Patterico posted an extension of the comment he made here about intent, interpretation, and meaning.
As I take his post, it suggests that he broadly wants to push back against intentionalism, and to suggest that the plain meaning of language – as interpreted by a reasonable listener – should rule our understanding what a speaker or writer means. Narrowly, he wants to push back against the use of legislative intent to frame the meaning of law, and return priority to the text itself.
This is murky damn water to be diving into; philosophy of language and understanding is one of the muddiest, hardest to navigate forms of philosophy that I’ve encountered. It’s very much a product of a Godellian problem – the structure of discussion of the problem contains the problem itself (Godel specifically said that “any axiomatic system of arithmetic would have true but unprovable statements — and that any formal system would therefore always be incomplete.”
I disagree (with Patterico, not Godel).
As my opening argument, please accept the following:
Here we have people who – through no fault of their own and with the best intentions – respond to being arrested by shouting “My nipples are bursting with desire!!” -because that’s what the phrasebook which they puchased told them was the translation from the Hungarian.
In court, the author of the phrasebook asks to plead “Incompetent.”
And in fact, at some level, all of us are incompetent in using our native languages. We do well enough to get our dinner orders right, but on many things we are unable to accurately express complex concepts (yeah, yeah, spare me the comments about my blogging…).
I live in the world of technology, specifically often software. Software is made of words – words with highly, incredibly, specific syntax and meanings that in turn create certain explicit behaviors on the systems decoding those words.
People spend years and years structuring statements in those complex, highly specific languages in order to make machines do specific things.
And interestingly, on adequately complex software projects, we find a class of problems called ‘emergent’ in which they (ideally) arise from unforeseeable interactions (but often from ones that had simply not been planned for).
The brutal part of what I do, however, comes in the boundary between the mechanistic language of machines and the desires of the humans who want the machine to do something from them.
Requirements analysis is an immensely complex part of software development, and one that is – historically – very badly done. Badly enough that the best models for developing software today often skip formal written requirements in favor of rapidly evolving prototypes which users and developers sit together and build.
Translating the ambiguity of business processes and human behavior into highly structured steps that a machine can interact with is hard at the best of times.
And we haven’t even got to meaning or intention yet. My point? That text is something we create sometimes sloppily, sometimes well, and that on one hand I believe in making the plain meaning of phrase the way I take it – I also am sympathetic to context and, indirectly to intention.
I’ve worked doing legislation. A bunch of really smart people argue over every word, and work hard to make sure that laws are clear and unambiguous…unless the same smart people are working to insert a loophole, or to build in careful ambiguity to win support from opposing interest groups.
There’s no way that our body of laws as it stands today doesn’t have ‘emergent bugs’ in it, and as strongly as Patrick will defend the absolute and literal meaning of the words in the law, there is no way that he or anyone else would be willing to live under a regime that didn’t mediate the law with the wisdom and consideration for these ambiguities that people like Patrick (who run our legal system) bring to bear.
But beyond the systems issues, I think that you have to embrace some level of intentional ism in the course of everyday language.
Let’s take a firebreathing case.
If I’m talking to a friend and I say “My nigger?” your interpretation is going to be different if we’re both white, both black, of different races, or are walking out of a screening of ‘Training Day’ (a great film where that line figures prominently).
Here there’s room for ambiguities of interpretation which range from – I’m a racist tool deliberately insulting a black man – to we’re buddies and speak in ghetto slang – to we’re re-enacting scenes from a film we’ve just seen. Leaping to judgment here is fraught with danger – but the worst case interpretation is so bad that we tend to avoid the words entirely, lest we say ‘niggardly’ when we mean cheap and lose our jobs.
And that case is one where I pivot, and say that the range for ambiguities of interpretation is very limited in scope and that it’s easily possible to go far too far.
In a paper I did a billion years ago on the subject, I discussed language as a map (I was reading Alford Korzybski at the time).
The point I made in riffing on his metaphor is that we all draw imperfect maps for each other, and yet most us manage to use them to get from here to there. Children draw maps that leave out whole continents, and yet their maps have a kind of coherence and integrity that usually makes them understandable.
We accept the imperfection of our maps, and use our awareness of what we actually see in the world to correct for the errors in the map – sometimes automatically, as we drive. And sometimes we get completely lost – even with good maps.
I just knocked this out between dinner and a drive to the symphony…what I wrote imperfectly represents the arguments in my head – because of the intentional and conscious nature of language.
But it’s good enough to get a language game going…