Meaning is Basic
Updated: Jun 29, 2021
A conversation with Akeel Bilgrami.
By Torsten Odland
Akeel Bilgrami is the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia. A faculty member since 1985, he served as the director of the Heyman Center for the Humanities from 2004-2011 and currently serves as the director of the South Asia Institute. A key concern of his work is formulating traditional philosophical notions–regarding mind, moral psychology, and politics–in way that clarifies our understanding of agency and value. Torsten Odland met with him to talk about his ideas, his field, and himself:
The Blue and White: I know your first degree was in English; what made you switch to philosophy?
Akeel Bilgrami: You know it’s funny, because somewhere on my [department] website…they asked me to write up something, and I say over there that I gave up English because it was too hard. And it’s funny because all my philosophy friends think I’m being sarcastic, and all my literary friends think I’m being modest [laughs]. And I’m not going to tell you which I was being. But I did give it up, because [pause] … you know, I think I found—at the time I was doing literary studies and criticism, it was very long ago, and it was not a very theoretical discipline. It was just readings of texts, and I didn’t find myself wanting to say the kinds of things literary critics said. You know, I loved those books, and I didn’t read them with a view to produce some learned commentary on them. Literature just meant a different sort of thing for me […]
And of course, [after I switched], the field was completely invaded by theory. And my understanding of the reason why literary departments became so central for humanities in universities of this country is in part because English studies became a location for doing things [that] the social sciences had abdicated. In this country I think the social sciences by and large, for some decades now, have abdicated the value-oriented aspects of their discipline. So English had to step in to pick up the slack. For instance, just by way of example, if you ask yourself, “Why is it that Edward Said’s book Orientalism became so canonical and iconical in the humanities?” It’s because the social sciences never discussed colonialism. The idea that you can study political economy, the economy of nations, and not study the fact that half the world colonized the other half, and therefore changed the whole canvas of political-economy—that’s something you couldn’t study in economics departments. So that explains why Edward Said’s book, which really stressed the fallout of imperialism, became a location that everybody turned to. So literary studies really became a place where you did everything: social science, philosophy—and some of it is badly done. There’s a lot of bad philosophy that occurs in literary departments. But nevertheless, there was a kind of yearning that people had, which they weren’t finding in their own disciplines, so they had to turn to literature.
B&W: The history you just gave is interesting, because I’d say the tradition, it seems to me, that you’re coming from [analytic philosophy] was also— there was a similar de-emphasis of value justifications. What, for you, are the most interesting philosophical questions?
AB: Well I started off at Oxford. When I was there, because I was defecting from English, I became very interested in language. I attended lectures by P.F. Strawson and there was this very charismatic, young philosopher who died tragically early named Gareth Evans…I wasn’t on top of the material then at all, because I was very young and I just didn’t know any philosophy, but I was very struck by it, and stimulated by it, and that’s what I wanted to do. I then went back to India for a couple of years and just [pause] taught. Sort of a fit of idealism, I guess: I wanted to go back to my country and do things. And that didn’t turn out very well, so I came to the United States to study with Donald Davidson. And I really just wanted to know very basic questions like, why do sounds carry meaning? Or why do little marks on paper carry meaning?
Well they’re not just physical things. So what does meaning add to physical things, such that [etc.] And I think in the end someone like Plato was right. It’s wrong to think that physical things, like sounds and soon, are basic and meanings are an accretion on them. I think, in fact, [meanings] are basic. I don’t have any notion that they are abstract notions or anything, like Plato, but I think Plato’s deeper insight was not that meanings are abstract entities but that they’re basic, and they don’t break down into sounds plus something else, marks on paper plus something else, which is meaning. Meaning is basic. As basic as physical sounds or marks on paper or screens. So that’s what interested me: what is meaning. And you know, Davidson had written about this; he’d constructed a very elaborate system of thinking about it, which turned on Tarski’s account of truth and notions of logical form. Which were, in some way mimicking or echoing things said by Chomsky, notions of deep structure in Chomsky’s transformational grammar. So all that interested me a lot, and I studied with Davidson—those were very happily instructive years for me. I spoke a lot with Davidson; we meet every Thursday over a pizza, and talked about philosophy for the entire period that I was a student, for five years…So those were the years when I became sort of knowledgeable, and got into the culture of research… So Davidson was an early influence. You know, I’ve come to disagree with him quite extensively, but he was a tremendous influence and he was very, very kind and attentive to me.
B&W: What are some points of disagreement that you have with—
AB: With Davidson?
AB: Well, you know, I don’t think there can be a theory of meaning. My first book, Belief and Meaning, was basically arguing that meaning is a very contextual thing. Now I think that view has become quite fashionable. But when I’d argued it in the late eighties—or mideighties— I don’t think it had really been suggested then. I called it the “locality” of meaning. I think it’s now called the “contextuality” of meaning, but it’s the samemidea. And that was certainly against Donald’s views. I thought that meaning was too contextually, locally determined to have the kind of general theoretical possibilities that he wanted from it. And in that sense, I suppose I’m sympathetic to Chomsky, who really only thinks you can have a theory of syntax, not meaning. And my reason for thinking so was that [meaning] was too local a phenomenon. That’s what I argued for in my book.
So that was a deep disagreement with Davidson. There are things in Davidson that I think are right, and I still believe in. In a way my view is that Davidson doesn’t take some of his own instincts far enough. What is remarkable and wonderful about Davidson is that he showed you cannot have enough philosophy of mind in the philosophy of language. You know, if you read somebody like David Kaplan there’s almost no philosophy of mind…But there was a whole range of philosophers—I’m giving you just one example, in Kaplan—who didn’t see that you couldn’t do philosophy of language very seriously without philosophy of mind.
