Thursday, July 06, 2006

TV and Logic

This comes from Chapter 3, "Informal Fallacies," of Hurley's A Concise Introduction to Logic, 9th ed. Jeremy Green sent this to me.

Probably the single most important requirement for detecting fallacies in ordinary language is alertness. The reader or listener must pay close attention to what the arguer is saying. What is the conclusion? What are the reasons given in support of the conclusion? Are the reasons relevant to the conclusion? Do the reasons support the conclusion? If the reader or listener is half asleep, or lounging in that passive, drugged-out state that attends much television viewing, then none of these questions will receive answers. Under those circumstances the reader or listener will never be able to detect informal fallacies, and he or she will accept the worst reasoning without the slightest hesitation.

34 comments:

Susan said...

While I'm not the most facile human being when it comes to detecting fallacies, I have noticed on the other side of this a greatly impaired (if it should be called that) ability to follow the scenes in movies. Without TV at home and with few visits to the movie theater per year I am quite inexperiences in the "logic" of the screen. I noticed it most recently when in Church History class, Dr. Wenig had us watch a movie. It was extrememly hard for me to follow, and I became distracted after only a few minutes. The story was good, and I wanted to know about the main characters, but I found myself unablt to "put together" the meaning of the scenes as the camera jumped from one thing to another and dialogue stopped and started again. True, it was not a "quality" production by today's Hollywood standards so perhaps the writing was simply poor, but somehow I dont think that was quite it. There is something that happens to the brain when it is trained over a long period of time to process and interpret the meaning of "scenes" as opposed to "sentences." One develops an impatience for one or the other, depending on what one is used to, I suppose.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Susan,

That is an incredible point! How fascinating!

There certainly seems to be a "logic" to television/movies that is all its own. It is the symbols and the images.

Perhaps there is also a "logic" that belongs only to poetry. A "logic" that works off of the aesthetic response to the text amongst other things...

And perhaps when it comes to John Coltrane there is also a "logic" that belongs only to that sphere...

john alan turner said...

So, televised Presidential debates are a great exercise in futility!

Douglas Groothuis said...

Sue:

"There is something that happens to the brain when it is trained over a long period of time to process and interpret the meaning of "scenes" as opposed to "sentences." One develops an impatience for one or the other, depending on what one is used to, I suppose. "

I experience the same thing. I noted it when I saw "Chronicles of Narnia" last year. Scenes tend to change much, much more quickly than they did in movies a few decades ago. Call it ritualized impatience.

Douglas Groothuis said...

"So, televised Presidential debates are a great exercise in futility!"

Not sure what was meant by this, but they largely are futile. Giving a candidate two minutes to respond to a serious policy matter is abuse, idiotic, and unravels the American psyche. You see, it is TV. Read Neil Postman on how TV has altered politics. See "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

john alan turner said...

I meant it humorously, but I realize that it was also true. I've read Postman, and I agree with him on this front. All you have to do is look at the early debates between Nixon and JFK.

A soundbyte culture does not encourage depth of thought.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Doug,

Are you saying that the ability to process sentences on a page or scenes on a screen are mutually exclusive?

I have found it is a simple matter of exposure. I don't think my exposure to the screen has made me impatient with the page.

I wonder what would happen if you cranked up your exposure to the screen??? I think that if you exposed yourself to more of the screen you would not find yourself impatient with the sentence - That's my prediction!

Douglas Groothuis said...

"I think that if you exposed yourself to more of the screen you would not find yourself impatient with the sentence - That's my prediction!"

That's one reason I won't do it.

Susan said...

Johnathan,
Its not just that images are processed differently by the brain...it's that visual communications today are often produced in such a way as to condition the viewer to make inferrential connections between sequences of images which have no approximation in "real life." This conditioning can have alarming results when it is put upon a child. My daughter, who teaches Sunday school, recently told me of a child in her grade-school age class who was "pretending" to shoot one of the other children. It happened that this other child had picked a scab off her arm and it began bleeding (sorry readers, but bear with me)...the child who was pretending was convinced he had really shot the girl, and that was why she was bleeding. The child would not listen to my daughter's explanation, and was extremely upset. Clearly this child has had some serious disruptions in his ability to make cause-and-effect connections in the world of reality, and no doubt he's seen:

Gun shot :(cut to)
Bleeding person.

Logic in the cinema does not translate to logic in "real life."

Ted Gossard said...

We would do better if we were a reading people and society rather than a viewing one, to be sure.

I saw an ABC 20/20 (by nature having its own limitations to be sure, but I thought well done), in which the popular so called "shout TV" as seen on Fox News has been shown, in testing to carry popular, entertainment appeal to viewers, but minimal understanding.

Even serious TV discussions with civil conversations, while perhaps helpful to a point, are a canyon leap away from really entering into and engaging with the issues at hand. In fact some of that knowledge (as I get every week, in watching my tapings of "Meet the Press", and "This Week with George Stephanopoulos") can be a case where one knows enough to be dangerous. Not really knowing enough to have adequate information. Though I still find those programs a much bigger improvement over the political ads and noise of much of TV and talk radio...........

Douglas Groothuis said...

"Serious TV" is a misnomer, as Postman points out.

BJ the Tornado said...

First off, as several of you readers of this blog know, I am a passionate Postman guy and I agree with the main line of thinking here: reading is much better at conveying complex propisitional knowledge than visual images, etc., etc. Amen.

But, Susan and Dr. Truth, I'm not sure about your supposed difficulty in following movies because they quickly from one scene to another. Don't great pieces of literature do this? I know we've mentioned it on this blog before, but how about Faulkner's Sound and the Fury? Or anything by James Joyce? Or, actually come to think of it, many many novels do this. They cut from one person's thoughts to action occuring or to some memory or an aside by the author and so forth. Dostoevsky does this on occasion.

My point: the quick cuting from one scene to a next I don't think is limited to movies or televesion -- the written word can (and does) do it too. And yet, I am betting, neither of you would have trouble following the flow in those novels. Now, Postman (and you two, I'm sure) would (rightly) point out here that one of the main differences between a novel and a movie is that the reader is in control of the flow of info in the book (i.e. the reader can go back, re-read a line, or 6, or take the page slowly or as fast as they like, etc.). That may be true, but with the advent of Tivo it seems a viewer can now have similiar control.

I guess I am just trying to be a voice of balance here. SURE, our culture watches WAY, WAY too much TV. YES, the power of the written word has been usurped and bastardized by the dominance of streaming images -- a media which inherent to its very FORM is much less capable of conveying propositional knowledge. And that is a very bad thing that we should fight against. AMEN. But there certainly can be good things brought about via the medium of streaming images. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Watching an occasional television show or movie is not neccessarily a bad thing. Film (for example) can powerfully convey a certain message or theme through its art that just can't be delivered in the same way a written work can (and, yes, of course vice versa). When I hear that you two actually have difficulty following the plot line in a film or TV show I worry -- that is a fairly basic ability to be lacking. Anyone of reasonable intelligence and attention span should have no trouble following the quickly flowing scenes of a movie or TV show. Wouldn't it be best if we were people who lived in balance on this point -- reading a lot more, watching a lot less TV/Movies -- but, yes, watching (and enjoying and appreciating) SOME ammounts of the streaming images medium? (And for that matter, being people who are capable of appreciating and exposing ourselves to quality expressions of all forms of mediums: sculpture, paintings, music, dance, etc, etc, etc?). It seems in your fight against streaming images you have thrown yourselves out of balance to the point of not even being able to follow a film. Lacking such a basic capability doesn't seem like a good thing to me.

Douglas Groothuis said...

