Monday, March 27, 2006

Bootstrapping: Quine's Gavagai, and Derridas's Stable Meaning

The saying that "getting there is half the journey" is true both in road trips and in the creation of philosophical disciplines. How do we come by a full science of any subject, when at the beginning we don't even fully know what the first principles of that subject will be? What is the relation between moving from (using) the first principles of a mature science and moving to (finding) the first principles of a developing field? Derridas and Quine attack the possibility of going in either direction. Aquinas lets us understand their criticisms in a new way, and get back on track.

Derridas begins with the problems of Saussure's "structuralist thesis," that the meaning of terms in linguistic systems is determined by relationships, rather than the other way around. Stability of meaning requires that meanings not be able to change their referents, that meanings not collapse into each other, or rely too-intimately on further meanings that are not-yet-spoken. Many metaphysical pairs, like form/matter and actuality/potentiality, do not have an independent, stable defining point: so, says Derridas, the pairs either reflexively collapse, or demand some further explication that can never come. Thus the first job of deconstruction is to destroy metaphysics--to, as Neitschze says, kill God.

Quine has a similar attack on the interpersonal communicability of meaning. "Radical translation" is the attempt to bridge a gap with no common words, and since this is in some sense where we all begin from, Quine argues, it is a more important problem that the likelihood of being stranded on a desert isle with a native would indicate. He wants to know "how surface irritations generate, through language, one's knowledge of the world." Suppose you are being led by a native through the woods, and you see a rabbit run past and the native says, "Gavagai." Your first guess is that gavagai = rabbit. But context makes this guess dangerous: suppose it means "edible animal" or the native was shouting "take cover" because it's a venomous rabbit. We want to move from "stimulus meaning"--the mere response generated by simple external facts, whatever the underlying meaning ("take cover!")--to "occasion meaning"--the natural meaning in the present circumstances--to "standing meaning"--the ability to abstract meaning to include counterfactuals or speculation whatever the current circumstances. But this is difficult. No finite set of observations will exclude the possibility that gavagai means "rabbit until the year 2007, and then tree." Yet language and translation seem to work: but why? Continue: Bootstrapping.

Aquinas accepts both these criticisms (although of course Derridas and Quine were not attacking St. Thomas, he being considered long since deflated). Thomas, with Aristotle, admits that many fundamental antinomies of any discipline, like cause/effect in metaphysics, are only understandable in terms of each other, and that our understanding of them as we begin our inquiry into their meaning will change as we understand more fully the organization and principles of the discipline. As MacIntyre says, "Achieved understanding is the theoretical goal of the practical activity of enquiry." A complete science (like a fleshed-out ethics) explains the necessary phenomena of its subject matter, but in coming to this grasp we formulate and reformulate our initial guesses, being led forward if we inquire correctly by the natural principles of the discipline. These final principles are fully intelligible only in light of the complete body of theory. These final principles are thus analytic (as opposed to synthetic) and yet not a priori. They are the result of empirical and reflective investigation.

Thus, to Derridas, Thomas says that the completed form of the discipline draws us onwards, and so the meaning that is not-yet-spoken is bootstrapped towards by the natural, internal principles of the discipline, and the antinomies do not collapse because full meaning is indeed held only in the more complete theory, not in a particular word apart from its opposite (let alone by the word by itself). To Quine Thomas says that the enterprise of language is indeed constituted by projects of human engagement which give structure to mere stimulus meaning, allowing us to reach joint natural meaning (although not infallibly), and that practical rationality uses dialectical exploration to gradually approach the shared meanings of these shared projects by the internal logic of shared human nature that binds us together.

Aquinas-following-Aristotle is thus in some sense an essentialist Popperian. He believes in falsification as a method of inquiry, and yet he believes that dialectical debate can reach truth because the principles of a particular science present themselves to us, even if in inchoate and defeasible form. The essence of the subject organizes our falsificationist project more deeply than a mere Popperian hopefulness (or fatalism). This is not to say that any subject in this world will be finally and fully complete. But we are enabled, and constrained, by natural supports, and natural barriers, that operate as principles to which we move in maturing our understanding and from which we can move as we apply our new understanding. Derridas and Quine are too pessimistic. Metaphysics saves the day.

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