During my annual review with the Deans yesterday, I alluded to my frustration with the “real meaning” reflex. You know, when someone makes the claim to tell you what this or that really means. It functions as a an authority claim (or a discussion-ender): “What this Greek word really means is. . . .” or “You said X, but you really mean Y.”
Back in the 80’s “real meaning” struck Jeffrey Stout as a cardinal instance of a term that cries out for what Willard Quine called “explicating”: We fix on the particular functions of the unclear expression that make it worth troubling about, and then devise a substitute, clear and couched in terms to our liking, that fills those functions.” (Word and Object (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), pp. 258-59, quoted in Jeffrey Stout’s “What Is the Meaning of a Text?” NLH 14 (1982): 1-12 — unavailable on JSTOR). Since the rhetorical function of “really means” depends on the fact that the alleged “real meaning” is somehow in question — otherwise, why else would one say it? — we could probably advance an argument or two by eschewing a claim about “real meaning” and substituting a more precise characterization of our interest in pinning down meaning in the particular context in question.