March 12, 2009

Losing more slowly: an OUTLAW’s lament

As a follow-up to Dan’s piece on the (ironic, surreal, and — let’s just say it, profoundly Orwellian) shouting down of a “conservative” speaker looking to address the question of hate speech, I’d like to offer a few observations: first, students are taught, from early on in their writing and literature courses, that they, as readers, control meaning.

So it follows that, acting through that particular linguistically faulty hermeneutic (drink!) lens, their idea of how interpretation works allows them not only to determine what is “hate speech,” but it further permits them to attribute that hate speech to the utterer whose intent they have ignored in favor of their own, all the while pretending that they are doing a service, policing the world of evil speech and creating a space of “tolerance” — while what they are in fact doing is servicing an anti-intellectual and decidedly anti-American view of speech.

Like “tolerance,” the word’s meaning has been inverted — to be tolerant is to make sure nobody feels offended, unless that person is himself a hater (“I am intolerant of intolerance!”) — and, on the conservative side of the ledger, we’ve allowed such a faulty paradigm to gain purchase by blaming people like Bennett or Rush Limbaugh for being “impolitic” when we should have been standing up for their right to make legitimate arguments based on conservative principles.

This is what our “realism” has wrought.

There’s a lesson in this, but — for fear of my own ostensible allies labeling me some sort of extremist or cultist — I won’t lay it out any further than I already have. After all, I don’t want the defeatists who believe leftist speech paradigms are some sort of force of nature — some metaphysical universal that is merely being reflected onto a cave wall — to have to waste any more time on posts that “don’t help us get Republicans elected.”

Of course, having Republicans elected as mere foils in a progressive system is, I think, a Pyrrhic victory, but hey, at least we can gloat that “our side” is in charge for a bit — even if “our side” differs from “their side” only to the degree with which they sell out the principles upon which this country was founded in order to enjoy the spoils of power.

Because make no mistake: the current view of how speech and interpretation works necessarily results in meaning being nothing more than a function of power.

And if we aren’t willing to fight that — if we aren’t willing to fight the advantage that group meaning has over individual meaning, thanks to having conceded that there is no standard from which to judge meaning other than the whims of interpretive communities — than we have surrendered the very linguistic safeguards that make individual rights possible.

****
See also, “Is Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Frey anti-semitic”?

Posted by Jeff G. @ 1:35pm
393 comments | Trackback

Comments (393)

  1. “…even if “our side” differs from “their side” only to the degree with which they sell out the principles upon which this country was founded in order to enjoy the spoils of power.”

    Why is it that the people who are so concerned with “just getting Republicans elected” seem to be either willfully obtuse when it comes to this point or, even worse, not seem to realize it at all.

  2. Orwell and others have made it very clear that controlling the language and the organs of information are vital and have always been the goal of and necessary for a tyranny.

    The “mainstream” media and political “correctness” are the enemies of political freedom and liberty today.

  3. There is a reading of the “reader’s control” paradigm that seems to me incapable of answering the question “is communication possible?” with a simple yes. A simple “no” seems plausible, though my guess would be the answer will come back instead: “probably not”.

  4. In California, the Republicans have long ago decided to become “mere foils in a progressive system.” During the last reapportionment session, the state GOP legislative and congressional delegation “settled” for a permanent minority status in the Legislature and a relatively few safe GOP seats in Congress, in return for which they get to merrily spout off occasionally about the indignities of a nanny state, without having to actually work trying to stop or reverse any of it, and, to make it all the more worthwhile, they get to hold public office all the while, enjoying all the rights, accouterments and privileges thereto pertaining.

    Now that the Republicans have been out of power for a couple of years on the national congressional scene, I wonder if they too will adopt the model of the CA GOP.

  5. If we’re not after power for it’s own sake, why would now — our time in the wilderness — be the perfect time to get back to our principles. I’ve described this as a strategy no less “pragmatic” than hoping to survive the left’s linguistic game — and one that has the added benefit of giving us the freedom to forcefully tear down the very premises that have led us to this point, inexorably and inevitably, as I’ve been fond of saying.

  6. I think we should start referring to these places as halfaversities.

  7. #6 Hater.

  8. “Of course, having Republicans elected as mere foils in a progressive system is, I think, a Pyrrhic victory, but hey, at least we can gloat that “our side” is in charge for a bit — even if “our side” differs from “their side” only to the degree with which they sell out the principles upon which this country was founded in order to enjoy the spoils of power.”

    As usual, beautifully stated. So perfectly put. That’s why, I’ve been saying that I really haven’t had a candidate with a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected. Founding principles? Bah! Those don’t put a plasma in my living room and check in the mail. Freedom’s over rated, dude, but my self esteem is priceless.

  9. Dan; how about DI-VERSITIES?

  10. this could all be served by some rightous anger. If someone got in a prick interviewer’s face or shouted down one of these jackass rococco campus marxists, then the “transaction cost” of playing the race/gender/vctim card on the right would sharply increase.

    i have long thought that Giuliani became a “viable” POTUS candidate not because of his clean up of NYC, or even 9-11, but when the Saudi prince dangled that $10mm check for the 9-11 victims in front of him, on the condition that he say something negative about israel. He refused the check; wouldnt even play the game.

    More on the right need to derail this natural order. A well-picked fight can be very very good for your career. You can draw an arc on Gore Vidal’s relevance as a public commentator from when Buckley threatened to break his nose.

  11. Before gaining a better understanding of Jeff’s arguments, it was fun to accuse leftist colleagues of “hate speech” by claiming “offense” at something they said that “hurt my feelings”. It was amusing to see them hoist on their own petard, but now I can’t indulge in that pastime.

    They’ll never get the mockery or satire I intend, nor get the point that I’m pointing out the inherent illogic and folly of their PCness. They only see me applying the rules of language and behavior they set up incorrectly. So now I’m at a loss of what to do other than initiating a low-level discussion about “what I mean” vs “what you think I mean” and hoping it doesn’t escalate to Freysian proportions.

  12. Geesh Jeff, I love reading you. Don Feder showed up for the conversation, for the fight. But how do we fight back with people who turn their backs and shout us down? How do we hold a conversation with people who cannot get past the simplistic definitions that rule their lives, who can brook no challenge? When did these “best and brightest” among us lose the glory of living as freeborn men and women? They are sorry and pathetic in my eyes and I dread being “ruled” by their ilk. I would beg them to offend me if they would just hold the debate. Hell, Christopher Hitchens can make me mad as hell, but I would lead a rally in defense of his ability to question my religion.

    Thaddeus McCotter:
    1. Our liberty is from God, not government;
    2. Our sovereignty is in our souls, not the soil;
    3. Our security is through strength, not surrender;
    4. Our prosperity is from the private sector, not the public sector;
    5. Our truths are self-evident, not relative.

    I have an selfish daydream that all us brave, urgent little souls could secede, build our own pretty little country while we watch from across the border as this ugly leftist fundamentalism decays the soul of America.

    I just don’t want to live in Texas.

  13. Shine a light on this stuff. Film it. Pay to run it on TV, not as a political commercial necessarily but as a show of true intolerance.

    This message resonates not just with conservatives. Most people don’t know what’s going on out there, and most parents haven’t a clue how colleges are being run.

    Right now, Ward Churchill is SUING to get his job back. A plagiarist. How in the hell can the University of Colorado ever insist that a student not plagiarize if they can’t even fire a professor for doing so?

    The world has gone mad. I’m just Heston on horseback, looking at the Statue of Liberty buried in the sands of Apeland.

    (Ooh, wait. Was that “racist”?)

  14. Why not? We’re some good sumbitches for the most part.

  15. The good news about this approach is its broad appeal; i suspect there are millions of people of both political persuasions who could suddenly find it righteous to speak as a free person should do. Migod, it’s bipartisan!

  16. Oh Sticky, no offense. I’m a Palin-style chillbilly. Just wouldn’t be home.

  17. Is it a coincidence that this generation of students embrace reader-response theory and efforts to improve their self-esteem?

  18. Kors’ FIRE, David Horowitz, National Association of Scholars, and others — they’ve fought hard on campus with little success toward reviving the orginal meaning of “tolerance.” I don’t think there’ll be any progress unless students start seizing university presidents’ offices and shitting on their desks.

    Somebody needs to write a novel that seizes young people’s imaginations and makes them feel like their campus experience is a version of “1984.”

  19. No, Cowboy. They are of a piece.

  20. If you don’t like Pepsi, why buy New Coke. If you do like Pepsi, why buy New Coke.

    Having your own Brand is important. Not tainting it is too.

  21. But how do we fight back with people who turn their backs and shout us down?

    I don’t think there’ll be any progress unless students start seizing university presidents’ offices and shitting on their desks.

    Exactly. Pain. Sam Adams would be laughing at us for even asking the question.

    Somebody needs to write a novel that seizes young people’s imaginations and makes them feel like their campus experience is a version of “1984.”

    I’ve been thinking about writing that novel for some time, actually. I’ve even got a working title. Perhaps this summer I will.

  22. I remember when a vaunted expert in Deconstruction Theory came to my midwestern university to give a talk on Derrida, etc. I was shocked when I looked around at my English colleagues nodding in agreement during the presentation, which I thought was not only bullshit, but French bullshit!

    Thinking back on that moment, I truly believe that at least part of what my colleagues were responding to was the realization that if meaning didn’t belong to anyone in particular (much less the author), then they could publish whatever the hell absurdity they chose–and be promoted for it–as long as they used the correct “code” words.

    Me, I was mostly thinking what a pain in the ass it was going to be telling a student that just because Dickinson’s “After Great Pain” made her feel sad, did NOT mean it was ABOUT her dead grandma.

  23. “There is a reading of the “reader’s control” paradigm that seems to me incapable of answering the question “is communication possible?””

    It’s probably just me, but I don’t see how any question could be asked and answered under the “readers control” paradigm. Both the questioner and the answerer would in effect be talking to themselves.

    When my wife catches me doing that, I tell her I get better answers that way, or at least ones with which I agree.

  24. Somebody needs to write a novel that seizes young people’s imaginations and makes them feel like their campus experience is a version of “1984.

    Word. Step up, Jeff. Or not. Whateve.

  25. Me, I was mostly thinking what a pain in the ass it was going to be telling a student that just because Dickinson’s “After Great Pain” made her feel sad, did NOT mean it was ABOUT her dead grandma.

    I blame Oprah’s book club.

  26. Thinking back on that moment, I truly believe that at least part of what my colleagues were responding to was the realization that if meaning didn’t belong to anyone in particular (much less the author), then they could publish whatever the hell absurdity they chose

    “I don’t have to be right, I just have to be interesting.” –Stanley Fish

    The best way to make sense of it all is to remember this: “the current view of how speech and interpretation works necessarily results in meaning being nothing more than a function of power.”

    It’s not about tolerance. It’s not about being open-minded. It’s not about sophistication. It’s not about compassion. It’s not about inclusion. It’s not about morality.

    It’s about power: nothing more and nothing less.

    And there’s no better drug than being the oppressor. Freedom? Who needs it? Power is where it’s at.

  27. Jeff G., you may be an OUTLAW but what you just wrote in this piece WOULD be required reading by every high school freshman in this country in a rational society that actually believes in those Bill of Rights.

    Wait, is that too anti-libertarian?

    Notice I didn’t mention “Zimbabwe” so I think it passes at least one koolaid test.

  28. “Power is where it’s at.”

    Until the OD happens. Then you look like Benito at the end.

  29. I’m just Heston on horseback, looking at the Statue of Liberty buried in the sands of Apeland.

    Damn. I’ll have to steal that. Too funny. If you insist, I’ll throw something in the tip jar for compensation.

  30. Query, Jeff:

    Does Ari Flescher vs. Chrissy Matthews provide a good example of what you mean by fighting back?

    Besides being a textbook case of How To Never Be Invited Back To Hardball, that is.

    linky

  31. I saw it. I think Fleischer was on the right track, but he could have been EVEN MORE pointed.

    Still, baby steps.

  32. Here’s an account of a Coulter/Maher debate. Apparently, the part Maher lost on was the debating.

  33. Heston on a horse instead of Swan on a steed it is, then.

  34. the classically liberal revolution will not be televised I don’t think. TV is for watching pretty people what you don’t get to see in real life especially if you work for the government. That’s all.

  35. oh my a gil scott heron reference

  36. And after a few years of it we might eschew the elaborate parody of hermeneutics and say what we mean: the intellectuals on the left are proud and habitual liars. They should not govern, nor should they live at the public trough.

  37. they made me listen to that in college in my Issues of Identity in the African-American Experience Class.

  38. oh. Class shouldn’t have been capped and italicized… but that was the for real name … I remember a guest speaker was a black Vietnam vet what told how he used to play basketball and land on one knee just right so he wouldn’t have to patrol. I asked him if someone else had to fill his slot when he was out sick.

  39. That was a very racist question.

  40. There will be no slow motion or still life of Maxine Waters Roy
    Wilkens
    strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
    Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
    For just the proper occasion.

  41. Brilliant point about power determining acceptable speech. Your very precise use of language conveys your point perfectly. I used to love to read William Buckley because his picking exactly the right words to convey his meaning not only made crystal clear what he was saying but also made me feel very smart.I feel very smart when I read your stuff. Political correctness run amok is eroding our free speech rights and freedom of assembly.

  42. Political correctness run amok is eroding our intelligence and/or common sense free speech rights and freedom of assembly.

  43. I feel very smart when I read your stuff.

    Elitist.

  44. “There is a reading of the “reader’s control” paradigm that seems to me incapable of answering the question “is communication possible?””

    The answer to that question is, “No, not with people who subscribe to the notion of ‘reader’s control’.”

  45. I’m more an Ann Coulter elitist… Wouldn’t want to be lumped in with Kathleen Parker or David Frum.

  46. “The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of “liberalism,” they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened. I no longer need to run as a Presidential Candidate for the Socialist Party. The Democratic Party has adopted our platform.”

    Norman Mattoon Thomas in 1944. (Born November 20, 1884, died December 19, 1968.) Thomas was a leading American socialist, pacifist, and six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.

  47. So I’m thinking that if we pointed that out kindly the entire picture would change. Heh.

  48. I’m more an Ann Coulter elitist

    me too

  49. Putting up those Russian-looking Obama posters around your town with the caption “You’ll be careful who you criticize, if you know what’s good for you” would be a good way to use the left’s own ideology against them.

    I know I’d believe that the administration approved it.

  50. american class issues
    african swim team blues
    the harvard crew u can use

    i got’s a rhyming book
    to swat lil death mosquitos that brook
    tents of steel…
    hey -look…
    put a pebble on my head…
    trick or treat…
    i’m a quarter pounder..
    if i had de energy
    i’d be an angry quarter pounder
    who’s al gore…
    that fat guy…?
    i’d rather eat christine
    amapoors scary una-brow

    take me in the woods…
    or the desert
    i’ll hold ur hand…
    for the cameras…
    am i too thin
    cut
    cut
    [jokey]

  51. I think it should be our goal to wipe liberalism out. Not in the classical definition of course, but as far as progressive liberalism has been demonstrated by the Democratic party I say we should drill up its roots and burn it alive. Not out of spite, but because if you believe conservatism is America’s future then you should realize that a concession between liberalism and conservatism comes at the cost of our principles. It always means a liberal win. The only sensible way I can think of to root them out is to take away their power devices. Lay the media open with scathingly honest commentary by conservatives…none of the soft bullshit you normally see. I certainly can’t wave around case studies or anything, but I have this feeling that if we could just take the cover off of liberalism and expose it for what it is that no sane human would accept it. Jeff is killing the language aspect, and rightly so. If we take from them the ability to define the methods that we are permitted to communicate by we will wipe them off the map.

  52. Posts like this belong between hardcovers. Print runs of tens of thousands of hardcovers.

  53. I think it should be our goal to wipe liberalism out.

    You cannot ever wipe something out completely. It would be better to merely marginalize it and keep it away from the levers of power. If you think in terms of wiping something out, you may be tempted to excess.

    I have this feeling that if we could just take the cover off of liberalism and expose it for what it is that no sane human would accept it.

    Oh yes they would. Even with the cover blown off, some people readily embrace it–not because it puts them in power but quite the opposite–because they like the idea of Thing Being Under Control by a benevolent dictator.

    They are the kinds of people who can adapt to that kind of oppression fairly easily by just going with the flow. Not standing out. Not insisting on unreasonable things like “freedom” and “independence.”

    It’s a personality type. Those of us on the starboard side prefer independence because it allows us to be creative and industrious. Them others prefer stability and “unity.”

  54. i have long thought that Giuliani became a “viable” POTUS candidate not because of his clean up of NYC, or even 9-11, but when the Saudi prince dangled that $10mm check for the 9-11 victims in front of him, on the condition that he say something negative about israel. He refused the check; wouldnt even play the game.

    That, and tossing Arafat out of the Lincoln Center. Those are the sorts of things that will allow me to overlook a number of warts.

  55. Kors’ FIRE, David Horowitz, National Association of Scholars, and others

    ACTA does some good work, too.

  56. But how do we fight back with people who turn their backs and shout us down? How do we hold a conversation with people who cannot get past the simplistic definitions that rule their lives, who can brook no challenge?

    Call them out. Expose them. Ridicule them. Lord knows it’s easy enough to do once one discovers the balls to do it.

  57. 54. I don’t want to draw a line in the sand or anything on this, but that sort of cowardice in people is bullshit. I realize that there are people that will sit on their asses and vote for my money. So take that apparatus away from them and leave nothing between them and failure except their industriousness.

    I suppose we would lose focus on principles if our goal was only the absence of liberalism…just like how we lost sight of our principles when our only goal was maintaining power. Still, liberalism and conservatism are not just opposite sides of a coin to me anymore. It is like we can not exist on the same coin without massive concessions that amount to completely abandoning principles. I still say burn ‘em out, but your position is probably the more reasonable one.

  58. THANKs JEFF
    ur the chef
    sometimes u be stone deaf…
    those times…i just steal the jar
    marked
    UNICEF

  59. BTW, great post, Jeff. There needs to be a book.

  60. And our freedom’s consuming itself
    What we’ve become
    It’s contrary to what we want

    Take a bow

    Now burn

  61. that’s the lyrics from the Watchmen theme ditty. Lyrics what are a lot apropos I think.

  62. i like hogans heroes theme
    and ellie may serving ice cream
    but to completew the team
    ginger takes my order
    mary=anne bends over to fulfill my…

    stop it!

  63. I just had a tiny little epiphany. The trick is to translate what we’ve been saying into language that a lefty type will appreciate.

    Here’s my stab at it:

    If you stipulate that meaning is in the ear of the listener, and not constrained by original intent, you are turning every act of communication into a power struggle over the “authoritative” meaning. By definition, such a communicative system will be dominated by the most powerful. (For the appropriate specification of “powerful.”)

    On the other hand, original intent sets up a framework of communicative norms that exclude such automatic conflict and make possible a meeting of equals in the field of ideas, even when they are of unequal power.

    THAT is why it is so important.

    Mind you, a true Leninist will look at what I just wrote and be thrilled, because he will of course be the most powerful, or aspire to be. But most leftist types, especially the muddled American with good intentions, have a distinct aversion to power dominance (at least in theory). This is potential common ground.

    Note: we do not need to compromise the key principle of original intent to find allies. We just have to know what lure to set on the hook, as it were.

  64. that’s well-expressed. Our president is very hostile to these ideas.

  65. That’s kinda the tack I plan to take. My strategy involves shame AND playing to self esteem and entitlement.

    Hush hush for now.

  66. Recapturing the republic while recapitulating the Republic. Ok. That’s a worthy goal.

  67. hush hush sweet Charlotte
    unlesas u be day labor
    wink/ wink/nudge/nudge

  68. I’m continuing a discussion in a post that has fallen off the main page, here.

  69. I’m also trying to understand the intentionalism argument as Jeff believes it works. I’ve been reading the Hot Air post again.

    Let me ask this without getting specific; just keeping it hypothetical:

    1. Who gets to decide what the author intends to say? You, or the author?

    2. Are there exceptions?

    If I say x and you say: “by that you mean y” and I say “no, by that I mean z” — my understanding of your theory is that, generally speaking, my words indeed mean z and not y. But when (if ever), under your theory, may people *ever* interpret my words as meaning z instead of y? And if the answer is “yes, sometimes,” then when? And what criteria do you employ to make that decision of when it’s permissible to ignore the author’s expressed statement about the meaning of his words?

  70. If I say x and you say: “by that you mean y” and I say “no, by that I mean z” — my understanding of your theory is that, generally speaking, my words indeed mean z and not y.

    No. That’s not at all what I say. Intentionalism merely notes that if you say x, you meant x — and that the meaning is fixed at the point when you turned marks into language, the point that you signified, which, using your formulation, would at the moment x becomes x, the moment you intended to mean and so decided to use language.

