Hermeneutic Practice and Theories of Meaning1 Two traditions and a common problem



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6. Conclusion
It is a dialogue of this sort between traditions to which I have been trying to contribute in this essay. The traditions in question are those of analytic theories of linguistic meaning and hermeneutic theories of linguistic interpretation. The thought that frames and motivates my more detailed remarks here is that the substantive insights of each of these traditions have much to offer that is helpful in pursuing the explanatory goals characteristic of the other. Hermeneutics reminds theorists of meaning that a great deal of linguistic understanding lies beyond what can be expressed by specifying the meanings of novel free-standing sentences, difficult and important as that enterprise is. Understanding a text in a context that may be removed in various ways from our own—grasping what is said in other languages, distant historical situations, more or less alien cultural traditions—is a process for which combinatorially generated compositional sentence meanings serve only as inputs. Further, as hermeneutic theory also reminds us, the need to bridge the sorts of awe inspiring conceptual gaps that can be opened up by large differences in language, time, and tradition is merely the most dramatic end of a continuum whose more mundane reaches include the ordinary conversational need to bridge doxastic gaps between speakers that correspond to difference in belief made inevitable by the different physical and cognitive trajectories through the world traced by even the most familiar and similar interlocutors. So, that they can serve as inputs in an adequate account of this sort of linguistic achievement of understanding ought to be acknowledged as an important criterion of adequacy on theoretical specifications of the meanings of the individual sentences produced and consumed in these processes—both for the exotic and the domestic species.
The tradition that gave rise to classical contemporary theories of meaning sought to begin with to formalize the semantics of artificial languages and axiomatized theories—in Frege’s Begriffsschrift and Russell and Whitehead’s Principia, above all the most basic language of mathematics. Structural traces of those origins remain in later developments of the tradition, in Carnap’s formal semantic theories, in Tarski’s model theory, and in the extension of the formalism of possible worlds from its initial application to modal vocabulary to substantive non-logical concepts. The essentially dialogical processes of argument and justification in which the inferential articulation of conceptual content is publicly manifest and practically significant are implicitly assimilated to the monological paradigm of proof. By sketching the dialogical, because perspectival structure of the practical capacity that is inferential understanding, and showing how inferentialist approaches to semantics underwrite central gadamerian platitudes, I’ve tried to make visible in this essay some of the ways in which this aspect of the heritage of formal theories of meaning can be overcome, so that some of the insights of this tradition can be brought to bear in theoretically explicating the phenomena to which hermeneutics so usefully directs our attention.
Bob Brandom

1 The material in this body of this essay is drawn from Chapter Three of my Tales of the Mighy Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality [Harvard University Press, 2002].

2 G.E.M. Anscombe: Intention (Cornell University Press, 1957, reprinted by Harvard University Press, 2001).

3 Whether and how the account I go on to offer below of the conceptual hermeneutics of discursive commitments should then be taken to reflect on the case of empirical knowledge and practical agency is a question I will not pursue here.

4 In his master work, Truth and Method [New York, Crossroad, 1985, 1975. Translation of Wahrheit und Methode ].

5 This is the line I pursue in Chapter Eight of Making It Explicit. At the end of the story, talk of ‘meaning’ and ‘content’ gives way to talk about the practical capacity of navigating between different doxastic-inferential contexts of collateral commitments.

6 Chapter Four of Articulating Reasons (Harvard U. Press, 2000) explains how substitution inferences then permit the extension of the notion of conceptual content to essentially subsentential expressions, paradigmatically singular terms and predicates.

7 See Chapter Six of Making It Explicit, or Chapter Four of Articulating Reasons. One lesson of this approach is that one must not overestimate the extent to which language is compositional. The compositional substitution inferences do not exhaust all the material multipremise inferences that articulate the content of novel sentences. Mastery of the substitution inferences gives one a genuine grip on the inferential role of sentences involving those subsentential expressions, but other factors, including collateral truths and beliefs, also make important contributions.

8 This emphasis is in part a consequence of the non-monotonicity of material inference: the fact that just because p by itself gives good reason for q, it does not follow that for arbitrary r, p&r gives good reason for q. This issue is discussed in Chapter Two of Articulating Reasons (op. cit.).

9 In philosophical works written by the now-dead, paradigmatic demonstrative and indexical phenomena recede to a bare minimum. Nonetheless, cognoscenti will see the both the analogies and the disanalogies between Kaplan’s dual relativity of the content of some such expressions to context of utterance and context of evaluation and the inferential perspectives made explicit by de dicto and de re specifications of conceptual content as indicated below.

10 As well one might be. I read it as an expression of a) conceptual realism—the doctrine that objective reality is conceptually structured by relations of material incompatibility (and so material consequence, including modally robust, counterfactual-supporting lawful connections), b) objective idealism—the reciprocal sense dependence of conceptions of objective relations and conceptions of subjective processes of resolving incompatible commitments, and c) the conceptual idealism that moves beyond objective idealism by seeing the whole sense dependence structure as itself a process modeled on the processes of subjectivity. Thereon hangs a tale. Like Kant, Hegel claimed that conceptual realism is intelligible only within a more encompassing idealism.

11 Michael Forster’s recent Hegel’s Idea of a Phenomenology of Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 1998) is good on this issue.

12 Bruce Kuklick.

13 Chapter Eight of MIE discusses how the interpersonal capacity to pick up another’s tokening anaphorically—for the potential ascriber to be able to respond to S’s claim “A bunch of bloodthirsty fanatics occupied the village,” by “They are gallant freedom fighters,”—gets is incorporated into and expressed by the intrasentential ascription-structural anaphoric connection between the antecedent “gallant freedom fighters” and “they” in “S believes of a bunch of gallant freedom fighters that they occupied the village.”

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