Friday, February 27, 2015

In Lovely Blueness: Protagoras's revenge.

I'm not going to summarize the issues in the "debate" over whether what you are seeing here is white and gold or blue and black, because I'm sure 24 hours or so in, you're all up to speed. At Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg asks what philosophers will make of this as an opportunity for public philosophy  My prediction (and this already seems to be playing out), most philosophers will tell you that this is really a conversation about color perception, and descend into a discussion of qualia.  Is there a difference between what color something "is" and how we "experience"color?

I'm hopeful for something slightly different.  Maybe this will be a chance to redress a long standing wrong in public philosophy. Maybe the time has finally come for:

Protagoras's Revenge!

Protagoras was, of course,  the most famous of the sophists and the person with whom the worst sort of relativism is often associated.  His claim that "The human is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not" has been taken as early as Plato's Theatetus to be a claim that truth and reality are subjective functions of perception. If you experience a certain wind as hot, and I experience the same wind as cold, we aren't particularly bothered by this.  (We're willing to ascribe contrary properties to the "same" wind.  I'll return to winds at the end of this post).  It was, of course, also Plato who put this idea definitively to rest.  The problem is that the very ideas of truth and reality are normative, and universal in scope.  That is, Protagoras seems to be saying that when I say (say): that dress is blue and black, what I'm really saying is that that dress is blue and black for me. But if I go into any discussion thread on the internet right now, I'll see that that's untrue: what I seem to really want to claim is that everyone should see the dress as blue and black.  Now, Protagoras can of course come back and say: "yes, but you shouldn't want that" (this, after all, is the movement my students want to make in their lazy relativism*).  But here's where Plato's trump card comes in, because in order for Protagoras to make that claim, he needs to appeal to the normative, universal properties inherent in our understanding of truth.  (He's making a prescriptive claim).

Fine, Plato.  The dress is really blue and black.  Depending, of course, (to go back to another famous blue dress) on what the meaning of is is.

There's another philosophical problem that enters into discussion here, and that's the problem of the image.  Because we aren't talking about the dress.  We're talking about one particular image of the dress.  Now, presumably because that image is of a photograph, it merely reproduces the property of the actual dress, but science (of the "I fucking love science" variety) can tell me why it's actually more complicated than that.  There is, of course, a rich philosophical conversation about the image, which (again) goes back to Plato, but which isn't immediately connected there to the issues of perception and truth where Protagoras comes up (the line between these issues is short, of course, but I'm not going to traverse it right now).  More recently, Kendall Walton has considered the difference between the kinds of claims that "photographic" images make from, say, "drawn" images, although I think that that discussion needs to be updated in the light of digital photography.  (A person less lazy than me would go research that topic now, but although that's a detour I'm interested in, it's not one I need to take right now as I've reason to be confident it wouldn't for a major revision of my point here).  Walton's point is that when we take something to be a photograph, we take it to be an image of that thing, so that we take the photograph to be reproducing the properties of the thing.  (It makes sense to have a debate on the basis of a photograph about what color a dress really is, but it wouldn't make sense to have that debate on the basis of a painting of it.)  (I'm leaving to the side Walton's views on fictionalism also for now).

Why this detour into a discussion of the image?  Because as much time as we spend with images, we don't linger on images nearly enough.

At Daily Nous, I summarized the "debate" about what interests me about the dress as follows:

"1) the first debate is over what color the dress really is, not what the colors in the picture are
2) but once they’ve been told it, people will be willing to grant that the “real” dress is blue and black.
3) the question then becomes whether the picture is “really” white and gold or blue and black.
4) eventually pop-science is brought in to explain why our eyes might “over compensate” for a “bad” picture.
5) at this point, both sides can see how the other side can hold their “mistaken” views, and can identify the terms of the “debate,” without being able to actually make their eyes see it. [I know what the brains of the white-goldies are doing, but try as I might I can’t make my brain do it.] except for a squishy middle who now says they can see both (or sometimes vacillate between seeing both.)
6) descent into aporia ensues (LOLs, emojis, etc).
7) consequently the linguistic turn is never made, whereby people realize that the problem is with the realistic and normative biases in our ordinary concepts.
8) and the realization that “debate” is less important than the education/experimentation of one’s aesthetic sensibilities.
9) my prescription is that people ought to read more Protagoras, Hume, and Nietzsche."

In the previous paragraphs, I've tried to start fleshing out what I mean in claims 7, 8 and 9.  (I presume everyone is familiar enough with the first 6 that I don't have to go into too much depth).  I can't help but notice how bad we are at talking about images, and I suspect that's because we seem to be congenitally inclined to have realist intuitions.  That is (and here I'm granting Plato's point), we tend to think that when we speak, we're referring to universal, common and shared properties, and that consequently agreement can be reached about the truth or falsity of the claims about these properties through rational dispute.  Protagoras's mistake seems to have been that he tried to neutralize that shared ground, and that's what philosophers across the spectrum have been giving him shit for for nigh on 2500 years now.

I exempt Nietzsche, and Hume and a few others from this gross, but forgivable error.  After all, most of us have to interact with others, and we spend a lot of time dealing with bad, inconsistently applied versions of Protagoras's argument, with that lazy relativism that is in many ways indistinguishable from fanatical absolutism insofar as both of them aim to neutralize any grounds for rational debate.

But, of course, when it comes to images, we're willing to grant that things might function differently.  This, is why it's so important to salvage our realist intuitions to emphasize what a shitty picture the original blue dress picture is, and show all the ways that we can "correct" it (without acknowledging that we are thereby changing the terms under discussion).  If it turns out that the image really can be blue and black AND white and gold, and that we can understand what the other person means when they say it's white and gold (because c'mon you guys, it's obviously blue and black), it's because we're willing to suspend some of the universalistic and normative properties of our ordinary language when we're talking about images.  We're even willing to grant that there might be room for aesthetic education here.  (I can learn more about an image by trying to experience how others see it.  I can appreciate food and music that I didn't before if I learn about what the properties in it are that other people are experiencing).

It's too bad we can't take this point about aesthetic education further, because frankly I think this particularistic, anti-normative sort of experiencing is of far more importance to how we can live happily together than any normative ethics.

You might think I'm advocating extending imagistic thinking beyond the image.  But, actually, I'm simply advocating for us to follow Nietzsche all the way down the imagistic rabbit hole (Plato's forms/ideas are themselves forms of images).  Call this revolutionary fictionalism if you like.

But I'll call it Protagoras's revenge.

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how we can bend philosophy away from its normative biases.   (How we can, like, just let it be, man.)  But this post has already gone to long, and so I won't trouble you.  But I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't offer you some form of edification on that question.

We began with a click-baity, manufactured internet controversy.  By way of apology (or to reward you for your patience in getting to the end or to punish you for your prurience)** let's end by imagining dialogue in the context of one of the great poems of the twentieth century, Celan's Sprachgitter (or Speech Grill).***

Eyeround between the bars

Flittering lid
propels itself upwards,
sets free a glance.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and drab:
Sky, heartgray, must be near.

Athwart, in its iron socket,
the smoldering chip.
By lightsense
you hit on the soul.

(Were I like you.  Were you like I.
Did we not stand
beneath one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The flagstones.  On them,
Thick on each other, both the
heart gray pools:
mouthsfull silence.

(Augenrund zwischen den Stäben.

Flimmertier Lid
rudert nach oben,
gibt einen Blick frei.

Iris, Schwimmerin, traumlos und trüb:
der Himmel, herzgrau, muss nah sein.

Schräg, in der eisernen Tülle,
der blakende Span.
Am Lichtsinn
errätst du die Seele.

(Wär ich wie du. Wärst du wie ich.
Standen wir nicht
unter einem Passat?
Wir sind Fremde.)

Die Fliesen. Darauf,
dicht beieinander, die beiden >
herzgrauen Lachen:
Mundvoll Schweigen.)

[UPDATE:  Leigh Johnson responds to this post, here and here (see the comment thread in the latter link also.]

* in an ensuing discussion about this post with Johnson, I was reminded that she was the person who originally started calling this view lazy relativism. (I used to just call it "weak relativism").  

**there's another hint about aesthetic education, hidden in the form of a rickroll in the links I've put in this blog.  You're welcome.

*** my translation.

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