What Philosophical Work Could Be, by Eric Schwitzgebel

A woman representing Wisdom giving to Aristotle the key to the treasure-house of Reason, to distinguish man from the beasts. Etching. Image public domain via Wikimedia Commons.jpgAcademic philosophers in Anglophone Ph.D.-granting departments tend to have a narrow conception of what counts as valuable philosophical work. Hiring, tenure, promotion, and prestige turn mainly on one’s ability to write an essay in a particular theoretical, abstract style, normally in reaction to the work of a small group of canonical historical and 20th century figures, on a fairly constrained range of topics, published in a limited range of journals and presses. This is too narrow a view.

I won’t discuss cultural diversity here, which I have addressed elsewhere. Today I’ll focus on genre and medium.

Consider the recency and historical contingency of the philosophical journal article. It’s a late 19th century invention. Even as late as the mid-20th century, leading philosophers in Western Europe and North America were doing important work in a much broader range of styles than is typical now. Think of the fictions and difficult-to-classify reflections of Sartre, Camus, and Unamuno, the activism and popular writings of Russell, Dewey’s work on educational reform, Wittgenstein’s fragments. It’s really only with the generation hired to teach the baby boomers that our conception of philosophical work became narrowly focused on the academic journal article, and on books written in that same style.

Consider the future of media. The magazine is a printing-press invention and carries with it the history and limitations of that medium. With the rise of the internet, other possibilities emerge: videos, interactive demonstrations, blogs, multi-party conversations on social media, etc. Is there something about the journal article that makes it uniquely better for philosophical reflection than these other media? (Hint: no.)

Nor need we think that philosophical work must consist of expository argumentation targeted toward disciplinary experts and students in the classroom. This, too, is a narrow and historically recent conception of philosophical work. Popular essays, fictions, aphorisms, dialogues, autobiographical reflections, and personal letters have historically played a central role in philosophy. We could potentially add, too, public performances, movies, video games, political activism, and interactions with the judicial system and governmental agencies.

Philosophers are paid to develop expertise in philosophy, to bring that expertise in philosophy into the classroom, and to contribute that expertise to society in part by further advancing philosophical knowledge. A wide range of activities fit within that job description. I am inclined to be especially liberal here for two reasons: First, I have a liberal conception of philosophy as inquiry into big-picture ontological, normative, conceptual, and broadly theoretical issues about anything (including, e.g., hair and football as well as more traditionally philosophical topics). I favor treating a wide range of inquiries as philosophical, only a small minority of which happen in philosophy departments. And second, I have a liberal conception of “inquiry” on which sitting at one’s desk reading and writing expository arguments is only one sort of inquiry. Engaging with the world, trying out one’s ideas in action, seeing the reactions of non-academics, exploring ideas in fiction and meditation — these are also valuable modes of inquiry that advance our philosophical knowledge, activities in which we not only deploy our expertise but cultivate and expand it, influencing society and, in a small or a large way, the future of both academic philosophy and non-academic philosophical inquiry.

Research-oriented philosophy departments tend to regard writing for popular media or consulting with governmental agencies as “service”, which is typically held in less esteem than “research”. I’m not sure service should be held in less esteem; but I would also challenge the idea that such work is not also partly research. If one approaches popular writing as a means of “dumbing down” pre-existing philosophical ideas for an audience of non-experts whose reactions one does not plan to take seriously, then, yes, that popular writing is not really research. But if the popular essay is itself a locus of philosophical creativity, where philosophical ideas are explored in hopes of discovering new possibilities, advancing (and not just marketing) one’s own thinking, furthering the community’s philosophical dialogue in a way that might strike professional philosophers, too, as interesting rather than merely familiar re-hashing, and if it’s done in a way that is properly intellectually responsive to the work of others, then it is every bit as much “research” as is a standard journal article. Analogously with consulting — and with Twitter feeds, TED videos, and poetry.

I urge our discipline to conceptualize philosophical work more broadly than we typically do. A Philosophical Review article can be an amazing, awesome thing. Yes! But we should see journal articles of that style, in that type of venue, as only one of many possible forms of important, field-shaping philosophical work.

~ Eric Schwitzgebel is a Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside. This piece was originally published on June 11 at his excellent blog The Splintered Mind and re-published here with the author’s permission.

