A Brief History of Structuralism

A Brief History of Structuralism: The Arbitrariness of the Sign. 

Gershon Maller © All rights reserved.


Is a history of philosophy possible? The question seems innocent enough from a historical perspective where “philosophy” simply means “the history of what philosophers said or wrote.” The answer would be diachronic. The time, place, and philosophical traditions being investigated would be identified and the appropriate texts and the cultural context in which they were written, discussed. As G.P. Barker and P.M.S Hacker argue in their revealing Frege: Logical Excavations:

The history of philosophy is first cousin of the history of ideas. Like the  history of ideas, it is history. It is concerned with the philosophical ideas conceived by individual thinkers in a specific time in response to questions raised in a particular cultural context. Unlike the history of ideas, it is essentially, and not accidentally or intermittently, concerned with evaluating the cogency of its objects. The Scylla of the  historian of philosophy is oblivion to the fact that his craft is a kind of  history; his Charybdis is disregard of the fact that to practise his craft is to engage in philosophy. (4)

Even as a diachronic activity then, the history of philosophy is a path fraught with danger.[i] However, if by “philosophy” one means “epistemology” the question is even more complex and “philosophical”. One must define knowledge and what constitutes “historical knowledge.” The question is now synchronic as well. This would no longer ask what constitutes actual “truth”, but would interrogate what constitutes evidence for empirical based belief and, in doing so, investigate the limits of theory itself. [ii]

In this paper, I  argue that a history of philosophy is possible and identify what Ian Hunter would call some common “moments of theory” where structuralism emerged in both Anglo-American and Continental philosophical traditions (“History” 81). However, unlike Hunter, who believes that “theories are unified not by a common object or by a single theoretical language” I will argue that, in this case, there was a underlying common object found in 19th century Germany structural mathematical logic and early 19th century French structural linguistics. This is Kant’s distinction between the sensible and the intelligible.[iii] What emerged, as it will unfold, is that structuralist thought redefined as the “arbitrariness of the sign” was recognition in the 1960s and 1970s, albeit to varying degrees and in different ways on both sides of the Atlantic, that there was no escape from the metaphysical baggage inherent in language. This was another moment of theory, subsequently and incorrectly termed by some as poststructuralism. Here, two completely different and antagonistic traditions[iv] attacked and abandoned certain aspects of Kantian epistemology using, if not the same language, at least parallel arguments that are underpinned by what Graham Priest calls the paradoxes of self-reference.[v] New ways of thinking about how knowledge and meaning are created in the sciences and humanities had to be found.

I begin by briefly discussing two approaches to the question of whether the history of philosophy is possible as represented respectively by the Continental and Anglo-American philosophical traditions. I will then discuss how “the arbitrariness of the sign” emerged out of Kant’s diction between the sensible and the intelligible in early 20th century logic and linguistics, in particular Gottlob Frege and Ferdinand de Saussure. Finally, I will show how both Willard van Ormon Quine and Jacques Derrida, albeit in different ways, rejected the idea that Kantian epistemology could be reduced to a theory of signification and meaning.

In “The History of Theory” Hunter calls into question Derrida’s argument for the “transcendental reduction”. If, as Derrida argues, the origin of the transcendental reduction cannot be known, Hunter believes this would prevent a phenomenological ascent to truth and in turn makes “a history of theory impossible” (82):

The transcendental reduction is the inner act of suspending one’s commitments to all empirical viewpoints and positivistic formalisms, thereby preparing oneself for the irruptive appearance of the noematic transcendental phenomenon. According to Derrida, however…the question of the possibility of the transcendental reduction—cannot be answered because it cannot be asked. As the source of all possible structures of meaning and acts of questioning, the transcendental reduction cannot itself be interrogated for its conditions  of possibility. (83-4)

Derrida’s argument for the impossibility of a history of philosophy Hunter refers to is two-fold. Firstly, following Kant’s affirmation of the unknowability of the objects of perception as the ding an sich (the thing itself, noumenon) Derrida wants to characterise philosophy as a phenomenological activity which determines truth in a transcendent manner:

Now the Idea or the project which animates and unifies every determined historical structure, every Weltanschauung is finite: on the basis of the structural description of a vision of the world one can account for everything except the infinite opening to truth, that is, philosophy. (“Genesis” 160)

Secondly, Derrida calls into question the affirmation of a transcendental subject who could interrogate the origin of the transcendental reduction.

