iro, which is the colour of a flowering plant in the genus Paeonia, the flowers of which are large and bisexual.
Girl at End does a quick search on her hand computer and finds that mischievous nymphs always hide in that plant, in amongst the petals, and that this imparts a related connotation of shame or bashfulness to the plant but that’s bullshit right, she asks Birdman. Not wanting to cede an inch of Japanese colour expertise, Birdman changes the subject.
‘Who’s Vikki Styles?’ he asks.
Unlike Thinprep, the small white brushes or ‘broom-heads’ associated with Surepath preparations just snap right off. They are made to just snap off. Insert the brush into the endocervical canal and rotate it five times in a clockwise direction. Then snap it off. Simple. There’s no mystery. It sounds reckless? It isn’t reckless at all. The sole aim is to sample the squamous cells in the transformation zone for it is the cells of the transformation zone that are most in danger of becoming abnormal. By snapping off the head of the brush inside the vial of ethanol-based preservative fluid there is zero chance of air-drying artefacts and you can be sure that the sample is 100% ‘there’ to be transported to the lab in the same vial. Vicki Williams doesn’t give a fuck about any of this though. It isn’t Vicki Williams’ job to deal with it. That part happens somewhere else, in a doctor’s surgery or in a smear test clinic or even in a colposcopy clinic. Fuck that part thinks Vicki Williams. That part isn’t any of my business at all.
Vicki Williams knows that the main problem with her job is excessive mucus. The problem has always been excessive mucus and excessive blood and excessive inflammation.
Look, the first step is to get the cells off the brush. That’s the first step that Vicki Williams is called upon to do. She can’t do anything else until she’s done that. Stand next to the vortexer. Vortex the specimens. It isn’t time to go home yet. 24 samples at a time shake around in the plastic clam-shell container. There’s no skill to using this machine you say but let me put you right there. Imagine you’re Vicki Williams. What does she know that you don’t? She knows there’s an important caveat and that we need to talk about that as part of your vortexer training. What is this caveat? At some point, it had been noted that if the samples are simply allowed to spin around inside the vortexer then they aren’t really being properly vortexed and the cells are NOT being imparted to the liquid sufficiently thus rendering the process useless. A slipmat was added to the equation to prevent this but, given that the whole process effectively takes place blind, it is impossible to tell whether or not a few vials, maybe at the back or in the middle, are still spinning around inside the vortexer. This would suggest that the liquid inside them isn’t really being agitated all that much, that it isn’t vortexing properly.
“I’m spinning around, move out of my way”. Vicki Williams sometimes sings that when she’s vortexing. It’s sort of a stupid habit she has. But anyway, yeah, the caveat is that there is a small element of faith involved in all of this.
It isn’t really something that we are supposed to talk about. We’re just supposed to have faith. That’s how faith works. Nevertheless, it is possible that one or two vials out of every 24 could turn out to be scanty. Scanty means there will be scant evidence of cells in the liquid as they will have stayed on the brush. The cells are no use on the brush. If they don’t get into the liquid they won’t get onto a slide. Scanty means there are not enough cells to provide a screenable sample and not enough information to feed into the screener’s eyes as they look down through their microscopes. This will result in wasted glass slides, wasted processing time, plus, most importantly, wasted time for the patient. The screener is the one tasked with the job of appraising the state of the cells when looking down a microscope. It’s an important job and it’s a fairly skilled job but screeners don’t tend to get enough respect because historically it’s been seen as a job for women, a good part-time earner for ‘homemakers’ that is in actual fact a cut above standard jobs of that type. It is a very important job and many other women would’ve died without screeners acting as an early warning system. Whether the screeners wear headphones and listen to their favourite chart music or to gardening podcasts or to doom metal whilst they do this is really none of your fucking business.
A scanty sample will lead to the patient receiving a letter three months after her last test informing her to go back for another. She’s of a nervous disposition maybe. If so, she will worry. Alternatively, if she’s businesslike and abrupt, she will view this as very much an inconvenience. If she’s medically pious, she will rush back and do as the letter says. The letter will say that there is probably nothing to worry about. It’s merely a sample collection error. The lab will try and blame this on the sample-taker. They will say does this sample-taker even know where the transformation zone is? Is she/he a moron? Has she/he visualized the cervix and rotated the brush correctly? We have had that in the past. We had that situation, do you remember? I told you. It was the one where Vicki Williams was speaking to a sample-taker on the telephone, the sample-taker was insisting that yes she’d definitely visualized the cervix when in fact we could see on the hospital computer system that this particular patient had her cervix removed many many years before so whatever this sample-taker was visualizing it certainly wasn’t the cervix and no it wasn’t even a partial amount of cervix because the patient hadn’t had a partial hysterectomy but had in fact undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy and there was more chance that we could ourselves see more of the cervix than the nurse by going to the histology department and looking for it in a jar. As you read the last sentence, the one about the jar, you are permitted to laugh because that last sentence, particularly the bit at the end, would be viewed as a very very funny cytology/histology-based joke and there isn’t much that cytologists and histologists laugh about together because often they’re sworn enemies. Be warned that if you do laugh at this and you are caught laughing at this there is bound to be at least one person who has overheard your laughter who will point out that the patient wouldn’t be finding it so funny.
The way Vicki Williams sees it is that it’s her business if she chooses to laugh or not to laugh. She does her job well either way.
Meanwhile, following the failed sample, the patient will re-attend her GP surgery and the nurse there, the sample-taker, maybe even the one who once said she saw a patient’s cervix even when that patient no longer had a cervix, or maybe the one who sends a Christmas card to the lab every year and maybe a box of chocolates, and sends it mixed in with her specimens in a slightly unsanitary way, will likely tell the patient that the original failed specimen was definitely a lab error and not her error at all and she will say that the lab are always screwing up like this and she will seem very angry and will say to the patient, “I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, my professionalism is not in doubt” and the patient will agree with the sample-taker and also roll her eyes at the stupidity of the lab but if she met someone from the lab for some reason, she would side with the lab and roll her eyes at the ineptitude of the sample-taker. Maybe she’s easily lead, this patient. Maybe she doesn’t really care and only wants an easy life. Maybe she doesn’t want to get involved with this bullshit lab versus GP surgery politics. Maybe she just wants to listen to Northern Soul or maybe she wants to start a Queercore fanzine. Maybe it’s snowing outside and she’s looking at the snow and that’s all she needs for now.
Another important side-effect of this situation and one that Vicki Williams knows very well is that the three-month period between one scanty inadequate sample and the taking of another is absolute and sacrosanct. To transgress it would be doing nobody any favours. The patient must not go back before this three-month period is over. Any sample taken before the three months are up will again be useless because epithelial cells take three months to regenerate. Everybody knows this and if they don’t they should know it. Somebody tell them for Christ sake!
To the outside world, the people who work in the lab are scientific. That’s the idea that labs set out to put across.
Vicki Williams wears her white coat like the rest of them. It isn’t completely white. Nobody’s lab coat is completely white. The only wholly white lab coats are seen in classic Hollywood cinema. This, too, is such a funny laboratory joke that you should never tell it to someone who is cutting up something small and delicate like a skin biopsy.
Lab workers ensure their name is written onto the back of their lab coat collars in thick marker pen and put it on a peg like junior school. The penned-on names flake quickly and blacken the neck. This doesn’t take long. The name remains just about legible. And then sweat happens of course. Under the arms, as you’d expect. Scientific people can and do sweat but it is not recommended that such behaviour be associated with science.
What is scientific though? What constitutes scientific? Corporate visitors to the lab are always dismayed by the jeans and the trainers visible beneath the white coats of the medical laboratory workers because in their world this displays a lack of professionalism but does their professionalism have any validity? They believe it does. They believe that trousers and shoes under lab coats and not trainers and jeans are related to better healthcare but this is bollocks and they are wrong, there is no relation. Everyone knows that studying “business-management” at university is basically the study of a Mickey Mouse subject, there is no merit in it. It’s a waste of taxpayer’s money because essentially there is nothing that you can learn about business. Being successful in business means being successful in business already, through already inheriting a lot of money and starting a business with that or through stealing money from poorer people and being allowed to get away with it. Business isn’t rocket science. Business isn’t medical science. There is no mysticism to business. Business isn’t important at all.
Vicki Williams often thinks this as she watches the corporate men tour the building. They tour it for meaningless reasons and these tours are hosted by senior hospital corporate managers who are equally meaningless. Corporate business needs to be seen to be doing something so as to offset its essential uselessness. The corporate visitors lean forward to shake the hands of lab staff but recoil away quickly when they realize they’ll be shaking the nitrile gloved hand of someone who has been trimming a spleen. This is the problem with corporate people. They don’t know anything at all about anything that is important. They don’t even know any good histology/cytology jokes.
Vicki Williams removes her lab coat. Vicki Williams hangs it up. Vicki Williams walks down the corridor to have her fifteen-minute afternoon break. How did this happen?
There’s a button on your shoulder
And I’m pushing it over and over
Ariel Pink ‘The People I’m Not’
This book is a Northern Soul documentary and for that reason when we see Dad spinning, he is spinning in slow motion. All dancers in Northern Soul documentaries are the best and most acrobatic dancers. At the very least, the ability to spin is necessary to get onto the television.
Superheaven is so over shabby chic  and this despite the conventional, institutional look of the analogue clock that clocks time above the DJ booth. The second hand of this clock rotates at 1 revolution per minute. Still, Superheaven has a patina. “Look” argues Superheaven, “we’re not into shabby chic, and we’re so over that but we can’t avoid patina. Take our metalwork for instance. All kinds of chemical compounds form on our metalwork – oxides, sulfides, sulfates and carbonates, the list goes on. The upholstery on the seating around the side of the Superheaven dancefloor has many accumulated changes in surface colour and texture.”
“We’re only human” say Superheaven.
“Sure, the free-party scene is over, we have no alcohol license, we’re purpose built but unfortunately, we still take place in time. Despite our best efforts we remain trapped in time.”
