Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meaning, Being, and Event (E)

In recently rereading the introduction to Being and Time, and having recently read Kevin J. Porter's Meaning, Language, and Time: Toward a Consequential Philosophy of Discourse, I was struck by how both arguments, although about radically different subjects, seemed to be discussing the same thing – meaning. For Heidegger, his guiding question – the inquiry into what is Being – is not simply a question of pure existence, but one with purpose. Therefore, he finds that “Inquiry, as a kind of seeking, must be guided beforehand by what is sought. So the meaning of Being must already be available to us in some way” (25). In other words, for Heidegger, the question of Being is not only about objects, something Graham Harman makes clear (in his book, Tool-Being, which I have begun to read), but is ultimately a question of meaning - “the meaning of Being”. Objects are a priori to meaning, true. But what can be said of them besides, “they exist.” We cannot even say “they are there” without already insinuating that they occupy a particular space (meaning), mass (meaning), time (meaning) and perhaps purpose – for they exist “there” and not “here” - (meaning). But Heidegger's mistake, easily seen above, is that there is, with the object, an a priori meaning, as well. For him, meaning is in objects, waiting to be discovered, uncovered, undisclosed, made present-at-hand. Objects, therefore, contain something that requires investigation, something more than pure existence – a stance I don't necessarily share. For if an object had meaning a priori, this would mean two things: 1) that eventually we (or other, non-human beings) would become aware of, understand, or know this meaning, and 2) that every object has with it an other way of Being – rather than pure existence. I find both of these points to be erroneous.

Working from a study of rhetoric, Porter discusses the meaning of an utterance (a string of words, “phrases, clauses, sentences”, or a text, for “one does not ever simply encounter a noun” much like one never simply encounters a single object in a vacuum (11)) as a consequence. He states that under his philosophy of “meaning consequentialism,” one can only make “the assumption that the meaning of an utterance or text is the consequences that it propagates” (12). Or, to put this another way, when we discuss a meaning of an utterance we are merely discussing the consequences of that utterance. Every utterance, therefore, has multiple meanings, multiple consequences, both at times agreeing with each other and contradictory to each other. Consequences, as meanings, exist stretched out over time so that Meaning (with a capital M) is only a grouping of every consequence ever made over time, including this consequence. Or, as Porter states it:

We may think of the Meaning of an utterance as the total set of all of its actual consequences; but this Meaning cannot be conceptualized because (a) the total set of all actual consequences is inherently open-ended, (b) the Meaning of each consequence itself is open-ended, (c) the total set of all actual consequences does not form an amalgamated consequence that can be cognized, and (d) the very act of compiling a complete list of consequences for the expressed purpose of compiling a complete list would itself produce at least one more consequence of the targeted utterance, ad infinitum. (53-4)

Those of you familiar with set theory will automatically see Porter's configuration of Meaning as the paradox of "the set of all sets" – that a set of all sets would have to include itself, an impossibility for Russell and na├»ve set theory. Therefore, any Meaning of an object or utterance would be impossible to find, but more importantly, what Porter points to is that Meaning is always external - something outside of structure. The only thing internal to an object is pure existence – the is. Once an object's Being has more to say about it than that it is, the object becomes meaningful to something else, and therefore becomes consequential.

It is no surprise, then, that we find Porter stating early on that:

To my mind, the claim that a text is meaningful in itself (i.e., that it has an intrinsic or objective meaning) is akin to the claim that the sun intrinsically exerts a gravitational pull. An intrinsically meaningful utterance or text, if one existed, could not help but be meaningful in the same way that the sun cannot help but be gravitationally attractive. But meaning does not operate in this way, for utterances and texts clearly do not consistently produce a certain consequence or uniform set of consequences. (13)

For an intrinsic meaning, a meaning of Being that Heidegger so readily assumed existed a priori, would not say much other than “I exist”. Any other meaning that we might try to pull out of the object is a pulling external to the object – a pulling of the object and not from it.

In my view, then, the object exists. It might exist in a certain structure, with a certain way or state of Being, but ultimately all that the object states for itself, again and again, is that “I exist”. So, in what I've been attempting to show in previous posts is how an object restates its pure existence by allowing itself to be uncovered, un-disclosed, or encountered. When I discuss element (C) I am merely explaining that any encounter with an object (whether by a human object or a non-human object) is an encounter with this pure existence and an inquiry into meaning. The thing itself (A) is not a mysterious, complicated, unknown entity. It is, rather, the object's pure existence, its is. Yet, any encounter directly related to it, encounter (B), produces something external to the object – event (E), a consequence, or a meaning. And it is this meaning, this event (E) that becomes the thrust of the object. It is what we discuss when we discuss the object as something, for the object itself only is in its pure existence. Like Porter, I believe that meaning (or our event (E)) is propagated over time, stretched over encounters, encounters (B), that all attempt to understand the object outside of its pure existence.

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