Constructing the object

I’ve been thinking about the ‘construction of the object’ – i.e., the way that different communities with different interests will not only interpret an object in different ways, but may be said to have different objects – to have something different in mind when they refer to supposedly the same object. I don’t think that acknowledging this is immediately and necessarily a step into a malign postmodernist relativism; I think one can make sense of it even within a naively realist view of the world.

If I were, say, a police investigator working on a case, ‘The Bible’ might mean ‘This specific Gideon’s Bible with the torn leaf and the blood-stain’ – and there would quite possibly be no interesting relationship between that object and other books with similar words in.

If I were the forensic expert on the case, interested in how this book was used to batter the victim, ‘The Bible’ would most significantly be a member of the class of objects of this size, weight, shape, hardness and flexibility.

If I were the investigator, after a significant development in the case, trying to break the code that I now realise was used by the murderer and his accomplices, I might be interested in Bibles of exactly this edition, with exactly this pagination, on which a cypher has been developed – and no others. Nothing else would count as ‘The Bible’.

And so on.

By ‘construction of the object’, I simply mean this process by which the interests of the investigator pick out certain features of certain objects, as members of certain classes. Of course, I do perhaps go further than my little police story warrants when I claim that no ‘construction of the object’ is independent of interests – but I don’t think I necessarily step out of the sam naively realist world in doing so. There is, after all, a story to be told as to why Christians are able to say ‘Bible’ and mean a whole family of texts in different languages, with somewhat differing tables of contents – while Muslims properly mean only texts in Arabic when they say ‘Quran’. To say, ‘No, what “Bible” really means is…’ is always a statement made by some person or group that uses the word in particular contexts for particular purposes.

And, of course, you’re now meant to make a further step and think not just that identification of what is meant by ‘Bible’ might work in this way, but that identification of the meanings of the Bible will work this way – perhaps even more so.

5 Thoughts on “Constructing the object

  1. Another interesting post. Please ignore me if I become too much of a “gad-fly.”

    The discussion about what constitutes a “proposition” among Analytical philosophers (like William Alston in “A Realist Conception of Truth”) has a bearing on your post. If a “proposition” is distinct from a “sentence” such that there is ambiguity in a “sentence” because it can refer to more than one “proposition,” (where “propositions” are the things that are the “bearers of a truth value,)” your understanding of “constructing the object” can be slightly recast.

    Then, keeping the sentence/proposition distinction in mind, think about the statement: “no ‘construction of the object’ is independent of interests.” One wonders if “constructing of the object” for different people that results in different understandings is simply an exercise in the ambiguity of sentences. It’s not that the meaning of ‘the Bible’ is actually different for each individual in your example, but that the referenced propostion for any sentence that use the phrase is actually different. There is no reason that each of the individuals of your example could not understand the intended propositions referenced by sentences utilized by the other individuals (actually, your post assumes this is possible for the reader).

    For this naive realist then, there is no issue here (other than misunderstanding when two of these groups or individuals converse; not always a problem that cannot be overcome with more conversation) and following your application of this principle to “meanings of the Bible” (in your last paragraph) is not required.

    If I once again completely misread your post, please forgive me.


  2. This post seems to confuse meaning with reference. The relevant example from the analytic tradition is that of the morning star and evening star, which pulls meaning and reference apart. Can words mean or only sentences? Why hypostasize the proposition? Why aren’t sentences enough, with the appropriate cultural context and give and take?

  3. Thanks Bill,

    Phosphorus says “I have no doubt you are correct. – Herperus” 🙂

    Anyway, I suppose problem outlined in the article which highlghts the distcintion between ‘words’ and their ‘meaning’ was analagous, for me, to the distinction (I have usually made) between sentences an propostions.

    You are correct though, I tend to ‘hypostasize’ (nice way to put it, BTW) ‘propostions.’ It’s probably part of being an overly analytical naive realist … 🙂

    Jim (no relation to Bill) Carroll

  4. I have to admit I’m not quite sure what it is that I’ve said that you’re concerned to deny, Jim – although I’ll admit that the final comment about ‘meanings of the Bible’ was hopelessly vague.

    I was working up a reply, but it’s getting too long so I’ll remove it from this comment and put it in a main post.

  5. Since I suspect my comments have been too often off target I will simply read for a while.

    Thanks for the blog.

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