Semantical Essays: Possible Worlds and Their Rivals

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It was a secular and literary method of reading the Hebrew Bible but, in its reverent insistence on the coherence and complex artistry of the central texts, it has appealed to some religious readers. The book was — and remains — a surprise hit; it opened up an old, mysterious and often maligned text for the first time to many readers.

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His growing commitment to translation since the s can be seen as a move toward an increased investment on his part in the general reader, over and against institutional gatekeepers of the text, both in academia and in the religious world. The translation emerged organically.

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His later translation work has carried out, in a larger and more systematic way, what he started in his criticism. Since — and not including this current complete edition — his Bible translations have sold in the hundreds of thousands. The first verset, semantically airtight, is all Alter. In the skillful way that he has harmonized the various voices, past and present, Alter proves to be another Arranger, practicing the composite art that he believes has long been the life-breath of this text.


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A lter was born in the Bronx and grew up in Albany, to working-class parents who emigrated from Lithuania and Romania. His father was born in the waning years of the 19th century and fought as a teenager in World War I. Alter came to Hebrew, like many an American Jewish child, somewhat haphazardly — first in traditional contexts, like bar mitzvah lessons but also in Hebrew-only summer camps of the period. The cultural record of American Jews, in literature and art, can be summarized as a collective complaint against parental demands to learn Hebrew, but Alter took to it immediately and chose to continue his studies, even while playing varsity football and running track.

As a young man, Alter was so enamored with the language that he spent much of his time systematically mastering a Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary. A membership card to his local public library became his ticket to the wider world.

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Like many of his contemporaries with literary aspirations, he graduated from a public high school and found his way into the middle of a thriving midcentury literary scene in New York City. D in comparative literature. Many Jewish writers of those years saw it as their mission to march onto center stage of American literature: not simply to master the English language but to remake it in their own voices.

As a young critic, Alter was active in this project. For a literary person of those generations, the King James Version loomed large.

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Along with Shakespeare, the King James was one of the wellsprings of English literature, especially in the United States. It is one of the few major texts that was foundational in both the Jewish and the Anglo-American traditions. And though Alter and his peers remained smitten by the language of the King James, there was an underlying sense that a key piece of their Jewish heritage had long been held captive in the churches and schools and texts of white Protestant English.

With his intricate and artistically attuned translation, Alter has helped carve out a dignified place for the Hebrew Bible as the Hebrew Bible, squarely within the Anglo-American literary tradition, and rescued it from second-class status. Alter regularly composes phrases that sound strange in English, in part because they carry hints of ancient Hebrew within them. Sarah has just given birth to her first child, a son; in Hebrew, his name is Yitzhak, meaning he who laughs.

After giving birth, she feels mocked, shamed and socially demoted. At the end of her life, when she should be reaping the rewards of seniority and respect, she fears that she has been turned into a punch line. Does this make Sarah a hero? Not exactly. In fact, painting her in this pained light deepens her complexity by giving a more terrible clarity to her motives in the next episode, when she takes vengeance on Hagar, a foreign woman of lesser social status, whom she perceives as a rival.

Perhaps a misogynist tradition of translation was more comfortable with Sarah as a crazy woman than as a victimized truth teller. It has been the subject of centuries of conjecture and, among feminist critics since the s, a subfield of study.

And it sears. W hat does Alter himself see through the mask of the text? As we sat outside in his courtyard garden, in the warm glow of the Berkeley sun, I asked Alter whether he, who had spent so many hours in his upstairs study with the works of these ancient Hebrew authors, had ever got a signal from a human on the other side of the text. This answer surprised me. Alter, for one, finds its apocalyptic imagery a bore. So why did Daniel move him? It was strangely intimate, you know, for me to discover that, to see this writer struggling.

It is one of the few books in the Hebrew Bible where Aramaic appears for long stretches of the text. It is a theme of the story itself, which imagines a similar crisis, set in an earlier period, of a Judean exile in the court of the Babylonian king, tasked with translating a mysterious text. They belong to a "third realm", a timeless world, to which all of us have access. Dummett is far from endorsing the suggestion that thoughts occupy a third realm beyond time and space.

Semantic Challenges to Realism

He describes this doctrine as a piece of "ontological mythology", the term "mythology" here being used in a purely pejorative sense Dummett, a, Dummett thinks that these two loose ends should be tied together. Rather than being content to describe the act of understanding as involving a mysterious connection between our minds and timeless entities known as senses, we should focus on the practice of using sentences in a language. This, in turn requires us to think about the purpose of classifying sentences as true or false, and that requires that we think about the purposes for which we use a language Dummett, a, The result of this process might be to vindicate Frege's semantics, or it might vindicate the intuitionist position.

Dummett's most influential contribution to philosophy can be understood as an attempt to resolve this unfinished business. Along with his historical work, Dummett is known for his on-going work on a grand metaphysical project. The aim of this project is to find a means of resolving a number of debates, each of which has a common form but a different subject matter.

In each debate, there is a realist, and an anti-realist, and they differ concerning which logical principles they apply to statements of the type that are under dispute—as it may be, statements of arithmetic, statements about the past, about the future, about the physical world, about possible worlds, and so forth. To decide in favor of anti-realism in one instance does not mean that one must always decide in favor of anti-realism, and the same is true for realism.

Some of Dummett's papers deal with arguments that are quite specific to one particular debate—for example, he discusses the charge that anti-realism about the past is ultimately self-defeating, since what is now the present will be the past Dummett, "The Reality of the Past", in his , and he has advanced an argument about the nature of names for non-existent natural-kinds that is intended to undercut David Lewis's argument for the thesis that all possible worlds are real Dummett, "Could There Be Unicorns?

However, he is best known for advancing a generic line of argument that the anti-realist in any particular debate could appeal to. That does not mean that he thinks that the anti-realist will always be successful. In his valedictory lecture as Wykeham Professor of Logic, he stated:. I saw the matter, rather, as the posing of a question how far, and in what contexts, a certain generic line of argument could be pushed, where the answers 'No distance at all' and 'In no context at all' could not be credibly entertained, and the answers 'To the bitter end' and 'In all conceivable contexts' were almost as unlikely to be right.

Dummett, b, Dummett's most complete statement of the nature of such metaphysical debates, and the means by which they can be resolved was The Logical Basis of Metaphysics Dummett, b. According to Dummett, to find out how to resolve metaphysical disputes, we must find out how to justify a logic—that is, a set of principles of inference. Logic is the study of validity—an inference is valid if, and only if, the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. The logician wants to be able to recognize such truth-preserving inferences by their structure.


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More precision can be achieved by presenting inferences in a formal system Dummett, b, , and precision comes to be of vital importance when we are trying to choose between rival logical systems. The logician wants to be able to recognize, from the structure of one set of sentences, that the members of another set of sentences are true.

One method of validating rules of inference is by means of a semantic theory. In such a theory, every expression is assigned a semantic value, and an account is offered of how the semantic value of a complex expression is based upon the semantic value of its components. The aim of the semantic theory is to explain how the parts of a sentence determine the truth-value of that sentence Dummett, b, , as was explained above.

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At this point, it may be helpful to focus upon a particular inference and a particular semantic theory. Suppose that we assign the following semantic values to symbols in the following way. P and Q stand for atomic sentences, which have either the value true , or the value false , and never both values. The symbol " x v y ", where x and y are replaced by symbols which stand for atomic sentences has the value true when at least one of those atomic sentences has the value true.

Otherwise, it has the value false. Next, we consider the following argument:. To validate this inference, we must show that if 1 and 2 are true, then the conclusion, P, must also be true.