The Institutions of Meaning: A Defense of Anthropological Holism

The Institutions of Meaning: A Defense of Anthropological Holism


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The Institutions of Meaning: A Defense of Anthropological Holism by Vincent Descombes

Holism grows out of the philosophical position that an object or phenomenon is more than the sum of its parts. And yet analysis--a mental process crucial to human comprehension--involves breaking something down into its components, dismantling the whole in order to grasp it piecemeal and relationally. Wading through such quandaries with grace and precision, The Institutions of Meaning guides readers to a deepened appreciation of the entity that ultimately enables human understanding: the mind itself.

This major work from one of France's most innovative philosophers goes against the grain of analytic philosophy in arguing for the view known as anthropological holism. Meaning is not fundamentally a property of mental representations, Vincent Descombes says. Rather, it arises out of thought that is holistic, embedded in social existence, and bound up with the common practices that shape the way we act and talk.

To understand what an individual "believes" or "wants"--to apply psychological words to a person--we must take into account the full historical and institutional context of a person's life. But how can two people share the same thought if they do not share the same system of belief? Descombes solves this problem by developing a logic of relations that explains the ability of humans to analyze structures based on their parts. Integrating insights from anthropology, linguistics, and social theory, The Institutions of Meaning pushes philosophy forward in bold new directions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674728783
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 03/11/2014
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Vincent Descombes is Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

Stephen Adam Schwartz is a Senior Lecturer in French at University College Dublin.

Table of Contents

Preface to the English Translation xi

Part I Intentionalist Conceptions of Mind

1 The Intentionality of the Mental 3

1.1 The distinctive quality of psychological descriptions is to be expressed in intentional language. Any language that has a logic analogous to that of verbs of declaration is an intentional language 3

1.2 The psychological description of a person is as much the description of his environment as of his states. Thus, Achilles's anger is only comprehensible when set in Achilles's wotld 7

1.3 How are we to explain this intentional character of a mode of description? There are two possibilities: by means of a thesis regarding the transitive structure of consciousness (Brentano) or through an anthropological holism of the mental (Wittgenstein) 9

1.4 The Scholastic conception of intentionality holds that the intention of a term is comparable to the direction of an arrow that a bowman sends toward the object aimed at. This image illustrates the fact that there are two possible relations between the thinking subject and the object of thought: an intentional relation (aiming at it) and a real relation (physically touching it) 12

1.5 Wittgenstein evokes the distinction between these two relations to an object in an aphorism regarding the thief that can be looked for when he is not present, but who can be hanged only if he is present 20

1.6 "All consciousness is consciousness of something": Brentano's now-classic formulation seems to assimilate verbs of consciousness to the transitivity of action verbs 23

1.7 The transitivity of an intentional verb is paradoxical since such verbs must necessarily take a direct object, even if there is nothing in the world that is the object of the intentional act signified by the verb 26

1.8 If intentional verbs were really transitive, they would have an intentional passive form that would describe a real change in the object they aim at 32

1.9 Several French philosophers have sought to give substance to the idea of a real history of the intentional object by, for example, taking up Kojève's claim that the word is "the murder of the thing" (Lacan) or by developing a form of social constructivism (Foucault). These theories rest on an illegitimate assimilation of intentional relations to real relations 36

2 The Paradox of the Intentional Object 47

2.1 What Husserl calls "the paradox of the intentional object" is the fact that the perceived tree, taken as such, unlike the tree itself, does not have the natural powers of a physical thing (it can be seen to be burning up, but it cannot burn up). How is this doubling of the tree-into both an object of physical actions and an object of mental operations-to be avoided? 47

2.2 According to Husserl, the only tree that can be seen in the garden is the intentional object 55

2.3 Intentional objects are not entities endowed with a specific mode of existence. It is meaningful to ask "Where is the tree perceived?" but meaningless to ask "Where is the perceived tree?" 59

3 A Holistic Conception of Intentionality 65

3.1 The question of the intentional passive is about knowing the conditions in which an active intentional form ("Romeo loves Juliet") can be changed into an intentional passive form ("Juliet is loved by Romeo") 65

3.2 Intentional logic examines the function of intentional operators such as "It is said that…" or "It is believed by N that…" It shows that the intentional relation of the mental act to the object (when the object exists) necessarily depends on a real relation 66

3.3 "To look for" forms a system with "to find" (Wittgenstein). The verb "to look for" is always intentional, while the verb "to find" assumes that the intentional object sought coincides with the real object. Indeed, one cannot find what one is looking for under a certain description without at once finding the object under all of the descriptions applicable to it, including those that did not form part of the definition of the object sought 77

3.4 Mental holism, which allows us to solve the Husserlian paradox of the intentional object, is not simply a rejection of psychical atomism. It is a holism that can be called "anthropological" in order to stress that it places the mind within the context of collective habits and common institutions 86

Part II The Anthropological Holism of the Mental

4 The Question of Holism 95

4.1 The question of mental holism is first raised regarding signs and subsequently about the mind manifested by those signs. Can there be an isolated sign? That is impossible, according to the holistic conception of meaning 95

4.2 Meaning holism appears incompatible with the fact of communication: how could one understand someone's speech if his words were only intelligible when resituated within the whole of his language? 98

4.3 Pierre Duhem maintained that the theories put forward by the experimental sciences were global in character. In the case of a conflict with experience, the entire construction is rejected and not an isolated hypothesis 103

4.4 Semantic holism does not bear on the confirmation of theories, but on the way in which units of meaning are to be defined. Quine maintains that the unit of meaning is not the sentence, but the whole set of sentences that constitute the discourse of a theory. For him, this discourse is a collective whole made up of sentences 109

