Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reference and Preference

Ophelia Benson has got me thinking about the intersection of ethics and philosophy of language:
A face is shown... What makes it Muhammad's face? Nothing. The caption under the picture, that says 'depicting Muhammad preaching the Qur'ān in Mecca.' That's not much to go on. It could be a volley ball with eyes and a mouth drawn on it, that's just labeled 'Muhammad.' Yet apparently 180,000 people take its genuine faceness seriously enough to fret about its presence on Wikipedia.

When Muslims object to depictions of Muhammad, what exactly is the content of their desire? Suppose philosophers of language established that a causal theory of reference was correct, and historians somehow established that there was no causal chain of the appropriate sort connecting the prophet Muhammad to the picture in question. So it turns out that the face does not, as a matter of fact, depict Muhammad. Would that make the screaming masses happy? Do they really care about something so arcane as the reference facts? Or is it rather the appearance of obedience and acquiescence that they miss (and never mind that nobody's entirely sure just what it is they're acquiescing to)?


  1. I don't think it's quite so hard; if we are talking about the reference of pictures, as in paintings and the like, any theory of reference, causal or otherwise, has to take into account the basic fact that someone presenting a picture in a Wikipedia article on Muhammad with a caption saying that it's Muhammad preaching to the masses is putting it forward as a depiction of Muhammad's face; which is a violation of social norms in (many) Muslim societies. Suppose someone were to upload to Wikipedia photoshopped pictures of political candidates that presented them as naked, it would utterly miss the point to say that it's not really showing them naked because it is someone else's body; the point is that it is presenting it as theirs, falsely or truly. (And that one can do this, far from being revisable by a theory of reference, appears to be precisely the sort of reference fact that a sound theory of reference has to take into account.) It obviously is not being claimed that the depicted face was one Muhammad sat for; it wouldn't actually change anything if the person who uploaded it made an error and it turned out that it was not originally intended to be Muhammad at all; it is put forward in the article as Muhammad, and this is a pretty elementary 'reference fact'. Anything other than this looks like a sort of selective obscurantism -- we'll be skeptics about reference, but only when it suits our point, since we blithely ignore any similar reference skepticism with regard to ourselves.

    Of course, the problem is not that it refers to Muhammad, but that it violates certain social conventions of decency.

  2. Yeah, that's more or less what I was trying to get at in my last sentence, with the point about 'appearances', obedience, etc. Though your point about it being "put forward in the article as Muhammad" ties it back to real reference facts (of a sort), which is interesting.


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