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Review: In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015

When I returned to college a few years ago to follow my heart’s desire and study philosophy, one of my ethics professors opened the first class session with this question: ‘Why are you here?’ It was not meant as that ubiquitous and difficult-to-answer metaphysical question which would be the topic of so many future course discussions (difficult because it’s not well-formed, many of us would object, being too nebulous). He meant, why where we there in his class, and why were we attending college at all?

I was sitting there, aglow with satisfaction at having resumed my pursuit of a higher education after spending so many years working for others, then struggling to keep my own small business afloat in the 2008 recession era. I was feeling that the daily tasks of my working life were taking up an inordinate amount of time while failing to satisfy my curiosity about the world, so I reduced the size of my business (I’m happy to report it continues to thrive to this day) and returned to school.

In answer to my ethics professor’s question, a few hands went up. ‘To get a good job?…’ one student offered, hesitatingly. ‘I want to get rich! That’s what we’re all here for, really’ said another, with bravado. Others chimed in in assent, with a few objecting that while that’s really what they were here for, too, that’s not the only reason. While some lip service was paid to the intrinsic value of education, the instrumental view of college, as a means to the end of achieving wealth and status, won out in that particular discussion.

In the idealistic mood I was in, I was disappointed. I was here because I was sick to death of the struggle to get ahead, and was thrilled at the prospect of pouring most of my energy into learning and thinking; making money was now relegated to the periphery of my life, and good riddance. For awhile, at least, I would be thrifty and work enough to pay the bills and save a little for emergencies, and that was it.

Why open this review with an anecdote? I’m inspired to to do by Zakaria himself, who opens his excellent little book with his own story: how he, like his brother, came to America and received a liberal education, and what it did for him. In fact, his book is all about what education can do to make each individual’s life a much richer one, in every sense of the word. When I say ‘little book’, I only mean it’s not long, just six chapters and less than 200 pages. It’s really a very big book when it comes to the ideas he explores and the wealth of information and evidence he supplies in support of his arguments. I’ve long admired Zakaria’s ability to express important ideas clearly, succinctly, and with personality, and with this book, he accomplishes all of these to the highest degree.

A liberal education, as Zakaria describes it, is not only generous in its rewards; it’s liberating. It frees the mind narrowed by a lack knowledge and experience, of deeply exploring other points of view. It expands and strengthens the mind as it becomes more elastic, ever ready to take in more information and process it in light of what you’ve learned so far. The more art and culture you take in, the more developed your aesthetic tastes become, and the more you’re able to appreciate. The more you’re practiced in critical thinking, the better able you are to take in new ideas and explore them for quality and for beauty, for strengths and weaknesses. When done right, a liberal education should not make you a ‘know-it-all’; it should make you more open, more ready and able to constantly learn more as you go through life, and more keenly aware of how little anyone can really know about this fantastically rich, complicated, and endlessly fascinating universe we find ourselves in.

A liberal education also makes you a better citizen. You learn about important and influential political theories, and critiquing them logically as well as comparing how they fare throughout history, you learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to judge what might work best in the future. You learn about those who made a big difference in the world, how you can make a difference too, and why you should try to do so. It’s also a quintessentially American innovation: by the people, of the people, and for the people. It’s a great equalizer, open to anyone (or at least intended to be) who has the basic skills and the desire to learn, no matter what socioeconomic class they come from. It presents the best ideas from all over the world for the students to critique and compare on their own merits, though instructors who themselves came from all manner of backgrounds.
Zakaria compares liberal education to skills-based training, which is now winning favor in public and political discourse as the more practical way to help people improve their lives. Many politicians are decrying public education as too ephemeral and calling for more public money to be spent on job training, if spent on education at all. Even President Obama, in favor of free junior college for qualified applicants, recently took a crack at a humanities major. While agreeing that skills-based training is very important, Zakaria explains why it’s not only not enough for a democracy, it’s not enough for a nation that wants to stay innovative and competitive. A person whose talents are honed and locked into one narrow set of skills may be very good at one particular job, but when changes in technology and in the market render that job obsolete, that person’s training is no longer relevant, and they’re left poorly equipped to pursue other options. Consider an entire population educated and trained this narrowly, and you see the problem. As Zakaria points out, a liberal education, which focuses on instilling a broad base of knowledge and generally applicable critical thinking skills, does much more to help people become more informed, flexible, and equipped to take in new information and apply it in new ways.

