• StreetlightX
    2.3k
    'Sense' is a surprisingly hard category to pin down. We generally know what it means to 'make sense', but making sense of sense is itself tougher than it looks. After all, sense seems incorporeal - prima facie, it's not something 'extended' in the world like a chair or a body - and has strange temporal properties, like a 'happy' story turning dark at the last moment and retroactively changing the sense of what came before. So I wanna sketch out some aspects of sense that interest me, and see what comes of it.

    The first way to get a handle on sense is by relating it to limits: to make sense of something is to limit the sense it can have. If I say 'don't do that', and you continue to do it, presuming you thought you understood what I said, you've made a mistake about the kind of limits I was trying to impose: 'Ooh, I thought you meant that, not that'. So a first approach to sense is as a constraint on possibility: of all the possible things I could have meant, this thin slice of sense is what I'm trying to impart. And one can always refine sense, or - in the other direction - make it more general: 'do something' (general) as opposed to 'kick the ball' (particular). One of these has a sense more general than the other.

    This approach to sense nicely brings out its relational status: to say X always implies not saying Y. In this regard we can speak of the contrast space of sense. When the bank robber Willie Sutton was asked by a priest why he robbed banks, he was famously said to have replied: 'because that's where the money is'. At work here is the fact that Sutton changed the contrast space of the question, and thus, its sense: where the priest was asking why he robbed banks at all, Sutton cheekily took the question to the ask why he robbed banks rather than theatres or shops, etc. So sense is always relative to the contrast space which shapes it.

    This wonderful story brings out another aspect of sense: the fact that it is intimately related with types or kinds. The priest was no doubt expecting a different kind of answer from Sutton, who changed the sense of the question by changing the expected category of answers; possible answers for Sutton included 'theatres', 'shops', and 'banks', where possible answers for the priest might have included 'because I'm poor', or 'because I was forced to'. So we have a refinement of our understanding of sense: sense is not just something that is more or less general or more or less particular (not just a constraint on a continuum of possibilities (degrees)), but a constraint on kinds of possibilities as well. Incidentally, a 'good sense of humor' relies on reliably swapping between contrast spaces in unexpected ways (as Willie did), short-circuiting between different senses of what is said or shown.

    This brings me to the most important aspect of sense I want to bring out, which is the fact that sense is always motivated or responsive to contexts which makes the 'kind' of sense that it is. The sense of the priest's question is nowhere determined 'beforehand'; it is instead produced in the act of its use: the priest's on the one hand, Sutton's on the other; perhaps there are innumerable others. Sense is not (a) 'given', it is made, fabulated on the basis of what one aims to do with it: there is a pragmatics of sense which animates it and connects it directly to action and the world to which it responds. The upshot of this - and why it's the most important aspect - means that sense cannot be treated in isolation of that use; it is in fact not enough, as above, to treat sense as a matter of 'limitation': insofar as sense is responsive and motivated, it is also creative, a matter of genuine novelty.

    Anyway, this is far from an exhaustive characterization of sense (someone will no doubt say something about Frege and reference...), but there you go.
  • csalisbury
    1.2k
    This wonderful story brings out another aspect of sense: the fact that it is intimately related with types or kinds. The priest was no doubt expecting a different kind of answer from Sutton, who changed the sense of the question by changing the expected category of answers

    I've been a little whatever recently on some posts, but I think a muted version of that approach is appropriate here, given the subject matter.

    Imagine you're out to dinner with a group of friends. You start explaining this post ^ (for comedy's sake, let's even say in the same words) and they all (of course) grow restless.

    I know that you know well as I this isn't appropriate out-with-friends talk, so you wouldn't. But that does raise a question. Why here (or elsewhere) but not that table. Why is it appropriate to shut this down with a joke in person, but not here (or elsewhere.)

    What is the sense, such that the sense is valued here (or elsewhere) but not there?

    My sense is that sense, here (or elsewhere) is strict, and doesn't care for the outlaw reversals (tho it reveres them as examples) while out there, anything goes.

    Who is the priest?
  • apokrisis
    3.7k
    This brings me to the most important aspect of sense I want to bring out, which is the fact that sense is always motivated or responsive to contexts which makes the 'kind' of sense that it is.StreetlightX

    Pattee makes that biosemiotic point in support of Rosen's argument - that complex systems thus have many descriptions - in this paper ... (I mention it as I happened to be reading it.)

    https://sisu.ut.ee/sites/default/files/biosemio/files/irreducible_and_complementary_semiotic_howard_pattee.pdf
  • schopenhauer1
    1.8k

    At a restaurant recently, I said to the bartender, "I would like to sign out" and he got me the bill. I gave him my card and then signed the receipt. The guy next to me said, "Did you ever sign in!?". He was trying to be funny of course. I meant to say (I guess) "I would like to cash out". But then I thought about it and should have said, "I paid with a card, why would I say "cash out" in that instance? No cash was exchanged. Rather, I really should have stuck to "sign out" because,it can be said that metaphorically, I "signed in" by agreeing to order a beer. I "signed out" when I literally signed the receipt. That would still be more accurate than "cash out". Anyways, people have a funny way of being too literal or too metaphorical/abstract with sense. Its not sensible. In many ways, sense is in the context of colloquial traditions as to its use.
  • unenlightened
    2.2k
    Is this something different to making sense of a 'sketch' as a duck, or a rabbit?
  • StreetlightX
    2.3k
    Not at all! One of the interesting things about the duck/rabbit is that the 'same' thing can give rise to a genuine novelty, depending on the way in which it is taken. And the ways in which we 'fix' sense can have serious repercussions: is that hammer a tool or a weapon? Which fascinates me because sense seems to operate at a different level from causality, or at least causality as it is typically understood: there is no transfer of forces - yet a change is made, a novelty is introduced. I was vaguely contemplating a thread on aspect-change and creativity. I think I will now.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    1.4k

    A couple thoughts.

