Games and Spectators (Draft of Truth and Context, Chapter Five (2001))
1) The Power of Reflection
Argument : that the way reflection facilitates knowledge can be explained once understood as a ‘virtual view from nowhere.’
Argument : that despite the repudiation of bivalence, the importance of ‘implicit logic’ lies in the manner it facilitates communicationvia ‘virtual transcendence.’ Only by speaking as if we were gods, one might say, can we communicate as humans.
There is something commonsensical about the notion that language provides a means of sharing, organizing, and condensing our perspectives on the world, a notion that evaporates once the world is relegated to the background of our linguistic performances. The significance of linguistic performances is not exhausted by the role they play within the normative economy of other such performances. If one concentrates on performative contexts alone, then the significance of the occlusion of those contexts in actual performances is covered over. Linguistic performances frame certain vantages on the world, either concisely, as when we are referred to distinct things in the world, or diffusely, as when we cobble together fictional vantages from the soup of our past relations to the world. Even in the midst of social practices that demand we ‘fabricate,’ we still possess a vantage on the world, albeit an idiosyncratic one.
We commonly associate the possibility of absolute truth with the possibility of occupying the ‘view from nowhere,’ or understanding the world ‘sub specie aeternitatus.’ We implicitly understand that our view of the world is a limited one, and that our ability to know depends upon our ability to transcend our viewpoint. Only if we are somehow able to transcend contingent performative contexts, it seems, could we be capable of making absolute truth claims.
Although the relation between truth and frame occlusion noted earlier parallels this, the fact that in framing a certain vantage on the world performative contexts are occluded from that vantage in no way suggests that we actually transcend our contexts in the manner suggested by the view from nowhere. With our temporal self-referential sentence, recall, the problem was that the sentence referred us to the moment of its performance, not that there was in fact such a moment to be referred to. We are always embedded in performative contexts. Even though such contexts are occluded for us in the course of certain activities, they frame us nevertheless. This is why living forward, for the contextualist, always trumps understanding backward, and why, moreover, the notion of detaching ourselves from performative contexts and viewing the world sub specie aeternitatus now smacks of ‘backward superstition’ in ‘forward thinking’ circles. The transcendence afforded by the ‘standpoint of truth’ is at best virtual.
But if frame occlusion in no way removes the limitations of performative contexts, then what possible difference could a ‘virtual view from nowhere’ make? The difference, I think, is both communicative and normative. When I assert, I not only frame my relation to the world, I frame your relation to the world as well. Communication consists, not in any ‘transfer of goods’ between individuals, but in framing one another in certain relations to the world. Virtual transcendence, in this sense, allows individuals to share common vantages on the world insofar as it allows anyone to implicitly frame the vantage of another. To return to our analogy of the room, asserting is something like grabbing others by the shoulders and redirecting their vantage to some feature of the room–something like aiming. It provides for, the suggestion is, the direct communication of content.
In addition, the virtual transcendence afforded by frame occlusion seems to fund what might be called the ‘conservation of content.’ When we speak ‘as though from nowhere’ we speak as though the vantage communicated were the only possible one. Accordingly, all other vantages become incompatible with it–that is, they become false.
Virtual transcendence, in other words, introduces bivalence, and bivalence insures that the number of alternate vantages in any community will be conserved. If two vantages on the same thing are virtually incompatible, then the normative pressure to abandon either one or the other is accordingly increased. Our virtual view from nowhere, the suggestion is, tends to cull the community of idiosyncratic vantages on the world, whether that community possesses an explicit understanding of vantages or not.
Virtual transcendence, in other words, facilitates actual transcendence. When others frame our relation to the world through linguistic performances, when they communicate, they are sharing their vantage, and we, accordingly transcend ours. The same happens when, in the course of argumentation, we relinquish our vantage in favor of one that evinces a deeper understanding of the world. Such transcendence is obviously only a matter of degree, but it remains transcendence nonetheless. The possibility of actual context transcendence, in fact, is internal to vantages. Since a vantage is only intelligible as a vantage on something that exceeds it, a vantage without access to ‘further angles on the world’ would not be a vantage at all. Communication and its correlate, argumentation, provide examples of the way language drastically enhances our ability to transcend the limitations of here and now. In transcending these limitations we certainly remain limited to the here and now, but our vantage is framed in a different way, one that perhaps allows us to see more of the great room of the world than others.
In our consideration of the temporally self-referential sentence, we also encountered a different species of ‘virtual transcendence’ from that afforded by the frame occlusion manifested in the course of actual linguistic performances. The difference between the two readings of our temporally self-referential sentence, it was suggested, was that the latter reading, the one which allowed us to make ‘sense’ of the sentence, involved what was called ‘retrospective ascent.’ By reading the sentence from the standpoint of its completion, we were able to ‘decompress’ the sentence’s violation of performance-reference asymmetry, to frame the ‘now’ of our initial reading from a further vantage whose own performative context remained occluded. Where we were performers through and through in the first reading, we were something like ‘spectators’ of our own performance in the second.
This is simply an instance of something that philosophers do all the time: We transcend the performative context of our practices, and ‘reflect’ upon them from a further standpoint. This further standpoint, it has been suggested, carries the risk of missing the occluded frame structure of linguistic performances and construing them as things externally related to other things. This is essentially what contextualists and pragmatists mean when they complain of ‘reified’ or ‘objectified’ meaning. But there is also a further risk. The occlusion of performative context characteristic of reflection, it seems, often deceives us into thinking that we somehow approximate the ‘view from nowhere,’ that we can actually see things sub specie aeternitatus, even though we obviously remain embedded in the normative economy of a highly specialized social practice. And this, in part, is what contextualists and pragmatists mean when they complain of ‘spectator theories of knowledge.’ When we transcend performative contexts that frame us and retrospectively frame them, we nevertheless remain framed by a further occluded performative context. ‘Understanding backward,’ in other words, is simply another moment of ‘living forward.’
If the virtual transcendence characteristic of reflection is simply another moment of living forward, the question becomes one of what distinguishes it from other such moments. In other words, if spectators are in fact players in a different game, what distinguishes the ‘game of spectators’ from other games?
When, in the course of reflecting on your life with another, that other says, ‘It sounds like you’ve done everything in your life to fulfill the expectations of your father,’ we attribute understanding to that person not on the basis of ‘publicly demonstrated competence in a certain context,’ but because they have framed our vantage on our life in a way that organizes and condenses a manifold of vantages. Any number of comments could demonstrate ‘performative competence’ in such a situation, but only a handful could demonstrate insight, a gain in understanding.
Reflection, in every day instances, seems either to yield understanding or possibilities of understanding. We commonly say that writing a diary, for instance, allows us to better understand our lives, and we attribute such understanding even to individuals who never show their diary to another–that is, who never publicly demonstrate competence. We say this because to reflect on a life is to take a vantage on the throng of vantages that constitute a life. We say this because understanding more is as much a matter of the augmentation and condensation of vantages into further, more inclusive vantages, as it is of competence in performative contexts.
Where everyday social practices typically constrain us to be constrained by the world in a specific way, to see the world through the priest’s eyes, say, the social practices of reflection constrain us to be constrained by the world in a way that transcends the specifics of our everyday vantages, to take a ‘bird’s eye view.’ Where the ‘forward’ virtual transcendence of assertoric linguistic performances makes it difficult to see our vantage as a vantage, the ‘backward’ virtual transcendence of reflection plainly reveals the limitations of our everyday vantages. The virtual transcendence of reflection, in other words, allows us to look at our vantages rather than simply through them. By doing so it allows us to not only to see more, but to recognize that there is always more to see. The social practices of reflection, in other words, not only constrain us to be constrained by the world come what may, they also sanction unprecedented moves, a gain in understanding beyond mere competence, and so allow us to transform our practices in response to the world.
The ‘backward’ virtual transcendence of reflection, in other words, also facilitates actual transcendence, which in turn allows for a deeper understanding of the world. And this is just to say that it allows our vantage on the world to be more true. ‘More true,’ in this sense, simply means ‘more context transcendent.’
