Monday, April 7, 2014

Making meaning

Given that Americans call chips what English people call crisps there ought to be a ready made fish'n'chips pun that I could use when talking about Stanley Fish on "The air is crisp." But the pun is eluding me. Here's the page of Fish's essay that I want to quote (sorry that the text shrinks at the end):

I have some concerns about the way Fish puts things, which I've mentioned before, but I think he is basically right here. There is no two-stage procedure in which a reader or hearer first scrutinizes an utterance and then gives it a meaning. At least in normal circumstances there are not two stages. As Fish goes on to say, sometimes one does have to "self-consciously figure out what an utterance means." But usually one does not. In normal circumstances utterances are heard in a context such that they are only heard one way, and the hearer or reader is in no position to confer a meaning on the utterance. This is what I take myself to mean when I say that we do not normally interpret utterances. 

I want now to address immanentforms' comment here against this background. What follows is the whole comment (indented) with my responses inserted here and there:
I would be happy to define "meaning-making" as "making sense of": either describes a process through which we come to understand a text or utterance.
I am not sure, though, that there is always a process through which we come to understand a text or utterance. If there is no point at which a determination of an utterance's meaning has not been made, as Fish says, then in what sense can there be a process through which the meaning of the utterance is determined? (Presumably there is a physical process of light bouncing off the pages of a book or sound waves getting into my ears, and then something happens in the brain, but this physical process is not what we mean when we talk about understanding. Otherwise we'd be reading science rather than papers by people like Fish.) Sometimes I understand only after going through a process. Usually I understand immediately. Indeed usually there is no room for the possibility of a process: the context limits the possible meanings to one.    
Both descriptions also emphasize in their language that sense/meaning is something we make, and that is, I think, inescapably the case, but not in a Humpty-Dumpty sense (he believes his words mean precisely what he wants them to, no more and no less).
I take Humpty Dumpty's mistake to be thinking that he gets to dictate what words mean, not that he gets to determine precisely what they mean. The context (social, historical, etc.) determines the meaning, not any individual. That goes for the speaker and the hearer. 
On the contrary, I would argue that we always say both more and less than we mean, and that an utterance, once it leaves our lips or is inscribed on the page, operates beyond our control or our intentions. We can try to convince others to interpret what we said in a certain light, but, at that point, we become hearers who have to interpret the utterance like everyone else.
I basically agree, although I don't think meanings change so quickly that there is any cause for alarm about what our words might start to mean after they leave our lips. And the speaker is not in exactly the same position as any other hearer. We do tend to allow that the speaker has some authority.
I think I can address two of your concerns--1) thinking of language as a medium will draw us into an "information transfer" model, and 2) if readers make meanings, then... (I'm less certain of your concern here, but I think it may be some version of that old bogeyman "relativism"). 
I'm not sure what part of what I wrote you're referring to under 2. But I am concerned (in general, not necessarily in the passage you have in mind) about relativism. The textbook relativism that people like to deride is a real phenomenon. You seem to be against it yourself at times. Fish certainly is. Not every understanding of a text or position on an issue is equally good or plausible. You and Fish bother to point this out. I sometimes want to do so too. How is that being concerned with an "old bogeyman"?  
I think we can resolve both problems by seeing language as the medium in which we make meanings (not a medium that carries meanings).
I don't understand this. When you say 'language' do you mean written marks and uttered sounds that don't (yet) have meaning, or written and spoken words that do have meaning? If it's the latter then I don't see how we make meanings in a medium that already has meaning. I can make a sentence (which has a meaning) out of words (that are already in currency), but is that an instance of me making meaning? Or is it my audience that supposedly makes the meaning? I would have thought that if the words are already in use then they already have a meaning. If, on the other hand, you mean that we make meanings in the medium of marks and sounds then how do we create meaning from such lifeless things? Surely marks and sounds get meaning by being used in certain ways, and then the medium in which meaning is made is human life, not language. However I take this sentence (the one I'm responding to in this whole paragraph) it seems to say only that human beings (not us in a much more specific sense) give language its meaning. If that's what you mean then I agree, but I suspect I'm missing something.      
Meaning is a function of the relationships between the utterance, the hearer, and the context of interpretation (including especially the hearer's interpretive community). Language is a medium (I don't know what else we could call it), but it doesn't hold packets of meaning. It is the medium in which we hear utterances and in which we make sense of them for ourselves and for those around us.
Again, I find myself unsure whether by 'utterances' you mean sounds (or marks) or intelligible sentences. If it's the former then I would want to emphasize your idea of a relationship between the utterance, the hearer, and the context (and why not the utterer too?). And the hearer really has very little to do with it. If you say, "pass the milk, please," then the meaning of this utterance depends very largely on what that sentence means in our language, maybe a little bit on your intention ("I said 'pass the milk' but what I meant was pass the bread"), and not really at all on what I take you to be saying. This might be what you mean, but to say "we make sense of utterances for ourselves" makes it sound to my ears as though we, as audience, have way more control than we actually do over what words mean. Alternatively, you might mean that we make sense of utterances (understood as already meaningful sentences) in the medium of language. But then language is both what the utterances are made of and the medium in which we make sense of them. And I don't think you can mean that.  
