The following post constitutes an edited transposition of a series of comments found in another thread on this site. In the event that I have uncharitably edited this material from its origin, I depend upon my peers to alert me to the fact. You can find the original post here. While the title of this post refers to two individuals (for purely archival purposes…and I think it’s a clever title), it is not my desire to exclude others from the discourse; in fact, I hope that those who are interested in this topic will get involved in this conversation.
Context: Some commentators and analysts argue that undergraduates emerge from the contemporary American system with weak critical engagement skills. Specifically, some students express difficulty in determining the cohesive meaning of the sum of their intellectual exploits. In other words, some students become frustrated when they are unable to find (satisfactory) connections between different and seemingly disparate courses, ideas, and arguments. Does this difficulty result from weak critical methodology? Should educators be more explicit or direct in their efforts to get students to hone their critical skills? If so, how could educators go about doing this?
[Please note that this dialogue will very swiftly move beyond this context and launch into a much larger problem. Providing the context above merely makes the references contained herein much easier to follow and understand.]
Paul: I do not know that educators can accomplish such an outcome without undermining the entire process of education (at any level, not just higher education). I’ve always thought that the meaning is what you make of it. If you find meaning, then good. If not, then that’s fine as well. Yet, the absolute last thing that I want is some sort of cohesion or meaning that is presented to me and has a negative effect (or any effect) upon my perceptions of what I am doing and why it is important to me. I have honestly never cared much for convincing others of the meaningfulness, importance, or cohesion of my (threefold) pursuits within the humanities. I don’t even think such a convincing is really feasible.
Allow me to interpolate, at this point, a comment in the vein of the sort of so-called ‘postmodernist’ positioning for which I am now reasonably well-known (or loathed) at our dear program at UNF: there is no (absolute) meaning. Yes, this will entail that I dismiss the term ‘postmodernist’ itself — and I do so gladly. If you want something to call meaning, make it up — but you’ll be hard-pressed to trancendentalize that meaning in any way shape or form.
Allow me an addendum: I kind-of like being confused about trying to find personal meaning in these complicated networks of information as presented through coursework and independent study. That’s what’s so powerful about this — and the people who are at university for purely vocational or recreational (or both) reasons don’t get that, yet continue to kvetch about how B.A.’s, A.B.’s, etc become increasingly less valuable as more and more people acquire them.
Well, they just aren’t thinking of the value in the same way as am I.
I should also qualify my angle that “I don’t want cohesion or meaning presented to me” is in full recognition of the fact that we indeed are presented with fodder with which to think about that problem. In other words, I do acknowledge that my perceptions aren’t in a microcosmic vacuum enabling me to claim my own construal of meaning as truly “all mine” — remember, there is only one context, and I am slave to it as are you — I just mean to say that I don’t want the system to try to enact another layer of discourse that aims to show me how to “connect the dots”, as they say. I’ll either connect those dots under the admittedly mistaken pretense of doing so myself, or I shall die in the process!
George: I have to agree with you, Paul, with your point on “meaning” being what you get out of something when it comes to literature. But I have a hard time believing that when it comes to Philosophy — especially if you want to study its history.
There is a certain spectrum of variation in trying to interpret what a Philosopher says. I concede *that*. But that spectrum isn’t so wide (except for, more than likely, Kant) that you can just say that Descartes, for example, thought that Innate Ideas originated from the wiring up of one’s imagination such that a person would attain to some thought given certain circumstances. It’s clear from his work that it’s the intellect he’s working with. Or that Spinoza believed that there was more than one substance, when it’s clear that he was a substance monist.
Once one has some legitimate version of a philosopher’s view, then one can go from there to get what meaning he/she wants for his/her own views — and thus their own philosophy.
Paul: I think you’ve missed my angle, George, although you have very smartly realized that I’ve committed myself to what looks to be a nihilistic conception of our world. I will respond to that, in particular, near the end of this comment. I’m very pleased that you’ve responded to my position, though! Firstly, let me clarify my original angle in response to the original problem.
Does not such a response as yours (paraphrase: “philosophical texts mean something in particular” or “there are legitimate and illegitimate readings of philosophy”) refer to hermeneutics/exegetical exercises rather than the connections between ideas and seemingly disparate portions of coursework? The latter is what my remarks specifically concerned in response to problems with the structure of undergraduate coursework — not the former (although I may be in trouble there, but we’ll arrive at that trouble soon enough). At the end of your post you do demonstrate awareness of this when you write that we can come up with our own philosophies after we’ve arrived at “some legitimate version” of those of others. I’m going to engage that in just a moment, below, but recall that Joel wrote:
“We choose by our interest and our requirements, but there is nothing to sew those classes together and give them meaning. Each teacher provides a work load separate of other teachers and the work piles up, so what ends up happening is allot of busy work with little meaning to the students.”
