Jeely Piece O’ My Heart

Quadriga Now, this is the pivotal dimension of my first premise: all interpretive activity involves inference as its key element. Whether I’m interpreting cloud formations, or the quality of light in my bedroom, or gestures, or spoken words (the interpretation of speech, especially in an unfamiliar language or accent, is a big clue here), or words on a page — all of these entail a practice of inferential reasoning. “It seems awfully bright — I may have slept late.” “Those clouds look heavy and dark — I should wear my macintosh.” “Her hand brushed mine — maybe she likes me!” “Ye cannae fling yer pieces oot a twenty story flat.” I notice; I ponder; I infer from what I perceive; I’ve attained an interpretation.

Contra approaches to interpretation that posit an intrinsic meaning which the interpreter endeavours to discover, the process of inference I’m describing here asks the question “Why does this look that way?” or “What accounts for these sounds in this sequence?” When an interpreter sets out to answer the question “What’s going on here?”, the range of appropriate responses may very sensibly include alternatives other than “the intrinsic meaning of this phenomenon — clouds, smell, light, pitch, tone, glyphs, touch, whatever — is X.” Where the phenomenon in question appears to involve an intentional agent, some interpreters will want to determine the likeliest intent that came to expression in the phenomenon. That’s not the only legitimate, only “normal,” only regulative, only ethical approach to take, however. Sometimes interpreters have a particular interest in considerations other than those that the intentional agent considered paramount. Sometimes the self-conscious intent in question differs from other dimensions of the expression (think of the small child, weeping, red-faced, loudly asserting “I’m not upset!”). Interpretation of phenomena comprises a great deal more than ascertaining the meanings of words and paraphrasing the combination of the words used.


[I have the feeling that these two paragraphs my be moving too fast. I may need to step back and go over the reasoning more carefully anon.]

4 thoughts on “Jeely Piece O’ My Heart

  1. I’m sure I’m only pointing at stuff you already know, but what you’re writing here is very close to Paul Grice. I notice that his key paper on the topic, Logic and Conversation is available online. Reviewing it might make it clear how you’re trying to broaden/deepen his stance to encompass all interpretive activity. This stuff gets really tricky; Grice has many critics.

    1. I’m halfway sympathetic to Grice — the parts where his work converges with mine (inexcusably self-important as that sounds). I’ll have to go back and look again to refresh my recollection of where I was dissatisfied.

    2. After a quick review — very far from being complete — I’ll make explicit what I was holding back from last night, namely that Grice wants to move ahead toward an account of meaning that focuses on intention (in a way that paves the road for Relevance Theory further on), and I want to move toward an account of meaning in which intention is only one consideration among many plausible, valid, ethical dimensions of communication.

  2. One possible problem that might exist is that of venue. Grice can use intention and relevance (in his maxim) because the venue that he limits himself to conversation. In negotiations in a world filled with natural “signs” (as you have been deploying in your sketches thus far) these concepts are obviously less pertinent. I agree that inference is the key to negotiating existence (as bodies in a world). However, It is hard to say things that are useful without narrowing the scope somehow.

    I’m really enjoying following your sketches, and though I’m too far out of it to contribute much, I am really having fun reading it.

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