March 30, 2011

Past names

Michael Dummett argues in his Gifford Lectures that what it is to understand a proper name is to be able to identify the bearer of that name (and then to check whether predicates apply to that bearer); for a name such Napoleon, this identification of the bearer is however not something that you can do as easily as with contemporary people:
Is it to know by what means an immensely aged man could be identified as Napoleon if we discovered that, amazingly, the Emperor had not died when we supposed, but had lived until the present? [...] Surely not. To understand the name 'Napoleon', one must know what the correct way, or at least a correct way, was to identify someone as Napoleon when he was alive.[1]
This strikes me as wildly implausible. Not only is it doubtful that most of us could indeed, as a time traveler to the 18th or early 19th century, recognize Napoleon on the street, say, in a group of soldiers. (My idea of his visual appearance has its origins in a couple of paintings and a few movies. It's probably not even good enough to identify those actors who played him on the street; much less the man himself, who in all probability only has some degree of resemblance with them.)

And even if we could, normally we wouldn't say that that is what it means to know who Napoleon was. To understand the name, at present day, is first of all to understand that it is the name of a historical person, someone important enough that many people have heard about him. We would have to know some basic historical facts as well, although there might be no specific set of facts that would count as necessary and/or sufficient: if someone thought Napoleon was a Spanish painter in the early 20th century, we would say that person doesn't know who Napoleon was. If he says something like: "Oh, I know, it was this French king who made some conquests in Europe a couple of centuries ago", this we might count as knowing (even though we know Napoleon wasn't a king, but an emperor).

In short, in order to understand this name, we would have to find our way round in today's established history, not in eighteenth century Paris's palaces. Contrary to what Dummett seems to think, we wouldn't have to put ourselves in the shoes of some past observer in order to know what the name 'Napoleon' means.

[1] Michael Dummett, Thought and Reality. Oxford: Clarendon 2006, 74–75.

March 29, 2011

Songs and Sonnets

I almost never listen to the radio, except per accident sometimes. When I recently did so, a song was playing that began with these lyrics:
I talked to my baby on the telephone long distance,
I never would have guessed I could miss someone so bad.
I really only met her 'bout a week ago;
it doesn't seem to matter to my heart. I know
I love her. I'm hoping that I'll never recover
Well, and so on. (As I learned, it's an older song by Andrew Gold, but what I heard was a cover version. The lyrics were the same. I might also add that this particular song somehow moved me, partly because, as fortune plays, at the time I was practically in the exact situation that the song invoked.)

Picture by Alex Baranda
Now, the interesting thing about this is of course how unreality is constructed here. Sometimes songs do this by telling a story, but here we have only a story in the very widest sense of that word: there is no plot (i.e. no sequence of events, actions and motives, causes and effects), there are no characters (people who do something in the story), and there is no conflict, no personal development or anything of the sort. Instead, what the song does is to invoke a feeling; it brings out a certain attitude and emotion on the part of the 'I', the subject of the text. (Which is neither necessarily the author of the lyrics nor the singer; it's a fictional person who formulates the lyrics from his point of view.) In short, it's what in literature is called a lyrical form, as contrasted with a dramatic or narrative one.

And yet it creates unreality. Even if you simply want to express a feeling, that's what you have to do. You can't evoke a feeling by simply naming it, for instance. (Everyone knows how difficult it is to find the words to express feelings, and there's a reason for that: feelings are not the sort of thing that can be easily and precisely named, to bring out a certain feeling well, you have to do much more.) You can, however, describe a situation, a constellation, something that brings you into a context, into (to put it a little exaggeratedly) a world that makes it easy to feel exactly what is to be expressed here.

Take a look at how that world is built up gradually by the lyrics of that song. The first two lines show us a subject who is in a relationship (talks to his 'baby') and currently separated (so he has to talk to her long-distance over the phone). It's implied that the separation is not simply the normal everybody's-got-their-workday separation but something vaguely long-term and far-distance. Then there's the expression of longing (missing someone 'so bad') which is brought into a superlative (he's not only never experienced missing someone so strongly before, but he wasn't even aware that it would be possible as intensely as it in fact is). So far we have a world in which two loving people are separated and at least one of them feels a strong longing. Now lines 3–5 amplify the situation thus created by making the constellation more rare: now we learn that it's a relationship that's just started some weeks ago. (Not that I want to be cynical, in part this explains the strength of the feeling. Fresh feelings are always the most intense ones.) Even so, the feeling seems absolute (no recovery is desired). And so on...

Without creating a situation, something you could imagine as a world or constellation in which you might find yourself, it would be hard to even come to terms with the feeling that is invoked here, let alone bringing it about in the listener. As it is, the song creates, line by line, an awareness of the situation, and thus prepares the stage for the emotional content it wants to transfer. (The rest of the lyrics continues this situation-building interspersed with expressions of what it feels like. If it was only the latter, the song would feel intolerably sentimental.)

Needless to say that use of this technique is not a prerogative of Californian love songs. Compare this sonnet by Shakespeare (no 61), which evokes jealousy:
Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
    For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
    From me far off, with others all too near.
We have the same ingredients here: one person, much in love, from whose viewpoint all this is written (the 'I' in the text); the other person far removed, but strongly felt about. In the 20th century song, long-distance telephone lines were used to generate a sense of spatial separation, and the temporal dimension of the relationship was alluded to by referring to it's comparatively short duration so far ('met her 'bout a week ago'). In the 16th century poem, the scenery is more intimate: the subject can't find sleep, his eyes are kept open, he sees his beloved in some shadows similar in shape (similar to what exactly we aren't told). As befits a jealousy constellation, there is also a pointed mention of those 'others' who are all too near the beloved one — this is a thought that can generate limitless jealousy, and consequently it's put at the most prominent (and most effective) position in the text: at the end. Interspersed are many expressions of how it feels to be in that state, and even though the feeling is made out as quite overwhelming, it is also clearly reflected as self-inflicted ('It is my love that keeps mine eye awake'): jealousy, although it's painful, is also an expression of the depth and intensity of one's own love, and it's as such that it is presented here. We, however (just as the addressed lover, too) would not be able to feel it if it wasn't staged in a scene as it is. Emotional effectiveness is produced by use of unreality.

Although the poetic imagery (and the beauty of language) are much more intense in the classic sonnet, both texts have much in common in their use of unreality for meeting their targets. Keep your eyes open, you will find that technique everywhere...

March 27, 2011

The unreality of the past

There is an old suspicion that the past and the future are not real: the only reality is the present. What has been is no longer; what will be is not yet. Over the centuries, there have been many different formulations of this view (in twentieth-century philosophy, it's often called 'presentism'); and I have myself given a version of it earlier when I counted the past and the future among the forms of unreality.

The view that only the present is real has its roots in some familiar common sense observations. People and objects cease to exist: people can die, objects can be destroyed. We have all been witness to processes of that sort. And likewise, we also have seen humans being born and growing into persons, objects being produced. Thus it's a fact of everyday life that many people and things we can refer to are only accessible from memories, records, by inferences from past actions and so on; something similar holds for future people. (You can talk about your great-grandfather or about your great-grandchildren, and it's perfectly clear that they are past and future respectively, and you'll never encounter them directly.)

Of course, this denies only some reality to the past or future. In some sense, your great-grandfather is still more real than, say, a character in a novel will ever be. Even if you know next to nothing about him, there is still some impact he has made: at the very least in having a part in the events that brought about your own existence. And yet, the more you think about it, the more difficult it seems to grasp exactly where the difference lies. For a start, fictional characters also can change the world in many ways. Children may be named after them, people may find inspiration in them, or they might become an element of the popular imagination (genres as different as the James Bond movies or Joyce's Ulysses have had that effect, as can be read off clearly from the teenage girls in the audience of a Connery-Bond screening or the crowds at the Bloomsday parties every year). If there is a difference between a person who really existed in the past and a character in a novel who never existed, it can't simply lie in the influence that (past or fictional) person had on the world.

There is such a difference for present people who really exist and fictional people: an existing person you can encounter, talk to them, shake their hands, interact with them in many ways; you can never do that with a fictional character. (You can shake Goofy's hand at Disneyland; but that statement is only true in a loose sense of speaking: we all know that it's an actor playing a role, and anyway you can have an actor play your great-grandfather's part at a family party and shake his hand, too.) But there is no such difference between past people and fictional people.