The question of the possibility of the transcendental reduction cannot expect an answer. It is a question of the possibility of the question, opening itself, the gap on whose basis the transcendental I, which Husserl was tempted to call “eternal”…is called upon to ask  itself…about the possibility of the unformed and naked factuality of non-meaning. (“Genesis” 167-8)

Hunter’s response is also two-fold. First he questions Derrida’s phenomenological characterisation of philosophy as “the infinite opening to truth”. This “strategy cannot explain why anyone would want to adopt the ‘phenomenological attitude’ because it assumes that attitude has already been taken” (83). Secondly, he questions Derrida’s assumption that the question of the possibility of the transcendental reduction cannot be asked:

But this too is an example of someone already committed to a philosophy
attempting to motivate its adoption from the inside. The notion that  questions ask themselves is an instance of a philosophy attempting to lift itself via its own bootstraps. (84)

For Hunter, Derrida’s adoption of the phenomenological attitude is just one historical example of an acsesis “a certain kind of transformation…..for a certain kind of university metaphysician [the personae of the theorist] rather than, for example, a courtier or a warrior, a monk in the service of Christ or a jurist in the service of a prince ”(86).

Hunter is almost on solid ground. If Derrida’s phenomenological characterisation of philosophy is rejected, there is no transcendental reduction that would call the empirical validity of its history into question. A diachronic approach, albeit with the warning Barker and Hacker have given, is possible. However, a problem remains. Derrida would reject as the phonocentric fallacy any account of signification that would locate meaning in a speaking subject—such as Husserl’s eternal I. That would for Derrida assume: The “absolute proximity of voice and being, of voice and the meaning of being” where “the phonē….by virtue of hearing (understanding) oneself speak––an indissociable system––the subject effects itself and is related to itself in an element of ideality” (Grammatology 12). The presence of voice therefore invokes the metaphysics of “Being as presence” (“Structure” 248).

Here, Derrida is upholding the Kantian tradition denying the nominative use of “I am” as denoting a subject which has substance (Kant, Critique 446).[vi] One then has to give an account of the empirical, signification and meaning, if history is to take precedence over the epistemological located in a knowing subject—whether that is phenomenologically determined or not.

The phonocentric “fallacy” is not a phenomenological argument, it is a reduction based on what Derrida calls the “destruction of the sign and its entire logic” (Grammatology 11-12; 52). Hunter finds the transcendental reduction has “allure and power” (84). But, he asks “Given the usual cares and concerns of the temporal life, though, what is it that might motivate someone to take up this remarkable deportment of the openness to infinite omnitemporal being?” (83). The phonocentric fallacy may not motivate one to adopt the phenomenological attitude but it certainly opens an epistemological abyss as the dissemination and deferral of meaning.

Quine’s naturalised epistemology will however, assist. This gets rid of the problem of historicity and its phonocentric voice by eradicating epistemology itself:

Philosophers have rightly despaired of translating everything into observational and logico-mathematical terms. They have despaired of this even when they have not recognized, as the reason for this irreducibility, that statements largely do not have their private bundles of empirical consequences. And some philosophers have seen in this irreducibility the bankruptcy of epistemology. Carnap and the other logical positivists of the Vienna Circle had already pressed the term“metaphysics” into pejorative use as connoting  meaninglessness; and the   term “epistemology” was next. Wittgenstein and his followers, mainly at Oxford, found a residual philosophical vocation in therapy: in curing philosophers of the delusion that there were epistemological problems.  (“Epistemology” 82)

As if to vindicate Hunter’s, and Barker and Hackers’ positions, here we find, contra Derrida, one of the most influential epistemologists of the 20th century rendering its history and demise. “Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as achapter of psychology and hence of natural science” (82).[vii]

Having re-cleared a new space for the history of philosophy, I turn now to the problem of structuralism and how this came to be construed as “the arbitrariness of the sign” in philosophy, Fregean mathematical logic, and Saussurean linguistics.

