Tag Archives: Philosophy of Language

Read Through of A Very Short Introduction to Post Structuralism: Intro + Chapter 1

One of my current research projects is to try to understand a cluster of ideas that I don’t have a name for but includes [Post modernism, Post Structuralism, critical theory, deconstruction, queer theory, etc.] (I am aware that those things are all very different and putting them under an umbrella likes that probably reflects my lack of knowledge on these topics.)

As part of this project I am going to read the book A Very Short Introduction to Post Structuralism by Catherine Besley. As an experiment I am going to try live blogging my reading of the book by posting my notes and thoughts on my Tumblr. If successful it will make me more motivated to read the text, act as a precommitment to take notes and engage with the material rather than just read, and help others correct my misunderstandings.
The format of the read through will be me attempting to summarize point the author makes (or directly quoting the text) and the giving my thoughts on that point or quote. My summaries and rewordings will likely be incorrect and because this is edited from my personal notes I can’t guarantee being as charitable as I should. I highly recommend reading the text alongside my notes.

Chapter 1: Creatures of Difference

  • Besley brings up the example of the dialogue between Humpty Dumpty and Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Humpty uses words as if they had different meanings saying “when I use a word it means what I choose it to mean.” Besley seems to agree with Alice that Humpty Dumpty is wrong saying “Meaning is not at our disposal, or we could never communicate with others.” I feel meaning is going to be an ongoing theme in this book. At this point I don’t really understand how meaning works. It is one of many things that I am confused about. But I will try to understand the Post Structuralist view of meaning fully before I try to critique it.
  • Besley says that language is used to both signal understanding of a subject (an economist using words like inflation and supply and demand) but also contains embedded cultural values (words like dictatorship and democracy). She says language is “also a source of social values” but I assume she is suggesting that we express social values in the way we use language rather than social values spontaneously emerging from language without human input.
  • Besley says that we can’t use whatever meaning we want (i.e. Alice is right) because the meanings have already been assigned by our culture (or previous generation’s culture). But she also suggests that we might want to use words like Humpty does, saying “to reproduce existing meanings exactly is also to reaffirm the knowledge our culture takes for granted, and the values that precede us – the norms, that is, of the previous generation.” I’m unsure whether I agree with this. People are able to say sentences like “dictatorships are good” which preserves the meaning of all three words but expresses a sentiment/value that is at odds with our society. On the other hand, the author might be arguing (and iff so I agree with her) the fact that we have categorizations like “dictatorship” and “democracy” is because we happen to care about the difference between those two things (whether the government is controlled by a very small minority or a majority.) Otherwise we wouldn’t see a need to have to words for them. A hypothetical society that strongly cared about whether the government was controlled by people with left hands or rights hands would most likely have words that translate to “government controlled by left handed people” and “government controlled by right handed people” whereas we don’t need these words.
  • The author goes on to say that the language we use controls us. “Meanings control us, inculcate obedience to the discipline inscribed in them.” Again assuming that the author is using the “categorization is caused by values” position above, I agree. If a person has different values to the majority of people who speak their language (or past generations that developed it) it will be harder for them to express and even think about things that are important to them. I sometimes notice this when I try to write about EA/Utilitarian concepts and find several things that should have words for them but don’t.
  • Besley talks about how early feminists (a group that had different values than most of the society around them) faced the same problem and the difficulties they faced with trying to modify language (e.g. Not being able to just change master to mistress because of sexual connotations)
  • “Poststructuralism is difficult to the extent that its practitioners use old words in unfamiliar ways, or coin terms to say what cannot be said otherwise. This new vocabulary still elicits some resistance, but the issue we confront is how far we should let the existing language impose limits on what it is possible to think.” I have definitely noticed this (If I had a dollar for every time I hear a friend say the word “body/bodies” when I would use “person/people”…).
  • Although I now feel I have a better understanding of where the Post Structuralists are coming from. I would argue that in order to effectively communicate ideas to people you should try to use words in a way they are most likely to understand. I now think a Post Structuralist would reply (translated in to how I would phrase their response) “While communicating ideas and advocating for those ideas is one way to change society, because the categorizations that words make are heavily influenced by the values of the present society (the values we want to change) so if we also try to change how human brains naturally categorize things (by changing language) that will make it easier to change people’s values” This is a good point and I feel it’s an empirical question as to which force dominates and which tactic is best.
  • So we have a definition of post structuralism “Poststructuralism names a theory, or a group of theories, concerning the relationship between human beings, the world, and the practice of making and reproducing meanings.” This definitely sounds like a useful set of knowledge to have (no sarcasm).
  • “On the one hand, poststructuralists affirm, consciousness is not the origin of the language we speak and the images we recognize, so much as the product of the meanings we learn and reproduce.” So I’m not sure what this sentence means. I think the author must not be using “consciousness” in the same way I usually see it being used. I don’t see how the phenomenon of subjective experience could be a product of learning the meanings to words. The only thing I can think of is that the author is using the word “consciousness” in a similar to phrases like “class consciousness” so the intended meaning is closer to awareness or knowledge. That still doesn’t really fit thought, hopefully it will get clearer.
  • Author: Language is very important, we use it all the time, and while ii may be less important than food or shelter it is used on both of those areas (e.g food menus and dexribing houses). Words that appear to refer to the same things can have different connotations and they would be used by people trying to do different things (“old, or quaint, modern, or minimalist, “ vs “decrepit, poky, brash, or bleak” )
