Foundationalism and Hermeneutics

SPECTATOR 1: I think it was, "Blessèd are the cheese makers."

SPECTATOR 2: What's so special about the cheese makers?

SPECTATOR 3: Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

Monty Python's Life of Brian [Python (Monty) Pictures Ltd., 1979, Paramount Pictures, 1990]


This use of the lie is interesting not only politically but epistemologially as well. The point is that if physical records of certain events and their recollection in human minds are utterly eradicated, and if consequently there is absolutely no way anybody can establish what is 'true' in the normal sense of the word, nothing remains but the generally imposed beliefs, which, of course, can be cancelled again the next day. There is no applicable criterion of truth except what is proclaimed true at any given moment. And so the lie really becomes truth, or at least the distinction between true and false in their usual meaning has disappeared. This is the great cognitive triumph of totalitarianism:  it can no longer be accused of lying, because it has succeeded in abrogating the very idea of truth.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie," Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.56]

Traditional "foundationalism" was the view that knowledge could be started, or started again, from nothing by finding pieces of certain and infallible knowledge, the "foundation," upon which all other knowledge could be constructed. The classic attempt to do this occurred with René Descartes (1596-1650), who believed that if he could conceive anything "clearly and distinctly," he then could rely upon it as being true and build the rest of knowledge on it. This became the pattern with the Rationalists, who based their systems on what they saw as self-evident first principles of demonstration, as these had originally been conceived by Aristotle. Something counted as "self-evident" if one knew it was true simply by understanding it. The Rationalist project, however, suffered from the disability that "self-evidence" was a subjective claim of certainty, which meant that different Rationalists could regard different things as being self-evident, with no way to rationally resolve the dispute. Hence, making such claims, the systems of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, etc. produced very different results.

A similar foundationalism, however, occurred with the Empiricist opponents of Rationalism. The Empiricists also claimed a few things to be self-evidently true (Hume even put geometry in that category), but mostly they regarded experience as providing foundational pieces of knowledge. Statements about experience were not self-evident in terms of being understood, but they could be grasped as intuitively true as part of empirical observation. This kind of foundationalism came to a kind of grief much like the Rationalistic self-evident truths, since it turned out that disagreements and apparent mistakes could occur even in the course of direct empirical observation: The "foundational" pieces of knowledge were neither certain nor infallible. A similar difficulty would afflict any kind of "Intuitionism," which would not necessarily regard any truths as self-evident, but could regard pieces of knowledge based on "intuitions," whether empirical, rational, or otherwise, as foundational.

That no item of knowledge could be regarded as infallible or incorrigible, i.e. all knowledge can be mistaken and can be improved, has been taken as decisive disproof of foundationalism. As far as it goes, this is an inescapable conclusion. Whether there was anything insightful about foundationalism, however, must be determined once we see what the alternative has turned out to be. A certain alternative, indeed, has become all but dominant, not so much in philosophy, though it is powerful there, but in the popularized epistemology that we find in English departments and other areas of intellectual life that are liable to seize upon the "latest thing" as, indeed, self-evidently true.

If foundationalism is the thesis that we can construct knowledge with absolute certainty starting from nothing, then the denial of this can give us various possible theses: (1) knowledge cannot be constructed, (2) there is no absolute certainty, and (3) knowledge cannot be started from nothing. The first thesis gives us the idea of "deconstruction" to describe and symbolize the failure of foundationalistic projects. The second thesis, that we cannot have absolute certainty, is now accepted by all but everyone outside a few Aristotelians. But the third thesis is the best clue to an alternative theory: If knowledge cannot be started from nothing, what does it start with? With previous knowledge, of course. But what is to count as previous knowledge? Why, just whatever it was that we thought we knew before whatever happened that changed our minds. And if there is no certainty to knowledge, and no permanent, fixed system can be constructed, then the new knowledge will be what we think we know until something else happens to change our minds again.

