The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Don't argue with an integrationist! (the radical Roy Harris)

In his book The Linguistics of History the linguist Roy Harris says the following (this will be my last post on Harris' book):

It takes a philosopher (or a historian?) to decontextualize 'truth' and treat it as an entirely person-neutral relationship between a sentence and a 'state of affairs'.  For an integrationist, that already removes any possibility of understanding the complexity of an important network of beliefs (about what is 'true') that enter into human communication in all kinds of ways, some of which have very little in common. 

By this time methinks I hear a clamour arising from enraged objectors stamping on the floor and complaining that the integrationist offers no definition at all of the term context, no explanation of where a context begins or ends, no formal identification of its 'parameters', no account of how we know whether something belongs inside the context or outside.  Quite right.  Well objected.

Alas, the reply will not satisfy the objectors, and may even fuel their fury.  The reply is that contextualization is what you are doing right now as you fulminate against such an unsatisfactory response, and the context is the framework in which you do it.  Whatever the context may be, you know more about it than I do.  But I do know that you have to be engaging in contextualization of some kind if you are to make any sense at all of what you are reading.  Otherwise your rage is inexplicable; or at least - dare I say - irrational?

Stop there, for a moment.  Has the integrationist already (self-defeatingly, some may claim in triumph) reified 'context', 'truth', 'idea', 'sentence', etc.?  If he appears to have done so, it is for purposes of engaging in discussion with those who deny they are guilty of any such misdemeanour.  Guilty or not, it does not stop me from going on to say that whether a government spokesman tells the truth about he current economic situation is not on a par with whether you tell the truth about who you were with last night, or whether a geometer tells the truth when claiming that the area of the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares on the other two sides.  And anyone who cannot see the differences deserves all the theoretical confusions that ensure (222, 223).
From this I am confirmed in my conclusion that arguing with integrationists is hard work - perhaps impossible!  Still, I do, because I know one.  : )

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Linguist Roy Harris on history III: what should be expected of historians

Still am reading for duty right now more than pleasure….

Harris himself in his book, The Linguistics of History:

It is up to the historian to make clear at some point what kind of communicational authenticity the historia is presented as having in that particular case, which means explaining how its various components and materials are selected and integrated.  That is a considerable demand.  Historians are not accustomed to meeting it, because for generations they have coasted along on the built-up prestige that accrues to their discipline.  History is now prisoner to its own processes of historification. 

The demand I am voicing is not met by listing ‘sources’ in footnotes: that merely defers the accountability.  It requires the historian to come clean about, for example, what has been taken over unquestioned from earlier historians, what has been subjected to fresh research, what relationships have been reinterpreted through the perspective adopted, what has been ignored because deemed to be irrelevant, and what has been highlighted because it happens to have a bearing on contemporary concerns.  A historian may well protest that such a demand would require extensive expansions or annotations not just to every paragraph, but to every sentence, and perhaps to every other word.  So it might.  But if ‘truth’ is what is being claimed, a proliferation of caveats cluttering the text seems a small price to pay in the service of such a noble cause (223, 224).

I wonder if Harris is indeed asking too much.  And at the same time, it seems to me that many historians already take account of all of these things.  Then again, perhaps I don’t read enough history to really know.