Of Subjects and Object

If you’ll forgive me for subjecting you to another lengthy post, I’ve got a subject I’d like to explore a bit: the subject-object distinction. Before you object, let me say that my primary objection is how few people even see it as a distinction, rather than revealed truth. In an argument a few weeks ago, I was accused of magical thinking simply for asserting the existence of what Deirdre McCloskey calls “conjective,” Searle’s “institutional facts,” or Habermas’ “intersubjective.”

The idea of something not purely subject or object seems impossible in our post-Enlightenment world. Even the religious largely argue for the existence of an objective world that is affirmed by God.

So I’d like to subject the subject-object distinction to some much merited scrutiny.

Continue reading “Of Subjects and Object”

You Don’t Have a PR Person Telling You What to Say

For years after the success of Pygmalion, his play later adapted into the more famous musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw spilled a lot of ink arguing that Eliza would not marry Higgins. But he never edited the script to make this explicit within the play itself. Yet he wrote the play, so presumably he knew his own intentions—surely his take on the matter is authoritative?

This is wrong. The meaning of a text, or a play, or a film, or a song, is not subjective. Nor is it objective. It is conjective; Deirdre McCloskey’s word for what John Searle refers to as an “institutional fact” (or even more of a mouthful, “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective”). Shaw could only write the play at all because he was educated and gained experience within a particular storytelling tradition at a particular place and a particular period of history. Certainly a great deal of subjective thoughts, feelings, intuitions and understandings played a role in the process of writing the play.

But the meaning exists in the space between the play and the audience, not in any one person’s head. So despite Shaw’s protests, the interpretation that, having now fully become a lady, Eliza would not settle for anything less than marriage, has a lot of strength given the culture the play is supposed to take place in. Certainly that’s how audiences have largely interpreted it for as long as it or its musical adaptation have been shown.

There are some strange implications to this point, once you accept it. If text takes on a life of its own once you’ve put it out there, what about text with a less artistic intent? Say…a tweet?

Consider this telling statement from indie game developer Tim Schafer:

Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.

“If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.

“Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things.”

Does this mean that the person who is presented to the public is a complete fake, a phony, a hypocrite? No, nor need he be.

The point is that every statement has an implied author, and that the character of this implied person is not the subjective vision you have of yourself. No, the implications are conjective; your audience will piece together that character from the context they have available to them.

Rhetoric is much maligned in our authenticity obsessed era, but it is nothing more than than the art of wrestling with how you will be interpreted. To see why rhetoric is so important, look no further than Suey Park, one of many who found her life turned upside down by a few tweets that went viral:

She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”

Public Relations, being a subset of rhetoric, is another thing that people look down their noses at these days. Yet Suey Park clearly wishes she could have had some of its insights in mind before this incident occurred.

An important part of communicating the meaning you intended to, and representing the implied author you had in mind, is to consider your implied audience. Sometimes the enterprising rhetorician will create this implied audience where it did not previous exist—McCloskey’s example is Robert Fogel creating an audience of economically literate historians. But most of the time this is just a recipe for not getting your intended meaning across.

We live in a difficult time. It has grown harder to control what your audience will be.

For most of history, a speech, a newspaper, or a magazine all had fairly clear audiences. Now, anything you say anywhere can suddenly go viral. This includes private conversations, given how trivially easy it is to record audio or make a video on a smartphone. Donald Sterling certainly didn’t think he was announcing his racist attitudes to the world.

Given that meaning depends on context, the fact that a statement can instantly jump contexts is troubling. But that does not mean that we should give up hope. We need to channel Tim Schafer’s detachment from the implied author we present to the world, and to take our rhetoric more seriously. The fact that meaning can be more easily snatched away from us than ever is all the more reason why we need to prepare ourselves to contest hostile interpretations, if we wish to have any influence at all.

Three cheers for PR, public personas, and rhetoric. We would all do well to take persuasion as seriously as the ancients our medieval ancestors.

Individual Volition and Conjective Reality

A couple of weeks ago, Nathan continued what as been a very fruitful conversation on the subject of individual responsibility and group decisionmaking. The first couple of paragraphs give you the gist:

I don’t agree with Adam that individual responsibility emerged within a tradition, or only ever existed within a space framed by groups. Individual responsibility may be a relic of the state of nature, if one ever existed.

The Durkheim and Foucault schools seem to rightly identify that the individual is shaped by structures and institutions, wherever the individual does not practice volition. But the individual retains volition over the shaping of self in every respect. The individual can only exercise that volition selectively. And the individual should be careful about rejecting the formative structures without extensive deliberation, per Hayek.

For Nathan, individual responsibility truly is individual; in origin and in operation. He acknowledges that institutions influence individuals, but treats those institutions as external things, acting upon otherwise autonomous individuals who hold “volition over the shaping of self in every respect.”

Against this, I want to argue that most of what makes us particularly human is what Deirdre McCloskey calls conjective; that is, existing neither in the subject nor in the object but in the group. She draws heavily on John Searle’s institutional ontology; her “conjective” fact maps to his “institutional” as opposed to “brute” fact.

But Searle’s analysis needs another word, which one might coin as “conjective,” what we know together as against what we know inside an individual head or what we imagine to be God’s objectivity. The conjective is a result of human agreement or acceptance. The Latin is cum + iactus, that is, “thrown together,” as after all we humans are in our mammalian cuddling and especially in our conversations.

