Imagine a world where English Literature students were placed in charge of political revolution. Marshalling the full resources of their limited literary perspectives, what might we expect? A preoccupation with anything-goes-readings of the microsymbolic (read: irrelevant), a prioritization over the histories of phrases and words rather than people who speak them, and a perpetual and unending quest to find politically convenient interpretations of culture over and above empirically grounded ones—that is, ones born of correspondence with the actual lived wishes, desires, attitudes, and beliefs of people rather than ones implied by “an interesting textual theory.”
In short, we might expect an analysis of the political to reduce, as with analyses of texts, to the psycho-emotional inclinations of its readers (or activists). Activists who become “readers of the world,” whose production of speculations are not guided by a determined empirical investigation into private histories, societies, people, and their interests—but by the astonishment of the reader herself. Whatever is most outrageous, most interesting, or most satisfying to her mind becomes the basis on which the truth of political reality is elaborated.
Since this is the nightmare-reality of contemporary student politics, I have decided to elaborate on some of its foundational philosophical mistakes.
The present in-vogue academic analysis of literature is severely limited by two key philosophical fallacies, which, if limited to the realm of “the production of interesting interpretations,” has only a minor impact on the intellect, but spread wide to the world, has lead to moral hypocrisy and intellectual catastrophe.
The first of these fallacies infected Kant via the medieval skeptics and is the deceptive absurdity that “knowledge gained via a particular medium can only ever be about that medium.” This principle says that if handed a photograph of a mountain, I could never actually work out how tall the mountain is, how long it would take me to climb it, how far away it is, nor how much gasoline I’d need to drive there. All of these inferences are about you, your actions, the mountain, gasoline, cars, etc. According to this fallacy of limited expression, when handed a photograph, all I could ever learn is that there are certain patterns of ink blobs on a paper—and that is that.
And so too, this fallacy says, “whatever is communicated via language is linguistic”—so if I say “pass me a red pen,” all you really understand is something about language, not in fact, that there’s a pen I’d like you to pass me.
We may now see how this principle has lead to the over-inflated sense of relevance literary analysis has of itself: since nearly all of our knowledge is expressed in language, our knowledge it must be about language (surely not reality!) and so everything is language! Literary analysis turns out to be physics!
Total nonsense, of course. But deceptive nonetheless, it was a commitment to this mistaken principle which lead Berkeley and others in his idealist tradition to say that since reality is expressed in experience, reality must be experience, ie., that knowledge gained via the medium of experience must be about experience. Rather than, of course, reality. Indeed reality need not be considered much more than the non-experiential content of experience. There is nothing more mysterious to mental representation than linguistic representation: one ought not be so consumed by self-doubt so as to see someone passing you a pen upon spoken-request as a miracle. And one ought not to seduce oneself by skeptical fallacies to such a degree that seeing a hand in front of your face becomes a God-like ability.
The second fallacy that possesses modern literary political activism takes the first and runs with it: since—literary activists say—everything is language, and therefore everything is merely an interplay of language—the moral history, structure, and interpretation of language is our moral inheritance. It turns out morality is not about our real actions and their intentions but about the sins encoded in our linguistic conventions.
To see why this is wrong it is important to note that we use two properties of language: first, as with any representational medium, it communicates facts about what it represents. That is, to say “the pen is red” is to say the world is arranged in a particular way such that you may find in it a red pen. We could call this the “referential meaning of representation,” i.e., what a representation means for how the world is arranged. Then there is the “conventional meaning” of language, and as with any medium of representation we can ask why is it that we have chosen this medium, why does “pen” refer to a pen—that is, why do those letters or sounds refer to pens? Or why does my choice of green paint represent the grass? The general answer to questions of this kind is simply points out that understanding occurs in humans, i.e., the input “get me a pen” produces the output of someone getting a pen. The transformation of input to output, that is, from the conventional to referential, is an event happening in us.
When a builder sketches on a piece of paper the four sides of a house, and leans over to his coworker to ask, “Does this look the right size to you?” something that may seem miraculous is happening. He is managing to represent bricks and cement with paper and ink—how does he achieve this? How does he communicate knowledge of brick with expression in pencil? Simply: he asserts a convention, and sticks to it. He and his coworker understand the referential meaning the builder asserted in his drawing—and when his coworker looks at it, his inference relies on this meaning. But his representation works, and so his coworker can provide some helpful advice: knowing line length represents wall length, his coworker can make an estimation. (Confused skeptics are inclined to say “These connections might not hold!” and proceed to construct a metaphysics on the basis that they never do, cf. phenomenology vs., e.g., realism, which says only that they can).
Now, since it is human beings in which convention acquires its referential meaning, i.e., since it’s human beings who understand language, language has an “all too human” history. Yes, vagina originally meant “sheath” in Latin, implying that the contemporary Roman view was to put primacy to the sexual (rather than birthing) functions of the vagina. Supposing that this is a sexist (contra pragmatic) naming, then do we all become sexists to use the word? No. Firstly, we do not inherit sin—nor is it transmitted through one’s race or blood—the actions of my neighbor are not mine, let alone that of a distant ancestor. What I believe is not what a random white person from a century ago believed, and so there is nothing morally important we share: skin color is not a morally important property (that this needs to be said at all is outrageous).
And secondly, when we use the word vagina, all we mean is the object it refers to, we do not mean—nor do many even know—how the word came to refer to a vagina. The phrase, “babies are born through vaginas” is understood by everyone because they possess, as with the builder’s coworker, the representational understanding that relates the letters “a vagina” to a vagina—it is not understood by everyone because they believe women are sheaths for penises.
Nietzsche here, and those of his tradition, seem then the “arch-literary activists,” reading the world as a text and basing their evaluations of it on their own astonishment, outrage, or intrigue—as readers of texts often do. In novels the reader’s experience is the primary truth—there is no more than this to investigate. Given a reality however, our speculator’s astonishment becomes irrelevant—given that we can investigate what people actually believe, we do not have to care at all what a theorist says they do (unlike characters in a story). And as authors and interpreters of novels conspire to give their characters motivations and destinations, we see little more than conspiratorial political philosophies emerge from contemporary activism: that the arc of history is white and bends toward the intentions of men. (The mild hum of women shouting “Slut!” to each other in the background is a “symptom of The Real” as yet unincorporated).
Social reality does not emerge from a textual interplay of worlds—that, Derrida (et al.), is a novel. Our words are about people, and people are not texts. Our morality is about our character and actions, not about our words. Social reality emerges from the beliefs, desires, motivations, and goals of the people who comprise it. We can divide friends from enemies on this basis very simply: all those who do not wish for a pluralist, feminist, (democratic, egalitarian…) world are not with us. Women who believe “a woman’s place is at home” are no more absolved of that belief than a man who believes it—because it is what they believe, not their gender that morally defines them. There is no absolution in a vagina nor condemnation in a penis. No solidarity in a color or in words but in cause: we should “look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Character denoting one’s actual moral commitments and not figments of psychological speculation asserted by literary activists.
Michael Burgess is a senior lecturer teaching topics in applied computer science. He participates in and organizes several philosophical groups in the UK and has recently completed graduate work in physics. His present philosophical hobbies are metametaphysics and the philosophy of computer science with a view to more study in these areas. He has written academically on topics from the philosophy of history to quantum computing.
Image of University of Missouri protests by Mark Schierbecker.