Friday, December 15, 2006

A matter of interpretation, or the connection between Humpty Dumpty and the folk

In From Metaphysics to Ethics, Frank Jackson at one point cites one of my favorite passages in literature for an odd purpose. The passage in question is the Humpty Dumpty chapter of Through the Looking Glass. He says that we can mean whatever we want by our words but if we want to address the concerns of others, we should mean what they mean. From this, he concludes that, e.g. if we talk about goodness, we should identify our subject matter through the folk theory of morality. This is on p. 118, roughly middle of the page. It strikes me as a little disingenuous, although not as bad as when I originally read it. The point that Davidson made (or I took him to make) was that Humpty Dumpty was wrong; we can't mean whatever we want. We can mean whatever we want insofar as we can still be understood by our interpreters. If we fail at that, then we haven't meant much.

The best I can do with what Jackson said is the following. He seems to be reading the "mean whatever we want" as the entitlement to define new jargon for theories. In order to make our theories relevant to the folk, we must talk about what they talk about. What they talk about is determined by their folk theories (at what point are these up and running such that we have a subject matter?), so we should define our jargon to accord with their theories. At least, that's as far as I get in understanding this bit of his book.

This point is somewhat inconsequential to the rest of the book, but it still bothers me. He seems to me to be missing the point of the Humpty Dumpty chapter. At least, the point as I view it through the lens of Davidson. The trail of reasoning that leads from that to the need to use folk theories of X is odd. In order to talk about things that the folk care about, we need to make sure what we're talking about satisfies folk theoretic properties. I'm confused how this is supposed to go. Aboutness and subject matter aren't matters of folk theories. Presumably, the particular folk, call him Folksy, in question will only be concerned about theories that match the folk theoretic properties if Folksy has that particular folk theory. If Folksy is not with the folk majority as far as his theory of, say, espresso then it seems there is no reason he'd be engaged if I talk to him about an espresso concept that is defined from the folk theory thereof. What is more relevant is Folksy's theory of espresso.

I'll have to go back through the Humpty Dumpty chapter and make sure I'm understanding it correctly. The Davidson article "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs" left quite an impression on me even though I'm fairly doubtful that his arguments are valid in that one. This will be a good chance to go back over some of my favorite reading material. It also gives me a bit of a chance to feel out what I find so offputting about some of what Jackson says regarding folk theories.


Aidan said...

Stewart Shapiro loves that passage too, so he takes it as a jumping off point for his theory of vagueness. (See his 'Vagueness and Conversation' in JC Beall's Liars and Heaps volume, and his most recent book, Vagueness in Context).

It's worth checking out the cover the latter.

Shawn said...

I think I'm sold on reading that book. Superficially, the cover hooked me. The first few pages look pretty slick as well.

There is a lot going on in the Humpty Dumpty chapter that is worth thinking about. It is also great fun to read. I should do an extended post about just that chapter. I find that what Davidson does (or tries to do) with it is not that implausible.