If language were a medium and readers/hearers didn't construct meanings (or participate in their construction), then meaning would have to be already present and available in the text/utterance, in which case language would be a vehicle for communicating pre-existing packets of meaning. But, meaning is not a thing that exists within the text (or, in Humpty-Dumpty's case, within the intentions of the speaker); meaning is a function of the relationship between text and reader (within a context/community).
Let me see. Is this (at least an important part of) the idea?
  1. Utterances have meanings, i.e. meanings of utterances exist. 
  2. These meanings have to come from somewhere.  
  3. They cannot already be in the utterances before these reach an audience, because then meanings would exist independently of acts of communication
  4. So the audience must create the meaning, or at least play a part in its creation
If this were true then I wonder how anyone would ever know what to say or write. How do we manage to predict so well what meanings our audiences are going to construct for the things we utter? I agree that the audience has a part to play in some circumstances. If I come up with a novel use of a word or string of words and no one has a clue what I'm on about then I have spoken nonsense, whereas if everyone (or a significant number of people) gets it then I have not spoken nonsense but innovated successfully. For the most part, though, the broad context (including the history of our language and the way we live and use words) determines which words have a use or a meaning and what this meaning is. The existence of exceptions does not refute this general truth. (Or so it seems to me. That is, I don't see how a few exceptions could prove that the rule was not true in most other cases.)
Recognizing the presence of an interpretive community is important. For starters, we did not teach ourselves language as individuals: we receive it from others and it always operates within our relationship to other speakers. Because the individual hearer/reader does not make meaning on her own--she interprets within a community of interpreters--she is not free to create just any meaning (and if she tries to, we can call her on it by offering more plausible alternative interpretations). If she persists in her idiosyncratic reading, we call her a bad reader or a solipsist (but probably not a relativist; again, I'm not certain about the content of your second objection). 
I agree with all of this, with the possible exception of the words "interpretive community." Language-users speak as well as hear. We speak and hear within a community of speakers and hearers. And just as individual speakers do not, Humpty Dumpty-like, get to determine the meanings of their words, neither do individual hearers get to determine the meanings of other people's words. Your way of putting things, here and elsewhere, suggests (to my mind) an asymmetry in favor of the hearer. In most cases I think meaning is determined entirely by the rules of the game (as these have been created by the entire community of language-users) and the specific circumstances in which words from that language have been uttered. Hearers have no more authority than speakers as far as I can see (qua hearers and speakers).
Understanding any piece of language--whether a vocal utterance or a written text--requires a process through which we discover or construct (I think it is always a combination of those) the significance of the utterance. Words (spoken as much as written) are arbitrary, conventional signs operating within linguistic systems and social structures, and they always carry some ambiguity that needs parsing (at bare minimum, "is this language" and "is it addressed to me"). 
Why think this ambiguity is always present? If the word 'ambiguity' is to have a meaning, it seems to me, then it must be a label that applies to some things but not others. So if non-ambiguity is possible, why assume that it is never actual? And if non-ambiguity can be achieved, why can't any particular combination of conventional signs along with the linguistic systems and social structures within which they operate (along with the particular circumstances in which those signs are used on a particular occasion) achieve it?
If you want to reserve the term "interpretation" for the process of understanding particularly ambiguous utterances (and I can see some reasons why this would be attractive), then we need another term for "the process of coming to understand an utterance."
Why not call this 'understanding'?
You said that "reading" would be the banal term, but it isn't so banal to talk about "reading speech" (and it would have to mean something other than recognizing written characters). If we don't interpret language, how do we come to understand it? Where does its meaning come from?
I take interpretation to be a process very similar to translation. You say something that I don't understand, that means nothing to me, and I try putting it in words that do mean something to me. This depends on my already having a language that I understand. So saying that we always interpret language (in this sense of 'interpret') doesn't answer the question of how we come to understand language. At most it explains how we come to understand a second language.

If by 'interpretation' we mean "the process of coming to understand an utterance" then, equally, very little is explained by saying that we come to understand language by the process of coming to understand the utterances of which language consists. 

Having said that, I don't think that I have an answer to the question of where meaning comes from. But I don't think anyone does.



  2. Hello Duncan,

    Thank you for taking time to respond to me in detail. I am afraid that I don't have time at the moment to offer a similarly detailed or lengthy response, but I do feel responsible to you and (the intellectual energy you put into this post) for some type of reply. I will only make a brief response, but, rather than attempting to end the conversation, let's take this as a rain delay and pick it up again later (we do have the benefit of time, after all, and I can't, for my part, present and defend all of post-structuralism in a few hundred words over a couple of weeks.)

