Me, You, and Everything We Mean

In the opening paragraph of “Self-Reliance,” Emerson writes,

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.”

Call this the paradox of self-expression. What might it mean that genius is to believe that what is true in my heart is true for all? I have my classes on Emerson start here and try to figure out what this passage could mean. On the surface, it seems like a paradox. To believe that what is true in my heart is true for all people is irrationality. Surely not everyone believes everything that I do, or feels everything that I do. Suggestions that usually come up are (1) maybe we must have a kind of faith in ourselves to be right, or at least to be onto something, to even articulate a thought; (2) maybe we must believe that what we are thinking or feeling is something that could be true for others, at least potentially. 

Both of these ways of explicating the paradox are compelling, though on neither is it literally true that what we believe in our hearts is true for all persons. Rather, on the first it’s that we must believe in ourselves, in the Jamesian sense, in order to keep going intellectually. We need self-trust, which is one way of understanding self-reliance.

On the second we must believe in possible community, that what we articulate might be true for someone else at least in theory. This too is a kind of Jamesian trust, this time in others—a faith in potential common ground. Both seem to me like intellectual virtues that might be required in order to keep trying to solve problems (personal or theoretical) and contribute to the intellectual community. 

This is not the place for a full exploration of these two kinds of trust and their relationship as intellectual virtues. What I want to talk about instead is how the paradox they sort of solve is addressed in Cavell’s work, where it has some claim to be the central theme.

According to a recent piece on Cavell’s style, “Cavell was fond of a lovely paradox of Emerson’s: ‘the deeper [the scholar] dives into his privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds this is the most acceptable, most public, and universally true.’” The author connects this line of Emerson’s to Cavell’s unusual and indulgent writing style: while it may be an exercise in uncovering private presentiments the wish to make oneself understood is universal. This paradox is possibly the central theme in Cavell’s work. A series of related questions arise repeatedly: what is the relationship between the private and the public? How can we make ourselves understood while being authentic? How can we come to discover things about ourselves we did not already know?

I think these questions are, as you will see, central to philosophy itself. Yet there is no clear solution to the paradox that takes Emerson to be saying what he says fully literally. Instead we have several explications that preserve only parts of the sense of the original statement but which help us to understand how we can speak for others in speaking for ourselves. 

(1) Public Language

One way the paradox might be addressed—and is addressed in Cavell’s work, as in Wittgenstein’s—is through language as a kind of nexus of public and private. In order to articulate our thoughts, feelings, and values, we must rely on a language full of shared, conventional uses of words. Otherwise we will not make sense to anyone else—or, in fact, to ourselves. If I were to start speaking a language I made up, you would have difficulty understanding me; but so long as you could learn it, I would not be unintelligible in principle. It would not be a purely private language. Language is a kind of common ground that we use to express thoughts, feelings, and so on that might not in fact be shared by those we are communicating them to. That others share them might not even be what we want; but we do, presumably, wish to be understood, whatever understanding might amount to for what we are trying to do with words. 

Wittgenstein writes that speakers “agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life” (PI §241). We agree in judgments made with language, as well as in using language in similar and understandable ways. We are able to do this because of similarities in the kinds of beings we are and lives we lead, as well as in “very general facts of nature” that determine what sorts of things make sense in the world we live in together (for example, if butter constantly changed weight, it would be strange to charge for it by weight).

Ordinary language philosophers were fond of what seemed to many to be sweeping generalizations about “what we would say” when what we mean when we say things. One possible and maybe common reaction is to simply deny to be included in this “we.” “That might be what YOU would say, but it’s not what I would say.” Or “that’s not what I mean when I say that.” What grounds anyone’s ability to make claims about what we would say and what someone who says something must mean is shared participation in a common language with conventional ways of using words. In “Must We Mean What We Say,” Cavell considers just what kinds of imperative the ‘must’ of “you must mean” or “ought to say” might be. It is a kind of “Categorical Declarative” that articulates something you must do but in a declarative rather than imperative form. These claims express something between rules and principles for speaking (how to say something at all, versus how to say it well), a distinction Cavell rightly says is unclear. They articulate the “pragmatic implications” of our utterances—for which we are on the hook: what we mean (intend) to say, like what we mean (intend) to do, is something we are responsible for” (Must We Mean What We Say, 32).  

The person who tries to figure out what someone must mean is, often, trying to hold them to a standard of speaking well. This standard is high—one might even say, perfectionistic. Cavell, like Austin, is impressed by the wealth of distinctions embedded in the languages we use. Like the saying that we only use 10% of our brains, we only use a small percentage of the distinctions available to us: “Few speakers… utilize the full range of perception which the language provides, just as they do without much of their cultural heritage” (Must We Mean What We Say, 37). We discover these distinctions, as if unearthing artifacts from an archaeological site, when we are probed or probe ourselves in the right way—as in Austin’s distinction between shooting a donkey by accident and shooting it by mistake. 