    Authors or utterers can lie or misrepresent their intent. Nothing in intentionalism denies the authorial fallacy. It is the job of the interpreter to try to reconstruct an author’s intent using any number of clues and signals. The criteria can be anything from convention to biography to cultural dialogics to history to intra- and intertextual cues. Still, in all that time, you are making an argument for what you think the author meant — and so you are appealing to his intent. People can disagree over what they think the intent was, but so long as they continue to appeal to that intent, they are acting in good faith as interpreters.

    Where you get into trouble is when you believe that the marks you see or hear can “mean” other than what the author intended — not because this isn’t true, but because at that point, those other things the marks could mean make up some new text of your own composition, because you are adding your intent to the marks and so are resignifying them without any worry about what the author originally meant. If you then take what you mean and claim that it is somehow what the author means, you have stolen his meaning and replaced it with your own. Formalism fails for this reason: it relies on what people can “reasonably” do with marks without taking into account that those marks are already signs, and so they already have been given meaning by the agency responsible for producing them.

    I’ve gone over this extensively, and there are more detailed explanations in other pieces listed under the tag intentionalism over in the greatest hits.

    You might wish to start there.

  71. “Intentionalism merely notes that if you say x, you meant x”

    I’m talking about where the variable “x” represents an ambiguous statement that could be interpreted as meaning either y or z.

    And I’m hearing you say that the idea is to decide what the author really meant — but that the person who really gets to decide what that is, is you the listener . . . and not the speaker.

    Because the speaker could be lying.

    That doesn’t sound terribly different from my formulation “words mean what a reasonable person would take them to mean” — as long as one allows the reasonable person to take into account all available context – including the speaker’s statements regarding his intent, and any evidence that the speaker is lying or mistaken.

    Frankly, I found this portion of the Hot Air post the least persuasive. Because the goofy Curious George interpretations struck me, not as reasonable, but as goofy. I think that a reasonable person, taking all available context into account, would interpret those stories in the reasonable way.

    So maybe we’re saying the same thing using different words? I dunno.

    “I’ve gone over this extensively, and there are more detailed explanations in other pieces listed under the tag intentionalism over in the greatest hits.

    You might wish to start there.”

    You know, I might try those posts. But like another commenter, I’ve sometimes gotten lost in them in the past. I thought your Hot Air post was a little more plain-spoken than my memory of the past posts on intentionalism I’ve seen. I could be wrong about that but that was my sense.

    I thought I might learn more by asking direct questions like I’m doing now. If you don’t have time to answer them, let me know. But if you do, I think I’ll grasp the argument better — and maybe some others will too.

  72. Found one!
    (writing furiously) A.say what you mean.
    1.) ambiguous makes teh funny.

  73. “That doesn’t sound terribly different from my formulation “words mean what a reasonable person would take them to mean” — as long as one allows the reasonable person to take into account all available context – including the speaker’s statements regarding his intent, and any evidence that the speaker is lying or mistaken.”

    Not too far, but with this caveat, that your goal is to determine what the speaker himself meant, and not what you can make his meanings say “reasonably”. The first is honest, the second is not.

    Example: Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays open themselves up to myriad interpretations, but that’s largely because Shakespeare is 400 years in the ground and aside from his plays and sonnets, very little of his writings remain. So we are more or less making educated guesswork as to what Shakespeare meant by “To be or not to be, that is the question.” And ultimately, its impossible to prove one interpretation beyond a shadow of the doubt. But as long as we’re attempting to get into the mind of Shakespeare, we are being honest with him. When we attempt to make him either the spokesman or the bete noir for our own ideology, we are destroying him and any inherent value his work has.

    Back in college I had an English professor who gave us the assignment of applying any 3 critical theories to a text of our choice, and then rejecting one. I slapped neo-Classicism, Romanticism, and Feminism on Richard III. I tossed Feminism aside on the basis that it had the least to do with anything Shakespeare actually intended, and indeed, as I put it “rejected the very context of the play itself.”

    Authorial intent may be ambiguous, but that doesn’t mean we get to substitute our own, especially to score cheap points. This makes us nothing more than Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, who says “find your way? All ways belong to me.”

  74. I’m talking about where the variable “x” represents an ambiguous statement that could be interpreted as meaning either y or z.

    So am I. y or z doesn’t matter as far as meaning goes. The meaning is x. It is the job of the interpreter to try to reach x.

    And I’m hearing you say that the idea is to decide what the author really meant — but that the person who really gets to decide what that is, is you the listener . . . and not the speaker.

    Because the speaker could be lying.

    Not only lying, but dead, or otherwise unavailable. In a speech act, you have the person who composes and sends the message, and the person who decodes it. So while it is up to the receiver to attempt the decoding, the message still means what it was intended to mean, irrespective of what the receiver does.

    That doesn’t sound terribly different from my formulation “words mean what a reasonable person would take them to mean” — as long as one allows the reasonable person to take into account all available context – including the speaker’s statements regarding his intent, and any evidence that the speaker is lying or mistaken.

    Only if “words mean what a reasonable person would take them to mean” is dealing with words — signs — and not marks (signifiers that one turns into signs by signifying them), and the only way that can happen is if interpreters appeal to the author’s intent, given that it takes intent to turn marks into signs or words. Without appealing to the author’s intent, you are treating the text as if it weren’t language until you turn it into language through your own process of signification.

    The problem is, the current interpretive paradigm doesn’t require an appeal to authorial intent and instead plays all sort of games with the signifier. In the end, though, such is acting no differently from any New Critic. In legal terms, I’ve discussed this here.

    See Andrew (above) for the rest.

    Frankly, I found this portion of the Hot Air post the least persuasive. Because the goofy Curious George interpretations struck me, not as reasonable, but as goofy. I think that a reasonable person, taking all available context into account, would interpret those stories in the reasonable way.

    Clearly, you don’t know literary studies. Those interpretations would be considered eminently reasonable.

    So maybe we’re saying the same thing using different words? I dunno.

    Afraid not. Appealing to author’s intent is crucial. Distinguishing between signs, and signifiers that you yourself turn into signs using “reasonableness” as a criterion, is essential; privileging your intent at the expense of the author’s based on what a “reasonable person might conclude” is still a corruption of the communication chain, no matter how earnest one is about doing so. It is “dishonest,” as Andrew says above, because it treats the author’s meaning as somehow negotiable.

  75. Only if “words mean what a reasonable person would take them to mean” is dealing with words — signs — and not marks, and the only way that can happen is if they appeal to the author’s intent, given that it takes intent to turn marks into signs or words.

    I’m not a big fan of the reasonable-person argument, primarily because if my opponent is making it, a reasonable person is someone who agrees with him (and, likely, disagrees with me), while if it’s me making it, a reasonable person agrees with me and disagrees with my opponent.

    It’s really an argument from authority disguised as a logical argument.

  76. I want to ask something now.

    How is it not a tautology to say that honest interpretation requires the listener to determine true intention? The true intention must necessarily be <determined.

    I have no trouble accepting that:
    Thought is tranlated in the communicators head into symbols, language, and expression, some of which may be unconcious and all of which is necessarily shaped by a larger context of environment and cultural convention.

    The speaker/author intends a message, but his message may well be a “meta-message” —- and/or even contain information he doesn’t know he is providing, but which shapes the meaning of the words and symbols used in expression.

    The speaker can always refine and say “oh, no, I only meant blah blah blah, but the listener can say, “hella no, I ‘m not buying that.” and be perfectly correct.

    It is true in the abstract that the message had meaning, but it is NOT true in the abstract that the speaker knew his meaning..

    It is possible for the listener to (for nefarious reasons or stupidity reasons or deafness, or a pallpeen to the speech centers or autism) to get that intended message wrong even when the speaker is saying exactly what he means; it is possible for the listener/reader to willfully pretend misunderstanding and it is possible for him to attempt to spread that misunderstanding. But it IS always possible for the speaker to give information he didnt know he was giving or want to given, and to still have actually given that extra information — and it’s also possible for him to use language or symbols that don’t convey his meaning well enough that it can be determined.

    Think of stroke patients who say they want their carrots when they really want their shoes.

    So it is fine and well to say there is the “one true meaning” – because there is, overall – but that isn’t necessarily one the speaker is aware of, and it certainly isn’t going to necessarily be automatically be determined by a look at the words or symbols used.

    Where “intentionalism” succeeds with me, is where I accept the wrongness of this: a cynical insistence that certain cultural conventions or the listeners interpretation govern the “one true meaning”. Both sides of a conversation are perfectly capable of getting it wrong.
    In the end, the only arbiter left, however, is the “reasonable man.” Even the “reasonable man” can get it wrong. But he is the final judge, is he not? There isn’t going to be any other.

  77. Like Trent Lott you mean? He always did just sort of have the look and feel of a racist and so his spiel was just confirmation of what people already knew. He was difficult to defend whether or not his spiel was for real racist. And also he was a creep anyway.

  78. I used to make fun of his prissy gold watch a lot.

  79. …getting it wrong.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t chop this phrase out like that, but I’m wondering, what is the it in question? Drilling down into this “it” may help. Or, I hope it would help.

    How would we learn that carrots meant shoes, rather than carrots? Or how would we learn that carrots didn’t mean anything at all, at least so far as we, the recipients of the carrot message, were concerned. So when should we say, “Carrots? I don’t know what carrots mean. Sorry, can’t say.”?

  80. “It” – Good point Sdferr. I believe I meant it = “the one true meaning”, Which includes all of the message sent, even when the speaker/author does it wrong, or conveys information he was not conscious of conveying.

    “It” – Could also used to be described as something the speaker/author never gets wrong – something far more limited – his conscious understanding of the message he believes he is conveying. Even when other information would misdirect the recipient(s) of the message or make it difficult to interpret. In that case the speaker can only “get it wrong” in the sense that he is doing a bad job of message sending. But his “it” is always his own.

  81. The carrot – shoe thing is common enough among stroke patients with certain areas of the brain affected. Here the Wiki link for aphasia.

    Some times a stroke patient can have a hard time finding words, but be able to “correct” with gesture, or pictures &c. So they might point to a picture of a shoe and say “carrot” but know they want to say shoe. (you can even find this out directly from the patient, who might be able to sing, rather than speak, his “real” choice, something proved by the ability to sing correctly the items on all the cards but messing up word choice when speaking).

  82. (Just an aside, for I see you wrote again while I was composing the following, I have some idea of aphasia’s and so-on. But the gist of my rhetorical question was, we offer carrot, he shakes head no, we bump his shoe by happenstance, he shakes head violently yes, we get the picture, he wants his shoes sort of deal.)

    Communication, it starts. An agent, we say, begins it. It, communication. We, as message gathering agents, may be caught unawares believing that a non-agent has attempted to communicate with us. A howling wind through a tree, for instance, which we might momentarily mistake for a voice from another agent of communication, but then, realizing that there was no agent, that it (it!) was only the wind, return to our usual practice and say, that was no communication – for there was no agent – that was the wind.

  83. Or, a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
    Signifying nothing.” —

  84. Too many scottish oats.

  85. Like Trent Lott you mean?

    I must confess when he got in trouble for that I had reached the point where I just wanted him gone and didn’t care what the rationale was. His comment at Strom’s party may not have been as bad by itself as some people made it out to be, but the hole those others dug for him, he made even deeper before it was over.

    In the end, though, it was bad karma for me to jump on the bandwagon about the Strom comment — even with the disclaimer — before Lott started shooting holes in his own boat.

  86. So. But, evenso….

    Enter a Messenger

    Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.

  87. But it IS always possible for the speaker to give information he didnt know he was giving or want to given, and to still have actually given that extra information — and it’s also possible for him to use language or symbols that don’t convey his meaning well enough that it can be determined.

    Think of stroke patients who say they want their carrots when they really want their shoes.

    Not signaling your intent the way you want to is a failure to signal intent, not a failure to mean. The patient still wants his shoes, and that’s what he means. Presumably if you gave him carrots and he rejected that, you’d know that he was signaling his intent poorly (in this case, based on a disability). What should be clear though is that even though the signifier came out “carrot,” the patient did not intend for the mark or sound “carrot” to mean the orange root, either sauteed with butter or raw. By trial and error, you may eventually come to realize that when he says “carrot” he means “shoes,” which only reinforces the point: attaching the signified shoes to the signifier carrot is how this person meant. You were confused because the conventional meanings for carrot were not here being followed.

    Which is why convention is only a tool for understanding intent. Here, the signifier carrot and the signified, shoes, matched up in a way that was unfamiliar — much like the signifier cat, matched up with the signified hep jazz musician, was likely at one point completely unfamiliar.

    Convention can be expanded precisely because convention doesn’t make meaning. Intention does.

    So it is fine and well to say there is the “one true meaning” – because there is, overall – but that isn’t necessarily one the speaker is aware of, and it certainly isn’t going to necessarily be automatically be determined by a look at the words or symbols used.

    Yes. Interpretation can be difficult, particularly when dealing with someone who is not great at signaling intent. This truism doesn’t suggest that meaning is any more difficult to create — just that it can be more difficult to decipher, because the author is not using conventions that we often rely on to make interpretation easier.

    To say the speaker isn’t aware of what he or she means is to argue for one of two things: 1) the speaker is unconscious of his or her intent, which doesn’t make it any less of an intent (it still proceeds from that speaker’s agency, and so is still the speaker’s meaning, no one else’s, regardless if he or she is conscious of the signification; ); or 2) the speaker is not using language in the first place.

    The first is an instance of intentionalism. The second is an instance of an accident that looks like language — much like when bird tracks in the sand align in such a way that they appear to spell out words. But they aren’t words until YOU intend to see them as such, at which point marks have become signs based on YOUR intent.

    Again, I’ve covered all this in other posts and I don’t want to have to keep writing the same thing over and over again. Bottom line is, there is no one who would argue that we are always going to reach the author’s intent. The important thing to do is to make sure that it is that intent we are appealing to, or else we aren’t really interpreting so much as creating new texts based on what WE can do with marks.

  88. With that, I need to rest. I spent the morning having large needles driven into my AC joint, and because of that I’m in no mood to signal my intent in ways that might be considered socially permissible.

  89. One more thing:

    Some times a stroke patient can have a hard time finding words, but be able to “correct” with gesture, or pictures &c. So they might point to a picture of a shoe and say “carrot” but know they want to say shoe. (you can even find this out directly from the patient, who might be able to sing, rather than speak, his “real” choice, something proved by the ability to sing correctly the items on all the cards but messing up word choice when speaking).

    Here, the patient is not having trouble finding “words.” He is having trouble finding the correct conventional signifier to signal his intent, and so to help you find his meaning. If he knows he wants shoes — the signified — he can create a “word” (a sign: signified plus signifier) simply by uttering “carrot” and attaching to it what he’s referencing. Carrot, in this instance, means shoe. And the patient has found a word. But thanks to our biases, we think he hasn’t, because the word he’s using doesn’t satisfy conventional usage.

    Interpretive models that put convention before intent get things backwards. Otherwise, how did the first person who ever signaled his intent linguistically have his message understood? In the absence of convention?

  90. “Again, I’ve covered all this in other posts and I don’t want to have to keep writing the same thing over and over again. Bottom line is, there is no one who would argue that we are always going to reach the author’s intent. The important thing to do is to make sure that it is that intent we are appealing to, or else we aren’t really interpreting so much as creating new texts based on what WE can do with marks.”

    Difficulty – sometimes we “see marks” the communicator has no idea he has communicated, and can interpret “the one true meaning” better than he can himself.

  91. it was bad karma for me to jump on the bandwagon about the Strom comment

    I know what you mean. I way bad need to seek that Alaska guy’s forgiveness. I can’t remember his name.

  92. I get your point that my reaction doesn’t determine that truth, but it’s partly what I use to guess at it.

  93. Ladies are especially good at that, too.

  94. For clarity at #91 – “and yet the observer or recipient of the message can interpret the meaning better than the sender.”

  95. Difficulty – sometimes we “see marks” the communicator has no idea he has communicated, and can interpret “the one true meaning” better than he can himself.

    Well, we have a better understanding that he isn’t using conventional signals. But if the author didn’t mean — if he hadn’t signified — it wouldn’t be language.

    So for instance when Oliver Willis argued that Captain Ed’s use of “articulate” in reference to a black man was racist, he was using the formulation that Ed’s racism was Ed’s, however unconscious. This is a linguistically coherent argument, though one that, in a less cynical world, would require more than the mere accusation to carry any weight. Willis would have to prove somehow that Morrissey was an unwitting (or perhaps secret) racist, and he’d have to do so by drawing on other writings, biography, and any number of other factors before the argument would be countenanced by any fair observer.

    The trouble comes when, for instance, Think Progress admits that they don’t believe Tony Snow’s use of “tar baby” was racist, but regardless of his intent, he should have self-censored, because someone out there might “reasonably conclude,” based on the marks, that Snow was in fact using the phrase as a way to convey racist overtones.

    This latter argument fits with an interpretive paradigm wherein the author’s intent is not privileged, while the reader/listener’s intent is. It is fundamentally incoherent, with respect to how interpretation works, and it is also dangerous inasmuch as it refuses to find a common ground on which to determine meaning.

  96. I’ve covered all this in other posts and I don’t want to have to keep writing the same thing over and over again.

    Unfortunately you are doomed, doomed I say, to repeating it fairly frequently.

    In any complex field, the practitioners choose words to describe the concepts, and the words they use very often are only distantly related to the commonly-used meanings. The word “particle” means something quite different to, e.g., an air-conditioning installer and a quantum physicist. In your field, “mark”, “sign”, “signifier”, “signified”, and the like have specific technical meanings that diverge, sometimes significantly, from the common usage, and people encountering them for the first time may get totally wrong impressions because they don’t interpret them correctly. Note, here, that SarahW has jumped to a rather Derridean conclusion not warranted by what you actually wrote.

    Perhaps you should put together a “For Dummies” post laying the meanings out, to which you could refer when questions like this come up.

    Regards,
    Ric

  97. But sticking to a case of interpreter determining WRONGLY the intention of the speaker ( whether cynically, for bad purposes, or by mistake) I am reminded of the case of the blaspheming ice cream.

    The equivalent of bird tracks in the vendors label, a mere resemblance of some graphics or text resembling the name of Allah, was complained of as
    “lousy wenterners undermining the holy perfection of Allah, with their intrusive ice cream” – the case being that willful or reckless disreguard of the resemblence to the name of Allah, placed on something associated with frivolity (ice cream), was just awful and insupportable and a cause for boycott of the product.

    The vendor, in deference to the offence voiced, and out of concern that ignoring the complaint would have consequences, changed the label.

    I remember my argument at the time was “what has been seen, percieved, can not be unseen” and that it would be emotionally provoking on a conscious or semi-conscious level to anyone who has been trained to perceive the name of Allah in his alphabet – and once the ice cream vendot KNOWS about the accidental resemblance, he can’t in good faith argue that he doesn’t know about it. So every time he stamps it on a container of ice cream, the vendor is doing it on purpose, in spite of the complaint.

    Therefore, if it weren’t incumbent for the vendor to know when he created the label, in the light most favorable to the vendor, it had been a total accident — that’s no longer the case and he shouldn’t go around giving deliberate offense to people IF he wants to make sales. Because offended people don’t buy your product. And the name of the game is not to be free to make any label you want, but to sell ice cream.

    I distinguish the “we ought to make better salespeople” case argued by some in the Rush kerfuffle in this way only – the name of the game is to say what you want when you want how you want to without the *government* assigning people to find ways to control your speeck. Its the overarching goal, one that’s infinately more meaningful and important than selling Republicanism.

  98. Speech, not “Speeck”

  99. Patterico:

    To help illustrate, I’ll pull something from an old post from Jeff’s full-body-contact wrassling match against an arrogant self-styled intellectual named “Thersites” (beginning with this post from May 2006). Unfortunately, Thersites’s site is no longer in existence, so you’ll have to infer his side of the argument through Jeff’s quotes.

    Quoth Jeff:

    Let’s use Thersites’ dinner table example as a case in point:

    If I wish to have Thersites pass me the salad (which, having seen pictures of him, I’d note that his having a salad on the table is itself a stretch), and I am suddenly unable to form the words “please pass the salad,” or move my arms to gesture for the salad (perhaps I am stunned by his ability to fit eight baby red potatoes in his mouth at once, which causes a temporary paralysis above my waist), can we say that this failure to communicate has negated my desire for the salad? Of course not. Which is why though I’m suddenly unable to follow conventions, either verbal or indexical—I try something else: I click my heels.

    Thersites, his mouth crammed with potatoes, at first believes I’m trying to signal my love for Judy Garland (a love he happily shares!). But then, after he sings a few potato-clotted words from “Over the Rainbow,” it suddenly dawns on him that I am trying to signal something else. So, tentatively, he passes me the salt. No good—I continue to click my heels, and Thersites now understands that I don’t want the salt at all, just as I wasn’t interested in hearing him butcher an old drag queen standard. So now he offers to do naughty things to my nipples with his tongue. But just as before, I keep clicking my heels, and he realizes (with a bit of sadness) that he has yet to understand what I’m trying to signal. Finally he gets around to passing me the salad. I stop clicking my heels. At that point, Thersites concludes (rightly) that clicking my heels “means” that I wanted him to pass me the salad.

    What has happened here is that Thersites has recognized that my completely unconventional sign—a clicking of the heels—means “pass me the salad, you pretentious nipple fetishizer.” And through trial and error, he has managed to suss my intent without having to appeal to any convention.

    So yes, it can be done. And Thersites’, bless him, has just pulled it off!

    Another analogy is the case of someone wandering through the jungle and finding a stone tablet inscribed with an unknown language. If you want to know what it says, you MUST try to understand what the writer meant with those markings. You can’t just make stuff up based on your fancy, your narcissistic desire to look intelligent, or your desire to distort the truth about the person who made the marks.

    Just yesterday, in fact, Gov. Mark Sanford (SC), said of the Porkulus bill:

    “What you’re doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don’t have and send it to different states, we’ll create jobs,” he said. “If that’s the case, why isn’t Zimbabwe a rich place?”

    And then Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) reacted by saying that “Sanford’s quip comparing President Obama’s stimulus package to Zimbabwe’s economic policies are ‘beyond the pale’–and suggested they might carry a racial subtext.

    “Asked if his ‘beyond the pale’ comment implied a racial overtone to Sanford’s remarks, Clyburn replied:

    “‘I’m sure he would not say that, but how did he get to Zimbabwe? What took the man to Zimbabwe? Someone should ask him if that’s really the best comparison. … How can he compare this country’s situation to Zimbabwe?'”

    OK. So. To determine whether Gov. Sanford made a racist comment, you have to look at the governor’s intent, not Clyburn’s. And as Jeff says, you look at clues, starting with the actual words themselves. Is there an indication in Sanford’s words to indicate that he was making some kind of race-based slam on Obama? Was he suggesting that the Obama administration will lead us to financial ruin because Mugabe did, and the key reason for drawing that parallel is that they both have African ancestry? Does Sanford have a history of making racist statements? Is he referencing a cultural meme that says that black people in power always lead to financial ruin?

    The context of the comment, its contents, and also what we know about Clyburn indicates that Clyburn is reflexively playing the race card, as if mentioning a black man and a negative situation in the same sentences can only mean that the speaker is a bigot.

    But in today’s cultural climate, people will use Clyburn’s interpretation as a means to tar Sanford as a bigot even when there is no actual evidence to support it. Clyburn has wrested Sanford’s meaning away from him and replaced it with his own, thus exercising power over Sanford. It’s an act of tyranny. It’s no different than the Soviets making you sign a false confession and then using it as a justification for tossing you in the Gulag.

  100. “Well, we have a better understanding that he isn’t using conventional signals. But if the author didn’t mean — if he hadn’t signified — it wouldn’t be language.”

    Oh no, I mean something *completely different* in addition to that you describe above, when I say

    “Difficulty – sometimes we “see marks” the communicator has no idea he has communicated, and can interpret “the one true meaning” better than he can himself.”

    Don’t tell me guestures, tics, and tells aren’t language signifiers. They are, as sure as they are when deaf people use sign language. How the diamonds of his rhetoric sparkle in their settings can be very revealing. The speaker thinks he means one thing, but he means another.

  101. SarahW, you belong in the other camp.

    Reason? The logical sequence you lay out is precisely the origin of the “reader privilege” side of the debate. If you follow your arguments to their logical conclusion, any set of marks presented to a reader is for the reader to assign meaning to, regardless of what else may have occurred. This is precisely the interpretation Jeff wants to combat.

    Regards,
    Ric

  102. I remember my argument at the time was “what has been seen, percieved, can not be unseen” and that it would be emotionally provoking on a conscious or semi-conscious level to anyone who has been trained to perceive the name of Allah in his alphabet – and once the ice cream vendot KNOWS about the accidental resemblance, he can’t in good faith argue that he doesn’t know about it. So every time he stamps it on a container of ice cream, the vendor is doing it on purpose, in spite of the complaint.

    — And at the time I responded that it’s his call to make a business decision, but in choosing to sell ice cream to more people instead of refusing to accept the terms of the criticism, he was selling principles in exchange for moving more swirly cones.

    His choice. But to pretend it doesn’t have consequences beyond fewer cone sales is to miss all the subsequent cases where we have routinely emboldened groups by giving credence to what are ridiculous arguments. Best just to tell them to get bent and buy cones from someone else.

    As with the Rush situation, that might be a better strategy for longterm sales than capitulation.

  103. I had a feeling that sooner or later we’d get to…………

    Oh look! Gavagai!

  104. Unfortunately, Thersites’s site is no longer in existence

    Sure, the old site isn’t around anymore, but he’s got another one up. He’s a fan of Roy Edroso and animated gifs (but I repeat myself) and Atrios and seventeen other sources of nitwittery, though, so: complete waste of time.

  105. Don’t tell me gestures, tics, and tells aren’t language signifiers.

    I haven’t. But then, sometimes they aren’t — they’re just blinks or scratches. And of course, when they are, one can easily muddy those conventions too, if one is aware of them. I can look down and to the left to make you think I’m lying, for instance, because I know the code. I’m signaling something that I know you are looking for, intentionally misleading you by ironizing the code.

  106. Don’t tell me gestures, tics, and tells aren’t language signifiers.

    More precisely, gestures, tics, and tells, as well as the set of grunts, clicks, and hisses we call phonemes are marks, alterations of the environment perceptible to another. They become signifiers when the person making the mark intends that they reference something else, and the “something else” is the signified.

    Regards,
    Ric

  107. “The context of the comment, its contents, and also what we know about Clyburn indicates that Clyburn is reflexively playing the race card, as if mentioning a black man and a negative situation in the same sentences can only mean that the speaker is a bigot.”

    Whoah. I’m about to say something…racist?

    I have noticed, over a lifetime in my local area, the most peculiar way of interpreting speech, for which there is a racial linkage disequlibrium. I wonder if it is a function of a variation in grammar and syntax used more predominately in some parts of town historically separated from one another, or an inherent trait.

    The peculiarity —-lists of things together are used to describe like things. If its put in the list, it is like the other. THere is no room for irony, or emphasis by contrast.

    So when a young man speaks at a podium at the city council meeting, following an eloquent preacher who whips up the crowd, and he makes a reference to that by quoting WC fields or whoever ” never follow dogs, children or preachers” The crowd WENT WILD! Black youths jumped over chairs to get to him to punch him out, and the bewildered speaker was led out of the hall by security. The joke is, never follow things that are more loveable and interesting that you” but the crowd heard him call the preacher a dog. And apparently there is a cultural difference in the local black community, in that dogs are not the object of great sentimentality and “better than human” but disgusting dirty animals kept on chains outside, a scant step up from vermin.
    ——————-
    Especially since that time this list convention has popped up again and again and again…. if it’s mentioned in the same breath, you are likening the one to the other.
    ————–

    The “Story of English” series that ran on PBS pointed out a number of colloquial differences along those lines…. for example, in black english there is pitch and tone and animation of the speaker are used for conveying emphasis as a matter of course, but it is miscontrued as aggression because whites see it as a loss of temper and inability to control ones speech, rather than part of the language, grammar and syntax necessary for conveying meaning.

  108. #102 Well Jeff can pound me to flinders, so no worries. :)

  109. At least I can be useful as a benign somebody who needs a teaching.

  110. Especially since that time this list convention has popped up again and again and again…. if it’s mentioned in the same breath, you are likening the one to the other.

    No you aren’t.

    Unless, of course, you are.

  111. #107 – Jeff’s argument was that this unconscious signifying still was signifying intent, even when the message-sender didn’t know it. So he intended it even when he didn’t consciously intend it ( I argued that it was possible to percieve unconcious intention). Same difference, said he.

  112. #111

    heh.

    Of course I meant somethine else there.

  113. It is of course possible to perceive unconscious intention. But it is also possible to misperceive it because you are relying on code or convention that the person doing the signaling isn’t using.

    Ric — one correction: marks are signifiers. They become signs “when the person making the mark intends that they reference something else, and the “something else” is the signified.”

  114. I cant say I always agree that one should tell inadvertently offended, or even people pretending offense, to get bent. Your mileage may vary and I would die for the cause of letting you tell the government to get the hell bent.

  115. #112 — this is the premise of “deconstruction” — the person making the marks intended a certain set of signifiers, but because of prejudice, training, environmental circumstance, or some other set of influences signified something other, perhaps quite different, and a close enough analysis of the marks and their accompanying evidence may winkle out the additional meanings. Note that this doesn’t change Jeff’s argument in any way. Unconscious intent is still intent; the marks were made with the intent of signifying.

    Regards,
    Ric

  116. #116 – I should clarify I am including the sorts of information to be got in watching, hearing, observing….and so forth. Are you talking more specifically about interpreting texts?

  117. Jeff —

    Clearly I haven’t had training in linguistics. To me, a “mark” is a precursor.

    I have a mare. Gipsy’s hoofprints are marks — they’re visible for all to see — but they aren’t signs, because they aren’t made with the intent to signify anything.

    I also have a stud, called Jai. Across the middle of my chest there are semi-permanent scars where he kicked me one day because I had overstepped the bounds in doing some training. Those marks are signs, because they were made with the intent to signify “don’t do that”.

    So a mark becomes a sign because of the intent to signify. Not congruent with your terminology?

    Regards,
    Ric

  118. I should clarify I understand the assertion, that what a person intended may not be known (consciously) to the person attempting to send that message, but that it’s still his intent, even if it wasn’t his conscious deliberate intention.

    So he might say “I’d like the ketchup, please” and I might determine that he ACTUALLY meant “Can’t you make something besides meatloaf on Tuesdays, also the cell phone bill was too high this month and my secretary always has on a clean dress and I would like a divorce” and be perfectly correct even though he didn’t know he said all those things – he intended it nonetheless.

  119. Ric:

    The dewd what thought this all up is Ferdinand Saussure, a Swiss linguist whose acolytes compiled notes from his lectures. His theories of language are called “semiotics,” which is the study of signification and communication.

    This Wiki article contains a basic summary of his ideas. I haven’t vetted it yet but it looks OK for starters. And like any philosophical system, the terminology is much more precise than most of us are used to when talking about “signs” and “language” and stuff.

  120. One thing that I’m sure contributes to the difficulty of getting Jeff’s point across is that there is an accepted practice in some communications that can only properly be identified as deliberate ambiguity of meaning. Whether it’s done for purposes of humor or to seem oracular and all-knowing, observers err when they fail to take into account that the ambiguity — and the willingness of the auditor/reader to impute specific meaning where none is signified — is part, if not the whole, of the meaning intended by the speaker.

    And I think people who teach about language and the relative meanings intended by speakers and imputed by auditors, really ought to emphasize that more than they do.

  121. I should clarify I understand the assertion, that what a person intended may not be known (consciously) to the person attempting to send that message, but that it’s still his intent, even if it wasn’t his conscious deliberate intention.

    A better example might be that new TV series, Lie to Me, about a dewd who has learned to read microexpressions and thus can tell if someone is lying. From what I can tell, the show’s science is based on real research.

    For example, he can read shame on someone’s face even though the person is not consciously aware that they are expressing it. This is an interesting twist into Saussure’s theory of the arbitrariness of the relationship of signifier to signified.

    These microexpressions are considered to be hard-wired into our physiology: we “signify” without having the slightest idea that we are doing so because our faces automatically respond to our thoughts and feelings–unless, of course, you’ve become hyper-aware of your microexpressions and can control them.

    What you’re talking about, SarahW, is “subtext.” It’s a meaning beyond the bare denotative powers of the words that is tacitly understood by the speaker and the listener because of the larger historical context and shared knowledge.

    And that’s a whole ‘nother ball ‘o wax, that subtext thing. It’s tricky but it’s a valid interpretive strategy.

  122. Rick —

    A mark is a signifier. A sign is a mark that’s been signified (signifier + signfied, in its easiest formulation). So yes, the mare’s footprints are marks, which we call signifiers.

  123. These microexpressions are considered to be hard-wired into our physiology: we “signify” without having the slightest idea that we are doing so because our faces automatically respond to our thoughts and feelings–unless, of course, you’ve become hyper-aware of your microexpressions and can control them.

    Hence, unconscious intent — or, to those who learn to game the system, a way to screw up the curve, so to speak.

    McGehee —

    I’ve talked on this as well. Open texts or ambiguous texts are no less intentional. De Man came closest to hitting on this when he posited a signifier (the mark) that had no signified. To which the response is, for such to be considered language, the author had to intend to refuse to attach any specific signified to the signifier. That is still an intent — a desire not to mean, and to play with the idea of the mark.

  124. dicentra —

    Saussure’s semiosis is oftentimes differentiated from the semiotic. Peirce’s sign formulation contained a referent in addition to the signifier and the signified. It doesn’t trouble intentionalism, but the two are often distinguished from one another by nitpickers and specialists, if I’m recalling correctly.

  125. I’m soaking it all in. Have not read *all* comments yet, but will. My complete thoughts are too long for a comment. I’ll do a post on my blog.

    Quick thoughts:

    * SarahW makes an important point.

    * I don’t understand the difference between marks and signs as Jeff uses these terms.

    * This discussion may seem like a rehash for Jeff, but it may help him spread his ideas, by showing where laymen get confused.

    * Thesis of my upcoming post: I understand (and I think I agree with) the desire to give primacy to the author’s intent, but who decides what that is? My answer: the reasonable person, using whatever contextual clues are available. If the reasonable person’s interpretation, using all clues available, does not reflect the author’s intent, the fault lies with the speaker, who needs to clarify.

    People can disagree about what the reasonable person would say is the author’s intent — but a) that automatically doesn’t mean they’re using an improper mode of analysis, and b) if multiple reasonable interpretations exist, this is evidence that the fault for the communication failure lies with the speaker.

    This is a thumbnail version of a much longer argument. More later on my blog (and perhaps here as well).

    Good discussion, and (in my view) very useful.

  126. Wow, I feel like I should be paying tuition … and joining a fraternity or something.

    Great discussion, people and thanks to Jeff for his willingness to enlighten us poor Business School exploiters as to the basics of Literary intent.

  127. deliberate ambiguity of meaning

    Like an Obama campaign speech? Trying to be all things to all people? In that case, the “meaning” of his words is not what the words denote, it’s “I am a wily politician who wants you to think that I’m on your side, whatever that is, so you’ll vote for me.”

    I’m reminded of the time I attended a lecture from a visiting professor on Pedro Calderón de la Barca, a 17th-century Spanish dramatist. I listened and listened and every so often I’d pick up a thread of thought and try to follow it through to its conclusion, but soon I realized that the professor wasn’t constructing arguments: he was concatenating interesting-sounding sentences that by themselves sounded like they were going somewhere, but the next sentence didn’t pick up the baton and run with it, as it were.

    Seriously, it sounded like something produced by the PoMo Generator, only in poorly pronounced Spanish.

    So what did his lecture mean? Some possibilities:

    1) The intent of the professor was to present something that sounded erudite and deep. The words of the lecture did not “mean” anything in the conventional sense, because he wasn’t attempting to refer to anything in either the meat world or the world of ideas. He just wanted to impress his peers, and he knew they wouldn’t criticize him for being vacuous. All a bit of performance art, in other words, and everyone was just playing along.

    2) The professor thought he was being erudite and deep, but he lacked the intellectual chops to tell the difference between a coherent lecture and a bunch of high-sounding nonsense. In effect, he was a parrot who had learned the cadence and vocabulary of erudition but was unable to use them to create a cogent argument.

    3) The professor was being erudite and deep, and I lacked the intellectual chops to fathom his meaning.

    (I took a class from him on Calderón and he did the same thing in class: lots of vacuous talk without substance. However, lacking clairvoyance, I cannot say for certain whether 1 or 2 is correct, but if I had to bet the farm, I’d say 2.)

    FURTHERMORE, the event that was the lecture had its own meaning: some of my fellow students thought the lecture was brillant, others thought it was airy twaddle. Was this an inadvertent live-action rendition of The Emperor’s New Clothes? Can I say that it was, even though nobody “intended” to do such a thing?

  128. Do what you want, Patterico, but were it me, I’d be more worried about differentiating between marks and signs before moving on to a post. Because that distinction happens inform the entirety of the argument.

  129. …deliberate ambiguity of meaning

    This can also arise in a case where one is desiring to communicate a dangerous message (dangerous, can be taken in many senses, to the author, to a population should the communication fall into the “wrong” hands, to the receiver should he be caught in possession of it, etc.) all while hiding that message in plain sight from its unintended audiences yet leaving it available to its intended audience.

  130. Not every “reasonable” reading appeals to authorial intent, which is why “reasonable” isn’t a worthwhile standard for meaning. You ignore the Curious George examples as somehow unreasonable, but that just proves the point: Curious George can most certainly be read as a post-colonial narrative (hell, it’s almost textbook), and there is ample evidence that such questions about assimilation of the Other were in the air at around the time the story was published.

    So one can make the claim that, though HA and Martha Rey weren’t intentionally setting out to write a post colonial narrative, they were nevertheless informed by the dialogical web — and so could not HELP but deal with such issues, as they were themselves inscribed by them, being as they were a product of a culture that was grappling with such ideas.

    Of course, this presumes that HA and Martha Rey are necessarily slaves to their cultural context, which is, of course, hogwash: if I write a book now about fish tacos, that book is not necessarily informed by the Iraq War, the current economic crisis, etc.

    It is only “reasonable” to make these kind of suggestions if we can make a compelling argument that the authors intended to deal with such questions. Unfortunately, that’s not how Patterico is defining reasonable. By his definition, HA and Martha Rey are to blame for their story of a curious monkey being taken as an indictment of white imperialism and colonialism, because they weren’t “clear” enough that what they were writing was merely a story about a monkey.

    This is a step up from saying, eg., that it doesn’t matter what the authors intended, the story can be seen as a post-colonial narrative, and therefore it means all it can be made to mean. But it is still basing meaning on something that it is not.

  131. Peirce’s sign formulation contained a referent in addition to the signifier and the signified.

    Oh yeah. IIRC, the sign is a physical manifestation, the signified is its conceptual counterpart, and the referent is the “object” to which the sign/signifier combo points. Or vice-versa. It’s been 12 years since I last grappled with that junk, yo.

    who decides what that is? My answer: the reasonable person, using whatever contextual clues are available.

    The problem you’re having, Patt, is that word: “decides.” It should be “interprets” or “decodes.”

    “Decide” has too many power connotations. Maybe it’s your background in law, where both sides offer their interpretation of the “signs” presented in court (evidence, a contract, etc.) and then the jury or judge decides what the signs mean. That decision then carries the coercive power of the State. And there are plenty of interpretative theories swirling around the profession of law, no doubt.

    That’s not what Jeff’s talking about, though moving the locus of meaning from intent to interpretation does have real-world consequences. They’re just not legal consequences, necessarily.

    Go back to my #100 and the example of Sanford and Conyers. Conyers did not “decide” that Sanford uttered a racist comment, he merely insisted that he did. Even if Conyers were able to read Sanford’s mind, he would still insist that the statement was racist because Conyers wills it to be so. It is in Conyer’s best interest (as he sees it) for Sanford to be seen as racist, so he makes the accusation in public, thus to influence the way other people interpret the comment.

    That’s not a case of Conyers being unable to correctly divine Sanford’s meaning, nor is it a case of Sanford saying something that he did not mean. This is power politics, pure and simple, and it’s effective only because people accept the idea that the interpreter trumps the speaker, always, in every case.

    This is the pernicious element in campus speech codes: It doesn’t matter what you meant to say, if someone says that they were offended by your comment, then you are guilty. Doesn’t matter if the offended party took your comment out of context, doesn’t matter if there is a misunderstanding–you are guilty of hate speech because someone else gets to decide what you meant.

    That shouldn’t be the case. If someone is offended by something I say, even though it is evident from the context that there was no offense meant, I should be able to explain what I meant to say, and the offended party should understand that they misinterpreted my words and back down from the accusation.

    Thus it would stand that I said nothing offensive, because I meant no offense. However, in today’s world where up is down, black is white, and Potsie is the Fonz, what I meant to say is what the listener says I meant, period.

  132. dicentra —

    When Pat posts his new piece — which he shouldn’t, I don’t think, until he better understands the terms of the debate — I’m going to leave it to you and a few others to make the argument against it.

    I’m curious to see how many people can do that, because it will tell me what I need to make more clear.

    As it stands, Sarah and I parted ways over the Flight 93 memorial for precisely these same reasons, and I can see from today’s exchange that nothing much has changed. I’ll write our differences off as a failure to properly get across my intent — though that failure, fittingly, doesn’t affect what I mean in any way.

  133. “I cant say I always agree that one should tell inadvertently offended, or even people pretending offense, to get bent.”

    We may rapidly approach the point where it doesn’t matter. When the mob may not be mollified, going Danton on them can at least make clear for what you are being martyred.

    A secondary point on “black English”: There’s little of “black”, which is to say African, about it. Most of what we call “black english” and “black culture” is really the redneck culture in which they marinated for centuries. Redneckery is itself drawn from England’s “Celtic fringe”: Northumberland, Scotland, and Ulster, which provided most of the Old South’s white ethnic stock. Now, obviously the slaves brought some African-ness with them (words like “hip” and “dig it” are likely of West African origin), but even the syntax of so-called Ebonics reflects the archaic Scots-English that the Southerners brought from the Auld Country.