Perhaps you know my approach too well, though, George, as what you think I meant to suggest (or perhaps your recognition of what my position entails) is something that I would certainly argue elsewhere (and I have…and I will below since we’ve now pursued such a direction.) However, I must repeat that here I was referring to one particular perceived problem with higher education — viz, that it should be made more obvious to undergraduates what constitutes the cohesive network between all of these arguments, ideas, and schools of thought. I am of the opinion that the coursework itself should lead the undergraduate towards her own construal of overall meaning. This construal will necessarily draw upon countless other ‘texts’, by which I mean to refer to books she has read, courses she has taken, conversations she has had, experiences she has undergone, her perception of her self and her notion of her self as a present entity, and even her own autobiography. If this analysis isn’t happening, as more than a few analysts and commentators believe to be the case, then we should reevaluate the process at some point — but the last thing that I want to see is the establishment of some sort of ‘answer’ as endorsed by the academy. Let me be charitable: these aren’t Joel’s own words, only what I perceive to be their implications. If the academy did seek to proffer some sort of ‘answer’ then we’d just find ourselves in the same exact problem at a deeper and more problematic layer: students can regurgitate material but they can’t critically engage it as an individual agent because they’ve only been told what their professors and instructors deem the connections/importance/overarching meaning to be. That, viz, the idea that this cohesion should be made more explicit by the university, is precisely the sort of notion that I want to challenge.
Now, you are of course in quite the prime position to point out that I cannot make the claim “there is no absolute meaning” with regard to x when x necessarily subsists within a much larger totality that is X. In other words, if I say that there is no absolute meaning present in the world, but refer specifically to the connections between ideas and material, then I must also necessarily commit myself to the position that there is no absolute meaning within the hallowed fields of discourse, those which proclaim their self-sufficiency, like the scientific process or philosophy.
How on earth can I possibly hold such an ostensibly absurd position? There is no transcendence from the symbolic context in which we all phenomenologically experience the world (but do we pretend like there is? You betcha!) There are no self-sufficient discursive exercises. Anything that you think means something can only mean something only by dint of its (constructed) distinction from something else. So, the obvious question there is: where do we actually locate Logos, the original Word, that which means something in and of itself without requisite reference to the other? What holds the one, true meaning?
I must point out that even something that most take to be untouchable — let’s demarcate geometry, for example — is only possible to practice and perform by way of material inscription within and throughout space-time. It has to refer outside of itself to say anything, and in so doing, it opens itself to a plethora of possible readings. One related problem is that some people want to read texts once through and then write on them…we’ve moved away from readings and re-readings followed by re-readings. Through these re-readings the problematic construction of meaning and absolute interpretation violently rise to the surface. (Ah, I’m using metaphors — I must apologize to the likes of Berkeley and Derrida. I vow I shall not transgress again…yet is it really possible to do so? Is not all of language a clever manipulation of metaphor? This is one of the powerful residual points within Saussure’s work, a large amount of which has now been deemed to be inadequate, yet figures like Jakobson and Lacan picked it up and ran with it — quite far at that, in my opinion.)
So, to return to your example of Cartesianism, don’t you think that it is the case that Descartes could only write/think/meditate by virtue of everything that had been written before him? When he says intellect, what does he refer to? Needn’t we make appeals to other concepts, ideas, terms, signifiers, and doctrines in order to cash out the term? If that is the case, i.e., that to get at any sort of meaning we have to perform a sort of implicitly Nietzschean genealogical investigation of our conceptual chains, then how can Descartes’s work hold one legitimate meaning? How can Spinoza’s? As I’ve written above, we act as if this is not the case, as if we could read sentences and promptly extract their meaning; worse yet, we do this with entire texts. So yes, when I read Descartes’s work, I am able to get the same sort of interpretation as you can. But are we sure that we want to say that his work cannot mean anything else? Are we sure that we want to say that his work has particular meaning? What is the particular meaning? I hope that I’ve elucidated my position that the idea of “legitimate readings” is dangerous to the enterprise of philosophy itself.
Here’s a question for everyone: what distinguishes literature from philosophy? Why is philosophy endangered or undermined if it is taken to be literary? Or, if you prefer, you could respond to this question instead, which I also find interesting: what renders a philosophical reading as legitimate?