From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (22)—It's Not You; It's Me

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
[a] Breakup  RF
 Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
Social life has no shortage of conflicts, which makes it a wonder that there are so many "functionalist" arguments about how things hold together out there. We spend a good deal of our time—in politics, personal relationships, and beyond—fighting or breaking up. Sometimes we are pitted "structurally" against others (Democrat and Republican, Alabama and Auburn, Frazier and Ali). Other times, we are just trying to find our way through the morass of behavior and emotion we call life. And although we didn't hear it much in the debt-ceiling "debates" a while back (or on the football field), in the rest of life the refrain "it's not you; it's me" remains pretty popular.

It's Not You  0:45

The breakup, as should be apparent, is not uppermost on George's mind. The manner of the breakup is a very large point of contention, though. How often do we think about the way(s) in which people behave, and their precise (often cliché) words instead of the result of the action?

Well, much of the time, really.
[b] Losing  RF
The "how" of the breakup (or firing or sending a meal back to the kitchen or asking for a fresh pot of coffee) has become very important in the lives we have carved out for ourselves and our developing brains over the past few thousand years. I laugh (inwardly, politely) when I hear people express themselves as "bottom line" types who don't care at all about niceties and decorum, but only about "results." Anyone who has read the newspaper for a week knows that this is nonsense. Everyone from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to a basketball team that humiliated an opponent tends to have at least glimmers of second thoughts about "manner" or "procedure."

The situation ("I want results" versus "I want to do it the right way") is basically impossible. I like to pit two sporting legends against each other in this one. The first is an often-quoted segment of a poem by the sportswriter Grantland Rice. The latter was made popular by the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi. A cultural system (football, "America") that easily embraces both of them has to have serious problems. Right?

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,

He marks—not that you won or lost—

But how you played the Game.
                                 —Grantland Rice (from "Alumnus Football")

Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.
                                 —Vince Lombardi
Hmmm. George seems to imply that he'll get over the breakup, but that it won't be anytime soon before he can forget the manner in which it was done. He lost, but what bothers him is that "she" didn't play the "game" right (in this case, she didn't play it the way he wanted). It's hard to think of George Costanza and Grantland Rice in the same way, though. What's going on here? Well, it's messy, like most of culture. I have chosen three very diverse readings to accompany the Seinfeld clip this week. All of them deal in one way or another with the relationship between "results," "manner," "words," and "meaning." If you think about these readings for a while, you will see just how perceptive the writers of Seinfeld really are. This little tidbit of Georgian irritation can be the beginning of a deep study of how we say what we mean and mean what we say.

Except when we don't.

[c] Saying
Stanley Cavell
Must We Mean What We Say?

Imagine that I am sitting in my countinghouse counting up my money. Someone who knows that I do that at this hour every day passes by and says, "you ought to do that." What should we say about his statement? That he does not what "ought" means (what the dictionary says)? That he does not know how to use the word? That he does not know what obligation is? Applying the formula, we compute: "He wouldn't say that unless he asks himself whenever he sees anyone doing anything, 'Ought that person to be doing that or ought he not?'" This may indeed account for his otherwise puzzling remark; but it does so by telling us something we do not know about him; it tells us nothing whatever we did not know about the words he used. Here it is because we know the meaning and use of "ought" that we are forced to account in the way [Oxford Professor Benson] Mates suggests for its extraordinary occurrence. I take Mates' formula, then, to be expandable into: "Since I understand the meaning and use of his expression, he wouldn't say that unless he...". Perhaps Mates would consider this a distortion and take a different expansion to be appropriate: "He wouldn't say this unless he was using his words in a special way." But now "say that" has a very different force. The expanded form now means, "I know what this expression would ordinarily be used to say, but he can't wish to say that: I don't understand what he is saying." In neither of its expansions, then, does the formula through any light on the way an expression is being used: in the one case we already know, in the other we have yet to learn...

Our alternatives seem to be these: Either (1) we deny that there is an rational (logical, grammatical) constraint over the pragmatic implications of what we say—or perhaps deny that there are any implications, on the ground that the relation in question is not deductive—so that unless what I say is flatly false or unless I explicitly contradict myself, it is pointless to suggest that what I way is wrong or that I muse mean something other than what I say; or else (2) we admit the constrain and say either (a) since all necessity is logical, the "pragmatic implications" of our utterance are (quasi-)logical implications; with our without adding (b) since the "pragmatic implications" cannot be construed in terms of deductive (or inductive) logic, there must be some "third sort" of logic; or we say (c) some necessity is not logical. None of these alternatives is without its obscurities but they are clear enough for us to see that Mates is taking alternative (1), whereas the philosopher who proceeds from ordinary language is likely to feel the need for some form of (2). Alternative (2a) brings out part of the reason behind the Oxford philosopher's insistence that he is talking logic, while (2b) makes explicit the reason other philosophers are perplexed at that claim.