When I reconsider that ethics class discussion in light of Zakaria’s book, I realize we were talking past each other. There’s no reason to choose between the instrumental side and the intrinsic value of college. A liberal education, which as undergrads we were all pursuing, helps us accomplish all of our goals in a way few other social institutions can, and can be essential for helping us become the best human beings we can be.

Ordinary Philosophy Recommends: IQ2 Debate – Are Liberals Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus?

Office for Emergency Management War Production Board Free speech doesn't mean careless talk circa 1942 1943 Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsWhen I first read the title of this debate, my immediate reaction was ‘Yup!’

I consider myself more of a liberal than otherwise, yet I found myself generally in agreement with the proposition ‘Liberals are stifling intellectual diversity on campus’.

Many of the examples of effective censorship were already familiar to me: the students who called for UC Berkeley to dis-invite Bill Maher to deliver a commencement speech; constant overzealous insistence on ‘politically correct’ terminology; the perceived need to prefix nearly every class lecture or statement with ‘trigger warnings’ so that students’ feelings, apparently of the delicacy of fine china within their tender little minds, wouldn’t suffer in the slightest.

If I sound sarcastic in the latter remarks, it’s intentional: all this hyper-sensitivity, I fear, is helping to dumb down public discourse, which is especially worrisome in the very institutions whose mission it is to enlighten. It’s important to understand the difference between respect for others, which I think includes the respect for their intellect which informs open and honest discourse, and the squeamish fear of arousing any emotional response beyond placid approval.

To be fair, there’s plenty of non-liberal censorship going on too, as the debaters against the motion pointed out, and were some examples of purported liberal censorship that I don’t think are valid. For example, Kirstin Powers, in favor of the motion, referred to universities refusing to approve student club constitutions that require their members or leaders to hold certain beliefs, such as at Vanderbilt University. I don’t think this is an example of censorship at all. The reasons students are not allowed to command belief in their members are derived from generally applicable laws and principles that prioritize full participation in the public square. An institution that accepts money and resources from the public, such as a university, is well within its rights to say that a club can’t accept those resources and then turn around and allocate them in a discriminatory way. Likewise, the university, and in turn its approved clubs, can’t command their members not to believe certain things either. The students who decide to join these clubs will thus freely self-select their own membership, and those who join who hold dissenting beliefs will bring in a little healthy debate and strengthen the club’s own grasp of the ideas they promote. That’s how the marketplace of ideas works.

