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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On the Old Saw, ‘Every reading of a text is an interpretation’

Posted by John Holbo on 08/16/05 at 10:32 PM

We present, from The Literary Wittgenstein, for your downloading convenience, Martin Stone’s essay  "On the Old Saw, ‘Every reading of a text is an interpretation’: Some Remarks" (PDF). [Normally material on this site is CC by default. In this case, the author retains his full ©.]

It’s a good paper. It sets Wittgenstein against Fish, and we’ve had good discussions of Fish of late. And it relates to the Theory’s Empire stuff. (Hope that’s a good thing.) And Martin says he’s busy but he’ll try to participate. So folks should find it interesting (I hope.) It’s a long paper which I think will benefit from ... well, knowing me, it will turn out to be a quite a thick frame. Let me quote the opening paragraphs, make a few remarks. Then I’ll quote a few more bits and make more remarks, generally aimed at indicating why I find Stone interesting and important.

In literary theory, discussion of Wittgenstein and Stanley Fish often occur in the same breath, and it is often said that Fish is “Wittgensteinian” in his views. I think this statement is a good indication of Wittgenstein’s “unavailability” (to borrow a term of Stanley Cavell’s) in some regions of literary theory. Fish is preoccupied with a question concerning the basis of our entitlement, in various domains of discourse, to notions of correctness and objectivity in judgment. Literary criticism and the law supply his main examples. In virtue of what, he asks, is one reading of a literary text or one application of a legal rule correct, and not another? Fish’s answer – “the authority of interpretive communities” – bears an obvious resemblance to a thesis Wittgenstein is supposed to put forward in Kripke’s much-disputed reading of him. For Fish, as for Kripke’s Wittgenstein, “interpretation” appears as a general condition of the possibility of anything meaning anything.

At least two things, I think, ought to be getting in the way of Wittgenstein’s reception in literary theory in these terms. First, and most directly, the doctrine of ubiquitous interpretation conflicts outright with Wittgenstein’s own discussion of “following a rule.” One upshot of that discussion might be put like this: If interpretation is to be possible at all, then the meaning of some texts must be available without interpretation; if everything must be interpreted, then nothing can be. Second, such a reception of Wittgenstein leaves out Wittgenstein’s sense of the peculiarity, from what might be called our everyday or ordinary perspective, of the general question Fish is asking; and that, I think, is to leave out Wittgenstein entirely.

In this essay, I want to focus mainly on the second of these two issues – on the nature of the question Fish brings to literary theory. I want to ask: What has this question to do with literary theory? And – assuming this can be explained – would literary-theoretical inquiry change directions if Wittgenstein’s thought became available here?

Presumably, most critics haven’t considered Fish’s question at all. They express views about what this or that work means, but rarely about what its meaning does consists in, or about how it is so much as possible for someone to get the meaning right. Notice how general the question is. It is not: What makes this or that reading of Hamlet (or this or that application of the Negligence Rule) correct? Critics and lawyers do have answers to these questions, answers which refer to features of Hamlet, or to the purpose of the rules, or the case to which they are applied. Fish’s question is of a different order: How are correct attributions of meaning possible just as such? Whatever answer this question is looking for, it must apply as well to any meaning-involving items which the critic or lawyer is apt to cite in his answer. Indeed, any instance of linguistic meaning falls within the ambit of the question. “What makes the sign-post point in the direction of the arrow and not in the opposite one?” (Cf. PI §§85, 454).

In my NDPR review I gave Stone rather short shrift. In part this was because I was too caught up with my ‘the literary Wittgenstein is a post-Romantic’ storyline; also because I find it fairly obvious that Wittgenstein and Fish are philosophically unlike - basically for the two reasons Stone thumbnails. So I was inclined to agree but not get too excited. Also, the above passage contains an incidental slip that made me doubt Stone had a good feel for literary studies ‘theory’ culture. I think this somewhat put me off the paper, but now I think it’s incidental - so don’t let it put you off. It’s a good paper.

Here’s the slip (seems to me.) The final paragraph, above, suggests Stone thinks most academic literary critics just interpret the likes of Hamlet without getting too bothered with heavy duty, Kantian-style ‘what are the conditions of possibility?’ questions. In fact, I think that’s not so clear. Let me quote a snip of introductory matter from a standard textbook anthology, Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Davis & Schleifer:

Students of literary and cultural studies find that they are significantly advanced in their work by coming to terms with “criticism” as a concept as early in their studies as possible. There is no surer division between the casual reader of texts and observer of culture and the serious student than the willingness to engage in the task of understanding in its self-consciously critical dimensions. There are many possible definitions of criticism, but the general one central to the study of literature and other forms of discourse and language involves giving self-conscious attention to the method of understanding. (p. 17)

In short, literary and cultural studies center on investigating the conditions of the possibility of literary and cultural studies. The the authors simply assume as relatively uncontroversial that literary studies is not centered on practical criticism but is properly some sort of evolved successor to critical philosophy, in the Kantian sense.