Girl at End switches from 45rpm vinyl to CD. As the laser reads the outer edge of the disc it spins at 210rpm, as it moves to the inner edge, it spins at 480rpm. There’s nothing anyone can do about that is there? Back at Girl at End’s flat her washing machine begins a spin cycle that builds from 500rpm to 2000rpm and back again. On the main road outside Girl at End’s L-Shaped room, cars cruise casually at around 750rpm. She moves to her laptop and looks for an MP3, her hard drive spins at 7200rpm which is fast but it’s really nowhere near fast enough for the enrichment of uranium. If Girl at End goes to the dentist (she loves the dentist), her favourite dentist will drill her teeth with his favourite ultrasonic dental drill at 800,000rpm and you could easily enrich uranium at that speed but you could never do it with a dentist’s drill. Besides, dentists don’t have that kind of expertise. Girl at End laughs about this with her dentist on her next visit.
“Is this the literature of exhaustion because I’m exhausted” says Girl at End’s dentist.
Girl at End misses cassettes but she doesn’t miss cigarettes. She likes to feel herself ageing as one spool unrolls itself towards her death, every new second representing discrete moments of her life. She thinks of Boom and looks for him at the side of the dancefloor where he always stands completely still.
Boom never says much but when he does he really asks the big questions.
Last Friday, Boom said ‘Tape counters. What do they really mean? Do they represent time? I mean what gives, man? Is it time, feet, inches, centimetres, or millimetres?”
Birdman is typically irritable. He becomes impatient with any question that doesn’t involve systems of Japanese colour. He gives Boom an answer all the same:
“Most counters are driven off a take up or feed reel and that means they’re unlinear and so they’re absolutely not as accurate as feet or time or any of that. It’s just a reference and nothing else. Forget about it, Boom.”
Journey overhears this. She has feuded with Birdman ever since they had their falling out.
She isn’t interested in this topic but adds her opinion mostly to piss Birdman off:
“One turn of the counter represents two turns of the take up reel. If you apply some simple mathematics,  you can tell that it’d have to be two turns per side because a standard C60 cassette results in 860-900 turns a side and so a three-digit counter wouldn’t be enough for a C90 or a C120”
“Who the fuck uses a C120” Birdman is derisive. Birdman is always derisive.
Journey has riled him. She’s pleased. She continues,
“Cassette rotation is measured in inches per second (ips) and has no definitive rpm value. A C120 is 120ips. Does this help you in any way, Boom? Do you understand more about this now?”
Boom reads her tender tone as patronizing. Journey is always patronizing. Birdman is always derisive. Neither has addressed the existential void at the centre of Boom’s query. This is why he generally keeps his own counsel and remains silent, keeps himself to himself. Boom is almost always silent.
What he’d been getting at was to do with time and not with their precious sound engineering expertise at all. He’d wanted to know if time is temporal or whether we can say that we really view it more as a spatial metaphor and he wondered if we did view time as a spatial metaphor then would that be erroneous in any way? He wondered if the spatial metaphor was linear or if it was circular. That’s pretty much what he’d been getting at. He looks over at Dad on the dancefloor.
Dad is spinning.
 That same year, the record was due to be released in the UK on London Records but all copies were melted down because London Records hadn’t bothered to secure the rights to the song. Nevertheless, one copy, apparently stolen by somebody who worked at the record pressing plant, was saved and it came to light some 9,131 days after the End of History when it was posted on the Soul-Source internet message board by someone calling himself “NickW”. Girl at End knew nothing of this because it wouldn’t happen for another 9,131 days.
 6962 days before the End of History, on 24th May 1970, Darrell Banks was shot dead by an off-duty police officer who was having an affair with Marjorie Bozeman who was the then girlfriend of Darrell Banks.
 Donnie Elbert coincidentally died 140 days before the End of History and 140 days before Girl at End plucked Vikki Styles’ ‘The Tears Won’t Stop Falling’ from a box of dusty 45s.
 The term shabby chic was coined by World of Interiors magazine in the 1980s. According to Dong-Hun, L. (2013) in Consumption Amid Low Growth. SERI Quarterly, 6(1), 11-15,6, “Shabby Chic caters to consumers who want to be stylish even during a recession”. Dong-Hun also notes that “communities whose boundaries have been formed based on common residence, ancestry, or workplace have been fading with the spread of social network platforms. Along with this, the desire to consume based on such community identification is also disappearing. However, new communities are also emerging” and “in another dimension, social networks based on phone contact lists containing friends and family are expanding, encroaching on connections with unfamiliar people such as on Twitter and Facebook” and shabby chic is “based on the concept that timeworn items have their own beauty”.
 “If you apply some simple mathematics” is one of Journey’s stock phrases. She drops it in everywhere.
Richard Brammer’s Girl at End (Dostoyevsky Wannabe) can be purchased here:
‘Today it is popular to ridicule idealism as a silly idea from the past, but in actuality much of what passes as bog standard philosophy today, cannot really be distinguished from idealism. Whenever anyone focuses solely on the conceptual connections between ideas in their philosophy, which is the essence of a priori philosophical reasoning, they are doing pretty much what the idealists thought philosophy is all about. ‘
‘The whole idea of events acting on other events (or states of affairs, or properties, or facts…) is just weird and disturbing. In fact, it would seem that not even Hume believed that any of his contemporaries believed that events act on each other. The view he criticises is that “one billiard-ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse” (Enquiry: sect. 36). It is the balls that act on each other, not the events in which they figure.‘
‘The starting point of the argument is that an adequate conception of time is one that has to incorporate change, because the very idea of reality being in time has to do with change. McTaggart then moves on to offer a phenomenological analysis of how time appears to us in experience, in order to then consider if that appearance incorporates change of some kind.‘
‘McTaggart took truth to be the correspondence of the content of beliefs to facts, but he took the contents of beliefs to be mind-dependent and therefore accepted that truth was mind-dependent. However, he did not think this made truth any less objective.‘
Valdi Ingthorsson has taught research methods in the social and health sciences, but also metaphysics, philosophy of science, feminist philosophy, environmental ethics, aesthetics and the history of philosophy, in Umeå, Reykjavik, and Durham. Here he discusses McTaggart’s causation and Idealism, action at a temporal distance, McTaggart’s paradox of time, how it has been misunderstood, whether it’s one of the great paradoxes, whether the appearance of time supports a metaphysics of time and McTaggart’s correspondence theory of truth. Then he discusses the metaphysics of powers, qualities and properties and ends by saying why we should heed the philosopher.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Rognvaldur Ingthorsson: Well, it wasn’t until I was working on my MA thesis that I even started to think about philosophy as a future profession. Before that I was entirely focused on cross-country skiing, and to qualify for the Olympics. Getting a university degree was secondary. I made it to the 1992 and 1994 games, but after that I started to focus more on my studies and realised philosophy was my thing. I had only opted for philosophy as a subject because I thought it would be relatively easy and could be combined with training. I wasn’t a sports jock or anything. I graduated as Dux Litterarum from my sixth form college and could have gotten a scholarship somewhere. Skiing was simply more fun.
I did have a serious encounter with philosophy in the sixth form, which I am sure influenced me although it didn’t seem significant at the time. The college recruited this ‘old fart’ as an external lecturer in philosophy. He was really a headmaster of a primary school in a neighbouring village. And it is relevant for the story later that this was in the West-Fjords of Iceland, the most rural part, with about 7000 inhabitants in an area slightly larger than Wales. He had us read Meno, Apology of Socrates, and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, all in Icelandic translation. He had himself translated Hume. Anyway, he went in for a Socratic style lecturing, asking questions and patiently waiting for an answer. I was the only one who couldn’t bear the awkward silence so lessons soon turned into a dialogue between him and me.
Remarkably, when I returned 20 years later to give my first talk as a professional philosopher at the University of Iceland, the old fart was in the audience and clearly treated as a regular by the faculty. Turns out he is an institution in Icelandic philosophy. Studied philosophy in Edinburgh and McGill in the late forties and early fifties and in 2014 he was honoured for his longstanding contribution to Icelandic philosophy, among other things for having translated works of Hume, Mill, and Dewey, as well as producing a radio series about Whitehead. Without knowing it, I had had six months one-to-one tutoring by a real enthusiast, in one of the most remote corners of Iceland.
I went to University with the intention of getting a BA in psychology, but switched to philosophy when I realised a psychology thesis involved fieldwork that would interfere with my bid for the Olympics. The thesis work turned out to be really engaging, despite a lousy supervisor. I met with him once, only to be told that supervision of theses was a contradiction in terms; it is supposed to be independent work. All he did was photocopy the entry on time from some Encyclopaedia, because I was writing about Bergson’s durée, but only on the condition that I didn’t tell anyone else that he was helping me.
He reluctantly passed my thesis, saying it was awful, but refusing to say why. Unfortunately he also (non)supervised all the MA theses at the department. This time he failed my thesis saying I had misunderstood completely what philosophy was all about, but didn’t say anything about what was wrong with it. I approached the head of department to get a second opinion, was passed with distinction and subsequently admitted to the PhD programme where I was fortunate enough to get prof. Ingvar Johansson as supervisor.
Anyway, I finally realised that philosophy had become a way of life when Ingvar asked whether I really wanted to become a professional philosopher in light of the very uncertain prospects of a job in academia. The conviction with which I told him I saw no other future surprised even myself. Looking back now—20 years down the road and still without tenure (I’ll be fired in 2 years when my current funding runs out, unless I find other external funding)—I can tell you there have been times that I have had to dig deep to convince myself that I made the right choice. But those moments pass quickly.
3:AM: You’re interested in many key metaphysical problems and in particular McTaggart’s paradox of time. You say that he was a man who argued that drinking is not the cause of drunkedness but drunkedness is the cause of drinking. How does he argue this and does this give us a clue to understanding how McTaggart understands causation and his Idealism?