The problem of “the arbitrariness of the sign” and the possibility of a structuralist account of language goes back to Plato in The Cratylus. This dialogue considered whether or not the correctness of language was either grounded in convention (nomos) or essence (physei). Based, in part, on the work of Gérard Genette, and Ori Soltes, I have discussed the importance of The Cratylus as the first account of linguistic structuralism in the Western tradition elsewhere.[viii] I will here just point to the aporia with which the dialogue concludes and its significance. Here, Socrates rejects any mimetic theory of language that might ground names (onoma) in their objects; or graphemes and syllables (grammata te kai syllabai) in sounds.

I myself prefer the theory that names are, as far as possible, like the things named; but really this attractive force of likeness, is….a poor thing, and we are compelled to employ in addition, this commonplace expedient, convention, to establish the correctness of names. (435c)

Convention as the arbitrariness of the sign was a problem for Socrates. Since onoma as nouns and verbs are the primary semantic units of language, this leads Socrates ultimately to the conclusion that the logos cannot convey truth (alētheia) about the world. I describe this dilemma in “Where We Cannot Speak”.

Truth must be sought elsewhere, not in the Logos, which presents a  deceptive image (mimēma) of the world, but “in the things themselves”(438e-439b). [ix] The dialogue is informed by an Heraclitean conception of the universe in a state of flux, a position represented by the character of Cratylus, who is a disciple of Heraclitus.[x] However, the concept of a universe in flux makes the indeterminacy of the Logos particularly caustic for Socrates, and reveals the depth of his dilemma. For if the universe is in flux, even if there was as Cratylus asserted, an original name-giver (onomatourgos) who had more than “human powers”, that divine onomaturge who gave the  first names must have been mistaken (438c, 436b). If all things,  including knowledge, are in a state of flux Socrates argues “surely there is no knowledge which knows that which is in no state” (440a).[xi]   (Maller 97)

This is the aporia with which The Cratylus concludes and is what Hunter would identify as a moment of theory. Hunter identifies “theory” with structuralism:

It is understandable…that some commentators should have declared that  the contents of theory so diverse as to make the term unusable. From the standpoint of an empirically oriented intellectual history, however, the fact that this term—together with its cognates structuralism and poststructuralism—has been used to nominate a series of intellectual developments is itself something to be investigated. (80)

 Some two millennia later, this same moment of theory emerges in the work of Gottlob Frege. In his seminal paper of 1892, “On Sense and Reference”, Frege outlined the distinction between sense and reference as the difference between meaning and naming. I have summarised Frege’s argument in “Where We Cannot Speak” (105). For the purposes of this paper, I now recast Frege as a precursor to Saussure. Frege was trying to give a structuralist account meaning that would avoid the arbitrariness of the sign. Saussure was facing the same problem as he tried to give a structuralist account of linguistics, as was Plato before him.

Frege begins his enquiry with a question relevant to the possibility of signification as naming—is identity a relationship between objects, or names and signs of objects? (56). Prefiguring Saussure’s thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign, but with the intention of establishing a logical theory of signification, Frege argues that identity cannot be a relationbetween signs themselves. That would mean that statements of the kind “a” is identical to “a” and “a” is identical to “b”, would be arbitrary, and no-one would be “forbidden to use any arbitrarily producible event or object as a sign for something” (56).

Like Plato, Frege also argues identity cannot be a relationship between objects designated by the names “a” and “b” either. That would establish a relationship between a thing and itself, and to no other thing, and we would not be able to distinguish statements of the kind “a” is identical to “a” from “a” is identical to “b” if the latter statement was true. Note that in The Cratlyus, Plato gives a similar argument to show that names cannot be identical to the thing named (432bc). In that case “everything would be duplicated, and no one could tell in any case which was the real thing and which the name” (432d).

As I demonstrated in “Where We Cannot Speak”, but in a different context, Frege’s solution to the identity puzzle was to show that names have both sense and reference, and that a relation of identity exists between objects whose names have the same reference, but different meanings. In this way the names “morning star” and “evening star” have different senses but refer to the same planet, Venus (56-7). Frege’s distinction between sense and reference and his theory of signification were intended to provide a basis in symbolic logic for Kant’s distinction between analytical and synthetic truth. However, as Quine has shown, Frege’s distinction between sense and reference depends on the difference between analytic and synthetic truths, which in turn relies on circular definitions of meaning and synonymy. The problem of the relationship of the sign to its referent remains (Maller 106-7).

