March 09, 2006

Here Is Something I Don't Understand

When I say, "Here is something you can't understand: how I can just kill a man," what is it that you don't understand? Certainly not how I can just kill a man in the sense of the methods and means that I have at my disposal for killing a man. Rather, perhaps, is it the means by which my killing a man comes about: the process by which I arrive at killing the man. As in, "I can't understand how a great heavy machine like that can fly."

(Further research reveals that the song goes "how I could just kill a man," which seems not to present the same problem. But the point, whatever it may be, stands. It wouldn't be the first time I've massacred a song in order to make a philosophical point.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 9, 2006 08:06 PM

Hi Matt --

1. This is easily my all-time favorite post of yours, and I have been reading for at least six months or so. I nearly fell out of my chair.

2. I took Cypress Hill's "understand" there to mean something like 'know by acquaintence': because I, the addressee of the song, am such a pathethic wussy, I do not know (by acquaintence) what it is like to be so tough and loco that one could just kill a man for little or no reason. Is that what you meant in the end there?


Posted by: Greg Frost-Arnold at March 10, 2006 01:33 PM

I've been irritated with "why" for similar reasons. It's like "how" and "why" are 7-year-old identical twins who derive sadistic glee from people's inability to tell them apart. "Why" is the dreamer of the two, and "How" does the plotting.

Their older brothers "Because", "By" and "Through" have long ago lost patience for this behavior. OK, now I'm just trying to distract myself from the fact that I just spent way too much money on entirely too few things.

Posted by: Cara at March 10, 2006 03:38 PM

I think it's probably not done to comment twice in a row, but according to rules of conversational turn-taking, I may now reclaim the floor.

I like languages that have one word for "why" and "because", as Italian has in "perche" (you can imagine the accent aigue, there.) The one monolingual dictionary I found online wouldn't let me search for it, but "per" is "for" and "che" is both "what" and "that."

So reasonable, Italians.

Posted by: Son of Cara (in that sequel kind of way) at March 10, 2006 04:02 PM

I don't know why it doesn't apply to "how I could just kill a man." Doesn't "just" suggest "easily" - i.e. the world at which I kill a man is quite close to this one, and that is what you can't understand.

I don't really buy the account in terms of the "process by which the killing comes about." Imagine that Sen Dog is holding a sawed off shotgun, and has his hand on the pump. It would be quite clear in such a case, were he to utter the problematic sentence, what the process by which the killing might come about is (indeed, one might be able to tell that it would involve a few too many sips on a 40, or a few too many puffs from a blunt).

Conclusion: what is communicated by (1) is (2):

(1) Here is something you can't understand: how I could just kill a man.
(2) Here is something you can't understand: that I could just (i.e. easily) kill a man.

I like Greg's account of understanding (in this case) in terms of the "what it's like" for a murderous gangsta. (Although one can imagine contexts in which you lack understanding because, for example, you can't causally explain how Sen Dog got into such a state, where he could just kill a man - but where knowledge of his background and/or state of intoxication might yield understanding.)

Posted by: Allan at March 12, 2006 11:37 AM

Greg, thanks! If there is any humor in this post, it comes from the influence of Ben Wolfson.

Cara, commenting twice in a row is fine. I was going to add something about how you reveal that it's wrong, wrong, wrong to draw deep conclusions from the behavior of propositions, but I think I will just bask in the sibling analysis.

Allan, this can't be right:

Doesn't "just" suggest "easily" - i.e. the world at which I kill a man is quite close to this one

because there still is a difference between "I killed a man" and "I just killed a man," where "just" is intended in the same way (i.e., not the Boho-Rhapsodical "Mama, I just killed a man/put a gun against his head/pulled the trigger, now he's dead"). So "just" here cannot be modal, but must express something about the manner of the killing. Though what it expresses is, in fact, that the killing was easy.

[I interrupt this comment to inform you that when you search for "I just killed a man" Google suggests that you look for "I just called a man" instead. This is ridiculous, and not mitigated by the fact that all the lyrics sites seem to omit the "I," which is also ridiculous.]

I'm also not convinced that in the case described that the process by which the killing comes about would be clear to the addressee. I understand the shotgun—is this not the methods and means of the original post? And I understand the forty and the blunt. But do I understand the psychological occurrences that lead up to the just killing, even with the assistance of the forty and blunt? No, for I am too wussy. And as Greg suggested, the underlying problem is that I am not acquainted with these processes.

This suggests either that no one ever really understands how anything happens (for there is always more to the process) or that "understand" is context-dependent (or relative or sensitive).

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 13, 2006 07:01 AM

Oh, and the "could"/"can" distinction was just intuition.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 13, 2006 07:40 AM