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Fr. 357

June 30, 2013

Infinite regress arguments are familiar in philosophy. While they are perhaps best known in cosmology as concerns the question of an uncaused cause at the head of the causal chain, there exists a well-known variant that concerns a wide swathe of systems. This variant typically holds that a given statement or philosophy is fundamentally incapable of making sense of itself. An example of this contradictory logical relation is often remarked in the statement “there is no truth”, of which numerous philosophers have remarked that this statement can only affirm such insofar as it is itself a true statement. The statement would then have to be amended to read “there is no truth but this one”, yet this emendation plunges the claim into logical incoherence. At this point, most philosophers would remark that, if there is a truth, it is not of this meager and thin variety.

The work of Hans-Georg Gadamer would seem to contain a similar difficulty in that he holds that all knowledge of the world as well as one’s being is historically and linguistically conditioned. Yet, if one’s knowledge is bound to a specific time and place through one’s language and existence, how does one come to affirm universally of all history, times and places that knowledge itself is limited in scope when, taking this claim at face-value, such an affirmation would itself have to be limited in scope? In other words, how might one break free of one’s conditionedness in order to make an unconditional statement? Gadamer briefly confronts this difficulty in Truth and Method by making the following observation:

“Even if, as people who know about history, we are fundamentally aware that all human thought about the world is historically conditioned, and thus are aware that our own thought is conditioned too, we still have not assumed an unconditional standpoint. In particular it is no objection to affirming that we are thus fundamentally conditioned to say that this affirmation is intended to be absolutely and unconditionally true, and therefore cannot be applied to itself without contradiction. The consciousness of being conditioned does not supersede our conditionedness. It is one of those prejudices of reflective philosophy that it understands matters that are not at all on the same logical level as standing in propositional relationships. Thus the reflective argument is out of place here. For we are not dealing with relationships between judgments which have to be kept free from contradictions but with life relationships. Our verbal experience of the world has the capacity to embrace the most varied relationships of life” (Truth and Method, p. 445).

Thus, Gadamer sets aside talk of unconditional statements and unconditionedness, for, on his view, awareness of one’s conditioned state is not tantamount to being unconditioned. Similarly, affirming one’s conditioned state is not tantamount to affirming this unconditionally or from something other than that same conditioned state. The confusion over this owes to habits in reflective philosophy, which would stipulate in this case that “being conditioned” and “affirming one’s conditioned state” are to be found on the same logical level and, thus, that consistent propositional relations have to be maintained between the terms in question. As Gadamer notes, it is not, however, evident that these terms are of the same kind or that logically consistent relations must be maintained between them. For becoming aware of one’s state of being does not alter that state of being in its composition or form; in Gadamer’s terms, verbal experience of the world or knowledge thereof does not alter the life relationship which are at issue in this world. Indeed, as he might have further gone on to explain, the steady and constant expansion of one’s horizons through coming into contact with others and coming away without something of their own horizons can very well occur independently of any conscious knowledge of this process. Moreover, at most, conscious knowledge of this process serves only to provide directives or perhaps even an ethics of expanding worldviews. In itself, conscious knowledge does not alter the process by which it occurs nor the worldviews involved in the process. It is for this reason that Gadamer can maintain in the end that verbal experience of the world can embrace life relationships under an endless variety of forms, for verbal experience is not an uncondition, unconditioned or unconditionedness that would be brought to bear on conditions, conditioned or conditionedness in order to dissolve or do away with the latter. In sum, if propositions are to be found perhaps at the level of verbal experience, these propositions do not interact with the fact of life relationships, such as this objection might lead one to imagine.

In the end, the question remains: might this manner of resolving an apparent contradiction in Gadamer’s work be applied to other such contradictions, such as that of the “concept de concept” in the work of Deleuze? Or perhaps even in the analysis of traditions in MacIntyre’s oeuvre?


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