Epimenides for cretans
July 4, 2014 § 33 Comments
… or, positivism for dummies.
As we’ve discussed before, most of the meaning communicated by a text comes from sources outside of the text. Any finite text of sufficient complexity will have multiple possible good faith interpretations, depending upon (among other things) the underlying metaphysical understanding of the reader, the reader’s general state of knowledge, the assumptions of the author about the reader, and the intellectual tradition from within which the author writes.
Sometimes one good faith interpretation will conflict with another. If we take them both to be true, that creates a contradiction. A text that contradicts itself – an inconsistent text – is meaningless. The whole shebang unravels, and by the principle of explosion the text asserts everything and its opposite all at once.
So we can’t take all good-faith interpretations of a text to accurately reflect what the author asserts. If we can’t take all good-faith interpretations of a text to accurately reflect what the author asserts, that means that the text is incomplete. The text means literally nothing at all – we cannot discriminate between what is asserted and what is not – unless there is some authority outside of the text itself, an authoritative source of meaning separate from the text which can resolve conflicts between mutually incompatible good-faith interpretations of the text.
Positivism asserts the possibility of intensional meaning – meaning about something other than the literal symbols themselves – arising from a text or other formal representation taken in itself. Positivism presumes that metaphysical neutrality is rationally coherent and possible, that formal expressions can have meaning on their own. Positivism presumes that it is possible to isolate pockets of knowledge away from their metaphysical baggage. A whole package of errors and wrongheaded thinking flows from positivism, some of which is straightforward and some of which is more subtle.
Positivism is wrong. But when it encounters reality it doesn’t just up and admit that it is wrong and repent. Instead it stops believing in meaning at all, and, voilà, we get postmodernism.
Because positivism is literally rationally incoherent, it is not something that anyone can believe consistently and still function as a human being outside of the asylum. So we get the usual sort of compensations: gnosticism, unprincipled exceptions and weaponized nihilism.