Friday, July 29, 2016

Appreciating Mistaken Art Like Mistaken Philosophy

It is a fact -- however much a given artist may deny it -- that works of art often express a narrative and a moral point of view. This fact is sometimes (subversively) underplayed and de-emphasized. But there is no doubt that Dadaism and Bauhaus in some way express different ideals than, say, Romanticism or the Baroque.

Indeed, one might argue that certain movements in modern art -- together with higher education, the law, and the media -- bear a large portion of culpability for the general moral degradation of Western society.

At the very least the point clearly makes sense, since obviously one could argue the other way too: That certain forms of art are inherently "traditionalistic" or "reactionary," and should be "supplanted" or "opposed" by more progressive forms of art.

Still, it seems reasonable to think that, at least up to a certain point, there is value even in art that expresses a false narrative, a skewed moral viewpoint, or an improper ideal.

I think a nice analogy can be made with philosophy. On the one hand, I think that Nietzsche is entirely wrong, that his arguments fail, and that we should produce arguments to counter his viewpoint. On the other hand, clearly in some sense Nietzsche is a genius, and it would be a shame never to read him or interact with his thought. Life would certainly be far less interesting anyway.

I tend to attribute this value in Nietzsche's work to its cultural significance and influence, its excellent technical execution, and even to some extent the power of the arguments (arguments can be powerful in a way even if, ultimately, they fail). There may be other factors involved too. In short, there can be much value in a piece by Nietzsche even if that value does not lie in its truth.

Now, if we think of works of art as analogous to arguments or maybe philosophical pieces (and their authors as being like philosophers, their movements as being like philosophical "isms", and so on), then it begins to make sense how one can appreciate even art that one "disagrees" with. It is quite easy to recognize in a piece of art its cultural significance, its technical brilliance, and even the "force" of its "argument", even when one "disagrees" with it or considers it ultimately to be a (philosophical) failure.

This eases a certain tension in my soul: I find certain forms of modern art to be fascinating; however, I know that the "point" they are trying to make is often entirely wrong, and that it ought to be "counteracted" by art that is both sufficiently modern yet does not express nihilistic, relativistic, or hedonistic passions.

But separating the "message" of a piece of art from the other components of its value makes both of these sentiments to be entirely reasonable and consistent. If we can make the distinction between a work's message and its value in philosophy, then it seems we can make it in art too.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pragmatics at Home

Here's an interesting case of implicatures I noticed the other day when discussing what movie to watch with my wife. (>> means "pragmatically implies" and *>> means "does not pragmatically imply")

Case One:
W: Do you want X?
H: Only if you want it.
>> I don't want it.
*>> I do want it.

Case Two:
W: Do you want X?
H: Not if you don't.
>> I do want it.
*>> I don't want it.

What is strange about this case is that, presumably, the husband H's responses in both cases are logically equivalent to each either; assuming I'm parsing them right, they both say "I want X only if you want X" or, equivalently, "I do not want X if you do not want X." (***See bottom of page for an explanation, if this isn't clear.)

But the response in Case One (at least sometimes) implies something different than the response in Case Two.  (I say 'at least sometimes', because, as with many implicatures, it may depend somewhat on the sonic properties of one's utterance too -- i.e., the way one pronounces the words.) But this seems to imply that the implicature is "detachable" in Grice's sense (see the bottom of p.57 and ff., here).

However, according to classical Gricean pragmatics, conversational implicatures are non-detachable; hence, if these were conversational implicatures, they would both imply the same things (which they don't). So it seems that they must be conventional implicatures. (See here on that distinction.) That's sort of weird though, because conventional implicatures are usually associated with syncategorematic expressions that do not contribute any additional truth-conditional meaning to the sentence (for instance, "however," "but," "even though," "nevertheless," etc.).

Also, these implicatures seem to be more like conversational implicatures than conventional ones, since they do seem to sort of follow from something like Grice's Maxim of Manner (or, better, Levinson's M-Principle); i.e., saying something in an equivalent but roundabout way implies a non-standard meaning. For depending on whether one uses the double negation form or not you get a different implicature. However, it doesn't *quite* fit this rule I think, because it doesn't seem like either of the response from Case One or Case Two is more "roundabout" than the other; in other words, the responses in both cases seem to be symmetric as far as the "oddness" of their phrasing goes.

Anyway, kind of an interesting case. FYI, in the actual situation, I *did* want it, but I didn't want it if she didn't. : - )

***
To see the equivalence, note that all of the following are equivalent:

  • I want it only if you want it.
  • I only want it if you want it.

(These are clearly equivalent. For consider the following:
x goes to the store only if x is hungry.
x only goes to the store if x is hungry.)

  • If you do not want it, I do not want it.
  • I do not want it if you don't want it.