TornaTo:

One reason I don't watch many films anymore is content, not form. Most are ultra violent and/or pornographic--not to mention mindless. Becca and I used to go to the movies 2-4 times a month the first ten years we were married. But things have radically changed for the worse.

Rebecca watches old, classic films that she tapes off of cable, and is an astute critic of them. I occasionally join her.

TiVo control is not the same as reading a book at your own pace. You can reread a sentence, paragraph, page or chapter. But rewatching involves an entirely different sensibility. It seems odd to do it,given the nature of the medium (*moving* images); whereas rereading things is not odd; it is normal.

Finally, who wants to be balanced? I'd rather be extremely right.

gimmepascal said...

While I think we should have a balanced view on this issue (as B.J. said, much of streaming images media can be enlightening, reasonable, and beneficial), the problem I see in the future has to do with people developing a pattern of thought that fits the medium of TV and film BEFORE they ever learn the habit (discipline?) of careful reading. Children who begin as early as their first year of life watching television and videos might never develop the skills (or desire) necessary for careful reading of texts.

Here in Uganda this problem is eveident as well. In the same way that most of Uganda skipped the technological advancement of telephone land lines and went straight to cell phones (even the poorest here have cell phones), they have endured decades of limited access to books only to find that now it is much easier, with digital technology, to process information via TV and film.

So here is an example of a predominantly oral culture now slowly becoming visual culture (it is hard to describe the mesmerized look upon the faces of Ugandans when they view TV for the first time). While access to books is limited, it is quite easy for even the most impoverished to walk into a bar or open-air pavillion which is broadcasting Cable TV 24 hours a day, and sit for hours on end staring at the screen. Even the newspapers print articles about the problems that have arisen since television has taken the country by storm. The current literacy rate in Uganda is already low, and now many here predict that it will only drop as TV becomes more popular and accessible.

So the biggest problem I see is that people are becoming hooked on streaming images media prior to developing the skills necessary for intelligent reading of texts. And it is much more difficult to develope careful reading habits AFTER becoming hooked to TV and film, than to switch over to streaming images media when one has alreday establised healthy reading habits.

On a lighter note, in Uganda this obsession with TV has benefited me indirectly, because whenever the World Cup is playing on TV, the whole country miraculously has access to electricity. Just imagine, the Dark Continent flickering brightly with the ghoulish glow of millions of TV screens!

And when the game is over: Poof! My little village is lost again to the immense darkness.

nancy said...

BJ & Jedd,

I part I have to side with Susan and Dr. G on this one. I made it through the entire month of June and then some with no TV watching (minus one hour that I sort of watched a show my husband was engrossed in). Then last week I watched one of my favorite programs and it was very difficult for me to follow the dialog. The movement of the carmara and the fleeting images were very distracting, inhibiting concentration. Then yesterday I sat in a home theatre system at a store and watched a few minutes of iRobot which I liked when I preciously watched the movie. I was nearly sick due to the disorienting nature of the filming. Last night I watched a program with greater ease since its focus is more on dialogue and less on cinematic creativity.

But is does make me wonder what the moving image, especially with the jarring camara movements one would expect on MTV, does to the mind. I haven't read Postman yet - the queue is rather long. But point me in the direction of any other good studies on this topic.

Andrew said...

Dr. Groothuis,
I'm glad that Rebecca does watch some of the old classics and maybe you do too, they are still being made, just a bit harder to find. One has to be as discerning a moviegoer as book reader.

Nancy,
Thanks for posting a query. Here is a basic list of seminal film theory texts, that may offer some insight at least obliquely.

Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art
Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?
Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed
Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense
Bruce Kawin, Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film
Siegfried Kracauer Theory of Film
Laura Mulvey "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema"
Walter Murch In the Blink of an Eye or his conversations with Michael Ondaatje

Some may not past the muster of this blog's audience.