Likewise, the students who call for dis-invitations of speakers they don’t agree with would show themselves much more faithful to true liberal values if they support the right of people with opposing views to speak at their campus. If they disagree with the views and actions of the speaker, they should show up to the speech and challenge the views of the speaker in person, in the question and answer session, or with signs for the speaker and audience to read, or if no other means of expression is available to them, plainly express their dissent by getting up en masse and walking out.

~~~~~~~~
Sources and Inspiration
‘Liberals are Stifling Intellectual Diversity on Campus’, Intelligence Squared U.S. debate, Feb 24, 2015.
http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/past-debates/item/1310-liberals-are-stifling-intellectual….

‘Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs’, FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) website, 2012.
http://www.thefire.org/cases/vanderbilt-university-refusal-to-approve-constitutions-of-student

Welcome to the Podcast Edition of Ordinary Philosophy!

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the
podcast version of Ordinary Philosophy!

You can listen to the podcast here, on Google Play, or subscribe in iTunes.

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of podcasts, mostly because my life is very busy. One day in the future, I hope to have a lot more time to do each task one at a time, to really be present, as they say, as I wash the dishes, straighten the house, do the laundry, and perform all those other tasks that take up time, but not much thought.

But at this time in my life, between my day jobs, my creative projects, and spending time with friends and family (which I don’t do enough of these days, sadly), I don’t have enough time to keep up the world of ideas as nearly much as I’d like to by sitting down and reading. Instead, I keep myself informed and increase my education by listening to lots of podcasts: discussions with my favorite authors and thinkers, audio renditions of books and essays, debates, recordings of classes on my favorite subjects, and so on. I listen to these podcasts while doing those aforementioned chores, and let me tell you: as one who is not fond at all of household chores like doing the dishes and washing the floor, the podcast is a marvelous invention: they transform boring chore time into great opportunities for learning and exploration. I’m also an avid hiker, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to immerse myself in some fascinating ideas or discussion as I immerse myself in the beauties of nature.

To begin with, this podcast will simply consist of audio recordings of my Ordinary Philosophy pieces. Over time, I may add commentary and who knows, perhaps interviews and discussions with guests. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, here’s Ordinary Philosophy in audio form: I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable!

… And here’s episode 2: Is the Market Really the Most Democratic Way to Determine Wages?
Originally published as an essay Feb 6th, 2014

The Value of a Liberal Education, and Two Risks of an Ideologically Narrow One

I grew up in a large, pretty close-knit extended family. There was a lot of dysfunction, as with many families, but a lot of love too. While I was often frustrated by the choices of some relatives (such as the tendency to enable bad behavior by sheltering the ‘sinner’ from consequences, or pretending it wasn’t happening), I was also secure in the knowledge that I belonged to a large, loving circle of people who would never abandon each other.

We were also a very insular family. We mostly hung out with each other and a few close family friends, pretty much all from church and pretty much all holding similar beliefs. Many of us kids, especially the older ones, had little contact with people outside of family and church. Many of us were (and some still are) home-schooled with a very conservative, fundamentalist Catholic curriculum, and many others attended all or mostly religious schools.

Given the state of much of the public school system, at least in the working class neighborhoods where many of us grew up, a part of me sympathizes with this choice. American public schools often leave much to be desired, to say the least. Since we have such a rotten system in America of funding public schools, with funding determined by the local tax base, we create a classist school system where the kids who need the most help don’t get the funding. So much for the non-aristocratic, egalitarian, freedom-of-opportunity ideal of America! But I digress…

But it seemed that the choice to limit our schooling to a strict Catholicism-centric education was usually based less on the concern with education quality as on a concern with raising children to replicate their parent’s beliefs and lifestyles. This makes sense in a certain way: parents want what’s best for their children, and people generally believe their own beliefs are the best, so, it’s logical parents want their children to believe and live as the parents see fit.

But here’s the way in which that doesn’t make sense: children are not replicants of their parents. They have their own thoughts, their own personalities, and their own sets of experiences. The world is full of different beliefs systems and lifestyles, often incompatible with those of the parents, that fulfill people, that suit them and make them happy. Every child, however they were raised, will inevitably confront that fact, and in today’s world of rapid, comprehensive access to data from all over the world, it will not take long.

Many parents recognize these facts, and are comfortable raising their children in a cosmopolitan fashion.

They want to equip their children with all the information they might require to navigate the world successfully in any community they may end up being a part of. To this end, they want children to truly understand not only their own beliefs, but the beliefs of others. While these parents may explain to their children why they think their own beliefs are better, they know that understanding the alternatives strengthens their capacity for critical thought. These patents also understand that their children should be comfortable interacting with people who believe and behave differently than they do, and familiarity with other faiths and cultures is the best way to accomplish this. Last but not least, these parents have the epistemic humility to admit that there’s a possibility that they are wrong, and they want to afford their children the opportunity to discover for themselves if that’s the case.

Such wise parents would agree, as I do, with Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who promotes the idea that a study of world religions should be a basic part of childhood education. Since religion is so central to both private and public life for most inhabitants of the world, he argues, children require this information to be wise and informed citizens. I think the same applies to science, politics, history, literature, and other disciplines relating to how people go about sharing, navigating, and understanding this world together.