This was another moment of theory, 1951 when Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” appeared in The Philosophical Review. There, Quine’s refutation of Kant’s distinction between analytic and synthetic reached a similar conclusion regarding the arbitrariness of the sign, albeit by a different route. Quine showed that modern empiricism is dependent on two dogmas. The first is that there is a distinction between analytic and synthetic truths, and the second concerns reductionism, where it is assumed that a statement is meaningful through equivalence by “some logical construct” which refers it to immediate experience. Both dogmas are essential to a positivistic or deterministic view of the truth of scientific theories, which Quine refuted. I have paraphrased Quine’s argument in “Where We Cannot Speak”:

Take the statements 1 “No unmarried man is married”, 2 “No bachelor is married”, and 3 “All and only bachelors are unmarried men”. Statement 1  is said to be analytically true of itself because it is logically true, that is, its denial is self-contradictory. Statement 2 is true analytically only if  “unmarried man” means the same as “bachelor”. But this “sameness of   meaning” relies on an account of synonymy or definition. These accounts turn out to be either arbitrarily based on usage, or can be established for a small class of specific terms which have explicit definitions. Thus, the idea of analytic truth is not established except in the sense of 1, which is a tautology. Quine demonstrates this argument also applies to formal languages which seek to establish analytical truth  by syntactical rules. Perhaps we take statement 3, “All and only bachelors are unmarried men”, as a definition of analyticity by attempting to verify the meaning of “bachelor” or “unmarried” by a radical or tacit reduction of a word or statement to another which can, independently of other words or statements, in some way can be verified by experience. This reduction assumes synonymity and also that there are other  statements which cannot be so verified and are therefore capable of being true or false of themselves. (Maller fn. 25, 106)

The resultant indeterminacy of meaning cannot be resolved and so the difference between sense and reference is also called into question as one through which the referent of a sign might be established by appeal to verification by the senses.

For Quine, the problem of reference, what I have identified as the arbitrariness of the sign, is inherently regressive. In his influential 1968 essay, “Ontological Relativity”, he argues that “the inscrutability of reference is not the inscrutability of a fact” because “there is no fact of the matter”. There is no difference in any terms between reference as “inter-linguistic, or intra-linguistic, objective or subjective” (47). Reference is nonsense except relative to a coordinate system and that the regression of meaning of constituent terms continues until we agree “to acquiesce in our mother tongue and take words at face value” (46-9). What applies to the inscrutability reference also applies to the indeterminacy of meaning:

Must we equate our neighbor’s English words with the same string of phonemes in our own mouths? Certainly not; for sometimes we do not thus equate them. Sometimes we find it to be in the interests of communication to recognize that our neighbor’s use of same word, such as “cool” or “square”…differs from ours, and so we translate that word of his into a different string of phonemes in our idiolect. (Relativity 46)

As noted, there is no determinate means by which that translation from one set of phonemes to another can be verified by an observational sentence that would somehow independently ground that meaning by being verified by “experience”. This thesis is supported by Quine’s detailed argument for the indeterminacy of translation (Word and Object 31-46, 68). Here is how he later summed up this thesis, in terms of“the arbitrary” nature of the sign.[xii]:

No wonder there is indeterminacy of translation—for of course only a  small fraction of our utterances report concurrent external  stimulation. Granted, the linguist will end up with unequivocal  translations of everything; but only by making many arbitrary choices—   arbitrary even though unconscious—along the way. Arbitrary? By this I mean that different choices could still have made everything come out right that is susceptible in principle to any kind of check. (“Epistemology” 81-2)

What was a moment of theory that Frege recognised and tried to avoid has returned and still remains two millennia after Plato first conceived of it—the dissemination of structural accounts of language and meaning into the arbitrariness of the sign.

