Metaphysical Limits of Interpretation


Such a title may sound perfectly intelligible (unless even familiar) to English-language philosophers, and surprising to those with a Continental background. A difference owed, I would say, to the way we assign meanings to and make use of some basic philosophical terms.

Therefore, some brief and yet compelling notes are in order – viz., about the three main concepts standing at the very core of this paper (and being employed right from its title). The concept of “metaphysics” is taken over in its Anglo-American ontological sense, entailing inquiries about the most general features of reality and the nature of things, selves, substances or mental states; but it is engaged (when so specified) in transcendental sense, referring to certain conditions of possibility for something.

It will be interesting to notice how this term can be similarly assumed by both a Kantian thinker within a philosophically pragmatist environment, as Davidson, and a Heideggerian thinker concerned with hermeneutics, as Gadamer. “Limits” is here another name for reference points, thus being seen as regulative rather than restrictive; in this sense, for instance, the very possibility-conditions for something are to be counted among its limits . Umberto Eco is quite explicit about this.

“Interpretation” will be regarded as embedded within the net of communication practices and very much depending on linguistic behaviour. This perspective over interpretation fits in, I believe, with the ontological sense of metaphysics mentioned above. Broadly, the scenery that I have just pictured is commonly shared by Wittgenstein, Davidson and the American pragmatists; also, to a certain extent, by Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida and others concerned with some sort of practical philosophy.

Given this conceptual framework, my attempt will be to search for any limits of interpretation metaphysically relevant; in other words, to see what kind of ontological issues are being raised (or presupposed) by interpretation. Regarding my way of searching, I would only call it ‘a strategy’ if deliberately seeing Gadamer’s and Davidson’s views on interpretation through metaphysical lens qualifies for one. Namely, I shall identify a few points in which the two philosophers’ perspectives converge and render them to be, by my lights, exactly the limits of interpretation able to yield some metaphysical significance.

Suffices here to mention them briefly: the existence of language and its making all thinking and communication (thus: interpretation) possible; contextuality (Gadamer’s already and Davidson’s holism); the issues of truth, sense and consciousness. By the end of this paper, the claim will be made that such limits are not merely a metaphysical addition to interpretation, but ground it, inasmuch as certain existentialist presuppositions about the existence and nature of the interpreter, the text interpreted, its objective reality, truth and communicable sense are essentially engaged in any interpretation.

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