  134. It sounds like I’d be happier with the DeMan branch, since I see a world full of marks that aren’t signifiers. That is, I can see that “signified” and “signifier” are inseparable, but it seems to me that “mark” is a different concept. That’s why I contrasted hoofprints in the soil with scars on my rib cage — Gipsy’s hoofprints are not made with any intent whatever; they are byproducts of her wanted to move from place to place. Jai’s marks on my chest were made with intent, so the signified/signifier system applies.

    It also seems to me that the distinction goes to the root of what “intentionalism” is all about. It is perfectly possible to make an arbitrary mark that has no referent, even if one is not a horse. It is intent that converts the mark into a sign, therefore signifying something.

    Convention (which appears to be the focus of the first bit of the Wiki article dicentra kindly pointed me toward) is something else again. Obeying a convention makes it easier for us to attach a referent to a sign, but as in the example of the person with brain damage, or your foot-tapping, it is by no means necessary. It is intent that converts the mark into a sign.

    Regards,
    Ric

  135. I can’t say I always agree that one should tell inadvertently offended, or even people pretending offense, to get bent.

    This is where discretion is the better part of valor. If you’re on Hardball, I say go full insult mode. If you’re having a discussion with friends and one gets all hysterical and offended, you would do better to smooth the feathers in the moment, then maybe later broach the subject of how things should be interpreted.

    If you’re in a college class and you can’t afford to get a bad grade, you venture a few timid statements to see if it’s possible to generate a good discussion, and if it’s evident that it’s not, keep your peace and wait for a better opportunity.

    Calling people out on their bad interpretation doesn’t mean being rude or in-your-face. You can help people see what you mean in a gentle way. Just don’t do it if you’re the head of the RNC on national TV, is all I’m saying.

    When Pat posts his new piece … I’m going to leave it to you and a few others to make the argument against it.

    I’m up for it. Just let me know when.

  136. I’ve been wondering how come the intense epistemological and ontological arguments haven’t broken out (yet), since it has always seemed to me as though they inevitably do when matters of language and intent are under consideration. Or am I just wrong about that? Could be. Or maybe folks are simply being polite? Whatever the case, I find I’m grateful for their (args.) absence in the meantime.

  137. “Calling people out on their bad interpretation doesn’t mean being rude or in-your-face. You can help people see what you mean in a gentle way.”

    Well, yeah. If that will work. If it won’t, then time to channel your inner Sam Adams.

  138. Oh, the 93 memorial.

    Did I ever mention one reason (More along the McGehee track of taking advantage of ambiguity) I would have objected for not only all the other reasons articulated, but THIS:

    I never wanted any language/symbol twisting jihadist sympathize anywhere in the world to have an opportunity to say, AHA! you may not know it, but ALLAH in his ways has taken this field, honored the sacrifice of the Jihadi’s, he rebukes you, And we own that frigging field now, suckas.

    Because they would, too —- the superstitious, grandiose,propaganda eaters that they are.

    ———-
    Not terribly relevent, but my biggest beef with that memorial is that is was too contemplative and peaceful, was therefore undignified new aginess at best, even when interpreted in the light most favorable to its architect, (whom, full disclosoure I did suspect of shenanigans), and did not emphasize heroism and sacrifice in defense of the country in addition to their own lives.

  139. “sympathizer”

  140. I mean, if they can do it to a bucket of ice cream, I don’t see how they could pass a memorial like that up.

  141. Depriving Jihadi’s and their sympathisers of a single moment’s joy gained from a misapprehension was good enough reason for me.

  142. I never wanted any language/symbol twisting jihadist sympathizer anywhere in the world to have an opportunity to say, AHA! you may not know it, but ALLAH in his ways has taken this field, honored the sacrifice of the Jihadi’s, he rebukes you, And we own that frigging field now, suckas.

    Unfortunately, you’ve just made Jeff’s point by conceding the assignment of meaning to the jihadis instead of to the architect and what a crescent means in our cultural context.

    Which, what does a red crescent mean to us? If Mennonite terrorists had downed the plane, what would a crescent-shaped memorial symbolize? Would we all walk around feeling the “embrace”? Do Americans recognize the crescent as anything other than a symbol of Islam (as the counterpart of the Red Cross)?

    The architect says it’s an embrace, and absent the ability to read his mind, I’ll accept that’s what he meant. HOWEVER. Is it not possible for the crescent to still be inappropriate because of the grinding irony of it all? Is the architect’s cluelessness any excuse?

    That the architect doesn’t MEAN to be clueless doesn’t mean that it’s any less stupid to use the crescent shape. And I agree with SarahW that it’s too new-agey an touchy-feely. I’d rather see more edge, too.

  143. Oh, no Dicentra, quite the contrary. I want to deny the opportunity of claiming the meaning that would make them happy. You have to allow the happiness is possible even if I know them to be completely wrong.

  144. The jihadi happiness, that is.

  145. Neverminding the architect, I’da preferred the field had a spelling legible from the air reading “Fuck Jihadi’s”. But that’s just me.

  146. You know, that happy feeling people get when they stroll past the Virgin’s appearance on windows not properly squeegeed. Only of courser the memorial was much worse that a curved wall referred to as a crescent. There was such a plethora of muslim symbolism it was well past the tipping point where one would arch an eyebrow at it, whatever that tipping point might be, or failing that, it was at least past the point where the irony and ambiguity was in bad taste.

  147. I understand (and I think I agree with) the desire to give primacy to the author’s intent, but who decides what that is?

    The author, being the author, decides the author’s intent.

    Patterico, how did you get into the legal profession without understanding what “intent” means?

    Jeez.

  148. Did either of you (or anyone else who chooses to comment) read Ace’s Why Limbaugh is good for the GOP thread and its comments? I noticed this concluding bit, and the fact that in some 180 comments so far, nobody’s mentioned it or what it alludes to

    Point is, however: Seems it would have be an opportune time for a feller to get his name out there, let people know he was a proper conservative (i.e., the sort of conservative NYTs readers would ignore rather than actively despise), show he has what it takes to get conservatives talking about him and linking to him, etc.

    Yup. Sure would have been an opportune time for that sorta thing.

    Not that I’m suggesting that anything like this at all occurred.

    :

  149. I cant say I always agree that one should tell inadvertently offended, or even people pretending offense, to get bent.

    I can. I can even say it in most cases where offense was meant and legitimately taken — especially if they want to turn their personal reaction to an insult into a social cause or a basis for legislation.

    Getting bent, just once, would do a whole lot of people in this fucked-up world, a whole damn lot of good.

    And for a few, repeat treatments may be indicated.

  150. Sdferr, a message sent, loud and clear.
    __________________________

    Speaking for myself, a severe simplicity would have suited my taste. A rock with names of the passenger and crew. An American flag. The serenity of the wide open space, unsentimental.

  151. Unfortunately, you’ve just made Jeff’s point by conceding the assignment of meaning to the jihadis instead of to the architect and what a crescent means in our cultural context.

    The way I see it, they’ll do it anyway. So why not include into the message of our memorial a signifier that this is not a dirty murderous Islamofascist symbol we’re building here — by not having it resemble one?

  152. McGehee #149 No, the outside observer decides what he meant. That would be the mythical reasonable man. Or the mythical always right man.
    The author determines what he means. he sends the meaning. Whatever pops out is his “intention”,
    But his mind is not always conscious of the message he sends.

    Who figures that out? Who is the most reliable source of that truth? Authors sometimes aren’t aware. They don’t even realize consciously what message they’ve sent. They still send it. Listeners use experience to tease out or translate the meaning of the message sent. Sometimes they know better than the sender. No, really.

    but who ultimately decides which of the two is right, sender or audience? Observers always guess. Originators dont’ always know.

  153. #154. trying to carry things to the point of absurdity sometimes works.

  154. #153 Exactly. Where unwanted ambiguity exists, make the message less ambiguous.

  155. However, in Rush’s case, any ambiguity was desirable. It was the whole point of it – the “oh no he didn’t” quality that made the message interesting.

  156. Observers always guess. Originators dont’ always know.

    So the f* what?

    That’s not the question. It was never the question. Originators make mistakes, as do observers. The question — the point Jeff makes, time and time again, is who is privileged?

    That is: If the observer is permitted to observe the marks and derive whatever set of signs from them he cares to dredge up out of his intellect, then the observer is privileged. If, on the other hand, the observer is obliged to consider the intent — conscious or otherwise — of the originator in determining the meaning of the communication, the originator is privileged.

    Jeff’s argument is that unless the originator is privileged, communication does not occur. What happens instead is that the observer is free to assume whatever he cares to, and any “meaning” is not transmitted.

    Whether or not the originator is competent in encoding the desired meaning is irrelevant to the point.

    Regards,
    Ric

  157. Lawyers like the “reasonable man” subjective twaddle because arguing about what a “reasonable man” would do tends to generate lots and lots of legal fees.

  158. One point Ric –

    “Whether or not the originator is competent in encoding the desired meaning is irrelevant to the point”

    “Purposeful” might not be so irrelevant.

    That is: If the observer is permitted to observe the marks and derive whatever set of signs from them he cares to dredge up out of his intellect, then the observer is privileged. If, on the other hand, the observer is obliged to consider the intent — conscious or otherwise — of the originator in determining the meaning of the communication, the originator is privileged.

    Doesn’t that beg the question of considering the intent and getting it wrong but thinking you have privileged intent plenty?

    Or say, in the case of the memorial, when you grant benefit of the doubt to the author but not the recipients of his message — recipients who will and then indulge in the conceit that a superior being like Allah made you say something for HIS purposes?

  159. Huh, Tags not working. I hope you can recognize what I quoted from you, Ric.

  160. !59 Yay fees!

  161. Maybe this will help. In Plato’s Phaedrus, he recalls the legend of Thoth (or Theuth), who was said to have invented letters. Having presented them to other Gods, they stated that their use would debilitate memory, because people would come to rely on them. The weakness of the text, Socrates argued, was that if you consulted it, it would give you the same replies.

    Some have taken this as a criticism of letters, per se, of written language. In point of fact, though, it’s a defense of dialectics, and possibly an advertisement for his School at Athens, where people could indulge in dialogue. They could ask questions and elicit answers, and the interlocutor/teacher could, to use Socrates’ terminology, diagnose the needs of the pupil in order to advance his understanding. What, after all, is the intention of a writer who appears to be arguing against writing? It has to do with the desire to assert his own intentionality.

  162. Yay Dan. (And trailing breadcrumbs too.)

  163. Authors sometimes aren’t aware.

    Let’s specify for the sake of argument that “intent” is conscious. Then we can agree that marks injected into the message unconsciously are not signifiers of intent. Whatever else they may signify, they are on a different level that must be addressed after intent has been dealt with.

    Can we agree on that, and maybe stop chasing each other around in circles?

  164. Maybe I*’m just not up on the jargon of this subject, if “intent” is something other than what the subject — in this case, the originator of the message — INTENDS it to be.

  165. Or say, in the case of the memorial, when you grant benefit of the doubt to the author but not the recipients of his message — recipients who will and then indulge in the conceit that a superior being like Allah made you say something for HIS purposes?

    You’re stuck on that memorial, aren’t you?

    It is my considered opinion, considering the design of the memorial in detail and the disingenuous declarations of the people involved, that the architect of it deliberately included Muslim symbology in order to dilute the (as he saw it) gap-toothed redneck patriotism that inspired it in the first place. That is, I have made a judgement of the architect’s intent, and on that basis have interpreted the proposed structure as an insult rather than a memorial.

    I may be wrong, but to the best of my ability I have studied the issues and reached a conclusion that, in my view, privileges the intent of the originator. The fact that the resulting judgement does not reflect well on the originator is irrelevant to the process involved.

    See how that works?

    Regards,
    Ric

  166. McGehee, the problem is that you can’t make that assumption — that all intent is conscious — except as a reduction of the issue to an ideal which cannot exist in practice, like the frictionless string of zero mass that figures so prominently in Physics 101.

    And with that I must sign off. Tomorrow, for a while —

    Regards,
    Ric

  167. ” I have studied the issues and reached a conclusion that, in my view, privileges the intent of the originator. ”

    Ric, I guess I’m stuck on the memorial because its a good oject example of attempts to deciphering intent, but also adds in addition to that, include a theory of mind that predicts what other people will decide after studying the issues.

  168. I have had a visit from the department of redundancy department. I think there’s a fine.

  169. edited for clarity:

    ” I have studied the issues and reached a conclusion that, in my view, privileges the intent of the originator. ”

    Ric, I guess I’m stuck on the memorial because its a good object example of attempts to decipher intent with varying results. My consideration of intent includes a theory of mind that predicts what other people will decide after studying the issues, because I have a desire to influence those decisions.

  170. No happy Jihadis is one result I was keen for.

  171. ” It has to do with the desire to assert his own intentionality.”

    Hey, there you go. I’ll add, and control that of others.

    For example I do not want Jihadis thinking they won something for Allah, or that Allah won that field for them. I predicted those Jihadi sympathisers would with that memorial (whose architect I suspected of shenanigans along the lines suggested by Rick, but didn’t need to go there, because his intentions allowed a distasteful ambiguity whether he meant to do so or not). It was enough if it was suggested enough for THEIR feeble minds, forget my own.

  172. control that of others

    If [he’s] an agent, I’m left to puzzle,……………..and? Or to put it another way, nothing is being added, is it? Communication is in some sense always and everywhere an attempt to “control” others, [in many extremely diminished senses of control] isn’t it?

  173. We all want the eerie power to control men’s minds. Sometimes I just want to know if you’d like some hot tea or a blankie, though.

  174. Back to the catalyst for this discussion: “I hope he fails.”

    What did Rush intend to denotate with that statement? That he does not want Obama to drag the country any farther left.

    Did he choose to denotate that intent with a pithy statement that would be easily quoted out of context and that would provoke his opponents? Yes.

    Did he expect some of his fellow conservatives to blanch at his trenchant statement? Yes.

    He also provided plenty of explanation of what he meant, both in the lecture as well as in his later explanations as well as in his entire radio career.

    His opponents have rejected this meaning and instead prefer to be scandalized by the four words, deciding that they prove that Rush is a horrible person for wanting the country to go to the dogs. And for having the gall to say so.

    His putative allies have rejected his delivery as too blunt, too impolitic, and too easily “misinterpreted” by his enemies. If people don’t agree with Rush’s intent, fine. If they disagree with Rush because they disagree with his enemies’ interpretation of his words, they’re allowing the Left to frame the debate.

    This is not a case of Rush’s meaning being unclear. This is not a case of ambiguity or multiple legitimate interpretations. His intent is there for all to see in as many words as you care to read or listen to.

    So the only plausible explanation for the hoo-haw over the four words is willful misinterpretation on the part of the Left and battered wife syndrome from the Right.

  175. Control can be as weak, though, as inserting an innocent though unwanted earwig of a tv commercial jingle, or as strong as “Look out! That car’s going to hit you!” It’s enough for my purposes if any message at all gets through to have change the state of the receivers mind. The impingement alone is sufficient for the purposes of alteration.

  176. Communication is in some sense always and everywhere an attempt to “control” others, [in many extremely diminished senses of control] isn’t it?

    The extremely diminished senses of control are called “persuasion” and “influence,” neither of which is nefarious per se in the way that control is.

    Twisting someone else’s words is an act of control. Lying and misrepresentation is coersive, because you’re denying your listener the opportunity to come to a legitimate conclusion.

    Let’s see if I can resolve the memorial thing:

    Fallacy: The memorial looks to me like an Islamic symbol, which is an insult to the dead and to the whole country. Therefore, the architect insulted the dead and the whole country. Therefore, the architect is a scumbag. Therefore, the architect should be fired and hounded out of the profession because he is has a soul of a jackal. Death to the architect!

    Intentionalism: I will accept the explanation of the architect that he had an embrace in mind rather than a political insult. However, it is not clear from the design that the memorial is not meant to be an Islamic symbol. The architect has made a poor choice of shapes to signify “embrace.” Therefore the architect is guilty of poor communication skills, not of being a scumbag. He can either try again, or we’ll get someone else to design the thing.

    Right Jeff? Right?

  177. I think you are reading in nefarious where it isn’t intended dicentra, at least I don’t intend it. I’d have thought an example of shouted warning would make that clear. Or maybe I’m mistaken and you aren’t attributing any nefarious intent to my use? If so, apologies. But control in the broadest sense in which I’m using it needn’t be (but can be) nefarious.

  178. Sorry, was sleeping off this injection.

    It also seems to me that the distinction goes to the root of what “intentionalism” is all about. It is perfectly possible to make an arbitrary mark that has no referent, even if one is not a horse. It is intent that converts the mark into a sign, therefore signifying something.

    Of course it is. All I’m saying is that a mark without a referent is not language until one adds the intent to turn it into one.

  179. The author, being the author, decides the authorÂ’s intent.

    Patterico, how did you get into the legal profession without understanding what “intent” means?

    Jeez.

    The attitude isn’t going to help the discussion, McGehee.

    What’s more, I don’t think you’re right — at least according to Jeff’s theory. He says the author could be unconscious of his true intent — and thus he could genuinely think he means “x” . . . but Jeff might decide the author really means something else.

    I know this because I have personally had Jeff tell me I didn’t mean what I knew I meant. To use Ric’s word, Jeff has “privileged” his own interpretation of mmy own words over my own interpretation. This he did based on information such as my prior utterances (frozen like a mosquito in amber!), his knowledge of me (presumably less complete than my knowledge of myself), etc.

    So, unless I’m an exception to the general theory of intentionalism, the theory allows the listener to tell the speaker that the speaker is wrong about his own intent.

    OK . . . so then we return to the question you mocked me for asking: if I as the speaker don’t get to decide what I meant, who does? And by what standard?

    It can’t be anything but the meaning derived by the reasonable person.

    P.S. If I’m forced to understand the “marks” and “signs” terminology, can someone explain it in plain terms, preferably with examples?

  180. Marconi plays the mamba

    Intentionalists hate hate hate that one.

  181. You ignore the Curious George examples as somehow unreasonable, but that just proves the point: Curious George can most certainly be read as a post-colonial narrative (hell, itÂ’s almost textbook), and there is ample evidence that such questions about assimilation of the Other were in the air at around the time the story was published.

    So one can make the claim that, though HA and Martha Rey weren’t intentionally setting out to write a post colonial narrative, they were nevertheless informed by the dialogical web — and so could not HELP but deal with such issues, as they were themselves inscribed by them, being as they were a product of a culture that was grappling with such ideas.

    Of course, this presumes that HA and Martha Rey are necessarily slaves to their cultural context, which is, of course, hogwash . . .

    If an interpretation presumes a premise that is hogwash, how can it be reasonable?

    Put another way, you seem to be arguing that my approach — which favors a reasonable man’s attempt to derive the most reasonable reading of the author’s meaning — cannot be right because that approach gives credence to interpretations which are unreasonable.

    Well, if the interpretations are unreasonable, then they aren’t following my approach — are they?

  182. Marconi played the venemous african snake.

    My guess is : racist.

  183. If an interpretation presumes a premise that is hogwash, how can it be reasonable?

    It’s reasonable from a linguistics approach that lets the receiver interpret the signs. It is not reasonable from an intentionalist perspective.

  184. One thing I know. The reasonable man always has to watch his back for the UNREASONABLE man.

  185. dicentra @178: True, or, if you prefer, Ric’s reading can be equally true: after careful consideration of all the facts, and the architext’s protests to the contrary, Ric concludes that the architect intended to create a memorial that intentionally ironized its ostensible purpose.

    Sarah and I went round and round in circles about this at the time, and I don’t plan on doing so again: the original thread is on the sidebar under intentionalism contains a link to the earlier piece.

    However, I will add one more thing. Sarah writes:

    because his intentions allowed a distasteful ambiguity whether he meant to do so or not

    If he meant to do so, you are attacking him on intentionalist grounds; if he didn’t mean to do so, you are attacking him on the grounds that he created something that somebody can take to mean something else that you find distasteful and problematic. You are no longer concerned with his intent.

    If the architect didn’t intend the ambiguity, the memorial can still be a bad idea because people can imbue it with their own signification. That’s a different question — one much closer to whether or not Tony Snow should use “tar baby” even if, as listeners were quick to admit, he wasn’t using it in a way that had any racist overtunes.

    Still, his being a conservative, we can see how someone might take it that way, conservatives being racist and all….

  186. A mark and a signifier are the same thing. For instance, let’s use the collections of symbols we know as the alphabet to construct the collection of symbols “carrot.” That is a mark, or a signifier, until we give that collection of symbols meaning. To signify “carrot” is to define that collection of symbols as referring to a specific variety of slender orange root vegetable (presuming there are others, I don’t know). At that point, “carrot” is a sign.

    At least, I hope that’s how it works.

  187. My feeling is that he did use islamist imagery on purpose, but one can and should stop and decide “fail” as soon as the ambiguity crosses the taste line.