This process ends up being described by the "hermeneutic cycle." "Hermeneutics," from Greek hermêneuô, "to interpret or translate" (from the messenger of the gods, Hermes), is the theory and practice of interpretation, originally the interpretation of texts, especially religious texts. The "hermeneutic cycle" is the process by which we return to a text, or to the world, and derive a new interpretation -- perhaps a new interpretation every time, or a new one for every interpreter. It is clear that this happens all the time. We can understand a book, a movie, etc. a little differently each time we read or see it.

This was serious business in the Middle Ages, when differing interpretations of scripture could produce heresies, schisms, persecutions, wars, etc. Some issues that emerged were the questions of who had the authority to interpret scriptures and of whether interpretation was something that anybody could do or if it required particular abilities or inspiration. Thus, one difference between Orthodox Islam and Shi'ism was the view in the former that, originally, virtually any Moslem could interpret the Qur'ân and the Traditions, while the latter held that the proper interpretation could only be given by one possessing the divine spark that descended from 'Alî, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The Catholic Church is famous for the doctrinal authority of the Pope, but earlier Christianity invested doctrinal authority in Church Councils.

In this century, interest in hermeneutics grew steadily in Continental philosophy without much notice in the Anglo-American world, until Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. As the (empiricist) foundationalism of Logical Positivism was tottering, Kuhn provided a powerful alternative vision: Scientific knowledge changed, not through confrontation with the hard facts, but by a social struggle between contending interpretations of intrinsically ambiguous evidence. As Logical Positivism actually then did collapse, the full force of the alternative burst through with Feyeraband, Habermas, Derrida, Foucault, etc. etc. While The Structure of Scientific Revolutions hardly mentioned truth as a concern of science, many of the new hermeneuticists positively rejected the possibility of any kind of objective truth. All was interpretation. "Reality" is only accessible to us in terms of how we understand and interpret it. Thus, if there is no "reality" to be independently compared with our knowledge, all we can do is oppose one interpretation to another, and each of these is ultimately going to be as well motivated by the "facts" as any other. There are no foundational pieces of knowledge.

Such a theory is well called "deconstruction" [note]. Since there is no foundation upon which to construct a system of knowledge, the best we can do is the therapeutic task of taking purported systems of knowledge and "deconstruct" them by showing the unmotivated assumptions or arbitrary interpretations upon which they are based. As there is no constraint in reality on interpretation, the hermeneutic cycle, as in the diagram, can spiral out of control -- e.g. Incredible Hulk comic books can be interpreted to mean the same thing as Hamlet. The project behind this has often been the morally confused one of equating relativism with liberal democratic toleration. In fact, major exponents of hermeneutics and deconstruction, like Martin Heidegger and

Therefore we will be incoherent, but without systematically resigning ourselves to incoherence.

Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p.84

Michel Foucault, had little sympathy for bourgeois democracy, tolerance, and commercialism. Logically and politically, the doctrine drifts into moralistic relativism, with the stigmata of what Robert Hughes has called "lumpen Marxism," i.e. Marxist clichés long banished from economics that have achieved near immortality in the humanities. At the same time, Jacques Derrida (d.2004) said that there was nothing he had said that was not already in Heidegger. Since Heidegger was a non-repentant member of the Nazi Party, this increases the troubling implications about just what political commitments are implied by deconstructive principles. Indeed, when deconstructionists in political action behave like Marxists or like Nazis (Stanley Fish, who has argued "there is no such thing as free speech," comes to mind), the differences between the two do not seem that significant [note].

As part of a critique of science, deconstructionist views, starting with Kuhn, even turn up advocated by the popular historian and commentator on science and technology, James Burke, in his various television series, like The Day the Universe Changed. The title is meant to be taken literally. Since there is no "reality" independent of interpretation, "The Universe is, at any time, what you say it is," as Burke says himself. Hence, The Day the Universe Changed ends with the idea that Buddhism is just as good an interpretation of the world as modern science, since there are plenty of people who say the universe is that way.