VI: Well, to begin with, if you are an idealist then there is no material reality, and then of course there really aren’t any chemical compounds like alcohol that could physically affect biological brains. Consequently, all connections boil down to conceptual connections between ideas. Causal connections hold between the idea of some or other cause and the idea of its effect. To make a long story very short, McTaggart argues that the idea of you having been drinking doesn’t conceptually imply that you are drunk, because you can drink without getting drunk, but the idea of you being drunk does imply that you have been drinking. You can’t become drunk without having been drinking. If you then apply the popular conditional analysis of causation in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, then it will very naturally lend itself to the interpretation that you being drunk is a sufficient condition for inferring that you have been drinking, while your drinking may at best be necessary for inferring that you are drunk.
Hegel had similar views, arguing that the understanding of the concept of any particular cause is conceptually dependent on your understanding of the effect it brings about, and vice versa, from which he drew the conclusion that cause and effect were in fact mutually dependent, or conceptually reciprocal, and that we were therefore wrong to assume that causation is asymmetrical.
Today it is popular to ridicule idealism as a silly idea from the past, but in actuality much of what passes as bog standard philosophy today, cannot really be distinguished from idealism. Whenever anyone focuses solely on the conceptual connections between ideas in their philosophy, which is the essence of a priori philosophical reasoning, they are doing pretty much what the idealists thought philosophy is all about.
3:AM: What do you argue causal production is and do you think there is a necessary connection between cause and effect?
VI: Well, first of all, to ask about what causal production is, is to no longer be satisfied with the concept of causation as merely a two-place relation between two distinct states or events; it is to ask about the process that brings about a change in a material system from one state/event to another. It is to ask about the process that produces causal relations.
As far as I can tell, this was how causation was thought of in philosophy from Aristotle and until Hume came along and suggested we think of causation merely as a succession of distinct but contiguous events. As Mario Bunge say, this really constitutes a shift in our thinking of causation from being an ontological category to merely a conceptual category.
The material system that the Aristotelians had in mind was composed of two or more powerful particulars, typically denoted the Agent and Patient, since it was assumed that in interactions between such particulars one would act and the other merely received the action. The atomists instead thought of the material system as any arbitrary collection of atoms, which would change as the atoms collided with each other.
My particular take on production, based heavily on the work of Mario Bunge’s early work, has been to challenge the unidirectionality of actions, on the grounds that natural science doesn’t recognise any forms of unidirectional agency. It is one of the more uncontroversial facts of physics that all influence is reciprocal between interacting objects. If one takes this reciprocity seriously, it becomes impossible to attribute the efficiency of causation to any particular object involved in an interaction; all interacting objects contribute equally to produce the outcome. So my suggestion is to modify the concept of cause to include an interaction as a whole, and the concept of effect to include the resultant change in the whole system of interacting objects.
If we conceive of causation in that way, we arguably get two and not just one necessary connection. One is generic; cause and effect are necessarily two states of the very same material system. The other has more to do with uniformity; whenever two things of a certain kind interact in a certain way, the outcome is always the same. The generic connection is compatible with a certain degree of contingency—with the idea that you might not always get the same outcome from two identical interactions—but I am more interested in exploring the idea that interactions are in fact uniform and necessary.
3:AM: And you yourself have asked yourself this: is there a problem of action at a temporal distance? Does this problem disappear if we discard Newtonian laws of motion?
VI: There is one particular conception of causation that has this problem; the conception Russell criticises in ‘On the Notion of Cause’, and which is the default view on causation today. I think it is a conception no one should accept. However, the trick to resolving the problem is not to discard Newtonian Laws, but to draw the right lesson from them; they do not support the view Russell criticises.
The view Russell starts from is that causation is a two-place relation between two entities such that (i) they are temporally successive in a non-overlapping way and yet temporally contiguous, and (ii) the former acts on the latter. It is because one of the entities is meant to act on the other that they need to be contiguous, because it is assumed that influence only occurs on contact. The problem arises when it is also assumed that time has the structure of the continuum, because then two temporally successive but non-overlapping entities cannot be contiguous; between any two time points—no matter how close they are—there will always be an infinity of time points in between, such as between the time at which the cause ends and the time at which the effect begins. Ergo, you inevitably have a temporal gap.
The reason we shouldn’t think of causation in terms of an event acting on another, is that it is abomination, if you pardon the expression. It is the infertile offspring of a combination of two ideas from two incompatible views about causation. On the one hand there is Hume’s idea about causation as a mere succession of contiguous events between which no action takes place, and the causal realist conviction that causation involves the exertion of influence; i.e. action. Joining the two results in the idea that one event acts on another event, and that is one of the weirdest ideas in the history of philosophy. Let me explain.
The Aristotelian tradition never conceived of actions occurring between events, nor did the Stoics, or the Scholastics, although a common misconception today is that transeunt causation, in the Scholastic sense, is when one event influences another event. This is incorrect. transeunt causation is when one body transmits an influence to another body, i.e. from agent to patient. In other words, actions occur between two material objects whose relation is synchronous. Similarly, the atomists, both ancient and modern, assumed that the atoms impinge on each other and thus change each other’s state of motion. This was Newton’s understanding of actions, as it was Locke’s, and it is still a standard understanding in particle physics. That is what they do in the Large Hadron Collider. They don’t try to make one event smash into another event; they try to smash high-energy particles together, which will produce a succession of events. The whole idea of events acting on other events (or states of affairs, or properties, or facts…) is just weird and disturbing. In fact, it would seem that not even Hume believed that any of his contemporaries believed that events act on each other. The view he criticises is that “one billiard-ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse” (Enquiry: sect. 36). It is the balls that act on each other, not the events in which they figure.
Now, what do Newton’s Laws of motion say about actions? The first law says nothing about them, it only deals with inertial motion; how a body moves when it is not acted upon. The second says that the magnitude of an impressed force is proportional to the resultant acceleration of the object acted upon. As such the second law may perhaps appear—at first blush—ambiguous between a reading in which forces act on accelerations, and one in which a body acts with a certain force on another body, causing an acceleration. But the third law removes any doubt; it says that a force exerted by one object on another is always accompanied by an oppositely directed force exerted by the second object on the former. These forces exerted between objects give rise to changes in their respective states of motion and that is how successive and contiguous events come about. Voila, no problem of action at a temporal distance, since the action occurs between synchronically existing entities and not between successive events.
So, rather than resolving action at a temporal distance by discarding the laws of motion, let us properly understand what they say.
3:AM: Can you sketch for us the paradox as McTaggart sets it out in 1908 and the A and B series ideas of time that have become standard fare in philosophy of time discussions ever since?
VI: The starting point of the argument is that an adequate conception of time is one that has to incorporate change, because the very idea of reality being in time has to do with change. McTaggart then moves on to offer a phenomenological analysis of how time appears to us in experience, in order to then consider if that appearance incorporates change of some kind.
Time appears to us, he says, in the form of events having temporal positions and we find two different kinds of temporal positions. On the one hand the events in time are earlier and later than each other, and that offers a conception of time as a series of positions standing in the asymmetric, transitive, and linear relations of earlier and later than; the B series. On the other hand events are future, present, and past, and continuously passing from the remote future towards the present, and then through the present into the distant past. This latter sense in which events have a position in time also allows us to imagine all events in time as lined up in asymmetric, transitive, and linear order; the A series.
So, time appears as an A and a B series, but McTaggart asks which of the two series is more fundamental with regards to temporality, and of course whether reality can be like an A and/or B series. So, he asks if the B series on its own would be adequate as a conception of a temporal series. He answers no, because he thinks there is no change in the B series. That is, no event is ever earlier than another at one time, but at another time later than that same event. McTaggart’s conclusion is that we only get change if the events that make up a B series also pass from being future to be present, and then from present to past, and thus also make up an A series.
Finally he argues that the conception of events forming an A series involves a contradiction, and so there can be no A series and since we have no other means to incorporate change, then the order of events in history doesn’t manifest any change and therefore cannot be said to be temporal. The controversy about McTaggart’s Paradox revolves mostly around the exact sense of this contradiction. But it is commonly agreed though that the B series as sketched by McTaggart is really a model of what time is really like according to the B view of time, and that the A series is a model of what time is really like according to the A view of time.
3:AM: Ok, so what, then, is the contradiction said to be embedded in the A series view of time?
VI: It is typically presented first in the following naïve form. Future, present, and past are incompatible determinants, so nothing can be future, present, and past, but in time as a whole every event has them all, so every event nevertheless is future, present, and past. Proponents of the A view are typically baffled by this arguments. Surely, the tenses are only incompatible when had simultaneously, but not when they are had successively in time as a whole. Where is the contradiction in that?
Those who defend the validity of the argument respond that even if we allow the events to have the different tenses at different times, this makes no difference for our attempt to give a complete description of time as a whole; in such a complete description you will get the incompatible statements ‘e is future’, ‘e is present’, and ‘e is past’. The sceptics will then say that, no event ever appears to be unqualifiedly future, present, and past, but may at best appear to ‘have been future, is present and will be past’. The defenders will then argue that this reply presupposes the application of the tenses in the explanation of how they are had successively and that this is viciously circular; you explain tense by invoking tense.
The sceptics tend then to think that this is grossly unfair, because there wasn’t initially a problem with saying that e was future, is present, and will be past; the problem arose when that somehow was (falsely) meant to be understood as implying that ‘e is future, present, and past’. The dispute typically ends at an impasse where defenders of the argument demand a solution to what they see as a paradox, while the sceptics demand to be told why there is a paradox at all.
3:AM: You say that the argument McTaggart was setting out was misunderstood from the very beginning and this explains why there are seemingly an incommensurability of views don’t you? Can you explain what you think happened?
VI: I’ll try. With very few exceptions, the argument is treated as a standalone-argument, one that doesn’t rely on any contentious metaphysical principles. That of course is the natural reading, if you believe McTaggart is trying to reveal a contradiction inherent in the appearance of time itself even before we start to theorise about it. I think this is the wrong way to understand the argument, but to see why, one has to do more than just read the original journal article published in Mind in 1908.