Truth, in other words, is the comparative measure of the varieties of context transcendence belonging to our vantages on the world. This is the common link between most theories of truth. When correspondence theorists say that truth belongs to the way linguistic performances (framed after the fact as ‘propositions,’ etc.) ‘correspond’ to the world, they are framing an idiosyncratic vantage on the way truth involves a relation to the world that seems independent of our particular perspective. Likewise, when coherence theorists say that truth belongs to the ‘coherence’ of linguistic performances (framed after the fact as a ‘propositions,’ etc.) within a system of such performances (framed after the fact as a ‘conceptual scheme,’ etc.), they are framing an idiosyncratic vantage on the relation of truth to the way our vantages on the world are often organized and condensed within a single frame. When deflationists and minimalists say that an exemplary linguistic performance (the ‘equivalence schema’) exhibits all that needs to be said about truth–that it enables a certain kind of generalization–they are framing an idiosyncratic vantage not only on the way the truth-predicate linguistically facilitates context transcendence, but on the difficulty of ‘seeing’ truth, which, like ‘understanding’ or ‘meaning,’ vanishes whenever we try to frame it as a thing. When verificationists say that the truth of linguistic performances (framed after the fact as ‘propositions,’ etc.) depends upon verification according to the appropriate procedure, they are framing an idiosyncratic vantage on the way truth involves context transcendence, how verifying procedures test linguistically framed vantages against perceptually framed vantages, and so on. When pragmatists say that the truth of linguistic performances (framed after the fact as mere performances) depends on whether they provide a good basis for action, they are also framing an idiosyncratic vantage on the way truth involves context transcendence, how linguistically framed vantages allow for the transformation of vantages according to expectations.
Truth is the measure of the context transcendence of vantages, whether this transcendence is manifested in the ‘coherence’ of a group of linguistically framed vantages on the world, the ability to make generalizations about the veracity of statements made by others, the ability of hypotheses to bear up under experimentation, or the ability of maxims to allow the satisfaction of our expectations in action. And since context transcendence is only a matter of degree, truth is only a matter of degree. A ‘true statement’ is a linguistic performance that frames our relation to the world in a comparatively context transcendent way. The question, of course, is one of how we arbitrate ‘comparative context transcendence.’ The answer, quite simply, is that we continue chasing our vantages come what may, continue experimenting, acting, reflecting, and arguing, and that this is always a ‘messy and retail business.’ Only as our perspective broadens over the course time can we definitively determine whether a certain vantage on the world is ‘more true’ than another.
The point is this: Although we can never absolutely arbitrate the comparative context transcendence of various vantages at any given point in time, we can say things like: ‘I know more now than I did when I was an infant,’ or ‘We know more about cancer now than we did ten years ago.’ So far as we possess a vantage on the world we can say that we know something. So far as our vantages can be linguistically framed and so conserved, we can say that we know more and not just ‘differently’ than, say, our stone-age ancestors. Our knowledge today will doubtless strike our grandchildren as idiosyncratic, not only because our moves will seem out of place in their social practices, but because they will possess linguistically condensed vantages born out of a greater exposure to the world. Our ‘bird’s eye view’ will be encompassed by their more inclusive vantage.
Without an understanding of vantages, all these comparative platitudes become tendentious. From the standpoint of the game, we can say that we know more than our stone-age ancestors because such a linguistic performance is justified by our social practices, but since ‘knowing more’ is simply a matter of competence in the context of a social practice and our social practices are distinct from those of the stone-age, our spade is turned before any excavation can begin. From the standpoint of the spectator we can say that we possess more true beliefs than our stone-age ancestors, but our claim is always vulnerable to the sceptic, who, by positing possible vantages bivalently incompatible with our own, point out that we can never know that our true beliefs are actually true.
On a comparativist account, however, knowledge is the default, much as certainty is the default on a game account. The assertion that we know nothing is absurd in comparativism to the extent that not knowing anything means not possessing a vantage on anything, which in turn means not possessing a vantage at all. The assertion that we can never know whether we know more is also absurd, since for a vantage to be a vantage, it must be a vantage on something that exceeds it. We can only possess a vantage, in other words, by transcending our vantage and seeing more. The possibility of knowing more is internal to the possibility of possessing a vantage.
With frames and vantages, then, the game becomes a game of spectators; the stark opposition of truth and context is replaced by the collage of comparative gradations that characterize our concrete, everyday lives. Just what a ‘vantage’ is may escape us for some time to come, but it is certainly better to distill the mystery of intentionality to one thing that we at least seem to implicitly understand, rather than to distribute it across a plethora of abstract entities or to obscure it altogether behind a veil of performances which begs it nonetheless.