Monday 5 September 2011

What Concept Redescription Can Do for an Argument (part 2)

(Today’s piece is a continuation of last week’s piece.)

The philosopher Kate Distin’s (2011) Cultural evolution provides a second example of a concept redescription which works very well for the argument presented. This book is a follow-up to The selfish meme: A critical reassessment (2005), in which she analyzes and evaluates arguments of the major memetics theorists, differing markedly with most of them in her views on mind, consciousness, and imitation. Even though, near the end of the first book, she suggests the viability of an argument concerning language as a DNA-type mechanism for cultural inheritance, in the later book she no longer uses the term “memetics,” nor the theory’s accompanying terminology. The word does not appear in the index, and appears only one or two times in the main text. Again, the move here is from a flashy neologism to the more bland but more inclusive concept description, “cultural inheritance”. It allows her to develop her conceptual network without frictional encounters with memetics-inspired assumptions on the part of the reader familiar with that theory. In contrast to Moerman’s alternation between old and new terms, Distin shuts the door on the older term from the beginning, and I think her argument is more easily followed than it otherwise would have been.

Distin employs a unique tactic for dealing with her own silence throughout the text concerning the terminology of memetics. One finds, somewhat unexpectedly at the end of the book, a three-page appendix giving reasons for her evasion of “the m-word” (p. 232). She notes, “… there are several sound communicational reasons why it has been better to shed my theory’s old memetic skin…” (p. 233). Some of these communicational reasons are that this phrasing can provoke “a hostile reaction” (p. 231), presents “distracting connotations” (p. 232), and might prevent readers from taking her ideas seriously (p. 232). She is most likely right on all counts. But she also notes, “Many of this book’s arguments could have been redescribed memetically, and there is no representational reason why they should not have been” (p. 233). I must disagree with Distin on this point, however. There are a number of important arguments in the book which could not have been elaborated in their full breadth and depth using the limited vocabulary and limited ontology of the memetic theory. Her theory achieves its forcefulness, I believe, only through the precision granted by the new semantic network afforded by calling the process “cultural inheritance”.

The historian Donald Harman Akenson has a more difficult task before him as he redescribes historical concepts in his book Saint Saul: A skeleton key to the historical Jesus (2000). The concepts at issue are often also persons about whom a great number of people have strong feelings and opinions. The Saul of the title is a controversial figure both within Christianity and without. He has been known as Paul for two millennia. Akenson needs to take both some of the shine and some of the adherent venom off of Paul in order to make his point. His thesis is that the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 CE greatly influenced the composition of a number of New Testament texts, and therefore scholars need to reread very closely the pre-70 CE writings of Paul in order to gain a fresh historical perspective on the life of Jesus. But to develop this thesis, it is first necessary to help the reader to get back, imaginatively, to the time before the temple was destroyed. The name “Saul,” Akenson notes, “constantly reminds us that the great apostle has to be viewed as a fervent adherent of the Yahweh-faith of his time. He was not a twentieth- or fourth- or second-century Christian, but a zealous … believer in the Yahweh-religion of the Second Temple era” (p. 61). This is already a step toward broadening the concept of “Paul”. The concept redescription may also enable the reader to see Saul as one token of a more comprehensive type: “jagged, flawed, and therefore totally convincing human being” (Akenson, p. 13). In contrast with Moerman’s interleaving style and Distin’s appendix style of dealing with the rejected term, Akenson confronts the problem head on in his third chapter. The goal, he says, is to “guard ourselves against words that give false continuity” (p. 55) – precisely Viète’s point concerning symbols.

Each of the examples we have looked at show skilled writers eschewing a term rich with accumulated associations for the reader and choosing terms that enable cognitive operations very much like those afforded by Viete’s logisitica speciosa. The new terms can empower the reader to make their own connections free from associations which they may find themselves otherwise powerless to suppress or to set aside long enough to fully understand and evaluate the author’s ideas. The cognitive psychologist Deborah McCutchen noted some time ago, “In writing, unlike some tasks, decisions at the most detailed level of word choice and sentence construction can have large effects on abstract goal outcomes such as tone, perspective, and audience. This is because those goals are fully achieved only at the most local level” (1984, p. 230).

So, does this mean that writers should routinely choose new names for the concepts they wish to discuss? Why can’t the writer just use the current, popular term, redefine it to her specifications and get on with it? This way of proceeding does work in many contexts. However, when the accepted concept description very saliently undermines the grounds of the argument one proposes, it must go. One then takes great care to choose another term that can support the weight and flexibility of one’s argument, all the while reminding oneself that “it is not easy to deny the existence of something that has received a name” (Dantzig, p. 91).

Akenson, Donald Harman. (2000). Saint Saul: A skeleton key to the historical Jesus. Montreal & Kingston: McGill/Queen’s University Press.
Dantzig, Tobias. (2007/1930). Number: The language of science. London: Plume.
Distin, Kate. (2011). Cultural evolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
McCutchen, D. (1984). Writing as a linguistic problem. Educational Psychologist, 29, 226-238.

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