Hunter identifies Ferdinand de Saussure’s 1916 General Course in Linguistics as another moment of theory when it posthumously allowed structuralism to enterAmerican Humanities departments in the 1960s. According to Hunter, Saussure elaborated:

an apositive or relational conception of language and signs more generally, a semiotics. According to this conception, whatever is manifest at the level of actual speech (parole) is understood to be lacking in positive intelligibility, finding its conditions of possibility at another level altogether, in the purely atemporal (synchronic) totality. In other words, Saussure’s text provided another version of the neo-Kantian  treatment of the “language system” as a model for the relational or structural character of human knowledge as such. (91)

One would disagree, in part, with this characterisation of Saussure’s Course. Saussure clearly pointed out that the differential function of language as a system of arbitrary differences ceased to exist at the level of language as a community of speakers. “The moment we compare one sign with another as a positive combinations, the term difference [and arbitrary] should be dropped” (119). This is because once the system of linguistic values which constitute a particular language has been established “the essential function of language as an institution is precisely to maintain these series of differences in parallel” (119). As a moment of theory then, Saussure too has more in common with Plato’s conception of language as nomos, meaning shared by a community of speakers without any complete empirical grounding in truth. The second moment of theory is that rather than ground language in a Kantian structural “atemporality”, as Hunter asserts, Saussure grounds it in Kantian epistemology as the difference between the sensible and the intelligible. In terms of how the arbitrary nature of the sign plays out in Saussurean linguistics, this could be presented as four principles.[xiii]

S1. Language as a “form not substance”consists in the perceptions of  differences. These occur both at the level of the individual sign (comprised of  the relation between signifier and the signified) and the relationship  between signs themselves [the signifying system] (111-19).[xiv]

S2. At the level of the individual sign the relationship between the signifier (sound pattern) and the signified (the concept or thought) is arbitrary— unmotivated—“that is to say arbitrary in relation to its signification with which it has no natural connexion in reality” (69). The “terms arbitrary and differential designate two correlative properties” (116).[xv]

S3. The relationship between the sound pattern (signifier) and concept (signified) which comprise the sign are two sides of the same psychological process—because sounds as such do not enter into the language system, only the speaker’s perceptions of the differences between sound patterns (117). The  sound pattern (signifier) is not sound but “the hearer’s psychological impression of a sound given to him by the evidence of his senses” (66). A “concept” is “more abstract” [thought] (66,111).

S4. At the level of language as a system of signification the relation between signs is no longer arbitrary. “Although signification and signal are each, in isolation, purely differential and negative, their combination is a fact   of positive nature. It is, indeed, the only order of facts linguistic structure  comprises” (119).

S3 makes it clear that at the level of the individual sign, the speaker is aware of the sound pattern given by the evidence of his senses which is different to thought or concept— in Kantian terms, the difference between the sensible and intelligible. S2 makes it clear that relation between signifier and signified, as either sound pattern and concept/thought or sound and word, is arbitrary.

Just as Frege had attempted to structure the difference between meaning and naming as the difference between sense and reference, Saussure would structure the relation of the signification and the signal in terms of the relationbetween signs established in a language system. There individual signs can be distinguished as differences between positive terms. Earlier I demonstrated how Quine rejected the difference between sense and reference because this was based on circular definitions of synonymy which have no foundation except by way of an infinite regress into a background “meta-language”. With regard to Saussure, Derrida’s critique of signification reveals the concept of the sign is a metaphysical construct and that the relation between signs as signifying units is also arbitrary. Derrida launched an extensive critique of Saussure’s linguistic structuralism in Of Grammatology, where he mentions the arbitrariness of the sign on sixteen different occasions. In most of these instances, Derrida uses the concept to attack what he perceives is Saussure’s conception of language as a phonic system which gives primacy to speech over writing (Grammatology 35, 42, 44, 45, 48).[xvi]

However, Derrida also praises Saussure’s “profound intention directed at the discontinuity and immotivation proper to the structure if not the origin of the sign” which is captured by the notion of the arbitrariness of the sign (Grammatology 44; fn. 8, 326). Derrida uses the concept of arbitrariness as the starting point to elucidate the notion of the differential function of signification––differance as “trace” (Grammatology 62). Derrida takes on board Saussure’s observation that arbitrary and differential are “two correlative qualities” (Grammatology fn. 18. 327). He writes:

Henceforth, it is not to the arbitrariness of the sign that I will appeal directly, but to what Saussure associates with it as an indispensable correlative which would seem to me to lay the foundations for it: the thesis of difference as the source of linguistic value.[xvii] (Grammatology 52)

Here then, is another moment of history where the common language of the arbitrariness of the sign moves from Saussurean structural linguistics towards “trace” and difference as the source of linguistic value.

