My primary line of research seeks to understand the phenomenon of meaning in its most basic form. 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, normative, and practical registers beyond the structuring 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, and even beyond language-adjacent notions such as concepts and propositions. My research undertakes this task through engagement with contemporary work at the intersections of epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and phenomenology, in conversation with historical work in these areas, especially that of Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I have developed an original account of meaning along these lines, beginning with my dissertation, and subsequently in a series of published articles.

Significance: Philosophical Excavations in the Theory of Meaning

My main current project is the more systematic presentation of this theory of meaning in a book (tentatively with the title above). Here’s the text of a recent 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, you are not alone. There is a common and widely held—if not often explicitly recognized—presupposition in contemporary academic philosophy that a treatment of meaning simply must bottom out in an analysis of language of one sort or another, or at least of language-adjacent notions such as concepts, representations, or propositions. This book argues for the rejection of that presupposition. It does so by excavating a deeper conception of meaning, one with roots that reach back beyond the linguistic turn, and with the potential to bear fruit for a variety of debates that have recently begun to branch out past its long shadow.

In recent decades, philosophers across Continental and Anglo-American traditions have questioned the dominant focus on language resulting from the turn. They increasingly endorse views according to which our ways of making sense of the world are not fully mediated by words and sentences, concepts, or propositions, but also include, for example, sensorimotor or affective dimensions, non-conceptual perceptual content, embodied practices, and forms of non-propositional, embodied knowing. But these new views have shied away from extending such insights to meaning as such. These issues are sometimes considered under the wider moniker of the “theory of content,” but such content is rarely itself explicitly considered to be meaning; nor is its analysis extended beyond problems of perception and sense-experience to the problem of the way in which such content makes experience meaningful.

A major reason for this hesitancy, I think, is the presumed impossibility of so extending these insights without abandoning the systematic rigor we have come to associate with philosophy as a practice of linguistic, conceptual, or propositional analysis. According to this presumption, it may well be that our sense-making is ultimately rooted in aspects of experience or forms of life that underlie the linguistic, but—as those who take this view and are fond of a certain interpretation of the later Wittgenstein insist—with the analysis of our linguistic or conceptual practices, we have hit bedrock; as philosophers (for whom sentences, concepts, and propositions are the dominant tools of the trade), our spade is turned.

This book, by contrast, attempts to excavate a deeper strata of meaning beyond language, synthesizing current ideas from both sides of the Anglo-American-Continental divide with the help of work in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. Focusing on a variety of contemporary issues around the normativity of meaning, I argue that there is a problem with continuing the aforementioned reductions of meaning in a philosophical landscape that has turned away from the linguistic turn. I use historical resources to develop a novel account of non-linguistic aspects of meaning in light of that problem. Drawing from the phenomenology of Husserl, who never fully signed on to the linguistic turn, I reconstruct an oft-neglected alternative to narrowly linguistic accounts of meaning, locating a more basic level of “sense” and “significance” directly in the intentional structure of our everyday, embodied lived experience. While the tools of linguistic and conceptual analysis may have hit their bedrock, the spade of phenomenological analysis, I argue, has the capacity to dig a bit deeper.

My phenomenological account, however, seeks to respect the demand for systematic rigor that is one of the most important consequences of the twentieth century’s analytic turn to language. Taking a cue from the later Wittgenstein, my account meets characteristically analytic demands for precision and the explication of logical constraints on meaning via a normative account of sense and significance as governed by practices of rule-following. Following a strain of early-twentieth century thinking about logic common to Frege, Husserl, and the neo-Kantians, and held onto by the later Wittgenstein, it indexes that rule-following neither to propositions, as in most contemporary accounts, nor to concepts, as for Kant, but to the underlying acts of judgment which, on his view (as on Frege’s and Husserl’s) found them.

Since judgments are acts of subjects and have logical priority over propositions, on my view the “vehicle” for meaning at the deeper level of sense and significance is not linguisticality as proposed by pragmatics (e.g., Wittgensteinian linguistic practices, Gricean speaker’s intentions, or Austinian-Searlean speech acts), or semantics (e.g., Fregean senses or Russellian denotations), but intentionality in the Brentanian-phenomenological sense: meaning is ultimately grounded in intention, not intension, extension, or linguistic practice, though the latter are all domains in which meaning is exhibited and transformed at higher levels. Intentions in this sense are characterized by aboutness rather than volition or transparency of will, and their characteristic intention-fulfillment structure locates them neither in the mind, a la semantic internalism, nor fully in mind-independent aspects of the world, a la semantic externalism, but in the correlational domain between mind and world that phenomenologists call lived experience.

As the above description demonstrates, my approach in this book is as much synthetic and descriptive as it is analytical. It seeks precision, but heeds the phenomenological call to philosophize via descriptions that remain faithful to the things themselves and not to aspire to a false rigor greater than the subject matter allows. It seeks to engage with contemporary ideas without obsessing over the hyperspecialized and insular debates that too often smother them, and to draw from topics and figures in the history of philosophy without lionizing those figures or ignoring the differences of circumstance that separate their thinking from ours. This approach is, I think, not only necessary as a reaction to the sclerotic and insular nature of much contemporary philosophical work, but also justified by what is ultimately at stake in this inquiry: our ability to account more fully not only for the meaning of our words but for 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.