Another Brandon…

December 12, 2007

Email correspondance from Brandon Absher, PhD student at the University of Kentucky, and the latest inductee in the Schatzki Ring:

Greig and Brandon, I just finished reading the paper.  And, I’m very excited that you are considering these issues in the light you are.  Probably my most important thought about the paper is that it could lead into a piece on the Gadamer/ Habermas debate.  Chris Zurn is currently writing an encyclopedia entry on this issue and I read a lot of the material over the summer (with the intention of perhaps writing a paper on the topic).  Ultimately, Habermas consistently attacks Gadamer for a perceived conservatism.  His claim is that we require theories to offer understandings of oppression.  He models this approach on psychoanalytic theory.  The point of doing the theory is to develop therapeutic practices – ultimately understood in terms of the theories developed later in TCA I and II.  Personally, I’ve been VERY concerned about the relationship between science and practical life in Heidegger’s work.  Mostly, I share his belief that practical/existential/ethical life is foundational for any theoretical interpretation of the world.  On the other hand, I don’t want to be dragged into a form of irrationalism consonant with Heidegger’s own political commitments. My work: The first chapter of the dissertation as I’m now conceiving of it will challenge a currently (perhaps perennially) popular way of thinking about language.  The basic idea is that humans have “attitudes” toward represented “content” which are “expressed” in the form of marks, utterances, and other forms of signs. As I read W and H, they present a challenge to this view.  Most importantly understanding language isn’t about associating signs with content and attitudes, rather it’s about knowing how to get along in a practical context.  Signs don’t represent content and express “attitudes” (believing vs. wishing, etc.), instead they bring about a shared practical intelligibility – my warning about the wet floor brings the floor itself to view as having a certain place within our already shared practical world, there are certain things that I’m supposed to do with regard to this floor now or with regard to the utterance itself.  The second chapter is on the concept of context.  Basically, it works out the common theme of background understanding found in W and H and the necessity of shared background understanding in understanding the utterances, etc of another.  Here, drawing on the concept of meaning finitism worked out by David Bloor in his reading of W, I’m going to argue that W’s understanding of context as fluid, ambiguous, and ever-changing is preferable to what I see as Heidegger’s more closed interpretation of context (or background understanding).  There’s a tenuous third chapter on the relation of W and H to analytic theories of semantic “externalism”, but Ted’s a little uncertain about it.  The final chapter will be about the “articulation of intelligibility” and the role of language in this articulation.  This chapter will share substantial ground with your section on narrative, theory, and argumentation.  The basic idea is as follows: the warning in the example mentioned before draws on a shared practical intelligibility.  It brings the floor to light in a new way within our ongoing practice, but our larger sense of the situation and it’s relation to other situations remains unchanged.  Other types of discourse (or maybe other discursive moments or events) allow us to re-contextualize much larger regions of our life.  With Arendt in mind, I think primarily of political discourse – which corresponds in many ways to what you’re talking about under the head of “argument.”  Certain political discourses or political moments of discourse have the power of re-shaping our background understanding of the world within which we live.  Religious discourse is also important in this way – here I think less of Arendt and more of Heidegger’s treatment of poetry in the later work and of silence in the early work.  The best way of saying it, I think, is that much of our practical discourse operates within an already shared horizon and leaves that horizon basically untouched.  There are, however, (borrowing from Gadamer) horizon shifting and horizon fusing ways of speaking.  So that’s the basic idea.