Most recently, and I haven't read it yet, is Colin McGinn's The Power of Movies: How Mind and Screen interact. It looks interesting at the very least.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Nancy:

Elull's "The Humiliation of the Word" is a must, although hard to find. Susan A. recently read it, so check in with her. Another deeply insightful book is "Guttenberg Elegies" by Sven Birkerts, an early warning of how cyberspace kills literary sensibilities. Marshall McLuhan, while not a moralist such as myself, is really the father of us all in this. See "Understanding Media."

I can tell you have been watching videos: you made several uncharacteristic typos in the post!
I manage to do so, of course, without watching any!

DRG

Andrew said...

I would suggest also, that one might not exclusively read texts that are not condemning the medium.

Susan said...

Tornado:

There are a couple of things here I wish to clarify:

1) I do not hate film or the use images - I believe film is an art form and an effective one when executed well - well being the operative word. There is a "logic" to the progression of visual images and when done well, it can be very powerful.

2) The fact that I have trouble following the "logic" of a movie has to do with two (main) things
(a) I am not accustomed to the form - my brain has settled into the grooves required for reading, these days, some by necessity and some by choice.
(b) Television, in particular but movies in many cases as well, (perhaps an accentuated perception in my case due to (a) ) trades on the unexamined assumptions we make about visual stimuli and, in my opinion, unnecessarily exploit those assumptions. The trouble I have following TV and Movie sequences has much to do with my resistance to being "led along" without an opportunity to examine what is happening. There simply is no time to process between "cuts" and I fall behind very quickly. VCR's or DVD's do not help much, but they do allow for stopping the action - - but I wager most people use TiVo to alter the time of viewing, not to stop, ponder, and start again. When reading a book, one's imagination is not driven by the words on the page, and in many ways not even confined to the words but able to wander off into other, related thoughts... with full ability to control the pace.

Nancy,
I'd be glad to loan you Ellul's book - and would love to discuss it! I have a couple of his books and they are very good. His insights are profound.

Andrew said...

Susan,

Well put. Your comments in 2b are reflective of the depravity of current programming and practices. these are not reasons to condemn the medium as a whole, as many are wont to do, no that you are.

You might look to (I'll restrict this to more recent films) Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov, Zia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Mohsen Makmalbafh, and Abbas Kiarastomi (to name a few) as paramounts of shots that encourage or even require contemplation. These are all fairly mainstream as things go.

This is an unsolicited list of recommendation, but maybe others will get to see some cinema worth seeing.

Susan said...

Andrew,
I appreciate these lists -very helpful and I know you are thoughtful about the topic of film. Not to move Dr. Groothuis' post in a different direction too much, but I'd be interested to know your philosophy of film. (You are welcome to comment over at my blog under the Word post, where it would be applicable) I believe there is a way to present the sequences of images so that the film is experienced in much the same way one experiences a novel or great work of literature - where the composition lifts you up into the rich "stuff" of human life and causes you to later, after viewing the film, contemplate it deeply and morally. What elements, would you say, allow this to happen (if you agree with what I'm suggesting here, that is - I dont mean to presume)and what hinders this ?

Andrew said...

Susan,

Thanks for the invite, but at the risk of going on a bit too much, I've posted as guest at Becky's blog (I've known Becky for years). Anyone is welcome, she is at:
http://flipthepig.wordpress.com

BJ the Tornado said...

Dr. Truth and Susan:

Thanks for the replies. Dr. T, I suppose you are right in that we need to be rather loud against the maintstream right now if we are to be heard at all. And if that requires us to be a bit radical one direction to wake up the masses clinging to the other side -- then so be it, I suppose. Jedd's frightening tale of TV's powerful force for illiteracy in Uganda only underscores this point.

Susan, thanks for the clarifications on the sources of your difficulty following film. It is reassuring to hear from both you and Dr. T that you are fans of the art of film and that the medium is not *neccessarily* a bad thing (even if it IS highly prone to falling down less than preferable paths).