Derrida’s critique of Saussure takes aim at the difference between the signifier and the signified. He argues that, despite Saussure’s insistence that in language there are only a perception of differences; Saussure still wants to maintain a distinction between the signifier and the signified, as set out in S3 above. For Derrida the equation of the signified with a concept leaves open the possibility of a transcendent subject outside the system of signifiers.

The equation of the signatum and the concept [the intelligible]…inherently leaves open the possibility of thinking a concept signified in  and of itself, a concept simply present for thought, independent of a relationship to language, that is of a relationship to a system of  signifiers….which in and of itself, in its essence, would refer to no  signifier, would exceed the chain of signs, and would no longer itself  function as a signifier. On the contrary, though, from the moment that one questions the possibility of such a transcendental signified, and that one recognises that every signified is also in the position of a signifier, the distinction between the signified and the signifier becomes problematic at its root. (Positions 19-20; fn. 1, 98)

Derrida’s point is that the difference between the signifier (sound pattern) and signified (concept/thought) depends on the notion of a transcendental signified as subject who perceives these differences. The second point is that the notion of phonē as sound pattern (signifier) assumes the phonocentric fallacy, because the transcendent subject is not only outside the language system but hears and understands himself speak: “Phonē, [a single speech sound] in effect, is the signifying substance given to consciousness as that which is most intimately tied to thought of the signified concept. From this point of view, the voice is consciousness itself” (Positions 22).[xviii]

Having demolished S3 elsewhere, Derrida takes aim at the Kantian distinction between the sensible and the intelligible that underpins it. Here is another moment of theory to which Hunter refers (96). This was the celebrated Johns Hopkins colloquium of 1966, and in particular, Derrida’s paper “Structure Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. In reference to Lèvi Strauss’ attempt to transcend the opposition between the intelligible and the sensible by a theory of signs, here Derrida shows any such program is by definition impossible. This is because metaphysical concepts are ineluctably inherent in language. “If one erases the radical difference between the signifier and the signified, it is the word “signifier” itself which ought to be abandoned as a metaphysical concept” (250). The concept of the sign cannot in itself “surpass or bypass the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. The concept of the sign is determined by this opposition: through and throughout the totality of this history and by its system” (250). Derrida argues as follows:

For there are two heterogeneous ways of erasing the difference between the signifier and the signified: one the classic way, consists in  reducing or deriving the signifier, that is to say, submitting the sign to thought; the other, the one we are using here against the first one, consists in putting into question the system which the preceding reduction functioned: first and foremost, the opposition between the sensible and the intelligible. For the paradox is that the metaphysical reduction of the sign needed the opposition it was reducing. The opposition is systematic with the reduction. (251)

In this moment of theory Derrida meets Quine in the rejection of the difference between the sensible and the intelligible. I would like to recreate this moment by recasting Derrida’s argument in Fregean terms.

It is because the relationship between signs is arbitrary in a Fregean sense that forbids the opposition between the intelligible and the sensible to be reduced to two different signs “intelligible” and “sensible”. If identity is a relationship that consists between signs then that relationship is arbitrary such that [a = a] is no different than [a = b]. It then follows that there is no difference between the signs “intelligible” and “sensible” and each could be substituted for the other unless there is a reference to some transcendental signified (a non-signified object) that would explain that difference between them. Since there is no transcendental signifier then the difference between “intelligible” and “sensible” would require the introduction of another signs to explain this difference and that regress to a third term would continue infinitely. As Derrida says: “The absence of the transcendent signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (“Structure” 249). Or as Quine would say, the difference between analytical truths (known by the intelligence) and synthetic truths (known by the senses) depends on circular definitions of synonymy and meaning which are ultimately indeterminable. And the inscrutability of reference as signification persists— the arbitrariness of the sign.