B&W: And what is so essential about that connection?
AB: You cannot understand meaning without understanding belief. So for instance, Kripke has this idea, the principle of disquotation, which is: if somebody assents to or utters a certain sentence, and if it’s sincere—it’s not a lie or metaphor or something—then if you remove the quotes from sentence [you get the person’s belief]. So if x utters or assents to a sentence “[Snow is white],” then you can removes quotes and say […] x believes that [snow is white]. So that’s just proof that there’s a great and deep connection. So if you take Tyler Burge’s essay, it’s individualism in the mental, but the social aspects of the mental turn on language. So the mental and the linguistic just aren’t separable for a whole range of philosophers, but Davidson was the pioneer, I think. I mean, in a sense Frege’s idea of thought being connected with the notion of truth conditions and so on was already implicitly talking about it. But Davidson was very clear about the connection, and [his] essays on action and events are really not separable from his essays on truth and interpretation. It’s part of a single systematic view of mind and language.
What interested me very much too, was that, beginning with Davidson and followed up more deeply by Evans and McDowell, was a further raising of the stakes involved. Not just the stakes of adding mind of language, but of adding epistemological issues…So you couldn’t separate out issues of skepticism from issues of Cartesian mentality, Cartesian notions of mentality—and that raised the stakes even higher. So meaning couldn’t be studied not just without mind, but also not without issues of skepticism and the external world. My book was really about that: you bring in, not just mind, but issues of the external world…[I tried] to carve out a distinctive line, which is anti-theoretical, because [meaning] is all very local, I claimed.
So those are the main issues that I found interesting. And now, since then, I’ve taken my intellectual [interests in a different direction]…What I’m now writing about, is the nature of practical reason and its relationship with agency…[And] then you know, Torsten, I have this whole separate set of interests which is slowly connecting with the stuff of philosophy. Part of my interest in practical reason—it is a self-standing interest—but I also want to see the role of reason in politics.
B&W: Do you see a systematic connection between that interest and your work in the philosophy of language and mind?
AB: Not so much with the philosophy language and mind, but the stuff with practical reason that I’m now writing about, which really grew out of the sort of things I say in the appendix [of my book on selfknowledge]. I’d already started writing about internal reasons—which is a term in Bernard Williams—as absolutely central to understanding politics.
B&W: In what sense?
AB: In the sense that, if there’s political and moral conflict on ideas and principles and so on (to live by), then I don’t believe you can change people’s minds by just some external thing, but by actually looking at contradictions in their thinking and deploying those tensions within them to make them change their mind from within. A sort of Hegelian view. And that’s really what Williams called internal reasons. So I’m using that notion of internal reasons as absolutely the right notion of rationality in politics, in order to talk about the possibilities of political transformations, getting people to change their minds, and so on. My stuff about the concept of identity turns on that, and secularism turns on that. Then I’ve got this book coming out now, [that explores] a further interest in some of this reading of Aristotle by McDowell in which value properties are part of the world. I want to derive a politics out of that. It’s what I call “secular enchantment.” The world is enchanted with properties that natural science can’t study, and that’s value properties. So values are things out there in the world, and we respond to them with our agency and our perceptions. So it’s a phenomenology of value. I think that’s very important for politics.
B&W: Why do you think so many philosophers in the last two hundred years or so have resisted that kind of account of value?
AB: I think it’s a superstition of modernity. I really do. I think that, the idea there’s no more to nature than what the natural sciences study—nobody knows when that was proved.
B&W: [laughs] Right.
AB: It’s not a scientific proposition. No science contains that proposition, that there’s no more to nature than what the sciences study. So you can’t be unscientific if you deny it…You can only be unscientific if you deny a scientific proposition. So this is just a dogma.
And I think the dogma has political grounds that go back to the 17th century, because if you. evacuated nature of value properties, you could then take from it at will. And a lot of extractive capitalism grew out of that outlet. It was explicit! Absolutely explicit. If you look at the Royal Society and all of its lectures—this was part of the goal of the Boyle Lectures, for instance. And the alternative view was called “enthusiasm.” Where you thought God was everywhere and value was everywhere, and anybody could see it. Quite a radical politics existed when people thought that God was in nature and nature was sacralized and everyone had access to God. And I of course don’t—I’m an atheist, [laughs] so I don’t believe that. But I think our modern secular version of it is that values are in nature. That’s why I insisted on calling it enchantment even though it’s not religious. It’s “secular enchantment.” So I think a radical politics can grow out of that, and that’s part of my interest in Gandhi, is to derive this radical politics. Which actually goes back to radicals in the 17th century like Winstanley and people like that. So I see a long line from Winstanley to Marx to Gandhi in taking this view, which is in McDowell’s reading of Aristotle, and deriving a politics from it. Now— McDowell has no politics as far as I can tell. Analytic philosophers just don’t see connections of this kind. It’s not in their DNA. But I think that’s impoverishing the subject.
B&W: Do you see most of your work as falling into the analytic tradition?
AB: I do, I do. It’s just the way I write, and if you read the book that’s coming out, it’s very analytically written. Sometimes I get angry, and I notice that when I get angry about reactionary politics or some creepy conservative views, or even just undemocratic views often held by liberals. When I get angry I tend to write in a non-analytic mode, so I have this slightly schizophrenic style in my essays on politics and philosophy and moral psychology. I sort of tend to get analytical and so on, and get angry and then it becomes less analytical, there’s more emotion involved. I just do straddle—my entire upbringing is analytical in philosophy and I can’t leave it behind. So if you read this book that’s coming out, at least half of it is analysis. And the other half is really taking a stand on politics and giving a historical—a genealogical— account of present concerns about the environment, about alienation and things like that.