Saturday, July 25, 2009

Husserl and the Hyrax: Part I

First, let me pay my debts. Adam directed me to the Economist article, and my descriptions of Husserl's categories come from James K. A. Smith, "Tongues as 'Resistance Discourse,'" in Speaking in Tongues: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, edited by Mark J. Cartledge.

So what are hyraxes singing about? According to the article, they sing about their vital stats: weight, size, hormones, and status. Not as interesting a topic as the pangs of unrequited love, but musical tastes do differ.

Of course, the article tries to draw inferences about human singing from animal mating calls, eventually suggesting that when you sing about unrequited love, what you're really singing about is yourself--your size, anatomy, and hormones.

Let's consider this understanding of meaning or "aboutness." You see a teenage boy playing guitar and singing "Hey There Delilah" in front of a teenage girl. You could say that his song means "I am a suitable mate," that the song is about his sexual maturity and dexterity. There seems to be something to that understanding, but by itself, it's a very narrow and monochromatic definition of meaning. A richer understanding of meaning would be able to say (at least) that the song is about a woman named Delilah, beloved by the narrator, who is in school in New York City, far from her lover. One should also be able to say that the song means, "Isn't love a beautiful anguish?" or "Remain faithful to me as I remain faithful to you," or any number of other statements.

The first level of meaning, in which the song is about the singer's vital stats, seems much farther removed from the second and third levels (in which the song is about the people named in the song and about other people by extension, respectively).

In future posts we'll explore these different levels of meaning, bringing in some vocabulary drawn from Husserl in particular.

In the meantime, ponder the following ways of referring to meaning or "aboutness," all taken from the article (my italics throughout). Do they all mean the same thing? Do some correspond better to the first level? Others to the second and third?

"Zoologists have worked out the meaning of some [animal] calls . . . the rattle made by a male barn swallow indicates his testosterone levels."

"what hyraxes were singing about."

"correlations between the pattern of a hyrax's song and other details of its anatomy and behaviour."

"Wailing . . . indicates weight."

"A mid-song sound . . . communicates size."

"snorts . . . are connected to . . . hormones."

"peaks in snort-frequency provided information on . . . dominance."

"these are all honest signals."

No comments: