For a larger sample of Williamson’s work , you might check out his A new book, , offers a pleasing overview of the cartoonist’s career, with a great many pages of original art reproduced on large pages in black and white so that the details of Williamson’s pen and ink work are all visible. for EC’s Weird Science-Fantasy; the amusing from Warren’s Creepy magazine; his for Marvel Comics; and from Pacific Comics’ Alien Worlds.
How can I excuse a post on Williamson at a blog devoted to philosophical and theological topics? The answer is that the book provides (without intending to do so, naturally!) a couple of choice examples of the phenomenon known to contemporary analytic philosophers as the indeterminacy of meaning. The basic idea, as longtime readers know, is this. Consider any thought, any spoken or written words or sentences, any symbols, pictures or other representations, and in general anything with any sort of meaning or representational content. There is nothing about the collection of physical facts concerning such things – for example, facts about the size or shape of written letters, facts about the brain or behavioral patterns, facts about the causal relations between a person and his environment – that can by themselves determine exactly what meaning is to be attributed to a thought or conveyed by an utterance, picture, or other representation. For any set of physical facts, there will always be alternative possible interpretations one might assign to them. Physical representations are therefore systematically ambiguous or indeterminate in their content.
This thesis, most famously associated with philosophers like Quine and Kripke, is of interest because of the dramatic conclusions philosophers have drawn from it – albeit different philosophers draw different dramatic conclusions. Suppose you take the materialist view that there are no facts over and above the physical facts. Then you will be tempted to draw the conclusion that there just is no fact of the matter about what any of our thoughts and utterances mean. Suppose instead that you hold that there is and must be a fact of the matter about what at least some of our thoughts and utterances mean. Then you will be tempted to draw the anti-materialist conclusion that the physical facts are not all the facts there are – and in particular that thought cannot be identified with anything material. (The latter conclusion, as I have argued in this paper and in several follow-up pieces, is the correct one to draw.)
Here is one example from Williamson’s work that wonderfully exemplifies the phenomenon of indeterminacy. In 1954, Williamson produced an especially beautifully-illustrated eight page story for The Amazing Adventures of Buster Crabbe. But the series was cancelled before the story saw print. About ten years later, comic book artist Wally Wood decided he wanted it for the first issue of his magazine Witzend. But, while preserving the art, Wood came up with an entirely new story and dialogue for it, publishing it in black and white under the title “Savage World.” Over fifteen years after that, the story was once again rewritten (this time by comics writer Bruce Jones), and published in Alien Worlds in a colorized version under the title “Land of the Fhre.”
So, we have exactly the same series of images, but with three different narratives – three different ways of interpreting the significance of the images. There is nothing in the images themselves that determines exactly who the characters are or what they are doing, what the larger background context is in terms of which we should understand the eight-page series of images, and so on. Something outside the images, namely the intentions of the writer, has to determine all that.
Notice that this does not by itself entail that the images are entirely indeterminate. At least given the general background context – the general conventions of art, the fact that we are dealing with a comic book story, that it is appearing in a science fiction magazine, etc. – we know that the images represent people and places, that the characters in the later panels in the story are the same as the characters in the earlier panels, and so forth. (Though torn entirely from that larger context too, the physical attributes of the art wouldn’t by themselves suffice to determine even that much.)
This is a point worth making given an issue related to indeterminacy that arises in the theological context (and which arose in the comments section of a recent post). As the history of Christian theology demonstrates, the same biblical passages can be interpreted in different ways, and stitched together into theological systems as unlike as the different stories assigned to the same Williamson artwork in my example. Catholics and Protestants disagree over whether an authoritative institution like the Church is therefore necessary in order to assign to scripture a proper interpretation.
But the Catholic position in this dispute is too often understood in a cartoonish manner (unfortunately, sometimes even by well-meaning but uninformed Catholics themselves). The Catholic Church does not maintain that scripture cannot be understood at all apart from the authoritative interpretation of the Church. She is not making the absurd claim that the words on the page are strictly unintelligible gibberish until the Church tells us what they mean (as if ordinary readers of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek couldn’t make heads or tails of it until some Church official came along to tell us what it was saying!) Obviously, the general sense of most passages is clear enough. Rather, what is at issue is how to settle the interpretation of passages that are ambiguous, how to determine exactly what principle lies behind the teaching of this or that passage, how to apply it to concrete or unforeseen circumstances, and so on.
For example, when the Fifth Commandment says “Thou shalt not kill,” the Church is not claiming that this is no more meaningful than “Blah blah blah” until an authoritative interpreter comes along. Obviously, that would be a ridiculous claim. The general meaning is clear enough. But is all killing ruled out? What does the command imply with regard to self-defense? The killing of animals? Capital punishment? Abortion? Euthanasia? Other biblical passages can help to a considerable extent, but they can't settle every single question of this type. That is why (Catholics argue) an authoritative interpreter is necessary.