Stone’s underestimate of the degree to which literary studies habitually worries about ‘conditions of possibility’ questions - or habitually postures as though it did - is not a problem for his paper. If I’m right, what Stone says goes for Fish goes for many others, so the interest of Stone’s thesis expands. (So it seems to me.)

Let me jump ahead a few pages to something I find especially interesting:

Fish says that he aspires to a “severe [theoretical] minimalism,” and that “this parsimony of ambition distinguishes [his] from almost any other argument in theory.” But “so much for parsimony,” I feel inclined to say, when Fish nominates “interpretation” as a general condition of the possibility of a text’s determinately meaning one thing rather than another. Such “interpretivism” (as I shall call it) looks like nothing less than metaphysics in the classic sense: an attempt to lay bare the conditions of intelligibility of the world as a whole, of everything. The “implications [of the ubiquitous need for interpretation] are almost boundless” – Fish says – “for they extend to the very underpinnings of the universe.” Are we really supposed to regard this as a bit of hard-won pragmatism, fashioned to combat other suspiciously metaphysical pictures of meaning? Pragmatic sensitivity to everyday settings in which the term “interpretation” finds employment would have located cases in which there is some real uncertainty to be resolved, against a background of cases in which things are clear and there is no call for interpretation. That is, brought back to its ordinary use (cf. PI §116), “interpretation” appears as a species of explanation. It is called for when explanations or elucidations are called for, e.g., in the face of real doubt, not the mere notional possibility of doubt. In Fish’s argument, by contrast, “interpretation” begins to look like another name for – an occupant of the same explanatory place as – divinity: it is the terminus of all other explanations of meaning, the condition on which they depend. (It is not wrong to explain or justify one’s action by saying “the fact is he was ordering a beverage” – so long, apparently, as one is prepared to attach the rider that this is so only by way of some interpretation). Rather than “parsimony,” this looks like “theory’s project” more or less as Fish describes it: the attempt to get above practice and exhibit its grounds of possibility.

It were as if Fish could imagine no other way to embody his pragmatic instincts than another theory; or as if he saw no difference between (call it) (1) the “interpretive practice” theory of how determinate meaning is possible, and (2) the reminder – which one finds in Wittgenstein – that, from the point of view of practice, the doubts which inspire such a theory do not arise.

The general point here is quite important. Or maybe, now that I’m not talking about Wittgenstein as a post-Romantic for the time being, I’m just excited by the fact that Stone is talking about my latest hobby-horse: the issues I deal with in my chess dialogue and in discussion of Knapp and Michaels - part 1; part 2.

Well, if you haven’t read all my old stuff, read Stone instead. But I’ll sort of make the connection. Fish is an anti-formalist. He defines ‘formalism’ as the claim that “the meaning of a sentence is a function of the meaning of its constituent parts.” He quotes a linguist, Ruth Kempson, concerning the four-fold commitments formalism entails: “a systematic relation between the meaning of lexical items and the syntactic structure of the sentence;” a “finite set of predictive rules;” “the mechanical separation of nondeviant from anomalous sentences; “predictability of meaning relations between sentences” (p. 4, Doing What Comes Naturally). Fish denies anything of the sort is possible. He goes on to posit that formalism, “is not merely a linguistic doctrine, but a doctrine that implies, in addition to a theory of language, a theory of the self, of community, of rationality, of practice, of politics.” To be more specific:

A formalist believes that words have clear meanings, and in order to believe that (or because he believes that) he must also believe (1) that minds see those clear meanings clearly; (2) that clarity is a condition that persists through changes in context; (3) that nothing in the self interferes with the perception of clarity, or, that if it does, it can be controlled by something else in the mind; (4) that meanings are a property of language; (5) that language is an abstract system that is prior to any occasion of use; (6) that occasions of use are underwritten by that system; (7) that the meanings words have in that system (as opposed to the meanings they acquire in situations) are or should be the basis of "general" discourses like the law; (8) that because they are general rather than local, such discourses can serve (in the form of rules or statues) as constraints on interpretive desires; (9) that interpretive desires must (and can) be set aside when there is serious public business afoot; (10) that the fashioning of a just political system requires such a setting aside, the submission of the individual will to impersonal and public norms (encoded in an impersonal and public language); (11) that this submission of the individual will to impersonal and public norms (encoded in an impersonal and public language); (12) that rationality, like meaning, is an abstract system that stands apart from the contexts in which its standard is to be consulted; (13) that the standard of rationality is available for the settling of disputes between agents situated in different context; (14) that the mark of a civilized (lawful) community is the acknowledgment of that standard as a referee or judge; (15) that communities whose members fail to acknowledge that standard are, by definition, irrational; and (16) that irrationality is the state of being ruled by desire and force - that is, by persuasion - rather than by a norm that reflects the desires of no one, but protects the desires of everyone. All of these beliefs and more follow from and give support to the belief that words have clear meanings, and many of the essays in this book begin by challenging the linguistic thesis and end by challenging everything else. (p. 6)

