Monday, June 25, 2007

Superheroes, Speech Acts, and Author's Intent

Man, I love the questions you folks come up with. I'll try to answer as many as I can this week.

R. Porter asks,

“Here's a question I actually ask software engineers when I interview them for a job. *I* know the answer, but the point is to see if they do, and what their thought processes are.

Who wins in a fight: Superman or The Hulk? Support your answer and show all work.”
If I were at an interview and asked this question, my answer would be this: If Superman and the Hulk were fighting, the winner would be the villains. You have two superheroes who could be making the world a better place, ignoring the plots and schemes of those who endanger innocent people in order to settle a personal grudge. In addition, one or both of them will emerge weaker and unable to fight crime as well.

Similarly, with members of this team, sniping and in-fighting takes energy away from doing what we have to do and in the end makes us less capable, no matter the ultimate outcome. Neither of the warring parties wins the argument and our customers certainly suffer, only our competition wins.

Do I get the gig?

O’Claire asks,
“When you say "thank you" to someone, you're thanking them. When you say "I apologize," you've apologized. So why is it, if I owe someone money, I can't just say "I pay you" and be done with it? What kind of thing is it you can do just by saying you're doing it?”
We often like to draw a distinction between saying and doing. Take the childhood favorite, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” The idea that words just name things and don’t make a real difference in the real world was undermined by a number of philosophers, my favorite is J. L. Austin who in his book Doing Things with Words, argued exactly that sometimes we use words to do things. Betting, promising, naming, apologizing are all things you do with words. Consider those two little words, “I do,” with those three letters, you do something rather important.

Of, course, not all things can be done with just words. In the case of payment, you’ve indebted yourself – probably with just words, “I’ll take it,” or signing your name on a credit card receipt – but that debt is a promise to do something more than speak, but to give someone else something material.

At the same time, you actually could settle the debt with just words, say by paying your bills on-line and clicking “pay it.” You can, with only words, authorize someone else to electronically settle the debt. Of course, I don’t think that’s quite what you had in mind…

Bkriplur asks,
“Is the author's intent relevant to literary interpretation? Is the author's intent relevant in philosophy?”
Author’s intent is an interesting and important question, but it is not the only question. Works of literature or philosophy are always underdetermined in terms of their meaning. They can always be interpreted in different ways. To understand why an author put something the way he or she did often illuminates the passage in ways that a superficial reading ignores. It requires biographical and historical senses that will often disambiguate works in ways you didn’t expect. “Oh, that’s what he’s responding to, that means he really meant for it to say Y, not the X that I thought it meant.” Take someone like Ludwig Wittgenstein whose work is brilliant, but cryptic. The work that, say, Toulmin and Janik in their wonderful book Wittgenstein’s Vienna was very interesting because it put his work in an Austrian context, and not the Anglo empiricist/epistemological one that we inherited from Russell’s take on Wittgenstein and which is usually the way we learn about Wittgenstein's thought. Wittgenstein's Vienna will deepen your understanding because it brings you clues about why Wittgenstein was interested in what he was writing about and what he was reading when these thoughts came to him.

At the same time, there is often deep insight that can come from taking a piece of art or reasoning and interpreting it in a different way. There’s nothing wrong with using a text and building off of it in a direction the author had not desired or envisioned. Intellectual works are part of an on-going conversation, not ends in themselves and different lines of interpretation can provide new realizations that the original, interpreted in a strict sense, would never have given rise to. Kripke’s work on Wittgenstein is a prime example. Kripke’s take is probably not what Wittgenstein himself was thinking, but there’s no doubt that you could play with it in Kripke’s way and when you do, new and interesting lines of discussion pop up.