Citing Sources and Quoting Quotes
January 21, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Agam-Segal, Argument, Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Stuart Mirsky, Wittgenstein, cites and sources

The quote below, from a blog by Wittgensteinian philosopher Reshef Agam-Segal, struck me as particularly interesting since it goes to the crux of many of our arguments here and in the past. Often when someone cites a claim or argument from another (a philosopher like Searle or Dennett or, needless to say, Wittgenstein) the response is something like 'prove that's what he said or didn't say, or prove that's what he meant or didn't mean.' It's as if the person posing that demand wants to say that there is a clear-cut received opinion concerning so and so's ideas about this which is clearly accessible to us in black and white if we just go read what he says. It's also like saying that what someone says of his or her views is definitive, as if they can never be mistaken or there can be no ambiguity in their thinking or changes of mind!

In the text below, Agam-Segal points out that philosophizing and reading philosophers (and maybe reading a great many other types of thinkers as well) is, or ought to be, about getting the thrust of their thinking, understanding their statements in the context of their larger claims and overall positions, rather than hunting up textual evidence to support this or that narrow claim about their ideas!

There is a notion regarding interpretation in philosophy that evidence can be found in a philosopher’s writing to support a certain reading. (In the case of Wittgenstein, I have in mind interpreters like Hacker and Klagge, but I’m sure things like that happen with the interpreters of other philosophers.) The notion I have in mind involves a refusal of philosophy. And to see this, ask: how can one be sure that they have the right understanding of the “evidence” they find in a philosopher’s writing? – It is as if we could be sure that the interpretation of some parts of the philosopher’s writing was unproblematic—was obvious--and could therefore be used as evidence for the interpretation of other unclear parts.

In the history of our many discussions and debates on this and other sites, we have haggled over what Dennett actually said or denied, whether Searle really falls into a dualist trap even though he is on very explicit record denying any affinity for, or agreement with, dualism in any form, and whether Wittgenstein's particular comments at one point in his career (or in one bit of unpublished text) represented his final view or superseded things he'd said in other places, contexts, etc., or whether Wittgenstein in the Tractatus was superseded by Wittgenstein in the Investigations (he explicitly refers to serious errors in the former book which he sets out to rectify in the latter but fails to say which they are, leaving it forever open to argument over how much of the Tractatus he was disavowing). And then there was Frege and whether he meant this or that in his theory of how referring works vis a vis claims of identity and non-identity.

While hunting up and citing quotes is often important, I think it should be seen for what it is, no more than an adjunct in discussions of this type, mainly valuable for demonstrating that someone said or didn't say some particular thing that happens to be in dispute but not, itself, a definitive way of resolving what such thinkers meant overall. Very often text pulled in isolation loses important aspects of what the writer meant without the original context and, often enough, a writers' thinking develops and changes over time. What's important is to give deference to the philosopher's overall thinking by taking what he says or has to say in context, not to proceed as though what has been said is some kind of holy writ and that finding some particular quotation puts to bed the problem under discussion (unless, of course, the problem is just whether or not he or she actually said the thing in question).

In the case of Dennett nearby, Joe, for instance, has insisted that Dennett denies experience because he is on record as denying a certain type of linguistic use (that "red stripe," applied to an afterimage, implies a special kind of red stripe exists, i.e., an experience OF such a stripe). Yet when Walter delivered a direct quote from Dennett (from Quining Qualia -- Dennett is nothing if not clever with words and titles!) which explicitly denied that he is denying experience, Joe simply disregarded it, presumably because it didn't match his preconceived idea of what Dennett was actually claiming.

This points up the pitfalls which Agam-Segal is referring to, I think. Note that I had previously replied to Joe's claim (and PDJ's on several of our earlier lists) about Dennett's alleged denial of experience (made by Joe because Dennett explicitly denies "qualia" which Joe insists on equating with experiences) that one only needed to read Dennett's larger arguments to see that his claims are not about denying experience but about explaining it and that explaining it in terms of what is not, itself, experience, is precisely the way one would go about explaining it if one truly wanted to explain it.

This sort of response never carried any water with Joe and some other folks who take a similar position. But it surprised me when Walter's recent citation of Dennett explicitly denying the denial that Joe ascribed to him failed to even prompt an "okay, I guess I was wrong," from Joe!

Certainly, as Agam-Segal points out, we should not be in the business of trying to characterize a thinker's views based on particular, isolated citations when the point is the overall thinking within which the particular quotes should be grasped. But when someone, like Joe, says find me a record where Dennett denies that he is denying experience, then when it turns up, something in the subsequent discourse should follow, i.e., a recognition by the challenger that the challenge has been met so that we may move on!

What's the point in playing a game of competing citations if no one is going to pay attention when citations turn up that clearly do what one side says they don't do?

Article originally appeared on Ludwig (
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