Another Spin of the Wheel

June 3, 2007, 10:05 pm
Stanley Fish

In the past year I have come to expect that the respondents to these columns will be learned, eloquent and precise in the articulation of their positions. (I have also learned that, no matter how remote the connection, they will be able to use whatever I write as a springboard to a denunciation of the Bush administration.) But my expectations were exceeded by the comments posted to my last piece on the impossibility of avoiding “spin” in a world (our world) where perception and expression necessarily proceed from some angled perspective or point of view. With passion and precision (and often at some length) the authors of these comments alerted me to at least two mistakes.

The first is the more serious: I was using the word “spin” in two different senses and my failure to distinguish between them led to a slippage in the argument of which I remained unaware until it was pointed out by literally dozens of readers. One sense of “spin” – the commonsense sense that is the subject of Brooks Jackson’s and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s new book, “unSpun” – is the effort to deceive either by omitting relevant facts or by drawing suspiciously large conclusions from small amounts of data or by regarding disputed evidence as authoritative – or by any of the hundreds of other techniques by which someone labors to “put something over” on someone else.

The other sense of spin I employed in the column is more philosophical: it is a response to the argument, made at times by Jackson and Jamieson, that one antidote to deception – either deception imposed by others or the self-deception imposed by one’s own desires and inclinations – is to carefully monitor one’s own thought processes and to be especially alert to the human tendency to “embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject evidence that challenges them.”

Jackson and Jamieson cite as a cautionary example a group that had gathered to await the appearance of a UFO that would rescue its members from a flood of biblical proportions. Neither the flood nor the UFO arrived, but, rather than abandoning the convictions that had led them to the prediction of both, the faithful “became even more committed to their cause after seeing what any reasonable person would conclude was shattering proof that they had been completely wrong.” What they should have done, say Jackson and Jamieson, is reduce “ their dissonance by abandoning their religious beliefs.”

The model here is of a mind stocked with beliefs and an independent world the facts of which could serve either to confirm or disconfirm them. They believed X, but then Y happened (or in this case didn’t happen), and the rational (reasonable) thing would have been no longer to believe X. In the original column I challenged this model and asserted that facts, rather than standing in a relationship of distance to belief – a distance that allowed them to perform the service of check or correction – were a function of belief. That is, the facts of a situation are not just sitting there waiting to be spotted by a perceptive apparatus free of biases and prejudices; the facts of a situation will take the shape they do – will become facts – by virtue of the grounding beliefs of interested observers ( there are no other kind). That is why the leader of the group in Jackson’s and Jamieson’s example declared that the “cataclysm had been called off because of the believers’ devotion.”

In a different, but structurally similar, scenario the failure of a predicted messiah to appear would be taken to mean (and has in history been taken to mean) that the faithful had been judged unworthy. If the belief is strong enough, if it is the cornerstone of one’s world-view, it will be no trick at all to re-characterize facts that others might see as a devastating challenge to it. (Thus in his “On Christian Doctrine,” St. Augustine advises scripture readers who find parts of the Bible pointing a bad moral to work the text over until “an interpretation conducing to the reign of charity is produced.”) We don’t “embrace” information that supports our beliefs; we see the information delivered by our beliefs.

And it doesn’t have to be a religious belief that is productive of facts confidently seen. Many who raised objections to my argument were especially bothered by what they regarded as my letting Karl Rove off the hook when he cited a statistic to support his claim that under President Bush the United States economy had improved. It was their belief that anything Karl Rove said was a lie – “a statement is a lie if it comes out of Rove’s mouth” – and it is within that belief, unshakable by anything offered as counter-evidence, that they will assess an analysis of a Rovian utterance, mine or anyone else’s.

But why not come to a situation with no beliefs, or with the beliefs you have held in abeyance or bracketed, and take a good, hard look at the facts? Aside from the point I have already made (that any facts we look at will be available and perspicuous only from the perspective of some belief or other), what is it exactly that we would be looking with? Unless there is a corner of the mind that observes purely – and if there were all disputes could be settled by just going to it – we can only look with or within the convictions that anchor our minds and provide the possibility of judgment. It is within a conviction or belief that some assertion or description will seem to us to be right or wrong, adequate or inadequate. Absent a belief that grounds it and gives it a direction, the mind would be rudderless and incapable of going anywhere.