One of the factors contributing to the misunderstanding is that McTaggart does nothing to tie the argument to his overall philosophy in the original journal article of 1908. I think he fails to do this because he assumed that his readers would know the argument was a continuation of his engagement with a particular problem in the Hegelian dialectic, notably how ultimate reality could be all at once Absolute, i.e. a perfect and completed whole, which is one of the results of Hegels a priori metaphysics, and also Temporal, which suggests an image of reality as an imperfect and incomplete whole in becoming. He discusses this problem in a two part paper published in Mind in 1893–4, and it was discussed by Schiller and Watson in 1895, and again by McTaggart in 1909. Perhaps he also thought he didn’t need to say anything about it because he thought nobody would disagree with the relevant a priori principles.
Anyway, he makes up for the lack of a connection between the argument for the unreality of time and his own a priori metaphysical principles when the argument reappears in 1927; then as the first chapter of Vol. II of The Nature of Existence. In that book, he makes it explicitly clear that he means to demonstrate that Reality cannot be Temporal in the way that it appears to be in Experience, if it is assumed that Reality is Absolute in the way he has already established by a priori arguments in Vol. I. McTaggart declares these intentions in the introduction to Vol. I, elaborates on them in Ch. 3 where he explains the method with which he proposes to investigate the ultimate structure and nature of reality, and then repeats..
I don’t believe I have ever met God, but I think I may have felt what believers call a “religious experience” in the blank repetition of sport.
Last year, I participated in the Joshua Tree Half Marathon, a thirteen-mile night-run through the desert. Illuminated by a full moon and a bobbing constellation of two thousand runner’s headlamps, we snaked along the outer rim of the national park. It was my first race and I had trained accordingly. For months, I spent the all the spaces in-between training for this event. I ran around Lake Merritt. I ran around Berkeley campus. I ran in place at the YMCA. Each time, going a little farther, lasting a little longer, blinking away the sweat that would hang in the creased little corners of my eyes.
So, come race day, when the outdoor speakers began to triumphantly blast the delayed arpeggio of U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’—God bless Joshua Tree—my whole body felt electric, like when feeling returns to a sleeping limb. I had stretched and hydrated and taken a rushed shit in a portable toilet like a true athlete. I was ready. Yet after the jolt of the starting gun and all the early-race adjustments of water bottle, bib, and crotch, my excitement started to peter out. By mile two, the dense marathon pack naturally organised itself by skill level, with separate little herds of runners settling into their respective strides. I remember thinking for a moment, “Okay, what’s next?” But of course, nothing is next. For the next two hours or so, my only job was to move forward. I could look at the moon or the sand or the widening pools of sweat on runners’ lower backs, but that’s about it. It was just me and my body in the dark.
Make no mistake, for all its cardiovascular benefits, running is wasted time. It’s boring. Friends have often asked me what I think about while I’m running, and it’s a deceivingly difficult question. At the risk of sounding like some fortune cookie runoff, I have to say I’m actively thinking about not thinking. I’m not thinking about the pain blossoming under my right kneecap. I’m not thinking about the burning in my lungs, like a cigarette being dragged down to the filter. There’s so much to not think about. There’s no ball, no points, no coach on the side-line. No one to hold you accountable. No teammates depending on you. No heterosexual butt-slapping.
Running is famously a “mental sport,” but I’ve never really understood what that meant. There’s no clear definition of what makes a sport “mental”, but as far as I can tell, it’s a relatively easy activity that only becomes challenging if you think about it. Maybe that’s every sport. Maybe that’s also sex and work and literally everything else. In all cases, don’t overthink it. The only problem is that the open road is nothing if not an invitation to think. So, running becomes an exercise in trying to keep the room of your mind empty at all costs.
If blank minds make good runners, no one told authors. From Oates to Murakami to DeLillo, running has long been romanticised by writers, and with good reason. In his piece for The Atlantic, ‘Why Writers Run’, Nick Ripatrazone says that “racking up mile after mile is difficult, mind-expanding, and hypnotic—just like putting words down on a page.” I wish I could lay claim to this expansion of thought, but I can’t. It’s true that the mind drifts when running—it gets bored, calls back old memories, plays with silhouettes of Joshua trees in the distance, like men throwing their hands up to the sky in prayer—but absent-mindedness is dangerous, for it’s not long until it wanders into the territory of how thirsty, tired, and sore you really are.
In order to keep the room of my mind as clean as possible, I started repeating singular phrases over and over. This was not a premeditated action or a piece of advice I learned on the trail. Entirely on accident, I found myself humming little phrases like here we go again or running through the sand or the joy of repetitive motion. They don’t mean anything. They were just lines for my mind to catch on to so it wouldn’t amble; a way to be in the body without being in it. Rather than expansion, I was trying to keep the ring of my thoughts as tight as possible. “Move, as the limbs / of a runner do,” writes Auden, in his poem, ‘The Runner’. “In orbit go / Round an endless track.”
Running then becomes a relentless adherence to the present. A sort of “Be Here Now” pseudo-spiritualism that, on the brink of exhaustion, can feel awfully like the real deal. Out there in the dark, humming here we go again / here we go again to the rhythmic beat of my own stride, felt analogous to the way one might find enlightenment through chanting. With body and mind engaged in endless repetition, I could become a more ideal object-in-motion. Or, to put it another way, it’s very difficult to draw a perfect circle in one line. But in the process of quickly drawing dozens of circles on top of one another, the lines begin to merge to form a pure shape. Some might even call it sublime. However brief, however delusional, the disembodiment of sport can let something like God creep into your bones.
To those in the armed forces, this will come as no surprise. What I was performing was, in effect, one-half of a military cadence. One of those traditional call-and-response work songs, like sound-off; 1 – 2 / sound-off; 3 – 4. When you’re moving and singing, you’re not thinking about the tightness in your shoulder, the throbbing in your bladder, or the impending nuclear war. You’ve found a way to sing your mind small. The loneliness in running alone, of course, is that there is no response to your call. Without a troop, you’re sounding off into the void.
“Call-and-response is my favourite song form on earth,” writes Amy Fusselman, in her book, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, “I’m not sure why, except that I feel like I have done the call part so many times, both literally and metaphorically, without hearing any reply, that call-and-response is like an aural fantasy for me, a place where no pleas go unanswered, where no questions go unheard.” Maybe every sport is an act of fantasy. Maybe every religious experience is a song of call-and-response.
But really, it’s impossible to forget how dull running is. Its sheer boredom and repetition can trick the mind into religious ecstasy as easily as a radio accidentally tuning in to Bible Belt preachers. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder how animals view our relationship to running. That is, we sit so comfortably at the top of the food chain, we have turned the act of flight — normally reserved for the sole purpose of not dying—into a recreational exercise. What is chasing you? they must think. Why are you wasting your energy?
Then again, waste can become its own kind of art form. “Wasting time is a concept,” says Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh, in an interview for It’s Nice That. Perhaps most famous for his “Time Clock Piece”, he spent an entire year punching into a worker’s time clock in his studio, every hour, on the hour, without rest. “People ask me if I do art anymore,” he says. “I’m working hard at wasting time, but I don’t produce anything.”
Instead of pure waste, perhaps running is merely another way of measuring time—into miles, steps, breath, labour, water bottles that need refilling, gym clothes that need washing, washing machines that need quarters, blenders that need a good, hot soak to dislodge the crusted film of yesterday’s protein shake. All things considered, the run may be one of the most accurate ways to measure time, as it never lets you forget that you are a body moving through it. You can’t lose track of time on the trail. Every moment is accounted for—what watch can claim that? After all, “a clock,” writes Mary Ruefle, in her poem, ‘My Pet, My Clock’, “is a very poor way to tell time, for all it ever does it sit there or hang on the wall, and very seldom does it do anything of itself to remind you of time.” Chanting may take you out of the body, let you reduce that capital T, cosmic sense of Time into a small musical phrase, but you are still counting out beats.
The last mile of a race is perhaps the most co-opted sensory experience in all of sport. To say nothing of its overuse in film, television and music videos. I have lost count of the number of branding meetings I have attended where a company has promised to “deliver the last mile of x.” The container of the last mile is large enough to airlift whatever meaning you’d like to shove in there. For a runner, it’s a time when the instrument of your body goes into frenzied autopilot. There is no need for God or song or time in this space because your monkey brain hasn’t evolved to think about those things. In the steaming, graceless way that a meteorite rips through the atmosphere, the body sheds everything nonessential until its shrivelled core hurdles across the finish line. If companies knew how barbaric, how excessive and devoid of beauty the last mile is, they would never use it to sell databases or network security or whatever a blockchain is.
In ‘Opposing Energies’, her essay for New Life Quarterly, Jordan Karnes writes that wielding a competitive spirit is a matter of wrestling with excess. “While giving into some parts of yourself (physical) you must restrain others (emotional), as if the two were not intertwined,” she says. “As if giving into one doesn’t embolden, empower the other.” This balancing act is never harder to manage than in the last mile. Many people inexplicably cry when crossing the finish line, not out of pain or frustration, but as a purely somatic release. Maybe it’s because, after two hours of desperately keeping the room of your mind clear, balanced and free of dust, you let the whole grisly world back in all at once. God’s little temple in your head gets all cluttered up with hunger and thirst and then, eventually, the parking lot and traffic and checking the mail and did you pay the rent yet.
After my race, I ate two servings of spaghetti, drank three beers and soaked in a hot tub with my girlfriend. With my bones all jelly and my mind on simmer, I thought about that unattributed quote that Einstein or Twain or Churchill probably said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet in sport, this is the very definition of progress. Here is the activity and the outcome: do it over and over and over again and the results should change. Do it until your body understands it better than you do, and the outcome will change yet again. In your ceaseless repetition, you should expect different conclusions. It’s like a physics problem slung in a jock strap. This is the anti-logic of sport that tends to draw the most stubborn, bull-headed and perversely talented people to athletics. By definition, sport is a kind of insanity, unhinged enough to fit all kinds of unknown behaviours and result-sets from the same interaction. As Alan Sillitoe writes in his book, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the “run of an early morning makes me think that every run like this is a life—a little life, I know—but a life as full of misery and happiness and things happening as you can ever get really around yourself.”
