Escaping The Prison Of (Philosophical) Modernity, Part 2: Meaning as Truth-Conditions in Taylor and Davidson

by Dave Maier

Last time, in part 1, I distinguished two strategies for combating philosophical modernism of a certain dated kind: a pluralistic post-empiricism (the exact nature of which I left open for now), and a more narrowly focused post-phenomenological approach which regards the former (and/or its main components) as merely another form of the supposedly mutually rejected picture. In sections I and II, I discussed Charles Taylor’s and Hubert Dreyfus’s phenomenological criticisms of Richard Rorty and John McDowell; today I continue with a look at Taylor’s analogous criticism of Donald Davidson. As before, the point is not to reject phenomenological approaches, but instead merely to understand why Davidson looks to Taylor even less like an anti-Cartesian ally than do Rorty and McDowell, and thus why Taylor will not be impressed by a pragmatist strategy of multiple philosophical tools in which Davidsonian semantics plays a major role. Let me also say that in reading a lot of Taylor’s work recently, I was quite impressed with the scope and rigor of his overall project, and I think that what I present as his drastic misreading of Davidson’s philosophy may most likely be detached and discarded without threatening that project. Or so it seems to me at present. Read more »

Errol Morris on Wittgenstein, or someone like him in certain respects

by Dave Maier

A few months ago, on the New York Times Opinionator blog, filmmaker Errol Morris posted a remarkable five-part series of articles, which dealt with a wide range of fascinating topics, all in search of an understanding of a traumatic incident in his past. This is a time-honored literary exercise, and Morris is a knowledgeable and skilled writer. Yet not everyone was pleased with his efforts, and some harsh words were exchanged in the ether before all became quiet once again.

Not one to let sleeping dogs lie, but also in the hope that tempers have cooled enough for us to take a sober look at the matter, I would like today, for what it is worth (and if you find it worthless, your money will be cheerfully refunded) to throw in my own two cents.

Perhaps you remember the story. As he tells it, in 1972 Morris was a graduate student at Princeton studying with Thomas Kuhn. During a heated discussion, Kuhn, a chain-smoker, threw an ashtray at Morris, missing his target but searing an unforgettable image into the young man's soul: “I see the arc, the trajectory. As if the ashtray were its own separate solar system. With orbiting planets (butts), asteroids and interstellar gas (ash).” Below this description, Morris provides for the reader a specially reenacted photograph (photo credit: Errol Morris).

Morris_ashtray7-blog427 What concerns me in this fantastic apologia cum vendetta is not the terrible wrong that was done to Morris (which included not simply the threat of bodily harm, but also ejection from the graduate program), but the rather more boring issue of the philosophical corners Morris necessarily – and unnecessarily – cuts in telling his story.

Just be glad this isn't a five-part series.

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