So the idea is that the linguists set out with a few simple strictures and end up in a foundationalist quagmire, philosophically overcommitted. A point I make against Fish in my chess dialogue is that, most likely, the opposite is the case. Fish is the one who is overcommitted, with his theology-grade ‘interpretivist’ occasionalism. No sensible linguist is going to try to prove 1-16 to prove the possibility of formalism. Here is a far better, and more likely argument: algebraic chess notation trivially satisfies the linguist’s formal strictures. It’s suitably systematic, has finite predictive rules, easy to separate deviant sentences, etc. So formalism is possible. (To what extent natural languages like English perfectly satisfy the linguist’s formal demands is open to serious debate.) This may seem a relatively trivial point. So what if Fish can’t extend his anti-formalism to chess? Aren’t we mostly interested in natural languages? But actually is a decisive refutiation. Fish’s position is perfectly general and staked on the impossibility of any language - chess notation is one - meeting the linguist’s requirements.

So Fish’s ‘16 things formalists must believe’ amounts to a ghastly strategic error. He thinks he is a theory minimalist because he has built his anti-formalist defenses against a foundationalist assault there is no reason to think is coming. So really he is a theory maximalist, if you will, because it never crosses his mind that it might be acceptable to defend formalism theoretically minimally. In order to prove that formalism is possible, you point out that chess exists. You just look and see, as Wittgenstein would say. And please note: the point isn’t just about formalism/anti-formalism. That’s an important case, but just an example. The point concerns assumptions about the need to provide metaphysical explanations. Why doesn’t it occur to Fish to approach the formalism question theoretically minimally? Because proving ‘formalism is possible’ from ‘chess is actual’ does not amount to a metaphysical explanation of the conditions of the very possibility of formalism. I end up knowing something, but not the deepest philosophical explanation for it. (Are chess positions Platonic entities? Are facts about chess ideally self-present to my mind when I think about a game? Why not simply sidestep all these admittedly deep puzzles if all you want to establish that ‘formalism is possible’, i.e. a certain program in linguistics is potentially pursuit-worthy.)

A couple more bits from Stone that amplify this point:

"The study of literature is the study of the meaning of literary texts; so what could be more to the point than an investigation of the concept of meaning"? But if anyone is tempted to take this short way with the question, they might recall that psychology, cooking, politics, economics, and so on, also traffic in "meanings," without thereby making the question of how meaning is possible especially urgent or central to theoretical investigation in these fields.

I heard a story - probably apocryphal; you never know - that at some university J.L. Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, was only available in some material sciences library. If so, then someone saw the title and made a wrong inference about which sorts of readers would have a need for it. Not that cement is a simple subject, I gather from this page. Still, if your main business is with calcium silicates and aluminates, it’s not obvious you have any essential need to bother your head further with Hume on causation, i.e. the very condition of the possibility of the pulverizing, mixing, setting, etc. Likewise, if your main business is with Hamlet, it simply isn’t obvious that you have to approach the meaning of the text by means of the deepest possible ‘conditions of the possibility of meaning’ questions. Well, that’s sort of a funny thing to say, because surely Hamlet is in some sense concerned with those questions. But it’s not obvious that approaching them through a philosophical theory will help you understand Hamlet, all the same. (This relates to Peter’s post, if I make no mistake.)

One more passage from Stone, which more or less says the same:

Suppose we ask: Why don’t plain or unproblematic cases get in Fish’s way? Why don’t they lead deconstructive critics like De Man or Culler to abandon the view that it is illuminating to see everything as “literature” in some generalized sense of the term? I know some people are inclined to think that deconstruction must come to wreck once it is remembered that, after all, one can order “steak poivre” at a restaurant and get – of all things! – steak poivre. Of course this is but another version of kicking Dr. Johnson’s stone. What is missing here, and what needs to be considered, if “deconstruction” is to be met at the right level of depth, is just the point that separates Wittgenstein and Fish: viz., the unquestioningness with which Fish accepts the idea of a philosophical perspective on meaning, an “account” of its possibility. Once this idea is in place as a norm of explanation, the response to all the “steak poivre” examples in the world is easy: The deconstructive thesis is not about whether the phenomenon of plain meaning exists – only a madman would try to deny that – but about the “conditions of possibility” of such phenomena. What is contested is not that there are plain meanings, but only a certain conception – alleged to be naive or metaphysically suspect or both – of how they are possible. (Provisionally, we might say that on the suspect conception, plain meaning is apt to be regarded “as inherently plain, plain in and of itself,” or as invulnerable to misunderstanding.)

Let me make some quick points about Derrida that parallel those concerning Fish. The opening sentence of "Signature, Event, Context" reads: "Is it certain that to the word communication corresponds a concept that is unique, rigorously controllable and transmittable: in a word, communicable?"

Now, to make a long story short, Derrida’s procedure in the essay depends on the reader answering ‘yes’. But the correct answer is ‘no’. The question presupposes two things that are obviously false: 1) that the concept in question is of a certain sharp-edged sort; 2) that only a concept of that sort is communicable. If the reader makes the correct answer, the game stops before it starts. If the magician asks you which box the rabbit is in now, and you point confidently to the correct box, the trick is going to fall a bit flat.

Here is Derrida’s indignant response to a member of the audience, Searle, who correctly identified which box the rabbit was in:

What philosopher ever since there were philosophers, what logician ever since there were logicians, what theoretician ever renounced this axiom: in the order or concepts (for we are speaking of concepts and not of the colors of clouds or the taste of certain chewing gums), when a distinction cannot be rigorous or precise, it is not a distinction at all. If Searle declares explicitly, seriously, literally that this axiom must be renounced, that he renounces it (and I will wait for him to do it, a phrase in a newspaper is not enough), then, short of practicing deconstruction with some consistency and of submitting the very rules and regulations of his project to an explicit reworking, his entire philosophical discourse on speech acts will collapse even more rapidly.

And Searle’s response, in "Literary Theory and its Discontents" [in Theory’s Empire]:

It is clear from this discussion that Derrida has a conception of "concepts" according to which they have a crystalline purity that would exclude all marginal cases. It is also clear that on his view intentional states also have this feature, and they even have what he calls "ideal self-presence."

He is mistaken in supposing that these views are widely shared. In fact, I cannot think of any important philosopher of language who now hold such views, and it is not surprising that he gives no examples. The very opposite has been more or less universally accepted for the past half century, and I will shortly give some reasons why Derrida’s conception of "concepts" could not be correct. For reasons I will explain at the end, when Derrida makes remarks like this he reveals not only his ignorance of the history of philosophy of language, but his commitment to a certain traditional pre-Wittgensteinian conception of language. (p. 149; Derrida quote from the same page)

The Searle/Derrida debate does not go all Searle’s way; Searle misunderstands a lot. In the above passage, he fails to appreciate - or pretends to fail to appreciate, for entertainment purposes - that Derrida only wants this sort of sharp-edged ideal self-presence in order to deconstruct it. (So far as I can tell, both Searle and Derrida are racking up own-goals at a prodigious rate, so it’s a pretty high-scoring match.) Still, I think the problem with Derrida’s first sentence is very telling. It shows, as Searle says, a failure to consider the possibility of a Wittgensteinian approach. 

Think of it this way: Derrida wants to argue with Searle the way Kierkegaard argues with Hegel. Kierkegaard needs a straight man to say that the Universal comes after Faith, so he can write Fear and Trembling; he needs a straight man to say that ‘I am Absolute Spirit, come to know itself, as itself’ so he can write Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Fortunately for Kierkegaard, he had Hegel. Unfortunately for Derrida, Searle isn’t Hegel. He isn’t willing to say the sorts of things Derrida needs him to say. Searle is very un-Hegelian, largely because he has read Wittgenstein. (Although really this situation is over-determined.)

So Derrida’s error is similar to the Fish’s - who needs his straight man to say no less than 16 things. Derrida and Fish are both confident the attack is going to be metaphysically tremendous - a great logocentric, foundationalist frontal assault. A Wittgensteinian approach blindsides them. It isn’t clear that Wittgenstein is right and Fish and Derrida wrong, by any means. It isn’t clear that Wittgenstein’s minimalist approach points anywhere interesting. But it is clear that Fish and Derrida have no ready resources for addressing a Wittgensteinian, if it should turn out any of the stuff he says is interesting or important. All their arguments are geared to a different style of philosophical opposition. So this is what makes the Stone paper good, I think. He talks about how the difference between Fish’s theory minimalism and Wittgenstein’s is that Wittgenstein really is one; that’s interesting. (I actually have some criticisms of HOW Stone talks about it. I think some of his examples are not so well chosen. But it should be enough for post purposes that I have now talking up what I think is the valuable kernel of Stone’s paper.)


A few questions and comments:

1.  What is the purpose or value of even talking about the “conditions of possibility” of literary criticism?  What exactly are conditions of possibility and why is it helpful to think that literary criticism has them?  I am very skeptical that this is a good way of thinking about literary theory, being a good pragmatist myself. 

2.  What do theories about meanings of words and meanings of sentences have to do with theories about the meanings of literary texts?  It seems to me that we mean different things by these different types meanings, and I am usually befuddled by leaps from one to the other.  We usually do not discuss such linguistic theories about meaning when developing interpretations of paintings, sculptures, music, dance, film, or other art forms.  Meaning for these, and litarary works as well, are as Stone says efforts to explain - that is to place the work of art in some particular context.  That is different from attempting to ascertain what the words of a literary text mean, in the sense of understanding on a literal level the fictional events that are described by the text. 

3.  As with Derrida’s need, for the deconstructive project, to formulate concepts as being of crystalline purity, so also he requires distinctions (so-called binary oppositions) to be perfect, capable of always placing an object into one category or the other.  That way, Derrida can raise some puzzle that will leave the distinction in ruins.  The Wittgensteinian pragmatist, of course, denies that distinctions are properly understood in this fashion and will readily admit that they are imperfect and imprecise, but so what? Imperfect distinctions often suit our purposes just fine.  It is because Derrida needs to slay the monster Metaphysics of Presence, which lurks everywhere in language.  Wittgenstein would say that Derrida has been entangled in an unfortunate metaphor, that we can simply leave the silly game of metaphysics of presense alone. 

4.  Fish is usually described as a pragmatist, but in your account he does not appear particularly pragmatic.  What accounts for this discrepency?  Is it a matter of too many people believing Fish’s self advertisements?

By on 08/17/05 at 01:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

‘what are the conditions of possibility?’ questions. In fact, I think that’s not so clear. Let me quote a snip of introductory matter from a standard textbook anthology, Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Davis & Schleifer

This is a pretty significant question since it really gets to the question of how imperial an empire of theory really might be.  My sense is that Stone is right and Davis & Schleifer are saying what they may wish is true, but isn’t.  Fortunately.

By on 08/17/05 at 07:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the question above about “pragmatisim” raised by blah is interesting.  This is the topic of my essay on Fish in the Gary Olsen (ed.) volume mentioned in my post above.  Essentially, as I see it, what Fish thinks of as his “pragamtisim” is a kind of negative foundationalism—it gives an explanation which replaces terms like Meanings (or older:  Ideas in God’s Mind) with terms like “interpretive community”, while leaving the structure of the same explanatory question in place. So you’re right:  it’s not really pragamatism at all.  It preserves the structure of the question through negation and recoil.  This operation is well-described in a remark of Wittgenstein’s:
“Philosophy can only destroy idols, and that means not making any new ones--for example, ‘the absense of an idol’” I elaborate this remark in my “Wittgenstein on Decostruction” in Crary and Read (ed.), The New Wittgenstein.  Nice question, blah. --mjs

By on 08/17/05 at 10:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Fish’s “pragmatism” is best approached, I think, via the very similar views of Richard Rorty, who is much clearer about why he thinks the term applies to him (although of course who gets the label is ultimately not important).  Stone and Holbo are right that Fish basically gives the game away right at the beginning with all that talk about conditions of possibility, which looks like just the sort of theoretical “requirement” that Wittgenstein is recommending we avoid.  I think the reason Fish thinks all his theoretical talk is okay is that he is not seriously asserting it as true, but simply using it rhetorically to make the points he wants to make.  That is, any philosophical dogmatism ("this is the way things are ... “) he may engage in is dissolved at second order by his metaphilosophical skepticism (” ... but not really“).  (He has something in The Trouble With Principle about this.) I think this is lame; but I also think that Wittgensteinians must be careful themselves not to fall into skepticism at second order, not by using it to clean up after themselves, as Fish does, but to look down their noses at any hint of first-order systematicity or theoretical ambition (in the name of “quietism").  (I try to develop this theme in my own contribution to this event, which I hope will be ready soon.)

For Rorty, the idea is that Nietzsche and Dewey and Wittgenstein are all on the same team, spurning the traditional philosophical attempt to provide a constructive theory to answer the foundational Cartesian question of modern philosophy: how do we know that what’s “in here” matches up with what’s “out there”?  Instead, say they (says he), we should turn our backs on theory (truth, objectivity, etc.) and turn our attention to practice (justification, solidarity/consensus, etc.); so, pragmatism.  It all sounds good - and much of it indeed sounds Nietzschean and Deweyan and even (in spots) Wittgensteinian.  Nietzsche indeed rejects the “true world”; Dewey indeed rejects the “spectator theory of knowledge”; and Wittgenstein indeed prefers philosophical “peace” (and clearing away rubble and finding one’s way around) to building new edifices (as in Professor Stone’s citation about idols in his comment above).

It sounds good, that is, until you notice (as John says above about Derrida) that for all the talk of overcoming pernicious dualisms, it seems that Rorty sure appeals to them a lot himself, in characterizing his own views as the opposite of those bad ones.  For Rorty, “overcoming” a dualism of polar opposites seems merely to mean confining ourselves virtuously to the preferred pole.  Instead of a theoretical bridge between what we’ve got (warrant, consensus, appearance, representing, the “Made") and what we thought we wanted (truth, objectivity, reality, coping, the “Found"), he says, let’s cut the latter loose as an incoherent fantasy and stick with the former, which is all we really care about anyway.  But if overcoming a dualism were that easy, we would have done it long ago.  Ironically, for all his complaining about the attention people pay to skeptical questions, in recoiling from dogmatism in the way he does, Rorty turns out to be a kind of skeptic himself.  And naturally this has provoked a dogmatic reaction.  Most criticism of Rorty’s work (that I’ve seen) misses the point completely (e.g. table-pounding realism, or radical sneering at his complacent “postmodern bourgeois liberalism"), leaving what is actually wrong with it unaccounted for.

I still think the story of how right-thinking philosophers like Nietzsche and Dewey and Wittgenstein banded together and slew the multicephalic Cartesian hydra is a good story if we tell it right.  (This may help us hew off the remaining and, alas, most recalcitrant heads.) Happily there is an excellent volume of constructive (in the good sense!) criticism of Rorty which I highly recommend: R. Brandom, ed., Rorty and his Critics, especially the McDowell and Bilgrami articles.  Rorty actually concedes an important point in his response to Bjorn Ramberg, but I haven’t seen him develop it anywhere (like taking back a lot of his claims about objectivity and truth).

By Dave Maier on 08/17/05 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops - I mixed up “representing” and “coping” in my third paragraph above.  Sorry about that.

While I’m at it, let me amend #11 in John’s quotation, from Fish’s list of 16: “that this submission would be a rational act, chosen by the very will that is to be held in check.” This, again, is p. 6 of Doing What Comes Naturally.  While I was there, I also found something else.  Stone and Holbo mock Fish for claiming that (Stone quoting Fish) “The ‘implications [of the ubiquitous need for interpretation] are almost boundless’ – Fish says – ‘for they extend to the very underpinnings of the universe.’” The whole sentence, from p. 4, reads thus: “It might seem that the thesis that there is no such thing as literal meaning is a limited one, of interest largely to linguists and philosophers of language; but it is in fact a thesis whose implications are almost boundless, for they extend to the very underpinnings of the universe as it is understood by persons of a certain cast of mind,” such persons being those who are committed to “theory” in Fish’s industrial-strength sense.  The context does allow us to equate the lack of “literal meaning” with the “ubiquitous need for interpretation”; but that “as it is understood ...” phrase really does seem to be doing something important.  It’s the theory-types (he implies), not the rest of us (least of all literary critics, whose practice is unaffected) whose worlds are shattered by the loss of their precious rule-determined (i.e., algorithmically cranked out, “interpretation"-free) meaning.  On the other hand, there does remain a tension between Fish’s appeal to interpretation as a “condition of possibility” of meaning and his anti-theoretical stance, but this quotation doesn’t seem to be all it was cracked up to be.

Here’s a quotation from later in the book (p. 317, from “Consequences"): Here he describes the Chomskian revolution in linguistics as a turn to “a rational activity—the discovery of a set of constraints which, rather than being generalizations from observed behavior, are explanatory of that behavior in the sense that they are what make it possible.” Here we have the connection between conditions of possibility, already discussed, and theoretical explanation.  It seems that if Fish rejects the latter he should reject the former too.

By Dave Maier on 08/18/05 at 02:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

These remarks—as elsewhere on this site—paint parodies of other opinions and then blame them as if they were addressing the critic named.

Try reading Limited Inc 133.

By on 08/19/05 at 03:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

dan, I take it you are saying I’m wrong about Derrida. It so happens I tried reading all of Limited Inc. It worked. I now generally understand it, am (like Kierkegaard to Hegel) inclined to say that - where I don’t understand - the author himself may be at fault. What exactly is the problem with what I have written?

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 04:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Martin, here’s a passage from your paper I want to discuss.

“Someone might be tempted to think that these statements [e.g. ‘what critics do is interpret works of literature’] are mere platitudes, amounting to nothing more than the trivial reminder that if there are to be literary texts there must also be readers of them, or that the existence of literary meaning requires a reader who construes that meaning. But against this, consider the possible case of a cooking school. The faculty of the school train the students by writing recipes which the students carry out. The students prepare a dish according to the recipe and present the product to the teachers. It might be said that there would be no recipes or culinary meanings without readers of them who use them in cooking, but it would be odd, I assume, to say that what the cooking students do is essentially to interpret the recipes, or that every act of preparing a dish is an interpretation. Naturally, there may be special cases in which the recipe is ambiguous or otherwise defective, and then the students may need to make an interpretation. But if the teachers are good ones and write good recipes, this will not generally be the case. One wants to say: when cooking recipes function as they should, they allow their users to cook without recourse to interpretation. Unlike a work of literature, it would be a criticism of the latest Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook to say that it required its readers to engage in extensive interpretatio; it would be a reason not to buy it."