A shared linguistic inheritance is one element that determines what someone must mean; the second element that determines what someone means is how they are prepared to continue, to elaborate, and to defend what they have said or what they were doing with words. To mean it as opposed to not meaning it involves a kind of commitment in principle this following-up. In “A Matter of Meaning It,” Cavell says that games with rules are cases where the intention of the player almost doesn’t matter at all—the game determines what you meant to do (MWMWWS 234-235). When I play chess, I am trying by my actions to win, because that is the goal the game has determined for me. In art, there are no such rules with stipulated intentions, so artists must supply their own. Our activities with language fall on a spectrum where some come with stipulated intentions and others do not; and the question of which language game we are playing (what we are trying to do with words) is itself something only we can determine. You can choose to mean something strange by a word, but only if you don’t expect to be understood without an explanation: I can use “bububu” to mean that if it’s raining, I’ll go for a walk—but you will not understand me without some dialogue.

We can all make claims about what we would say in given circumstances, and about what someone must mean or should say by virtue of speaking a language that contains these implications. They are part of the world we can describe just as we describe the world through language. This is one way, then, that we speak for others in speaking for ourselves while making claims of a certain kind: we give voice to what we think is just part of the language, which others also speak. But to do this requires a careful ear. 

As a side note: It is sometimes complained that ordinary language as a tool for making others better speakers (I include philosophers in ‘others’) is resistant to change, but I do not see why it must be. Both Austin and Cavell allow that unusual circumstances might require unusual words. So innovation might be both possible and necessary. We might be innovating simply in noticing the details of language and the world that others overlook.

(2) Possible Others

There are occasions it makes sense to describe in different ways, and there are occasions where it makes sense to use different sorts of speech acts. In “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy,” Cavell compares claims about “what we would say” when and what so and so “must mean” to aesthetic judgments. When I interpret a poem or a painting, I do not expect that everyone shares my interpretation—but I invite them too. Just as Wittgenstein invites us to see a duck-rabbit in two ways, the critic invites us to see a work of art in a particular way. (Human behavior and scientific theories furnish similar examples. You can see light alternatively as a wave and as a particle; the same words potentially both as an insult and as a compliment. What alternates is the interpretation, which may be underdetermined by any publicly available evidence.) Insofar as we categorize and interpret at all, we can invite people to categorize and interpret along with us. This is another way that I speak for others in speaking ostensibly only for myself. 

Just because I have invited someone doesn’t mean they will come. It doesn’t even mean that they exist. What it does mean is that if they do exist, and they hear my invitation, they can accept or decline it. When you read someone who expresses something you yourself think or feel, you feel less alone. You are now part of a notional community of others who think and feel the same thing. Ordinary language claims are uniting insofar as they hold out an invitation for this sort of notional community. Of course, this invitation might be rejected; you might not hear things the same way. 

We make a kind of invitation when we do any kind of speech act—an invitation for uptake, which may or may not come. There is a theme in Cavell’s work that when we speak for ourselves we also speak for others. We must both accept others’ speech as comprehensible (take them as speaking for us in some way) in order to be part of a practice with language, and we must speak for others:

I would like to say: If I am to have a native tongue, I have to accept what ‘my elders’ say and do as consequential; and they have to accept, even to applaud, what i say and do as what they say and do. We do not know in advance what the content of our mutual acceptance is, how far we may be in agreement. I do not know in advance how deep my agreement with myself is, how far my responsibility for the language may run. But if I am to have my own voice in it, I must be speaking for others and allow others to speak for me. The alternative to speaking for myself representatively (for *someone * else’s consent) is not: speaking for myself privately. The alternative is having nothing to say, being voiceless, not even mute (The Claim of Reason, 25). 

The others we speak for are potential. They may not in fact exist. Audre Lorde urges people—particularly women and minorities—to transform their silence into language in part for the sake of the community that might be created thereby: “for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences” (41). To make yourself visible is to offer the possibility that others will take up your invitations—to agree, to disagree, to joke, to protest. When I speak—particularly when I participate in ordinary language philosophy—I am making a “claim to community” (The Claim of Reason, 20). We speak to know we’re not alone.

