A Tale of Two Dead Ends

John Allan Knight

in Liberalism versus Postliberalism

Published in print December 2012 | ISBN: 9780199969388
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780199301546 | DOI:

Series: American Academy of Religion Series

A Tale of Two Dead Ends

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Previous chapters have described liberalism’s relationship to descriptivist understandings of language and postliberalism’s relationship to Wittgenstein. This chapter describes serious problems with descriptivism, on the one hand, and Wittgensteinian understandings of meaning, on the other. The chapter argues that the most influential descriptivist theory of meaning, that of Donald Davidson, is fatally flawed. The chapter then argues that satisfaction of descriptive senses cannot be either universally necessary or sufficient for successful reference. Thus, descriptivism is an inadequate account of either meaning or reference. The chapter then provides an analysis and critique of the later Wittgenstein’s understanding of meaning as use. The chapter discusses prominent criticisms of Wittgenstein’s understanding of meaning and concludes that at best it is too vague to be either defended or conclusively refuted. At worst, its problems can be resolved only by abandoning Wittgenstein’s central commitments. Postliberal appropriations of Wittgenstein raise additional serious problems. These center around the failure to distinguish semantics from speech acts and the refusal to allow reference any role in determining meaning. These postliberal moves deprive Frei and Lindbeck of the ability to argue for the truth of theological claims and leave them vulnerable to charges of fideism.

Keywords: Davidson, Donald; Fideism; Kripke, Saul; meaning; reference; speech acts; truth; Wittgenstein

Chapter.  18877 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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