Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mensching the trees for the forest…

A friend of mine recently complained that it's just "slick" logical confusion on the part of people who say, "The best defense is a good offense." I took this to be a mere Wittgensteinian complaint of his made in passing––he's taken to styling himself a Wittgensteinian, you see––but a couple days later he posted his 'argument' on Facebook, which indicated to me he really thinks it's an important and cogent point. He wrote:

If the best defense is really just good offense like they said, does the logic follow that the best way to shut up is to start talking? And of course I understand perfectly when they say this in football or any competitive man-on-man/men-on-men sports. But saying this is exactly as meaningful as saying, "the best way to stop your opponents from scoring is to stop them from scoring!". :)

Unfortunately, I was no more impressed by this 'official' attempt at a disanalogy than I was by his offhand mention of it days prior. And I told him so:

I think your analogy fails. A good offense acting as a good defense in a conversation is indeed to start talking, since this method STOPS the other person from "advancing" in the conversation. 講不聽的樣子。 If the maxim were that the best defense is to do nothing at all, then your analogy would hold. To make sense, your analogy needs to be rephrased to say, "The best way to shut OTHERS up is by starting to talk."

Meaning is usage, as you love to note, so I think you can make perfect sense of the maxim if you don't apply such an anal-retentive lens to it. The reason a good offense is a good defense is that the points scored by "team A" ACT AS a defensive buffer against any points scored by "team B". The point of the maxim is not that the best way to stop your opponents from scoring is by stopping them from scoring, but rather that the best way to stop their scores leading to their victory is to score in a way that nullifies their scores, relative to your own, by the end of the game. This axiom works just as well in reverse: "The best offense is a good defense" (which I've heard more often than the other maxim you cite).

A few days thereafter he replied in breathtakingly byzantine prose:

Meaning IS use, thus it varies in different contexts when utilized to refer to specified actions. What I am discussing here are specifically sports terms, though just like any other words in the English language as they are, they are indeed... "technical". Furthermore, these terms are most certainly defined by ACTIONS. And it is exactly the reference to and the logic of which we need to examine.

On the gridiron, when the coaches call on the team to play offense, it means the players are gonna get in a certain designated formation of an offensive line-up. Before any formal game, the coaches have to systematically arrange certain lineups and call 'em plays of offense. Now, since offensive lineups and defensive ones need to be clearly distinguished. Different call would result in the team forming a different lineup. Question is, does it mean anything much to say the best D-lineup is good O-lineup? If that's the case, what's need of calling the defensive formation, just play offense all the way.

Now, let's look at basketball. In basketball, either one team is in control of the ball or the other tries to intercept it. Now, let's call the offensive play "shot making" and the defensive play "shot intercepting". Since it is physically required for the "shot making" player to be in possession of the ball to even begin the play with, the rival team due to the dispossession is forced in the situation to put on a "shot intercepting" play up until they actually GET the ball. Here, the coaches are probably gonna call on their team members to steal the shot instead of just blocking and destroying rivals' attempted shots. Right then, the coaches are gonna say the same thing about how the best D play is good O play. Whilst reality remains that the team is still in dispossession of the ball, which is required for the "shot making" play, namely, offensive play. There has to be many ways for the team to get the ball, but until then they are still defense. It doesn't matter how they get it, they haven't got it yet.

I don't know if that's clear enough for you. Still, allow me to bring up one more example of an individual one-on-one combat sport such as boxing. In a boxing match, two fighters are presented as rivals going against each other with attempts to either win by scores by decision, TKOs or knockouts. The bell rings, two men hustled to the center stage to start the fight. Now, generally in boxing people talk of punches/attack moves like jabbing, crossing, hooking, uppercutting and defense/guard moves like slipping, bobbing, blocking, covering-up or clinching to stop the fight for a while. So can one say that "the best blocking is good crossing'? It might be what they are actually saying is "instead of just standing there waiting for the opponent to strike, you should do a crossing punch.". Ok, that's fine. But if that's the case, why don't people just say, "sometimes, it's best to launch an attack instead of thinking about what you should fend you rival off with while he is coming at you."?

It will make much more sense than that. People try to be "slick" in language these days without realizing how silly they sound. The analogy, the best way to shut up is start talking, aims to show just that.

I apologize for making you sort through that. (And if by some off-chance you're reading this, dude, no offense, I just think you're making an ugly mountain out of an unsightly molehill.) I replied:

No, your disanalogy still fails, since you are confusing means with ends. Coaches call certain "offensive" plays in order to score points, points which *function as* a defensive means against the opponent's offensive plays. The end is victory; the means vary according to that end. Posting a heap of pretentious, sophistical prose doesn't help your case. You're missing the forest for the trees. What sense do you make of 無為而無不為 without saying it's Daoists just trying to be "slick"?

I also think you seriously misunderstand what "use" means in a Wittgensteinian sense, since the last thing a Wittgensteinian would do is be a prescriptivist about diction (i.e. refer someone to "the dictionary" to really grasp how terms like "peace" are used). Consider how much richer "shalom" is than the mere "absence of conflict".

The latter paragraph, about peace, comes in response to a subsequent post my friend made at Facebook:

Ronald Reagan once said that peace is really not the absence of conflict, it is actually the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. Bill [Maher?] and I would say virginity isn't really the inexperience of any sexual conducts, it is actually the ability to say you've never had any of 'em. ;) Dear former presidents, BUY YOURSELVES A F[…]G DICTIONARY.

To say that a rejection of Reagen's articulation of peace is wooden in the extreme would be understatement in the extreme. I have lived in conditions in which, while there was no ostensible conflict, there was no peace––no conditions for flourishing––to be had. Getting someone to understand this truth is not a matter of linguistic bickering: it is a matter of living some years.

I bring all this up because it reminds me why the Sophists eventually did get such a bad reputation. Allegedly being masters of language for human interests, they increasingly came to be seen as masters of their own personal interests mounted on linguistic acrobatics that drove a wedge between why people spoke and how they spoke. People speak to accomplish various goals––self-expression, lament, grocery shopping, seduction, etc.––but when their own use of language is turned against them because it fails for being lexically ambiguous, the study of language becomes as inimical to language as the study of anatomy is to living bodies. Like all natural entities, language works hylomorphically. It takes discrete material elements and unifies them into a formal whole ordered towards some end or ends. Hence, human language, when not hamstrung by the affected necessities of lexical materialism, "mensches" (or humanizes) the trees of diction into the forest of communication.

My friend's complaint about football lingo reminds me of the scientific objection (probably a piece of urban legend, but the heuristic point remains) that "bees can't fly." He seems to be urging a species of E-Prime, and I've written before how inane such linguistic purists are. His complaint also reminds me that anyone who can't grasp how a good offense is a superb defense has probably never watched a whole season of football in his life. And so I give his sophistry the punt.


Ilíon said...

I've never watched a whole season of football (nor, I think, a whole game), but I understand the saying.

As for "language purists" ... it's important. To a point. Like most anything we humans do, it can be over-done (which defeats the point of doing it in the first place).

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

"I've never watched a whole season of football (nor, I think, a whole game), but I understand the saying."

That's a good disjunction and a reassuring admission!

"As for "language purists" ... it's important. To a point. Like most anything we humans do, it can be over-done (which defeats the point of doing it in the first place)."

I fully agree that precision and accuracy in language is important. I've got a rather notoriously byzantine style of my own, at times, so I thought I was being punished with a version of myself ten years ago in reading my friend's "analysis."

Thanks for stopping by. Keep up the good work.