Saturday, March 04, 2006

In Favor of Agnosticism

Some time back Michael Pakaluk asked whether Socarates held that one cannot answer a question without first knowing the answer. There's no easy interpretation of this passage, because even if the Greek were crystal clear to us and we understood the concepts at play exactly as Plato and his consociates did, the fact that Socrates and Thrasymachus are engaging in ironic banter makes it especially hard for us to discern what Socrates might really mean. But the question itself is a good one. Can we truly answer a question we don't know the answer to?

Is there a corollary like "Can we truly ask a question that we already know the answer to?" Is that a rhetorical question? Pretty much, but not entirely. Between the extremes of the purely rhetorical question and questions whose only logical answer can be 42, we ask all kinds of questions that we sort of know the answer to, or think we might probably be able to decide the answer to. if only we could clear up one or two little doubts. So if that's our answer to whether this is a corollary, then it's not so easy to turn it around again. A question by its nature partakes of the hypothetical, the dubious. Statements are different. We can hedge a statement--we usually do-- but even in hedging there is a testimonial quality to a statement. It has some flexibility, but it can only be bent so far before we recognize a statement as false, as not being true to itself as a statement. We don't need to decide whether the person who makes a false statement is deliberately telling a lie. We merely observe that in the false statement the testimonial value of the statement has been compromised. This limit inherent in the statement becomes all the more apparent when the statement occurs in the explicit form of a response to a direct question.

Bakhtin's thesis (probably in The Dialogic Imagination, passim) that every utterance is already a response would throw us for a loop, but he does provide us with an escape in his notion of speech genres. The complex genre "philosophical dialogue" begins in wonder (thaumazein), as they say, which is in itself a kind of response. Every question and every statement that unfolds within the genre of the philosophical dialogue becomes imbued with the original sense of wonder, with the intention of finding out what can be found out, following the original sense of wonder where it will lead, and a style of finding things out, which if we're talking about Socrates we can call elenctic, or perhaps something else if we mean to discuss Plato. In either case, statements in philosophical dialogues are imbued with a testimonial quality by virtue of their primary generic function, and an even starker attenuation of that quality by virture of their secondary generic function, not unrelated but neither reducible to the testimonial quality of statements in other complex genres, for instance court proceedings. And further impinging upon the statement's testimonial quality, we could consider specific issues of character development in the Dialogues, and a style of representing philosophical schools.

Leaving aside the conundrum of question and response for the time being, I meant by placing the question "Can we truly answer a question we don't know the answer to?" under the heading "In Favor of Agnosticism" to address a particular set of arguments, something that's caused me to wonder, so here goes. Agnosticism often gets a bad rap as a wishywashy, cowardly response to the question "Is there a God?" This perplexes me because as I see the agnostic response as honest and direct, more honest and direct I think than the way many thiests and athiests explain their beliefs, or their certain knowledge. Not necessarily of course, but on the face of it "I don't know" seems to be a perfectly honest and direct answer to the question "Is there a God?"

Nobody around these parts seems overly concerned to ask the question "Are you an animist?" If somebody were to take the trouble, I think the agnostic response might be highly appropriate, at least at first blush. Does one mean animism as defined by Edward Burnett Tylor? It would be relatively easy to reject holding any of the particular beliefs that Tylor assembles to make his case, but it would largely miss the point. Does animism represent a common way of thinking? Is it a way I think about some things? I can say, for instance, that I don't believe thunder has a soul, and yet I can't really explain what thunder is. Here is how the Australian Board of Meteorology explains thunder and lightning:

Lightning is the discharge produced when voltage differences between ground and atmospheric electrical charge are large enough (several hundred million volts) to overcome the insulating effect of the air. Strokes can occur within the cloud, between clouds, or between clouds and the ground. Thunder is the sound produced by the explosive expansion of air heated by the lightning stroke to temperatures as high as 30,000°C.

I don't exactly know what that means. I don't know why the ground or the atmosphere should have an electrical charge to begin with, I don't know why the air would have an insulating effect, or why the air should be something different from the atmosphere, I don't know why a quantity of several hundred million volts makes thunder while several scores of millions of volts does not, and so on. I rely upon meteorology to be able to explain what thunder is, but, obviously, not too much.

The wikipedia entry on thunder is worth mentioning because its list of thunder gods includes "Mulungu," which in fact is commonly the name given to God, i.e. the Creator, in many East African languages, Bantu languages in particular, all of which also have many words for thunder. In Swahili, the most widely spoken Bantu language, the name for God is often given as "Mungu" or "Muungu." Other common variants include "Mlungu" and "Murungu," which are easily recognizable as the same root form if not the same word.

Some people have heard thunder as symbolic of the voice of God, I believe, and still others may have taken the relationship as iconic in the Peircean sense, and yet still others may believe that thunder itself is god. Only the belief that thunder is a not a god but rather some other kind of supernatural being would clearly qualify as animistic, though holding such a belief would not unambiguously make one an animist, and the definition of supernatural may present some problems. Animistic beliefs have historically coexisted with polytheisms and the great monotheisms, in syncretic or polyglot forms, a pattern which persists to the present day. Furthermore, animistic ways of thinking, if we could presume to identify them as such, are even more widely in evidence. If we were to tease out the elements of animistic belief, for example, anthropomorphism or projection identification, it would be rather unseemly to deny that these are aspects of humanity's common psychic heritage. Therefore, we have at the outset one set of reasons to be wary of infering belief from a single myth or, indeed, mytheme.