Why Buddhism has not then built, or even understood, microwave ovens is a good question, of the same order as the question why quantum mechanics does not deliver one from the cycle of birth and death. That Buddhists are usually quite happy to study Western science and build their own electronic devices, which are not then based on Buddhist doctrine, provides a clue that quantum mechanics and Buddhism are probably not talking about the same thing, whether or not we conceive of it all as part of the same "universe" -- not withstanding a fair amount of literature now (e.g. The Tao of Physics) arguing that the newest discoveries in science merely restate the oldest truths of Eastern Philosophy. As I have indicated, the oldest truths of Eastern Philosophy didn't even invent the telegraph, while the newest truths of science have nothing like the soteriological purposes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, or the moral or aesthetic purposes of Confucianism or Taoism.

Relativism, or the idea that the universe is whatever you think it is, despite the attractions of this for someone like James Burke, does not seem like the kind of thing to recommend scientific knowledge at all. Indeed, the most conspicuous exponents of deconstruction, or its successor, "post modernism," are either uninterested or positively hostile to science. After all, even any presumed achievements of science, like modern medicine, hygiene, or technology, are themselves subject to deconstructive interpretation. In terms of its "lumpen Marxism," post-modernism can dismiss all of science and its achievements as instruments of white, male, capitalist, Euro-centric (if not Zionist) power. It is just as likely that oppressed women and Third-World cultures have their own "ways of knowing," their own truths, even their own mathematics -- and theirs are certainly going to be less racist, sexist, classist, and species-ist and more friendly to the earth than capitalism.

Most noteworthy scientists have little patience with this kind of thing. Thus, Roger Penrose, an important mathematician and now a significant interpreter of science, has said, in his great The Emperor's New Mind [Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 299]:

I have taken for granted that any 'serious' philosophical viewpoint should contain at least a good measure of realism. It always surprises me when I learn of apparently serious-minded thinkers, often physicists concerned with the implications of quantum mechanics, who take the strongly subjective view that there is, in actuality, no real world 'out there' at all! The fact that I take a realistic line wherever possible is not meant to imply that I am unaware that such subjective views are often seriously maintained -- only that I am unable to make sense of them.

That the whole idea of science and knowledge becomes senseless, unless there is some way for external reality to impinge upon and limit our interpretations, was well appreciated in the context of hermeneutics by Richard J. Bernstein in Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis [University of Pennsylvania, 1983]. The truth of hermeneutics (expressed by Bernstein as "relativism") was, indeed, that various interpretations are usually possible for each text, empirical datum, or whatever is to be interpreted. The truth of foundationalism (expressed by Bernstein as "objectivism"), on the other hand, was that the text or the datum does impose a limit to interpretations. Comic books can be interpreted to mean many things, but it is ridiculous to see them as dealing with human life in the same way as Shakespeare.

How this works in regard to science can be seen in one of the great studies of the history and philosophy of science, Martin J.S. Rudwick's The Great Devonian Controversy [University of Chicago Press, 1985]. The "great Devonian controversy" was over the mapping and interpretation of the geological strata in Devonshire in the 1830's, leading to the introduction of the "Devonian System" for Paleozoic strata and time. Since deconstruction received its greatest boost from Kuhn's study of science, it is suitable that Rudwick should implicitly refute many of Kuhn's conclusions. At the same time, Rudwick reinforces the refutation of foundationalism. The geologists in his study believed they were doing inductive, empiricist "Baconian" science, with no mental preconceptions. They clearly were not. They could not start with nothing. Of course, that makes their method conformable to Karl Popper's view of falsification. The refutation of foundationalism does not necessarily imply deconstruction.

At the same time, a striking thing occurs to Rudwick's geologists, which hardly would seem possible for Kuhn's theory. By examining the evidence in Devonshire, it becomes obvious at one point to all the major geologists that everyone was wrong, and for a while the work just drifts along with no credible theory to handle the facts, until someone (Murchison) comes up with a new idea. The "revolution" thus occurs, not by a new theory pushing out an old one, as Heliocentrism did Geocentrism, or as Einstein did Newton, but with all theories being falsified by the evidence, the very thing Kuhn thought wasn't possible. Something else of the sort happened when Lord Kelvin proposed that the energy of the sun came from gravitational collapse, which meant that the sun and earth could only be some five million years old, while geologists had already concluded that the earth was far older than that. This was an anomaly in science, persisting for decades, that could not be resolved by the geologists, who actually were right, but only by completely new ideas in physics, which led to the theory of nuclear fusion. Thus, ironically, the geologists "won" the argument, but not by any interpretation of the evidence that they could ever offer themselves. Indeed, the refutation of Ptolemy by Galileo really came down to one critical observation: The phases and the change in apparent size of Venus were not explained by Ptolemaic astronomy, but they were by Copernicus's theory. Although others, like Tycho Brahe, cleverly proposed geocentric theories that would take the new observations into account, the damage was done, and it was done by empirical evidence that did not admit of "deconstruction."