  188. Also, the fact that “carrot” is a sign is because we can agree that those six letters grouped in that particular order refer to the aforementioned slender orange root vegetable. We could easily call such vegetables by any arbitrary mark/signifier made of any combination of symbols, or make up a special symbol for it, and as long as two people can agree that this symbol, however constructed, refers to the same item, we have a sign for it.

  189. A sign among those two people, of course. It works better overall if we can agree on a vast number of signifier/sign combinations, because otherwise communication becomes impossible.

    I guess I should think this stuff out more before posting.

  190. Something I thought of during this very good thread.

    An author can use the same marks as signs which will be intended to signify different things to two different audiences.

    In the movie Serenity, River writes to her brother Simon. She knows her letters will be read by her captors and deliberately writes them to have the captors take one meaning from them, and her brother to see a completely different one encoded in the same symbols.

    Husbands and wives often have a language like that too, to talk to each other privately even though they are also speaking to others in a public setting.

    This can be used to make one of the persons see it as ambiguous while another sees a specific meaning but I was thinking of having two separate and specific meanings to two different audiences.

  191. Patterico —

    You don’t understand what’s being said. I don’t know how to explain it to you other than to go back and read the earlier threads, where context is provided.

    Quickly, and then I’m going to give this up:

    What’s more, I don’t think you’re right — at least according to Jeff’s theory. He says the author could be unconscious of his true intent — and thus he could genuinely think he means “x” . . . but Jeff might decide the author really means something else.

    I know this because I have personally had Jeff tell me I didn’t mean what I knew I meant. To use Ric’s word, Jeff has “privileged” his own interpretation of mmy own words over my own interpretation. This he did based on information such as my prior utterances (frozen like a mosquito in amber!), his knowledge of me (presumably less complete than my knowledge of myself), etc.

    I didn’t decide your intent. I argued what I believed it to be based on all the evidence I mustered in defense of that particular interpretation. I didn’t say you didn’t know what you meant. I argued that your second-stage explanation of what you meant didn’t match up to what I came to believe was your intent at the time you wrote your “Good Man” piece.

    I have privileged what I believed, and argued, to be your intent. Never once did I say that you didn’t mean anything other than what I argued you meant. Which is to say, I never argued that you meant one thing, but that the way you phrased it could lead a reasonable person to believe you meant something else. Instead, I made the far stronger charge that you meant one thing, and that your subsequents post were attempting to walk that something back. I was arguing from the perspective of intentionalism.

    So, unless I’m an exception to the general theory of intentionalism, the theory allows the listener to tell the speaker that the speaker is wrong about his own intent.

    If the listener makes a convincing argument, and the utterer misrepresents that original intent, sure. But it is a far more difficult argument to make — and it is one that still appeals to authorial intent. Meaning, it is good faith interpretation, not an attempt to rewrite my own text using your marks.

    OK . . . so then we return to the question you mocked me for asking: if I as the speaker don’t get to decide what I meant, who does? And by what standard?

    You decide the moment you mean — the moment you turn your mark into a sign, the moment language happens. This is why it is important you learn what it means to signify. One you send the message off, however, it is up to those you hope to communicate with to decode that message. If they do so by trying to reconstruct what you’ve intended — that is, by trying to reconstruct what “Patterico” meant — they are interpreting. If they instead merely look at your signs as marks and then attach their own signifieds to them — in essence, creating an entirely new text without consideration to what you were trying to tell them — they are no longer interpreting, and instead are privileging their intent to signify over yours.

    The very fact that we believe the text came from you, however, means we are free to assume that those marks have in fact already been turned into signs. That’s what makes them language, and what differentiates them from things that merely resemble language.

    As I’ve said on countless occasions, intentionalism just is. But in an interpretive situation, we must privilege what it is we believe the author or utterer meant.

  192. which favors a reasonable man’s attempt

    You keep injecting this legalistic “reasonable man” concept into the discussion as if it were some sort of objective standard, rather than a term of art.

    To a mullah in Yemen, cutting off the clitoris of your daughter and killing her if she speaks to any male who isn’t a close relative is perfectly reasonable.

    To a plantation owner in Alabama before the Civil War, owning another human being was perfectly reasonable.

    And to a post-colonial literary theorist, interpreting Curious George as an allegory of the European conquest and exploitation of peace-loving brown-skinned people is perfectly reasonable.

    The fact that I (and, I’m sure, you) find all of those behaviors appalling does not alter the fact that in those cultural milieus such behaviors are not only considered “reasonable”, but laudable. Keep your daughter pure! Civilize the savages while making a few bucks along the way! Get tenure!

    Your “reasonable man” construct does not, and cannot, exist outside of a particular social context. By adopting such a metric for judging the semantic context of a speech act, you surrender control of the meaning of your own words to others.

    That’s bad.

  193. One needn’t even decide or consider his intent to find the memorial objectionable on the grounds that it is bad art, or that and his symbolic language is both can be REASONABLY CONTSTRUED by third parties as incorporating symbols important to * Islam*, even if the architect had no such consideration when designing his memorial. Especially when the third parties include the likes of those who caused need of a memorial in the first place. I go further and say it’s enough that *unreasonable* Jihadi’s, supersitious and wrong, could even have a second’s succor at the notion that symbols important to islam grace that spot thanks to their …initiative.

    My argument then and now is that the architects intent should have been to consciously avoid any sympbolism significant to Islam, the worship of Allah, the hijackers, or their sympathizers or that could conceivably be taken in such a way. The architects failure to ACTIVELY avoid any suggestion or comparison to sympbols important to Islam or the Jihadi movement in his memorial.

    He obviously did not intent to do THAT (to avoid such symoblism) and it’s a constructive failure to do his job. I can determine, reasonable man that I am, that he did not set out to avoid any such imagery. He failed at theory of mind, or else he did it on purpose. Reckless disregard is as good as it gets for the architect. That’s bad enough.

  194. “Semantic content”, not “context”, I meant.

  195. Since this is an active thread, and I was still conducting an argument on a thread that fell off the main page, I hope it’s OK for me to link it here. I’m still interested in that discussion — because it seems as though it objectively demonstrates that Rush does not agree with Jeff’s interpretation of his words.

  196. My argument then and now is that the architects intent should have been to consciously avoid any sympbolism significant to Islam, the worship of Allah, the hijackers, or their sympathizers or that could conceivably be taken in such a way. The architects failure to ACTIVELY avoid any suggestion or comparison to sympbols important to Islam or the Jihadi movement in his memorial.

    That is assuming he knew of such symbolism. Ric has made an argument that he did, and so he’s been able to offer an intentionalist argument against the memorial.

    If he didn’t, however — and let’s say for the sake of argument he did not — if I remember, the committee that initially approved the design missed all that symbolism, too. Were they intentionally doing so to mock their own dead? Were they in cahoots with the architect? Or is it possible that they merely hadn’t considered what YOU could “reasonably see”? — that in their interpretation, they didn’t see any problems with the architect’s intent?

  197. So Pat, do you think there is just no way that RL could for a moment advocate an utterly illogical position and then, realizing that he had done, abandon it and not bring it up again (since bringing it up would put him in the bad light of absurdity)?

  198. I think I understand perfectly. As I was telling McGehee, the author is not necessarily the final word on what his intent was. The final word is what you (as the listener) believe the author’s intent was. As you said:

    “I have privileged what I believed, and argued, to be your intent.”

    “we must privilege what it is we believe the author or utterer meant.”

    I’m asking: when there’s a conflict, who gets to decide? What if one listener believes the author or utterer meant x, and another listener believes the author or utterer meant “not x”? How does that get resolved?

  199. If you say so, Patterico.

    Listen: you have no desire to learn any of this. You still want to win some argument over Rush Limbaugh’s supposed intent. But we’re arguing on two very different planes here, it seems to me.

  200. While I can argue that it is good, very very good, to cut off a murdering savages from any form of satisfaction, or avoid tainting a victim with a celebration of symbols important to their murderer(s),
    NO one can argue that it is good for the Government to actively participate in schemes to silence the criticism of a perfectly law-abiding foe. Party machintations and twisting of opponents words is one thing, but it is not a good thing for the government to check mere political speech.

    If Rush crossed a line of propriety other Republicans don’t want to cross, well, that’s a subjective matter, I guess it’s their right to criticize him. but they happen to be stupidly wrong in this case, or have their own ulterior motives. He doesn’t speak for the part, and I wish they’d get on with the business of speaking for themselves instead of apologizing for someone they have no control over.

  201. I’m asking: when there’s a conflict, who gets to decide? What if one listener believes the author or utterer meant x, and another listener believes the author or utterer meant “not x”? How does that get resolved?

    Well, all I’m really concerned with is that we are all interpreting. So long as the conflict revolves around an appeal to what the utterer’s intent was, the person who makes the base case for his interpretation will win out in a world where there can of course be no final arbiter that stands outside of language in the pure realm of Truth, rendering a decision.

  202. Jeff, there are plenty of ways to find out what symbols are important to Islam, and to avoid them.
    So It’s quite reasonable to presume if he didnt know them, he did not set out to know them. That’s what I mean when I say reckless disregard for avoiding symbols important to the murderers is as good as it gets for the architect. You can’t come up with a reasonable scenario where he can be forgiven for it.

  203. Then the people who approved the design — some of whom were family members of those who died — showed a reckless disregard for the memory and bravery of their loved ones and of their country because they saw an arc and not a crescent?

    Okay.

  204. Honestly Jeff, I believe the board also failed.

  205. which favors a reasonable man’s attempt

    You keep injecting this legalistic “reasonable man” concept into the discussion as if it were some sort of objective standard, rather than a term of art.

    To a mullah in Yemen, cutting off the clitoris of your daughter and killing her if she speaks to any male who isn’t a close relative is perfectly reasonable.

    To a plantation owner in Alabama before the Civil War, owning another human being was perfectly reasonable.

    And to a post-colonial literary theorist, interpreting Curious George as an allegory of the European conquest and exploitation of peace-loving brown-skinned people is perfectly reasonable.

    The fact that I (and, I’m sure, you) find all of those behaviors appalling does not alter the fact that in those cultural milieus such behaviors are not only considered “reasonable”, but laudable. Keep your daughter pure! Civilize the savages while making a few bucks along the way! Get tenure!

    Your “reasonable man” construct does not, and cannot, exist outside of a particular social context. By adopting such a metric for judging the semantic context of a speech act, you surrender control of the meaning of your own words to others.

    That’s bad.

    I think I know why you cut off the phrase “which favors a reasonable man’s attempt” at the word attempt. Because if you gave my entire quote, readers would see that your argument falls apart. Here’s what I said, not chopped where you chopped it:

    “Put another way, you seem to be arguing that my approach — which favors a reasonable man’s attempt to derive the most reasonable reading of the author’s meaning

    This is possibly an evolution from my earlier articulation; I adapt my arguments as I learn. But I think this is correct.

    And if you look at the most reasonable reading of the author’s meaning, you may have to take cultural influences like the ones you described into account in determining what the speaker meant.

    For example:

    “To a mullah in Yemen, cutting off the clitoris of your daughter and killing her if she speaks to any male who isn’t a close relative is perfectly reasonable.”

    Right. So if a woman speaks to a male, and her father says “kill her,” interpreting whether he really meant it COULD require you to take into account whether his culture accepts or encourages such killings.

    “And to a post-colonial literary theorist, interpreting Curious George as an allegory of the European conquest and exploitation of peace-loving brown-skinned people is perfectly reasonable.”

    OK, so if a post-colonial literary theorist WROTE Curious George, you might take their post-colonial literary theories into account when deciding the most reasonable interpretation of the author’s meaning.

  206. Don’t misrepresent, Jeff. It’s a bit more than the word “crescent”.

  207. Jeff, that’s the clearest, most concise summary of the problem I’ve ever seen. Kudos.

  208. “Well, all I’m really concerned with is that we are all interpreting. So long as the conflict revolves around an appeal to what the utterer’s intent was, the person who makes the [best] case for his interpretation will win out in a world where there can of course be no final arbiter that stands outside of language in the pure realm of Truth, rendering a decision.”

    Is the person who makes the “best case” the person whose interpretation is the most reasonable reading of the author’s intent, taking all context into account?

  209. “Well, all I’m really concerned with is that we are all interpreting. So long as the conflict revolves around an appeal to what the utterer’s intent was, the person who makes the [best] case for his interpretation will win out in a world where there can of course be no final arbiter that stands outside of language in the pure realm of Truth, rendering a decision.”

    Also, if the person who makes the best case is someone other than the author, then they still win — in the sense that their interpretation (and not the author’s) should prevail. That follows from everything we’ve said.

    Right?

  210. And while it’s enough to stop at “didn’t know”, to be honest I think a careful review shows that, along the lines of what Ric suggests, the inclusion of Islamic imagery was not entirely accidental, but while obvious to those who know what’s important to Islam, wouldn’t be obviously apparent to a person with little familiarity with the symbols. The artist had the job of knowing that. That was HIS job. HE was supposed to understand the symbolism used.

  211. “Listen: you have no desire to learn any of this.”

    Ah, just saw that.

    OK, if you say so.

    Bye.

  212. OK, so if a post-colonial literary theorist WROTE Curious George, you might take their post-colonial literary theories into account when deciding the most reasonable interpretation of the author’s meaning.

    Why does one need be a post-colonial literary theorist to write a book that takes into account such a narrative? Maybe they just believed in manifest destiny. Or that it was the work of good Christians to tame savages. Or maybe they had read an anthropology text of the time.

    The problem comes when someone claims that the text contains these meanings regardless of whether or not they were intended by the author.

  213. “Listen: you have no desire to learn any of this.”

    That was referring to how signification works. Someone pointed before to a Saussure primer. And I keep telling you that you need that understanding in order to know what I’m talking about. You need to know what a sign is and how it operates.

  214. “So long as the conflict revolves around an appeal to what the utterer’s intent was”

    Is that all there IS though? Of course it’s wrong to cynically distort an opponents intention.

    It seems to me conflict is also related to how much effort the author put in to how his remarks will be received by others.

  215. intentionalism: obama lies when he speaks

  216. Saussure primer

    I’m certainly going to put some effort into digesting that. I’d like not to argue from the wrong premises.

  217. Is the person who makes the “best case” the person whose interpretation is the most reasonable reading of the author’s intent, taking all context into account?

    Yes, generally speaking.

    Of course, the person who actually offers the best interpretation may not convince anyone — and yet still, his decoding comes closest to what the author intended. Again, there’s never any way to know for certain when we’re dealing with texts that aren’t testable (like, for instance, deciphering an instruction manual).

    Also, if the person who makes the best case is someone other than the author, then they still win — in the sense that their interpretation (and not the author’s) should prevail. That follows from everything we’ve said.

    Right?

    There is no “win,” it’s rather just probable that they’ve done a better job of interpreting. We don’t always have an author around to expand his thoughts — and even when we do, we must be wary of the authorial fallacy. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t give more credence to what the author says as a follow-up than I might to some other sort of signal or cue. Just that I can’t consider it the last word, either.

  218. Ah, just saw that.

    OK, if you say so.

    Bye.

    Oh, Jesus.

    Why do I bother? I’m trying to keep up with a flurry of comments, and now I have to worry that I don’t inadvertently hurt feelings, too? Have I not engaged here all afternoon, despite getting a big honking shot in my shoulder today?

    I was referring to your not wanting to learn the basics of how signification works, Patterico. There are links in this thread and I’ve pointed you to earlier posts I’ve written that explains how it works. That would make it easier for you to understand what I’m saying and cut down on the need for me to have to constantly backtrack. It’s courtesy, is all.

    It seems to me conflict is also related to how much effort the author put in to how his remarks will be received by others.

    Sorry I beat you up, but you knew I liked my eggs scrambled.

  219. I think I know why you cut off the phrase “which favors a reasonable man’s attempt” at the word attempt.

    No, I cut it off there because your “reasonable man” simply does not exist as an objective standard.

    I suspect what you really meant by “reasonable man” is “someone just like me”, hence your earlier claim that a reasonable man could not possibly interpret Curious George as an allegory of colonialism (that’s not an exact quote, but please feel free to correct me if that’s not the gist). Please elaborate further if that’s not the case.

    Your “reasonable man” standard still shifts the binding of the symbols to their semantic content from the author to the hearer, which is wrong. Appealing to a mythical “reasonable man” is really no different from saying that the text means what the hearer wants it to mean. Worse still, you’re now privileging a mythical person rather than an actual one.

    Tell me, would a “reasonable man” believe that Rush Limbaugh really wants our country to become a failed state?

  220. Effort schmeffort. I must have asked P roughly fifteen direct questions over the last couple of weeks and at this point feel like I’ve gotten exactly zero responses (though he may have deigned to a couple), which, I don’t know, kinda makes me think I must be incoherent or something. Anyhow, maybe there are answers of some sort, they just haven’t been stumbled on yet.

  221. Alarm bells: important thing said :

    The fact that I (and, I’m sure, you) find all of those behaviors appalling does not alter the fact that in those cultural milieus such behaviors are not only considered “reasonable”, but laudable. Keep your daughter pure! Civilize the savages while making a few bucks along the way! Get tenure!

    I would assert that common ground of English common law that undergirds our entire culture and way of life is the basis of what Patterico means by the “reasonable man” . Subsumed with in that concept is a common culture with common values and way of looking at facts and events. It’s not the fashion to say one culture is superior to another, but ours is. And the concept of a “reasonable man” means one man of normal mind with ordinary powers of perception living in our own culture in the present day.

  222. Tell me, would a “reasonable man” believe that Rush Limbaugh really wants our country to become a failed state?

    Heck no, and nor would they consider him the head of the Republican party.

  223. Subsumed with in that concept is a common culture with common values and way of looking at facts and events.

    Currently, our superior culture looks at the process of interpretation and finds that one can be involved in such without considering the author’s meaning.

    This very practice will eventually undermine the culture that your “reasonable man” purports to preside over.

  224. It’s not the fashion to say one culture is superior to another, but ours is.

    I agree, but what does that have to do with the point under discussion?

    The issue here is whether meaning adheres to authorial intent. Patterico’s “reasonable man” shifts that to external parties. Clearly if you WERE going to do that, you’d rather have some parties doing the interpretation than others. That doesn’t really bear on the main point – that this is a dangerous practice.

    If the “reasonable man” really exists, why do so many court cases turn on whether the “reasonable man” would, or would not, have carried out the actions under litigation?

    Sorry, I’m not willing to turn the meaning of my words over to a jury. I’ve been on juries before.

  225. Well the law dictionary version goes something like this:

    “a fictional person with an ordinary degree of reason, prudence, care, foresight, or intelligence whose conduct, conclusion, or expectation in relation to a particular circumstance or fact is used as an objective standard by which to measure or determine something (as the existence of negligence)”

  226. “ordinary degree of reason”

    So much for the best case then, that would seem right out.

  227. I could say something really snarky about believing that the imaginary opinions of a fictional person constitute an “objective standard”, but I don’t think it’s really necessary. It sort of speaks for itself. :-)

  228. SPB, #226 relevant only to cross cultural references to varying standards of decency or reasonableness – when Jeff was saying “reasonable man” is too floaty a standard. “Reasonable man” by Patterico is being used to describe something rather more specific. A person in OUR culture, like us, in the same circumstances, today.” It is floaty and changes with circumstances. FOr example if a bunch of kids screwed around and messed up, their actions might be held to a “reasonable kid in that situation” standard.

    So to say, ” what would a fair, well-intentioned, decent man with ordinary powers of perceptions think or do in a similar circumstance, do” is to apply a reasonable man standard. You can hold experts to higher standards. Which is why the architect of the memorial gets ir from me, and the board, not so much.

    If you try to say “Barbarians on the Steppes in 1502 thought this was reasonable” , it just doesn’t really apply to Patterico’s use of the “reasonable man” standard.

  229. Oh, and Sarah?

    What did “reasonable men” in the United States think about slavery in 1861?

  230. It could be argued that in 1861 there was no such thing as a “reasonable man” concerning the issue of slavery. That issue being a point of contention in the society at large.

  231. Well, I didn’t invent the term. But it is useful. Most ordinary people can put themselves in a situation, and most have a theory of mind about how others like a defendant or a plaintiff of a certain age or skill set, could be expected to act or behave under the circumstances. They can hold others to a fair and reasonable standard of conduct appropriate to the circumstance. That conduct might be lesser for a child, different for a pregnant woman. Experts or specialists is some legal circumstances are held to a higher standard.

    “Objective” is a big fat lie, I agree, but it’s an old standard and it works well in our system of laws.

  232. I would argue, as I think SBP is, that a “reasonable man” hypothesis by necessity will destroy intent, because a “reasonable man” is not fixed in time. A “reasonable man” is a product of his environment, which is something that has changed and will continue to change over time. Intentionalism requires that we interpret as best we can based on what we know about previous utterances by the author, while not throwing any of our own biases in the mix. A “reasonable man” requires his biases to make a judgement.

