GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 8, 2019

More on the Proper Use of Declarative Sentences

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:27 am

Declarative sentences appear to be representations of a reality independent of the speakers, and they are that, indirectly; directly, though, declaratives are inquiries into imperatives. To put it even more narrowly: declaratives are attempts to determine the conditions under which imperatives can be obeyed and fulfilled. Intervening between the imperative and the declarative is the interrogative; an interrogative is a softened imperative, which is to say, an imperative coming to recognize that it might not be fulfilled, and therefore transitioning from a command to do something to a demand for information regarding the possibility of doing it.

From a practical, analytical, perspective, we can first determine what question a declarative sentence might be taken to be answering. In every case, there must be at least two possibilities: a question about the subject, or a question about the predicate. Everything else in a sentence addresses other possible questions. So, to take the hoary old analytic philosophy example, “the cat is on the mat” could be answering either “where is the cat” or “what is on the mat”? “The striped cat is on the mat” includes an answer to the question, “which cat”? These are all requests for information about the cat and/or mat. We should, then be able to treat these requests as “softened” forms of some command regarding cat or mat. Such a command will ultimately be hypothetical, but the hypothesis could be stronger or weaker. Most obviously, here, might be a standing command that the mat be left clean, or that pets be kept off of it; or a direct or anticipated command to produce the cat; or even just to look at my cat.

There is an immense variety of imperatives: commands from superiors, pleas from subordinates, prayers; imperatives that can be fulfilled immediately, imperatives that take time to fulfill, imperatives that are essentially permanent and can never be completely fulfilled (“love the Lord thy God”); single imperatives, imperatives that are one in a long chain, imperatives that, when finally fulfilled, might look very different than the outcome imagined by the original imperator. You can think about how much of everyday life is carried out through imperatives (“pass me the salt, please”), and could not be carried out otherwise. Imperatives involve some direct connection between at least two people; imperatives create a new reality, or fail to. Imperatives are somewhat uncomfortable to talk about, which is maybe why discourse and communications theorists so rarely do so—they always involve doing something under some kind of compulsion, even when it’s the compulsion of pity felt for the homeless man asking for money for a cup of coffee, and therefore seem to infringe on one’s “free will.” So, why do we obey most imperatives? That’s a question that could only be asked under the presumption that declarative discourse is the normal discursive form, and anything else a defective, distorted or abbreviated form of such discourse (as if asking someone to pass the salt is just a simpler way of saying something like “I would be happier if the salt were to be made to appear before me by someone seated presently at this table”). Asking why our presumptive response to imperatives is to obey them is like asking why we share a reality with other people.

A social science that focused solely on how imperatives work in all the varied social situations in which they are used would have an inexhaustible topic that leaves no area of human life unexamined. Furthermore, it would be a social science carved right out of everyday discourse because, as I began this post by stating, all declaratives are already studies of imperatives. Social theory that leads to something like “knowledge” will be one that takes us, through the interrogative route suggested above, through the entire network of imperatives until we get to starting point of each chain. We do things like shopping at a particular store, or buying a particular brand, because someone once told us to, and we obeyed—of course, we are often confronted with multiple imperatives, and we “choose” (a declarative concept) between them by tracing—imperfectly, intuitively—one of them back to a previous, or more comprehensive imperative that we obey (to save money, to balance our budget, to please someone else, to see to our health). To know a person is to know the imperatives governing his life, to hypothesize where they originated, and how they “snowballed” over the years. Similarly when we vote, or follow political events through particular media—we’ve been told, we are constantly being told, to do these things.

When we’re trying to piece together a “logical” discourse, what we’re really trying to do is make all the imperatives present to us consistent with each other. This is what “thinking,” that is, having one declarative sentence follow another with which it is in a reciprocally dependent relation, involves. Moral failures like hypocrisy and discrepancies between declared principles and actual practices are failures to make the imperatives we obey consistent with each other. A “good” society is simply one where imperatives issued and “heard” at various levels—imperatives issued by rulers and their delegates, and imperatives transmitted through traditions—are consistent with each other, where individuals are not constantly forced into double binds wherein they have to obey equally authoritative but incompatible imperatives.

We therefore have a method of inquiry that can start anywhere, with any utterance, and follow through from there to an account of the entire imperative order. Any utterance that gets us thinking because it is anomalous in some way—or, more simply, we can see no way to either defy or fulfill it—can be the place where we stake out a disciplinary space; or, more precisely, make explicit an already implicit disciplinary space. This is an open-ended and endlessly recursive inquiry, because once you cut through a path of imperatives leading us to the sovereign’s activation of a traditional practice, you can see there were innumerable other paths that might have gotten you there. If we’re all agreed that we want to make imperatives consistent with each other, there is a broad basis of agreement within which all kinds of productive disagreements can be hosted. We can start with a single sentence, taken as a representative sample of a larger discourse, or with what seems to be patterns of sentences that all seem to be answering a related set of questions.

So, we work back through sentences, to the questions we take them to be answering, to the imperatives whose fulfillment depends upon the information sought by the questions. What could we do with the information provided in the sentences that we couldn’t do without that information—how is fulfilling a consistent stream of imperatives now more possible? We then work on declarative sentences that would test out possible attempts to obey those imperatives—i.e., thought experiments. The thought experiments reach forward in time—once those imperatives are fulfilled, or fail to be, what imperatives might follow?—and backward: what previous imperatives, successful or failed, are the ones under inspection successors or subsidiaries to? If we want to make imperatives consistent, we should start with inconsistent imperatives, and imagine scenes upon which someone might be confronted by them. Make the scene as difficult as possible: failure to obey both imperatives would be devastating, while the two imperatives are as incompatible as imaginable. Go back as far as possible into the past, and see if even such divergent imperatives might have a common ancestor; construct possible consequences, and imagine how they might nevertheless have a common destination.

A successful imperative yields a new ostensive. If I ask someone to pass the salt, once the salt is in my hands, the imperative has been completed. If I obey the command to love the Lord my God with all my might, I can put forth signs that I am doing so—the way I treat someone in a particular situation, my refraining from exploiting an opportunity in an unscrupulous manner, etc., might all be such signs—there is an ostensive component to all of them. The ostensive is the “eating” in which we find the “proof of the pudding.” This is the kind of thing a disciplinary space is interested in—what counts as a sign that an imperative has been completed? How do we distinguish genuine charity from a self-interested simulation of it? There can never be a universally applicable rule here, if for no other reason than because if there were a charlatan would learn how to meet all the “requirements” and carry out his fraud in a manner that we will have agreed to overlook. We have nothing but the thought experiment, hypothesizing regarding the imperative being obeyed and the possible ways of fulfilling and failing to fulfill it. We keep looking for slighter and slight differences—we learn to notice more and more differences, more ways in which the line between genuine charity and fakery might be drawn. We keep generating new ostensives, what we call concepts, because they are hypothetical ostensives telling us what to look for. Most imperatives will fall somewhere between “pass the salt” and “love the Lord thy God with all your might.”

In this post I am obeying the imperative to provide potential ostensives that might mark some of the distinctions I have made in articulating what I have been calling the “imperative order.” I write an account of the imperative order, and questions about how to follow the imperative to use this concept occur to me; trying to imagine ways of answering these questions lead me back to the imperative that lead me to that concept (or potential ostensive) in the first place: to develop theoretical alternatives to liberalism, which always leads us back to flaccid and useless voluntaristic concepts which don’t really provide potential ostensives (how does one prove oneself a “free individual”?). Further imperatives come embedded in generative anthropology, to generate a vocabulary of social theory completely made up of terms internal to the originary hypothesis; we could say these imperatives have been forwarded by earlier versions of myself, commanding my future theoretical self to take on this task, which itself iterates a broader imperative intrinsic to social theory itself—to generate a new theoretical vocabulary independent of “spontaneous” and “commonsensical” (“doxical”) thinking. But more recent imperatives within the human sciences, finding the field of potential ostensives generated by such meta-languages to be drying up have issued what might be a complementary imperative, to construct self-consistent vocabularies that can generate potential ostensives while remaining intra-linguistically within those spontaneous and commonsensical vocabularies (which, after all, also embed traditions that may not be exhausted), working reciprocally and pedagogically with them not as a sacrifice of rigor but precisely in order to be more rigorous—to extend the field of potential ostensives to include those anyone might see. The imperative to develop an originary grammar is a convergence of all these imperatives, because what could simultaneously be more intuitively accessible to any speaker of any language, and at the same time capable of prodigious abstraction, than the fact that we are always exchanging ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives, and nothing else? And if we pursue this further, we will see that I, like everyone else, want my actions to be consistent with each other, want (follow the imperative) to “cleanse” myself of anthropomorphisms, of invented “faculties” that license my finding all of myself nowhere else than in myself—there are lots of post-literate imperatives here, which go back to a history of reading, and very often of trying to understanding very difficult texts by trying to figure out what they are “telling me to do.” (Reading a difficult literary or philosophical text as a list of instructions for reconstructing yourself is very instructive.) (And, of course, there may be imperatives of which one is sometimes more, sometimes less, aware, such as to do something difficult and even counter-intuitive, and which hasn’t been done before.) At a certain point, a particular path of inquiry becomes less compelling and more obscure (no one wants to know what I was reading in 1991, and how I was reading it), and most importantly, become less likely to lead us back to more ancestral and central imperatives.

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