Another reason that the Catholic position cannot entail that biblical passages are utterly unintelligible before an authoritative interpreter comes along is that such a suggestion would render meaningless the Church's claim that she only ever teaches in a way that is consistent with scripture. That obviously entails that there is at least some general meaning to scriptural passages that can be grasped by the reader even before the Church puts forward an authoritative decision on ambiguous cases, application to unforeseen circumstances, etc. Otherwise we'd have a ridiculous and Orwellian situation where the Church can always claim to be consistent with scripture, but only for the trivial reason that she can always just arbitrarily stipulate what scripture means.
An analogy would be the Supreme Court's claim to be the authoritative interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. No one claims that the Constitution is strictly unintelligible until the court tells us what it means. The general sense is clear enough. Rather, the question is how to interpret ambiguous passages, how to determine what general principle underlies this or that part of it, how to apply it to new cases, etc. That's why the court is needed. (The difference between the court and the Church is that the court has no special divine guidance and therefore is not infallible – very far from it, obviously!)
Anyway, the “Savage World”/”Land of the Fhre” example provides a nice analogue to this more narrow sort of indeterminacy. Given the general background conventions of art, the conventions of comic book art specifically, and so on, the attributes of the Williamson artwork are sufficient by themselves to tell us that what we are looking at are people, places, and buildings, that this is an adventure story of some type, that there is some sort of conflict between the characters, etc. This is analogous to the fact that given the general conventions of the biblical languages, general background knowledge of human life, etc., the general sense of scriptural passages is clear enough (e.g. we know that the Ten Commandments tell us not to kill, steal, or commit adultery, we know at least in a general way what killing, stealing, and committing adultery involve, etc.).
At the same time, the specific details of the plot of the story, the motivations of the characters, etc. cannot all be read off from the artwork alone. Something outside the artwork – the intentions of the writer and the story he imposes on the images – is needed in order to determine that. This is analogous to the fact that the precise nature of the general principles expressed in scriptural passages, their application to new cases, what scripture implies vis-à-vis very technical and abstruse theological matters and issues that never arose at the time the Bible was written, etc. cannot all be read off from scripture alone. To that limited extent, the precise meaning of scripture is indeterminate apart from the reading given it by an authoritative interpreter.
Here is another example from Williamson’s career, and recounted in Al Williamson: Strange World Adventures. Williamson famously collaborated in his early work with a number of artist friends who would also become well-known, such as Frank Frazetta, Angelo Torres, and Roy Krenkel. Their influence can be felt in Williamson’s 1950s-era work especially, including the examples I’ve linked to. Now, Williamson was not keen on drawing superhero tales, and one publisher was not happy with the work he did on one such story. The publisher hired Torres to do another story, in the process telling Torres how little he thought of Williamson’s work. As a gag, Torres had Williamson do the job, without telling the publisher – and when it was turned in, the publisher praised Torres for it and told him how much better it was than Williamson’s work!
I would suggest that this episode illustrates another theme related to indeterminacy – what philosophers of science call the theory-ladenness of observation. The idea here is that there is no such thing as observational or experimental evidence that can be described entirely independently of any background theoretical assumptions. We are always making some theoretical assumptions when we interpret some piece of scientific evidence, and those assumptions can in principle be wrong or at least be open to challenge from incompatible alternative assumptions. To take a stock example, whether I describe what I observe at sunset as the sun moving relative to the earth or the earth moving relative to the sun depends on which theoretical assumptions I bring to bear on the observation. And ordinary observation, outside of scientific contexts, is like this too.
The relationship to indeterminacy is, perhaps, obvious. What is observed does not by itself suffice to tell us its entire significance. It is indeterminate between different possible descriptions reflecting different possible theoretical background assumptions. (Note that here too, one needn’t hold that the indeterminacy is complete. For example, I can know that I am looking at a large, round yellowish-orange object of some kind whether I interpret it as the sun moving relative to the earth, a stationary object relative to which the earth is moving, or for that matter an artificial sun like the kind in the movie The Truman Show.)
The Torres/Williamson episode nicely illustrates the idea. The publisher evaluated the artwork in light of the background assumption that it was produced by Torres and not by Williamson. Had he instead assumed from the start that he was looking at a piece of Williamson artwork, he may well have given it a more negative evaluation. Note that that does not entail that there is nothing in what he is observing that does not reflect the publisher’s background assumptions. There are images in ink on the paper, people and places and buildings represented there, and so on, entirely apart from the publisher’s assumptions. But whether he is inclined to notice certain aesthetic and stylistic features, to overemphasize certain weaknesses in the drawing or certain of its strengths, etc. does reflect the assumptions he is making about who drew it.
Pop culture roundup [other philosophical posts on comics, movies, music, etc.]