Live conversation 9/11/20.


Alrighty then. This is Finchley Place. I’m Wrench, this is Suspended Reason. We’re starting this project, The Inexact Sciences, because we feel there’s something in science that’s having trouble getting to the frontier of certain things that can’t be repeated in the same way we’d like things to be for physics-like science. But at the same time, the people who are doing things in a softer way, who are philosophizing about the general nature of social dynamics or language—which are two things we think about a lot—aren’t really capturing or rigorizing—they’re doing a lot of conceptual engineering, a lot of rhetorical carving out of various things to impress their peers and it’s not adding up to a system. So we’ve started this back-and-forth series of letters to get at what’s going on with language and why it’s so hard to understand what’s going on with language, because our vocabulary and our conceptual space for what we’re dealing with is so impoverished it actually gets in the way. It occludes the distinctions you want to make because you’re stuck with the definitions that are easy to draw on because others already know them.

Suspended sent me a letter; I sent him one back; they’re available, we’ll put the link up. And basically Suspended started off discussing three examples to show why the idea of “meaning” is complicated. So the three examples are: Tracking an animal in the woods, where you see signs of things that obviously have meaning, even though the idea of intention is more or less not there; the animal doesn’t intend to leave tracks in a way we can define. [Second] the idea of driving down a city street, where there are lots of signals such as traffic signals that have meaning, but there isn’t really intention however there is intention with the drivers around you, which creates an ecosystem of conventions and intentions. [Third] something we haven’t yet talked about deeply, which is dressing up for a social event, and the intentionality of how you present yourself.

Suspended ended with a few question; I end up [in my letter] analyzing a bunch of them, and he hasn’t told me crap about what he thinks of my letter, other than it’s “good,” i.e. a generic praise just to avoid having to talk about this shit.


No, I used the word “great” actually.


Well maybe you should give some context on that.


I feel like understanding the Inexact Sciences project just a little bit will help give context as to why we’re even writing these letters. Kevin Scharp, the philosopher, has this nice quote about the philosophy pipeline:

For the past 400 years, philosophy has been shrinking. That is a sociological fact. Physics, geology, chemistry, economics, biology, anthropology, sociology, meteorology, psychology, linguistics, computer science, cognitive science—these subject matters were all part of philosophy in 1600. As the scientific revolution ground on, more and more sciences were born. This process is essentially philosophy outsourcing its subject matter as something new—sciences. The process is rather complicated, but the most important part of it is getting straight on the right concepts to use so that the subject matter can be brought under scientific methodology. Ultimately, the radical therapeutic program – showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle – is taking an active role in this outsourcing process. Identify conceptual defects (Socratic idea) and craft new concepts that avoid the old defects (Nietzschean idea) with an eye toward preparing that philosophical subject matter for outsourcing as a science.

Essentially, philosophy outsources its subject matter as soon as something gets rigorized enough that you can actually verify things, you can be rigorous and ask questions that are tractable to answer. And a big part of preparing these fields is what Scharp calls a “therapeutic” program, fixing up the language so it’s steady and stable enough to build off it, or coordinate on it, as you’d say Wrench.

One of our friends, Stephen Holtzman, talks about how we’re in a statistical adolescence, an awkward in-betweenness where statistical techniques do as much harm as they help, and there’s maybe a parallel with language. We’re in the middle of a very long, very awkward adolescent phase that goes back to Socrates, trying to understand how words mean, what the boundaries are on concepts, how to understand communication. And these problems have really hung up a lot of fields. Philosophy is one of them but also literary theory has these issues, sociology, psychology. Nobody can quite agree what or how words mean, or what is or isn’t included in a definition or an extension, an extension being the set of things a word picks out or names. And it’s not clear whether the philosophy of language vocabulary that’s been built up to handle these problems, such as extension or connotation or denotation, even makes sense or helps us understand these problems.