    I want to make three short replies to your post. First, I want to question your reading of Fish. Second, I want to reiterate the importance of community. Third, I want to say something about authors' intentions.

    First, I want to argue that you are misreading Fish in a significant way. When Hirsch attacked Fish by claiming that Fish was adding contexts to utterances in order to manipulate their meanings. Hirsch claimed that, while some utterances needed clarified by their contexts or had to be placed in context, most utterances were perfectly clear without that second step (checking the context). Fish replied that instances in which Hirsch thought an utterance was perfectly clear *without* context--utterances to which we do not need to add a concern for context--are made apparently clear and unambiguous by the already existing and operating contexts. In other words, context as a function of interpretation is not unnecessary, it is an always already functioning ground of understanding (a condition necessary for the possibility of meaning). Because, for Fish, understanding an utterance presupposes placing it in relationship with a specific context and our role within that scene, it is not an accurate reading of his text to say that interpretation never happens. It is more appropriate to say that it is always already happening.

    Second, as I stressed in my previous comment, meaning is not a thing to be possessed; it is a social-textual function. Meaning is a function of the relationships between an utterance, a hearer and her context/community of interpretation. Almost every objection you raise to my previous comment--from meaning as content communication to Humpty-Dumptiness--treats my claims as if I said that isolated readers make meanings on their own. We don't. For starters, we take the language in which we make meanings out of other people's mouths. We learn words and language rules (along with their exceptions) from our parents and teachers, friends and colleagues. We learn what words mean by hearing them used and by trying them out in our own speech and writing. No one person ever owns a word or its meaning because meanings are not stable things. They are functions of a set of relationships that are always in flux. You asked me how we can make meaning within a medium (language) that already has meaning. My answer is that language does not "have" meaning. Talking about language "having" meaning smuggles back in the conception of language as a communicator of preexisting packets of meaning. Language does not have meaning. It is a medium in which we make meaning, and, because meaning is in large part a function of our relationship to other people, we can't make meaning by ourselves. Even if I am stranded on a desert island and have no one to check my meanings against, I can only make sense of writing (or of my mumblings to myself) by acting as if other people are present (and, since I learned all of those words from other people, they are present in a substantial way).

  3. (Cont.) Third, I don't include the intention of the speaker/author in the social-textual function of meaning because there is only one intention that matters: did she intend to say something meaningful? If she did, then we treat the utterance how we always do--we receive it within a particular context (including especially our relationship to a community of interpreters) and we interpret the possible meanings that arise as a function of that relationship. If the speaker doesn't agree with our interpretation, then she can only argue with us about the meaning of her utterance by pointing to her words and the context in which she said them (that is, she acts like a fellow reader/hearer and interprets her previous utterance). We may, as a social convention, give more credence to her interpretation of her own previous statement, but we don't have to. In fact, anyone who has had an argument with a spouse or significant other knows that claiming to know "what I meant to say" does not hold any special weight with our audience. We, as speakers or authors, can only convince our audience that "I didn't mean X, I meant Y" if we have enough evidence and skill to make the Y interpretation more plausible.

    Thank you, Duncan (and others), for reading my reply. When I point out that it is fairly rushed, incomplete and imperfect, I am not asking you to accept my claims despite their faults. I am asking, rather, that you accept them as a temporary answer that keeps our conversation alive for another day.

  4. Sorry, I somehow missed these comments before now. Thanks for them.

    I can't, for my part, present and defend all of post-structuralism in a few hundred words over a couple of weeks

    Lame! No, fair enough. Although I'm less concerned with post-structuralism (which I could read about any time, at least in theory) than with what you think. I don't have a particular problem with what Fish or Derrida say, for instance. It's some of the things that you say that I don't understand.

    Fish replied that instances in which Hirsch thought an utterance was perfectly clear *without* context--utterances to which we do not need to add a concern for context--are made apparently clear and unambiguous by the already existing and operating contexts.

    I agree with Fish on this.

    In other words, context as a function of interpretation is not unnecessary, it is an always already functioning ground of understanding

    I don't see how this is the same thing in different words. If that's all it is then I guess I agree. But who or what is doing the interpretation? The context? If it's a person then how is this the same idea as that the context makes certain utterances clear and unambiguous? Or do you mean that the context only appears to do so and that interpretation by a person is still necessary? If so, that seems to be adding something to what you said Fish says.

    Language does not have meaning.

    (Can you see how this might be puzzling?) Are you saying that not even sentences, words, utterances have meaning because meaning cannot be had, or that language does not have meaning but utterances, etc. do? And I still wonder, when you say that we make meanings, who 'we' are: the whole of humanity, all the speakers of the language in question, just the people present when a particular utterance is made and understood, some other group?