I’ve been grading all week and have more yet to grade – the end of the semester is upon me and this spring was especially full of make-up assignments and special-case students. That’s why I missed posting yesterday and am writing today instead, unprepared and without having started my next language reading project (Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language). So I figured I’d take this week as an opportunity to break away from the nitty-gritty linguistics/hermeneutics discussion and start talking about some more big picture ideas. OK? OK.
So I’ve finally finished Gadamer’s Truth and Method. On the whole, I found it to be a terribly insightful work of inquiry into the nature of hermeneutic interpretation and of our relationship to the world at large. I was at first intending to write another deep-dive look (as I did last week) at Gadamer’s last section: “Language as Horizon of a Hermeneutic Ontology”, but instead I think it would be appropriate (and more useful) to summarize and contextualize the work as I understood it – both to focus my thoughts and to offer my interpretation for scrutiny and criticism.
Aquinas, Augustine, Christianity, Cratylus, Derrida, Ethics of Discourse, Gadamer, Hermeneutics, Language, Nicholas of Cusa, Phenomenology, philosophy, philosophy of language, Plato, Saussure, Theology, Trinity, Truth and Method
So I finally read some Gadamer this week – let’s talk about how the Cratylus – and some more highlights of pre-modern philosophy – fit into his project.
This week, following Gadamer, I read Plato’s Cratylus, and was frankly astonished at what I found there – specifically the prefiguration of some of the ideas most critical to my philosophical project. I’m not sure why I’m astonished – it seems like every philosophical enterprise ever conducted is some variation on “climbing to the top of a mountain and finding Plato already there, waving gaily” – but I still want to talk about the two elements that struck me most about the Cratylus – names and their rectification.
So I haven’t read as much Gadamer this week as I would have liked, and am thus not at the point to devote an entire post to him just yet. I have, however, been playing a video game that I’d like to discuss, if on the thin pretense of being relevant to the subject of storytelling, mythmaking, and some of the other mechanics underlying language: that is, I’d like to talk about Where the Water Tastes Like Wine – both the game that is and the game I wanted it to be.
So today I’d like to talk about one of the critical assumptions in the philosophy of language and one of the key elements around which my project revolves – which, happily, is also one of the key points in Gadamer as we go forward. Specifically, I’d like to talk about private languages and subjectivity.
Analytic Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Continental Philosophy, Derrida, Gadamer, Heidegger, Hermeneutics, linguistics, Philosophical Investigations, philosophy of language, Schleiermacher, semiotics, Tractatus, Wittgenstein
So I haven’t read very much Gadamer over the past week due to boring work responsibilities, so now seems as good a time as any to take a step back and look at one of the rather crucial “big-picture” issues surrounding my Ethics of Discourse project – specifically, where in the vast network of academic disciplines it fits.
While I’d like to do a lot of things with this renewed foray into the blogosphere, including a systematic plan of attack for the project, the primary goal is to use this space for my own notes, journaling, and recollection, and that means jumping right in to the material I’ve been reading lately – in this case, Gadamer’s Truth and Method.
As I peruse the history of this blog I realize that the last post I made was in June of 2016 – honestly more recently than I had expected. My wife lost her job in January of 2016, we were (essentially) evicted from our apartment and moved in with my parents in July of 2016. I began rating TOEFL exams at a rapid clip that fall, as well as joining up as Mythgard Academy’s admissions co-ordinator (a voluntary role). My wife found work at our local community college, part-time. We both struggled to find work, each of us sending out numerous applications, only to discover that the apparent wealth of opportunity offered by the Internet masked a rather grim truth: the sheer volume of applicants yielded a virtual lottery in the process – bad for employers, who have to sift through a mountain of applications unfit to the position; bad for applicants, who all, by competing against one another, limit the time each applicant can be considered. I finally found a position teaching philosophy at a community college in the summer of 2017, and expanded to two more schools, teaching philosophy and humanities, in the fall. I am teaching two classes this semester, and hope for more this fall.
