11 July 2006

Palatino, Sabini and Silver, in their book Moralities of Everyday Life, set out to examine issues that are not usually addressed by social psychologists: the table of contents includes Envy, A Plea for Gossip, and Procrastination. Taking the chapter Flirtation and Ambiguity (pp.107–123) as an example of the work they are doing, I will attempt to analyze the validity and value of this book.

The chapter begins with a discussion of the concepts we will need to discuss flirtation. The first of these falls under the heading Purposes. This is followed by sections entitled Recognizing a Flirtation When We See One: Lists, Rules, and Points; Pleasures, Point, and Ambiguities of Purpose; and Collective Collusion. Sabini and Silver begin by establishing that flirtation is an intentional act: that it is not something that happens to us. Yet while acts can be intentional, the purpose of an intentional act can be clear or ambiguous. While the purpose of flirtation seems to be, obviously, sex, people often flirt without intending to have sex. This raises the question of what flirtation is. A list of behaviors which will lead us to say that a person is flirting if and only if she engages in some number of them will not suffice for this, they determine, because, the creativity of the species and the flexibility of our concepts guarantee that any list must be too short. But will a list of abstract types of behavior do this for us? This question requires a further clarification of concepts. The model of a chess match is introduced to explain the term constitutive rules, the rules that define possible behaviors in a situation. These rules make no judgment about the prudence of acts, but only whether or not they are valid acts. There are no such rules for flirtation, because again, any act could be part of a flirtation. They return to the model of chess, and determine that there is something else that leads us to identifying certain behaviors within a set of constitutive rules as chess, while other behaviors which also follow the rules are not called chess: working toward the end intended by calling chess, chess. The point of the game is to mate(an appropriate pun, given the reason for their digression, which began to determine if the purpose of flirtation was the same); players will not necessarily have this purpose when playing, but to say "they are playing chess" is to claim that their actions are directed to this end. So it seems that sex is not necessarily(though it certainly may be) the purpose of flirtation, but flirtation is necessarily behavior organized by the goal of stimulating(acknowledged) sexual interest. Yet each of the behaviors that may be so organized(for whatever purpose they may be so organized) for the purpose of flirtation may be preformed for some other purpose. Thus does ambiguity make her entrance.

Behaviors which could be part of a pattern of flirtation may not be intended as such by the actor; if they are, the purpose of the flirtations are still uncertain. A concept like flirtation, Sabini and Silver tell us, allows us to call attention to the way a particular action is, was, or might be related to a particular goal, without committing ourselves to claiming that the actor intended, or even was aware of, the way the action leads, led, or might lead to the goal.

Still, one feature of flirtation seems obvious: it involves interaction between two people, one or both of which is fitting behaviors to the other's. But beyond the ambiguities inherent in this interaction is the possibility that there may be reasons for trying to keep the interaction ambiguous, even if it is intended as flirtation. Making one's intent apparent forces the issue of your partner's cooperation, and this may not be wise for a variety of reasons. This takes us back to the seemingly improbably possibility that someone may not be aware that she is flirting. It is often unwise to declare intentions; therefore, since you don't have to announce you are flirting you don't have to fully intend to; you don't even have to think about it seriously. Also following from not forcing the issue is the possibility that one could intend to make the flirtation ambiguous: indeed, once intentions are clear, flirtation is over, although its fruit may still remain to be enjoyed.

So Sabini and Silver conclude that ambiguity is the key to flirtation. In the second half of the chapter, they set out to examine the ways behavior can be ambiguous to determine some senses in which actions can 'mean' things. They begin by noting that there can be three reasons for an occurrence: action, reaction, or coincidence. Action is intentional, reaction is caused, and coincidence is an unexpected result of either an action or reaction. Any act could be cause by any of these; that is the ambiguity. An act such as making eye contact may be intended, or it may be coincidental. In flirtation, this ambiguity can be used to disguise intentions, and so is useful. Likewise, the blurred distinction between intended actions and reactions is useful. Announcing intentions has two consequences: it lets others predict our behavior, and leaves us open to sanctions if we do not follow through on them. Thus, by making an intentional act seem like reaction, we can create the basis for prediction without taking up a commitment to follow through: we have the excuse that it was unintended.

Knowing that an action is intended or reactionary may not solve the problem, however. If it is a reaction, there can still be uncertainty about what was reacted to. Even if the action was intended, there can be many different possible motives for it. But even the obviously intentional act of speech carries further ambiguities of language: topics may reflect interests or pretended interests; there may be more than one reason for saying a particular thing; words can have multiple meanings. Compliments and insults may be intended either sincerely or otherwise, for form or to express a claim to intimacy. Another ambiguity surrounding meaning is the word 'meaning' itself, which may refer to a definitional meaning('si' means 'yes'), or an inferred meaning(ending this paper means I have nothing more to say). Even this ambiguity can come into play in the final stages of flirtation, when it might not be clear exactly what a particular statement was intended to convey.

And all of this leads Sabini and Silver to see ambiguity as a resource, rather than a defect in the concept of purpose. What kind of psychology is this, concluding that ambiguity is a resource? Sabini and Silver arrived, claiming to be students of interactions, only to fly off into an epistimological discussion of intentions. Moreover, these essays are completely dependant upon natural language philosophy for their conclusions, and while they are interesting philosophical exercises in and of themselves, they(like most natural language philosophers) seem to have no purpose beyond that of a good lexicographer. While a thorough discussion of exactly what certain elements of our folk psychology mean does help us better understand that folk psychology, it does not add anything to it beyond clarity. If they would, on the other hand, follow the epistomological leads they come to in these discussions, bringing their insights as psychologists into the philosophic discussion instead of taking their philosophical bend into the study of interactions, I would be very interested in what they have to say. I have learned, however, in the process of writing this paper for the process of writing the paper, instead of the ideas it carries, that I am a student of ideas, not a student of people and interactions, and while these ideas about people interest me, other ideas interest me more.


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