If the range of hermeneutic interpretation is limited by a text, or by empirical evidence, or by anything else, then it is possible for the hermeneutic cycle to narrow down instead of spiralling out of control. The "limit" of the spiral, whether it is reached or not, is the principle of objectivity and reality. As in quantum mechanics itself, there can be a larger or smaller range of uncertainty, but that will be merely a range, not an unconstrained infinity of possibilities. Indeed, the theoretical possibility that an infinite number of scientific theories could explain the same "facts" runs up against the hard reality that the theoreticians of these possibilities rarely can propose even one new theory that would take all the relevant facts into consideration -- usually exercises of the sort must grotesquely overlook some of the most elementary considerations. Rudwick's "great Devonian controversy" study ends with graphic tables illustrating how the theories and associations of the participants in the controversy evolved; and the tables strikingly display the same spiralling down structure as the table of the "realistic" hermeneutic cycle given here. Click on the image for a clear, full size image popup of one of Rudwick's tables.

The interaction of hermeneutics and foundationalism is the same as the interaction of interpretation and reality. Our connection to reality may underdetermine the interpretation, leaving a range of possibilities, but it does impose a limit to interpretation, determining a certain range. What hermeneutics and foundationalism really represent, however, is something logically more precise. Hermeneutics is about interpretation, which is about meaning, which is about what is understood. Foundationalism is about reality, which is about truth, which is about what is known. Traditional foundationalists and deconstructionists all tend to confuse meaning with truth and understanding with knowledge. Thus, in one of the most classic forms, the Logical Positivists denied that statements could be meaningful if they could not be (empirically) verified. That Logical Positivism itself could not be thus verified, and so could not be meaningful, seemed to escape their notice for decades, even though Wittgenstein had already seen the problem by the end of his Tractatus. At the other end of the spectrum, deconstruction simply holds that any interpretation of meaning is already true, to the extent that "truth" means anything, just by being produced. Both of these extremes should be seen for what they are: grotesquely reductionistic and absurd.

If meaning and truth are different and independent, then we have a requirement for an important epistemic and probably even ontological dualism, between understanding and knowledge, or between thought and intuition. This dualism has always tended to break down (as the Rationalists assimilated perception to thought and the Empiricists thought to perception); but it keeps returning, is all but unavoidable in common sense, and is theoretically upheld by the greatest philosophers, like Kant. There are indeed truths of meaning, analytic truths, and the meaning of truths, since no proposition can be expressed without meaning for its terms; but this interaction and interdependency of meaning and truth, again, has tended to confuse people over the importance of the difference. Quine's denial of analytic truth (in the infamous "Two Dogmas of Empiricism") seems to result from the paradox that there may be truths about meaning for a concept, even though the concept cannot be applied to reality without falsehood -- e.g. the concept of phlogiston, the last version of the theory that fire was a substance. This confusion is actually built into common systems of Symbolic Logic, where it is impossible to say "some Greeks gods live under the sea," which is true, without simultaneously asserting that "Greek gods exist," which is false -- i.e. through the locution, "There is an x [the "existential" quantifier], such that x is a Greek god, and x lives under the sea."

It should be clear that it is possible to understand something, even though it cannot possibly be true, and that it is possible to know that something is true, without understanding it very well -- even Socrates says that the poets say true things, "without any understanding of what they say." As understanding and knowledge thus can vary somewhat independently, it is then essential in life and in philosophy to retain an awareness that different issues, hermeneutic and foundational, may be involved in many, or all, questions.

