A view common to intellectual historians and historical theorists of various stripes is that understanding the meaning of past speech has little or nothing to do with knowing if such past speech is true. The primary concern of the historian should be the pragmatics rather than the semantics of past language use. Meaning is a means for understanding what language does, what effects it produces, what ends it pursues or intentions it embodies. Insofar as truth does come into play, the idea is that the truth of an utterance is relative to a scheme, a certain language game or mode of comportment or understanding. Truth in other words is regime-specific, and the task of the historian is to ascertain the emergence and eclipse of such regimes and what kinds of moves they sanction. Many practical conventions for the historian follow from this, such as the tendency to periodize the past and to maintain a distinction between historical knowledge and political judgment. This paper will pursue an opposing line of argument drawing on Donald Davidson’s project for a truth-conditional semantics in analytic philosophy. Intellectual historians have considered Davidson’s pertinence to their craft and have concluded resoundingly in the negative. But their brisk rejection of his view is indicative and suggests that the challenges to intellectual history implicit in his work are worth drawing out and taking seriously.
Dr Knox Peden is an ARC DECRA Research Fellow in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University. He is the author of Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillès to Deleuze (Stanford, 2014) and a two-volume edited work devoted to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse (Verso, 2012).
4.00pm Thursday 2 March 2017
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University of Queensland, St Lucia
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