Home > Philosophy > Meaning And Interpretation Assignment Two – “Compare The Theories Of Meaning Of Three Philosophers Discussed In This Unit And Justify Why You Chose Those Three”.

Meaning And Interpretation Assignment Two – “Compare The Theories Of Meaning Of Three Philosophers Discussed In This Unit And Justify Why You Chose Those Three”.

Because the assignment is 3,500 words long, I’ll split it up into two sections, today we have, Part 1:


Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein were three hugely influential philosophers of the continental (Heidegger/Husserl) and analytic (Wittgenstein) traditions. Their ground-breaking work is still being felt in much of the contemporary philosophy today through the humanities, social sciences and philosophy all over the world – such as that of the effect Husserl and Heidegger have had in Oriental and Eastern philosophical circles.  In today’s paper I will be first stating the theories of meaning pertinent to my topic question. I will begin by focusing on Heidegger’s “Dasein”, from his famous work Being and Time, 1996. Then I will move on to Wittgentstein’s critique of the“Ostensive Teaching of Words” (as a means of a broader discussion in relation to his use of language viz. meaning) from his Philosophical Investigations, 1963. Lastly I will outline Husserl’s discussion of phenomenology in the Appendix V: Objectivity and the World of Experience.” from The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, 1970. Once I have briefly outlined these theories, arguments, philosophies, I will then compare them, discuss their differences and see what their projects were about and what insights I gained from them.  After this I will finish up with a discussion on what led me to these three particular philosophers, what in their work interested me and why they were the focus of my very short investigation here today.

Definition of the three theories of meaning I will be discussing

The firs theory of meaning I will be examining  is Husserl’s discussion of the phenomenological interpretation of meaning. He begins by discussing the “prescientific experiential life”:  by this he means the process by which we come to know (objective) things with certainty through sight, touch, feel, sound etc, through the repetition of experience, but Husserl states that what actually occurs is that:

What becomes well known through repeated experience is always still only relatively known in regard to everything known about it, and thus it has in all aspects a peculiar horizon of open unfamiliarity. (Husserl, p. 343, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, 1970)

Husserl’s focus, at least in the text I will be discussing is how we accumulate scientific knowledge over time, and that we apply these historical scientific models to nature, we place them over nature, which covers up the existential. He suggests that we need to take science back to the experience of the life-world (liebensfeld), to the “things themselves” as he would say – and asks how we constitute meaning.  In the comparison section I will show how Husserl’s phenomenological theories compare to Heidegger’s, while in the justification section I will show how Husserl grounds objectivity.

The second philosophy discussed in this essay is Heidegger –it might be best that I begin with a definition of “Dasein”. Simply stated Dasein translates to “being-there”. More specifically Heidegger states that Dasein is being-in-the-world, meaning:  the world is it’s “there” and Dasein is “being-in” “there”, or as he states directly: “Existing being-in-the-world as such is disclosed in the for-the-sake-of-which, as we called this discolsedness understanding.” (Heidegger, p. 134, Being and Time, 1996) Dasein then becomes to Heidegger, a being which is concerned about itself being-in-the-world. Dasein is the “horizon” under which we can discover being. And how the meaning of being as intelligible (it is important to clarify that Heidegger’s discussion is not a discussion of a particular being – as in the case of human beings or human nature). Rather it is an account of it is a fundamental or pre-ontological study of being. To be able to do this Heidegger feels he must first clarify the possibility of being (in that Dasein is what is possible).

I will now briefly and simply provide a definition of one of the theories of language that Wittgenstein’s arguments focus on – he discusses his views in the context of the critique of the ostensive definition of words: in Wittgenstein’s meaning, at least as it is so in the philosophical concept has its place in a “primitive idea of the way language functions. But one can also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.” (Wittgenstein, p. 83, Philosophical Investigations, 1963) A child uses such primitive forms of language when learning to talk, and as such Wittgenstein will use the term “ostensive teaching of words” instead of “ostensive definition”. Ostensive teaching of words consists of teachers pointing to objects, directing the child’s attention to them and uttering a word (the example Wittgenstein uses is “slab”) as they point at the shape. The reason Wittgenstein is using the definitions he is, is because a child cannot yet use the language for which it is being taught to ask what the name it is being given is.

The ostensive teaching of words can be said to establish an association between the word and the thing. But what does this mean? Well, it may mean various things; but one very likely thinks first of all that a picture of the object comes before the child’s mind when it hears the words. But now, if this does happen – is it the purpose of the word? Yes, it may be the purpose. – I can imagine such a use of words. (Wittgenstein, p. 84, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)

