July 9, 2017

Referencing vs Representing Past Events

Let's revisit the issue of reference versus representation, which I blogged about multiple times last year. (A links list appears beneath this post.) Around that time, it occurred to me one day that aspects of this critical distinction can be helpfully illustrated by thinking about the difference between nouns and verbs, and what they actually do.

Here are some tweets from last year in which I tried to think through this idea
September 19, 2016 
Nouns name, adjectives describe, conjunctions join, prepositions relate... Verbs represent. Verbs represent temporality 
Adverbs "modify", prepositions relate, interjections interject, pronouns rename... Verbs temporalize. 
September 20, 2016 
1. On reference versus representation: trying to put my finger on the exact distinction, succinctly; it may have something to do with verbs. 
2. Reference picks out specific objects. Propositional thinking ("A is Φ") basically references things. A = noun/gerund, Φ = noun/adjective. 
3. (etc); But is = is. Propositions are static. They require the verb to be. Truth doesn't change. A *IS* Φ. Essentially, this is reference. 
4. Classical thinking maps words against things, like Adam naming in Eden (S. Prickett 2002). What do we reference? Entities & properties. 
5. Note that I include gerunds as referencing entities; "running is exercise". Note also I'm ignoring grammar and syntax at this point. 
6. So reference is fundamentally propositional. To pick out A or Φ, you must be able to point at something that IS concretely in the world. 
7. But now here comes the problem. What is an ACTION? Can you point to motion? Can you delimit a change? Can you define a dynamic event? 
8. Strictly speaking, 1-to-1 mapping requires a static world. We need *things* to come in for a sitting, but sculpture can't capture motion. 
9. What is a LEAP? When does it begin? Crouching? Thrusting? Leaving the ground? When does it end? Full extension? Landing? Renewed poise? 
10. For ACTION to be referenced requires a bit more cognitive effort. Our working memory must compress a series of fluid motions into ONE. 
11. The Rhine is the Rhine & the Po is the Po but Caesar crossing the Rubicon IS an elaborate logistical ordeal. It cannot be referenced... 
12. ...UNLESS you have already imagined it in your mind before now. You can "reference" your own mental image but never the actual thing. 
13. We have this idea that the past, which is gone, was once concrete. But there never was such a thing. The world was as fluid then as now. 
14. Events require imagination. Propositional thinking & referential thinking are not sufficient for understanding represented past events. 
15. An action verb cannot *reference*. It must *represent*. This complicates the old polarity of mapping words against things. We IMAGINE! 
16. This helps explain why positivists & fundamentalists have difficulty thinking historically. The Ironic Gap is most powerful with VERBS. 
17. Historical imagination requires a mind for "representational truth" (Ankersmit 2012). Rather than "A is Φ", we speak of dynamic change. 
18. And as for the institutional desire to minimize any appearance of change, whether present or past... Let's not go there today. (18/18) 
I should have mentioned Paul Ricoeur at some point about imagination. If I stole from anyone else I'm not aware. 
September 21, 2016 
Events are always the domain of reconstruction. You cannot directly *reference* an action. You must evoke my memory or spark my imagination.  
*Unless there is video.

That's what I tweeted. Rather than try and re-explain these ideas, I'll just offer one more illustration.

With a time machine, we could physically point to objects in the past, and we could successfully refer to attributes of those things, observing their evident qualities. However, with the same time machine, we could never "refer" to a fluid collection of connected activities. For instance, we could not float above the battle of Waterloo, at some moment during, say, the afternoon of June 18, 1815, and point down towards the chaos below us, and declare, "That is the Battle of Waterloo!" 

Yes, in a practical manner of speaking, the declaration would convey meaning enough in that moment, but if our time machine jumped back home immediately after that declaration, it would then become grossly inaccurate to tell anyone, "We just saw the battle of Waterloo!" To speak accurately, we could only saw we saw a portion of the battle. Furthermore, that event was far more extensive and far more involved and far more complex and far more time consuming than the extensive chaos we'd glimpsed for a brief moment, from on high.

Technically, we'd be making a reference, but the actual referent would be merely an idea in our minds. We would not and could not actually be referring to the entirety of that historic event. We'd only be imagining that we'd successfully referenced the battle. Likewise, someone listening to our declaration could not possibly share the same mental image as the personal images we'd have just (unknowingly) referenced. Rather, someone listening could only apply to our reference whatever pre-established idea they'd already developed about "The Battle of Waterloo".

For that matter, all this is just as true without time machines. A professor may think she's referring to "The Battle of Waterloo" but do her students really share her understanding of what is being referred to? I'll let that question guide you back through the tweet storm, above.

Events of the past cannot be referenced. Four-dimensional history cannot be referenced. 

An exclusive addiction to propositional thinking is the enemy of historical imagination.

This is one reason why theologians tend to make terrible historians.

Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton