Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Propositioning Attitude

Modern, analytic philosophers, like David Kaplan for example, have what might be called, pun intended, a "propositional attitude". They assume that "propositions" play an important role in language, indeed, that they constitute the "content" of language. Let me, in a similar vein, suggest that modern lyrical poets, perhaps most famously a poet like Leonard Cohen, have cultivated a "propositioning attitude". His poems suggest that somewhere, perhaps in the context of every utterance, somewhere on the periphery of language, there is a proposition in the baser sense, a shall-we-say "indecent proposal".

This immediately raises a pangrammatical issue. Indecency is to power and poetry what dishonesty is to knowledge and philosophy. If poets ultimately sing of, if not outright propose, indecency, are philosophers, too, arguing in the direction of dishonesty? Well, let's keep in mind that propositions are, in and of themselves, neither true nor false, proposals neither just nor unjust. An indecency meanwhile is not already an injustice; it is merely the "proximate occasion" of injustice, just as one can be dishonest and yet speak the truth (without knowing) or speak the truth and yet be dishonest (knowing how one will be misunderstood). That is, the proposition is an essential component of dishonesty, since it is meaningful independent of its truth. That is the root of the analogy. A poem must say something that is meaningful even when it unjust.

A mind too concerned—pre-occupied, let's say—with honesty is not suited for philosophy. A heart too worried about decency will not enjoy a life in poetry. It lacks the attitude proper to the craft.

P.S.: Propositions can contradict each other. Proposals can seduce.


Presskorn said...

This is a neat set of homologies! Just as the previous model story was really good.

PS: Apropos of one of your remarks in this post, I wrote the following of someone in my diary the other day:

"I admire X's ability to always, quite literally, speak the truth (an infinitely precious ability not to be conflated with mere honesty)."

Presskorn said...

On the topic of neat homologies, I’ve been thinking whether there is not some pangrammatical homology to be made with perspicacity and perspicuity. says:

“PERSPICACITY refers to the power of seeing clearly, to clearness of insight or judgment: a person of acute perspicacity; the perspicacity of his judgment.

PERSPICUITY refers to something that can be seen through, i.e., to lucidity, clearness of style or exposition, freedom from obscurity: the perspicuity of her argument.”

So perspicuity is a *property* of a representation (cf. Wittgenstein on ├╝bersichtliche darstellung/perspicuous representation), while perspicacity is a *propriety* of a person.

All this leads me to think that must be some good pangrammatical homology in here, but I can’t quite pin it.

PS: Property versus propriety could of course also be exploited on its own.

Thomas said...

Thanks. I was especially proud of the Cohen (b. 1934)/Kaplan (b.1933) parallel, both still living and with their reputations grounded in the 1960s. It can even be traced to their mentors, Irving Layton (b. 1912) and W.V.O. Quine (b. 1908), who were born four years apart and died only six years apart, and who both also cultivated the relevant "attitude".

As Wikipedia points out, we do well to read Kaplan's "Quantifying In" (1968) alongside Quine's "Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes" (1956). I've said long ago that we do well to read Cohen's "The Rest is Dross" (1964) alongside Layton's "Love's Diffidence" (1956). Cohen alluded to his own poem's allusion to Ezra Pound's "what thou lovest well remains" in his eulogy to Layton. (Obviously, the next step back in time is Pound/Wittgenstein!)

Thomas said...

("Mentor" is perhaps the wrong word for Quine in re Kaplan … I did consider Davidson as a pangrammatical foil for Cohen though.)

Thomas said...

In re the perspicuity/perspicacity thing: since both are rooted in the notion of "clarity", I resist moving the latter across the pangrammatical divide. The analogies are

philosophy : clarity :: poetry : intensity
thing : seeing :: person : doing

But I'll think a bit about it.