And while we struggled, so did the nation. 2016 was the year of the Trump election – an event so complex and divisive that I don’t think anyone (least of all myself) fully understands the political situation our country currently sits in – though I have heard numerous people parrot predictable opinions without peering under the veneer of leftist/rightist politicizing. 2017 was a year of radicalism: on the one hand, the alt-right, empowered by Trump’s victory, staged a protest galvanized to violence at Charlottesville; on the left, Hollywood and the media giants imploded under the force of the “Me, too” movement and other grassroots(?) Internet-fueled efforts to guarantee protections for marginalized groups. Today, in 2018, I sit in the wake of an Oscars self-congratulating its own progressiveness, while ignoring Jordan Peele’s condemnation of that very progressive mindset – and watch the Republican party’s identity crisis grow deeper as Trump does battle with the NRA after the Parkland shooting. I see the effort to inculcate Trump in the Russians’ election meddling fizzle out, even while Twitter suddenly eliminated 50,000 fake accounts, leaving us to wonder about the inscrutable Russian agenda – do they have a goal beyond the apparent effect of polarizing this nation’s people further and further to the extreme ends of the political spectrum?
I did not find many opportunities to write during these past two years. First, because I did not know what to say; second, because I was too busy to say anything. Now that I teach, it seems self-indulgent to both propound my opinions and ideas to classrooms full of students AND to a modest body of Internet followers. Especially as I’ve watched the Internet mature and change through the last two years. While it seems to me that my students are alarmingly ill-informed and unreflective (no slight on this generation – I suspect most people are equally-content to reside in their convictions with only occasional, gentle prodding from alternative opinions), the fact of the matter is that I can do better work to change their minds in person, in a classroom, where a certain amount of openness is expected and embraced – than I can from the sterile distance of a blog post. I founded this page to change minds, only to find that minds aren’t changed online. Sure, there are exceptions – and always will be – but you can’t have civil discussions toward the truth without tacit agreement from all the parties involved, and the Internet is rife with differing opinions and attitudes about the way these discussions should and are conducted, much less differing attitudes about the subjects themselves.
In short, you can’t expect to change minds on Facebook, or Twitter, or in a blog post. Indeed, the best Internet media I’ve encountered is less the work of opinionated individuals attempting to make arguments or “have conversations” than those attempting to inform or perform. That could be a result of my own bias toward the Internet – I am no active forum-poster, but a gluttonous consumer of criticism and information – but I suspect those same biases are too entrenched to be changed at this point, or are at least changed profitably.
See, somewhere in December, I think, I faced a certain crisis of conscience. Having watched some of my favorite Internet personalities grapple with the political environment they found themselves in, flounder, and (sometimes) fail, I realized that my voice was not one that anyone really wanted to hear – least of all myself. My musings about language, the Bible, ethics, popular culture, and the rest of it were just the sort of meandering, lazy writing that could be (and were) said more efficiently elsewhere. Worse, while I undertook my project to look at controversial elements of the Bible with the best of intentions, I found myself without the time or inclination to do the research appropriate to that subject. My next post, on women in the Bible, was frankly too large to undertake properly. I wouldn’t trust myself to weigh in responsibly, and I hope you wouldn’t either. That was enough to stalemate me for two years, and perhaps for the best. I usually write these posts in an hour or two – I rarely proofread, and even more rarely spend serious time researching these subjects. Rather, they follow the course of my studies and repeat what I have already learned. There are exceptions, as when I discussed the “Historical Jesus” debate, but for the most part, you were seeing the half-formed thoughts springing directly out of my head. That was not my intention, but it was the outcome. And until I acquired more time for leisurely research, that’s really all I could afford to do.
What’s more, I’m not sure I have a worthwhile perspective at all. I am who I am – a white, Anglo-Saxon/Eastern European straight male, raised in a middle-class New Jersey home and struggling in the peculiar poverty of the undistinguished academic – like basically everybody else on the Internet, it seems. I’m smarter than some, dumber than others, but my insistence on my “unique perspective” (as encouraged by Tolkien and Lewis) rings a bit hollow in a culture where we are very much (and rightfully!) concerned about the marginalized perspectives of black people, women, the queer community, and numerous other people sidelined by our predominantly-white society. Even the media we consume that is ostensibly geared toward marginalized groups fail to do so in certain ways and (again the Oscars) seem more inclined to congratulate white progressiveness than actually elevate the discussion of marginalized perspectives.
