Signs, communications and understanding
That one person can increase another's understanding of something by way of symbolic communication seems an uncontentious claim. More contentious is the claim that much epistemology and philosophy of language~ wh~lst giving us formal expositions of the tr~th crlterla for 'X knows that S' or the syntactic structure of language, fails to cast much light on the process of knowing, on what being an 'understanoer' consists in. I begin my thesis by looking at language acquisition, rejecting behaviourist/physicalist accounts and concluding that we nust talk about the conceptual develop~ent of the pre-linguistic child (involving coming to pick out and attach si~nificance to certain classes of objects of experience) if lanb~aGe acquisition is to be shown to be a possibility. ?ail~re to divorce concept possession from the possession of sophisticated linguistic skills, I arbUe, makes languaee acquisition inexplicable. I accept that language frequently plays an important part in establishing interpersonal agreement in conceptual frameworks/ways of looking, but not that talk of concept possession in the absence of linguistic skills is empty. This leads on to the problem of meaning and I adopt a 'speech acts' approach to this on the grounds that a Davidsonian theory of meaning cannot claim to explain how linguistic signs are significant for us unless backed up by behaviourist/physicalist claims of the sort Quine makes and which I reject. I look at the meaning of symbols in terms of the significance it has by virtue of agreement (within a form of life) on the appropriateness of their inscriptions for performing certain speech acts in certain contexts. I next move on to an account of uncerstanding, analysed in terms of the possession of a conceptual framework appropriate for the object of understanding. I reject both relativist and strongly absolutist accounts of this 'appropriate' ccncluding that we can only support a claim that 'this' or 'that' ways of looking captures 'these' aspects of the world if theory has implications, directly or indirectly, for our handling of relevant aspects of the world. Utility is not written into understanding itself, rather it appears as the criterion by which we can support the claim that a particular 'story' about the world captures the way things are to some extent as opposed to being mere phantasy. In the course of this discussion I distinguish a number of problem domains in which specialists have found it appropriate to make different metaphysical assumptions about the phenomena with which we are dealing. The thesis concludes by relating the issues discussed to both curriculum design and the problems of teaching.