In the twentieth century, the linguistic turn in both European and Anglo-American traditions emphasized the pervasive role that language plays in structuring our experience. However, recent work across both traditions has increasingly questioned the exhaustiveness of this structuring, arguing that there are ways in which our experience is also meaningful in embodied, affective, or practical registers beyond the influence of language. I argue that these twenty-first century challenges to the linguistic turn demand a rethinking of meaning itself beyond the paradigm case of language. My research undertakes this task through engagement with contemporary work at the intersections of epistemology, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, and phenomenology, in conversation with historical work in these areas, especially that of Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Beginning from the alternative and oft-neglected theory of meaning developed in the phenomenological tradition, I propose a theory of sense-making and significance with two main goals: 1) to provide an account of the epistemic and aesthetic role of meaning in experience not exhaustively mediated by vehicles typically construed linguistically, such as propositions and concepts; and 2) to serve as a “bridge” notion actively connecting work in European and Anglo-American traditions beyond simply noting commonalities or historical parallels. I am currently building up this account in a series of published articles, and writing a more systematic presentation of it in the book project described below.
Book Project: Making Sense: A Phenomenological Investigation of the Depth of Meaning
My current book project begins (Part One) with a series of short chapters showing the need for such a re-thinking of meaning in different areas of contemporary research: work on the non-representational character of embodied affects and emotions in the philosophy of race and gender; accounts of the non-conceptual content of perception; the status of non-propositional knowledge or “know-how”; and recent non-representational accounts in the philosophy of history. In each case, I argue, work seeking to move beyond central presuppositions of the linguistic turn demands a supplementary account of sense-making in order to explain how the phenomena it engages can be understood as meaningful beyond the parameters of linguistic mediation. Part Two develops a systematic account of sense-making and significance through work on Husserl and Wittgenstein in conversation with contemporary debates at the intersections of epistemology, mind, and language. A draft of the full book proposal is available here.
From a draft of the Preface:
This is a book about meaning. It is not, however, primarily a book about language. It is after something deeper. If this sounds strange to you, are not alone. There is a common and very widely held presupposition in philosophy that a treatment of meaning simply must bottom out in some sort of analysis of language or at least of broadly linguistic entities such as concepts, representations, or propositions. This is the presupposition this book rejects. It does so by resurrecting a deeper conception of meaning, one with roots that reach beneath the linguistic turn, and with the potential to bear fruit for a variety of debates that have now branched out beyond it.
In recent years, philosophers across Continental and Anglo-American traditions have questioned the dominant focus on language resulting from the turn. Philosophers spanning the divided traditions have increasingly endorsed views according to which our ways of making sense of the world are not governed exclusively by language, concepts, or propositions but also include, for example, sensorimotor or affective dimensions, non-conceptual content, or forms of non-propositional, embodied knowing. But they have shied away from extending these insights to meaning as such, often because of the presumed impossibility of doing so without abandoning the systematic rigor we have come to associate with philosophy as a practice of (linguistic or conceptual) analysis.
This book argues for a deeper ground of meaning beyond language, synthesizing contemporary work on both sides of the Anglo-American-Continental divide through an appeal to resources in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. Using the phenomenology of the later Husserl, who never fully subscribed to the linguistic turn, it rehabilitates and refines an oft-neglected alternative to narrowly linguistic accounts of meaning, locating a basic level of “sense” and “significance” directly in our everyday, embodied experience. At the same time, taking a cue from the pragmatics of the later Wittgenstein, it rejects accounts of meanings as fixed a priori entities or simple givens—the very sorts of misconceptions the linguistic turn helped to expose—arguing instead for an historically mediated conception of meaning as lived significance.
This conception is rigorously and systematically defended, but in an account that is indexed not to language but to the more fundamental structure of embodied intentionality, and in a way that does not aspire to greater rigor than the subject matter allows. The approach is more synthetic in orientation than analytic, a fact which—alongside its appeal to both contemporary and historical sources—should make the book of interest for a wide variety of philosophical readers. I argue that there is a problem with reducing meaning to language in a current philosophical landscape that has turned away from the linguistic turn, and use historical resources to develop a novel account of sense and significance in light of that problem. At stake in this investigation is the ability to more fully account for not only the meaning of our words but the basic meaningfulness in our lives—the very depths of sense.
Significance, Value, and Meaning in Life
A second project, currently in planning, extends this work on meaning to topics in value theory. This project, like that described above, engages a recent trend in philosophy that bridges Continental and Anglo-American traditions in light of an overlooked historical predecessor: the recent interest in value-theoretic questions related to “meaning in life,” and what I see as important precursors in phenomenology, existentialism and neo-Kantianism. An analysis of the components of a meaningful life will need to take account of our perception of what matters or what is historically significant, which is itself determined in accord with our life projects and the norms that help to inform and determine them. This exploration of the normative and ethical implications of the epistemic role of meaning brings to the forefront the question of the relationship between meaningfulness as a basic desideratum of life-projects—that for the sake of which we think, talk, read and write—and meaningfulness as an experiential precondition of human thought and even language—that by means of which we do so.
Concurrent Research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
I am also interested in the implications of this research for the college classroom. An article currently in development draws on scholarship on meaning and significance to contribute to the SoTL literature on constructivism, focusing on “mimicry” (where students learn to “use the right words” in a given disciplinary context and yet fail to demonstrate the deep disciplinary knowledge associated with that vocabulary) and “threshold concepts” (difficult-to-grasp concepts, such as entropy in physics or irony in literature, that once grasped result in a radical opening of perspective on the material studied such that it is difficult or impossible to go back to the old way of seeing it). I argue that what distinguishes mimicry from successful mastery of “threshold concepts” is not exclusively conceptual knowledge, but also its meaning understood in a broader sense, the most obvious evidence for which is the ability to distinguish, with regard to that knowledge, between relevant and irrelevant questions.