You could say that there is no such difference any more, and perhaps that would be a clue to a better candidate for the difference we're looking for: for people who once existed there has been a time when you actually could interact with them, while there has never been, and never will be, such a time with respect to a fictional character. Even this line of thought needs a lot of refinement, though. It works only partially. For instance, many of us have known their own grandfather, some have perhaps even known their own great-grandfather, talked to them, interacted with them. But once you get to a generation sufficiently removed in the parental chain, there is no more overlap period where you could have a direct interaction with your ancestors. To make the account work fully, it has to include some transitivity: a whole chain of potential direct interactions would connect you to a person who existed, while there is no such chain that can connect you with a fictional person. Take an example.

You can't have a conversation with Jane Austen; your mother couldn't, either; but your great-great-...-grandmother of some degree just might have — she didn't live in England maybe, but if she had traveled there and if she had done this and that, it would have been possible. And you're connected with that interaction via all the links between you and your mother, her and your grandmother, and so on. In that sense, there is a chain of potential direct interactions (they don't have to have happened in actuality) between you and Jane Austen, who, after all, really existed. There's no such chain between you and Elizabeth Bennet, whatever your great-great-...-grandmother of some degree would have tried. Elizabeth Bennet never existed. She's fictional.

But then again, notice that we had to make heavy use of the notion of possibility in this account. Now think about this: you don't have an older brother (if you have, suppose you haven't), but you can easily imagine what the world would be like if you had one; think about the interactions you'd have with your possible brother. Of course, since that brother doesn't exist, we're talking about an unreal person. However, in terms of the possibilities we had to invoke, he seems to be much closer than Jane Austen was. And she did exist. So where exactly does that leave our account of the reality of persons who existed in the past in terms of possible interactions?

If you've made it here, you're probably beginning to sense that there are interesting things to explore about the reality (if any) of the past and the future. They have been, of course, extensively discussed in the philosophical literature over the past twenty-five centuries or so, and there's a lot of fascinating things to learn from all this for the philosophy of unreality. Stay tuned...

March 13, 2011

Lost time, sedimentation, and the future as a form of unreality

A few days ago I had a business appointment at the company headquarters which was scheduled to start at ten in the morning. I planned to be there half an hour early to prepare a few things for the presentation I was to give; since I was going there by public transport which normally takes about 40 minutes, I left home at 8:40 and walked to the tram station.

As I found out, the workers of all the public transport firms were on strike, and there was no tram arriving for the next half hour; then a defect along the way forced the train to take a detour; in between I had to sprint across the street from one stop which was temporarily out of order to another one. When I arrived at the office, I was half an hour late and the meeting had already started; I was just in time to give my presentation. It went well, and there wasn't really any harm done; still it wasn't exactly my favorite sort of morning: I had lost some time I would have rather spent otherwise than standing around at train stops in the cold or sitting in overcrowded trains among angry commuters, I'd felt some nervousness and anger myself during the journey, and afterwards I looked back at it as somewhat stressful; I had probably caused some (minor) unplanned re-organizing at the office when I called in to give notice I would be late; and I was forced to improvise a little in my presentation which I had to do without the planned preparation.

Things like that happen all the time, and they're a good example of how we have to adjust our plans when events turn out unexpectedly. There is often some discomfort to it when that happens: when reality diverges from what we planned (or hoped), we feel negative about it. (Depending on one's temperament, and the amount of difference between expected and actual course of events, the feeling will be more or less intense, ranging from slight irritation to being outright annoyed or angry.) And although we might take measures in advance to prevent unpleasant surprises, we'd normally do that only in special cases, when the outcome is particularly important to us. It's impossible to do that for every imaginable circumstance, and even where it is possible, the risk, although it is real, is often simply to small to bother.

If it's not avoidable to run into situations like that from time to time, and if it's not a big problem (after all, the resulting problems in my example were all easily handled), then what is the source of the negative feeling?

At the base of it seems to be a comparison: between a more favorable situation (the planned one) and a less favorable one (the one that actually obtained). So there seems to be some judgment in play, a judgment of the relative values of those two versions. Since the actual outcome is seen to have less value for us, the difference is perceived as negative. Thus in my example, the loss was primarily one of time: I spent about an hour in traffic that was planned to be used for business. The planned outcome would have been more valuable compared to the actual outcome, it would have been an hour better spent. So the overall judgment of that course of events is naturally a negative one.

However, that seems to be only part of the story. Compare it with a different example: the weather. Sometimes we expect nice weather and are then surprised by sudden cold or rain. One could make a similar calculation, then, about those two situations (the expected and the actual situation), and again the difference in value would be negative, since the actual bad weather would have a lower value than the expected nice weather. Yet, with respect to the weather, people rarely react annoyed — everyone knows that the weather isn't reliable, after all.