I have shown how, for two different reasons, a history of philosophy is possible.I have also shown how a brief history of Structuralism can be identified as the problem of the arbitrariness of the sign. The “common object” shared by Plato, Frege,Saussure, Derrida, and Quine in their respective moments of history across two millennia and two continents is the rejection of the distinction between the sensible and the intelligible described in the common language of “the arbitrariness of the sign.” That modern variants of structuralism, across both sides of the Atlantic should share the same concerns from different perspectives should not be surprising since they share the same great lineage of Western Philosophy—Kant and Plato.Should these moments of theory lead to the rejection of evidenced based knowledge and argument because the empirical sentences in any theory are necessarily underdetermined? Hunter does not think so (87-90). Neither does Quine:

Certainly not. The sort of meaning that is basic to translation, and to the  learning of one’s own language, is necessarily empirical meaning and nothing more. A child learns his first words and sentences by hearing and using them in the presence of appropriate stimuli. These must be external  stimuli, for they must act both on the child and the speaker from whom he is learning. Language is socially inculcated and controlled; the inculcation and control turn strictly on the keying of sentences to shared stimulation.   Internal factors may vary ad libitum without prejudice to communication as long as the keying of language to external stimuli is undisturbed. Surely one has no choice but to be an empiricist so far as one’s theory of linguistic meaning is concerned. (“Epistemology” 81)

Here we have a moment of history when Quine almost paraphrases Saussure and Plato on language as the product of a speaking community which can be empirically studied if not absolutely confirmed.I will conclude by observing that the humanities and social sciences are not alone in their vulnerability to the essentially structuralist flaws which permeate all human knowledge. To cite a few examples. In 1927 Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle showed that, in the mathematics of quantum mechanics, the more precisely the position of a particle is determined the less likely its momentum is known.[xix] As early as 1906 Bertrand Russell suggested that all the paradoxes of self-reference (the Set-Theoretical Paradox, the Liar Paradox, and the Knower Paradox) have a common logical structure.[xx] In 1994, Graham Priest identified that structure.[xxi] The paradoxes of self-reference infect all formal theory including arithmetic and mathematics. For example:

 If a theory could express its own truth predicate we would have (other things being equal) the Liar Paradox. Hence no theory can express its own  truth predicate (if consistency is to be maintained): Tarski’s  Theorem. If a theory containing arithmetic were axiomatic, it would be able to express its own truth predicate, we would then have a version of the Knower Paradox  [xxii]…Hence, the theory is not axiomatic (if consistency is to be maintained): Goedel’s first Incompleteness Theorem. Moreover, any attempt to show a (suitably rich) theory be consistent must be able express the provability predicate for that theory. This cannot be expressed  in the theory itself, or we would have the same paradox. Hence, any attempt to show a theory to be consistent must use resources that outstrip those of the theory in question (if it is consistent): Goedel’ second Incompleteness Theorem. Hence in both Tarski’s Theorem and Goedel’s second Incompleteness Theorem, the limitative result is that a  certain notion cannot be expressed in the theory if contradictions at the limits of thought are to be avoided. (Priest, Limits 250)

All theoretical pursuits, in both the human and physical sciences, ultimately contain their own limits of thought— the paradox that they cannot contain their own conditions of truth. This is exemplified by the Liar Paradox “This sentence is false” a contradiction—if the sentence is true it is false and if false, true—which still conveys meaning. It says of itself it is false.[xxiii] One may at this point want to contemplate the endless play of the signifiers or affirm nihilism. A better option would to be to deny that, because all theories are either empirically undetermined or inconsistent, all theories are equally useful, or that a history of how a particular theory developed in the cultural context which determined its production cannot be recorded and described.[xxiv]

Copyright    Gershon Maller University of Queensland 2012


Works Cited

Barker, G.P. and P.M.S. Hacker. Frege: Logical Excavations. New York and        Oxford: OUP, 1984.

Derrida, Jacques. “‘Genesis and Structure’ and Phenomenology.” Writing and       Difference.Trns. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1978.154-168.

_____. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns       Hopkins UP, 1976.

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[i] As Barker and Hacker point out in their encyclopaedic study of Frege: “He is now commonly viewed as the fountainhead of contemporary philosophy of language and his ideas (or what seem to be his ideas) are held to be essential tools for current theory building in philosophy and linguistics” (Frege 3). This is despite the fact that Frege’s century old ideas were asking different questions. For example, Frege thought that concepts are objective existences— the father of modern mathematical logic was a Platonist (Frege 4).

[ii] For a synchronic treatment of this subject in a more extensive historical and philosophical context see Priest Beyond the Limits of Thought. Where appropriate, I draw on Priest’s work throughout.

