Monthly Archives: May 2007

excuse me, your linguistic bias is showing

I wonder if my bone-deep philosophical skepticism about language & its categorical nature have influenced my thesis argument. I mean to say, I am wary about nouns & their ability to coherently refer to things. Example: when we call something a cup, we do not refer to the space inside the handle of the cup as part of the cup, nor even the shadow cast by the cup, even though there’s no real reason not to. The word ‘cup’ also reifies the concept of a cup: one might, for example, call a box a cup if it were small enough. The idea of a noun is pure convention, or convenience. The cup example is not silly. Think how we designate names to bodies of water (Indian Ocean?) — a convenience, a convention: indeed, a conceit. Things are fluid, amorphous; nouns are boundaries. Cups have a way of overflowing. I am skeptical about a noun’s ability to contain overflow.

anyway, my thesis argument essentially takes the problem of the mui tsai as one of definition & redefinition — it was the colonial administration’s practice of bureaucratic categorization juxtaposed against the uncertain fluidity of the term mui tsai that made its abolition so intractable, and the whole process of abolition was one of legislative redefinition — this was a conclusion I arrived at through assiduous archival beavering. but I wonder how much it was a foregone conclusion given the inbuilt premises from which I operate. How much do my personal biases shape the way I look at the archive? — that is, of course, an age-old question for historians, but I always assumed it referred more to nationalistic biases (Japanese government writing Japanese history) or gendered biases (women writing women’s history) etc. Having a philosophical prejudice against the nature of language seems much more insidious, and therefore much more difficult to correct for.

thesis on the cusp of completion asdf;lkjg;a