Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Metaphysics of Marriage

The big news around these parts this week is that Aspazia, my beloved friend, colleague, and fairy blog mother, has gotten engaged to her beau Za. This is a happy thing. He's wonderful, she's wonderful, and a new philosophical puzzle has been introduced -- life is good.

Yesterday, Spaz was saying with a sentiment that was either annoyance, bewilderment, or both that people had been treating her differently since the moment. First, she's been getting the same question you ask a six year old on her birthday, "So, do you feel any different?" And she says that she is now getting a different sense from people she talks to, as if she is now taken more seriously, treated like a real adult. (She was, of course, reassured that in this department she would never be treated like a serious adult.) And she then made a parting claim before running off to class that possessing a ring in no way changed the relationship and that there was no ontological difference (that is fancy philosopher speak for "nothing in reality has changed.")

I've been wondering about that question ever since. Does the act, in fact, make an ontological difference? Is engagement or marriage any different from, say, a birthday? On the birthday, we attribute to the individual a status she did not have the day before (being six rather than five years old -- five and 364/365ths to be exact), but she is not really a year older, just a day older. The purported difference is really no different than the daily change with which it is being contrasted.

In the case of being engaged or married, you supposedly acquire a new property: she was not a fiancee before, but is now. If Aspazia were the caricature of a logical positivist and held that a thing is just the set of all its observable properties, then she would not, in fact, be different, except for the really cool ring. No part of Aspazia -- physiological, psychological, or otherwise -- has significantly changed in a way it otherwise would not have but for the popping of the question. But then, of course, she'd be saying this whole ontological discussion is a bunch of pseudo-speak, anyway.

But if we look at the father of real logical positivism, one of the things that Moritz Schlick borrowed from David Hilbert's reconstruction of Euclidean geometry was the notion of a thing is defined in terms of its relations. So, has there been a change in her relations? This is more interesting.

She argues, no. Life, from all empirical observations, is the same: all the same stresses and joys, all the same projects, all the same everything.

At the same time, from the socially constructed side, she is now in a new category. Few social institutions come with the baggage of marriage (as Groucho once said, "Marriage is a fine institution, but who wants to live in an institution?"): carrying everything from fairytale pictures of love to the supposed weight of protecting the moral fiber of the community, marriage, especially for women is culturally loaded. As a top drawer feminist scholar and philosopher, of course, none of that is news to Aspazia, and she quickly cuts through it. That cultural load also comes with legal ramifications upon marriage, but again all of that is accidental legislated convention that could be altered in any way at the whim of elected representatives. Nothing real there.

But then I think to Austin again and the idea of doing things with words. Words, even small ones like "yes" can be used to make major changes in ones relations. When I make a promise, say, sign a mortgage, I am different; I am now a person with an added responsibility -- to fulfill my promise by paying off the loan. I am now a debtor, or more of one, than I was before. When one says "yes" to a proposal of marriage (something that apparently took a shocked Spaz an uncomfortably long time to actually get around to uttering), one seems to have agreed to a change in the relation. Sure, that change in a certain way is socially constructed because it requires people and a social institution, but it does seem in some way more real than the sort of socially constructed senses above.

Perhaps it is because engagement and marriage come with new responsibilities. But, of course, they are responsibilities to which most monogamous couples these days will have already been committed and will have clearly voiced that commitment before the ring. Is this just a formalization of the pre-existing structure? If so what does the formalization mean? I think Spaz is wrong to say it does not mean anything. The question is what? And if it is nothing, does that mean that when a logical positivist proposes, he pops the pseudo-question?