Part of the project with these letters is trying to start from scratch—instead of trying to salvage of build off these concepts like “meaning,” or connotation vs. denotation, or intentionality and interpretation, actually breaking away from these concepts and their baggage and see if progress can be made on understanding these issues by coming in from a different angle, or factoring them from the ground on up. That’s the spirit with which these letters started: let’s taboo these words “meaning” and “intentionality” and instead maybe talk about metaphors for communication that aren’t typically thought of as such. One of the things your letter, Wrench, really comes down to is that there isn’t so much a meaning that exists “inside” words, and there isn’t even so much an intended meaning a speaker’s trying to get across, but rather there’s a complex matrix of goals and desires that is always in play [shaping behavior]. That there’s this predictive forecasting that happens where you stare down the forking paths and say, well, from past experience I know if I head in this direction or bring up this subject, it could go down a conversational and life avenue—since there are real ramifications to talk—that I don’t want to go down. Even if all that reasoning only manifests as a feeling, a repulsion or attraction.

I’m gonna read a couple quotes now from your letter. You say,

In this conversation it is clear that we are trying to get something done via this public interpretive status. And it is always this “something” that overtakes understanding, because there are inevitably distinctions that will be lost, but when pointed-out we would shrug at and say: “Well, that wasn’t really the point, anyway.”

This gets across the way there’s a hierarchy of ends, a subordination of parts to wholes, and you could present something as a piece of evidence, but the point of bringing it up is only to support the larger goal, to convince somebody or defend yourself or whatever it might be. And so understanding “intent” as the literal semantic meaning of sentences might be a red herring.


I think a lot of people, a lot of linguistics or philosophers of language, would agree with what we’re saying and yet, they’d interpret things as follows. They’d say there is some literal meaning—or they’ll say something more complicated about the general structure of this words, and that this structure is a tool shaped in such a way that it can complete multiple ends—and I think this gets at something we talk about a lot, that there’s some notion of compositionality that doesn’t just act at the word level, it acts at the level of what people call “meaning.” And like we said, we’re tabooing that word, so I won’t say that’s what meaning is, but a lot of people would call this “meaning,” because there are many cases in which the sentence is shaped by what it’s trying to do. And as soon as someone see’s what it’s trying to do, that changes the literal shape that it means, and it changes how it’s used and interpreted by the interlocutor. And that seems to be a key point of divergence. That we don’t just start with something literal, and then that literal thing ends up affecting the various meanings, communications, and feelings of the interlocutors; more that the actual literal shape of whatever we want to call meaning or interpretation is a process by which intention ends up reshaping the protein itself. If you wanna think about it as a protein where there’s some kind of sequenced code, and yes that code is static, it doesn’t change except upon chemical reaction, but as it folds, the shape of the thing itself re-shapes itself again. And people seem not to get into that kind of reflexivity, they don’t want to go there, they say there must be a similar structure, and that’s one of the things I’d like to sit down with. I think you’d agree, but I wanted to say it explicitly; if you don’t I’d be even more curious to hear about it.


I want you to re-hash the reflexivity point, because I’m not quite following, but Knapp & Michaels, these literary theorists who’ve helped bring back the intentionalist frame, have resuscitated it by saying that, like it or not, readers do, and can only, read with author intent as a kind of North Star. You can’t escape reference to intent as a basis for sense-making. And that idea seems maybe better-defended by this view if you want to say “the point” of reading is typically to understand what the author’s conveying. Not always, maybe, but typically.

I’ll also say, there are moments in conversations where someone tells you something and you don’t even know how to respond because you’re not sure why they told you that thing, or in that way. And you go, “Okay… ahuh…” which sorta signals back to them that you’re not quite getting the point; if you’re blunt you might just say it outright. Which seems like one of those everyday slippages that reveals larger dynamics.


Just to make the reflexivity point clear, which I probably stated in a silly way because I don’t think it’s an especially complicated idea, but just to say that the common way of interpreting language is… well let’s look at implication. If you’re on a date, and you ask your date, “Do you want to come upstairs?” there’s a lot of implications you might be intimate, or that you like this person and want to invest in them. And the classic linguistic view is that you understand the literal content, “Do you want to come upstairs?,” and on top of that you add the implicature. And while that’s true, when you get to more complex cases, the indexicality of things perverts the literal meaning so strongly that you actually see the indexicality before you see the literal meaning (if there even is a literal meaning).

