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

10 responses to “excuse me, your linguistic bias is showing

  • Gavin Robinson

    It’s worse if you don’t question the nature of language and go into the archives with an assumption that things actually are what they’re called. I’ve tended to think that questioning language is a way of breaking out of that bias, but now you mention it, I realise that it could just be replacing one bias with another. It’s all so difficult…

  • Tom

    Perhaps you are transcending history into philosophy. As I understand it, virtually (perhaps literally) all of Plato’s dialogues are about bringing precision to meanings of words (concepts). Also, again as I understand it, Aristotle’s quintessential philosophic treatise Metaphysics came about because his empirical studies in Physics lead him to questions that transcended physics – into philosophy.

    Toynbee wondered: Is there a subject metahistory analogous to Aristotle’s metaphysics. That is, “a study of Reality in some higher dimension than that of human affairs as these present themselves to us in the phenomena and are then organized by our minds through the method of analysis and classification…my [Study of History Vol. I-XII] began as an analytico-classificatory comparative study of human affairs and turned into a metahistory en route.”

    On a personal note, upon completing my Master’s in history, I intended to go on for a Ph.D. However, I faced a dilemma: I wanted to study history; however, I wondered about what it means to know the past. The object of an historian’s study does not exist. It has being but not existence. Also, the object of study is generally a social phenomena (i.e. groupings of people: nations, tribes, civilizations, Catholics, etc.); accordingly, it seemed that I should study social science. So in what field should by Ph.D be in: history, philosophy, or sociology? I could not answer the question and did not go on.

  • musafiremes

    I don’t think metaphysics as a branch of knowledge deduced by human reasoning “alone” can be anywhere more comprehensive and all-encompassing than physics since all humans live within the realm of the physical world so any knowledge that transcends the physical world has to be conveyed top-down – via the physical senses and constricted to fit the realm of human cognition – rather than vice versa.

  • rAchel

    Tom: there’s no reason why the study of the past precludes the study of how we study the past. From what you say about your interests, I think sociology would frustrate you (insufficiently abstract), while philosophy wouldn’t fulfill your evident interest in history (fully abstract — you know what Dionysius said about history — it is philosophy in practice 🙂 ). Have a read of R. G. Collingwood’s ‘Idea of History’ if you’re interested in philosophy of history. And John Lewis Gaddis recently wrote a wonderful series of brief meditations on the practice of history – ‘The Landscape of History’ – which is in my opinion one of the best and most lucid reflections on the craft since, you know, Bloch. Stay away from Hegel’s Philosophy of History until you’re ready to take the heady & head-messing plunge. And Hayden White (possibly in response to Toynbee, now that I think about it) wrote a monstrous tome called ‘Metahistory’, which says interesting things about how historians write and “emplot” narratives of the past, but degenerates fairly quickly into gratuitous jargon.

    (In short: do history! it is, I have on good authority, the “mother of all disciplines”).

  • Tom

    In the history of western philosophy, the word metaphysics denotes many different types of systems; as I understand it, many can accurately be described as “deduced…top-down – via the physical senses and constricted to fit the realm of human cognition – rather than vice versa.” However, Aristotle’s was anything but such a ‘top-down’ system.

    The word ‘metaphysics’, as it was applied to Aristotle’s text, derives from the Greek phrase ‘ta meta ta physika’; i.e. ‘what comes AFTER the physics or BEYOND the physics’. As Toynbee, a renowned classical scholar, wrote: “When Aristotle had completed his inquiry into physics, he found himself left with a number of unanswered questions that had arisen in the course of it.” Thus, his system could be characterized, to extend the metaphor, ‘bottom-up’, in that the empirical research was prior to the metaphysical speculations.

    Similarly, the word ‘metahistory’ denotes many different types of systems some of which are deductive ‘top-down’. However, Toynbee’s foray into the field was consistent with Aristotle’s, in that meticulous empirical “analytical-classificatory method” preceded and gave rise to questions that could not be answered empirically. Further, Christopher Dawson, an historian of no small reputation, argued “that ‘metahistory’ is not the same thing as ‘universal history’ and that ‘all historiography is pervaded by metahistorical influences.” Also, he wrote: “The experience of great historians, such as Tocqueville and Ranke, leads me to believe that a universal metahistorical vision…lies close to the sources of their creative power.”

  • musafiremes

    “However, Aristotle’s was anything but such a ‘top-down’ system.”

    Precisely what I meant. Anything that’s not ‘top-down’ should not claim – if it did claim so – that it is comprehensive enough be all-encompassing.

    In other words, I think we can never know whether the complement of a subset plus the subset itself would make up the entire set, if we ourselves are elements within the subset.

  • Kevin

    Hi Rachel, — I found this post to be quite interesting and it served as a catalyst for my own post about the relationship between history and philosophy of history.


  • rAchel

    hi Kevin, thanks for stopping by 🙂 you wrote a good & thoughtful response, and you are right that at least for the purpose of doing history, purely abstract discussion about these matters is fruitless. I’m glad people are thinking about these things. the philosophical foundations of history (indeed any sort of inquiry) get short shrift these days.

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