I think there’s a good point getting made here, but let me presume to hone it.

Let’s try an analogy. The script for a play - the words on the page - could be called a recipe for a performance. It is certainly appropriate to call a performance an ‘interpretation’ (although, as you go on to say, we may not want to conflate this sense of performing ‘interpretation’ with what critics do. A complication, but on we go.) If the performance of a play from a script can be called an interpretation, why not call the production of a dish, from a recipe, an interpretation?

You might say a problem with the analogy is that creative scope for making one’s production distinctive is properly lacking, in the case of a recipe. But this is not ALWAYS the case. If you are a gourmet chef (I married well, so I’ve seen it in action) you like to interpret cookbooks creatively. My wife does. She thinks of the possibilities latent in various stimulating suggestions. Then she goes off and makes something that may creatively depart in various ways. You substitute ingredients, apprehend what you think is the point of the dish - the taste it aims at - and do better, by your lights. (Or intelligently substitute for something you don’t have.) She comes from a family of cooks and they sometimes trade recipes that are radically underspecified, because it is understood that the recipient is competent to make good interpretive use of a few dropped ingredient hints. You can imagine a cooking school that worked like that. The students have to be able to produce delicious dishes without being given exact instructions.

It is of course POSSIBLE that the recipe is to be followed very exactly and uncreatively, as you propose. This is your point. And, yes, it would be odd to run a theater production company like that. But then again I think we can imagine a theater culture - different from our own - in which it was felt that actors should subordinate themselves to their roles, make themselves generic and unmemorable by way of keeping the focus on the script; no spectator should leave the theater feeling that a performance was distinctive; that would be an aesthetic failure; a sign that somehow the script was being upstaged or its integrity violated. We can imagine people who feel about plays the way we feel about paintings hung on walls in museums. You don’t paint a moustache on, even if you think it would look better. Likewise, you don’t do anything new and funny with Hamlet. You don’t inflect his character beyond what the page clearly directs. The results are stiff and mannered and merely conventionalized, you say? Good!

To get to the point: I think your point should be, not that it is impossible to interpret recipes creatively - like literary texts - but that, when you do so, this isn’t really a matter of interpreting the text, i.e. all the words; rather, you are interpreting (what?) the potential of the ingredients and of the process of their combination. You don’t get to be a better chef by coming to understand words better, but by coming to understand food better. (Of course you have to be able to read the words, but that’s low-level stuff.) This is interesting because, on reflection, ‘interpretations’ of literary works may be rather more recipe-like than they are often given credit for. Interpretation is felt to be a matter of wrestling with the text. But why not say it is a matter of wrestling with what the text is ABOUT. You are good at interpreting a literary work when you understand Hamlet - the man - not when you understand ‘Hamlet’ - the name. The complication, of course, is that there truly are linguistic complications to Hamlet that any performance needs to be sensitive to, to some degree. It’s tougher than your average recipe, at the linguistic level. You do need to understand English very well to understand and perform Shakespeare. It’s not low-level stuff. Still, that’s no reason to get confused and suggest that the difficulties are linguistic all the way down.

All this by way of working round to your next point: “The question I want to pursue is just whether it is plausible to think that literature’s evident openness to interpretation makes it an exemplary instance of discourse in general.” OK, let me fill that out further by quoting another long bit:

“What is meant” de Man asks, “when we assert that the study of literary texts is necessarily dependent on an act of reading”? “Reading” is a heavy-weather word for de Man: “Prior to any generalization about literature, literary texts have to be read.” – Naturally they do, you might say: the only alternatives to reading any written text would be having someone else read it to you or learning about it by hearsay. But it is clear that common usage is not what is wanted for de Man’s purposes. – That “reading” is unavoidable in the engagement with literature, de Man says, “implies … two things … that literature is not a transparent message … and, more problematically, it implies that the grammatical decoding of a text leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means, however extensively conceived.” Literary meaning – I take this in part to say – is available only by way of application of the pluralistic notion of interpretation I sketched above (p.___). Starting from his early essays, de Man connects the necessity of reading in this sense with the distinctiveness of literature. But, indeed, not just its distinctiveness, but its exemplarity as well: “Although it would perhaps be somewhat ... remote from common usage, I would not hesitate to equate the rhetorical, figural potentiality of language with literature itself

You basically argue that Wittgenstein would say the city of language has different districts. Some of them are laid out one way, some another. DeMan is really homogenizing the districts to an implausible degree. My point about the recipe would attack DeMan from a different angle: the fact that a given recipe may be highly interpretable, open, etc. does not have anything to do with its rhetorical of figural potential. It has to do with all the stuff you can do with the ingredients. Which is rather a different matter. Rhetoricality and figurality - linguistic non-transparency - are not necessary for interpretive openness, in short.

This comment is long enough, I think. I’ll stop. 

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 05:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You substitute ingredients, apprehend what you think is the point of the dish - the taste it aims at - and do better, by your lights.

Right, reading for intention.  In light of which couldn’t you say about this:

the fact that a given recipe may be highly interpretable, open, etc. does not have anything to do with its rhetorical of figural potential,

Yes, it has to do with the way ingredients and procedures are underdetermined by intentions.  Don’t you therefore end up at DeMan’s position anyway?

By on 08/22/05 at 06:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It doesn’t need to be reading for intention; it’s reading for potential. Not quite the same thing.

I don’t think I end up in DeMan’s position unless terms like ‘rhetorical’ and ‘figuration’ are bloated out beyond their ordinary usage to the point where they are trivial. (But DeMan would be sure to note that Plato always compared rhetoric to cookery - come to think of it - and thereby get good digs in against my point.) The fact that ingredient x and ingredient y would go well with ingredient z is not obviously a fact about rhetoric or figuration. It is not a matter of linguistic complexity or potentiality, but of culinary complexity or potentiality. DeMan needs openness to interpretation to be a function of linguistic factors. The openness of a recipe to interpretation is not a function of linguistic factors. (What the recipe says may be quite determinate.)

As you may have noticed, this is really just rewriting my chess argument so it’s about food. (Come to think of it.)

By John Holbo on 08/22/05 at 07:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Responding too late to your interesting comment here-- other matters have kept me away.
But briefly:  I don’t think I’d disagree with anything you say.  You misunderstand me on two points—first, I never meant to suggest that there was any kind of text with respect to which interpretation becomes impossible; and second, related to this, I don’t read Wittgenstein as saying that there are different zones of the city, some of which are open and some of which are closed to doubts and interpretation.  Quite the opposite.  Even a sign-post may be open to interpretation under the right circumstances:

...if there were, not a single sign–post, but a chain of adjacent ones or of chalk marks on the ground—is there only one way of interpreting them?—So I can say, the sign-post does after all leave no room for doubt.  Or rather: it sometimes leaves room for doubt and sometimes not.  And now this is no longer a philosophical proposition but an empirical one. (PI §85)

Putting a main point of Wittgenstein’s “rule-following” discussion at its briefest, we might say this, that with one exception it isn’t for philosophy to say where an explanation or an interpretation is going to be required.  The exception is that an interpretation isn’t required everywhere.  That is something we can remind ourselves of through philosophy, if something happens to make it loose its obviousness.

Putting the point more positively, one has to get rid of the idea of interpretation as something required or not by anything having to do with linguistic features of the text, or having to do with what part of the city you are in.  Like any activity, we interpret for different reasons-- that’s it.  And since people are interested in interpreting for different reasons, what they are doing varies accordingly.  When a judge interprets the law, for example, he is deciding the issue of right raised by the parties; and that is obviously not an apt description of what literary critics or performers do in interpreting.  So “interpretation” isn’t everywhere the same.  It might turn out – unsurprisingly then – that in some kinds of discourse (literary criticism, for example), interpretation is, in some good sense, ubiquitous; whereas in others (the Law, one hopes), interpretations either aren’t needed (as they **sometimes** aren’t with, say, cooking recipes) or they come to an end when things are clear.
But the critical point I think is just this:  It is the reasons people have for understanding these kinds of texts (and hence for interpreting them) which makes them the kind they are.  Roughly, a legal, literary or culinary text is one we have a certain use for; and the interest and attention we give it flows from this, from what it is good for.  In your examples, the text is just good for (or being used) for something else.  It has a different purpose.  I’m not sure what you are describing is “interpretation,” but I’m the last to want to say that there is anything which *can’t* be open to interpretation.  The point of the recipe example was just to imagine a case in which the text fulfills its purpose without having to be interpreted.  But the main point for me is just one in opposition to a priori doctrines here:  no use of language is immune to interpretation; no use must be interpreted.  (De Man is someone with a philosophical doctrine, I think, of the later sort, and he thinks it comes to self-consciousness in literature.) When you say:

“DeMan needs openness to interpretation to be a function of linguistic factors. The openness of a recipe to interpretation is not a function of linguistic factors. (What the recipe says may be quite determinate.)”

I think I agree entirely.  --Does that help?

By on 09/01/05 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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