For those parents who insist on providing an ideologically narrow education for their children, I’d ask them to consider this questions: when children grow up and confront different beliefs, customs, and lifestyles for the first time, as they inevitably will, what happens? What happens, for example, to the child of Biblical fundamentalists who finds out that almost all scientists, besides the half-dozen quoted in their textbooks, believe the Earth is billions of years old? Or that prayer doesn’t, statistically, prove to be effective in healing people? Or that people of other belief systems often live as harmonious, happy, fulfilled, ‘blessed’ lives as they do? Or even better? What happens to the barely educated woman, married off in her early teens and taught to be submissive to her husband, when she discovers that other women have the opportunity enjoy a rich intellectual life, a successful career, or a partnership with a spouse that respects her as an independent person?
For some children educated in this narrow way, whether their parents’ intentions were benign or otherwise, they will mostly reject alternative beliefs and ideas they come across out of hand. (‘That can’t be true, Dad would never lie to me.’ ‘I feel deep in my heart I know the truth, so I don’t need to question it.’ ‘Those poor Buddhists, they didn’t learn about Jesus. When they do, then they’ll truly be happy.’ ‘That’s the Devil talking, better not listen or I’ll be tortured in hell.’ ‘Liberals don’t believe in anything, but I do, so they must not have anything of value to say.’ ‘Environmentalists should just trust God instead of the government to protect the earth.’) They will grow up to more or less replicate the lives of their parents, happy in the security of knowing that they know the truth, what life’s really all about.
Others (I think very much a minority, but some) will thoroughly question the beliefs they were raised with in light of new ideas they’ve confronted, and in the end retain their parents’ beliefs because, to them, those beliefs ‘held up’ to the scrutiny. They might make some modifications here and there, but overall, stay convinced. These few are among the happiest of people, even happier than the unquestioning believers, I think, because they enjoy not only a sense of security in their beliefs, but intellectual satisfaction.

Still others will end up with a smorgasbord of beliefs, considering some sacred and unquestionable, discarding others, and adopting new ones. (Conservative Catholics derisively call others ‘cafeteria Catholics’ for engaging in this sort of picking and choosing.)

Many more will engage in ‘doublethink’, holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. To take another example from the religion of my childhood, one might believe that it’s ‘spiritually true’ that the body and blood of Jesus is present in the eucharistic wafer, but also believe it’s scientifically impossible for a thing to have all the qualities of bread while simultaneously being composed of human tissue. (The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, how pervasive it is and the ways we deal with it, is discussed thoroughly and fascinatingly in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me. I highly, highly recommend it.)

But there are two big risks for the hopeful yet, I think, misguided parents who seeks to shelter their children from knowledge that could contradict their own cherished beliefs. And I think parents would do well to consider these risks carefully before embarking on this project of transforming education into something more akin to indoctrination.
Risk #1: Your children might grow up to challenge you on your perceived deception. They will ask: What did you have to hide? Why did you feel you had to shelter me from thinking through these matters in an informed way? If what you taught me was really, evidently true, than why did you go to such lengths to keep me from learning about opposing ideas? And why would you undermine my ability to defend the beliefs you wanted to pass on, by keeping me ignorant of the challenges to those beliefs?
I went through that process myself, resenting my education which as narrow and limited until I took it into my own hands and chose a public college rather then the very conservative one my family would choose for me. Initially, I questioned the motives of my family, and was very angry that I was years behind in many subjects, especially science and history. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it was their tactics, not their motivations, that were at fault. But the damage had been done.

Risk #2: But by fair the largest danger is raising children with the potential to be bigots, even violent ones. While most children brought up to strictly conform to the beliefs of their parents will not turn out that way, of course, too many do. Consider this: what inspires oppression, warfare, and terrorists attacks? They come from the ideologically ‘pure’, from those who think it’s their job to make sure the world conforms to their ideology, from religious dogmatism to racial ideology to political utopianism. And the more isolated people are in their minds from the ideas and beliefs of others, the more sure, the more committed they are, that they are right, so everyone else must be wrong. And if others are wrong, if they are different, they are the enemy.

Since people are rarely convinced to convert to a whole new set of beliefs overnight, the ideologue often resorts to violence as a means of forcibly imposing those beliefs. Ironically, violence, though a popular tool
throughout history for trying to impose change, it’s the least effective, as psychologist Steven Pinker and other researchers reveal. To this day, religiously and politically motivated terror attacks and assassinations continue to make headlines.

Yet despite this, things on that front are getting better all the time. I recently heard Pete Seeger say, pertaining to the environment, that the world will be saved by people working in their communities. I think the world will also be saved by children who grow up in this new era where information about the world is not so easily hidden from them. Despite some parent’s best efforts, children can no longer so easily be sheltered in little bubbles of idealized ignorance, sentimentally dubbed ‘innocence’. Since information flows so freely, children now grow up exposed to media that brings others’ experiences so vividly to life, and are now more comfortable in the presence of people who look and think differently then they do. Familiarity with ‘others’ humanizes them, and communities will come to be determined mostly by shared interests, not by geographic location or ideological isolationism.

So parents, teach your children not only how to be good people, but to be informed citizens of the world. It will be a safer and more wondrous place for them and their progeny, and I bet they’ll thank you for it.

Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.
Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

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NOTES:

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.