A key difference between the tram example and the weather example is the kind of value we're talking about: our time is generally (and rightfully) seen to be of a higher sort of value than mere physical comfort. Overall, life time spent well adds up to a successful life in a way in which the pleasantness of feeling in nice weather doesn't.

(Our time is also something we're responsible for in a way in which weather conditions aren't. Using it well is up to us to a higher degree than the external conditions around us are. This aspect, however, doesn't account for the difference between the two examples: in the tram example, the external circumstance weren't really something I could influence any more than I could influence the weather. I could have informed myself better about them in advance; but then, one can normally inform oneself about the weather in advance, too.)

Life time is not simply something that passes by; it consists not simply of events that happen. Life time is something that is made up of our own actions and their results as much as of circumstances external to those actions (i.e. things out of our direct control, things that simply happen to us.) In the tram example, the sequence of events that I had planned was not simply different from what actually happened: what I had planned was active and productive use of my time, where one step built onto the other. What happened instead wasn't just something else; it was precisely no longer a sequence of productive, constructive action, but mostly reactive and unproductive. And this is what lies at the root of the uneasiness: when reality runs counter to plans or projections, it runs counter to a form of unreality. More precisely: it runs against what has already partially sedimented from an instance of that form of unreality.


Thinking about the future is a form of unreality. Just like other such forms, future-related unreality is produced when we make up, in our thoughts, a version of reality that differs from it in some respects. When we make plans, we envisage a future state that is different from the present state as we conceive of it. When we begin acting out such plans, this is sedimentation of unreality: if everything goes by plan, the present situation transforms gradually into what we've planned. One action builds on the results of the preceding actions, and the whole course gets its direction by the projected future state we envisaged first (the instance of unreality). We might make some adjustments along the way, but as long as we can keep the original goal it remains that same instance of unreality gradually sedimenting itself into reality.

If, on the other hand, the plan breaks down and it becomes clear that it won't be realized, the original instance of unreality gets abandoned, and as far as the sedimentation has already taken place, it becomes a write-off, a misspent investment. Whatever time and effort has gone into it is recognized as wasted or misdirected in retrospect — and since that is a precious resource for each of us, that hurts.

There is a great variety in thinking about the future, and it still remains to be shown that they all constitute yet another form of unreality. If they do, then the process I've called sedimentation is something very common; whenever it is frustrated, the situation is akin to what I've described in my example. Thus, one thing this account can serve to explain is the negative feeling we might feel in such situations; another one is the hesitation we often experience to engage in what I've called reflection, i.e. cutting down instances of unreality in living our lives. (In reflection, we deliberately act against already partially sedimented unreality, so in a sense we have to bring ourselves into the unpleasant situation described in the tram example.)

March 6, 2011

Unreality and prefiguration of death (in Venice)

I've finally completed a paper that collects various ideas from my online journal over at; together they make up an interpretation of Thomas Mann's novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) which has various connections to the discussion of unreality here. In fact, the origin of several ideas I have outlined on this blog lies in my reading of Death in Venice, along with Kafka's Trial one of my preoccupations over the past couple of years.

The full text of the article can be found on my Papers page; here's the abstract for your convenience:
Thomas Mann’s “Der Tod in Venedig” ends with Aschenbach’s, the protagonist’s, death; but that death isn’t simply the conclusion of the story, it rather is its central topic: it gives the work its title, it is what all the plot lines have as their vanishing point, and above all, it’s alluded to and symbolized by characters and events all the time. These prefigurations in the story are the focus of this essay.

In addition to structural allusions to later passages in earlier ones and characters whose description suggests reading them as death personalized, there are more aspects to the prefiguration technique. Most importantly, they connect several tendencies in the story which all contribute to Aschenbach’s fate: mental and physical fatigue, an increasing inability to withstand temptations and weaknesses, and a feeling of drifting towards unreality. By prominently employing prefiguration to bring out all these tendencies, Mann not only achieves a high coherence between earlier and later parts of the story, but also highlights the interconnectedness of these tendencies.

Aschenbach’s development (or decline) over the course of the story reflects a growing willingness, albeit one which always had been rooted in his personality, to accept and even actively engage in deception along with other (including more artistic) deviations from reality: in the service of beauty, that shimmer of unreality.