Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Synthetic Theory of Meaning

Patočka classifies theories of meaning into three types: sign theories of meaning, operational theories of meaning, and Husserl's synthetic theory of meaning (Introduction, p. 49). Patočka's criticism of operational theories of meaning leads to discussion of praxis:

The operational theory of meaning contains some important themes. Language is, as Wittgenstein claims, undoubtedly a "way of life," a game whose rules must be mastered. Meanings are not independent of our practice and our will. The only question is whether this praxis is not at the same time a grasping of something that is in its way objective; whether our practice does not bear within it a certain light on things intrinsic to regulated activity.

Regulated activity, regulated behavior–behavior that is subjectively regulated in such a way that the regulation takes place within us, not merely upon us–has as its correlate precisely also a meaningful, typical world, schematized in universals.

Thus the art, the skill of using signs according to rules is at the same time an art of moving about meanings and so dealing with the content and style of our world, a content and style which are not given and at hand simply as contingent on our presence but as individual things and processes.

(p. 50)

My wont is to acknowledge the irregular, the atypical, the unplanned and the particular. Such acknowledgements shouldn't be seen as a denial of regularization, typification or schematization, but rather as a critique of the way, in some cases, conclusions are drawn from the study of such processes to make claims about experience. Do schemata allow any flexibility, not only a flexibity of application in practice, but a flexibility in the whole business of forming schemata and being regulated according to schemata? Take as an example the problem of gender in the English-speaking world. From one perspective it seems that the types are inflexible, that a person must be either a he or a she, and the schemata involved are universal, applying to everybody and structuring a broad domain of experience. However, in my view, there is no hidden force of language preventing the adoption of a third gender (or a fourth, or a fifth). Many languages have no gender, and that too could be a direction English could follow. The schemata of gender are open to revision. We can construct for instance a "new masculinity" in recognition of a heterogeneity within the type. Once differences are recognized, schemata of masculinity and femininity appear less as immutable structures and more like working plans open to change.

Page duBois studies metaphors of the female body in ancient Greece in order to historicize and criticize Lacanian psychoanalysis (Sowing the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women, University of Chicago Press, 1988). She explores metaphors of the field, the stone, the furrow, the oven, the tablet, and she examines Platos' metaphors of reproduction. I'll jump straight to her conclusion.

We need to create dialogic and historical texts, to imagine human possibilities beyond the restrictive , commodified terms in which we have come to understand sexual difference. Like Sappho, we want to subvert the logical categories of our culture. They support gender, race, class domination. I stand outside psychoanalyis, even as I acknowledge its power, in order to refuse its claims to describe both ancient culture and a future of equality. I remind myself that efforts of subversion, like Sappho's, are conceived within culture, within the languages which speak us, which we must turn to our own purposes. But if theory is a gaze, feminist theory must be more than a gaze at the same object, more than finding a new sameness, the pre-eminence of the phallus, the same castrated woman's body everywhere. We cannot will our way past gender or past individual subjectivity, but we can theorize, historicize, and imagine a future beyond domination.

(p. 188)

I can subscribe to the view that regulation takes place within us and not merely upon us (whether this means rejecting or accepting the notion that language speaks its subjects I'm not sure), and in this sense the "synthetic" theory of meaning appeals to me. I still maintain, however, an interest in the unregulated, the more fluid gesture. And I tend to view generalities as being rough and ready rather than etched in stone. For me this is not merely a question of wanting new possibilities of experience. I want to see experience for what it is–in its own internal light, perhaps–to not do violence to experience for the sake of those who are living it now, including, naturally, myself.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:09 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Fido,

I notice that Barbaras' new book on Patocka has just been published in France.

October 10, 2007 3:37 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

That must be Le Mouvement De L'Existence; Etudes Sur La Phenomenologie De Patocka. Thanks. I recently bought Barbaras' Merleau-Ponty's Ontology but am waiting to reread Phenomenology of Perception and read some more Merleau-Ponty before I dig into it. Tengelyi has also written on Patočka's asubjective existential phenomenology (in French).

At my current rates of book buying and reading I can last four or five years before I need to read in French. I'll start learning next summer or fall--if I can afford it after feeding my reading habit.

October 10, 2007 5:12 AM  

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