The first non-literal reading of sacred text may have been done by Philo Judaeus, who wished to interpret the Bible as containing the truths of Greek philosophy -- with the claim that Greek philosophers had actually gotten their ideas from the Bible and from Judaism, by way of the secret and esoteric teachings into which they had been initiated. Later Christian exegetes were not at all adverse to this claim, but they also had other fish to fry. They wanted to see the New Testament as representing a system already implicit in the Old, so that the Old Testament itself could be read as referring to the New.

By the time of Dante Alighieri (c.12651321), the system of allegorical interpretation had been elaborated into four traditional levels. Dante himself wrote The Divine Comedy with this in mind, and he explained the "four-fold method" or "allegory of the theologians" in a letter to his patron and protector, Cangrande I, Lord of Verona:

Rather, it may be called "polysemous," that is, of many senses. A first sense derives from the letters themselves, and a second from the things signified by the letters. We call the first sense "literal" sense, the second the "allegorical," or "moral" or "anagogical." To clarify this method of treatment, consider this verse:  When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people: Judaea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion [Psalm 113]. Now if we examine the letters alone, the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is signified; in the allegory, our redemption accomplished through Christ; in the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace; in the anagogical sense, the exodus of the holy soul from slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory... they can all be called allegorical.

This is a nice treatment, for we see that all the non-literal interpretations are "allegorical" in their own way, although the allegorical forms are then subdivided. The literal meaning of the Exodus is the story of Moses leading Israel out of Egypt.
Meaning/SenseTime
LiteralPast
Allegorical/TypologicalPast-to-Present
Tropological/MoralPresent
Anagogical/MysticalFuture
The simplest allegorical form, the merely "allegorical" or "typological," matches the Old Testament story to that of the New Testament, namely Christ leading Israel, now meaning all who believe, out of sin and damnation and into salvation and eternal life. It is not difficult to see how this can be endlessly elaborated. Thus, as the Last Supper was in fact a Passover Seder, both the history and the ritual of Passover can be translated into Christian counterparts. Christ is the "Lamb of God," who has been sacrificed, even as at the Last Supper he tells the disciples that the bread and wine are his body and blood. Holy Communion is thus a reinactment both of the Supper and of the Passover Seder, and by it, as Israel escaped from Egypt, the communicant escapes from hell and damnation.

The "tropological" interpretation, the "moral" of the story, is then indeed at the level of morality. The escape from Egypt is thus the escape from sin, by redemption and atonement, which establishes one in a state of moral grace, forgiven and free of sin. In the temporal version of the analysis, this puts one in the present, where redemption means that one is ready to behave henceforth in a righteous and blameless manner. The events of the Exodus, after all, were in the past, while the mechanism of salvation established by Christ brings the events of the past, in his own time, as a living entity into the present.

Finally, the "anagogical" or mystical level of the allegory addresses the most purely religious aspect of the business. The Exodus from Egypt this represents the escape of the soul from the world and its reunion with God. This is the ultimate purpose of redemption, which is not just to be morally corrected but to be saved. Salvation frees us from the suffering, death, loss, and grief that are inevitable in this life. In the world right now, we look forward to this in the future.

The themes of Dante's example are those of The Divine Comedy itself. Literally, the great poem it is an account of Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since the historical Dante did not literally make this journey, and Dante is not simply writing a fictional adventure story, the seriousness of the work is in its other meanings. Thus it is an allegorical Christian pilgrimage. As a "comedy," it has a happy ending, namely the accomplishment of redemption and salvation. Dante lost in the "dark wood," the selva oscura, at the beginning means that he begins from ignorance, despair, and sin. By the end, of course, in the presence of God, he has learned the nature of Christ's sacrifice and has achieved both moral correction and the promise of Heaven, which covers all the levels of the allegorical meaning of the poem.

Whether it is the theological reading of Scripture, or Dante's design in The Divine Comedy, we see that there is a doctrinal background to all the levels of interpretation. In modern hermeneutics, of course, "desconstruction" may serve to smuggle in either a worldview that is simply Nihilistic or Nietzschean, or an even more sinister Marxist hermeneutic that seeks to restore a Soviet construction of society and politics. Those who most eagerly "deconstruct" morality and tradition rarely reflect on, let alone critically examine, their own moral indignation or self-righteousness, which is based on a Marxist pseudo-morality.