    1. Willy Sutton's answer doesn't just shift the sense of the priest's question from one domain to the other, or from taking one kind of answer rather than another. He does also answer the question as asked, because his answer carries the implicature that he wanted money. Wanting money is clearly a sufficient motive for his behavior, but it's a motive that would usually go without saying. Emphasizing it, by cleverly not saying it, suggests that the he thinks the question is pretty stupid. It's very much as if the priest asked Willy why he crossed the road (maybe he'd been arrested for jaywalking) and Willy answered, to get to the other side.

    2. Constraints seem to come in analog and digital flavors. Old radio tuner knobs, for example, could be moved continuously between their upper and lower bounds. Everything in between is an option. But the radio tuner in my car goes by steps. I can't tune to 90.2 at all.

    Now look at a word like "bank": might mean a financial institution of certain sort, a building housing such an institution, the earthen boundary of a river channel, and lots of other things. But it's "clicky", in the way the duck-rabbit is clicky. It's not a word that covers everything from First National to the side of a creek -- what kind of word would that be? Is a big collection of spotlights somewhere on a continuous spectrum between those? (A duck-rabbit isn't everything from duck to rabbit on some spectrum.)

    And this seems to be true even though the application of a word is obviously almost always fuzzy. (The word "bank" as a financial term will have a precise definition set down in law, but everyday folks not engaged in legal matters are just as likely to refer to a savings & loan as a "bank".)

    When you creatively "extend" the usage of a word by metaphor, you're usually not enlarging some analog boundary -- I'm picturing a closed curve in a plane -- to take in new things the word can apply to; usually you're jumping to another domain entirely, adding a new click to that word's existing set of clicks.
  • Ciceronianus the White
    524
    Willy Sutton's answer doesn't just shift the sense of the priest's question from one domain to the other, or from taking one kind of answer rather than another. He does also answer the question as asked, because his answer carries the implicature that he wanted moneySrap Tasmaner

    Just so. The priest, in asking Willy Sutton why he robs banks, was asking him to explain why he did so. So he told him why, though not directly, although the implication is obvious enough. He gave a "funny" answer to the question but explained his conduct. He explained his conduct by noting why it makes sense for him to rob banks.

    In this example, it makes sense to do X because doing X will effectively achieve a desired outcome.
  • Srap Tasmaner
    1.4k

    Yeah, that's good. That's "sense" in the sense of "rational", or I guess more broadly something like "understanding", the "sense" that's in "common sense". That explains my feeling that Willy treats the question as idiotic. (In a big Hollywood action movie, he'd answer "Because that's where the money is, you <string of insulting expletives>.")
  • Srap Tasmaner
    1.4k

    Bonus thought about constraints: there's prescription and proscription. Foucault talked about this with different styles of morality: you can have the "default" be that everything is allowed and proscribe specific behaviors (don't wed or kill kin, etc.); or you can prescribe The One True Way to live and count every deviation as wrong. Negative versus positive constraints -- don't do that vs do this.

    The funny thing about words and concepts is that even though we seem bound to think of them (and teach them) prescriptively -- here is how we use this word, this is what this concept applies to -- we're always ready to rewrite the rules so long as the rule-breaker makes sense. And that's curious, at least because the prescriptive view suggests that being successful in this way isn't even possible. And indeed this is what we will do, add a click. (Metaphors, for instance, are just recently added literal uses.) We always come back to rules, even though the rules are ever changing.

    Maybe it's simplest to say that our rules are always open-ended: so far we have found the following uses for this word or concept, there will probably be others. The rules would then in essence all be permissives -- you may at least use this word or this concept in the following way -- which is not how we generally think of them.
  • StreetlightX
    2.3k
    1. Willy Sutton's answer doesn't just shift the sense of the priest's question from one domain to the other, or from taking one kind of answer rather than another. He does also answer the question as asked, because his answer carries the implicature that he wanted money. Wanting money is clearly a sufficient motive for his behavior, but it's a motive that would usually go without saying. Emphasizing it, by cleverly not saying it, suggests that the he thinks the question is pretty stupid. It's very much as if the priest asked Willy why he crossed the road (maybe he'd been arrested for jaywalking) and Willy answered, to get to the other side.Srap Tasmaner

    But what I'd want to emphasise is the retroactive temporality at work here: a well-forged sense will always retroactively alter the conditions which gave rise to it. At the point/time of it's enunciation, 'why do you rob banks?' is 'open', its sense could go 'either way': the Priest's or Suttons (or maybe yet another way). It's only once an answer is given that the sense of the question is reteroactively bestowed upon it. It may subvert expectations, but the fact that Willie's answer nonetheless made sense attests to the fact that sense is not beholden to expectations (this dimension of unintended significance is nothing other than the realm of the psychoanalytic unconscious, incidentally!: the chief lesson of psychoanalysis can be thought of something like: sense is entirely impersonal).

    But it's "clicky", in the way the duck-rabbit is clicky.

    I'm going to try and explore this in another thread, the clickiness of concepts - their digitality - follows quite nicely from the fact that sense is always motivated, where different motivations will give rise to different - mutually exclusive - understandings. This again links back to the fact that sense is always defined in terms of kinds; different kinds of categories 'cut-up' the world in different ways, ways which may be mutually exclusive (I might be able to categorise people by eye color or gender, but I can't put these two different categorizations to the same use and expect results that can be sensibly compared).
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