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ColoradoGuy
05-26-2010, 08:43 PM
Iíve been wrestling again, for the umpteenth time, with Kant. Itís a worthy struggle, I think, and I do believe Iím making slow progress over the decades. But this time as I worked my way through his notions of self-awareness and perceiving I substituted reading a book for the usual examples philosophy teachers use of individual minds confronting objects in the surrounding world. That is, how do we know what a text is saying?

Iíve always been sympathetic to Reader Response notions; that, in many ways, a text is only created when it is apprehended Ė filtered, pondered -- by the mind of the reader. Extreme versions of this quickly lead to silliness, with an idiosyncratic mind twisting the text into what it clearly is not. But how do we arrive at a kind of consensus view of textual meaning?

Since I spent the middle decades of my career as a research scientist in cell biology it occurred to me that reading a text is a bit like a scientific experiment conducted on a complex system Ė the human mind. Physicists and other more pure scientists isolate their experimental systems down to the simplest possible to control for variables. Life scientists try to do that as well, but are ultimately stuck with the irreducible complexity of biological systems.

Anyway, think of reading a book as a standard stimulus, analogous to adding a drug or otherwise physically perturbing the complex system Ė in this case our conscious brains. One then measures the results Ė in this case readersí perceptions of what the text means. More readers will increase the accuracy, and probable ďtrue meaning,Ē of the text. Statistically speaking, the confidence interval, the size of the error bars around the hypothetical true meaning, will nearly always narrow, and the probability of the true meaning being that value gets better and better, although it never will be identical. So outlier readings are still allowed.

Even if you're a person who rejects the whole notion of "true meaning," I suppose all this is a fancy way of saying that if 1,000 persons say a book stinks, itís far more likely truly to stink than if 10 people say it. But Iím fond of Theory.

robeiae
05-27-2010, 02:16 AM
My favorite Kant quote is still "I freely admit that the remembrance of David Hume was the very thing that many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber..."

Unfortunately for Kant, he fell back asleep.

ColoradoGuy
05-27-2010, 02:20 AM
My favorite Kant quote is still "I freely admit that the remembrance of David Hume was the very thing that many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber..."

Unfortunately for Kant, he fell back asleep.
Care to elaborate?

robeiae
05-27-2010, 02:33 AM
Empirical data is meaningful. There's no unknowable thing, no das Ding an sich. Such characterizations are practically useless. Imo.

ColoradoGuy
05-27-2010, 02:40 AM
Empirical data is meaningful. There's no unknowable thing, no das Ding an sich. Such characterizations are practically useless. Imo.
So Kant is useless?

robeiae
05-27-2010, 05:11 AM
Aside from his work in ehtics and as a source for motivating one to think deeper about things, yes imo.

ColoradoGuy
05-27-2010, 05:38 AM
Aside from his work in ehtics and as a source for motivating one to think deeper about things, yes imo.
I didn't realize that Wittgenstein allowed one to dispense so summarily with a couple of millennia of human philosophical striving. I see the appeal, though -- it does simplify things.

Summonere
05-27-2010, 05:53 AM
Wittgenstein thought that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify things. Failing that, it wasn't much use, was it?

On the topic at hand, however, I recommend this book:

Interpretation and Overinterpretation (http://www.amazon.com/Interpretation-Overinterpretation-Tanner-Lectures-Values/dp/0521425549), edited by Stefan Collini. ISBN 0-521-42554-9

ColoradoGuy
05-27-2010, 06:02 AM
Wittgenstein thought that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify things. Failing that, it wasn't much use, was it?

On the topic at hand, however, I recommend this book:

Interpretation and Overinterpretation (http://www.amazon.com/Interpretation-Overinterpretation-Tanner-Lectures-Values/dp/0521425549), edited by Stefan Collini. ISBN 0-521-42554-9
Thanks very much. I knew Eco did stuff besides write interesting novels, but I didn't know what. I have read some Rorty before, though. The author-function role continues to fascinate me.