[d] Meaning
The difference between alternatives (1) and (2) is fundamental; so fundamental, that it is very difficult to argue...What needs to be argued now is that something does follow from the fact that a term is used in its usual way; it entitles you (or, using the term, you entitle others) to make certain inferences, draw certain conclusions. (This is part of what you say when you say you are talking about the logic of ordinary language.) Learning what these implications are is part of learning the language; no less a part than learning its syntax or learning what it is to which terms apply: they are an essential part of what we communicate when we talk. Intimate understanding is understanding which is implicit. Nor could everything we say (mean to communicate), in normal communication, be said explicitly—otherwise the only threat to communication would be acoustical. We are, therefore, exactly as responsible for the specific implications of our utterances as we are for their explicit factual claims. And there can no more be some general procedure for securing that what one implies is appropriate than there can be for determining that what one says is true. Misnaming and misdescribing are not the only mistakes we make in talking. Nor is lying its only immorality...[1]

Paul Riesman
Intuition and Feeling

One evening, just after sunset, I found myself in front of the hut of one of our neighbors, a young widow in mourning who had lost her husband two months earlier. Three of her four children were eating nyiiri with milk around the bowl on the ground in front of the door. A gentle cow was chewing her cud near them, her solid silhouette like an instant of permanence. I do not know why I thought this, but something gave me the impression that the cow felt the loss of her master. I felt that the woman must be sad at this moment and then, with a shiver, I told myself that she was undoubtedly thinking of something else. After a silence, as if speaking only to herself, she said, “Adunaaru woodaa.” This phrase means, “The world is evil,” but at that moment I did not wish to feel that sadness and I heard her words as meaning, “People are evil. (Aduna woodaa).” But no, I protested, “it is good.” “Uh-uh,” she said, “woodaa Poolel (No, no, it is evil, little Paul).” Still not grasping her meaning, I said, “But why (Ko wadi, what makes it)?” “Alla wadi (God makes it),” she replied. I persisted, “No, I mean, what make you say that people are evil?” Sabu ko wari fuu heddataako (Because that everything that comes does not stay),” she answered.

Thus I was right to imagine that she was thinking of her husband! However I did not believe my own intuition. In retrospect, I think that in the beginning I misunderstood because, without being altogether aware of it, I was afraid of her sorrow; I did not want to feel the force of her pain myself. My imperfect mastery of the Fula language was only a pretext for not understanding. But it is a pretext which I used often, consciously or unconsciously, during my sojourn in the field. This sort of behavior on my part was methodologically useful, for it permitted me to have certainties instead of impressions. But why give more value to words spoken to me than to feelings which I sensed? Why believe the former are more trustworthy than the latter? Really, to feel in our consciousness the sadness of another is as valid as to hear him say, “I am sad,” if not more so. If the information is false, however, the first case obliges us to recognize that we have made a mistake ourselves, whereas the second fosters the belief—but it is an illusion—that our interlocutor alone is responsible for the error.

The problem is that in any case we need words to make other people understand our experience. Although it is most difficult to translate an emotion into words, it is relatively easy to report words heard and recorded. Thus scientific research gives primary importance to the word. In addition, the fact that I was in a foreign country canceled out the mechanisms of intuition insofar as I did not yet share the life of those I was studying. I needed continual verification to assure myself that I was on the same wavelength as our hosts. Even after taking account of these problems, however, it seems to me that there remains a fundamental difference between the emotional life I was used to and the life the Jelegobe live….[2]

Hilary Putnam
[e] Words
How Old is the Mind?
Kant was concerned with the following puzzle: when I describe a thought as an empirical psychologist might (Kant was thinking of Humean psychology, but the point he was making has not become outdated), I describe it as a sequence of representations—images or words with certain causes and certain effects. I may find out a great deal of value by doing this. But there is one that that I can never discover as long as I stick to this approach, namely, that I am dealing with something which has truth-value, freedom, and meaning, and not just causes and effects. That the central Kantian question.

Here is an example to illustrate what Kant had in mind. If I think, “There are cows in Rumania," what I have produced is a list or sequence of words—noises, or subvocalizations, or images in my mind, or whatever. If I utter (or think) not the sentence “There are cows in Rumania,” but the mere list of words There, are, cows, in, Rumania, I also produce a sequence of words—one with different causes and effects, to be sure. But the difference between judging that there are cows in Rumania and producing a mere list of noises seems to be something over and above a mere difference in the causes and effects in the two cases. The judgment is, in Kant’s terminology, an act of synthesis. And the problem about which, according to Kant, empirical psychology cannot tell us anything, is the problem of understanding synthesis.

I myself think that Kant was right, but his claim remains intensely controversial today. Ken Winkler has written of Berkeley that “like some other great philosophers” he “thought that philosophy would end with him; what made him great is not that he ended it, but that he made it even harder to avoid.” One of the “other great philosophers” Winkler had in mind must have been Kant. The problem Kant raised here has indeed proved hard to avoid....[3]

[1] Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 9-12.
[2] Paul Riesman, Freedom in Fulani Social Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 151-153.
[3] Hilary Putnam, Words and Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 11-12.


Cavell, Stanley. Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Putnam, Hilary. Words and Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Riesman, Paul. Freedom in Fulani Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Wednesday, August 31st
I Can't Be With Someone if I Don't Respect What (They) Do
Next week, Jerry gets dumped. It's all about him (basically "it's you, not me"), and we'll study the social and cultural implications of work, love, and respect on Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.

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