Monday, July 11, 2011

Plural Reference

I once had a teacher who delighted in philosophical warfare. If he thought you his enemy, he'd barely let you get a word out before he began his attack.

Here's one of his favorite tactics. You'd say something like "Society wants . . .", he'd cut you off and tell you that there was no such thing as society. He'd do this with everyone, plain folk and philosophers alike. (You'll find a mitigated form of this at the Maverick Philosopher. See here. Vallicella is often a delight, but upon occasion he annoys me to no end.)

He loved the consternation that such a remark inevitably causes. It seems a bit like the claim that there's no such thing as, say, sheep. It seems insane.

Of course he didn't mean to make an insane claim. He meant only that a society is not some individual entity distinct from the people within it.

Though he meant only this, I was always annoyed by this tactic. It seemed (and seems still) a misdirection. When one begins a sentence with "society", one does not thereby assent to the existence of some bizarre, spatially disconnected entity whose parts are people. (Well, very few mean any such thing, and those who do are invariably deeply misguided philosophers. Plain folk never mean any such thing. Philosophers hardly ever mean such a thing. ) One uses "society" to refer plurally to, well, a plurality of people.

Compare our use of "orchestra". Imagine that our philosophical pugilist were to interrupt a sentence that began "The orchestra is in town for . . ." with the assertion that there is no such thing as an orchestra. Let me make the reply that I should have made those many years ago. (The pugilist did love to use "fuck" in philosophical debate, so I'll allow myself its use too.) Who in the fuck thinks that an orchestra is a single entity composed of its member musicians? Nobody, that's who! When we say "orchestra", we thereby refer plurally to those very musicians. Don't let yourself be misled by surface grammatical form. Yes, "orchestra" is singular. But it functions semantically just as does "cats" or "dogs". They're each semantically plural, and it betrays a kind of philosophical perversity to ignore this obvious fact.

One could of course rephrase sentences in which "society" occurs so that that singular term is eliminated in favor of some phrase that is grammatically plural. But there's no need. It was semantically plural all along.

Yes, in philosophy we should be held responsible for the literal import of our words. (For many students of philosophy, this is the primary obstacle to philosophical competence. Precision is a hard-won skill.) But we must take care about that literal import. We must not allow a narrow focus upon grammatical form blind us to certain obvious semantic facts.

1 comment:

Hollis said...

This is gorgeous!