  233. Objective != “reasonable man.” A “reasonable man” is a subjective being.

  234. Don’t ask me what my great great great great whatever grandpappy was supposed to do, and anyway that doesn’t really apply your own best judgement in the here and now, of how a reasonable man should act in a specific circumstance. If you get asked to decide in court, some acts would be reasonable, and some quite obviously not.

  235. I can think of an example where a reasonable person might pepper-spray someone. And you’ve probably heard an actual true-life case where there was a conviction of the sprayer, because she did not act reasonably when spraying. I think you would have been able to apply a reasonable man test and make the right judgment.

  236. Yes, and in the case of a legal situation, the “reasonable man” fiction is a good one. I don’t think it applicable to intentionalism is all.

  237. anyway that doesn’t really apply your own best judgement in the here and now, of how a reasonable man should act in a specific circumstance.

    Okay. What does a “reasonable man” believe about abortion in 2009?

  238. 100 years ago, a “reasonable man” would say that if one man provoked another man, and the provoked man punched the provoker in the face, the matter would be settled and no legal action would be required. Today, the person doing the hitting has to be “in fear of his life” or “trapped” or some such, and a modern “reasonable man” would have to convict the person doing the face-punching.

  239. Mr. Patterico bailed? I don’t get him sometimes.

  240. Many people find “Huckleberry Finn” to contain racist text. Are they reasonable men? Was the text always racist, or did it become racist as the times changed, and the reasonable men changed as well? Will people 500 years from now find it violently racist? How do we decide who is reasonable, and who is not, and therefore whose interpretation we shall favor?

    To an intentionalist, you would have to prove the text racist given Mark Twain’s other writings, and other utterances. We neither need, nor desire, the biases of a reasonable man, whoever that person is, to muddy the waters.

  241. cranky-d: Yes, and in the case of a legal situation, the “reasonable man” fiction is a good one. I don’t think it applicable to intentionalism is all.

    It seems like an “only tool is a hammer = every problem is a nail” sort of thing, actually.

    geoffb:It could be argued that in 1861 there was no such thing as a “reasonable man” concerning the issue of slavery.

    Yeah. Or on abortion for the present day. The fiction is most useful for those issues about which there’s no (or very little) dispute.

    It might okay to apply a “reasonable man” standard when judging whether deciding to use drain cleaner to kill one’s crab lice was a good idea. Abortion issues, not so much.

    If you’re saying that that political hot topices are precisely the ones where appealing to a “reasonable man” would be likely to be completely useless, I agree.

  242. Its not that a “reasonable man” is always going to nail correctly the intention of a speaker. But he’s doing just what Jeff advocated….he’s trying his best to get it right, based on what he knows of the person and the circumstance.

  243. Excuse me. You would have to prove the intent of Mark Twain. Since I come from a position that it is most likely (let’s say 85% sure at least) not a racist text, I had my bias of couching my argument in a manner that you are required to prove racist intent.

  244. I emailed him to tell him I meant no offense, just that he’s had ample opportunity, it seems to me, to have looked into how signs are made. I don’t think the signifier + signified = sign thing is all that difficult to understand, but understanding it is kind of a prerequisite for what is, essentially, a discussion of sign function in a communicative chain.

  245. Anyway, I think that’s how Patterico was using the term. He can correct me if I got him wrong.

  246. the “reasonable” part is a marxist’s construct

  247. A reasonable man is going to make a judgement based on his own knowledge and biases, which are subjective in time and space. If one can put on the other person’s shoes, well, hopefully they will do so as much as possible, but that is not the requirement.

  248. Its not that a “reasonable man” is always going to nail correctly the intention of a speaker. But he’s doing just what Jeff advocated….he’s trying his best to get it right, based on what he knows of the person and the circumstance.

    Not as Patterico introduced the idea. At that point, the reasonable man could make any of a number of reasonable interpretations based upon the text as a formal object with no appeal given to authorial intent. He was essentially pushing New Criticism.

    The problem was, in many of those cases, the reasonable man wasn’t engaged in interpretation at all, because he doesn’t understand why as a text meaning is fixed. And so he was engaged in creative writing whenever he didn’t appeal to the author’s intent.

  249. what does “reasonable” mean in jerry wright’s tucc?

  250. Chomsky doesn’t like the Saussure guy. Saussure must be ok.

  251. I wonder what Mr. Patterico’s having for dinner? I bet it’s tastier than what I’m having for dinner. I’m almost certain of it. When you compare you despair though. Mine’s lower cal I bet.

  252. I had empanadas just a little while ago.

    They were good.

  253. I had pasta with tomato sauce for dinner. I’ve been working on my tomato sauce, but I haven’t converged yet. Right now, a little too much garlic (maybe) and not enough basil and oregano. I think. I make big batches so I only have new stuff every two weeks or so.

  254. can the term “reasonable” used in conjunction with man when progressives are teaching. progressives are “unreasonable” by definition

  255. empanadas are the best. I have to find them in my zone. We used to have a back of the truck empanada lady when I worked in Burbank.

  256. if you figure out a recipe you should post it, cranky. I’ve never tried making that before.

  257. “If you’re saying that that political hot topices are precisely the ones where appealing to a “reasonable man” would be likely to be completely useless, I agree.”

    Yes, that and that politics and that extension of politics we know as war are two of the means used to decide what a “reasonable man” will be in a given society at a given time. Religion, culture and technology could also be thrown into the mix.

    Reasonable though treated by the law as a fixed standard is not and the whole of the law may be shifted by other forces which change what a “reasonable man” is. See 240 and 242 cranky-d.
    [I would submit that much of the work of the left is involved in just this way of shifting the whole of our legal system into a ‘reasonable” one they desire. This is where the intentionalism arguments butt heads with their warping of the language and culture.]
    The authors meaning is not changeable in that way, but is fixed at the moment it is signified. Aye, there’s the rub, for the left.

  258. Stuffed chicken breasts Kiev and baked potato with sour cream and butter. If this is to be a dinner discussion.

  259. “I would submit that much of the work of the left is involved in just this way of shifting the whole of our legal system into a ‘reasonable” one they desire. This is where the intentionalism arguments butt heads with their warping of the language and culture.]”

    Well, yes. I would say that’s absolutely correct that shifting the world into a new “reasonable” that departs from tradition in law and government in America, is the aim.

  260. Oh, for that butter gueyser. Someday I will have chicken Kiev again. Tell me what its like.

  261. This might help a bit:

    It’s very simple: when you see “cat,” there is nothing to that mark — or signifier — that necessarily suggests a furry feline that enjoys a nice liver-flavored dinner. That is, “cat” is an arbitrary mark or sound form that comes to “mean” furry feline because it is attached to a signified, the concept or thing to which the sound form or mark refers.

    Taken together, the mark, “cat” and the concept furry feline, create a linguistic sign. In a written text, this sign is a word.

    When we see “cat” we assume it is a word — a sign — because we assume that the mark has been attached to the concept. And we assume this because humans create signs, not empty signifiers or unattached marks, when they are engaging in communication — when they are intending to mean.

    Hence, it follows that for something to be language it must have been created by some agency.

    To put that into perspective, think of it this way: you can look into the clouds and see a fuzzy bunny humping a rocking chair. But you know that what you are seeing wasn’t intended, and so it is not an example of God trying to communicate to you through pornographic bunny-and-teak cloud art. In fact, your way of looking at marks in the sky, coupled with your own intent, turned what was merely a cloud formation into something else.

    Similarly, a bird walking in the sand can, conceivably, “write” something that looks like “cat.” But what we have here is an example of an accident: it resembles language (because convention has taught us to “read” “cat” as language), but because it is merely a mark, not attached to a signified, it is not a sign, and so it is not language.

    Formalists tend to look at texts and think that they can ignore or bracket intent. The idea behind this is that a reasonable person will look at the text and interpret it based on the words before him. But the problem is, one cannot even conceive of what is before him as being words in the first place unless one agrees that what is before him is a set of signs, not merely a set of signifiers.

    And, to circle back, if they are signs, we know that they must have already been signified — marks or signifiers attached to the concept or signified. From that observation, one can say that the text, given that it is comprised of signs, has already been imbued with its meaning at the time of its composition by some agency. And so to interpret it, we must try to decode that meaning, to understand those signs, as they were created by that agency.

    When we instead believe that we are looking at marks that can “mean” whatever those marks can be said to mean once WE get through adding concepts to them, we have changed the author’s signs into our own, and so have created a completely new text.

    By not appealing to the author’s intent, we have REFUSED to interpret. Calling what we’re doing at that point “interpretation” is where we run into problems.

  262. SarahW.
    If you are asking me to describe chicken Kiev I am not that good of a writer. All I can say is butter/garlic gushing out of the breast when cut open. Delicious even though store bought.

    Stuffed breasts are one of those things I keep handy as they can be made up quickly and my wife loves them. Since I have to do all the cooking I need to have things available I can throw together easily.

  263. 1.) why are english speakers interpreting english?
    2.) who are the agents in this linguistics battle?

  264. It’s going to be scary when people start insisting that our laws mean something other than what our legislators meant when they wrote them, or that the Constitution doesn’t mean what the Framers meant when they wrote it.

  265. Okay. After an email exchange, I’m told that I don’t respect Patterico’s good faith. He wants to discuss all this using plain terms. Terms that directly obtain here are too discipline specific. My preference that he do me the courtesy of learning the basic vocabulary was too much to ask.

    Oh well. That’s not on me. I tried, I really did. And now I’m tired of trying.

  266. . Again, there’s never any way to know for certain when we’re dealing with texts that aren’t testable (like, for instance, deciphering an instruction manual).

    Dear Jeff:

    I was here at work until 5:00 AM today and am just signing off again after working several more hours to get an instruction manual in good enough shape that one of my co-workers can sit down with the devices and test it.

    And because of my sleep deprivation, I originally read your aforementioned quote to mean that instruction manuals cannot be tested and therefore are not good candidates for divining intent.

    So if I had fired off an argument against what I thought you said, you would be within your rights to say, “hey, read it again, that’s not what I meant.”

    And I would be obliged to do just that, and then I would see that I totally misinterpreted what you said.

    But if I were a Lefty, I’d just keep bashing you for being an ignoramus when it comes to instruction manuals. Which pay my mortgage, so I know what’s what better than you, ya fascist ratbastard.

  267. cranky-d, in the Italian trattoria I worked in back in the day we made the tomato sauce daily, round about four or five gallons, give or take. Thing was it was always looked upon as a base sauce, a thing to be altered and added to, depending on the dish in which it was to be used. So the basic sauce was olive oil, sauteed garlic, and whole plum tomatoes smashed by hand, then cooked without any herb, salt or pepper. These latter would then be added as the requisite dish was prepared. It’s not a bad way to go in the home kitchen either, provided you cook a bunch of different tomato sauced dishes with any frequency.

  268. I’m currently involved in a surreal email exchange with Pat where I’m being asked if I “stand by” my statement that Pat “doesn’t want to learn any of this.”

    Honestly. That’s what’s happening here on Friday night. I’m actually being asked if I “stand by” a comment quickly dashed off in answer to one of the host of comments that were coming at me all at once, and that I was doing my best to answer as precisely as I could.

    I can’t win. I really can’t win.

  269. I’m so jealous of the culinary ones and their homemade this n that. dicentra, manual please?

  270. The Pat Jeff dynamic is way beyond my paygrade. Cooking on the other hand, I do with pleasure.

  271. Mr. Patterico should know about the sign thing just for cause it’s sort of a famous concept. Like the evolution or the id or the gravity. Things what could be lost if we don’t take care.

  272. Those were private e-mails — or at least I had thought they were. And the summary of my position is inaccurate, particularly this: “My preference that he do me the courtesy of learning the basic vocabulary was too much to ask.” Since Jeff is insisting on characterizing what I said in my private e-mail to him, let me set forth the content of one of them, which addresses the issue of learning the vocabulary. I sent this in response to his e-mail saying I should consult the Saussure link:

    I looked at it, but it’s like many of your posts on the issue: it’s simply too abstract for me to follow unless I’m getting college credit for it. I see something like this:

    The sign (signe) is described as a “double entity”, made up of the signifier, or sound image, (signifiant), and the signified, or concept (signifié). The sound image is a psychological, not a material concept, belonging to the system. Both components of the linguistic sign are inseparable. One way to appreciate this is to think of them as being like either side of a piece of paper – one side simply cannot exist without the other.

    And my eyes glaze over.

    What I’m telling you is, I’m surely not alone. I don’t think all your readers understand this stuff either.

    I liked the Hot Air post and the Limbaugh discussion (and the Bennett discussion, etc.) because it puts this stuff in a concrete and understandable context. I looked forward to discussing it in that way. I said somewhere that you may not have time to re-explain this stuff to me in plain language, but a) I hoped you could and b) I think I’m not the only one who would benefit from it.

    I want to “learn” what your theory entails, and I was learning by testing it through argument. I can’t learn by reading lengthy passages with lengthy abstract words and concepts. If it frustrates you to re-explain things you have explained before, that’s fine. I’m suggesting that if the re-explanation is more geared towards the layman, it will give your ideas wider appeal. Just my opinion.

    I said I’d debate the issue until I felt that we were headed into a scenario where each was simply trying to prove himself a better man than the other. When I was told I didn’t want to learn — when I know I do, just in a way that will work for me — I bristled and interpreted that as your attempt to show yourself to be better than me (you are trying to teach, but I don’t want to learn; I just want to be petty and win an argument). Maybe I interpreted wrongly but that’s how it read to me.

    I can only learn this through debate and argument, which I don’t want to be personal on either side, but which I want to be spirited. Part of that is indeed an attempt to question the other guy’s argument. It’s done in good faith as a way to explore the other guy’s position. If you can’t credit me with good intentions then let’s simply part ways.

    I’ve tried to make it clear that I want to learn Jeff’s theories; I just have little patience for verbiage like that quoted in the Saussure-related piece above.

    What caused me to decide I should depart the thread was Jeff’s statement: “Listen: you have no desire to learn any of this.”

    My last e-mail to him asked whether he still stands by that statement. Because if that’s how he feels — if he doesn’t respect my intentions in having this discussion — I don’t think it’s productive for me to continue the discussion with him.

    I suppose it’s a personal failing that I have not developed the skill of having extended discussions with people who question the sincerity of my intentions. It upsets me; I say rash things; rash things are said in response; and so forth. You’ve seen it happen here before, and I don’t want it to happen again.

    Which is really a shame, because I was enjoying it very much right up to the point where that statement was made. And because I was enjoying talking to the rest of you.

    I really hope that some of you who have sparred with me on this blog will continue to comment on my blog, in particular when I discuss these issues. There’s a great crowd of people here.

  273. Not to be a jerk, but I’m not sure you can discuss this stuff using “plain terms,” because “plain terms” don’t appear to include the proper words to describe what the argument is about. Without them the whole thing is too squishy.

    I didn’t mind taking the time to figure this stuff out, but I guess that’s me. When I read 263 above, it confirmed that at least in my mind I understand what’s going on. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s that difficult to grasp.

    Oh well.

  274. It wouldn’t be gay if y’all just picked up the phone you know.

  275. I should’ve refreshed before commenting. Such is life. Time to watch the terminator/doll house/battlestar galactica triumverate.

  276. Recorded on vhs, cuz that’s how I roll. OUTLAW!!

  277. I lived with a Spanish Lit phd candidate girlfriend (from Pikesville, no less) for many years and got an earful of Saussure and Barthes and Derrida and so on. She eschewed all that stuff, just wanted to love literature and communicate that love but was eternally bogged down in what she thought was esoterica. Then her professor advisor and his wife were killed in a plane crash in Spain, and sadly in her grief, blammo, she gave it up. Years of study pissed away.

  278. last week’s dollhouse it finally started really getting a little intriguing I thought. The old lady still seems kind of expendable. They need to say what her story is.

  279. In response to the email Pat quotes, I sent him #263, above. I sent this hours after I made the comment at #201, which had a specific context (which I was sure to make clear at #215, after answering a bunch of posts from Sarah, which I was trying to do simultaneously)

    Now he is asking me if I “stand by” my statement. It’s fucking surreal.

    Yes. I stand by the statement that we are arguing on two different planes, and that if you want to learn this, you would take my repeated advice to read the earlier pieces on intentionalism wherein I break down how the sign works. If it makes your eyes glaze over, I can’t help that.

    You wanted to continue arguing without having the requisite basics down. I got tired of trying to explain things to someone unwilling to meet me halfway. After an email you sent me, I went out of my way to write you a little primer, even.

    Jesus. This is unbelievable.

    Have at it, folks. You don’t need me.

  280. That’s really sad but if you don’t feel it anymore what can you do?

  281. I agree, hf, and I think she did the right thing in leaving, it’s just the sad part as you note, that we often enter into complex things we can’t possibly be expected to predict and only come to learn the (awful) truth after so much time has passed.

  282. I missed last weeks DH, though I’ve seen the rest. Is it worth the hulu time? Or should I just wait for the eventual repeats?

  283. That’s it. I’ve decided. This medium is total nonsense. No one wants to learn. They want to win arguments.

    It’s not for me.

  284. I’ve never used my undergrad or my grad thingers. They both seemed silly after. I got more mileage out of my MCSE but even then I never took a for real IT gig. It’s kind of remarkable how much integrity Mr. Patterico has, for Los Angeles. You don’t see that very much here. Especially on the West Side. It’s kind of a sort of gearshifting you have to do to apprehend it. By you I mean me of course. Yes. For real, last week it really sort of found legs I thought, Dollhouse.

  285. nonononono Mr. Goldstein. That is wrong and I will tell you why. Icebergs.

  286. Sdferr,

    “we often enter into complex things we can’t possibly be expected to predict and only come to learn the (awful) truth after so much time has passed.”

    Is a wonderful description of what I think of as life, and still I love it with all my heart. I make the “awful” as an option along with beautiful too.

  287. That helpful self-selection thing was the best bit about St. John’s. People figured out real fast whether they wanted to be there or not and by the time the first semester was over the weeding was done and everybody worked toward a more or less common goal, namely, learning. Well, that and the appeal to authorial intent like no place else I’ve ever seen.

  288. Also I checked to be sure and yup. I bookmarked this thread. It’s one of those read more than once ones.

  289. Awful gets mushed in my head with awesome or awestriking-ish, on account of the greek thaumazo/thaumazein – wonderous, geoffb.

  290. It was such a good day I’m not having it end on a down note.

  291. You should see how determined I look right now.

  292. Ok then, fix it.

  293. Yes. And fix it I shall. Where’s buttons?

  294. It’s time to turn this tugboat around for the American Way I think. I just googled and it turns out I’m the only one what ever says that. Seems like a waste of a perfectly good rallying cry.

  295. “it’s simply too abstract for me to follow unless I’m getting college credit for it”

    This statement gave me (brief) incandescent rage. I don’t really know why. Am I the only one?

  296. I doubt you are alone Eric but it didn’t phase me none. I been hearing stuff like that from people all my life.

  297. “I just have little patience for verbiage like that quoted in the Saussure-related piece above.”

    Well, it cannot be distilled lest someone potentially take it out of context and use it to disparage the author.

  298. Patterico is a lawyer, yes?

    Lawyers are (in)famous for having hundreds of technical terms that are incomprehensible to mere mortals, yes?

    Why does he expect Jeff’s field to be amenable to being explained in a few simple sentences when his own is not?*

    The same is true of any field of scholarship, of course. We all have specialized words that we use so we don’t have to write twenty paragraphs every time a common concept comes up for discussion. Without mutual agreement and understanding of those terms, useful discussion is impossible.

    It seems to me that Patterico wants to discuss a complex issue without doing the necessary background reading. That won’t work. No royal road to geometry.

    I’ve only nibbled around the edges of Saussure (and Peirce, who makes Saussure look like The Cat in the Hat) in the context of a computational linguistics seminar I attended few years ago (the research group was running it was trying (and is still trying) to produce evolvable computer languages — ideally resulting in computers that can learn how to talk to each other). It’s Really Hard Stuff.

    I think Jeff is well within his rights to ask Patterico to do some background reading before going any further with this.

    *If I’m wrong, hey, I always thought it’d be handy to be a lawyer. Maybe Patterico can give us a few paragraphs in simple English that will let us all go down and pass the bar exam. I think California is one of the few states that lets you sit the exam without attending law school, but I could be wrong about that.

  299. This statement gave me (brief) incandescent rage.

    It reminded me of some undergraduates I’ve had in the past, actually.

  300. I’m just glad this post was bumped off the front page for one of the many many posts devoted to Iowahawk.

    That’s why I started this site, after all. To remind myself that I’m about middling at what I do.

  301. ach, been there, done that. didn’t mind the disappearance either. all to the good.

  302. He’s great. But 4 posts? I’m literally embarrassed.

    I’m going to get drunk now. Before I get really depressed and decide to get drunk.

  303. #292, Sdferr,

    That works. Awful and awesome. Awestruck by the beauty and wonder that we are actually here, right here, this place and time. Here through agency both random and divine.

    Sorry it took awhile to respond. I had to leave work, go home and fix a small repast for us both.