Regarding Wittgenstein, I suppose the question is who decides what's clear and what's not.

Medievalist
05-27-2010, 06:34 AM
[FONT=Verdana]Iíve been wrestling again, for the umpteenth time, with Kant. Itís a worthy struggle, I think, and I do believe Iím making slow progress over the decades. But this time as I worked my way through his notions of self-awareness and perceiving I substituted reading a book for the usual examples philosophy teachers use of individual minds confronting objects in the surrounding world.

I'm not overly fond of philosophical texts; I realize that this is a weakness on my part. But I had to read a fair amount of Kant both for exam purposes, and because you pretty much always are given Kant and Nietzsche for translation tests.

I note that Kant made more sense to me in German than in English, even though it's really hard German, for me anyway, but there's something about the eternal search for the German verb that makes the rest of the sentence line up in a more orderly fashion.


But how do we arrive at a kind of consensus view of textual meaning?

I do think that a range of equally viable readings is quite possible. And yes, there's a consensus in terms of what "works" and what doesn't, with enough range to allow for individual differences.


Even if you're a person who rejects the whole notion of "true meaning," I suppose all this is a fancy way of saying that if 1,000 persons say a book stinks, itís far more likely truly to stink than if 10 people say it.

Err . . . what about someone like James Joyce, with particular attention to Ulysses and FW? What do we do with that? I'm not a lover of Joyce the way I am of Chaucer, say, or Donne, but I do see why some people are.


But Iím fond of Theory.

It's OK; we won't hold it against you.

ColoradoGuy
05-27-2010, 07:35 AM
I note that Kant made more sense to me in German than in English, even though it's really hard German, for me anyway, but there's something about the eternal search for the German verb that makes the rest of the sentence line up in a more orderly fashion.
I expect Kant would be beyond my feeble German abilities, which were barely sufficient to get me through my history grad school language proficiency exams. (And they handed me a 19th century passage printed in Fractur. Was fur eine Uberaschung!)

Err . . . what about someone like James Joyce, with particular attention to Ulysses and FW? What do we do with that? I'm not a lover of Joyce the way I am of Chaucer, say, or Donne, but I do see why some people are.
I suppose Joyce might be a case in which the reader-response distribution would be bimodal -- a large peak of confused/disgusted/dislikers and a smaller peak of enthusiasts, way to the right of the larger data peak.

robeiae
05-27-2010, 03:26 PM
I didn't realize that Wittgenstein allowed one to dispense so summarily with a couple of millennia of human philosophical striving. I see the appeal, though -- it does simplify things.
Kant didn't live THAT long. Granted, his daily jaunts around the park kept him quite healthy.

But what can I say, CG? Noumena? Phenomena? Thing-in-itself? It's another round of Forms, at the end of the day, imo. On the political side, we've got Universal Peace. Riiiiight.

Now the Categorical Imperative, that's some top notch stuff, imo.

AMCrenshaw
05-28-2010, 07:31 AM
(assuming it is texts that communicate)


That is, how do we know what a text is saying?


Aren't there too many invisible variables to lay a foundation here? All I see is muddy water into which the author seems to have either dissolved (at least had effect but remained hidden-- I'm thinking of our systems of approval or disapproval of a theory or philosophy based on the ethics of the person who constructed it) or, was stationed as a gatekeeper - the reader on the cover of the book, copyrights listed before the title page, etc.

I wonder Who's choice that is, myself, and the question seems to be Reader Response Theory.

For example, I read T.S. Eliot and enjoy the poetry, and derive something from it, but in some way I have to ignore or reconcile Eliot's anti-semitism to do so.

Medievalist
05-28-2010, 07:55 AM
For example, I read T.S. Eliot and enjoy the poetry, and derive something from it, but in some way I have to ignore or reconcile Eliot's anti-semitism to do so.

Meh.

If I evaluated early lit, lit up to, say Milton, and earlier in those terms, I couldn't read any of it, I expect.

