September 03, 2004

What Is It to Hear a Speech?

In comments over at Matthew Yglesias' site, Matt Austern raises a point which I am going to take as a pretext for some entirely unoriginal philosophy-geeking. (For obvious reasons, everyone in this post is going to get referred to by his last name.)

The context: Yglesias defends his assertion "I don't believe I've ever heard a more disgusting speech [than Zell Miller's] delivered in the English language" against two speeches that Michael cites by pointing out that he hasn't heard or read them, and says that the most disgusting speech (in any language) he's ever heard was by Bruno Megret, a splinter from Le Pen's party. Austern writes:

Hm, this suggests Matt hasn't heard the speech that Hitler delivered (not in English) at the 1934 Nuremburg Rally, which would mean that he's never seen Triumph of the Will. He should.

But even if Matt Y. has seen Triumph of the Will, has he heard Hitler speak?

You might say that he's only heard a recording of Hitler's speech. By the same token, you might say that the vast majority of people who say they heard Miller's speech didn't; they only heard a broadcast of the speech. (Not Yglesias; he was in the hall for Miller's speech. Not me either; I was watching the Pirates beat the Brewers.)

There's lots of actual literature on this. Kendall Walton, in "Transparent Pictures," argues that when you see a photograph of the thing you actually see the thing; including things that no longer exist. That claim, he points out, is further down the slope than the claim that we see events when we see broadcasts of them. (The claim that you see events when you see old films of them is a combination of the two, I suppose.)

On the other hand, if I remember correctly some of Gareth Evans' remarks in The Varieties of Reference require some sort of direct information-link for perception of an object (in particular, an information-link that purports to locate the object in egocentric space). So there's a controversy here, about which I have nothing to say.

I think it's clear that both Walton's and Evans' proposals are revisionary of ordinary usage. We won't usually say we've seen The Mona Lisa unless you've been to the Louvre; but we have no problem with saying you've seen a speech you see on television. Perhaps part of what is at issue here is how much the reproduction diminishes the experience. Seeing a reproduction of an artwork diminishes the experience (mostly); seeing a speech on TV, or hearing it on the radio, gives you just about exactly what was intended. And this might account for my reluctance to say that I've seen Hitler speak, or that I've seen the Immaculate Reception*, even though I've seen it replayed hundreds of times--seeing these things as they happened was important to appreciating their significance. On the other hand, I'm happy to say that I've seen Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade, because I've seen that the way it was supposed to be seen.

Of course, one shouldn't infer naively from those data to the semantics of our ordinary use of "see" and "hear"; there are all sorts of implicatures involved. For instance, if I were to watch Miller's speech after the election I might refrain from saying "I saw Miller's speech," because that might suggest that I saw it at the time, even if it was literally true.

[Scorecarding what Yglesias conveyed: I certainly hope he didn't mean "saw in person," because then his original assertion would have been terribly misleading; indeed, his original assertion suggests that it is more disgusting than speeches he is pretty familiar with; but people reading the site should probably know that Yglesias was 11 in 1992, so he may not be familiar with Pat Buchanan's convention speech; and, as Yglesias and Kevin Drum point out, lots of speeches are more obscure than the keynote speech at a national party convention. Which raises the issue of whether disgustingness is intrinsic or extrinsic; if Yglesias is disgusted not only at the speech's content but at the prominence it was given, does that latter disgust make the speech itself more disgusting? Note that I have no firsthand knowledge of whether the speech was disgusting, but a lot of people on my side of the political spectrum didn't seem to like it.]

*$2000 to Kerry; some people's hearts are in the right place....

Posted by Matt Weiner at September 3, 2004 11:47 AM

The Mona Lisa example seems a bad choice for the following reason. Suppose that things are as Walton says they are. Almost everyone over a certain age has seen a picture/reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Pragmatically speaking then, saying "I've seen the Mona Lisa." while not quite on a par with saying "I'm awake", is stating the obvious. Unless the context is such as to make it up for grabs whether you have seen a picture/reproduction of the Mona Lisa, the natural thing for a hearer to do is to try and interpret the utterance as conveying something non-obvious -- namely that they have seen the original in person.

A less reproduced painting would be a better test. My intuition is that given that you have seen a picture/reproduction of the Scream, the following conversation would be felicitous:

A. My favourite painting is the Scream. Have you seen it?
B. Yes, I think its a great piece.

The Scream is well known ... but not so widely reproduced as to make almost guaranteed that a North American or European adult has seen it.

Posted by: Nicole Wyatt at September 3, 2004 02:17 PM

err .. that last sentence should read: The Scream is well known ... but not so widely reproduced as to make almost guaranteed that a North American or European adult has seen a picture/reproduction of it. =)

Posted by: Nicole Wyatt at September 3, 2004 02:18 PM

Point well taken but the claim in your last post doesn't seem to be true, at least among American college students... And these days "Have you seen The Scream is a question that you're going to be asked by Norwegian police... Let's go with Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte, which I should maybe try to see when I'm in Chicago tomorrow.

Lame humor aside, the dialogue strikes me as slightly ambiguous--if I were B I might ask, "You mean, in person?" Also, it might be thought that you can get a lot of the impact of some works of art just seeing a reproduction. Well, if I allow myself consideration of these factors I can make my proposal unfalsifiable. But I probably shouldn't have suggested that it's always infelicitous to say that you've seen an artwork when you've seen a reproduction.

I just realized that a few posts ago I said I had the good fortune to see Steve Lacy in concert, and that I saw a film of him before I attended one of his concerts--I wouldn't have said I'd seen him with just the film. Funny how that crops up.

Posted by: matt at September 4, 2004 01:37 PM

Point taken on the Scream -- I live in a city where the Mona Lisa is prominently reproduced on the side of a major street, so that everybody from any walk of life who lives here has seen that reproduction. The Scream just doesn't have that kind of exposure here. So I was imagining having the conversation with a shop clerk or my plummer. Substitute an appropriately unexposed piece of art.

A note on your note -- if B can legitimately ask "You mean, in person?", that in and of itself suggests that there is a legitimate notion of seen a painting whereby it doesn't have to be in person, since A can legitimately anwer no. But hey, we agree I think that there is not a hard and fast rule here even about what counts as seeing a painting, nevermind seen in general. I'm just bickering over the example.

Posted by: Nicole Wyatt at September 6, 2004 11:00 AM

Bickering over examples is encouraged here! And it is important, if we're trying to figure out the literal meaning of "see" as it's used in English--if everyone has literally seen the Mona Lisa (via its reproduction), then "I have seen the Mona Lisa" will implicate something less obvious.

I'm going to try to put up a post about seeing more generally--your comments inspired me to start thinking about seeing a painting from a distance vs. seeing a reproduction from a distance vs. seeing a little bit of Lake Michigan from a distance.

To continue the bicker--I guess if I were in your town and someone asked me "Have you seen the Mona Lisa?" I would probably take them to mean "Have you seen our reproduction of the Mona Lisa lately?"

Posted by: Matt Weiner at September 7, 2004 10:23 AM