What’s a good example? If you take a simple indexical phrase like “I don’t like that anyway,” it’s clear you need to be very in-context to understand, for instance, which word is being emphasized. Whether it’s “I don’t like that anyway,” or “I don’t like that anyway,” or “I don’t like that anyway.” Let’s say this is happening over text. You could say there’s some literal interpretation, and then we go into it, but that seems wrong. It seems that actually we’re thinking about the content of the matter first, and then trying to fit the phrase into the larger indexical space. That’s what I mean by reflexivity. That the shape of whatever we consider the “meaning” of the sentence is shaped not just by the sequence of words but actually by what they come to mean. It’s a process of thinking, “Oh, this is the context in which these words mean something, and these are the words, and maybe it’s like this, but if that’s true, then they have this implication they open up that changes the shape of the original sentence.”


And stock phrases, or conventional assignations of meaning, where there is almost no literal content that matters, seems like another wrench in the literalism frame.

So let’s talk generalized compatibilism. The way that people fight over what conversation is “for” or “up to” in narrow ways, rather than admitting, as if often the case, that conversation does all these things, that the synthesis is stronger than any one thesis (especially when we’re working at everyday-level goals, rather than “ultimate” ends like evolutionary fitness or pleasure). You write:

It’s clear that people are not often able to explain clearly what they are getting done. What are you “getting done” when you’re having fun with friends? Developing bonds, giving your brain those delicious pro-social chemicals, etc. but those aren’t things we’re very good at reasoning about as goals, in comparison with arguing that you should get a raise.

If you look at classical conversation theories, one frame is that a conversation is an exchange of information. Or in Robin Hanson’s line, that conversations are about having a platform to signal. But it seems clear that conversation and language is functionally as broad as action itself; there are so many things happening and being achieved that it’s ridiculous to claim conversation is “about” or “for” any one narrow thing. There may be a deep level at which everything is about fitness or pleasure, but the mediating goals is where human beings live. If we want to understand culture, we have to understand that “rich middle.”


And I think linguists want to understand what words mean, or at least the ones studying semantics usually do, and we try to approach semantics the way we taxonomize everything: we break down into categories, we say that there’s structure along the lines of the kind of mathematics we’re used to structuring, and that looks like the kind of thing we think of as structured information. And then conversation starts to look like an exchange of information, because what else could it be if I’m sharing with you one piece of structured information and you’re sharing with me one piece of structured information. And so it’s about this kind of, “well, if you’re gonna talk with your peers, this is the fundamental primitive you’re using to describe the observations you see,” and if that’s a primitive you’re gonna use to describe things, that’s how people will view things. Like you’re saying, it can be true in some abstracted space, but that doesn’t get you very far.

The interesting thing is to ask, well, what should we be doing, which is difficult, but one thing that seems like it could bear some fruit is to say, “Clearly there are patterns we see a lot.” And one of those is status, as you say. And I think there are a lot of misconceptions about status; that is just exists, and that there’s a fighting ground where people will do anything to get it. Which, I think you can learn a lot from that point of view, and there are good treatises from this point of view, The Prince being the classic one, but the truth is people aren’t that Machiavellian. It’s not that they don’t want those things, but one, they’re not able to control themselves so intensely, with so much discipline, to be as Machiavellian as a standard status analysis might suggest. And number two, I don’t think status exists as in and of itself, really. I think it’s very natural to human society; I don’t know of any without status; but I think the real deal is that status is a coordination mechanism. It’s the simplest way of perceiving pretty much any coordination mechanism, which is to say, “Well, there are levels of power and between any two people, I have certain advantages over you,” and it’s very common that even if someone’s lower status than you, they have some kind of power over you, and status is an abstraction over, in general, how will people treat me in comparison to you. But obviously there are strings that bind in more complex ways than that—strings you can pull that aren’t directly related to status. So I wonder if status isn’t just an abstraction we’re using because all coordination mechanisms end up having gradations of power, and status is a matter of perception—the simplest way of perceiving any given coordination mechanism, which makes it a very useful tool for thinking about these cases.