Saturday, February 2, 2013

Agenticity in language

Many times people speak about the world as if the objects within it have agency. "Be careful around that lamp, it wants to fall over." "My car is very fussy, she doesn't like the rain." This kind of talk is part of the ubiquity of metaphor in speech. Neither of my examples posit some kind of animism, or point at my own softheadedness; they both explain something about an object.

The first sentence uses agent like language to warn my house guest that the lamp is unstable. And the second sentence is something I could say of my car even if I knew what the electrical problem was and could describe it. The fact that "agent talk" and narrative description make easy sense to our very social brain does not mean that when we use this kind of talk that we have totally lost our wits.

It can be dangerous thinking, one can fall in for some kind of animism because "the car really does seem fussy". But it bothers me when I hear critiques of peoples thinking when all that is being critiqued is a manner of description.

And let’s not miss the advantage of agent like description. My lamp might look sturdy but fall over easily, so describing it as an agent that desires to fall over tells the listener how to interact with the lamp in a way that "that lamp's center of gravity is too high for size of its base" wouldn't obviously convey. And telling someone about the wires in my car doesn't tell you what to look out for. Bad wiring can do almost anything in a car, so the "fanciful" description of my car as a stuck up little princess who won’t start in the rain is, for the person interacting with my car as a driver, more informative than the formal diagnosis.


  1. This is completely backwards. I'll focus on the penultimate paragraph, since that contains most of the substance of your argument. One does not "fall in for some kind of animism" the way one falls in for racism or jingoism or other patterns of thought. Animism, as you call it, is the way we humans naturally view the world (cf. Dennett, Breaking the Spell and The Intentional Stance; Barrett, Born Believers; Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, especially the chapter that's annotated by way of an introduction in Kojeve). Given that such animism is humans' default way of thought, it is not surprising that two of the greatest discoveries of the last several centuries, evolutionary biology and free-market capitalism, remain controversial and widely misunderstood.

    Thinking critically about human life and social relations is very difficult. Looking around, we see all sorts of problems, whatever our values and beliefs are, and we want to come up with solutions. It is natural and easy to diagnose problems by identifying agency and to suggest remedies by invoking skyhooks, but it is also not very helpful. Therefore, it is legitimate to criticize people's thinking if their means of description involves hyperactive agent detection or skyhooks. Granted, this criticism may boil down to a disagreement about what is the more legitimate skyhook: God or the government or scientists or journalists or educators or culture or "We" with a purposely vague antecedent. Nonetheless, being guilty of the same sort of error as those one is criticizing does not necessarily invalidate the criticism.

    If you're talking about your car or your lamp, this might indeed be an efficient and harmless linguistic device. But I don't think you're talking about cars or lamps in the penultimate paragraph.

  2. Liam -- I don't think we're on good footing if we go in for an explanation as pat as "animism is humans' default way of thought". In a conversation about the utility, or allowability, of different rhetorical strategies, I think we can do better.

    As a liberal whose made an earnest effort to understand the ways and means of civil society, when I use the word "we", I mean this in a technical manner -- the "we" that comprises citizens, government, the education establishment, the fourth estate. I know that not everyone uses "we" in this sense. So, we (the parties in the conversation) are talking past one another, being that our terms aren't grounded in the same referents. I'm talking about an intricate, manifold, socio-economic system -- my conversation partner is talking about a skyhook.

    So I could challenge and drill down on that (in the same way that I could drill down on someone when they use a misleading animist turn of phrase). But just as important to consider, when we're talking about discourse theory, are 1) the need for expediency (we have to make do, lest our attempts at conversation become interminable efforts to establish exactly the same relations across our referents) and 2) the cooperative principle (pace Grice,

    In other words, I agree with both Josiah's stance (animism may be useful at times) and Liam's recalibration (some topics are so obstinately contrary to human intuition that it is desirable to avoid the further ambiguity of animism).

  3. There is a useful principle in literary criticism, which I find just as useful when carried over into civil and political discourse: it is better to talk about a text (or rhetorical strategy, say) within the scope of its extent and relevance. Put differently, absolutist rules of interpretation (including, natch, this one) are less useful than principles of relative beauty, relative effect, relative efficacy. In the case of conversational animism, this means: sometimes you can let it pass, and sometimes you should demand greater accuracy or clarity from your conversation partner.

    Having to rely on a relative method means more work than would be the case with inflexible laws of conversational practice -- but then, that's the responsibility we bear for participation in a liberal culture. (Liberal hear meaning we expect that disputes are resolved through persuasion, not force.)

  4. I see now that my comment went off on a bit of a tangent and didn't entirely come back to the point.

    Zachary, I like Grice's Conversational Maxims as much as the next guy, but I don't think they are particularly useful for discussing complex, controversial issues among people of diverse backgrounds. Here, I think we do well to heed Sam Brown's advice to "Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance." This makes sense in terms of signaling: If somebody is not smart and considerate enough to make their point without misleading or offending you, me, or whomever, then they are probably not smart and considerate enough to make a worthwhile point. Even if they do actually have something worthwhile to say, there's probably somebody else who can say it less offensively, and that person will probably make the point better in other ways, too (although people who have lots of truly original things to say, that nobody else is saying, can counter-signal by being offensive on purpose, a la TLP).

    It's hard to say more because I'm not really sure who or what you're talking about (although I'm pretty sure you're not talking about cars or lamps).

  5. Also, Zachary, can you give an example of a sentence where you use "we" in the technical manner you describe? I'm having trouble imagining it.

  6. I think Sam Brown's advice is liable to backfire in many of the vernacular situations where manner is as essential for ensuring communication (if for no other reason than for facilitating receptiveness) as accuracy and non-ambiguity. I suspect we're not in disagreement so much as we are envisioning, and speaking to, different conversational settings.

  7. As for "we". I suppose I meant that when I use a word like "we", I do so with a confidence that I can supply increasingly detailed or expansive account of "we" as a dynamic and manifold socio-economic system. In other words, I'm confident that my usage of the word has explanatory depth. I see what you mean about it being hard to imagine an example, but I'll try to do so by using the illustration you used, above...

    If asked whose prerogative it is to assign moral value to actions, a person might respond, "God is." I would respond, "We are." When I say I'm using "we" in a technical sense, I mean that I've thought enough about the referent that I can unpack my meaning with a level of detail (and/or warrant) sufficient for most purposes.