The sort of hermeneutic system that we seen in Dante is not something unique to the West. There is a nice case of another four-fold pattern of interpretation in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism:

...in his commentary Fa-hua wen-chü (Words and phrases of the Lotus Sûtra), Chih-i [Zhiyi, 538-597 AD] uses the term kanjin [, "mind contemplation"]... as the last of the "four modes of interpretation" (ssu-shih, shishaku), a four-part hermeneutical guideline for interpreting the "words and phrases" of the Lotus Sûtra. [1] The first is to see the sûtra's words and phrases in terms of "causes and conditions" (yin-yüan, innen) -- that is, how they represent the Buddha's response to the specific receptivity of his hearers. [2] The second, "correlation with teachings" (yüeh-chiao, yakkyô), is to understand them in terms of each of the "four teachings of conversion" -- the categories into which Chih-i analyzed the Buddhist teachings. [3] The third, pen-chi or honjaku, is to understand them from the two viewpoints of the "trace teaching" and the "origin teaching," the two exegetical divisions into which Chih-i analyzed the Lotus Sûtra. [4] Fourth, having grasped the meaning of a particular word or phrase from these three doctrinal perspectives, one then internalizes it, contemplating its meaning with respect to one's own mind. [Jacqueline I. Stone, Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, Kuroda Institute, U. of Hawai'i Press, 1999, p.157, brackets and colors added]

Chi-i founded the Chinese T'ien-t'ai, , school of Buddhism, which later became the politically dominant Tendai school in Japan. "Mind contemplation," , like the anagogical level [4] of Christian interpretation, has the highest soteriological function. Relating the meaning to the two halves of the Lotus Sûtra is rather like the allegorical project [2] project of relating the Old to the New Testaments. On the other hand, the other two levels are more concerned with Buddhist issues, the means by which the Buddha addresses his audience, the "causes and conditions," and the manner in which Buddhist doctrine is expressed, the "correlation with teachings." We don't get a "tropological" [3] level of purely moral import. Again, as in Dante, we see the forms and purposes of interpretation determined by a doctrinal background.

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Foundationalism and Hermeneutics, Note 1


Unfortunately, the first use of the term "deconstruction," as Dekonstruktion in German, "was in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by Hermann Göring's cousin" [Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, Doubleday, 2007, p.16]. While this origin of the term might not be of any particular significance, it becomes of greater interest when the politics we find associated with deconstruction turns out to be illiberal, anti-commercial, and statist or collectivist. Then the link through Heidegger and Derrida bears with it all the onus of its source.

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Foundationalism and Hermeneutics, Note 2

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

When one finds deconstructionists and "post-modernists" talking about "signifiers," this betrays the influence of the Swiss theorist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). De Saussure is in fact an important person in the history of Linguistics. At the age of 21 he predicted the existence of laryngeal sounds in Proto-Indo-European, a prediction that would shortly be vindicated by the decipherment of Hittite, which had something of the sort right where de Saussure had predicted.

Despite this genius in historical linguistics, however, it is puzzling why de Saussure should suddenly be so influential now in semantics. The people who are essential to 20th century semantics and linguistics in philosophy, like Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, or Kripke, all but disappear in favor of de Saussure in the deconstructionist tradition -- where his principle work in this area was compiled from the notes of his students and published (in 1916) after his death. Part of the explanation may be that the French de Saussure appeals more to dominant French figures like Derrida or Foucault. But since the Germans Nietzsche and Heidegger are otherwise celebrated, there must be more to it. Indeed. De Saussure's linguistics, like deconstruction (or, for that matter, like Wittgenstein), divorces language from external reality. Meaning, in this view, depends entirely on the structure of language and the relationship of words to each other. Words have no meaning in themselves, but meaning consists only in differences with other words (hence the origin of "différence" as a deconstructionist buzzword). Thus, de Saussure says:

In language there are only differences. Even more important:  a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. [Course in General Linguistics, 1916, translated by Wade Baskin, McGraw-Hill, 1959, p.120]

What drops out of this extraordinary theory is the relation of language to the world, the relation of meaning to external objects, and the factual reference of truth. Of what is "signified" by signs -- meanings or objects -- the reference of meanings is a matter of controversy, but there seems little problem or doubt that external objects "existed before the linguistic system" -- something that we could also say about natural kinds. De Saussure distinguishes the "signifier" from the "signified" but then folds both of them into the existence of the "sign," reducing all reality to a function of language and hopelessly muddling any clear conception of what is "signified" by words or sentences.

