File spoon-archives/habermas.archive/habermas_2001/habermas.0102, message 86

Subject: HAB: What Are Meanings Supposed to Be?
Date: Sat, 24 Feb 2001 15:47:59 +0200 (EET)

There is a certain amount of amusement to be had from watching people
who obviously are not familiar with contemporary philosophy of language
make claims in its name, but at a certain point it gets frustrating. Let
me out this frustration as rationally as I can.

As far as I can tell, two flawed conceptions of what meanings are
supposed to be have been used on this list to criticize Habermas's work.
This is probably made easier by the fact that there is not, to my
knowledge (and I haven't had the opportunity to read Joe Heath, who I
presume to be good), an adequate secondary account of Habermas's
philosophy of language in existence. Maeve Cooke, bless her, does a fair
job, but in truth she's not a philosopher of language herself; her forte
is the connections between Habermas's philosophy of language and the
rest of his theories.

But to the point. The flawed conceptions of meaning seem to be these:

1) Meanings are mental entities.

This is heir to the Lockean, Cartesian etc. mentalist conception.
According to it, words are marks for prelinguistic ideas in people's
heads (minds). Consequently, we can never be sure whether or not they
are communicated to other people's heads, in other words, whether or not
the words of the speaker arouse the same idea in the hearer's head. In
fact, this is very unlikely, since ideas are connected to each other,
and the hearer may well have different associations.
This should sound familiar to people who have read Ken's posts on the
issue. It is hardly worth it to criticize it; it is effectively the
Augustinian position that Wittgenstein demolished in Philosophical
Investigations. Frege and Husserl had made similar points earlier. Meanings
are essentially public and communicable; the associations that hearing a
sentence (note that we are in the first instance talking about sentences
as meaningful, not words) may arouse in a hearer (or speaker) are no
part of its meaning. As Merleau-Ponty put it, this view is refuted
simply by that fact that words have a meaning (in other words, a meaning
distinct from ideas). 

But do they? Matthew claims that

2) There are no meanings.

On the most charitable interpretation, he is overgeneralizing from the
previous claim, that meanings are not mental entities. But does it
follow that meaning-talk is unnecessary or unintelligible? Let me
present three simple challenges to this.

a) How do we describe the difference between "Joe is a philosopher" and
"Joe is a horse"? Could it be that they have a different _meaning_?
Different meaning, in other words, a different use (Wittgenstein), which
boils down to different truth conditions (Davidson), different
assertibility conditions (Dummett), different speech act potential
(Searle), different inferential relations to the world, other sentences
(claims, propositions), and action (Sellars, Brandom)? (Habermas's view
is, broadly, a combination of the last two.) Note that each of the more
specific proposals can be seen as specifying further Wittgenstein's
claim of meaning as use. Moreover, it is natural to say, whichever
conception we accept, that that the _meaning_ (for example,
assertibility conditions) _governs_ the use, ie. determines when the use
is correct, acceptable etc. This is why Wittgenstein often calls meaning
the _rule_ for the use of a word (in sentences/speech acts). Meaning
properties are not physical properties like the shape or length of a
word (whether written or spoken); they are rather _normative_ properties.

b) What is it that you _understand_ when you understand the sentence "Ich
bin ein Verfasser" (or, equally, "Joe is a horse")? Could it be the _meaning_
of the sentence? If not, then what?

c) What is preserved in the _translation_ of the German sentence "Ich bin
ein Verfasser" to English as "I am an author"? Could it be the _meaning_
of the original sentence? If not, then what?

I could be wrong, but I think it would be a tad more difficult to
account for the use of language, understanding, and translation without
talking about meanings than it is to account for being saved from a
storm without talking about angels.


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