I do notice it; I do have to deal with, all the time, in teaching--both in terms of OMG Swift is an anti-Irish bigot, Woolf is anti-Semitic, wait--Marlowe/Shakespeare/Woolf were all queer, right?

I think that we need to learn to look at a text, and through it, to what lies beyond it and before it and what surrounds it.

I think we can, and should try, however fraught with the probability of failure, to read Chaucer as a contemporary (contemporaries, even) might have, as well as we read him in the here and now.

AMCrenshaw
05-28-2010, 08:34 AM
Certainly I read the work, for the words that are present, while aiming to contextualize the text historically - but I think at some level this context must/should/seems reasonably that it would include the life (and attitudes) of the writer as well. At least in gaining understanding of what influenced the work. ( hee hee : Hard for me to read Faulkner without thinking - first simply - about his boozing)

benbradley
05-28-2010, 10:55 AM
I only know enough about philosophy and such to be dangerous, but I've seen this Wittgenstein name as someone who writes about language and that I might be interested in reading his writings.

To the point of the OP, I've had experience in this "interpreting texts" thing - I once read a passage to a group of people - my agenda was to attempt to get them to see what it said (as I interpreted what it said), but due to their dogma they could only interpret it as saying just the opposite. At the time I was fascinated, horrified, and admitting to myself that I shouldn't have been surprised with their reaction.

I'll look for this tomorrow and post it.

Summonere
05-28-2010, 07:33 PM
To cover the range of Wittgenstein's views regarding language, meaning, interpretation, you might start with Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (I liked the C.K Ogden version, isbn 0-415-05186-x, because it presents the original German text on the left side pages, the English translation on the right, whereby you can read both to more clearly understand his ideas, which cover more ground than the merely linguistic), then you might try his Philosophical Investigations, written much later, in which he modifies his earlier view.

Medievalist
05-28-2010, 08:02 PM
Certainly I read the work, for the words that are present, while aiming to contextualize the text historically - but I think at some level this context must/should/seems reasonably that it would include the life (and attitudes) of the writer as well. At least in gaining understanding of what influenced the work. ( hee hee : Hard for me to read Faulkner without thinking - first simply - about his boozing)

Yeah, I get that. There's an outdated old-fashioned "New Criticism" idea that is now profoundly old but which I rather like.

Wimsatt and Beardsley wrote an essay about the dangers of the "Intentional Fallacy (http://faculty.smu.edu/nschwart/seminar/Fallacy.htm)," that is that we can know the intentions of the author--I'd go even farther, and question whether the author can even know his or her intentions.

I say this both as a trained "professional" reader of literature, and as someone who has worked in publishing and knows an awful lot of writers.

Lots of times I or another reader will mention something about a specific passage that strikes us, only to have the writer indicate that they see what we see, but that they did not deliberately create it.

Summonere
05-28-2010, 08:05 PM
Coloradoguy
...how do we arrive at a kind of consensus view of textual meaning?




AMCrenshaw
(assuming it is texts that communicate) ... Aren't there too many invisible variables to lay a foundation here?



The nutshell view of Eco (et alia) is that literary texts (those we define as storytelling arts) differ from those which are merely communicative. The text of a shopping list, "Go buy six red apples," can only mean one thing to anyone who reads it. A text such as War and Peace, however, being not merely communicative, but also artistic, can mean a great many things. Yet most who read it will agree that it it possesses a few primary themes. That is, most reading will agree that, yes, it is mostly about "X" (the aforementioned limited range of interpretations). He's not stuck on texts producing only one valid interpretation, but rather suggests that texts exist to lead us to a limited number of options when we consider meaning -- the so-called intentio operis (intention of the text).

Dawnstorm
05-28-2010, 09:57 PM
Anyway, think of reading a book as a standard stimulus, analogous to adding a drug or otherwise physically perturbing the complex system Ė in this case our conscious brains. One then measures the results Ė in this case readersí perceptions of what the text means. More readers will increase the accuracy, and probable ďtrue meaning,Ē of the text. Statistically speaking, the confidence interval, the size of the error bars around the hypothetical true meaning, will nearly always narrow, and the probability of the true meaning being that value gets better and better, although it never will be identical. So outlier readings are still allowed.

