Language, Ontology, and System-Dependent Knowledge

Evangelical philosopher Winfried Corduan ["Philosophical Presuppositions Affecting Biblical Hermeneutics," in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible: Papers from ICBI Summit II (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), pp. 495-513] interestingly uses a transcendental argument to justify biblical hermeneutics.

Starting with the widespread contemporary position that propositions have meaning only within larger contexts (whole complexes of beliefs), Corduan wants to know how someone can truly understand something if he is not situated within that thing’s larger context. A common answer to the question is that the interpreter is to use various means (e.g., grammatical-historical exegesis) to place himself in the larger context of the thing being interpreted. An equally common rejoinder to this is that it is impossible to do so because no one can literally get outside of their own head and get inside someone else’s. Complicated questions about the
existence of other minds, the legitimacy of private experience, and the very basis of language itself have to be faced (pg. 500).

Against the trend to subjectivize all “language games” in this way, which means that no one can ever truly understand anyone else, Corduan proposes that the solution is to ground language in ontology. By this he means that even when language refers to non-existent or false things, it still refers (at least in intention) to being, and thus has an objective grounding. At the very least, he argues, the proposition “I exist” not only refers to being (my own) but is actually undeniable (since I must exist in order to affirm that I exist). While explicitly steering clear of the Cartesian cogito at this point, Corduan nevertheless uses this example as proof that on at least one thing language has an undeniable, objective (extra-mental) grounding in ontology (pg. 502).

From there he argues that “intersubjectivity,” or the relations between my mind and the really existing minds of others, is also ontologically grounded. For “entailed in my existence is a facet of communality with the rest of humanity…intersubjectivity is a given within my subjectivity” (pg. 504). Furthermore, there is no such thing as a truly private language, for all language presupposes a communal relationship. He does not spell this point out, but it seems to me that he may mean that language, at least assuming that one is not merely talking to oneself, is necessarily directed at someone else for the purpose of communication. Certainly within a Christian framework, human persons are made to be in community by a God who is himself the ultimate personal community. It is not clear to me how Corduan would defend this outside of the Christian framework (probably because I don’t understand his very brief, but conceptually dense, discussion of Husserl and Schutz), but the basic point seems undeniable, at least, within a Christian ontology.

Having touched on the objective side of the hermeneutical task, Corduan moves to the subjective side, namely, the historically-conditioned nature of the materials to which hermeneutical tools are applied in order to gain understanding. While an intersubjective nexus (relations with other minds, forming a complex, and very personal, context for knowledge) is essential to understanding a given proposition, it is not always sufficient by itself. For instance, in the case of historical knowledge, we must further assume that historical events have the same kind of ontological status as contemporary ones. That is, if historical events do not have the same “status of being” as events in our own time, nothing prevents total skepticism about reports from the past. Corduan believes that “historical opacity” is basically foreign to human experience, and that therefore the assertion that historical events have the same ontological status as current ones is “almost impossible to defend” (pg. 507).

So, assuming that historical events have the same ontological status as current ones, it is possible for us to have real historical knowledge in much the same way as it is possible for us to carry on discourse with really existing other minds. However, “the meaning of historical propositions frequently goes beyond their literal signification.” We can see this when the proposition “The Greeks defeated the Persians at Salamis” is paired with a much larger significance than merely the isolated military battle: “Hellenic civilization assured its persistence at Salamis.” That is, had the Greeks not beaten Xerxes at Salamis, their existence as a civilization might very well have terminated, and all of subsequent history would have been different. The proposition about the battle could stand alone, bearing a definite and quite knowable meaning, but when viewed (as at least for us, historically downstream, it must be) as part of a larger framework, its meaning clearly is not limited to the bare factual references it contains. The second proposition is not logically entailed in the first, but it is nevertheless a fully legitimate additional meaning that arises from placing the first in a larger contextual system (pg. 508).

Corduan believes that his previous grounding of intersubjectivity in shared ontology eliminates the “conventionalist” argument that the above type of example shows that all knowledge is system-dependent and that no one can gain access to another’s system to truly understand it. Although “there are different systems of historical interpretation, we do have bridges and bedrock data which allow us to remove the arbitrariness from many historical meaning judgments” (pp. 508-509). For Corduan, “ontology transcends any particular system and provides a solid background against which any system can be judged or understood to a certain extent” (pg. 509).

Applying all of this to biblical hermeneutics, Corduan argues that the Bible cannot be understood apart from entering into its presupposed theistic worldview. One does not have to believe that theistic worldview, but one must accept it as a given of the Bible in order to truly understand the Bible. Because the most basic precondition for understanding the Bible is at least a conceptual grasp of its theistic assumptions (obviously a believer would have more than a mere conceptual grasp), philosophical systems per se are not necessary to understanding the Bible: “One need not be a Wittgensteinian or Quinean, perhaps not even a Thomist, to understand the Bible.” What such systems, or at least awareness of them, can do is to “clarify our implicitly present principles at this point.” That is, having some grasp of the philosophical and theological systems by which we all modify in some way or another the basic theistic worldview can serve to help us understand better not just our own community’s interpretation of the Bible, but that of other communities as well.

Corduan closes with an application to the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. This doctrine does not mean that people can have exhaustive understanding of Scripture: “There are differences based on expertise, background, and divine illumination,” and so “There will always be some opacity” (pp. 510-511). By grounding language in ontology, the rather obvious gaps between communities can be bridged sufficiently to allow mutual understanding while yet still acknowledging the very real differences between them based on the aforementioned factors. Understanding is relativized in the sense that “the understanding of any particular community is governed by its own concepts and language games,” but this does not result in skepticism because language and understanding have already been placed within three related ontological contexts that all parties share: “an intersubjective nexus, an ontology of historical events, and the presence of an existent God” (pg. 511).

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