The Emperor is No Novelist

Featured image is a meaningless aesthetic experience put down on paper by Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The emperor was sitting in his study one day, when he felt the stirring of the unconscious impulse of genius. Wasting no time, he dipped his quill in ink and moved it across the page, moving to a new page when the moment felt right. In short order, he had a stack of papers, filled with the work of his genius.

He called in his top adviser. “What do you make of this?” he asked, gesturing to the papers. His adviser looked through a few of the papers.

“Sir?” He replied, uncertain of what was expected of him.

“I have just completed this novel,” the emperor prompted, “I was wondering if I could get your honest opinion.”

The very last thing the adviser ever wanted to give was his honest opinion, least of all at that moment. “I’m not sure I understand…perhaps you could provide some more context?”

“Context!” The emperor snorted, “Of course you don’t have enough of that to share in my experience of creation. Would you like to go back and enter my mind, at the moment it occurred? Would you like to go through my life story as a whole, so that you can see how it might have resulted in such inspiration? But of course that is impossible.”

“So…”

“But fear not! Your aesthetic experience need not depend on my unconscious creative process whatsoever! Simply gaze at the pages. Do you not feel their beauty?”

“Ah…yes. Yes, I think I see now. Yes, they are truly moving, sir.”

“You’re not just saying so?”

“Have you ever known me to engage in empty flattery, your majesty?”

The emperor showed more and more people his work, and found that their reactions were similar. So, encouraged, he set up an exhibit, in which all of the individuals were displayed encased in glass.

Many came from all over the land the indulge in the aesthetic experience of the emperor’s work.

The exhibit was set up in the throne room, so the emperor could enjoy the sight of his subjects experiencing his work.

One day, he was pleased to see a mother had brought her child. The boy could not have been more than seven or eight years old.

“What is this?” He asked his mother.

“It’s the emperor’s book,” she explained. The boy stared at one particular page for a very long time. The emperor’s heart swelled with pride at the sight of a child working so hard to appreciate his creation.

“No it isn’t,” the boy finally said.

“What’s that?” his mother stammered, casting a nervous glance towards the emperor.

“It isn’t a book at all,” he said, “it’s just scribbles.” Silence filled the room. Everyone was half-staring, half-attempting to appear nonchalant.

“I told you it was a book, and it’s a book,” his mother whispered sternly.

“But there aren’t any words at all! You can’t read it!” he shouted.

“Be. Quiet!” she hissed. She looked up and saw the emperor staring down at them. “I apologize for his rudeness, your majesty,” she stammered, “perhaps he is simply too young to appreciate anything more demanding than vulgar storytelling.”

“Yes…perhaps so,” the emperor replied quietly. “That must be it,” he said to himself, long after everyone had left, and he was alone.

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Universals and Meaning As Use

Take the sentence “Fido is a dog.” From this, we are entitled to infer various other sentences by substituting for a subsentential component. Thus we are entitled to infer “Fido is a mammal.” We are also entitled to infer “My pet is a dog.” The difference is that the latter inference is reversible, while the former is not. From “Fido is a mammal” we are not entitled to infer that “Fido is a dog,” whereas we can infer “Fido is a dog” from “My pet is a dog.” The particular, in other words, is that segment of the sentence that has symmetric substitution relations, while the universal is the one that does not. It is this symmetry that gives us the notion of different particulars being “coreferential,” and out of that, the very idea that there is an object to which singular terms refer.

Joseph Heath

This simple insight just saved you hours of cannabis fueled dorm room philosophy debates about the existence of universals. You’re welcome.

The key all along was to think of the meaning or content of a word as being derived from its use in a sentence—that is, from its contribution to a judgment. And judgments are things we do. They are actions… speech actions, like the act of asserting something. Just as a valid chess move is governed by shared rules over permissible actions rather than the intrinsic properties of a chess piece itself, shared rules of inference and judgment govern valid moves in discourse, rather than the intrinsic properties of words and concepts—much less the arbitrary phonemes that attach to them.

Leonardo_polyhedra[1]

It’s easy to see how this resolves a lot of the problems created by the other school of thought, the one that locates meaning and content in reference, in sign and signified. If meaning comes from reference, then what does the universal “dog” mean absent its particular instantiations? Platonists thought the question demanded there must be an ideal dog, an abstract object with reality just as real as the particular Fido on your lap, perhaps an idea in the mind of God. Nominalists rightly thought that was absurd, and so instead posited that universals are just names that refer to particular things with common properties—preserving the same meaning as reference that led Plato down the wrong track in the first place.

It’s edifying to realize thousands of pages of scholarship, and centuries of debate within Medieval Europe, stemmed from a confusion generated by the inferential structure of ordinary language. Indeed, the failure to make meaning as reference “work” as a theory, combined with the odd resistance to giving it up, has led generations of “semioticians” to radical conclusions like nihilism, post-structuralism, and moral error theory, when it turns out the starting premise was unmotivated in the first place.

Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box analogy provides a great illustration of the basic idea. It shows how we can talk meaningfully about concepts, i.e. signs, even without direct access to the private, subjective perception of the thing “signified”. Instead, the shared, public meaning of any given word (like beetle) is given by its use, its pragmatics, particularly in the context of a sentence.

That’s why Wittgenstein argued a language can never be totally private. The rules of discourse, like the rules of chess, only make sense insofar as they are shared. Sure, you could invent a new board game with all new rules that only you know. But when you make a move in a game that no one else around you can recognize you might as well be speaking gibberish.

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.