Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Reading Oetke on philology and philosophy

In making the point that we ought to strive for translations reflectinglinguistic content (since there are different kinds of content they could convey), Oetke discusses vagueness in detail. He gives an example sentence:
Hindu kings are tolerant.
This sentence is vague* in two principal ways:

  1. The statement would likely be considered true by the speaker even if one Hindu king were not tolerant. There is probably not a precise limit of intolerant Hindu kings which would make the sentence false, in the mind of the speaker. And yet presumably, such a limit exists.
  2. The predicate “tolerant” has multiple dimensions of vagueness:
  • How much tolerance is sufficient to be counted as a tolerant king?
  • What ways must one be tolerant to be counted as a tolerant king? (Religion, politics, both religion and politics?)
  • What types of tolerance must one practice to be counted as a tolerant king? (Certain practical actions, holding to a theory, both?)
  • What kind of implications must one’s tolerance have to be counted as a tolerant king? (Is it tolerance between differing items of equal value, or differing items with a presumed hierarchy of value?)
Even if contextually we can determine certain characteristics of the tolerance in question (practical, religious, etc.) we still have vagueness about the truth-conditions of the statement. And speaker intention cannot solve the problem of vagueness, either (we do not have precise limits in mind when uttering vague sentences).
What is communicated in texts is, of course, more than just (what is known as de-contextualized) linguistic meaning. We need to be able to distinguish between the legitimate linguistic meanings of “Flying planes can be dangerous.” Once we’ve successfully disambiguated, then we can interpret what is being pragmatically implicated (is this a warning to a would-be pilot, or simply a report on statistical facts?). However, when the linguistic meaning itself is underdetermined by context and inferences about speaker intentions, translations must reflect this ambiguity/indeterminacy so that readers are able to do properexegetical work, unhampered by overdetermining translations.
And, as he notes regarding Sanskrit,
This circumstance is of special importance for the exegesis of Sanskrit sources because the usual conciseness of the style in which those texts are written entails an unusual degree of ambiguity, vagueness and under-determination of non-literal meaning (488).
One simple example is that Sanskrit does not have the same distinction between definite and indefinite noun phrases as English, so some translations (where lack of such a distinction is relevant) might be properly rendered as “a/the X”.
The overall aim of Oetke’s article is to argue that the separation between historical philosophical studies and questions of philosophical criticism is not only arbitrary, but harmful. This is because knowing what statements are plausible in a given text is not merely a matter of competence with the source language and certain historical facts, but knowledge of the theoretical context. For a student of philosophy (as content, not as historical studies), there is a similar lesson: knowledge about theoretical context and linguistic facts is not sufficient. Textual and historical context are crucial elements in adjudicating between interpretations.
*Oetke does not get into the details about what counts as a vague term for him, which is just as well, since this paper runs to 83 pages as it is. It’s possible that some of what he considers properties of vagueness would not, on all accounts, be taken this way.
Source: Some Issues of Scholarly Exegesis (In Indian Philosophy) by Claus Oetke. J Indian Philos (2009) 37:415–497.