That does not make me a true believer in identity politics, however. Nor does it make me a “men’s rights” advocate. I merely realize that I have nothing terribly worthwhile to say in a society where we are constantly bombarded by ideas and opinions, over-saturated by media from all corners, and where we are increasingly inclined to drown out the voices we dislike with those agreeing to our own opinions. Sitting down to write, I realized that the best I could hope for was to preach to the choir, while it seemed much more likely that I was just uttering platitudes to an indifferent, uncaring void. The horror of that was too profound to ignore, so, naturally, I quit.
But as I’ve continued teaching, I’ve found another need. I’ve received a great opportunity to reach young minds and teach them to follow some of the greatest thinkers who have ever lived – but with that comes a terrible responsibility not to abuse my power: I must not become a propgandizer, or a propounder of polemic, or a dealer in trivialities. They count on me to reach toward the truth, or at least I count on myself to provide it. I get (maybe) a desperate, haggard 30 hours of teaching time with each class, after the technicalities of teaching, and I don’t wish to waste it by getting predictable, or deaf, or stupid. My seminary professors would say that I had to keep going back to the well (the Bible) for the truth, and I mean to do the same with my own personal studies. Likewise, I still aspire to a Ph.D program in the future, and I’m gradually rounding out my knowledge and experience as I do. Seeing as I’m basing my project around the philosophy of language (no surprise to my long-term readers, I hope), that means investigating the related fields of Linguistics, Semiotics, Sociology, Hermeneutics, and likely more that I don’t even realize. And, to that end, I’ve been reading Saussure and Gadamer and Habermas as well as Wittgenstein and Derrida – so, for once in my life, I’ll actually know what I’m talking about. My ultimate goal here is to come up with a theory of language robust enough to be called “truth” – and not merely one view to be ranked among others. I’d like to be able to reconcile Derrida’s emphasis on context and “instability” with the act theory of Austin and Searle, and to see them in the context of Gadamer’s “horizons” and Habermas’ understanding of rationality. I’d like to deal in the nuts and bolts of Wittgenstein’s “metaphysics as grammar” but also expand that into a discussion of the way discourse actually works – the way that artists use language, and politicians, and lawmakers, and computer programmers, and scientists, and theologians, and diplomats. And finally, I want to talk about it in terms of ethics – to realize that language can be manipulative and abusive and destructive and admit that we are responsible for what we say and how we say it. I want, in point of fact, to write an Ethics of Discourse.
But I am not a Ph.D student. I’m a community college professor. I teach Ethics and Intro to Philosophy and General Humanities (1400-present). I hope to teach classes on mythology and religion and (maybe) philosophy of language. I only rarely get to discuss what I myself study, and, even then, it is never to somebody as familiar with the work as I am. Again, no slight to my students (some are truly wonderful), but it is difficult enough to have truly insightful discussion about the basic works I teach – Kant’s Groundwork and Foucault’s “Sex, Power, and the Politics of Identity” and Descartes’ Meditations. I have always been independently-motivated, but without the community of scholars, I study Derrida and Gadamer and Saussure as a sort of rogue, loose-cannon student. I run the terrible risk of twisting their ideas out-of-control. And while I, following Derrida, put little stock in “established” interpretations, I rather adamantly believe that the good deconstructionist knows the tradition even as they subvert it, just as the great writer knows which laws of grammar they break to make a point.
That situation has created a new need, and a new purpose for this blog. I am no longer interested in self-promotion or “teaching” – so to speak. Instead, I’d like to use this space as an opportunity to articulate what I am learning – as a student, and deliberately not as a teacher. My goal is honesty, not authority; understanding, not interpretation. And while I welcome the contributions of others (my comment section has always been dry), realize that I am, largely, doing this for myself. This will be a purely reflective exercise until it becomes clear that another reevaluation is necessary.
It will still be rough – no proofreading and maybe an hour or two to write these entries, but they are now deliberately rough. I do not wish to present myself as knowledgeable or well-researched. I do not wish to repeat the lie of pretentiousness that I performed before. And so this will be a fresh start, I hope. If you are reading this, I hope you are as eager as I am.
Sorry that this one was so long in coming, but here it is.