I think we are mostly in agreement in spirit, and we may just be different in how we live out that spirit. I DO watch SOME TV and enjoy lots of films. I watch TV (and film) HIGHLY critically and carefully, however. My wife and I heavily scruntinize the (implicit and explicit) messages sent via TV, as well as heavily scrutinize our own TV watching to ensure we do not watch too much or fall into routines of mindless "blah watching" (as we call it). These are things, sadly, that most Americans do not do.

Through being moderately engaged with the medium (or maybe just *slightly* engaged, compared to the average American), my wife and I have found that we can discuss things and connect with many friends and acquaintences with whom we would seem rather alien if we instead said, "oh we never watch TV." Call it a "when in Rome" attempt if you will, but, believe it or not, we often have highly fruitful conversations with folks precisely ABOUT the very damaging effects of TV that Dr. T so often laments with those who watch it constantly. We are able to do this because (at least on some level) we can connect with them initially in some conversation regarding a shared peice of the medium. It's weird (and sad, to say the least) but in many ways TV has become the common cultural thread that runs through much of this decayed society we are in.

Ok... enough. Again, I think we agree. I call myself a Postman-ite for crying out loud -- I just live out my convictions on the matter a bit differently.

One final note: Susan, you wrote: "When reading a book, one's imagination is not driven by the words on the page, ... [the reader has] full ability to control the pace."

To this I can only say that you must not have ever read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.... Fyodor, not me the meek reader of his brilliance, was in complete control. His words controled the pace entirely and drove me to turn page after page -- I could not stop!

Susan said...

Tornado,
I know what you mean, but still; reading allows for much more latitude in the way information is experienced and internalized (or not). As Ellul writes, "In reality, language is an extraordinary occurrence in which each person's liberty is respected...By its very ambiguity, which is the fundamental and essential part of it, language leaves the listener with a whole margin of freedom."

...and egads man, where do you find the time to read Dostoevsky? He's out on video dontcha know ; )

Andrew said...

I wonder BJ, if you were aware of the logical construction of Crime and Punishment as you were reading it?

Douglas Groothuis said...

I have nothing against serious cinema, and put it in a different category from TV and most all contemporary, popular movies.

In my younger days, I went to many films and used to illustrate worldviews by citing things in films (not video clips; these are prehistoric times). I seldom do that now.

One of the most thoughtful and moving films I've seen is "Babette's Feast," a Danish film with subtitles from two decades ago. I have a brief review of it on Amazon. There is no "action," and no sex. It is all dialogue and character development.

Andrew said...

Or, I should re-phrase. Is the reader of Dostoevksy or even the avid reader of Harlequin romance expected to be alert to logical constructions as Hurley, and many posters seem to imply? Does any reading suffice? Is this about TV or attention?

BJ the Tornado said...

Susan, nice touch. ;)
I (of course) meant my Crime and Punishment comment as somewhat humorous, but I have tried to refuse to put such things as :)'s and ;)'s and so forth in internet/email postings of late (I was tempted to after my "I could not stop" line)... unfortunately when I don't do so it can be difficult for the reader to interpret a line meant jokingly. NO DOUBT: a reader of any written work holds more control over the medium than any other form I can possibly think of... yes, even over Dostoevsky.

And, wow, no I had no idea Crime and Punishment was a film now. Is it any good? Has anyone seen it? I honestly can't even imagine how on earth they would translate the novel to a film. So much of the book (a vast majority of it) is just Raskolnikov's mind thinking about stuff. Maybe lots of narration...? Who knows?

Dr. T, I've never seen the film. But I just moved it to the top of my Netflix queue thanks to your recommendation.

And Andrew, your question: "was I aware of the logical construction while I read it?" Of course! It was written prose laid out in basic propisitional sentences. The logic of it is very clear -- which helps make it so powerful. Dostoevsky is sending a powerful message (and even more powerfully in The Brothers Karamazov), namely that without God there is no foundation for morality as we know it. Of course he says this in perhaps the most artful, elegant, and yet vividly (shockingly, even) powerful way imaginable. (at least to my mind.. but, hey, I'm a big fan). But notice that it IS a proposition he conveys. And he conveys it through a book full of sentences which are tokens of propositions. I guess I'm not sure what your after in your question... help me out here. Yes, I was aware of the logical construction in some sense, but, no, it's not like I was diagraming sentences into symbolic logic or something.... what are you after?