Hm, what's the difference between this metaphor and a consensus approach? What about different starting points, e.g. having read that text before or not? (Nobody alive today will read, say, "Romeo and Juliet" innocently.)

For some reason, whenever I found myself drawn to a theory it's genealogy would have Husserl in it. And so it is with my favourite reader response theory: Wolfgang Iser's Implied Reader (http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/iser/). Bascially, Iser views the text as a platform where words and reader interact to create reading experience. What's not said is as important as what's said; the structure of gaps is basically an invitation to the reader to supplement what's written with personal input. So what we have is textual restrictions (an English text requires you to speak English, and so on) that trigger private experiences based on previous experiences and knowledge.

benbradley
05-28-2010, 10:02 PM
From my engineering background I need an example to look at. Something common would be good, that perhaps could reasonably have more than one interpretation.

I have the text in mind I mentioned earlier (it's short and there's a .pdf file of it available on the site of the copyright owner), but on second thought it may be too narrowly focused to be a good example here. I can still share it later, but I'd like to see a more "mainstream" example first.

Medievalist
05-28-2010, 10:05 PM
The text of a shopping list, "Go buy six red apples," can only mean one thing to anyone who reads it.

Enter Stanley Fish, followed by a bear.

AMCrenshaw
05-28-2010, 10:21 PM
Yeah, I get that. There's an outdated old-fashioned "New Criticism" idea that is now profoundly old but which I rather like.

Wimsatt and Beardsley wrote an essay about the dangers of the "Intentional Fallacy (http://faculty.smu.edu/nschwart/seminar/Fallacy.htm)," that is that we can know the intentions of the author--I'd go even farther, and question whether the author can even know his or her intentions.



Absolutely. Hence, "influences" (still grinning at Faulkner) are different than intentions, in that they can be viewed from the outside and in hindsight.

Summonere
05-28-2010, 11:17 PM
Enter Stanley Fish, followed by a bear.

Or for that matter, Richard Rorty, who would at least want to know what kind of red apples, and when? (Fish, by the way, is too far behind me to remember.)

Medievalist
05-29-2010, 03:04 AM
Or for that matter, Richard Rorty, who would at least want to know what kind of red apples, and when? (Fish, by the way, is too far behind me to remember.)

I finished my first M.A. in 1985--It began with the first sprouts of feminist theory (Gilbert and Gubar did Madwoman in the Attic in 1980) and ended with Stanley Fish Is there a text in this Class (published in the same year as Gilbert and Gubar). Jane Tomkins (Reader Response), Derrida and deMan were all alive and well, as was Foucault. UNH's English department was increasingly turning towards post structualism, and what would evolve from post structuralism and Foucault's work, and emerge as queer theory.

I started my Ph.D. at UCLA in the tail end of the deconstructionists, and finished in the heyday of queer theory, and post colonialism, in terms of literary theory denominations.

It's been a long strange trip.

Ruv Draba
05-29-2010, 04:17 AM
My doctoral research was all about symbolic logic and semantic proof, and that's coloured how I see interpretation.

The way the semanticists arrive at their notion of truth is that they have language and domain. When we make a statement, a process called interpretation maps it into our chosen domain. We can make a statement true in a domain if we can find some objects that model it; and it becomes a theorem of the domain if any attempt to model a refutation of the statement ends up in contradiction. This is very convenient epistomologically, because it looks much like scientific experiment and knowledge-discovery.

The rules for making statements are just grammars of course. Grammars can be very crisp and unambiguous, but our choice of domain is arbitrary. If we switch the domain from under a language, the sense we make changes entirely, and if you want to see this in action, track a few P&CE threads to see how when posters argue over the truth of a proposition, they're really arguing for an eminent domain in which to interpret it.