With an empty horizon, there’s room for everything on the open road. Out on the trail, you’re the only something in a sport about nothing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Ames is a writer who also draws. Most recently, his work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, and Cosmonauts Avenue. He lives in Oakland and online at @_chrisames.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Yessica Klein is a Brazilian-German writer and artist currently based in Liverpool. She holds a MA in Creative Writing from Kingston University (London) and her work has been featured in SALT. magazine (UK), elsewhere journal (Germany), Don’t Talk To Me About Love (Canada) amongst others. She was also shortlisted for the 2017 Jane Martin Poetry Prize.
‘I feel like I’m somewhere else. Have you ever felt like that Charlie?’ – Audrey Horne: Twin Peaks, Series 3.
Does the successful identity thief become, by definition, her own victim?
The show’s piloting consciousness steers bright dark religious-type negotiations into hell. Formerly embraced and humanized archaic forces plus energies of indistinct feeling converse in simple, profound terms. They are struggling with elemental, chaotic images that are continually becoming more primitive. It has become a place of demons. All we register is a prophetic absence, the emptiness, loneliness, vastness, meaningless of signals . ‘If we do manage to catch a glimpse of our inner selves by some contraption of mirrors we recognise it with horror – it is an animal crawling and decomposing in hell…In the last decade or two the imprisonment of the camera lens has begun to crack. The demonized state of our inner world has made itself felt in a million ways.’ Ted Hughes knew that a persons’ inner state can’t fold up its spiritual wings just because ideology requires it to.
Lynch’s work procedes by a unique collection of shadowy figures in a strange visionary atmosphere. They seem like mythical figures living in a mythical world dreaming mythical dreams, strangely supernatural full of conflict and authority and unearthly states – they are the equivalent of the Platonic myths from Africa via Egypt via Persia and the Middle East and all the shores of the Mediterranean. There is a voltage to the storytelling sending pictures that you can’t help feeling. It hits you hard. It’s like a gigantic system. It magnetises your consciousness and reception into a special pattern. It is floating and shining as though we have been drawn into a constellation that’s all tangled and detonating, warping like a psychological depth charge. We get huge charges of material reality stretched to limits of visibility and comprehensibility. What is stretched is our dormant understanding of visibility, of pictures, and also our understanding of good and evil and what lies beyond both – both seeing and good and evil. Many assumptions reassess themselves in all this. Intuitions and roused anecdotes declare themselves and explain themselves. There are obviously degrees of it.
Each scene is a little factory of irreducible detail wielding a story. Each one is like a somnambulant fumbling with ancient stories that are never exhausted. They carry their own implications. They are pictures dedicated to final realities that are not pictures. Each picture stops us dead in our tracks. They demand sacrifices we wouldn’t otherwise have conceived. There is a delicate wiring of imagination that needs tuning in to understand that the outer world is only one of the world’s we live in. There are worlds we know which are indescribable, impenetrable and invisible. Now and again we are introduced to psychic, spiritual, cosmic, comic, horrific worlds. In these worlds everything is relativised so we can’t be sure if what we’re experiencing is miniaturized or magnified. We are concerned largely with the individual consciousness behind the face, focused on details and distinctions.
Does the history of art have a narrative structure? Panofsky says no. Art is simply the working out of symbolic forms until some internal upheaval gives rise to new ones. Hegel says yes, that the narrative is one of a process becoming self- conscious, but also no, because changes in symbolic forms are internal. They are realms of freedom no longer subject to any iron law of development and transformation. There is a progression but this development lays down seeds and these are revolutionary seeds. Each seed is a trauma. Arthur C Danto writes: ‘ … with the trauma to its own theory of itself, painting had to discover, or try to discover, what its true identity was. With the trauma, it entered onto a new level of self-awareness.’
Artistic, prophetic, expiatory madness, and the madness of the lover in seeds. Sometimes a seed is an egg. The mesmerized moment of an egg breaking open is where object, self and symbol flow out into a stream of consciousness. It is a flying amphibious bug crawling in through the mouth down a throat. Thomas Browne writes of this image in ‘Religio Medici’; he writes of it as ‘…that great and true Amphibian whose nature is disposed to live, not only like other creatures in diverse elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds.’ It is impinging vision or poetic actuality, a range of weird phenomena of dislocation and psychic disease. The lineaments of pure psychic fright. Edwin Muir writes this: ‘… what we are not and can never be, our fable, seems to me inconceivably interesting.’ Spontaneous, ineffable, psychic generation of unconscious psychic drives and inhibitions relinquishes abstraction and objects for quality of feeling, symbolic form and art. Works of art are pictures of the inner world of feelings – emotions, intuitions, judgments and values. This is imprecise. A cliché image itself. Inner and outer tend to be difficult terms. Music concerns time. It by-passes problems of representation. Nevertheless image-making is at the heart of our biological nature. We refine our natures within the unconscious image-making forces. Individual consciousness elaborates developing and recreating images. James Hillman says: ‘ What we do within the imagination is of instinctual significance.’
David Lynch works with this sensibility. Goethe wrote of Kant: ‘What is omitted … is the imagination and that omission strikes me as irreversibly disastrous. Imagination is the fourth faculty in addition to the Sense, the Understanding and Reason.’
‘Twin Peaks’ shows only part of the world, but the one that is usually hidden, or only partly given. There are image making energies grasp different categories, each with their laws, procedures and character. There are debts to Coleridge and Blake. The notion of incomplete souls and transmigration fused with bodily resurrectionist metaphysics is shimmering darkly all the way through. Yet we also see a metaphysical repertoire that includes at least three views: firstly that when death strikes for some the soul is separated from the body; secondly that there’s an eternal cycle of transmigration involving an infinite process of reincarnation to human and subhuman bodies; and thirdly the perfect and intermediately perfect are disembodied and the deficient undergo transmigration for the purpose of purification. In this there are interesting though imperfect links with the Islamic philosophy of Ibn Abi Jumhur al-Ahsa’i. A religious sensibility and an artistic one are closely aligned because they are both obscure diverse forms of knowing attending our illuminated everyday experiences. Of the ethical, the mythical and the scientific Cardinal Newman writes: ‘… they complete, correct, balance each other.’ Lynch’s art cultivates the artistic: he disturbs us into mythical, symbolic, artistic awareness.
For Ibn Abi Jumhur al-Ahsa’i his third view, that regarding the transmigration of souls, takes two forms. Souls are initially attached to the lowest forms of bodies – atoms, minerals and plants and gradually ascend to human bodies and if perfected as humans leave their corporeal state to reach the lowest sphere of Paradise. The second form is more in line with thinkers as diverse as Empodocles, Pythagorus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Budhasaf, and the Egyptians Agathodaemon and Hermes. Subhuman bodies only receive souls from humans. Animal souls that reach perfection escape corporeality when their animal bodies die. The Buddha thinks that a human soul can only transmigrate to animals whereas the others think it can move to subanimal forms. There is some evidence that Lynch disagrees with the Buddha on this. The One Armed Spirit Man’s arm has transmigrated into a weird skeletal tree which in turn has an evil doppelganger that attacks Cooper in the Episode ‘The Stars Turn and a Time Presents Itself.’
When we see a bug/frog-like creature hatching from an egg, entering an unconscious girl’s room and climbing into her mouth and down her throat we drift through an inner world of spontaneous fantasy, mood and half-conscious monologue. We struggle to think rationally about so many issues. Dream images have strange and elusive meanings. Lynch seems to show human souls escape when they reach perfection to the World of Light. The intermediate in happiness ascend to the World of Suspended Images. The duration of transubstantiation depends on the quantity of evil traits of a respective soul. A purified soul enters the lower region of the World of suspended images. Souls that fail to be purified aren’t attached to subhuman entities forever but become separated from bodies and ascend into the World of Images where they become attached to shadows of suspended forms. There are specific suspended images referenced – in a video essay from VoorDeFilm we see pictures by Francis Bacon – ’Seated Figure’, ‘Portrait of a Man’ and ‘Two Figures at a Window’ ; Rene Magritte’s “Meditation’; Stan Kubrick; Arnold Bocklin’s ‘Isle of the Dead’, Edward Hopper’s ‘Office at Night’, ‘Gas’, ‘Summer Evening’ and ‘New York Movie’.
Imperfect human souls are transferred at death into animal bodies corresponding to moral traits. The process of purification progresses them into increasingly noble animals until they are ready for the lower realms of paradise. Unsuccessful souls are transferred to animal bodies in the World of Images. Lynch is also committed to resurrection within the material world. There are two kinds, one in a minor key and the other in a major one. The minor resurrection consists in the disembodiment of a particular soul. The major resurrection consists of the eventual restoration of the material world following a prior annihilation.
In the background lies some theory of both the unity of being and divine unity. We find existential unity at the top level and unity of divine attributes at a lower level. The lowest level denies a plurality of divinity. Existential unity is identified with a sense of an absolute, unlimited and exclusive reality, a kind of divine essence devoid of multiplicity. Just below this level is the level where the plurality of divine attributes points both to the unity of this sense of divine and the multiplicity of what the divine creates, the loci in which the divine is manifested. We struggle to live where all this intersects.
A key question is what the relationship is between any created being and this sense of divine being. One answer is that it is analogous. The divine being is uncreated and eternal, known and understood only by itself. So anything attributed to created beings cannot be like that and we are only analogously beings when thought of in terms of the ultimate and only true one. The Islamic theologian Ibn Abi Jumhur al-Ahsa’i, according to Sabine Schmidtke, rejects this analogous view of being. Rather, the attributes of created beings are archetypes that are real in the divine’s knowledge. They are identical with the divine and have being irrespective of whether they exist in the external world or not. As they come into being in the external world they are manifestations of the absolute being. He develops a mystical notion such that the divine attributes are identical with the essence of the divine. He uses his notion of different levels of unity to show that at the lower level the attributes are part of what is in the world of appearance. Once ascended to the highest level of unity, all attributes disappear.