Similarly, the absence of "positive terms" in the meaning of words means that there is no way to determine the relation of the words to their objects. They only exist in relation to other words. This really leaves nothing for an "idea" to be, and one wonders how Frege's arguments about sense and reference, for starters, can now be ignored in what is supposed to be serious "Theory" in favor of this stuff. At the same time, it seems curious for de Saussure to link the lack of significance of an "idea" with that of a "phonic substance." Presumably "phonic substance" means a spoken word, and de Saussurean linguistics seems to think it a major point that words have no natural connection to their objects. As signs they are arbitrary. Since it has only been the rare eccentric since the Greeks who has believed otherwise, one wonders why de Saussure dwells on the point. The modern view is clearly stated in Plato's Cratylus:

HERMOGENES:  For my part, Socrates, I have often talked with Cratylus and many others, and cannot come to the conclusion that there is any correctness of names other than convention and agreement. For it seems to me that whatever name [ónoma] you give to a thing is its right name; and if you give up that name and change it for another, the later name is no less correct than the earlier, just as we change the names of our servants; for I think no name belongs to any particular thing by nature, but only by the habit [nómos] and custom [éthos] of those who employ it [ethísantes] and who established the usage [kaloûntes, "call by name"]. [384 D, Cratylus, Parmenides, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias, translated by H.N. Fowler, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1926, 1963, pp.9-11]

The truth seems to be that for de Saussure the real point is that the "ideas" are as arbitrary as the signs, and that the meanings established by a particular language are arbitrary. It is all, like Benjamin Lee Whorf and Wittgenstein, a linguistic relativism. Truisms about the conventional nature of signs are used to obscure the more radical and bizarre claim of the conventional nature of truth and the denial of external reference -- only text and the autistic and autarkic inner world of grammar, not the external world, exist.

Even de Saussure, however, does not go far enough for the deconstructionists. His foundation was "structuralism," which reduced the object of study, or the nature of the world, to the structure of language. But deconstructionists are "post-structuralists," in which the structure of language is itself "deconstructed." If reference and truth disappeared for de Saussure (including the truth of his discoveries in Indo-European linguistics, which are dismissed as discredited racism by a bien pensant deconstructionist like Edward Said), then, in truth, even meaning disappears for the deconstructionists -- the real consequence of any text meaning anything.

Outside of both philosophy and English Department Lit-Crit "Theory," Structuralism was appealing in Linguistics. R.L. Trask explains it:

During the nineteenth century most linguists were inclined to see a language as a collection of individual elements: speech sounds, words, grammatical endings, and so forth. In this essentially atomistic point of view, language change could be interpreted as the replacement of one element by another: one speech sound replaces another, one word replaces another, one grammatical ending replaces another. Early in the twentieth century, however, the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a radically different way of looking at a language, which has become known as structuralism. From the structuralist point of view, a language is best regarded rather as a system of relations, a system consisting of a number of interlocking subsystems, such as the phonological system, the verbal system, and the pronoun system. For a structuralist, an individual element is defined chiefly by the role it plays in the system, by the way it is related to other elements in the system.

This stucturalist view has been enormously influential, and since the 1930s virtually all lingustic work has been carried out within the structuralist paradigm, with very considerable success. But the structuralist revolution brought with it a new puzzle: if a language is primarily an orderly system of relations, how is it that a language can change without disrupting that system? To put it another way, how can a language continue to be used effectively as a vehicle for expression and communication while it is in the middle of a change, or rather in the middle of a large number of changes? This puzzle is known as the Saussurean paradox, and it is not a trivial issue.

