Heart 6: Divorce of Meaning and Event

So Kant highlighted the dominant role our minds play in the organization of our experiences.  What he did not anticipate is how relative human frameworks of understanding actually are.  The twentieth century saw the rise of disciplines like cultural anthropology, where it became clear that the very same action can have a quite different meaning in one culture than it has in another.  A gesture that might get you killed in Italy might be meaningless in North America.  A pair of clothing that is perfectly modest in one location might be quite obscene in another. 

In short, a clear distinction exists between actions or events and their meaning.  The same applies to language.  A word that is highly insulting or obscene in one language might have no real impact in another.  The way we interpret things always involves a certain framework of thinking.  Before 9-11, a middle eastern looking person on a plane would hardly have drawn my attention.  After 9-11, that bit of data in my environment is much more likely to grab my interest.  To be enamoured with Karl Marx’s philosophy was not nearly as significant in the late 1800s in America as it was in the late 1950s.

An old professor of mine put it this way, “Context is everything.”  Thomas Kuhn (1992-96) is best known for his analysis of scientific revolutions. [1]  He argued that scientific progress is largely an illusion.  Rather, he argued that we simply have change from one scientific paradigm to another facilitated by shifts in power.  Copernicus’ arguments that the earth went around the sun were not obviously better than the math of those who thought the sun went around the earth.  In our opinion, Kuhn’s position was extreme and we can argue for scientific progress on the basis of how much more useful scientific theories are today than ever before.  Nevertheless, he did demonstrate well how prominent a role the human exercise of power plays in scientific change, coupled with the coincidences of history. 

Michel Foucault (1926-84) similarly analyzed historical shifts in things like how people are punished for crimes or how the insane are viewed or how sexuality is viewed. [2]  Again, he argued that the amount of human power involved in such changes is at least the same and perhaps even greater.  These developments, he would say, are not clearly evolutionary to where we have progressed.  In the end, we view his positions as extreme.  Nevertheless, he does seem to have demonstrated very clearly that what seems to be the common sense on the most basic of topics changes from time to time and that we often have no sense of how different they are from before.

For example, we tend today to view both homo- and heterosexuality as orientations that a person has.  In our current framework, a person is either attracted to the opposite sex or to the same sex.  Foucault argued that this way of thinking about homosexual acts is relatively recent, less than two hundred years old.  He would say that prior to the modern period, people did not think of “sexuality” as an aspect of a person.  People had sex, and some sex acts were appropriate and others were not.  No thought was given to a person having an “orientation.”  It was just thought that some people had sex with the wrong people and were thus deviant human beings.  If Foucault was right, then even those who oppose homosexuality today view the subject from within a different framework than anyone prior to the 1800s.

Next: impact on reading the Bible (social scientific studies)

[1] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 

[2] Crime and Punishment, History of Sexuality, ***