4.5 Collectivist holism consists in conceiving the whole as a collection of individuals that together possess collective attributes 113

4.6 Structural holism consists in conceiving the whole as a system of parts that depend upon one another in virtue of the relations that define them 115

5 The Illusion of Collective Individuals 123

5.1 A collective whole cannot be defined both as a collective being consisting of a plurality of individuals and as a higher-order individual 124

5.2 A proposition is collective if it has a collective subject. Nevertheless, a collective subject is not the name of a collective individual but a logical construction that allows the predicate to be related to several individuals by saying that together they are doing something or have a certain status 129

5.3 Methodological individualism is right to hold that collective individuals are fictions. However, concrete totalities are precisely not made up of individuals that are independent from one another, but of interdependent parts 136

5.4 Logical atomism cannot account for real complexity 143

5.5 Nominalist analysis cannot account for the diachronic identity of complex beings 149

6 The Order of Meaning 155

6.1 There are three philosophies of structural analysis: structural holism seeks to understand the interdependence of the parts of a whole; formalism seeks purely formal characteristics that remain invariant between one domain and another; structural causalism seeks to reveal the action of the form of a productive process upon the product 156

6.2 A description of a whole made up of parts is not a description of several individuals through the attributes they collectively possess; it is a description of a thing as it presents itself in one or another of its parts 160

6.3 The material description of a meaningful totality is not sufficient to identify it. One must also describe the order that the elements must have for the whole to be meaningful. Formal description provides this order of meaning 166

6.4 A holistic analysis distinguishes two levels. At the higher level, the whole is identified in relation to other totalities. At the lower level, it is described in its internal differentiation into parts. At no point does a holistic analysis end up with individual elements 176

7 The Logic of Relations 186

7.1 What are called internal relations are relations that enter into the reality of their terms. William James carried out a pluralist critique of the monistic idea of a universe organized entirely by internal relations: individuals must exist before they can have relations 186

7.2 Russell criticizes the monistic doctrine that the relation between two objects expresses the intrinsic reality of those objects and characterizes the whole of which those objects are the parts. He sets against this doctrine the fact that a change in the relation is not necessarily an intrinsic change 189

7.3 An intrinsic change is a change in the thing; an extrinsic change is a change in the environment exterior to the thing 196

7.4 The monism of internal relations and the pluralism of external relations do not distinguish between essences and accidents. This is why their discussion is general: either all relations are internal or none is. However, the distinction between internal and external must be relative to a description 198

7.5 Leibniz did not seek to eliminate relational propositions (as Russell believes), but to analyze them in their logical complexity 202

8 The Subject of Triadic Relations 211

8.1 What Peirce calls a real relation is a relation whose description is irreducible to the conjunction of several propositions asserting facts that are independent from one another. When the description of a relation can be analyzed as such a conjunction, it is a relation of reason 211

8.2 Peirce does not merely note the irreducibility of relations to qualities, but he shows that within the very category of relations, triadic relations (grounded in intentional actions) are irreducible to dyadic relations (grounded on natural actions) 219

8.3 Like Hegelian philosophers, Peirce criticizes the way in which logic is traditionally expounded. But the reform he advocates is both analytic and holistic and not dialectical 226

9 Essays on the Gift 238

9.1 The act of giving something to someone is an irreducibly triadic fact: the three terms of the relation are linked to one another in virtue of a rule. The description of the gift cannot separate the link between the people and the thing given from the link between the people who are the giver and the recipient 238

9.2 Mauss, in his study of the obligatory exchange of gifts, aims to describe institutions as a system. Levi-Strauss believes that such a description is insufficient and that ideological facts can only be explained by facts that are intellectual without being intentional 246

9.3 The structures of the mind cannot be conceived as the mechanisms of psychical functioning. They are schemata for the production of a meaningful order of human affairs. The anthropologist must account not only for the way in which individuals establish relations of equality among themselves by means of schemata of reciprocity but also for the way they establish relations of order among different statuses 259

10 Objective Mind 270

10.1 The philosophies of language that want to stay within the speech acts of speakers run up against the problem of determining an impersonal meaning of discourse. If there is no impersonal meaning of words, communication would be nothing but perpetual misunderstanding 271

10.2 Phenomenologists accept the idea of an impersonal mind in the sense of objectified mind, as when an author's thought can be contained in an object (his text). However, in order to account for communication, more is required: impersonal meanings must precede and provide the measure for personal meanings 284

10.3 Institutions constitute an objective mind because they rest on ideas. These ideas are common, not because they are in fact shared by a great many individuals, but because they are authoritative 295

10.4 The subject of the institutions of social life is not the individual but the system formed by the partners in a triadic relation and their common object 303

11 Distinguishing Thoughts 314

11.1 The fact of having the same thought as someone else would be similar to the fact of having the same car if thoughts could be individuated in the same way that we individuate cars. This is not the case: thoughts are identified con-textually, by their content 314

11.2 One could call a reflexive personal thought a thought by which the thinking subject conceives of itself according to a description. To compare the reflexive personal thoughts of two subjects is to bring out an intersubjective identity or difference 323

11.3 A social thought is a personal thought by which two (or more) subjects conceive of themselves as the members of a system founded on their relation. Thus, people thinking about an appointment they have with one another are having the same social thought 329

11.4 What would a translator do if he were working in a condition of radical ignorance of the language he was to translate from? It would be fruitless to engage in multiple observations of the natural circumstances in which sentences are uttered. Rather, he must establish a relation of interlocution with the people whose discourse he is to translate and do so by conforming to the local institutions of meaning 335

Works Cited 341

Index 351

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