  304. This whole defiance of cheerful thing is really discouraging.

  305. There’s a choral passage from the Antigone -hold on, brb.

  306. Here it is. The word translated wonders in the greek has a sense of all of these, awesome, terrible, amazing, etc.:

    Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy south-wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him; and Earth, the eldest of the gods, the immortal, the unwearied, doth he wear, turning the soil with the offspring of horses, as the ploughs go to and fro from year to year.

    antistrophe 1

    And the light-hearted race of birds, and the tribes of savage beasts, and the sea-brood of the deep, he snares in the meshes of his woven toils, he leads captive, man excellent in wit. And he masters by his arts the beast whose lair is in the wilds, who roams the hills; he tames the horse of shaggy mane, he puts the yoke upon its neck, he tames the tireless mountain bull.

    strophe 2

    And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mould a state, hath he taught himself; and how to flee the arrows of the frost, when ’tis hard lodging under the clear sky, and the arrows of the rushing rain; yea, he hath resource for all; without resource he meets nothing that must come: only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes.

    antistrophe 2

    Cunning beyond fancy’s dream is the fertile skill which brings him, now to evil, now to good. When he honours the laws of the land, and that justice which he hath sworn by the gods to uphold, proudly stands his city: no city hath he who, for his rashness, dwells with sin. Never may he share my hearth, never think my thoughts, who doth these things!

  307. Yes.

    All that and more.

    I remember in the Summer of ’69, lying in a field alone in the daytime. The moon was out even though it was bright daylight. Staring at it and thinking. “Men are walking there, at this moment.” That was awe and beauty and all those things. And the realization of the immensity of all that is and how small we are in the entire scheme of things.

    I can’t express things in any way comparable to how they sing in my mind. Very glad for that passage you quoted.

  308. This is my favorite poem about ineffable stuff.

  309. Put another way, you seem to be arguing that my approach — which favors a reasonable man’s attempt to derive the most reasonable reading of the author’s meaning

    Ah, I see there’s some extra stuff in there. Let me reword:


    Put another way, you seem to be arguing that my approach — which favors a reasonable man’s attempt to derive a reasonable reading of the author’s meaning

    Who decides what’s “most reasonable”? Why, you do. Someone else who argues that another interpretation is as reasonable is, then, clearly incorrect.

    This is what I mean about arguing from authority. You’re actually arguing from nothing other than your own opinion on what constitutes a reasonable interpretation, while ostensibly borrowing from (without actually consulting) some mythical majority opinion.

    See, I don’t understand much of the terminology that Jeff uses, nor do I have the interest, the time, or the patience to sort through it all. Yet even my uneducated mind can sniff out bullshit of this nature when presented with it. Any reasonable person would agree with me.

  310. “it’s simply too abstract for me to follow unless I’m getting college credit for it”

    This statement gave me (brief) incandescent rage. I don’t really know why. Am I the only one?

    Mostly just depresses me. I have gotten tired of trying to discuss books I am reading with most of my friends, the discussion inevitably leads to something along the lines of “why are you reading that, you taking a class or something?” The profound lack of curiosity that most of my fellow humans display… I would just rather not think about. I would have hoped for better from Patterico.

  311. I don’t get the part where Mr. G says you don’t wanna learn this stuff and then Mr. P says you can’t say that to me cause that’s unfounded I can’t help it if my eyes glaze over.

  312. I’m thinking that Mr P’s kneejerk sense of self-honor got in the way of his self-respect and someone got hurt.

  313. Sdferr —

    Did you ever figure out what Ace meant by this?

    Point is, however: Seems it would have be an opportune time for a feller to get his name out there, let people know he was a proper conservative (i.e., the sort of conservative NYTs readers would ignore rather than actively despise), show he has what it takes to get conservatives talking about him and linking to him, etc.

    Do you have a link to the post?

  314. I have my guesses but I’d just as soon not make them public. Link coming up.

  315. Go ahead, make them public. I’m curious.

  316. Sdferr and happyfeet,

    You both seem to have a belief that I a) don’t want to learn but b) complain that someone points that out.

    Jeff said somewhere above:

    I’ve gone over this extensively, and there are more detailed explanations in other pieces listed under the tag intentionalism over in the greatest hits.

    You might wish to start there.

    In comment 127, I replied:

    You know, I might try those posts. But like another commenter, I’ve sometimes gotten lost in them in the past. I thought your Hot Air post was a little more plain-spoken than my memory of the past posts on intentionalism I’ve seen. I could be wrong about that but that was my sense.

    I thought I might learn more by asking direct questions like I’m doing now. If you don’t have time to answer them, let me know. But if you do, I think I’ll grasp the argument better — and maybe some others will too.

    In other words, I do want to learn. But since I knew that one way had not worked for me in the past, I thought I would try a different way: asking for things to be put in a plain-spoken manner.

    Let me anticipate the complaint that I was demanding that the discussion take place on my terms. I had no demand because I recognized that Jeff might have have the time or inclination to do this. I just knew that I had clicked the Saussure link and it was Greek to me. So I sought a plain-spoken explanation, much like Issac Asimov did with science and math. I argued that I thought it might be worth Jeff’s while because it might help others and not just me. But if he didn’t have the time, he could just tell me that and it would be fine.

    He did eventually do that, and his explanation was great. It was exactly what I had been looking for. But it came after his accusation that I had no desire to learn this (which wasn’t true), and I’ve already described why I wanted to know whether he stood by that statement.

    I had told myself I wouldn’t comment here again, but I like you guys and wanted to explain this to you. I tried e-mailing you, but neither of you receives mail at the e-mail addresses you left in comments on your site. Sdferr, I also wanted to know whether there any questions you had asked that I still hadn’t answered; I received a very serious case this week on a short time schedule for trial and didn’t have as much time to engage/read comments/blog/respond as usual. Please e-mail me if you have anything you wanted me to answer. patterico AT gmail DOT com.

  317. “I don’t understand much of the terminology that Jeff uses, nor do I have the interest, the time, or the patience to sort through it all.”

    This is exactly what I suspected, which is why I thought a plain-spoken breakdown of the terms would be helpful.

    And Slartbartifast, the question you’re putting to me is exactly the same one I had been putting to Jeff: who decides? Who gets to say, after the utterance has been made, what the author’s intent really was? Whose interpretation will be deemed most valid?

    I think a lot of people around here are assuming the answer is: the author. But it’s not, according to Jeff. His answer is: whoever has the best argument for the author’s interpretation. That to me sounds like my argument: the most reasonable interpretation of the author’s intent governs.

    Saying the “reasonable man” sounds standardless, but it’s more of a standard than saying Patterico always gets to decide, or Jeff Goldstein always gets to decide, or Slartbartifasat gets to decide.

    The questions you’re asking me are EXACTLY the questions I wanted Jeff to answer.

    Man. I really want to talk about this, which is why I keep getting sucked in. But I’m serious, I just can’t. I can’t discuss this with Jeff (as mentioned, I lack the skill for extended discussions with people who expressly doubt my sincerity); I can’t discuss it with you guys here and ignore Jeff (tried it before and people thought I was rude, and they had a point); so I think I have to bow out. You guys don’t want another “f— you” shouting match between Jeff and me, and we’re at the beginning of a road I’ve been down before twice now. Fool me twice, shame on me, fool me thrice, won’t get fooled again.

    If any of you want to discuss this with me, I plan to do a post on my site about it if you get time; you can comment on my site. And I gave my e-mail. Thanks again. It’s a very interesting and worthwhile topic. I’ve changed my view of it in recent days because of Jeff’s (and others’) arguments, and have evolved my thinking on the matter. And it’s a lens through which every political debate over language can be viewed, so it is very important to understand how you approach it in a philosophical sense. I’ve learned a lot and hope to continue.

  318. “He did eventually do that, and his explanation was great.”

    By this I mean: he did eventually give the explanation. Not that he did eventually tell me he didn’t have the time.

    See, my words didn’t adequately express my intentions, and a reasonable man might think I was saying the latter when I meant the former. That was my fault for lack of clarity, and I’m correcting it, as speakers who aren’t clear (but wanted to be) should.

  319. Just read this Mr. Patterico. Me I just try to remember that what’s important is that your intent is to figure out what the intention of the author was. It’s all about integrity, really.

  320. Also it’s just good manners.

  321. Well, here’s one in this thread for starters. There are a couple of similar questions implied, if not posed directly (I actually don’t recall whether I put them in the form of a question and haven’t checked to see), in my response to your thread on discovery of the Limbaugh transcript of Feb 13 (16?). Stuff much further back than last Tuesday may not be salient today, I don’t know, I’d have to go back and look to see.

  322. One can’t simply say “the author decides.” Clearly there are far too many cases where the author simply is no longer available to explain, illustrate, or expand. “Who ever has the best argument as to the authors intent,” covers all scenarios. Even the mythical (and I say non-existant) “Reasonable Man” I’d think could agree that if the author is available that the author will have that best argument.

    But there’s still the case of a dishonest author.

    So, whoever has the best argument holds–and as an attorney this should be familar to you–making a case for intent based on known facts, other authorial evidence (what else has the author said or written), and looking for anomalies (where we find our ass with one hand but not the other, so clearly something’s wrong).

    But where the author is available, and is not thought to be dishonest, yes, the author decides. (Jeff, or someone, will correct me if I’ve left anything out.)

  323. “And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.”
    “And yours,” he replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”

  324. “But where the author is available, and is not thought to be dishonest, yes, the author decides.”

    Someone has to decide whether the author is thought to be dishonest. Who is that?

    Who is the ultimate authority? It’s not the author.

  325. “Who ever has the best argument as to the authors intent,” covers all scenarios.

    Who decides who has the best argument?

  326. Didn’t GWB claim to be the decider?

    Heh. I laugh’t. My joke, I decide.

  327. That to me sounds like my argument: the most reasonable interpretation of the author’s intent governs.

    That may be your argument now. It wasn’t your argument when back when you brought up the “reasonable person” confronting a text, because you hadn’t yet understood that it is intent that makes it a linguistic text to begin with.

    More, you’re confusing meaning with interpreting that meaning. The author means what the author meant at the time he signified. Relying on the author to give an account of his meaning after the fact potentially falls prey to the authorial fallacy, which is one of the considerations we need to be aware of when we set out to decode the author’s meaning.

    Judging which is the best interpretation is a separate question: with certain testable texts, this is clearly not much of a concern. The example I gave was an instruction manual: the best interpretation is likely (though we can’t be certain, given the nature of language) to be the one wherein following what we believe to be the author’s meaning results in a successful application of the instructions. With more complex texts, however, it is far more difficult to prove which interpretation is best.

    Still, the one constant is that to say you are interpreting at all, you must concede that the author’s meaning is fixed at the moment he signifies.

    To understand all this, you have to understand the sign and how it works.

    Your position has evolved, but you still seem to be trying to bend it in such a way that the interpreter decides on meaning. This is NOT the case. The interpreter argues what he thinks the author’s meaning was.

    That is NOT a distinction without a difference.

    Off to Target. If you want to remove this to your site for further conversation, at least have the decency to present my position correctly. To do that, you’re going to have to get over your eye-glazed stage and understand the foundations of what I’m saying.

    Also, using Slart’s comment as a suggestion that many others here don’t want to understand or want to follow along is disingenuous. Plenty have, and plenty do — and you continue to misunderstand the essence of what is being argued.

  328. Patterico, you’re still couching this in terms of who “wins” the interpretation “battle”, which is a completely separate thing from the actual intent.

    (Jeff, feel free to correct me if I’m mischaracterizing your position).

    When the author performs a speech act, he intends a certain meaning.

    Jeff is saying that we need to do everything we can to determine that meaning, and no other.

    As I understand it, the punishment for homicide can vary a great deal depending on the perpetrator’s intent, yes? Part of the job of the judge, attorneys, and jury is to determine the perpetrator’s intent, yes?

    Certainly the perpetrator may lie about his intent. Certainly there may be other pieces of evidence about the intent which must be taken into account. Those things are not the intent in themselves, but merely evidence for it. The real intent of the perpetrator consists of the actual sequelae he had in in his actual mind when he committed the act. Just because we don’t have direct access to his state of mind (at least not yet) doesn’t mean that the state of mind didn’t exist, or that we can pretend that our own states of mind are the ones which count.

    Our job is to interpret the text by making an honest effort to determine the author’s intent, while ignoring our personal feelings on the matter. We may disagree with the author and issue a rebuttal, but we must rebut what he actually intended to say, not some straw man that we’ve concocted out of our own biases.

    Now, we all know that sometimes guilty men go free, and sometimes innocent men are convicted, but those outcomes are bugs, not features. Regardless of who “wins” the case, there was still a real intent in the perpetrator’s mind when the crime was committed. Attempting to base the “interpretation” on anything other than the closest approximation we can make to the perpetrator’s actual intent is dishonest.

  329. When the author performs a speech act, he intends a certain meaning. (which he may no be fully conscious of, or may be fully unconsious of)

  330. “actual sequelae he had in in his actual mind ” However the mind is divided. It is full of zombies. Things leak out that are not directed by will and reason alone

  331. Sorry, I don’t buy that “unconscious” actions represent intent.

  332. However the mind is divided. It is full of zombies.

    Falsifiable scientific evidence for this?

  333. A good lay text is “Phantoms in the Brain” by V.S. Ramachandran. I think you’d find it fascinating.

  334. Also for an exploration of the basis of conscious thought , “The Feeling of What Happens” by Antonio Damasio

  335. Note that by “this” I don’t mean that there are separate parts of the brain that process vision, speech, etc. That’s clearly the case.

    I’m asking for some scientific evidence that there are “zombies” in the brain that could have caused the authors of Curious George to write an allegory of European colonialism without being consciously aware of what they were doing.

    Sorry to be blunt, but IMO, that’s a total load of crap.

  336. A good lay text is “Phantoms in the Brain” by V.S. Ramachandran.

    I didn’t ask for a pop sci “lay text”. I asked for falsifiable scientific evidence.

    Got any MRI data?

  337. There is no shortage of science…. but maybe I should put that in a pub post.

  338. Look up the author, SPB.

  339. 340. I just saw that. I’m puzzled. I don’t recall advancing that specific point about post colonial monkey stories.

  340. From the description on Amazon, the Ramachandran book appears to be primarily about the failure of automated sensory input systems (phantom limb pain and the like).

    That’s a far cry from writing a thousand page pro-racism novel without being aware of what you’re doing.

    I’ll be looking forward to your pub post with interest.

  341. However, Just as emotion wends its way into music, life experience shapes our stories. I have no monkeys to grind, but I’d allow that whatever the case should have been, its CONCEIVABLE that an authors understanding of the world should shape the stories he invents.

  342. I get the feeling, however, you are trying to take something I said and convert it into something else.

  343. I don’t recall advancing that specific point about post colonial monkey stories.

    You haven’t. But if we accept your (and Patterico’s) standard for determining the semantic content of speech acts, there’s nothing to prevent that from happening — just as long as some mythical “reasonable man” (by the standards of the society and time in which you are embedded) determines that it is so.

  344. #336 – Well, I made that same point, SPB, and Jeff was quick to reassure me that intention includes motivations the author is not consciously aware of.

    If I mistate he can correct me again.

  345. Authors are embedded in a society, and their cultural milieu can certainly be reflected in their work.

    That doesn’t mean that Mark Twain’s use of the “n word” (by characters in the American South before the Civil War) was racist, either consciously or “unconsciously”.

  346. That may be your argument now. It wasn’t your argument when back when you brought up the “reasonable person” confronting a text . . .

    I have said more than once that my argument has evolved in response to your arguments. I’m not sure my intent has evolved, interestingly. I think, actually, that what I meant may have been the same all along — but that reading what you’ve written has helped me express my own thought better and more clearly. I blame myself for not properly articulating it before. (If I’m wrong I’m sure you’ll tell me.) So instead of trying to make a point by showing that my argument has evolved — something I have already acknowledged — grapple with the argument as I am articulating it now.

    More, you’re confusing meaning with interpreting that meaning. The author means what the author meant at the time he signified. Relying on the author to give an account of his meaning after the fact potentially falls prey to the authorial fallacy, which is one of the considerations we need to be aware of when we set out to decode the author’s meaning.”

    I’m actually not confusing it at all. I’m asking who gets to be the authority on interpreting the meaning. I acknowledge that the author is the creator of the meaning. But that’s theory; in reality, where the rubber hits the road, the part people argue over is the proper interpretation of that meaning. Who gets to decide which is the proper interpretation.

    Judging which is the best interpretation is a separate question: with certain testable texts, this is clearly not much of a concern. The example I gave was an instruction manual: the best interpretation is likely (though we can’t be certain, given the nature of language) to be the one wherein following what we believe to be the author’s meaning results in a successful application of the instructions. With more complex texts, however, it is far more difficult to prove which interpretation is best.

    Still, the one constant is that to say you are interpreting at all, you must concede that the author’s meaning is fixed at the moment he signifies.

    I do.

    To understand all this, you have to understand the sign and how it works.

    I do now. You explained it in clear terms, and so have a couple of other people by e-mail. I get it.

    Your position has evolved, but you still seem to be trying to bend it in such a way that the interpreter decides on meaning. This is NOT the case. The interpreter argues what he thinks the author’s meaning was.

    That is NOT a distinction without a difference.

    I agree with all this. It makes perfect sense.

    Now, the question is: if people are arguing about what the speaker meant, who decides? And if the issue cannot be definitively decided based on the words and other contextual clues available, whose fault is that? And my argument is: as long as the audience is applying the proper framework for analysis, the fault is that of the speaker, who needs to clarify.

    Off to Target. If you want to remove this to your site for further conversation, at least have the decency to present my position correctly. To do that, you’re going to have to get over your eye-glazed stage and understand the foundations of what I’m saying.

    When you e-mailed me the plain-language explanation, I understood, and I told you I understood. You’d better be careful about mocking me for not understanding much of the terminology that you use, nor having the interest, the time, or the patience to sort through it all. Because I’m not the only person in that position, as Slartbartifast’s comment makes clear. Doesn’t mean he’s not interested, it just means that some ways of teaching the concept don’t get through to some kinds of people.

    Also, using Slart’s comment as a suggestion that many others here don’t want to understand or want to follow along is disingenuous. Plenty have, and plenty do — and you continue to misunderstand the essence of what is being argued.

    I never said “many” here “don’t want” to follow, and I never implied that, so don’t misrepresent what I said. I believe that there exist others here who (like Slartbartifast) have missed out on some of the arguments here because of the insular way they have been expressed. I didn’t mean this as an insult; specialists use accepted terms as shorthand because it’s clearer for them. My point is that it’s not necessarily clearer to all members of a broad blog audience. And I thought that putting things in layman’s terms would be helpful — not JUST to me, but also to others.

    I now completely understand what’s being argued, in terms of some of the points. It all makes perfect sense. I have more questions about some of the other points, but I have the foundation down as to the basic goal. I know this because I’m nodding my head with most of what you’re saying; I already get it.

    I will say this, and you might not like it: I think that if someone can’t argue out these concepts in plain language, it does become an argument from authority: I understand this and you don’t, because I have all the super-duper technical background and you don’t. To that I say bullshit. We’re talking about words. If words and meaning can’t be discussed in plain language then that’s highly ironic. Refined terms smooth the debate for those who understand them but complicate it for those who don’t.

    Look, I think you’re torn between wanting to discuss the substance and insisting on making the case that my intentions are bad. As I’ve said, I can’t have an extended discussion with someone who won’t credit me with good intentions; I get too angry. So I’ll take you up on your invitation and take the discussion to my site. Since debate with you doesn’t work, and since it would be unfair to characterize your position and not debate it, I’ll not characterize your positions at all. However, I will give you credit for having illuminated certain concepts for me, because you have. All of this makes a lot moe sense to me now, and for that I’m grateful.

  347. I don’t think that zombies captures what’s up. In fact, the zombie zombies in the consciousness literature maddeningly confuse the issues. Best to leave the term out of our discussions altogether, I think.

    There is a hypothesis that thought formation goes through a “darwinian” weeding process, guided by strengthening (of the ultimately victorious “thought” that pops out of our mouths) on the one hand, and weakening (of the myriad (of other possible formulations which are ultimately rejected and thus do not pop out) on the other hand. See the neurophysionomist William Calvin for a presentation of these ideas.

  348. I don’t think that zombies captures what’s up.

    It’s the homunculus fallacy dressed up in shiny new clothes.

    Step right up! Getcher tickets for the Cartesian Theatre here!

  349. [jesus!, thwacks head] — physiologist, not “-onomist”. I shouldn’t attempt to type and hold a phone conversation at the same time.

    On the other hand, the mistake I just made might shed a tiny light on the nature of thought formation and the errors possible therein, so there’s that too.

  350. we find our ass with one hand but not the other

    What if we can’t find it with either?

  351. There is a hypothesis that thought formation goes through a “darwinian” weeding process, guided by strengthening (of the ultimately victorious “thought” that pops out of our mouths)

    This hypothesis has the advantage of matching the actual mechanism of the brain as we understand it, without ids, egos, zombies, etc.

