Monday, August 12, 2013

106. Relativism

The philosopher Jacques Derrida initiated the notion of deconstruction. Here, constructions of language, in science or narrative, are analyzed, taken apart, for their possible, possibly hidden, and possibly multiple meanings. A text has no unique, best or final interpretation. There is no single, unambiguous meaning, given in ‘what the author really intended’. Authors may themselves admit that what they intended is ambiguous, multiple, paradoxical, or hidden. That arises most of all in poetry. Interpretations depend on the context and on who interprets.

Readers develop their own interpretations, though those are not unrelated to what the author may have intended. This is in line with the theory of language that I proposed in this blog (in items 32-37). There I argued that reference, i.e. that what a story is about, is identified on the basis of sense, the way in which one identifies things on the basis of a repertoire, formed in personal experience, of what one knows and associates with what is talked about. Identification is achieved in combination with the context, which triggers selection from the repertoire of sense. In dialogue, different ways of making sense by different people are put up for discussion. This may lead to convergence or divergence of views. And the discussion will contribute to the development of one’s repertoires of sense making. Discussion alters the way one looks at the world.

Some people seem to interpret deconstruction as implying that theory of meaning should drop the notion of reference.

This idea has been inspired, in part, by Ferdinand de Saussure, who claimed that meaning is structural: derived from the position of a word or expression in a totality of language or discourse. ‘A word means what other words don’t mean’. Thereby language becomes self-referential. I think this is valid and useful, but the idea has run amok in the position, adopted by some postmodern philosophers, that ‘therefore’ language no longer has external reference. I don’t see that has to follow. Meanings may shift depending on other meanings, while there remains an intention to refer to something.

I think the abolition of reference is madness because it would abolish the aboutness of language. Surely, a central aim of language is to talk about things, and that is what reference means. True, as I showed earlier, language is not always reference, or only reference, and often constitutes a speech act of illocution, as in making requests or giving orders, accusations, endearments, etc. But animals have that, in growling, calling, warning, posturing, luring, purring, or barking, while with them reference is in doubt. Dropping reference is to take away what people have more than animals have. It is de-humanizing.

Is all this relativism? Yes, in the sense that interpretations depend on the context and on the cognitive make-up of the interpreter, resulting from his/her path of life. But not in the sense that any interpretation is as good as any other. There is argument, a comparison or confrontation between differences in sensemaking.

This is closely related to the notion of warranted assertability replacing truth in any absolute and universal sense, discussed in item 104. There may be different judgements of purported truths in the same way that there may be different interpretations. Knowledge of the world is an interpretation of it. But some truths and interpretations are more warranted, have better arguments, than others.