2018-01-22 13:30:31 UTC
["Semantics and Being", 2007"]
Boy, digging into Continental philosophy and applying it to analytic issues could get to be a habit; this week’s selection is Gadamer’s Truth and Method, which has been a surprising read in a couple of ways. I was previously quite familiar with Habermas’ critique of Gadamer’s attitude to tradition, and recently had my concomitant suspicions about Gadamer’s “anti-Nazi” attitudes confirmed by revisionist histories of his life during the Third Reich. Gadamer is certainly much more the conservative than the left-liberal “Continental philosophers” of the American continent let on, but the substance of his conservatism in his “great work” is different than I expected. He does take off from Heidegger, but not in the direction of decisionistic Existenz, or critique of metaphysics: he makes an ingenious application of the elements of Heidegger’s thought which are only intimated in Being and Time, especially Heidegger’s positive doctrine of Being. Gadamer’s critique of “aesthetic consciousness” and “historical consciousness” aims to reaffirm the importance of being to the employment of normative, “common-sensical” categories in the humanities and social sciences: he argues that without the human mind’s concrete involvement with the world and others (which is encapsulated in Heidegger’s refined concept of Being), these domains are unintelligible.
I am less impressed with the final section of the work, on language: it seems to suffer from the fact that Gadamer’s claims are often very inexact (in a way that post-structuralist thought is only purported to be). However, it still seems that the general thrust of the work has some bearing on issues in analytic philosophy of language, particularly the choice between “realistic” truth-conditional semantics or an “anti-realist” one based on meaning as conceptual role. Contemporary opinion seems to reject the flirtation of the ’80s and ’90s with “inferentialist” accounts of meaning as use, but I think the cost of the decision for realism is perhaps underestimated. Perhaps the real trouble with an “entity” theory of meaning conceptual-role semantics hoped to supplant is not its “Platonist” assumptions about the structure of propositions, but that it really implies a “realism” about the reference of common-sensical discourse; to speak Gadamerese, realistic talk about the famous “middle-sized dry goods” implies that we have an unquestioned and unquestionable grasp of their being, which is not at all derived from and perhaps even incompatible with a reduction of mental states or properties of ordinary physical objects as we encounter them into microphysical substrates. In other words, maybe our ordinary discourse is already “semantically perfect” in its reference to reality — too perfect to permit scientific recalibrations of the kind desirable to many of the people who want to go in for realism in semantics.