    It’s also testable, in that within a decade or two (assuming that Obama doesn’t throw us into a new Dark Age) we’ll be able to run a direct simulation of an entire human brain to see what happens.

    (I’m carefully skirting the soul issue here, let me point out… that’s well above my pay grade)

  352. …But that’s theory; in reality…

    See Pat, right there it is again. Or to put it another way, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! That – (the creation in timespace of meaning and communicating same)– is what’s real. It is not theory, it is what happens (that we don’t happen to have a very detailed handle on what it means for it to happen yet, but rest assured, we’re working on it).

    Or once again, Rush meant. Full stop. It was real. It is still real.

  353. (I don’t like the soul issue. Ptooey. But I like the reading about the soul issue, if we’re talking Phaedo or de Anima or whatever.)

  354. #348 A test of reasonableness may be what is needed, the only way, to look at a controversy and decide who meant what and who miscommunicated or is misrepresenting communication, in a dispute.

    I thought that determination was the goal….but I have the idea that Jeff is trying to get some other point across. I get the concept that there is an “absolute meaning”, or axiomatic or platonic ideal of the intention of any given communication. But what else am I missing?

    I’m hanging up on the fact that in real life, pragmatically, it has to be interpreted like a fallen tree in the forest. In real life, reaction is not the determinant of what was meant, but lets face it, it’s a CLUE.

    Also ——

    I’ve come away with the notion that even the man who has a thought may get wrong what he meant. Actually, that’s completely possible – schizophrenics do it all the time.

  355. Sarah — That a person can conceivably be influenced by the culture doesn’t mean that he must be. Which is why cultural milieu is one of a host of things we may take into consideration when we try to decode an author’s meaning. Of course, the author’s motivation could have nothing whatever to do with anything topical beyond, say, a bout with bad clams, or a nasty breakup.

    Conceive of a shut in. Clearly that person can mean without benefit of being immersed in the culture. Which is why it is both disingenuous and dangerous to suggest that a person’s meaning must be colored by some cultural net or dialogical web — even if they didn’t intend for it to be.

    Too, it makes no sense to say that things can leak out of a person that aren’t already part of that person. And if it is part of the person, part of that agency, it doesn’t matter whether intent is conscious or not. When people signify, they mean. Just because it may be unwise to ask a schizophrenic what he meant doesn’t mean 1) he didn’t mean and 2) that his meaning is not expressed/fixed at the moment of signification. That a schizophrenic can mean, and we cannot readily understand that meaning based on the conventions we’ve set up for normal discourse, only further argues my point.

    As simply as possible: an author means what he meant at the moment signification took place. It is our job as interpreters to decode what he meant. To do so we rely on any number of tools, from convention to historical situatedness to inter and intra-textuality, etc. All of these things are aids whose job it is to help us better recover intent. That we have learned to use them without appealing to an author’s intent means that we have learned to use them as a way to privilege our own intent.

    At which point we aren’t interpreting. And this is not only wrong, but it is dangerous for all the reasons I’ve written of over the years — because people doing this are still claiming that they are interpreting. Which means that they can in effect claim ownership over someone else’s meaning.

    All of poststructuralism would fall away if it’s central premise was spoken aloud: namely, “A text means what it means to me.” The trick is to hide that last bit while showing how texts can do things the author never intended them to do. To do this, poststructuralist have focused on the signifier rather than the sign — meaning they’ve pretended to focus on language without really focusing on language.

    Which is really just a way of showing that, given a set of marks (you know, the squiggly thingies that look like words), you can re-signify them in such a way that they appear to take on meaning additional to that intended by the author. But all you’ve actually done is appended your meaning to his in an attempt to rival him for control over the text.

    Beyond that, I don’t know how many times now I’ve explained the breakdown of the sign — sign = signifier (mark or sound form) + signified (concept or concepts to which it is attached) — but if my insistence upon using those terms means I’m arguing from authority, I can be persuaded, I guess, to switch to the formulation that “word thingies” are “the sound thingie” and/or the “squiggly lines you see in books” + the thinky thingies they’re attached to by some dude hoping to communicate.

    Also, I’ve noted repeatedly that failure to signal intent is not a failure to mean; it is simply a failure to signal what you mean in a way that is fullproof. It’s a failure built into any system that relies on a code that works best by appeal to convention.

    Similarly, someone can signal their intent clearly (“Zimbabwe and money printing”) and, even then, someone else can interpret it poorly (“Zimbabwe? RACIST!”).

    If the question is whose “fault” is it that things get misinterpreted or can be met with a multitude of interpretations that seem plausible, the answer can take one of many forms:

    1) God, for providing temptation, leaving us in our fallen state where we exist outside of a one-to-one relationship with some universal being who knows and Truth and so can referee disputes.

    2) The person who is not adept at signaling his intent.

    3) The person whose intent is to create an open text, wherein a number of meanings because the signifier can hold a multitude of intended signifieds. Irony is a simple example of this. And of course, one can intend ambiguity, meaning that multiple interpretations does not necessarily signal failure.

    4) The person who interprets but who gets the intent of the author wrong.

    5) The person who believes texts exist independently of those who create them, and who believe that an author’s meaning is only one of possible “interpretations” of the text. But an interpretation that doesn’t appeal to the author’s intent is not an interpretation.

    6) Language itself, for having the audacity to act as a code.

    I’m sure there are more, but I’m tired of writing out the same arguments again and again.

    As there is no ultimate authority to whom we can appeal for an answer as to whose interpretation best matches the author’s (in situations where the results are not testable), we must rely on the best arguments for why a particular interpretation is closest to that author’s intent. That is, if we are claiming to be interpreting in the first place.

    And honestly, so long as people are appealing the author’s intent, that’s what’s important. Only then can we return to a system of communication wherein the locus of meaning is fixed, providing common ground from which to argue.

  356. And with that, I retire.

  357. I talked to a good friend who convinced me to stick it out. I’ll demonstrate my good intentions by showing them.

    I think we agree that the goal is determining the author’s intent. But there is only one true intent and it’s not necessarily what the author says it is. If people are arguing over the author’s true intent, then there are two issue: 1) Who gets to decide what that true intent is? and 2) if it’s unclear, does the fault possibly lie with the author?

    My answer to #1: whoever advances the most reasonable interpretation — one that takes into account all necessary context, including (but not limited to) the author’s expression of his own intent. The goal always being to determine intent.

    My answer to #2 is: yes, it may. Because the listener need not uncritically accept the author’s later expressions of intent, unless he believes it’s honest and correct, he must go with the most reasonable interpretation as described in #1. If that truly does not reflect the author’s intent, then the author has failed and needs to clarify.

  358. On the one hand,……………………Ni!

    And on the other,…………………..Bring meeeeee ——-

    a schrubbery!

  359. “we must rely on the best arguments for why a particular interpretation is closest to that author’s intent”

    This is why I think we’re saying the same thing: the best argument is the one that is most reasonable, with the numerous caveats I already discussed (the interpretation tries to get at intent, he has all available context, etc.).

    Also, there are times when society might have good reasons to choose to favor an interpretation, usable in specific contexts, which is known to be at odds with the speaker’s intent. If, for example, the legislature passesd a law whose plain language appears to criminalize x but permit y, but a search of the legislative history shows that the legislature *intended* to criminalize y, Justice Scalia would argue (and I would agree) that we cannot prosecute a citizen for act y — we should favor what a reasonable person would think the words to mean. This is because citizens should not be responsible for knowing every scrap of legislative history in order to conform their actions to the requirements of the law.

    This doesn’t change what the legislature meant, of course, and if the question to be answered is what they “meant” then the answer is “what they meant.” But society can reasonably choose to favor the “reasonable understanding of the listener” interpretation even though it is at odds with what is known to be the legislature’s intent.

    I don’t recommend this in the abstract because if we’re seeking true intent, and we can access the legislative history, we should take that into account in assessing true intent. But in determining the best interpretation of all interpretations seeking to understand authorial intent, I still believe it is the most reasonable one that should be accepted.

  360. “See Pat, right there it is again. Or to put it another way, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!”

    OK, I get what you’re saying. There is one true intent. That’s what we should seek.

    My point is, in real life, one has to decide on an interpretation.

    It’s like someone said above: in a criminal trial, the defendant is guilty or not guilty, for real. He either did the crime or not.

    But with our system, we have to apply rules to decide that. And so we arrive at the best judgment of guilt or innocence.

    Because we live in the real world, I place importance on the system and rules. We must never forget there is an actual truth, but making the system and rules best reflect that actual truth is what we need to do in reality.

  361. I took a crack at formulating the argument here.

    I welcome comment.

  362. That [365] seems pretty much correct to me, except I’d niggle to change this italicized little bit “what we need to do in reality” to read more like [a fuzzy] “in our trying to keep up with the bewildering onslaught of stimulation in the real-time press of events” sort of deal. Mostly to insist – for my part – that, what with variance of interests, genuine time/attention issues getting in the way, lack of necessary backgrounding, the built-in ratio problem of one intending agent to a world of interpreters, and for many other reasons I’ll pass by for now, chances are pretty good that interpretations will be more often wrong in some [possibly minor] way than altogether right.

    Which is why scholarship, where “serious” investigation into [all] things goes on, is [must be] leisure activity and why even then one can’t trust it. And why demagoguery is so easy. And etc.

    Oh, and maybe I’d tweek this too, just for clarity’s sake: “one true intent” where “one true” points at the originating agent, not his meaning, for his meaning can be as he intends it “untrue” or “shifty” or “not one” by having “multiple layers, double entendre, triple entendre, etc”. I’m still not sure I’ve covered all the bases.

  363. But society can reasonably choose to favor the “reasonable understanding of the listener” interpretation even though it is at odds with what is known to be the legislature’s intent.

    So the legislature did a poor job signaling its intent. Perhaps they should now rewrite the law to make that intent more clear.

    Still, the law means what the legislature meant. We can chose to say that because the law was couched in terms that are unconventional and so don’t effectively signal intent, we won’t prosecute, but none of that changes that the law meant what it was intended to mean.

    If you know what the legislative intent was and you chose to ignore it, you are rewriting the law — replacing their meaning with your own.

    What you aren’t doing is prosecuting someone based on the same law.

  364. So the legislature did a poor job signaling its intent. Perhaps they should now rewrite the law to make that intent more clear.

    Agree.

    Still, the law means what the legislature meant. We can chose to say that because the law was couched in terms that are unconventional and so don’t effectively signal intent, we won’t prosecute, but none of that changes that the law meant what it was intended to mean.

    Linguistically speaking you’re right, but legally speaking, the law is what the courts say it is. So if the courts decide that the plain text of the statute governs over “intent” then the law actually (legally speaking) means what the plain text says.

    If you know what the legislative intent was and you chose to ignore it, you are rewriting the law — replacing their meaning with your own.

    What you aren’t doing is prosecuting someone based on the same law.

    Again, I agree as a matter of language, but not the law.

    You see, I assume, that I understand all this. Because the arguments you’re making, I recognized here:

    This doesn’t change what the legislature meant, of course, and if the question to be answered is what they “meant” then the answer is “what they meant.” But society can reasonably choose to favor the “reasonable understanding of the listener” interpretation even though it is at odds with what is known to be the legislature’s intent.”

  365. My point, really, was that society may choose to favor an interpretation of language that is at odds with known intent, to foster some value considered more important. Here that value is refusing to prosecute people for violations of laws with (to some extent) secret meanings.

  366. Sure. But to do so, they had to create a new text.

    Better they should just chide the legislature and refuse to hear the case because the intent is not made at all clear.

  367. I think a lot of people around here are assuming the answer is: the author. But it’s not, according to Jeff. His answer is: whoever has the best argument for the author’s interpretation. That to me sounds like my argument: the most reasonable interpretation of the author’s intent governs.

    What Jeff’s been saying all along, and this is something even an engineer can hear and absorb, is that the speaker decides. Not some mythical “reasonable person” who, it turns out, is you.

    That’s what Jeff is saying, as I understand it. I may be misunderstanding it, but I think that throwing aside the matter of whether Jeff and I are in agreement on this point, I think I’m right on this. Any reasonable person would agree with me.

  368. Also, using Slart’s comment as a suggestion that many others here don’t want to understand or want to follow along is disingenuous. Plenty have, and plenty do — and you continue to misunderstand the essence of what is being argued.

    Oh, crap. It certainly wasn’t my intention to smear my intellectual laziness all over everyone else, or to lend anyone else the bucket and brush to do likewise. If I were Patterico, I’d take my statements as coming from an individual, and not as a chorus of like-minded individuals.

    Really, that ought to be the default assumption.

  369. legally speaking, the law is what the courts say it is

    Ah, I think I begin to see the nature of the disconnect, here. You, are a lawyer, and you are engaged in a process where the court’s interpretation of a particular legally binding document is, literally and by definition, the only correct one. Even if it’s reversed tomorrow, because that new interpretation is for legal purposes the deciding one.

    I submit that you, Patterico, need to step outside of the context of the law and reconsider. The courts are perfectly capable of committing an error in interpretation. If you’re looking for who officially gets to have the correct interpretation, I think that you and Jeff are discussing mutually orthogonal concepts. I don’t think Jeff’s discussion is all that concerned with who gets the privilege of being correct.

  370. moron: ‘lazydave’

  371. No wait, lazymoron: ‘datadave’

  372. Oh, and again: I don’t presume to speak for Jeff, just my interpretation of Jeff. If you’re reading me as speaking for Jeff, that interpretation of my intent is incorrect.

    Any extra commas I’ve thrown into my previous comment can be hurled back at me at high speed. Maybe that’ll learn me.

  373. “keep up making stuff”?

    Is datadave Yoda when he is drunk?

  374. There’s too much low-IQ ilk that wants membership in Jeff’s audience. I did my best to tidy up his house, ha.

    Hey Jeff, I took all the Lit. theory classes required for a MFA. I understand enough and I don’t need an explanation of Plato, Saussure or Structuralism; I’ve heard it all before. I think you’re right to conceive and advocate your own hybrid theory. It’s the only way to get ahead in that _____
    _. Matters of fact evolve into matters of opinion and rhetoric, and selection of facts becomes a matter of philosophy. Directing rhetoric in absolutist terms simply turns the whole thing into a fucking game of power, or a fabulation if you prefer a lingua-strutting wiggle of the hip.

    I prefer the Foucaldian premise and certain aspects of the critical theories while I find some of your kernal assumptions that you’re/we’re victimized by those too ascribed to victimization a bit too circulatory but often valid all the same. Besides that, semiotic and language theory is, to me, equal parts boring and fascinating.

    I don’t see much money in intellectual masturbation, but it’s certainly at times fun and can help one ease off to sleep.

  375. Wasn’t someone just saying that an academic degree is no longer a reflection of intelligence?

  376. It seems to me that there is one aspect of the intentional mis-interpretation question that, while implicit in our objection to misinterpretation, isn’t often brought out to center stage for review but ought to be. This is the sense behind the ordinary objection “You know damned well what I meant!”

    Well, yes, it most often is the case that an intentional misrepresenter does in fact know what you meant, indeed, he needs to know it rather well. The actual appeal an intentional misinterpretation must make to an original intent is done [albeit covertly] in order to grasp firmly what it is that is to be misinterpreted. Prior to turning someone else’s speech upside down, we have to first fix what that speech is or meant, we have to correctly apprehend it. We don’t want error entering our calculations. We can’t afford to make a mistake if our object is a political rhetorical advantage.

    How else would we avoid error and then in error proceed to harm our own cause by mistaking the original speech for something it isn’t?

    Suppose the original speech agrees! with our position. Suppose that agreement is clear to most but that we, the intentional misrepresenters, are among the few to have made an error of apprehension, failed to grasp the agreement from the get go and, intending to do harm to our rival by topsy-turvying his speech, end up doing harm to our own position instead? That won’t do. And we know that that won’t do before we misrepresent him, so we take a certain care to correctly identify his position. (Brains work fast that way.) Only then, only after an appeal to his intent [again, still covert], do we do our work on it.

  377. What Jeff’s been saying all along, and this is something even an engineer can hear and absorb, is that the speaker decides. Not some mythical “reasonable person” who, it turns out, is you.

    The speaker exclusively decides his intent at the moment of speaking. He does not exclusively decide how to interpret the utterance at a later point in time.

    Since, in the real world, the speaker’s true intent can never be known by others with 100% certainty, we are generally talking about interpretation when we are discussing “what words mean.” It’s sloppy because it’s shorthand for a more specific concept: in truth the words mean what the speaker meant and nothing else. But true intent can’t solidly be known, and so people must interpret and try to understand true intent as best they can. And my thesis is that the reasonable person is best situated to make that determination, once armed with all necessary context.

    Ah, I think I begin to see the nature of the disconnect, here. You, are a lawyer, and you are engaged in a process where the court’s interpretation of a particular legally binding document is, literally and by definition, the only correct one. Even if it’s reversed tomorrow, because that new interpretation is for legal purposes the deciding one.

    I submit that you, Patterico, need to step outside of the context of the law and reconsider. The courts are perfectly capable of committing an error in interpretation. If you’re looking for who officially gets to have the correct interpretation, I think that you and Jeff are discussing mutually orthogonal concepts. I don’t think Jeff’s discussion is all that concerned with who gets the privilege of being correct.

    If you read my comment (did you?) you’ll see that I have distinguished between intent and interpretation of intent, and I am not guilty of the confusion that you accuse me of.

  378. “Sure. But to do so, they had to create a new text.”

    Don’t know how you’re defining text, but to use your terminology, they create different signs but not different marks. Right? In layman’s language, however, the words are the same but the interpretation is different. It’s conceded that the interpretation is not what the legislature meant, but the decision is made to reach a different interpretation for other reasons.

    Whether this translates to different areas of life, I don’t know. But it makes sense to me.

    “Better they should just chide the legislature and refuse to hear the case because the intent is not made at all clear.”

    Nice theory, bad reality. The defendant is sitting in the dock. Refuse to hear the case and he rots in prison for a crime he had no reasonable way to know he had committed.

  379. they create different signs but not different marks. Right? In layman’s language, however, the words are the same but the interpretation is different.

    If they create different signs, the words aren’t the same. Jut the marks are the same.

    If they are talking about different signs, they are talking about different words. And if they are talking about different words, they aren’t talking about the same text.

  380. Hypotheticals on giving offense here.

  381. Has thor been allowed back on the island?

  382. He’s around here somewhere.

    When I was a college freshman (back in the Stone Age) I heard a speaker make the same point more succintly — that interpretation is all in the reading. He gave the following example:

    The administration of the college had been perturbed that during the warm months students had been seen dipping into a large water fountain in front of one of the buildings. So they put up a sign:

    DANGER
    NO SWIMMING

    Now one could read that to mean, avoid the going in, it’s dangerous to swim in there. But a creative reader would read it thus:

    DANGER????
    NO!!!!
    SWIMMING.

    Comment by Bored Lawyer — 3/14/2009 @ 7:51 pm [@ Patterico’s]

    And thor would read it and piss in the pool.

  383. Fornicate in the fountain, even.

  384. If you read my comment (did you?) you’ll see that I have distinguished between intent and interpretation of intent, and I am not guilty of the confusion that you accuse me of.

    Possibly not confusion, then. Possibly just throwing irrelevance into the conversation. What you actually said, though, is that the law is what the courts say it is, which appears to completely disregards intent.

  385. “Possibly not confusion, then. Possibly just throwing irrelevance into the conversation. What you actually said, though, is that the law is what the courts say it is, which appears to completely disregards intent.”

    You consider it irrelevant; I don’t. Try understanding it first and then we’ll talk. What was my point?

  386. Life is demanding without understanding, Mr. Patterico.

  387. Pablo suggested I post this again:

    Jeff Goldstein’s threat of violence:

    I READILY ADMIT TO THREATENING TO BEAT CERTAIN PEOPLE’S ASSES. And you know what? I’d still do it to most of them if we ever met up. So?

    Jeff Goldstein’s threat of violence:

    Scott Jacobs is one of those guys I mentioned that if I ever met him in person, I’d leave him in a heap, mewling like a baby pussy.

    Jeff Goldstein’s threat of violence:

    Hey, listen: Doc Weasel is a cover band. The guy who runs their site, Kenny, is a 140lb unpaid roadie and all around lackey living at home with mom, posting amateur porn and tugging at his own little doc weasel. If I ever run into him, I’ll break him like a toothpick.

    Jeff Goldstein’s threat of violence:

    Note that I said if I ever ran across some of these people, I’d have no problem — and feel no guilt — about snapping their ACL.

    Jeff Goldstein’s threat of violence:

    As I said earlier, why the fuck should I be embarrassed about telling people who’ve said some vile things to me that I’d be happy to meet up with them in person, where I’d give them the opportunity to say those same vile things directly to my face. Just before I broke their fucking ankles?

    Jeff Goldstein’s threat of violence:

    I’ve probably gotten into it with about a half dozen people over the years, some of whom if I ran into them in the street I would beat their ass without hesitation.

    From: Jeff Goldstein: Arguing “On Point” — With Threats of Violence.

    Thanks to Pablo for the suggestion. It’s a good one. Sorta makes it clear who wrote this post.

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