What’s in a ‘distinctive meaning content’?

I’m generally interested at the moment in the distinction between the theoretical and the practical, a distinction that can be found throughout philosophy and which I increasingly think is a dominant distinction, though often in an unthought way. The interest in this distinction is what underlies my current writing project, a book that’s tentatively titled ‘Practical metaphysics’ (more about that another time). It’s also a distinction that is central to Husserl and Heidegger, albeit in various forms. Heidegger’s concern with ‘technik’ for example stems, I think, from a difficulty with the way in which this kind of practical knowledge closes down our relation to being. Husserl, however, seems to be grappling with this distinction in his early struggles to rid logic and philosophy of psychologistic prejudices. At the moment I’m reading back through the ‘Logical Investigations’ and it becomes increasingly clear that Husserl has a strong theory/practice split underlying his arguments against a psychologistic interpretation of logic.

Husserl wants to avoid attributing normativity to logical laws. He wants to avoid, in other words, the sense in which a logical law is a law that says we should do something. He wants to maintain the theoretical purity of logical laws, by which it appears he wants to maintain their status as facts rather than imperatives (something that no doubt goes back to the origins of the ‘is / ought’ distinction). The logical proposition, Husserl thinks, says ‘it is true that X’ whereas the normative proposition involves a shift to a proposition of the form ‘anyone who judges that X’. He makes a remark that an analogous shift occurs in mathematics in the shift from law to rule, a shift that “involves a bringing in of normativity” (Logical Investigatons, Vol 1; 169). His argument is that “we can employ our proposition [of logic] for normative purposes, but it is not therefore a norm” (ibid, emphasis added).

Despite this essentially theoretical nature of logical laws, Husserl needs to maintain some sense of necessity however, what he calls here a ‘prerogative’. This prerogative doesn’t look like a simple normative ‘ought’ however – at least it isn’t intended as such, for Husserl tries to ascribe to the theoretical law a straightforward ‘natural right’ located in the “distinctive meaning content“. I’m a little confused at this point, since this looks like Husserl is saying something like ‘the laws of thought by definition constitute the laws of thought’ – at which point they seem entirely stipulative. Further; ‘the laws of thought as universal laws by definition constitute the laws of thought as universal laws’ seems to hold just as well and at this point the stipulative problem appears entirely devastating. A universal law must surely demand recognition, which is presumably why Husserl wants to ascribe something like a ‘natural right’, which thus implies that they cannot be stipulated since that stipulation is contingent not necessary. Any sense of stipulation seems to strip the logical laws of the necessity that Husserl wants them to have.

Why would it look like a law that had its natural right grounded in its ‘distinctive meaning content’ is a stipulative law? This rests, I suppose, on an assumption something like ‘the discovery of a distinctive meaning content is a discovery of a definition’ which would then mean that the logical laws had a natural right, by definition and thus that they appear stipulative. The problem must be in ascribing the notion of ‘distinctive meaning content’ to an apparent analogue such as ‘definition’. If a distinctive meaning content does not equal the definition of a propositonal type (theoretical law as against normative rule in this case) then what exactly is contained in this ‘distinctive meaning content’?

Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations – trans J.N.Findlay, Routledge 1970

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply