Random thoughts on random topics

Channel

On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998

Random thoughts on random topics

Tang pottery, Tsinghua University museum

Concerning Gadamer and normativity

The following seems a very plausible conjecture: it is the meaning of the text itself that provides the necessary normative constraints on its interpretation. But there are a few problems with that. 

First of all, it makes interpretation very much a factual, ‘realistic’ concern: independent from interpretations and interpreters, there is such a thing as ‘the meaning’, and the task of interpretation is to discover that. Once we’ve done that, the task is fulfilled and there is no more need for interpretation. But that doesn’t sit very well with Gadamer’s insistence that interpretation is an on-going affair, and moreover, one that not only constantly changes the views of the interpreter, but also the meaning(s) of what is interpreted: the ‘fusion of horizons’ is a temporary equilibrium, brought about by adjusting both the perspective of the interpreter and that of the text.

Secondly, if the objective meaning of the text itself were to play this role, this wouldn’t fit into an interpretational scheme that follows the hermeneutic circle. Recall that if we follow the structure of the hermeneutic circle we need to compare two things that both are different from this postulated objective meaning of the text itself, viz., the fore-projection, i.e., our ‘initial hypothesis’, and the result of our (first) reading. The problem was that we can compare these two without any problem, but that in order to evaluate the outcome of that comparison, we need a standard, something normative. Now suppose the objective meaning were to play that role? How would that help? If we know that this is the objective meaning of the text, we wouldn’t need any interpretation to begin with. And if we do not, it will fail to hold any normative authority.

The essence of the problem is that the hermeneutic circle, precisely because it is a circle, involves only entities of the same kind (meanings). And without reference to any external source of normativity, none of these can play the required normative role, on pain of the entire circular structure collapsing into what is basically a realistically understood concept of objectivity.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2006

Random thoughts on random topics

Orkneys

Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998]

Random thoughts on random topics

North Sea

On natural phenomena as aesthetic objects

Are natural phenomena (objects, events) aesthetic objects in the Wittgensteinian sense? There is no doubt that we apply  adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ to things like sunsets, landscapes, people. But what does that mean? Are there norms that we apply?  Do we compare one phenomenon with another? Last night’s sunset with this one? The landscape before our eyes with the one we saw in a movie? This person’s face with that of our favourite movie star? 

In the last case it seems that we do indeed compare and also that we are able to express the reasons for our evaluations to some extent. In the case of sunsets this is far less obvious. Is there a sense in which this sunset is more beautiful than last night’s? More spectacular perhaps, yes. But more beautiful? And if we compare landscapes, aren’t we just  expressing preferences? (“I hate woods, give me open skies any day.”)  

We can sharpen the issue somewhat by asking about the role of two key features of aesthetic practices in Wittgenstein’s sense: training and expertise, and directed discontent. 

As for training and expertise, we have no problem in acknowledging that some people are better than we are in judging the quality of a musical performance, or that of a painting, or a sculpture. That is why we seek to learn from them and so develop our own skills and our own appreciation of a given kind of aesthetic objects. Does the same happen in ‘evaluating’ a sunset? Do we ask an expert to tell us whether this sunset is better than the one we saw yesterday, and if so, to explain to us in what way? If we ask someone whether he prefers a rugged mountainous landscape to an ocean view, do we seek to learn anything over and above his preferences, something that will help us make a more informed judgment ourselves? And if someone declares that she thinks her husband is more beautiful than the man just voted ‘sexiest man alive’, do we take her to task for not agreeing with ‘the experts’? 

It appears that although the answers may not be the same in each of these cases, there is a marked difference with how training and expertise work in aesthetic practices that are concerned with non-natural phenomena, with artefacts, performances, and the like. This relates to the second feature, directed discontent.

Directed discontent typically involves judgments about objects according to norms with an aim to improvement. We look at the object (or performance, that’s basically the same in this regard), apply a relevant norm, and judge that the object does not qualify unreservedly, that there is room for improvement. Typically, improvement presupposes control, at least in principle. Hence, a key feature of aesthetic objects is that they lend themselves to manipulation, to change and be changed. 

Now, natural phenomena are not disqualified  by this requirement per se. But it does place restrictions on when natural phenomena can be regarded as proper aesthetic objects. First of all, there has to be some element of control. Since sunsets are typically not man-made, they equally typically are not aesthetic objects: there is no aesthetic practice that aims at producing sunsets according to certain shared norms. Landscapes are an in-between case: think of landscape architecture, garden design. Here there is enough control to start an aesthetic practice. But we don’t go about designing and producing mountain ranges. (At least, not yet. Notice how all this is conditional on human ability, and hence human technology.) What about people? A human face becomes a proper aesthetic object in the context of, e.g., plastic surgery. We can well imagine two people judging the result of an operation and one of them expressing directed discontent; “Nice result, but the left cheek is not quite what it should be … Let me see, a bit more like this, perhaps?”

And this immediately reveals the second  conditio sine qua non for something to be an aesthetic object, viz., that there has to be a set of shared norms. 

So we see why on the one hand natural phenomena do not automatically qualify as aesthetic objects and why on the other hand most of our aesthetic practices involve pure artefacts: control is needed for a practicable application of norms.

Martin Stokhof
[from: EOL Discussion Board
date: 27/02/2020]