Random thoughts on random topics

Atocha railway station, Madrid

Normativity of practices

As Wittgenstein makes clear in Philosophical Investigations 198[c], training, viewed as the setting up of a pattern of causal relationships between signs and behaviour, always takes place within a normative framework, viz., an existing practise of using the signs in question in a particular way. In that sense training has both a causal and a normative aspect. This nicely explains the continuation of normative practises, but as such it als raises the question of their origin: how did these practises in their turn come into being?

Perhaps an answer along the lines of our earlier remarks on ethics could be defended here. Normative practises arise from congruent causal patterns in behaviour through consciousness of, and reflection on, those patterns. A shared nature (physiological and cognitive) is responsible for (sufficient) similarity in the causal mechanisms, which are probably calibrated further by means of common ways of adapting to our shared environment. Such congruences define a group. The group turns into a community if these congruences are noted and their effects are reflected upon.

As noted elswhere, the behavioural patterns we actually display are neither completely arbitrary nor completely determined by external constraints: they are (contingent) actualisations within a wider range of possibilities. It is the awareness of this fact, and the (cognitive and non-cognitive) exploration of other, non-actual possibilities, that lead to normative practises. Once we are aware of the fact that we behave in a certain way but could also behave differently, the need for normative determination of our behaviour becomes imperative: this is where regularities turn into rules.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 1992

Random thoughts on random topics


Uninterpreted content

Theodore Schatzki’s analysis of dispersed and integrative practises implies that normativity arises, not at the higher order level of rules, or practises, or institutions (at least not exclusively), but at the very basic level of individual interaction with the environment. This view is reinforced by various analyses of know-how and expertise.

What is interesting to note, especially with regard to Davidson and Gadamer, who actually are in the same boat here, is that uninterpreted content then plays a key role. We need such content in order for normativity to have a basis on which the language-based practises may build.

For Gadamer this is anathema: all experience is linguistic and exists only in and through language. For Davidson it presents a problem too, although it may not be immediately obvious that it does. For doesn’t Davidson avail himself of a primitive causal relationship between the world and us? And doesn’t he reject any form of mediation (linguistic or otherwise) between ourselves and the world?

But unmediated content is not the same as uninterpreted content as we use the phrase here. For in Davidson’s view our causal interaction with the world results in beliefs, and beliefs and (sentence) meanings are indistinguishable in terms of structure and content. So Davidson’s unmediated content is highly structured, in such a way that it is immediately expressible (given a suitably expressive language, of course): definitely not the uninterpreted content of everyday expertise. In fact Davidson seems committed to the same kind of linguistic view on experience that Gadamer embraces explicitly.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/11/2006

Random thoughts on random topics

Tang pottery, Tsinghua University museum

Concerning Gadamer and normativity

The following seems a very plausible conjecture: it is the meaning of the text itself that provides the necessary normative constraints on its interpretation. But there are a few problems with that. 

First of all, it makes interpretation very much a factual, ‘realistic’ concern: independent from interpretations and interpreters, there is such a thing as ‘the meaning’, and the task of interpretation is to discover that. Once we’ve done that, the task is fulfilled and there is no more need for interpretation. But that doesn’t sit very well with Gadamer’s insistence that interpretation is an on-going affair, and moreover, one that not only constantly changes the views of the interpreter, but also the meaning(s) of what is interpreted: the ‘fusion of horizons’ is a temporary equilibrium, brought about by adjusting both the perspective of the interpreter and that of the text.

Secondly, if the objective meaning of the text itself were to play this role, this wouldn’t fit into an interpretational scheme that follows the hermeneutic circle. Recall that if we follow the structure of the hermeneutic circle we need to compare two things that both are different from this postulated objective meaning of the text itself, viz., the fore-projection, i.e., our ‘initial hypothesis’, and the result of our (first) reading. The problem was that we can compare these two without any problem, but that in order to evaluate the outcome of that comparison, we need a standard, something normative. Now suppose the objective meaning were to play that role? How would that help? If we know that this is the objective meaning of the text, we wouldn’t need any interpretation to begin with. And if we do not, it will fail to hold any normative authority.

The essence of the problem is that the hermeneutic circle, precisely because it is a circle, involves only entities of the same kind (meanings). And without reference to any external source of normativity, none of these can play the required normative role, on pain of the entire circular structure collapsing into what is basically a realistically understood concept of objectivity.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2006