[iii] This distinction itself originated in Plato’s Republic Book Six (509D- 513E).

[iv] For a description of the chasm that both unified and separated Derrida and Quine refer to Richard Rorty (“Philosophy as a Kind of Writing” 158). For an account of the dispute between Searle and Derrida concerning Austin’s Speech Act Theory, refer to Limited Inc. For an account of correspondence to The Times of May 9, 1992 signed by Quine and eighteen philosophers protesting against Derrida’s award of an honorary degree by Cambridge University, refer to David Golumbia (“Derrida and Quine”164-68). There Golumbia also compares Quine and Derrida on language.

[v] See Beyond the Limits of Thought, especially 4; 123-93; 195-255.

[vi] Kant borrowed the term “apperception” from Leibnitz to describe self-awareness—the mind which observes itself as a thinking subject the “I think”. But, he argues that “‘I’ does not signify… I am for myself a self-subsisting being or substance”. His argument is that the “I” is part of thought itself as an analytic truth known apriori before experience but not part of the perceptible world of the senses—a synthetic truth (Critique 446).

[vii] Quine describes the project for naturalised epistemology: “It studies natural phenomena, viz., a physical human subject. This subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input—certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance—and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the external world and its history. The relation between the meagre input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology; namely in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence (“Epistemology” 83).

[viii] Maller, Gershon (né Gary) “Where We Cannot Speak” (95-102); and Maller, Gershon (né Gary) “Borges, the Golem and the Liar Paradox: A Rhetoric of Silence?” 2009 (87-104). Refer also to Genette Mimologics (7-27); and Soltes, The Cratylus (1-149).

[ix] This is of course another moment of theory which Kant would later adopt—the noumenon.

[x] Socrates: “Heraclitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream” (402a).

[xi] For Socrates the fact that names appear reasonably consistent is no proof of their correctness: “For if the giver of names erred in the beginning and thenceforth forced all other names in agreement with his own initial error, there is nothing strange about that. It is just so sometimes in geometrical diagrams; the initial error is small and unnoticed, but all the numerous deductions are wrong, though consistent” (436d).

[xii] Refer to Priest for a succinct summary of Quine’s indeterminacy thesis (Limits 216-18).

[xiii] All references to Saussure cite page numbers in the Roy Harris translation of The Course in General Linguistics.

[xiv] “[I]n a language there are only differences, and no positive terms. Whether we takethe signification or the signal, the language includes neither ideas or sounds existing prior tothe linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonetic differences arising out of that system. In a sign what matters more than any idea or sound associated with it is what other signs surround it” (118).

[xv] “The linguistic sign is arbitrary… there is no internal connection, for example, between the idea “sister” and the French sequence of sounds s-ö-r which acts as its signal” (67).

[xvi] For example: “Therefore there would be a natural order between linguistic and graphic signs, and it is the theoretician of the arbitrariness of the sign [Saussure] who would reminds us of it….This natural bond of the signified (concept or sense) to the phonic signifier would condition the natural relationship subordinating writing (visible image) to speech” (Grammatology 44).

[xvii] Elsewhere Derrida praises Saussure’s contribution because of his insight that the signifier and the signified are inseparable “two sides of the one and same production” and also that Saussure emphasised the differential character of the material aspect of language where sound itself is not part of language” (Positions 18).

[xviii] Derrida: “When I speak, not only am I consciousness of being present for what I think, but I am conscious also of keeping as close as possible to my thought, or to the “concept,” a signifier that I hear as soon as I emit it, that seems to depend upon my pure and free spontaneity, requiring the use of no instrument, no accessory, no force taken from the world” (Positions 22).

[xix] For a discussion refer to: Jan Hilgevoord and JosUffink “The Uncertainty Principle”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[xx] For a discussion see Priest Limits 149-154.

[xxi] Refer to Priest “The Structure of the Paradoxes”.

[xxii] Goedel’s Paradox: “This sentence is not provable”, Priest Limits, 159.

[xxiii] For a discussion see Graham Priest and Francesco Berto, “Dialetheism”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

[xxiv] For Quine’s argument that dislodging the old epistemology should not lead to nihilism see “Epistemology” 87-90.