My project lies within the history of problems. This denotes a methodological approach within historiographic practice, rather than a field of inquiry or a specific subject matter. The history of problems proceeds to examine a given issue in its historical manifestations with the hope thereby of coming to a further understanding of the issue, guided by the premise that phenomena are best understood as they manifest themselves through the fullness of time.
The particular problem that has guided my research for many years is that of meaning. Meaning is an elusive prey and much of the difficulty of my work has come from the necessity of developing a useful provisional definition of the term itself in order to understand my quarry and effectively track it. Much of the difficulty of this task lies in the fact that “meaning” means many different things to thinkers in different fields. It is at once the linguistic X-factor that makes signs and sounds into language, and the telos, intent (in the sense both of content and direction) of utterances, writing, ideas, and thoughts, and even the weight and import of ideas themselves.
Meaning is that which makes phenomena what they are for us. Meaning is what allows us to understand a given phenomenon as the phenomenon that we take it to be (that is, how it fits within a world of relations of quiddity, significance, import and teloi). As such, the pursuit of the history of the problem of meaning represents a kind of historical epistemology. And this is certainly not the least central of my goals.
The problem of meaning is understood differently both by different communities of thinkers and by the same communities at different times. It is an ever-present issue in the background of both of my primary areas of research interest: the history and philosophy of science and the history of philosophy. Scientists and philosophers alike examine phenomena and attempt to understand them. Understanding is grounded in meaning and, indeed, deals in meanings as its stock and trade. When we come to understand phenomena we acquire the ability to read them as if they were a text, and when a community of researchers explores a given range of phenomena they develop a language by which they can communicate the meanings of said phenomena. It is this process itself that I wish to better understand and this is the guiding goal of my work.
In pursuit of this goal I am exploring what I deem to be one of the most fruitful areas for the history of the problem of meaning in modern European history. In central Europe in the 1920’s there occurred a veritable crisis of meaning in many disparate communities of thinkers. This was the great culmination of many historical forces tracing their roots back into the previous century and beyond. In particular I am examining foundational crises of meaning in the development of the philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics and in the development what was called Existenzphilosophie. I am focusing on two key figures and two central philosophical accomplishments: Niels Bohr and the 1927 Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and Martin Heidegger and his 1927 Being and Time, an exploration of what he called “fundamental ontology.”
In the case of both of these figures and their accomplishments we have instances of a fundamental confrontation with the problem of meaning, centred on issues of contingency and necessity, which underlie what I describe as questions of relational and transcendent meaning (explored earlier in my Master’s thesis at the University of British Columbia). In fields as different as subatomic physics and ontological/existential philosophy these two thinkers confronted the same sets of fundamental problems in remarkably similar ways, producing remarkably consonant solutions at virtually the exact same moment in history.
My dissertation therefore sits at the intersection between intellectual history and the history of the philosophy of science by taking aim at a problem that lies in the ground beneath the movements of both. My hope is that it will contribute to the dialogue in both fields and provoke discussion both within and across their boundaries.
*Mason Tattersall is completing a Ph.D. in History of Science at Oregon State University.