That is what I meant when I said that an open mind was an empty mind. There is of course a perfectly good and uncontroversial sense of having an open mind: being receptive to new ideas in the hope that we might learn something or revise an opinion (see comments #125 and #129); but even that possibility will be shaped by the opinions we already hold, for it is from their vantage point that an idea will be received as new and worthy of consideration. Open-mindedness, insofar as it exists, is itself a constrained condition. There is no such thing as really being open-minded Again this is a distinction – between open-mindedness in a perfectly ordinary but uninteresting sense and open-mindedness as an epistemological state no human being could achieve – that I failed to articulate, just as I failed to articulate the difference between spin as deception and spin as the name of our inescapable condition, and for these failures I should certainly be faulted.

I should not be faulted, however, for maintaining that “there are no facts” or for declaring that “reality is subjective” or for “giving up the search for truth” or for saying that “there is no shared truth let alone an absolute truth.” I did not say and would never say those things. In most if not all cases there is certainly a fact of the matter, but just what it is will be worked out within the vocabularies or “dimensions of assessment” (J. L. Austin’s term in “How To Do Things With Words”) that at once limit and enable what we can see and say. And if two accounts of the fact of the matter are in competition, there is no algorithm or decision procedure independent of any dimension of assessment whatsoever that will tell us which is the correct one.

And as for reality, it is not subjective (a word I never use); it is out there prior to any of our efforts to describe it. But what we know of it (a knowledge constantly changing as our descriptive vocabularies change) will only be known through the medium of our descriptions; and disputes about it will be disputes about the adequacy of different ways of describing, again without the possibility of something that is not a challengeable mode of description settling the dispute once and for all. And the search for truth? It is the business we all should be in, but it is a line of work that can only be pursued within the linguistic and technical resource history affords us. There is an absolute truth, but short of achieving a point of view that is not a point of view–achieving, that is, godhead – it cannot be absolutely known.

The bottom line is that it is no contradiction at all to assert the firm existence of fact, truth and reality and yet maintain that they can only be known within the human, limited vocabularies we have built in the endless effort to get things right. Truth claims are universal, but their justification and elaboration take place in time and within revisable, contingent discursive structures.

This is hardly a new insight. Thomas Hobbes put it this way in his “Leviathan” (1651): “True and False are attributes of Speech, not of Things. And where Speech is not, there is neither Truth nor Falsehood.” That is to say, our judgment as to whether an assertion is true or false will be made by seeing how it fits in (or doesn’t fit in) with other assertions the truth of which are, at least for the time being, warranted. We do not compare the assertion with the world but with currently authoritative statements about the world. The world itself – unmediated by any system of statements – is forever removed from us. As Richard Rorty says, in an update of Hobbes, “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not” (“Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,” 1989). The world, Rorty adds, does not have its own language, does not make propositions about itself. We do that, and it is the propositions we hazard, not the world as it exists apart from propositions, that we affirm, reject, argue about and believe in.

If that is so, propositions – assertions that this or that is or is not the case – are the vehicle of thought and Hobbes can be emended to say, “where Speech is not, there is no Thought.” Words come first and make thought – propositions – possible. This is what I was getting at when I said we can’t think without them. I should have added (another failure to clarify) that by thinking I meant making propositions about the world. I was not thinking about the kind of thinking (if that is the word) that goes on in music or dance (see comments #79, #108 and #129). Fortunately, I was rescued from my imprecision by S. Mckenna and Ben Murphy, who make the point I should have made: “‘thought’ here is being used in the Fregean sense of something that can be true or false, something that can serve as a premise or conclusion in a deductive argument.”

And finally there is the matter of George Orwell. Kenny asks that I back up my judgment that “Politics and the English Language” is a silly, terrible essay with analysis and reasons. Well, that would take more than a column, but I could just cite Orwell’s advice “to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning clear as one can through pictures and associations.” I had thought that the last word on this fantasy had been written by Jonathan Swift in “Gullliver’s Travels.” Swift describes a society so distrustful of words that its members carry packs upon their backs, and when they want to communicate they just pull out things and point to them. (Try that with a Hummer or a big-screen TV.) James Johnston predicts that in 50 years people will still be reading Orwell and I will be just a footnote, if that. That sounds right. George Trail wonders what I think of “1984”. I think that “1984” and “Animal Farm” and many other writings by Orwell are accomplishments way beyond my abilities. I also think that “Politics and the English Language” is way below my abilities.

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Published in: on June 4, 2007 at 4:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

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