Andrew said...

B Jay, I'm mostly interested in understanding if a fictional construction can hold propositional content of the sort you and Dr. Groothuis speak of. If it can, and if I understand you properly, where is it? Is it implied? Do you sense it and others don't? What makes a proposition? Can you outline or point to the moments in which Doestoevsky makes his case? Is it Doestoevsky or a character?

I suppose I have more questions than arguments here, but it is difficult to understand how a fictional construct can hold propositional content.

BJ the Tornado said...

Wow,
fascinating topic Andrew. "How can a fictional construct hold propositional content?"

I'll assume what you mean (even more accurately) is "How can a fictional construct hold VERIDICAL propositional content?
(correct? -- for clearly a fictional construct holds propositional content, but that content is just not veridical. Example: "Raskolnikov walked down mulberry lane." No, he didn't, because he doesn't really (or actually) exist. But it is a proposition that is expressed, just not a true one. Or, that is to say, that proposition IS true in the world Raskolnikov lives in but not true in the actual world (our world, or the real world, etc.)).

Assuming that, then I think the answer is something like this.
The fictional propositions presented in a novel can correlate to true propositions about the actual world. Thus, it is on the reader to make those correlations and expand the propositional content of the fiction to the real world. For example, let's say a novel discusses a big yellow house that resides in a town called Fleeville. Inside that house there are a couple people named james and dude. They are discussing the meaning of life when James suddenly says, "Dude, your materialist worldview is running on borrowed capitol for the ethical positions you wish to hold."

Now, in this overly simplified model, several propositions were just given. A proposition about a house and about its being yellow and residing in Fleeville. Propositions about the existence, actions, words, thoughts, feelings and so forth of people named James and dude. And so on.

So, should the reader take those propositions regarding the existence of the yellow house in Fleeville, for example, to be veridical? No, of course not. But should the reader take the proposition expressed by the fictional character James to the fictional character dude as (perhaps) a propositional statement that is not ONLY ture (let's say) in the fictional world of the novel but also (perhaps) true in the ACTUAL world? Maybe they should.

In this way, it is actually the AUTHOR who expresses propositional truths regarding our world to us. The fictional characters, or events, or stories, etc. in a novel only express propositions regarding the "world" the novel "exists" in. Yet, assuming the novel's world is similair enough to ours in enough appropriate ways, those same propositions while not perhaps DIRECTLY veridical in our world can carry a more generalized propositional value that IS veridical in our world. Hence, the sentence above "dude... hold." is not directly veridical in our world (for starters because dude doesn't exist in our world -- so "his worldview" isn't borrowing any capitol, and so forth). But if the author is trying to make the case that the proposition expressed by that sentence IS veridical in that world of the novel, then the author (may) be attempting to tell the reader that a more generalized proposition adapted for truth value in our world, mutatis mutandis, IS veridical in our world. (i.e. "dude...hold" may not be directly veridical in the actual world, but the basic proposition that "materialism can not sustain an ethical system founded on Christian virtue" may be).

(And sorry, I'm trying to not get too modal logicky sounding here, nor am I trying to be a Lewisonian Modal Realist!).

As complicated as this all sounds, as we read (or hear, or watch, for that matter) any story we very naturally do this -- and we do it from a very young age.

When a little kid hears a story about a fairy being nice to a poor servant girl, the little kid understands that the propositions directly pertaining to the fairy are only true in the world of the story, but some of the propositions expressed therein (such as, "it is good to be nice to people") do in fact "translate" into truth in this actual world as well.