As humans, we each carry multiple domains around in our heads. They're contexts built of our own experiences and stories. I sometimes think that 'reader response' misses the point: that the reader is nearly incidental. Interpretation is fundamentally the collision of language and domain -- which is why a whole culture may consider an image offensive, while another can't see the fuss. Readers who read with a domain of common experiences have fewer arguments over interpretation than readers who have different domains, or whose experiences in the same domain are very different.

I think that one of the very important jobs of artistic perception is to offer ideas that anneal disparate domains, just as one of the very important jobs of analysis is to cleave domains that are too conflicted as a whole.

This cleaving and annealing is a constant process of semantics. Some of it is practical (reordering domains can help us think more effectively) and some is political (gerrymandering ideas to gain authority over them). How we read a text will depend on what we know, and how we organise it.

In 1912 when the story Tarzan of the Apes was first published, it was just an adventure story. Questions of racism and imperialism say, never arose because intercultural ethics didn't exist as a separate domain of thought. Nowadays though, it does. It's not simply a fad of custom that makes the Tarzan stories look racially insensitive to us. It's the way we've separated ideas of civilisation from ethnic identity. That's very practical because history tells us that civilisation can take many forms.

But at about the same time, the Bolshevik movement was beginning to view every story in terms of class struggle, and appropriate every domain into its own political narrative which of course, gave it authority over that domain. By the time Stalin declared in 1952 "There are no more Mensheviks. Why should we call ourselves Bolsheviks? We are not the majority, but the whole party", domains of thought had been so annexed and consilidated that there was only one way to read any text: the Bolshevik way.

My conclusion: that domains, not readers, dictate interpretation.

Paul
05-29-2010, 04:33 AM
Em, what he said.



(:D kiddin, just kiddin, love this thread though)

Summonere
05-29-2010, 07:26 PM
I finished my first M.A. in 1985--It began with the first sprouts of feminist theory (Gilbert and Gubar did Madwoman in the Attic in 1980) and ended with Stanley Fish Is there a text in this Class (published in the same year as Gilbert and Gubar). Jane Tomkins (Reader Response), Derrida and deMan were all alive and well, as was Foucault. UNH's English department was increasingly turning towards post structualism, and what would evolve from post structuralism and Foucault's work, and emerge as queer theory.

I started my Ph.D. at UCLA in the tail end of the deconstructionists, and finished in the heyday of queer theory, and post colonialism, in terms of literary theory denominations.

It's been a long strange trip.

Ah, so you've been at this longer than I have, and remember more, too. I finished off my M.A. In '93 and, aside from a brief bout of teaching or the odd lecture at a distant conference, haven't much looked back. My professors wanted me to go the whole comp and rhetoric PhD route, but I Ė silly I Ė wanted to scribble my little stories. Turns out I make (or have made) almost as much doing that as the adjunct I otherwise seemed doomed to be.

I thought Simone De Beauvoir's 1949 The Second Sex provided the first sprouts of feminist theory? I reckon one might point to any number of origins, but such seems my (perhaps faulty) recollection, as I probably spent more time reading French Feminist critics (which may explain things).

Summonere
05-29-2010, 07:47 PM
Readers who read with a domain of common experiences have fewer arguments over interpretation than readers who have different domains, or whose experiences in the same domain are very different.

This reminds me of something I used to tell students: The more that you know, the more things mean to you.

Medievalist
05-29-2010, 08:09 PM
I thought Simone De Beauvoir's 1949 The Second Sex provided the first sprouts of feminist theory? I reckon one might point to any number of origins, but such seems my (perhaps faulty) recollection, as I probably spent more time reading French Feminist critics (which may explain things).

There were feminists, and feminist critics, but G and G gave feminist theory a local habitation and a name.

And then Wittig made it sadistic.

GOTHOS
02-26-2011, 03:16 AM
My doctoral research was all about symbolic logic and semantic proof, and that's coloured how I see interpretation.