Souls have perfect bodies that have organs as a result of which they are capable of nourishment and growth, sensation and voluntary motion, that can conceive universals and discovery. The various manifestations of Dougie and Cooper’s Double and others exhibit this. They help reveal some deep preconceptual sources of our imagination. Souls of celestial spheres are different. These are not natural phenomena because it is via others that knowledge is transmitted about them. What is not known is greater than what is. But even if not natural, they are physical in Lynch. What we have then is the weird physicality of art making. Werner Herzog wrote about this once when reflecting about his film ‘The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner’: ‘ Everything was working out well enough: the endless technical problems were solved; but still for me , the film wasn’t clear. Then one night the film crew, myself, and some others grabbed the skier, hoisted him on our shoulders and ran with him through the streets. His thigh was on my shoulder and I could feel the weight of him there. At that moment, the film suddenly became quite clear for me. And it cam through this physical sensation. I feel everything about the films I make physically. I like to carry the reels around and feel their weight. When we are shooting I sometimes even like to touch the film itself.’ And there is also that ‘… latent feeling of fellowship with all creation – and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts’ that Joseph Conrad writes about, those formless hunches that console, frighten and charm.
Switching momentarily to Christian symbolic myth, Anselm notoriously argued that just one thing was a necessary existent. He argued that there had to be an uncaused cause and there could only be one and it would have to be necessary. If uncaused it would be both ineffable and transcendent. He required that everything about this first cause would also be necessary. If it had contingent features these would require a further cause would be needed as their explicandum. He concludes that the universe necessarily exists via necessity through another, and that its knowledge involves no change or passivity. What the first cause knows is known in a universal way and self reflectively.
‘You are so much one and the same with yourself that in nothing are you dissimilar with yourself. Indeed, you are unity itself not divisible by any mind. Life and wisdom and other attributes, then, are not parts of you, but all are one and each of them is wholly what you are and what all the others are.’ (Proslogion: 18, DE 98)
What makes the argument powerful is not a logical point but an aesthetic one. It is a shadowing aesthetic harmony that is driving the argument . In the divine there can be no discord but instead perfect harmony.
‘Thus when a painter plans beforehand what he is going to execute, he has the picture in his mind, but he does not yet think that it actually exists because he has not yet executed it. However, when he has actually painted it, then he both has it in his mind and understands that it exists because he has now made it.’ (Proslogion 2, DE 87)
And then comes an experience which Walter Pater described as ‘… this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off – that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves … for our one chance lies in … getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time … For art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moment’s sake.’
Anselm says that our souls will be ‘dazzled’ by a spendour and ‘overcome by its fullness, overwhelmed by it immensity, confused by its extent.’ When the light is withdrawn the soul… ‘looks all about, and does not see your beauty. It listens and does not hear your harmony. It smells and doesn’t sense your fragrance. It tastes and doesn’t recognize your savour. It feels and doesn’t feel your softness.’ (17, DE 97). Lynch’s dark scenes are his version of this, the woodsmen, the gas station and so on work like solitary impressions, unstable, flickering and inconstant where their whole beings are dwarfed to the narrow chamber of an individual’s mind, cut from art and culture, its cultural and biological sources.
Anselm and Calvin’s redemption through penal substitution also plays a role in Lynch’s symbolism. Christ pays the price for human sin and the price is horrible suffering, a total alienation from God, an alienation that extends beyond Good Friday into Holy Saturday. Calvin says the descent into hell in the Apostle’s Creed is a reference to the descent into the deepest abyss, the furthest distance from God. Grunewald’s Isenheim Alterpiece is a medieval precedent of the cold twisted mental architecture of Evil Bob. Yet what was delivered in all this is an aesthetic balance of the world. Humans couldn’t by themselves pay back what was owed to God because they owed their existence. Only the Son of God could give back something that wasn’t owed by him. Christ’s death was in no sense owed.
The restoration will be aesthetic and done in terms of righting infelicities in resulting descriptions of relationships. Eg ‘… if it is to be the Father who is made incarnate, there will be two grandsons in the Trinity because, through his assumption of manhood, the father will be grandson of the parents of the Virgin, and the Word, despite having no trace of human nature in him, will none the less be the grandson of the Virgin, because he will be the son of her son.’ The number of the saved will be determined by the number of fallen angels. What will guide this will be the identification of a ‘perfect number’ foreknown by God but unknown by anyone else, determined by aesthetic reasons. In Lynch what guides us through the myriad scenes, events and character formations is an underlying or overarching sense of beauty. ‘The beautiful’ is one of Lynch’s most enduring aims.
Nowhere in the Christian mythos do we need to wonder if there’s a difference in an eternal context between ‘begetting’ and ‘ proceeding’ … ‘only the father is one who is from no one; only the son is one who is from one; only the spirit is one from whom no one is.’ This is a beautiful thing. It should not be confused as rationality. Some folk have problems with art thinking just as they do with religious thinking. They say if it isn’t rational then it isn’t thinking. Obviously this is a psychotic and sociopathic vision. Without the cultivated inner life there is just a dark blind box and noises.
Just as Anslem never declares that Christ’s suffering is beautiful: ‘… it was rather key aspects of the event that were beautiful and which helped determine the divine choice, such as the wood of the cross balancing the tree of the Fall…’ (David Brown) neither does Lynch say that the volence in itself in his works is beautiful. But just as without the suffering of Christ the Christian image would be less beautiful, so too the overarching beauty of Lynch’s world would be severely artistically diminished without it’s violence, terror and horror.
Each scene Lynch gives is part of a gathering up into a harmonious whole – even where that harmony contains a vast and frighteningly overwhelming inferno within the camera lens. ‘The vessels thus filled with You do not render You any support: for though they perished utterly, You would not be spilt out. And in pouring Yourself out upon us, You do not come down to us but rather elevate us to You: You are not scattered over us, but we are gathered into one by You.’ (Augustine Confessions Book 1, III)
In this sort of aesthetical approach, metaphysics becomes a kind of metaceramics. Characters and individuals become jugs of life, clay heads of the dead out of Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, couples in a bubble… life as amniotic sac escape routines left out to dry in a Francis Bacon picture somewhere. An ontological doctrine of creationism says fictional objects exist as abstracts and do so as a result of being created. Some say that whether or not there are any fictional characters, if there are any then their identity and distinctness is brute. Others argue that they are concrete but don’t exist. Others again argue that they exist but aren’t concrete. Brute identity says that there isn’t a true finitely stated informative answer to the question of identity. The question of identity asks, for example of Agent Cooper and Bad Cooper; What necessary and sufficient conditions must they both satisfy for it not to be the case that Agent Cooper is identical to Bad Cooper?
But the whole of Twin Peaks is revealed at the end to be the dream of the dead man in Laura Palmer’s house in the final episode, just as the whole of ‘Mulholland Drive’ is also a corpse dream. Of course, this elaborate, extremist homage to ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is just another way of showing the balance of power between the inner and the outer world, revealing again and again the immense haunted gulf that lies between them.
It makes sense to think about Lynch as a kind of Peter Simons-like Process Metaphysician. Lynch-world is a dream. The Process Metaphysician is not interested in linguistic meanings. Language gives clues but doesn’t cut nature at the joints. Linguistic clues instead freely invite ‘the confused mass of thoughts, trembling over one another in the dark’ into consciousness. Process Metaphysics is a diffuse version of Christian Wolf’s regional ontology and formal systematics where everything is naturalistically in space and time. There’s no magic, nor many worlds, nor Platonic Universals, nor magical beings as such but yet there’s more than any hollow receptacle or terminal station. And there is also a profound realization that you can’t say everything in the language of physics. It denies physicalism that often gets erroneously co-opted into a naturalistic worldview. There’s an austere Nominalism in play. Lynch doesn’t give us abstracts even though there may be Aristotelian universals, especially via the songs. He connects language and world via an exotic trance-like truth-making where objects, by virtue of existing, make things true. Systematics is the investigation in the whole panoply of life and how it all fits together.
‘The main catalysts for the rapid rise of the philosophy of language in the 20th century were the development of modern logic and the so-called “linguistic turn” early in the century. Of course, philosophers have now generally abandoned the idea that philosophical problems are to be answered by looking at language. However, even if “linguistic” philosophy has been demoted from its status as first philosophy, this hasn’t taken the form of an outright denial of the relevance of language to the rest of philosophy.‘
‘While I do think that Davidson’s indeterminacy thesis can’t avoid collapse into a radical skepticism about meaning, I don’t think that this, by itself, gives us a good reason to abandon his approach. This is because I am not at all convinced that interpretation, even if approached Davidson-style, is really subject to the kinds of underdetermination that he regards as inevitable.‘
‘The point of a truth theory, formulated in my language, for your language, is not to specify your language, but to provide a model — or representation — of it. As long as there is a determinate language to which my own sentences belong, I have, in constructing a truth theory for your sentences, specified a possible language.‘
Arpy Khatchirian works in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and related areas in metaphysics and epistemology. Her interests include the epistemology of language, truth, deflationism, and indeterminacy. She also maintains an active interest in the history of analytic philosophy. Here she discusses ordinary language philosophy, its link with philosophy of mind, Donald Davidson and his theory of meaning, his indeterminacy thesis, radical skepticism, why we shouldn’t abandon Davidson’s approach, why meaning holism and compositionality don’t threaten Davidson’s approach, puzzles and facts about meaning, and responses to meaning skepticism.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Arpy Khatchirian: I grew up in Lebanon during the civil war. As a child, my response to the chaos and absurdity surrounding me was to immerse myself in the visual arts. During my teenage years, I became increasingly frustrated with art. I began to doubt my aptitude for it, but also found myself preoccupied with the questions of the nature and point of art as a practice, and of what constitutes a “finished” piece.
After several abrupt moves, my family emigrated to the US — we ended up in New Jersey — just before my last year of high school. During my senior year of high school, I thought, for reasons that are obscure to me now, that I might study architecture. I went to Rutgers University, as it was relatively affordable, but it turned out they had no architecture program! Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that I felt more at home in abstract disciplines. I ended up majoring in math and philosophy — it was a lucky accident that Rutgers had strong programs in both fields!