Is this what you are after? BTW, discussions regarding truth-carriers in possible worlds and how those propositions can transfer or carry across possible worlds is a topic I love! It's fascinating stuff. But... is that (at all) what you are after?

Andrew said...

B. Jay, you seem to be saying that the propositional content of a character's assertions can be taken as the author's. These may be applied to our world, since they stem from it or may hold to it.

Is this an appropriate way of doing philosophy or reading it? Which character is Dostoevsky's voice? How can we be certain? If the work is fiction, why assume a structure of argument when the author could have written it in a philosophical way rather than a literary way?

If philosophy can be done through literary means, through reader's inference as in your example of the children's story, what limits are there? Is it then wholly dependent on the reader?

(I'm setting aside your deviations into "possible worlds" and modal logic unless you would care to explain their appropriateness)

nancy said...

BJ - I'm enjoying your conversation with Andrew. With regards to truth carriers in possible worlds, I often tell my daughter "Big Blue Dog and Little Princess Stories." She clearly grasps, at the ripe old age of 3, that the dog and the princess and the little kingdom do not exist. Yet the moral story or propositional content, that is usually related to daily mischievousness, has a greater impact then merely recounting the day with her. It is clearly my intent to express "propositional truth about our world" to my daughter in these little missives.

John - clearly, I am not whining about jarring images. In fact I rather liked this creative cinematic expression when I watched the movie "Traffic" during my more proliferate TV watching days. And the show which distracted me is a favorite that I will resume watching in the fall. My point dealt not with pooh-poohing pop culture (after all I am a suburban dwelling, mini-van driving, Whole Foods shopping Mom, married to a SUV driving, hockey loving, golf playing Denver Bronco fan), but having experienced the sensation of not being able to easily follow the dialog after the temporary TV hiatus, I am simply curious about the long term effects of watching programs with the MTV-like filming qualities.

BJ the Tornado said...

Andy,
You write: "you seem to be saying that the propositional content of a character's assertions can be taken as the author's." Well, no not neccessarily, although that could SOMETIMES be the case. In many works of fiction perhaps the author actually has his characters present propositional claims exactly contrary to what his propositional claim point is for the novel. Or perhaps the author's propositional content is NEVER directly stated by any character but only implied through the story's events or actions or even themes, etc., etc.


So when you ask "Which character is Dostoevsky's voice?" -- that's the wrong approach. Perhaps there is a character that represents the author's voice in a certain work, but often not. It's not that simple or direct. Reading a piece of fiction and hearing the author's voice REQUIRES an interprative step. BUT THAT's OK. YES, we have to interpret and figure out how to translate the novel into the propositional content the author is claiming about life, the world, God, etc. But there is still correct and incorrect interpretations. The reader cannot just interpret some work to have the author claiming anything the reader wants her to (well, a reader CAN do that -- but that would be an INCORRECT interpretation).

We have to interpret what proposition is being expressed all the time. This isn't localized to fiction, it's just more difficult there and takes more work. You ask how can we be certain? Well we can't have the same level of certainty that we are understanding the propositional claims the author is making through their work as we can have when someone directly gives us an argument (perhaps). But we CAN have a fairly high level of certainty. There are only so many even POSSIBLY correct options for an interpretation of the authorial intent for a piece of literature. For example, if someone reads How To Kill A Mockingbird and then takes from it that Harper Lee is making a propositional claim that racism is a good thing... well, they simply have an incorrect interpretation of what the author is trying to claim.