The comparison of each theory of meaning

Now that I have briefly stated the three theories of meaning I want to look at, it might be time now to compare them in some depth. It is important to note that these theories of meaning have an overarching goal, or focus – these philosophers are interested in how we can cross the object/subject divide, and how meaning is constituted. Is it free floating in the world? Or does it require minds? These philosophers approach these problems in different ways; this stark contrast is what I want to focus on. For example, when Heidegger and Wittgenstein talk about objects, Wittgenstein talks of objects through an interpretation of language, specifically, language games – by which he means several different things: firstly the process of naming objects and of repeating words after someone (he asks that we think of most of the words in ring-a-ring-a-roses). Secondly “the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven.” (Wittgenstein, p. 84, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)This is tied to Wittgenstein’s notion of “forms of life” – in which he means speaking a language is part of an activity, or form of life, inherent to the term language-game used here. He never takes up an investigation into the justification for the “forms of life” as a grounding of language, perhaps it was not part of his project.  Whereas Heidegger would call our interaction with objects “being-in-the-world”, in that the world discloses itself in a total context of understanding that opens up to us – objects aren’t perceived as objects in a single context, but rather we presuppose the entire world, then understanding occurs within as Colebrook, 2002 calls “a totality of meaningful projects.” (Colebrook, p. 130, The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia of Modern Criticism and Theory, 2002) To Wittgenstein we talk about our experience with objects via language (the different functions of the word for an object, not just the object), and language-games (such as the critique of the ostensive teaching of words), but to Heidegger it is through our experience with the objects themselves, that they become intelligible to us, and only through a total context of experiencing the world.

Husserl and Heidegger share some similarities on the issue of our interaction with objects  that they do not share with Wittgenstein. Husserl states that we synthesize objects we encounter and create meaning in them through different acts – that when we actually come “nearer” to the thing we experience (or something like it at least), we get to know it more exactly, which he dubs “more exact determination”  which is a “continual process of correction” (the example he uses if of seeing something as purely smooth and red, but finding “in truth” it to be a bit rough, and spotted). Heidegger ‘s theory of meaning conveys much the same imagery in that it is not so much a focus on language that gets us to objects and understanding, but rather the existential. For Heidegger the world of objects discloses itself to Dasein through the entire mode of being-in-the-world that creates an understanding. Understanding of existence becomes then an understanding of world; this is the nature of disclosedness. Heidegger states that the process of understanding, what  is disclosed, viz. the world, the “being of taking care of what is at hand” learns to understand the relevance of what can be, and what is encountered through circumspection. What is disclosed in understanding, is “always already” accessible in such a way states Heidegger, that in its “as what” can be instantly delineated. But what is the “as” in this instance? This constitutes “the structure of explicitness” of what it is being understood, or rather, it constitutes the interpretation.  To elaborate Heidegger compares the simple act of seeing things nearest to us to interpretation, he states that seeing contains the “structure of interpretation”, but without the “as” which requires orientation we will fail to understand. In this case then the “as” becomes “the a priori existential constitution of understanding.” (Heidegger, p. 140, Being and Time, 1996)

Wittgenstein however uses a different approach. In his critique of the ostensive definition of words, his views on object and meaning become clear – the ostensive teaching of words – that is attaching a label to something, or directing someone to an object is not sufficient to convey the full meaning of the text to someone. To Wittgenstein specific and different language-games play out to demonstrate his point- the ostensive teaching of words, is a language-game, one a child learns, and propagates. Ostensive teaching of words runs into difficulties for example when we try to ascribe numbers to proper names, and attempt to point to them, for example as when we point to two nuts and say “that is two”, one must know what “two” is to know that it stands for the two nuts, hence they must require an understanding of the language used prior to ostensive teaching (it is similar when we use the point to things as say “this”, or “that”). To Wittgenstein then” an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case.” (Wittgenstein, p. 89, Philosophical Investigations, 1963)  Ostensive teaching can be useful to explain meaning or use of a word once we have a prior understanding of language, but meaning is more than about simple name and object.

Heidegger and Husserl’s theories of meaning focus on genitive and dative ways of thinking, – Husserl’s in that he focuses on what appears to consciousness, not so much beings as the meanings we synthesize. It is perhaps unwise to locate Husserl so closely to Heidegger as Heidegger thinks that it is because we are always already in the world, we constitute meaning through different horizons, or Dasein, which is to say, through being. Again, it is probably not a good idea to talk of horizons with these two thinkers without clarifying the term -they both talk of horizons, but in different contexts. To Husserl it refers to the fact that we constitute meaningful relations through the horizons which continue on to other objects with horizons that extend beyond what is “coperceived” to the infinity of unknown things (of possible experiential knowledge), which also corresponds to vague causalities. He states that even this manner of being in the world, in suspension, with open, undeterminate horizons does not disturb the everyday world of “normal men”. Why is this so? Because in our normal life, we encounter a sphere of normal things which become known through normal (and common) “types of experience”, whatever horizons remain in suspension out of sight of this remain (practically) irrelevant says Husserl. What we are left with is a:

… practically perfect acquaintance with the things as they really are and [as they] can be exhibited [to be] again and again in their true being – in the only truth which normal, practical life knows and needs. (Husserl, p. 344, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, 1970)

Whereas Heidegger uses the term horizon more broadly – Dasein is always already in the world and as such it constitutes different horizons of meaning, in fact it is within a horizon that being in general can become intelligible to us.

Categories: Philosophy
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