  • “Poststructuralism proposes that the distinctions we make are not necessarily given by the world around us, but are instead produced by the symbolizing systems we learn.” Ok so I totally understand this and if this is an accurate description I feel like I understand Post Structuralism a lot better. I am also going to assume that the actual proposition brought forward by PS is weaker than this and claims symbolizing systems have a strong influence on the distinctions we make, rather than being the only thing that determines them. The strong version seems like it would not account for how language came into existence (if we can only see differences between things through language than how did we start using different words or different things), 2) how new words come into existence and 3) how animals and babies that don’t use language can still make distinctions between things.
  • The author says that instead of the conventional view that language gets meaning from our ideas, PS says that it is the other way around, ideas are the product of the meanings that already exist in language. Again, a feedback model, where ideas affect meaning and meaning affects ideas seems more intuitively likely to me than one directional causality. But I will wait and see Besley’s reasoning for endorsing the latter model.
  • In the next section Besley asks what is meaning. She notes that a meaning to a word seems to very with the context that word is in and asks how this can be the case when we can still use the word easily.
  • Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that ‘in language there are only differences without positive terms’ From context I think this means that language can only divide things in to categories.
  • Saussure argues the meaning of words cannot come from the world because if they did then all words would have exact equivalents in other languages, which is not the case. Besley gives the example that there is a continuous spectrum of colour on a rainbow that we divide up into 7 colours. After thinking about this for a while I think I agree. But I think because there are clusters in thing space  it is instrumentally rational to use language in this way, as long as we are careful to carve reality at its joints (where to draw the boundary). But we should definitely be aware of this and when we find examples of language making bad categories or categories we don’t care about we should feel free to change them.
  • Besely says that language is differential rather than referential. I’m not sure why it can’t be both. Why can’t the word “apple” both refer to a cluster of things that all seem to have similarities, and also differentiate between a cluster of things and a cluster of things we consider different. I guess if by differential we mean drawing conceptual boundaries then you can’t refer to something without that boundary already being drawn, but it seems wrong to say that words don’t at all refer to things.
  • Sign/signifier doesn’t just mean words it means anything we use to communicate from traffic lights to yawns.
  • Saussure makes a distinction between a signifier (a set of sounds spoken from a mouth or some lines written on paper) and the signified which is the meaning of the sign. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.
  • “If language is not ours to possess, but always pre-exists us and comes from outside, and if poems issue from language, not from the ideas which are language’s effect rather than its cause, there is no final answer to the question of what any particular example of language in action ultimately means.” I’m not sure I agree. If language
  • I think the correct way to deal with the question “which reading of the text is correct” is to dissolve it. There are several possible things someone could mean when they use the word “correct reading.” They could mean “the authors reading” or “the agreed upon reading my the majority of readers” or “the majority of academic readers.” I don’t think there is any reason to call any of these correct, unless the two people talking both already agree on what they mean by the word correct.. I guess that makes me agree with post structuralism?
  • Roland Bathes argued that “the author is dead” because the word “I” refers (although the author is careful to not use the word refer in this paragraph because of the previous discussion on reference vs difference) to different people based on how it is used. If someone writes “I am hungry” and I read that sentence out loud than it has changed who it was referring to. This seems like a weak argument to me. Firstly, what about writing in third person? Secondly, if there was a language without these words that shift reference depending on who speaks (like a language with no pronouns) the author would still be dead right?(based on what I think post structuralists mean when they say that term?)
  • “We should not, therefore, try to get ‘behind’ the work, Barthes argues. There is nothing there. Instead, ‘the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced’ (and the metaphor suggests that the quest for intention generates a kind of violence). We should look at the text, Barthes urges, not through it. And his manifesto concludes with a ringing declaration: ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’.” I’m not sure exactly what this means. My guess is “we shouldn’t try to figure out things about the author from the text.” So if this is the correct meaning, then I’m not sure why not? I think we can treat the text as evidence about the author of that text’s brain. If the authors brain is something we happen to care about then I don’t see why we can’t do this. Of course it’s possible that we don’t care about the author’s brain, in which case we shouldn’t.
  • Kesley says Barthes didn’t like how literary critics took the author’s interpretation as the final interpretation of a text. Again I think this question should be dissolved and the people who care about what the author thought about it should talk about that and the people that care about something else about the text should talk about that and neither side should fight over the word “correct”
  • “Instead, his reader is not an individual, not a real person at all, but ‘the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost’. Such a ‘space’ does not exist, except as an ideal type, a timeless, utopian, model reader. In practice, some of us will see some of the possibilities, some others, and the text itself keeps its secret about which is ‘right’. Indeed, it becomes unclear just what ‘right’ would mean (though it’s still possible, if we don’t know the words, or we don’t pay sufficient attention to them, or we miss a citation or mistake the genre, to be wrong).”
  • So if I understand this correctly, Barthes is positing a hypothetical reader with a set of qualities (“Timeless”? “Utopian”?) And saying that the reading that this hypothetical reader would make is the correct reading of a text. But this seems just as arbitrary to me (actually much more arbitrary to the extent there are different degree of arbitrariness) than taking the authors interpretation. How did Barthes choose the qualities of this reader? Why did he not choose a hypothetical reader that thinks every possible text means “I like fish”? (Which is a possible mind in mind space.) It seems Barthes chose these features arbitrarily, based on what he prefers. This is fine, but like I said I don’t see any reason to favor this over the “Author is Alive” theories except for personal preference about what you are interested in. The next paragraph refers to all signs as “undecidable” so at least the author seems to agree with me that Barthes is also arbitrary.

Thoughts on Chapter 1: I actually am understanding (or at least think i am understanding) this much more than I expected. I am finding this form of note taking is working well.  Looking forward to next chapter.