You seem concerned about what "limits there are" to the inferences the reader can draw and you worry that it is "wholly on the reader". These fears are unfounded. Again, the range of options for a correct interpretation of an author's claims is quite small for any competent language user. It is the author conveying the propositional content they want and it is not wide open for the reader. BUt, YES, there is a requirement on the reader to _correctly_ interpret the propositional claims being made by the author through the work. But, again, (and thank you Nancy for pointing out the example with your child) we actually do this very naturally and easily. AND, moreover, we have to do this in all kinds of contexts (not just reading fiction). For example, if someone comes up to me and makes some direct claims about their thoughts on God -- I have to interpret what propositional claims they are making (at least on some level -- even if they are very clear). So I'd maybe say in response, "OK, I think you are claiming this... or this". And so forth. I would be trying to interpret what propositional claims they are making. Of course in that case it is easy to know if I have accurately or correctly interpreted what claim they are trying to make because I can just ask them. Sure, we can't do that with the author of a novel. I can't ask Dostoevsky, "Hey, in Brothers Karamazov were you trying to say this...".

BUT, we can have a high level of certainty for MANY authors and works (but certainly not all -- many authors are highly cryptic; and there are others who simply aren't trying to say much at all (I've always felt F. Scott Fitzgerald was an author like this)).

I remember a great English prof I had in my undergrad days who discussed this very point quite well. We were analyzing poetry and one student got frustrated saying, "This is ridiculous, we can come up with whatever we want and try to claim the author meant this or that." The professor immeadiatly shot that down making the point that the author only gives us SO many options to work with to try to figure out what she was claiming. He used the analogy of building a house. And poetry (or a novel) gives us a bunch of building materials that we then can reconstruct to see what the author was claiming. Sure, there may be different ways of putting together the various logs -- but only SO many ways. If the author gives us a pile of wood and concrete, we can't feasibly claim that we was trying to build a canvas tent. We have to faithfully use the materials an author gives us to accurately intepret their propositional content.


I see that I am rambling a bit. My point is simple: through works of fiction great author's can (and do) make powerful (and sometimes veridical) propositional claims. Sure, it is on the reader to "mine" out what those claims are and evaluate them. But that's not a huge deal -- we have to constantly interpret what propositional claims someone is making whether through fiction (which is indirect) or direct conversation.

An example of a philosopher who makes propositional claims through literature is Albert Camus. We have to read The Plague and figure out what propositional claims Camus is making. Then we can interact with those claims (see if they are valid, or true, etc., etc) just like we can with any "directly" made propositional claims.


(thanks for the interaction, BTW, this is a fun topic).

Andrew said...

I see that I am rambling a bit. My point is simple: through works of fiction great author's can (and do) make powerful (and sometimes veridical) propositional claims. Sure, it is on the reader to "mine" out what those claims are and evaluate them. But that's not a huge deal -- we have to constantly interpret what propositional claims someone is making whether through fiction (which is indirect) or direct conversation.

An example of a philosopher who makes propositional claims through literature is Albert Camus. We have to read The Plague and figure out what propositional claims Camus is making. Then we can interact with those claims (see if they are valid, or true, etc., etc) just like we can with any "directly" made propositional claims.


Actually, it is a big deal. As you state earlier, the issue of correctness is not as simple in Doestoevsky as it is in Nancy's example. Your professor had it right in that the author provides materials, but the house is already built, there is no need for re-construction. The metaphor breaks down a bit.

I would suggest that the propositional claims that the reader infers are more about the reader than the author. E.D. Hirsch in his "Defense of the Author" urges caution: "meaning is an affair of consciousness and not of physical signs or things. Consciousness is, in turn, an affair of persons, and in textual interpretation the persons involved are an author and a reader. The meanings that are actualized by the reader are either shared with the author or belong to the reader alone." In such interpretive situations would it not be prudent for the philosopher to remove, as best she can, the role the reader's interpretive faculties play? Is then the novel a thing of an alogether separate function than strict philosophical construction?

To return to the original post, it may be that the stupor Hurley describes be a result of absorption of one's attention to things other than informal fallacies, like a compelling story or the allure of a televsion personalities looks.

The forward momentum of Crime and Punishment may well obscure the rational content of the text such that the reader becomes certain of a meaning that is based on their actualization of the text's meaning, which is a product, at least, of their worldview. It may coincide with Doestoevsky or not.