The way the semanticists arrive at their notion of truth is that they have language and domain. When we make a statement, a process called interpretation maps it into our chosen domain. We can make a statement true in a domain if we can find some objects that model it; and it becomes a theorem of the domain if any attempt to model a refutation of the statement ends up in contradiction. This is very convenient epistomologically, because it looks much like scientific experiment and knowledge-discovery.

The rules for making statements are just grammars of course. Grammars can be very crisp and unambiguous, but our choice of domain is arbitrary. If we switch the domain from under a language, the sense we make changes entirely, and if you want to see this in action, track a few P&CE threads to see how when posters argue over the truth of a proposition, they're really arguing for an eminent domain in which to interpret it.

As humans, we each carry multiple domains around in our heads. They're contexts built of our own experiences and stories. I sometimes think that 'reader response' misses the point: that the reader is nearly incidental. Interpretation is fundamentally the collision of language and domain -- which is why a whole culture may consider an image offensive, while another can't see the fuss. Readers who read with a domain of common experiences have fewer arguments over interpretation than readers who have different domains, or whose experiences in the same domain are very different.

I think that one of the very important jobs of artistic perception is to offer ideas that anneal disparate domains, just as one of the very important jobs of analysis is to cleave domains that are too conflicted as a whole.

This cleaving and annealing is a constant process of semantics. Some of it is practical (reordering domains can help us think more effectively) and some is political (gerrymandering ideas to gain authority over them). How we read a text will depend on what we know, and how we organise it.

In 1912 when the story Tarzan of the Apes was first published, it was just an adventure story. Questions of racism and imperialism say, never arose because intercultural ethics didn't exist as a separate domain of thought. Nowadays though, it does. It's not simply a fad of custom that makes the Tarzan stories look racially insensitive to us. It's the way we've separated ideas of civilisation from ethnic identity. That's very practical because history tells us that civilisation can take many forms.

But at about the same time, the Bolshevik movement was beginning to view every story in terms of class struggle, and appropriate every domain into its own political narrative which of course, gave it authority over that domain. By the time Stalin declared in 1952 "There are no more Mensheviks. Why should we call ourselves Bolsheviks? We are not the majority, but the whole party", domains of thought had been so annexed and consilidated that there was only one way to read any text: the Bolshevik way.

My conclusion: that domains, not readers, dictate interpretation.

Ruv,
I've recently dipped my mental toe into some work by the father of semiology, Charles Sanders Pierce, who (IMO) seems to agree with your notion that:

"We can make a statement true in a domain if we can find some objects that model it"

That said, I'll point out that ColoradoGuy's philosophy-guy Immanuel Kant was attempting to do the same thing. His philosophy can broadly be seen as a response to the encroachments of empiricism on older forms of "Rational" philosophy, in which Kant wants to find *objective* reasons for believing in morality, taste, or God. But since proof of such things is not forthcoming in the empirical sense, Kant resorts to pure logic. The success of his logic, of course, will vary according to one's own mental mileage. I've recently reread his CRITIQUE OF AESTHETIC JUDGMENT and disagree with several of his notions (not least his low opinion of music), but no one can say he didn't put a helluva lotta though into them.

Re: your example on TARZAN OF THE APES:

"In 1912 when the story Tarzan of the Apes was first published, it was just an adventure story. Questions of racism and imperialism say, never arose because intercultural ethics didn't exist as a separate domain of thought."

It's true that ER Burroughs would not have been able to question many of the dominant social paradigms in his work that we see at work today. However, I wouldn't say "intercultural ethics" didn't exist as a domain for him: merely that it was extremely restricted to "what was good for the white heroes." This domain didn't prevent Burroughs from being able to critique white culture to a small extent-- before Tarzan he wrote a sarcastic response to Kipling called "The Black Man's Burden." But it's precisely because TARZAN does encode ERB's notion of intercultural ethics that the story is more than a simple adventure story. Most of the adventure stories that did no more than faithfully reproduce, w/o nuance, the paradigms of their time are forgotten by anyone save adventure-pulp fans. I think Tarzan's early and continuing appeal have much to do with Burroughs' "domain" of expressive (not to say intellectual) concepts.