Expression Theory vs Realism

About a month ago, I came to a realization concerning something that has been confusing me for years. As is typically the case, I have no easy way to express it in terms most people can understand. In the easy, precise technical terminology I use, the barrier to communication between me and most “normal” people about crime and punishment is that I’ve been assuming people are reductive realists when they are, in fact, expressivists.

According to expression theory, feelings and ideas can exist independent of the mind experiencing them, which allows for direct communication of ideas and feelings. One largely-known application of expression theory is Leo Tolstoy’s expression theory of art, which I will use as a paradigm example of expression theory at large. Tolstoy argues that the definitive quality of art is the communication of feeling from the artist to the audience. The ontology (and/or metaphysics) that is built around such a definition is the concept that an idea or feeling can exist independent of an agent which could be called a knower or a feeler.

In order for such an ontology to exist, it would require an even more intense version of substance dualism/pluralism than that to which I ascribe. Where I have argued that there must be a substance independent of the material substance which constitutes one’s brain (or anything else that physics looks at) which could be called a “mental substance”, that argument is limited to the existence of a “knowing/thinking thing” which is not fully explained by the interaction of matter with itself. An expressivist must allow for the existence of such a mental substance, but must also argue that the thing known is, itself made up of that substance, independent from any mind that may be knowing it. In essence, to an expressivist, the idea of expressivism is somehow currently contained in this set of black and white pixels on your computer screen.

In such a case, a painting or song could be imbued with the artist’s sadness or joy. When one hears the Haffner Symphony and feels happiness, that’s because Mozart imbued his sheet music with his happiness, and every copy of that sheet music made and, later, the orchestra’s playing from that sheet music have all been imbued with that happiness secondhand. So when one listens to said symphony and feels happy, it’s actually Mozart’s happiness infecting the listener. (Example shamelessly lifted from Douglas Groothuis.) I promise I tried to make that example sound as charitable as I could…

What this means, in the case of “crime and punishment”, is that an expressivist, on some level, believes that a criminal is expressing “crime” by committing said crime. They are imbuing the scene of the crime with “criminality” which may infect the minds of others (causing them to commit crimes, as well). “Society’s” response to that crime, then, will also express a response to the crime, imbuing “Society’s” environment with whatever that response is communicating, which will also possibly infect others.

It took me far to long to realize that this is what people meant when they say such absurd things as “We can’t rehabilitate drug offenders with medical science, we must lock them in rape cages… we don’t want to send the wrong message!” What such an individual believes is that a criminal is infected with an idea of criminality which could have been transmitted to them by another individual, by coming into contact with a thing imbued with “criminality” or by a criminal idea that simply happened to float by at that given moment. I’m not certain whether the belief is that the criminal lacks any free will, such that they are merely the slave to whichever ideas and feelings they are exposed to or if one would have free will, but only insofar as one could fight off the infection of an idea or feeling in the same way one fights off a cold or flu virus… the literature is murky in that regard.

If I had to venture a guess, though, I would point out that Toltsoy is a proto-Marxist and sympathetic to anarcho-communism. Because of this, I think his cultural influences would lead him to argue that individuals only have free will insofar as they can overcome the influence of capitalist marketing and join something akin to the communist revolution, which would mean that most people are merely slaves to the ideas foisted upon them and only the great men of history can rise above mere servitude. In full disclosure though, Tolstoy was not a fan of revolution, he was too much a fan of Buddhism for that. For example:

“The anarchists are right in everything: in the rejection of the current state of affairs and in the assertion that under contemporary moral conditions there can be nothing worse than governmental violence. However, they are profoundly mistaken in believing that anarchy can be established through a revolution. Anarchy can only be established by the process of people becoming less and less reliant upon governmental authority and by people becoming more and more ashamed of participating in this authority.”

To get back on subject, though, I am convinced that despite Toltsoy’s positive contributions to philosophy and culture, expression theory is riddled with absurdities which could not be reconciled with any ideology other than a naive platonic idealism, one which claims that the only thing that exists are ideas that exist independent of any particular media which may contain said idea… that everything which exists is nothing more than a perception of some ideal divine form beyond direct human apprehension. This is, conceivably, self-consistent, but requires an incredibly complex ontological and metaphysical framework to be constructed around each individual aspect of the human experience which could more elegantly and directly be explained by simply allowing the material things with which one interacts to be real. Instead of reifying (making real) ideas and feelings, instead of making them exist as non-contingent and independent entities, would it not make more sense to apply Occam’s Razor and ask if ideas and feelings are not merely phenomenological experiences contingent upon the sense-perceptions and brain-states of the experiencer?

A (reductive) realist will restrain their ontology to only include that which must necessarily exist and/or observably exists. To such a realist, ideas and emotions are phenomenological events confined to individual minds, derived from stimuli. Meanwhile, a realist will look at actions, incentives, and outcomes with regards to individual actors, or “communities” by way of statistical aggregate. So, a criminal, then, is choosing to commit crime, based on whatever phenomenological event is occurring within her own mind, and expressing nothing. Subsequently, any individual/institution punishing a criminal is not expressing anything, but merely attempting to accomplish an end by physical means (reform, punishment, removal from the general population, sending a market signal that “crime doesn’t pay”…) What little explanative power the expressionists have concerning crime or social stigma being “contagious” can better be accounted for by what amounts to “market signals”.

For clarification, what a signal amounts to is a discrete physical phenomena (such as black and white pixels on the screen) which lend themselves to individuals observing and constructing an idea from that stimuli, which then informs their action (such as decoding the sentence constructed from these pixels and understanding, to some degree, the idea in my head). In the case of market signals, prior events provide stimuli for constructing ideas which inform market functions such as risk-assessment, cost-benefit, and value acquisition.

I didn’t really set out on this blog post to argue with Tolstoy and his unknowing inheritors, though. I am writing this post to bring attention to a language barrier I’ve discovered between myself and a great number of people. I believe this language barrier is derived from a distinctly separate and unaddressed ontology. This post is really just a call for feedback so that I can come to a better understanding of how my audience sees the world and to increase the dialogue between me and my readers. This issue, I think, is surprisingly central to all of the disagreements between statists and anarchists as well as between AnComs and AnCaps, and I therefore feel I need to come to a better understanding of all sides of the issue… if for no other reason than to secure my paradigmatic awareness for future discussions.

TL;DR: This post is short enough that I don’t think it really needs a “too long; didn’t read” section. Instead, I want to take this portion of the post to express my gratitude to those of you readers that have provided support for this project by way of donations, getting things from amazon wish list, using my affiliate links, and sharing this content on social media. I also want to give the readers/listeners an update. A few of you have noticed that the site has been getting a little less attention of late, with a lack of podcast episodes and the timing of blog post releases. I’m honored that you noticed and felt that yo should let me know. I recently switched jobs, moving from a low-level grunt to management. My new workload and schedule precludes being able to write blog posts while at work, and we are still trying to get family life back into a regimen we can survive with the new schedule. Hopefully, but the end of this month we will be operating at full-capacity again. Thank you.

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2 Responses to Expression Theory vs Realism

  1. Joel says:

    I recently saw a Tolstoy quote where he approved of la Boettie’s Discourse. He clearly understood the heart of the matter.

    I am skeptical that many people think in the way you describe here, so I will be curious about what others have to say.

    Speaking of others, where are others interacting with your writing?

    • You are pretty much my sole public commenter, if you haven’t noticed. lol
      I receive regular emails from a few readers and occasionally a one-shot from random readers. Most of the action happens on Facebook, though, it would seem.

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