I don’t know and I don’t care. Ha!

I had a thought recently. I was at one point very hung up on categories of identity and difference. Lately I’ve been thinking about the category of indifference. Indifference is not the same thing as identity, the assertion that difference is not. It is, rather, an assertion or perhaps a question about what difference(s) matter, in what context, judged by what criteria? Certain answers will result in attention to difference, others will result in indifference. I like to think of this as a matter of what Rorty calls pragmatic difference, as in “difference that makes a difference” (again, evaluated relative to some context and criteria). There’s also a connection to Badiou here I think, when he says that being is neither multiple nor unitary but is rendered as one or the other. I remember once reading something about difference and sameness, them being relations such that neither can be thought as absolute (absolutization in the sense of being just sameness sans difference, or just difference sans any sameness – those can’t be thought, any more than a round square can be).

This also reminds me of some half remembered things from Davidson, passing theories and prior theories. I found an interview with him, where he says

The distinction between prior and passing theories is just the difference between what one anticipates that somebody will mean by something he or she says and what one decides was meant after one is exposed to an utterance. Whenever you talk to somebody, you have an unformulated theory of what that person would mean if he or she were to utter certain words. For example, you would know roughly what you yourself would mean if you were to utter these same words. However, plenty of things may tip you off that your interpretation is not the right interpretation. On occasion, someones words don’t mean what you would have meant by those words. They don’t necessarily mean what they’ve meant in the past. You discover that this might be a slip of the tongue, or it might be a clever invention on the spur of the moment; it might be a joke; there are a thousand possibilities many of which we are so good at catching that we don’t even notice were doing it.

Q. So, theories don’t actually need to match?

A. No, no. That’s right. They just are nearer to or further away from being correct. Luckily, we can make lots of adjustments as we go along. Communication is always incomplete. It’s not as though anybody ever gets everything right; it’s a matter of degree.

Beyond a certain degree (said degree is not itself specifiable a priori) indifference is appropriate. Davidson continues:

We share an enormous amount of linguistic lore. In fact, we don’t ever share it exactly. Each of us has our own ideas, and each of us adjusts how we speak according to the audience. We have ideas about what words somebody else is apt to understand, or what concepts they’re apt to control. Now, the passing theory, on the part of the speaker, is what the speaker thinks that somebody else will make of what he or she is saying. The passing theory on the part of the interpreter is that person’s best bet as to how to understand what is being said.


[W]hat should be considered part of knowing a language? I myself think that it’s quite easy to see that to understand even a single utterance you have to know something that cannot be a rule of language in any way at all. You have to know what language the person is speaking more or less. These sounds might mean omething completely different in another language, and the rules of the language can’t tell you when somebody is speaking that language. So, that’s something you have to bring in from outside. That’s just a very simple case. I think it’s a much broader point than that, but this example is enough to make the point; mastery of the language cannot be restricted in any way at all.

In thinking about this and looking for stuff online I found a thing on ideolects.

here are two distinct ways of individuating a natural language, L:

L = the language with specific grammatical properties, as set out in a linguistic theory

L = the language possessed, or used, by some specific individual or population

Thus L can be thought of as that which is correctly described by a set of claims attributing various properties to it, including syntactic, phonological, morphological, semantic, and other properties. In this sense, languages are abstract objects. But languages can also be realized in the world, and it is in this guise that they become suitable objects of empirical investigation. The ‘realization’ of a language is more familiarly expressed as its being ‘possessed’, ‘known’, ‘spoken’, ‘understood’, or ‘used’ by an individual or population.

The piece continues, addressing Davidson’s claim that

there are no such things as languages as standardly conceived of by philosophers. If there were such things, they would be structures that could be described by systematic theories. And while prior and passing theories are somewhat systematizable, neither has both the other features philosophers usually attribute to languages: being antecedently grasped (‘prepared’), and common to both utterer and audience (‘shared’). He recommends, in effect, that philosophers of language drop their usual ontology of languages when trying to understand how communication occurs and switch instead to his ontology of passing and prior theories applicable to individuals at a time and in a context.

I’m getting far afield because I really like this stuff. There are two points. First, it is foolish and fruitless to want someone to share the same prior theory. Prior theories are not subject to determination as identical or different except via convergence on a passing theory. Thus, the latter is more important. This has to do with how people talk, with not demanding that others talk the way we do. Second, there is the issue of what differences make a difference. There are differences that make a big difference but which it may be advisable to still be indifferent to in some situations. For example, there are members of my extended family who hold views that I would absolutely never tolerate in a political organization I was part of. Still, these views are not such that I refuse all contact with these family members. And in some settings (say, an infrequent family gathering) I suspend certain priorities (how I feel about certain views) in favor of others (having an enjoyable time). In others, I do the reverse (suspending the “having an enjoyable time” priority in order to engage on the issue of views). This suspension is indifference, and it is not a claim about the difference itself. There also questions of what it means to (effectively) engage with views