If the words for thunder in Bantu languages were consistently classed in 9/10, the noun class that includes animals as well as some spirits or beings of power and things that move, then, in the style of Alexis Kagame1, we might begin to wonder if there weren't some sort of implicit metaphysics in Bantu languages that would lend itself to viewing thunder as a spirit. But in fact the words for thunder are all over the map, and even if they weren't, we wouldn't be justified in assuming that 9/10 necessarily implies a spiritual belief. It might just as well imply ideas of "energy" or "life" or "motility" that could be understood as metaphysical or simply physical. And in further point of fact, spiritual entities make their appearance in all of the Bantu noun classes, which is probably best put down to the arbitrary quality of language.

Here I'd better take a moment to look at what Bakhtin is saying, because his critique of structuralism might be taken as implying a rejection of the thesis that the linguistic relationship between signifier and signified is essentially arbitary, or, alternatively, an as an elaboration of arbitrariness as one might view the semiology of Roland Barthes, to name one example, whereas in my reading Bakhtin's position with regard to the arbitrariness of signifiers is markedly divergent. In "The Problem of Speech Genres," Bakhtin explains:

When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the sytsem of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition or style.2

And further:

Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature. Therefore, one can say that any word exists for the speaker in three aspects: as a neutral word of language, belonging to nobody; as an other's word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other's utterance; and, finally, as my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression. In both of the latter aspects, the word is expressive, but, we repeat, this expression does not inhere in the word itself. It originates at the point of contact between the word and actual reality, under the conditions of that real situation articulated by the individual utterance. In this case the word appears as an expression of some evaluative position of an individual person (authority, writer, scientist, father, mother, friend, teacher, and so forth), as an abbreviation of the utterance.3

Bakhtin's critique of structuralism, even though he directly addresses certain limitations and fictions of Saussurean linguistics, and even though his understanding of language is informed by a firm grasp of the structuralist program, is not primarily an internal one. Rather, he proposes an alternative account of meaning, one that is sociological, cultural, historical and literary. His rejection of structural linguistics is highly qualified. With respect to the relationship between the phonological shape of a word and its "dictionary meaning," there is no dispute with the Saussurean thesis of arbitrariness. However, by holding that meaning is largely constituted outside of language (i.e., langue), and more to the point, independently of language, the linguist's claim of arbitrariness loses one facet of its import, namely the referal of meaning back to the linguistic system. An essential element of arbitrariness, however, remains intact: that is, the capacity to call things by another name, to choose one's words.

Here we are not talking about "mere arbitrariness," as Cassirer might say, because the expressive function of speech is understood as an engagement with the sociological and the historical, the customary, to borrow again from Cassirer. However, in referring meaning to the customary, the dialogic speaker, if you will, is not reduced to the position of being a mediator or a function, because the referal always occurs as an aspect of an intention, a speech act.

It would be a poor excuse for a language that didn't allow its speakers to say things differently, to express, for instance, an unorthodox belief. And so with the ethnophilosophical school, or certain strains of Whorfianism, we have the suspicion that what's being discussed as language or worldview is not quite telling the whole story. Perhaps the Bakhtinian insight is that one never tells the whole story, and yet there is a larger story to be told, namely, in Bakhtin's view, a critical analysis of speech genres.

The difference between primary and secondary (ideological) genres is very great and very fundamental, but this is precisely why the nature of the utterance should be revealed and defined through analysis of both types. Only then can the definition be adequate to the complex and profound nature of the utterance (and encompass its most important facets). A one-sided orientation toward primary genres inevitably leads to a vulgarization of the entire problem (behaviorist linguistics is an extreme example). The very interrelations between primary and secondary genres and the process of the historical formation of the latter shed light on the nature of the utterance (and above all on the complex problem of the interrelations among language, ideology, and world view).4

So, to return to the question of animism, I can't be sure what somebody might possibly mean by asking such a question. I can say, for instance, that I don't believe thunder has a soul, but I don't have a firm grasp on thunder itself, and, of course, we haven't even begun to discuss what a soul is or might possibly be. I might agree that anima could describe something intrinsic to animals, to humans in particular, to the psyche, or to the natural world at large. If I had a pretty good sense of what was motivating the question, how I felt about the person asking it and the circumstances of its asking, then I might be inclined to lean one way or another, to give it some thought and express a preference for the sake of discussion. But rock bottom I couldn't say at the outset that I either believe or disbelieve in animism. If I should come around to the view that by some definitions thunder indeed has a soul, I don't know that I would want to adopt that view as my own personal truth, and I couldn't say whether accepting it provisionally or more permanently would disrupt my fundamental way of looking at things. I just don't know.

1 Mudimbe's critical review of Kagame and the ethnophilosophical school is quite decent. See his The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Indiana University Press (1988), Chapter V, and esp. pp. 145-154.

2 Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, University of Texas Press, 1986, p.87.

3 Ibid, p. 88.

4 Ibid, p. 62, editors' note as follows:

"Ideology" should not be confused with the politically oriented English word. Ideology as it is used here is essentially any system of ideas. But ideology is semiotic in the sense that it involves the concrete exchange of signs in society and history. Every word/discourse betrays the ideology of its speaker; every speaker is thus an ideologue and every utterance an ideologeme.

posted by Fido the Yak at 12:49 AM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page