Saturday, August 26, 2017

Ventriloquists vs. Translators

In my readings for my environmental philosophy class, I have been reading Thinking Like a Mall: Environmental Philosophy After the End of Nature.

Chapter 6 in this book talks about the idea that nature talks to us. It calls to us. If we listen to nature, we can know what it wants of us and what our obligations towards nature are.

Steven Vogel, the author of this book, does not accept these claims. He takes them quite seriously and argues why they make no sense.

I want to mention them here because what he said is as applicable to priests (people who claim to speak for God) as it does to environmentalists who claim to speak for nature.

In his response to these types of claims, he distinguishes between translators and ventriloquists. What he does to respond to these types of claims is to argue that there are people who legitimately speak for others - translators. And there are people who pretend to speak for others when what they are doing in fact is taking their own ideas and attitudes and projecting them onto the entities that they are claiming to speak for.

Translators, in my sense, are those who speak for another speaker, saying the words that speaker is for whatever reason unable to say herself (possibly, but not necessarily, because her language is different from ours). A ventriloquist, on the other hand, is someone who speaks for something that is not a speaker, projecting her own words onto a mute object and then pretending that it is that object that is speaking and not herself.

However, Vogel tells us, speaking implies the use of a language, and language use implies the possibility of a dialogue. Allegedly, nature speaks to us - being able to tell us what it wants (and we are thought to have some reason to consider those wants). For some reason, we are supposed to listen to nature. Yet, for some reason, nature has no reason or obligation to listen to us and to consider our wants. Language use involves the possibility of dialogue, as I said, but this conversation with nature is more of a monologue. Or, more precisely, as like the commands of a sovereign given to subjects whose duty is to stay quiet and obey.

For the ventriloquist, nature (or God, as the case may be) is the performer's dummy. The ventriloquist puts his own words into the mouth of the dummy - into the mouth of nature or God - so that he does not have to take responsibility for them. He does not need to explain them or justify them. He does not want to answer any questions. He does this by throwing his voice and making the speaker somebody other than himself - somebody who cannot answer the other person's questions.

The translator can be wrong. In fact, Vogel asserts that translators are always wrong because no language translates smoothly and completely into another language. Still, there are ways to correct for error. The translator can go to the person for whom she is translating and ask questions, request clarifications, and offer alternative interpretations for the speaker to choose from. The ventriloquist assigning his own ideas to God or nature cannot do either.

More importantly, the ventriloquist obtains a politically powerful - and morally questionable - status.

The political danger arises when we are led to grant the ventriloquist’s words (which we mistakenly think of as the words of the dummy) the same respect we grant the words of real speakers, because in doing so the ventriloquist gets a power other speakers do not have: the power to make truth-claims without the responsibility to provide first-person justifications for them.

As I said, this applies as much to those who claim to speak for God as to those who claim to speak for nature.

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