Through most of college, I thoroughly enjoyed math and took it more seriously than philosophy. But things changed during my last year. Much like the way puzzlement about what constitutes art had earlier displaced my enjoyment of the activity itself, my increasing preoccupation with the nature and point of mathematical practice took over my engagement with the discipline. By the time I started graduate school at Berkeley, this had morphed into a more general preoccupation with the nature of human practices and capacities.
I am not sure if this answers your question. But, looking back, a common thread running through all this might be that art, math, and philosophy were all ways of responding to a world that I found puzzling: art was a way to escape it, math was a bit of the world that made sense, and philosophy, a naive, yet courageous attempt to make general sense of it all.
3:AM: You’re working in the field of philosophy of language and mind, and have a particular interest in Donald Davidson. Before we get into that, could you first sketch for us what you see as the importance of philosophy of language. Back in the fifties it seemed to be the only game in town with Wittgenstein and the ordinary language brigade. So what’s happened since then?
AK: Ordinary language philosophers, for the most part, didn’t offer much by way of a theory of language or of meaning. What they offered was a certain approach to philosophical problems that involves treating them as problems involving language, but their diagnostic and anti-systematic approach to philosophical problems applied as much to problems involving language as to other areas of philosophy. At the same time, ordinary language philosophy’s emphasis on use, nuances of ordinary use, and context sensitivity no doubt influenced subsequent theorizing about language, and in particular, formal semantics.
The main catalysts for the rapid rise of the philosophy of language in the 20th century were the development of modern logic and the so-called “linguistic turn” early in the century. Of course, philosophers have now generally abandoned the idea that philosophical problems are to be answered by looking at language. However, even if “linguistic” philosophy has been demoted from its status as first philosophy, this hasn’t taken the form of an outright denial of the relevance of language to the rest of philosophy. For the most part, it has been replaced by a more nuanced conception of the different ways in which questions about language might interact with object-level philosophical questions. So I do think philosophy of language continues to thrive today, even if it no longer dominates the landscape.
3:AM: And how does it link with philosophy of mind?
AK: First, some topics in the philosophy of language — for instance, the nature of linguistic competence — are topics in the philosophy of mind. Second, insofar as our interest is in natural languages, there is bound to be some interplay between questions about the nature of language and questions about the nature of the capacities involved in using language. Of course, philosophers disagree about the extent to which foundational questions in semantics should be seen as enmeshed with questions about the nature of semantic competence. Scott Soames, for instance, thinks it’s a mistake to think of a semantic theory as a theory of semantic competence.
My own interest in language is focused on its interplay with the philosophy of mind and with epistemology. I’m interested in the questions of what it is to understand a language, what it is to be able to communicate with others, and what kinds of knowledge these might involve. And my view is that a promising approach to foundational questions in semantics is one that’s guided by concerns with the nature of semantic competence and the communicability of meaning. My interest is in the nature of our linguistic practices and the capacities underlying them. My questions are not “What is a language? What is meaning?”, but rather, “What are we, as producers and consumers of language, doing here? What does it take for us to be able to do it?”
3:AM: Davidson is a massive figure in all this but maybe a little obscure to those outside. Can you sketch where he comes in? What were the issues and the rival theories he was out to confront with his theory of language?
AK: Davidson wanted to give us a way to think about meaning that was free of certain trappings — three in particular: reductionism, the reification of meanings, and the privacy of meaning.
First, reductionism. Davidson thinks we can shed light on meaning, truth, and other related notions without reducing them to one another or to anything more basic. I do think that Davidson’s anti-reductionist and anti-foundationalist orientation is too often overlooked, which leads to misunderstandings of the nature of his proposals. For example, philosophers have read into his proposal to use truth theories as meaning theories some kind of attempt to reductively explain meaning in terms of truth, or a proposal to replace one notion with the other. Or again, consider his account of radical interpretation: if you assume that Davidson is trying to give a reductive account of meaning, it’s tempting to read into it some form of a “use theory” of meaning.
Second, the reification of meanings. Part of the significance of Davidson’s proposals concerning the form to be taken by a semantic theory is to show how we can do away with meanings as entities — that is, to show that they do no work in explaining the semantic contributions of words to the sentences in which they occur. Instead, one thing Davidson repeatedly insists on is the connection between meaning and understanding: knowing the meaning of a sentence should put one in a position to understand utterances of it. But knowledge of which complex object a theorist assigns to a given sentence as its “meaning” needn’t put one in a position to understand the sentence.
Third, any commitment to the privacy or internality of meaning. For Davidson, communicability is essential to meaning. Whatever it is facts about meaning consist in, they have to be intersubjectively available.
Of course, one should mention the massive influence that Quine had on Davidson. Most importantly, perhaps, Davidson’s anti-Cartesian orientation owes a lot to Quine. But despite Quine’s influence, or perhaps because of it, many central features of Davidson’s approach diverge sharply from Quine’s. To mention a few salient points of contrast: Davidson rejects empiricism, Quine only takes himself to free it of certain dogmas; Quine happily embraces skepticism about intentional discourse, Davidson clearly opposes it; Quine is commonly taken to be a deflationist about truth, Davidson stands firmly opposed to any form of deflationism.
3:AM: So what’s Davidson’s theory of meaning?
AK: This is a difficult question to answer in a straightforward manner, partly because Davidson himself approaches the subject obliquely. Davidson’s approach involves shedding light on the nature of meaning by first asking two questions that might initially not seem to directly concern the nature of meaning.
First, what form should an empirical meaning theory for a given speaker’s language take (where a meaning theory is a theory that, in some sense, tells you what each sentence and meaningful expression of the speaker’s language means)? Of course, to answer this question, one needs to first ask what the point of an empirical meaning theory for a given language is supposed to be.
Second, how could such a theory be confirmed in particular cases? How might a speaker’s ongoing use of words bear on the acceptability of a meaning theory for her language?
What do these questions have to do with the nature of meaning? Well, for Davidson, if you’ve adequately answered the questions of what kind of theory counts as a meaning theory for a particular language, and of how such a theory might be confirmed in so-called “radical interpretation,” then you’ve shed light on the nature of meaning. There is nothing more to be said about what meaning is. And this is in a sense Davidson’s “theory” of meaning.
Now back to the two questions. Here, in a nutshell, is Davidson’s answer to the first question, about the form an empirical meaning theory for a given speaker’s language should take. For Davidson, a meaning theory for a language L is to take the form of a recursive truth theory for L, a theory modeled after Tarski’s truth definitions for particular languages. This theory is to recursively generate, for each sentence of L, a theorem of the form:
s is true in L if and only if p
where what replaces ‘s’ is a name, or structural description, of the relevant sentence of L, what replaces ‘p’ is a sentence in the language of the theory that is true if and only if the sentence of L mentioned on the left is true, and ‘if and only if’ is the material bi-conditional. (Of course, there’s a question about what further requirements — in addition to truth — there might be on such theorems, if the theory entailing them is to serve as a meaning theory. And this has been the subject of much lively discussion.)
Davidson’s answer to the second question is his famous, or perhaps infamous, account of radical interpretation. As I see it, there are three central features to it. First, radical interpretation of a speaker is interpretation “from scratch,” that is, without drawing on any prior knowledge of either the meaning of any of the speaker’s words and utterances, or the content of his psychological states. This doesn’t mean that the interpreter is not presupposing that the speaker’s words are meaningful or that the speaker has a rich mental life, but only that the interpreter does not take herself to know what any of the speaker’s words mean and what his thoughts are. So the interpreter must start with some facts about the speaker that can be gleaned from his behavior without drawing on such knowledge. Davidson’s proposal here is to with facts about the conditions under which the speaker holds various sentences to be true. Second, radical interpretation is governed by the so-called principle of charity, which requires us to aim for a theory that, as Davidson puts it, “finds [the speaker] consistent, a believer of truth, and a lover of the good (all by our own lights, it goes without saying).” In particular, one essential aspect of this principle involves taking the speaker’s utterances, in basic perceptual cases, to be about and true of the very causes — salient to both speaker and interpreter — of these utterances. Third, the constraints on interpretation are supposed to apply holistically, to one’s overall interpretation theory for the speaker, which includes, in addition to a meaning theory, a theory of the speaker’s beliefs and other psychological states.
3:AM: And what’s his indeterminacy thesis regarding language and what’s the problem?
AK: Davidson’s indeterminacy thesis says that there are different equally acceptable theories of interpretation one could construct for another speaker, with no fact of the matter which one is correct. This is supposed to arise from the underdetermination of interpretation theories by the constraints governing interpretation, along with the idea that there are no facts about meaning beyond what an interpreter could discover on the basis of publicly available evidence.
To understand why the labels ‘underdetermination’ and ‘indeterminacy’ are apt here, it’s important to note the kinds of differences Davidson thinks can obtain between two equally acceptable interpretation theories. One type of difference is to be found at the level of reference: Davidson thinks that we could construct two (or more) equally acceptable truth theories for a given speaker that diverge in their assignments of reference to the speaker’s terms — that assign what we think of as different objects to the same referring expressions — but result in the same assignments of truth-values to sentences. This is of course Quine’s “inscrutability of reference,” and Davidson accepts it for essentially Quine’s reasons. Whether such indeterminacy exists, and to what extent it would be problematic, are good questions.
But my own focus has been on another kind of indeterminacy Davidson accepts, found at the level of whole sentences: what we might call “the indeterminacy of truth-conditions.” Davidson thinks there are bound to be different equally acceptable truth theories for a speaker that entail divergent assignments of truth-conditions to some of her sentences: one and the same sentence, as uttered by a speaker on a particular occasion, could come out true on one acceptable way of interpreting her and false on another. This type of indeterminacy is supposed to arise because of the holistic nature of interpretation, in particular, the so-called inextricability of meaning and belief. An interpreter relies on considerations of overall plausibility to disentangle the contributions of belief and meaning in explaining the speaker’s holding-true of a sentence. This is supposed to generate cases where there’s no telling whether an apparent disagreement with another speaker counts as a genuine difference of opinion, because there are ways for us to reinterpret the other’s words that would remove the appearance of disagreement. Since, for Davidson, facts about meaning do not outstrip the evidence available to an interpreter, the upshot is that there are equally acceptable ways of interpreting the speaker such that one and the same sentence comes out true on one of these ways and false on another.
On the face of it, this result seems incoherent: two theories end up being equally acceptable, even though they entail incompatible results as to the truth-value of a given sentence. But Davidson reminds us that the truth of a sentence is relative to a language and describes the alleged indeterminacy as an indeterminacy in the language we can take the speaker to be speaking. If this is right, the indeterminacy here does not involve describing the same sentence as both true and false. Instead, it involves describing the sentence as true in one language and false in another. So all we have to make sense of is the idea that a speaker can be taken to be speaking different languages relative to different, equally acceptable theories of interpretation.
Now, I don’t think this way of trying to make sense of truth-conditional indeterminacy really works, at least not without undermining some of the most distinctive — and in my view attractive — features of Davidson’s approach. As I already mentioned, Davidson is no eliminativist about meaning and intentional discourse. Quite the contrary: he wants to show how we could take intentional discourse seriously while doing away with, on the one hand, meanings and other intentional objects, and on the other, a commitment to reducibility. So his take on the significance of indeterminacy — or, of the kinds of indeterminacy he countenances — contrasts sharply with Kripke’s and Quine’s “no fact of the matter” views of meaning.
For Kripke, accepting the skeptic’s contention that there is no fact of the matter whether one meant one thing or another by the symbol ‘+’ involves facing the prospect that, as he puts it, “the entire idea of meaning vanishes into thin air.” Similarly, for Quine, the indeterminacy of translation establishes “the baselessness of intentional idioms.” By contrast, Davidson construes indeterminacy as involving relativity to an overall theory or scheme of interpretation, but then likens this relativity to the harmless relativity in the measurement of magnitudes to scales of measurement: if I first say that a table is 1 meter long and then that it is 3.28 feet long, I haven’t changed my mind about its length. Likewise, the different ways of assigning truth-conditions to a speaker’s sentences are supposed to simply amount to different ways of keeping track of “the same facts.”
For Davidson’s solution to work, we have to make sense of two ideas: first, that we can equally correctly attribute two different languages to a speaker relative to two different acceptable overall theories of interpretation for the speaker. Second, that when we do so, the different ways of assigning reference and truth conditions to the speaker’s expressions are different ways of capturing the same facts.
My claim is that we can’t make sense of the first idea, let alone the second. Here’s why. If we accept Davidson’s conclusion that there is no determinate language to which anyone’s words belong on a particular occasion, then in particular, there is no determinate language to which an interpreter’s words belong on a particular occasion of interpretation. But if there is no determinate language to which the interpreter’s words belong, then when the interpreter uses these words to construct a “theory of truth” for the sentences of another speaker, she has not thereby specified a particular language. Let me put this in a slightly different way: unless my own words possess certain semantic features in an absolute sense, rather than relative to a theory of interpretation, then I cannot, in using these words, assign semantic features to another speaker’s words. So, whatever it is that I have done in constructing a truth theory or an overall theory of interpretation, it does not involve having successfully pinned down a particular language. But if a particular language has not been pinned down, the speaker’s sentences and words have not been assigned any specific roles. We therefore lose our grip on what it is that distinguishes Davidsonian indeterminacy from the damaging kinds found in Kripke and Quine.
3:AM: So if it leads to a radical skepticism about meaning why not just go to another candidate theory?
AK: Well, while I do think that Davidson’s indeterminacy thesis can’t avoid collapse into a radical skepticism about meaning, I don’t think that this, by itself, gives us a good reason to abandon his approach. This is because I am not at all convinced that interpretation, even if approached Davidson-style, is really subject to the kinds of underdetermination that he regards as inevitable. In other words, the problem that Davidson is attempting to solve might not really arise in the first place.
It’s telling that Davidson doesn’t provide many examples of the alleged indeterminacy of truth-conditions. And the handful of examples he does provide are severely underdescribed. One might think this is because the details are pretty easy to fill in. But I actually think it’s because convincing examples are hard to come by.
So my take is that it is not at all clear that Davidson’s approach really forces us to accept indeterminacy. But if it did, yes, this would undermine its plausibility.
3:AM: You try and find a defence of the theory but it ends up with no one able to know what anybody else means doesn’t it? Can you take us through your argument here?
AK: I attempt a reading of Davidson’s indeterminacy thesis on which it avoids the outcome that there is no determinate language to which any of our utterances belong, since it’s this that forces us into an unpalatable form of skepticism about meaning. But as I go on to explain, this strategy doesn’t ultimately work.
To avoid the outcome that there is no determinate language used by anyone, we need to be able to say something like this: that even if you and I can’t take each other to be speaking a determinate language, we can each see ourselves as speaking a determinate language.
Welcome to LIVEWIRE, monthly tour of shows, exhibitions and events around town. Expect performance art, politically engaged art, photography, poetry, and magic. By @JanaAstanov.
[photo: ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS hip hop yoga crew]
MATCHAMAMA : The Hip Hop Yoga Experience for Earth Warriors by ULTRACULTURAL OTHERS March 2nd, 8-11PM Zenchai Matcha Cafe: 94 Rivington Street, New York, NY 10002
MATCHAMAMA creates space for summoning and praising the Goddess Patchamama (our Mother Earth), honoring her as nourisher, Creator/Destroyer & Life-giver. Come vibe with us, get your MC-on… no hip hop experience necessary…Optimal root chakra medicine for those returning home to indigenous ways. You don’t have to be a “rapper” to participate and all levels welcome. Circle work is “heart math” With a sweet Tea Ceremony courtesy Zenchai
FILM FESTIVAL ON THEATRE AND PERFORMANCE March 1 at 10:30 AM to March 3 at 9 PM The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, 5th Ave, New York, New York 10016
The Fourth Annual Film Festival On Theatre And Performance (FTP) featuring works by or about: Christoph Schlingensief, Jan Fabre, Ariane Mnouchkine, Heiner Müller, Romeo Castellucci–pina Bausch and many more. FTP presents experimental, emerging, and established theatre artists and filmmakers that are currently exploring the boundaries of dance, theatre, film, and performance.
THE BORDER curated by Jamie Martinez
March 2nd – March 26th, opening night Friday March 2nd 6-9pm
THE BORDER, 56 Bogart Street 1st FL BK, NY 11206
THE BORDER is a new project space in Bushwick focused on supporting and showing immigrant artists living in the United States with hope of creating a nurturing environment for them to create/show work and also for non immigrants because THE BORDER will be open to everyone.
Ronnit Levin Delgado will be presenting her latest work Written in Water. Engaging with artist Keren Anavy, she will be showing new work from Project Forgiveness, in collaboration with photographer Mara Catalán who beautifully captured moments of a poetic forgiveness ritual for her father.
March 9, 2018 7:00 PM – April 6, 2018
Czech Center, 321 East 73rd Street, NY 10021 NYC
Presented by Marie Tomanova and Thomas Beachdel at the Czech Center New York at the time of New York’s Armory Show. With an invited international group of curators, this show emphasizes the relationship between curator and artist — muse muse, a muse muse, muse amuse, muse muse muse — the alliteration itself is almost inspiring.
Wild Night of Group performances – World Famous Non Grata, Kinobox Obscura from Finland and Wild Torus from New York! Wild Visuals, Weird Sounds, Strange Environments, Unexpected Results and Even More. Curator: Anonymous Boh).
DIVERSE UNIVERSE FESTIVAL curated by NON GRATA
March 10th at 9 PM
Last Frontier NYC, 520 Kingsland Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11222
Worldwide caravan of performance madness of Diverse Universe Festival in Last Frontier NYC: Wild Saturday in Brooklyn – step into a lucid dream with Non Grata crew!
Non Grata (Estonia), Kinobox Obscura (Finland), Joey Sledgenovski (USA), Danny Gonzalez (Puerto Rico), Gordon Berry (USA)
And I know you got more to say but you aren’t saying it
you aren’t saying shit you’re wasting my time you’re wasting
you’re time you’re wasting OUR time,
Time flies like a banana, you said.
Fruit flies like river, I say.
What did D.C. Williams say?
Time flows or flies or marches, years roll, hours pass,
Time flows by like a river with the flotsam of events upon it; no…
time is a moving picture film, unwinding from the dark reel of the future, into the dark can of the past.
Or maybe it’s is a plain or ocean on which we voyage,
or a river gorge down which we drift;
maybe it’s a row of house fronts along which the spotlight of the present plays.
What did Santayana say? “The essence of nowness runs like a fire along the fuse of time.”
But wait, you said that was all bullshit it was false cuz time is a frozen fucking rope and
take your time cuz you aren’t going anywhere you aren’t changing you’re stuck. You’re fucked. You said.
Is this how it is Mr. Atkins? You say
We have looked through the window onto the world,
that window of the Second Law,
And we’ve seen the purposelessness of it all.
The deep structure of change, you say, is decay;
the spring of change in all its forms is the corruption of energy, you say.
it’s corrupting all as it spreads, chaotically, irreversibly, without purpose.
All change and time’s arrow point to corruption.
The experience of time is the gearing of the processes in our brains,
It’s gearing them to this purposeless drift
it’s gearing them into chaos as we sink into equilibrium and the grave, you say
And yes I heard you but this ain’t no frozen fuckin’ rope.
YOU said decay,
And YOU said corruption,
And YOU said drift
Frozen ropes don’t decay and frozen ropes don’t drift and you cannot corrupt them.
They. Just. are.
And you can go on and on but know this, YOU’VE changed. YOU’RE corrupt. YOU’RE adrift. And that’s good news for you, homes.
Cuz it means you ain’t no frozen fuckin’ rope.
And ok. Now I’m done.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tony Oats lives in Bushwick, New York, with zir cryptokitties Salvador Beachnut Sizzzz and Tangerine Cream. Ze writes poetry about can openers, blenders, and the philosophy of time. Ze does not write prose, except in anger. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org