Consider some simple analogies. How can anyone play football or chess successfully if the rules of football or chess are being constantly changed during play? How can an orchestra play a symphony if the score of the symphony is changing during the performance? How can a case be tried in court if the law is constantly changing during the trial? Such analogies would appear to suggest that the constant changes in our language must of necessity have an adverse effect on our ability to use it successfully. [Historical Lingustics, Arnold, London, 1996, 1998, p.267]

While Trask goes on at some length with attempts to explain the paradox, the simplest response is that the existence of change in lingustic rules effectively falsifies the theory of Structuralism itself. This is the same fallacy that I have considered already. A self-contained system of rules is self-referential; and if its whole meaning consists of its internal references, then a disruption of the system destroys its meaning. But this is not how language works. Language refers to the world, and thus the whole system of grammar could be lost while the words themselves continue to refer to the world. This is not a theoretical possibility. Pidgin languages are devoid of systematic grammar, since they are means of communication that develop between adults who do not share a common language, would have difficultly learning a new grammar anyway, and so communicate by sharing little more than a vocabulary. In brief, Pidgin languages themselves, by existing, falsify the theory of Structuralism. But Pidgins and Creoles (which develop out of Pidgins) have only recently come in for sustained study (cf. Derek Bickeron, Bastard Tongues, A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages, Hill and Wang, New York, 2008).

If Pidgin languages, which lack systematic structure, in themselves refute Structuralism, a very common experience in the ordinary use of language does so also. As people use language, they can and do break the rules. If Trask is worried about the incommensurability between structure and language change, he should begin by looking at this phenomenon. People break the rules because (1) they are learning a language and have not gotten it right, (2) children are learning a language and have not gotten it right, (3) adults often cannot become competent in a new language and never get it right, (4) people break the rules of the standard language because they are speaking a sub-standard dialect, and (5) people are deliberately breaking the rules for effect, which can initiate change either in a dialect or even in the standard language. What we see in all these cases is that, contrary to the thesis of Structuralism, the semantic and referential quality of language is usually only marginally distrupted when the rules are broken. The meaning of the statements therefore is not exclusively or perhaps even primarily derived from the grammatical structure and system of the language. You could even do experiments with this. Instruct one test subject to use a grammatically defective sentence and see if another subject gets the meaning. The curious thing about language is not that it changes, which it does constantly, but that anyone would think that it doesn't -- influenced perhaps by the unusual phenomenon of Classical languages, which remain relatively unchanged for centuries.

Also, consider Trask's analogies. The rules of football and chess, the score of a symphony, or many of the rules of a legal code, are conventions that may be radically under- or un-determined by any external reality. The rules of football or chess could be just anything, although at some point we would have to say (as Wittgenstein might say) that we are not playing the same game. If the rules changed during a game, or the law during a trial, participants might be left not knowing what to do. In none of them is there the question of referential truth (although this raises questions about the proper reference of law). While languages have their element of conventional grammar, which looks like the rules of a game, this is not at root what language is about. You have the word "dog" because there are dogs in the world. Without the game of chess, chess would not exist in the world. This seems to be the point essentially missed by de Saussure and his followers. Structuralism reduces reality to the structure of language, without remembering that language is supposed to refer to the structure of reality.

De Saussure is considered a founder of "semiotics," the study of signs. Signs and symbols are something that the occasional philosopher becomes concerned about. Two noteworthy philosophers in that respect were Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and Ernst Cassier (18741946). However, since the real significance of signs is their association with meanings, semiotics really has precious little to offer over and above semantics, the study of meaning -- unless, of course, one confuses signs with meaning and systematically collapses semantic issues into the semiotic. This appears to be what de Saussure and deconstructionists have done. It is a tempting move for the Nominalist, but philosophical Nominalists usually don't forget that there is an external world. Indeed, the Nominalist denial of universals and essences usually is argued in terms of the primary existence of individuals. This is not going to wash in deconstruction, where we have a political hostility to individualism and a tendency to dismiss individuals per se as "socially constructed" -- as part of a collectivist and totalitarian political program.

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