One of Nathan’s fears is that if we accept the centrality of groups, people will never take individual responsibility or initiative. Essentially, they will use the centrality of groups as an excuse never to do anything themselves, but if no one does anything then by definition the group won’t be doing anything, either. On the subject of virtue, he says:

[V]irtue is best exemplified and then caught, rather than taught. But who will take the initiative to demonstrate? Particularly when the students might be few, and might not absorb the lesson apart from repeated demonstrations? Those who subjectively value the increase in virtue should expect to have to shoulder that burden personally. The only true route to reform, whether of society or the individual, is through personal expense.

Nathan hasn’t fleshed out his model too much, which makes it difficult to respond in too much detail. Suffice to say I also believe that individual responsibility and initiative matter, but I think the very idea of such things is primarily understood conjectively, rather than subjectively.

The idea that the acknowledgement of the group, of “man with man” (as Martin Buber describes the “fact of human existence” and McCloskey quotes approvingly), as a hindrance to responsibility remind me of a similar criticism of Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott argued that politics should be about seeking “intimations” for action from inside of a political tradition. Critics argued that this amounted to no recommendation at all. He responded:

The critic who found ‘some mystical qualities’ In this passage leaves me puzzled: It seems to me an exceedingly matter-of-fact description of the characteristics of any tradition-the Common Law of England, for example. the so-called British Constitution. the Christian religion, modern physics, the game of cricket, shipbuilding.

Clarifying with a sports example:

Again, is Mr N. A. Swanson all at sea when he argues in this fashion about the revolutionary proposal that the bowler in cricket should be allowed to ‘throw’ the ball: ‘the present bowling action has evolved as a sequence, from underarm by way of round-arm to over-arm, by successive legislation of unorthodox actions. Now, I maintain that the “throw” has no place in this sequence .. .’? Or, is Mr G. H. Fender arguing without a standard or criterion, or is he merely expressing a ‘hunch’, when he contends that the ‘throw’ has a place in this sequence and should be permitted? And is it so far fetched to describe what is being done here and elsewhere as ‘exploring the intimations’ of the total situation?

Individual responsibility looks very much like the argument over throwing in cricket, or the manner in which evidence is presented in a common law court. There is a gigantic conjective background that frames any act of individual volition. One cannot conceive of virtue without language, the consensus that bravery, restraint, wisdom, charity, fairness, and similar qualities, are in fact worthy of praise. Moreover, virtue ethics as a specific intellectual tradition is itself a vast conjective enterprise.

Where Nathan may be wary is with the idea that people treat the conjective as given, but McCloskey strongly emphasizes that quite unlike the objective or even the subjective, the conjective is contestable and constantly being renegotiated.

Searle argues persuasively that a society is glued together by conjective facts of the sort “X counts as Y in context C.” Thus, a clergyman saying “I thee wed” counts as marrying two people in the context of a properly constituted marriage ceremony. A $20 bill counts as legal tender in the context of the territories of the United States. A ball going over the goal line counts as a goal in the context of a soccer game. As Stanley Fish so often notes, of course, such conjective facts are always contestable. Objective facts (“water is two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen”) or subjective facts (“Beckham intends to score a goal”) are not. The physical facts of the world and the psychological states of human minds are “brute,” to extend Searle’s word, in the sense of being incontestable in their very nature, their “ontology” as the philosophers say. Physical constraints such as the law of gravity and utility such as a great love for vanilla ice cream are not the sort of facts we can quarrel about once we have grasped in a humanistic inquiry their nature, their “qualia,” as the philosophers put is. All we can do then is measure, if we can.

The conjective by contrast is always contestable and always in that sense ethical, that is, about “deontic status,” in Searle’s vocabulary, “deontic” being about what we ought to do (the Greek means “being needful”). The clergyman might be argued to be not properly authorized to perform the marriage (look at the long controversy about gay marriage), the definition of “U.S. territory” might be ambiguous (embassies abroad?), the goal might be disputed. If any part of the ball breaks the plane of the goal line is it a goal? Was the linesman in a position to judge?

What I have been groping for with my pieces on group responsibility, and what McCloskey’s “conjective” supplies theoretical resources for, is the idea that we are individually responsible for the extent to which we either contest or support a given conjective fact.

Thus, democracy is imperfect, and does not really aggregate preferences, but is that grounds for abandoning the enterprise? I say not. I say the American project is still worthy of our commitment. Making such a commitment just is to take responsibility for your role as citizen, member of your community, neighbor. It is to take ownership of your own influence, however small, on our conjective reality. And in practice it involves the exact sort of shouldering of burdens and public mindedness that Nathan calls for. But it also involves participation in politics—as voters as well as in other roles, which require individuals to fill them.

If I’m lucky enough to get Nathan to reply to this, here are some questions I would like him to answer:

  • What is the relationship of the individual to things like language and social contexts with “deontic” meaning?
  • Are the latter merely external things that an individual takes as given, or is their relationship deeper than that?
  • Do you forsake politics entirely?
  • What is your ideal outcome; what does a polity look like when all of the individuals adopt your radical individualist ethic?

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