(3) Convention, Intention, and Responsibility

There are two dimensions of language commonly recognized as sources of meaning: convention, and intention—conventions regarding what words mean, how they can combine and for what purposes, and what the speaker means to do with them by uttering them. In ordinary language philosophy, particularly in Cavell’s work, both are of near equal importance. Whether or not you can be accepted as doing a particular thing with your words matters to what you count as meaning; but what you mean to do counts also. In the passage above the child has to take what their elders say at face value. They have to accept some starting precepts to be using the same language. You have to be speaking the same language as someone else even in order to express how you do not fit in, or have difficulty expressing what you truly want to say using that language. There has to be some bedrock.

Yet equally, what we mean is our responsibility. There is perhaps a spectrum of cases where convention matters more or less heavily in determining what we mean. In filling in a truth table, you follow basic rules until you do it unthinkingly. In choosing clever wording for a joke, there might be reasons you pick one word rather than another that go beyond just following a rule—a rule that quickly becomes habit. Habitual actions feel less intentional than one-off attempts or applications of skill. 

Within a language, the question of what you mean often comes down to what you were trying to do. A theme we find in Cavell’s work is that what I mean—and whether I “really meant” something—depends at least in part on how I would go on to explain or defend myself. The best evidence of what I was trying to do in an action depends on how I am willing to explain or justify my aims. (Cavell: “Knowing how to make serious assertions is knowing how to justify them, and also knowing how to excuse them (e.g., with ad hoc hypotheses) in case they come to grief,” (The Claim of Reason, 62.)) Speech is a kind of action, so the best evidence of what I meant by some words is how I go on to explain them; or at least my subsequent behavior. To mean something is to commit oneself to follow up on it in certain ways. To really mean it is to commit more fully. To mean what you say is to commit to the bit. 

(4) Bringing the Dictionary to Your Experience and the Goal of Philosophy

So far, I have tried to explain how we speak for others in speaking for ourselves by talking about the way language works. We must sign on to a common language, and when we make moves within it we are aiming for some kind of uptake. To be fanciful (though often literal), we are looking to find the people who will understand what we are trying to do. We’re speaking within a common language and aiming to find possible others.

There is another way we speak for others in speaking for ourselves (and vice-versa), one related to what it means to try to understand something better. When I try to understand what knowledge is, I move from my local—perhaps narrow—experiences with things that count as knowledge to a broad overview. I move outwards. Ryle describes this move from the narrow to the broad, from empirical to abstract, as a primary source of the disorientation characteristic of philosophical questions:

People often know their way about a locality while quite unable to describe the distances or directions between different parts of it or between it and other familiar localities. They may know a district and still be perplexed when approaching it by an unaccustomed route or in a strange light. Again they may know the district and still give descriptions of it which entail that two different buildings are in one place or that one building lies in two different directions from a given object 

(“Philosophical Arguments” in Collected Papers, 210-211).

When I zoom out, trying to think of all the different things we call ‘knowledge,’ I might have trouble figuring out how my experiences fit in; just as I might have trouble trying to figure out how my daily paths through my neighborhood are represented on an objective map of the space. 

When I try to understand my experience—for example, what emotions I am feeling—I am similarly trying to place my experience within a map of emotional experiences others might have. I am trying to locate myself on a sort of theoretical map. Cavell calls the attempt to figure out what to call things we are presented with “bringing the dictionary to the world”: “that will happen when (say) we run across a small boat in Alaska of a sort we have never seen and wonder—what? What it is, or what it is called?” (Must We Mean What We Say?, 20). I highlight this because trying to figure out what is x?, where x is an item of experience, is to attempt to understand oneself—to locate your experience on an objective, or at least interpersonal, map of the world. It is to attempt to speak for yourself and to speak for possible others at the same time.

In the epistemology of understanding, one approach to understanding treats it as networked or connected knowledge. To understand is not to know one thing; it is to know something complex. To understand might be to apply (perhaps correctly—depending on whether you think understanding needs a correctness condition) a theory to a phenomenon. To understand is to theorize, and to theorize is to place experienced phenomena within an objective explanatory framework. Understanding and interpreting ourselves is no less an example of this. 

This is another possible explication of the Emersonian paradox. We believe (or hope) that what is true in our hearts can be true for not all, but at least some others; and to attempt to understand it using concepts and conceptual schemes that others use to describe their experiences is a way of making good on this hope. Making good on this hope is a good thing because it means continuing to try to understand oneself better, to find more distinctions buried in the layers of sand of the common language that capture something real; to find more aspects of your experience you would not have noticed had you not found those distinctions. There is no genius, but there is the spark of continuing to try to understand things, which is the thing most worth doing. There is only commitment to making things explicit, to making things make sense. To borrow the words of a poet, there is only the trying; the rest is not our business. 

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