What the meaning of "meaning" is (or isn’t)

January 4, 2007 § 11 Comments

Every nontrivial finite text underdetermines the space of possible meanings of that text. In other words, every nontrivial text taken alone and in itself has multiple possible[**] mutually incompatible interpretations. Including this one.

[**] Note that “possible” and “plausible” aren’t the same thing.


§ 11 Responses to What the meaning of "meaning" is (or isn’t)

  • Tom says:

    So you’re saying that every nontrivial text doesn’t have multiple possible mutually incompatible interpretations?

  • zippy says:

    What I <>mean<> is one thing, and might even be a unitary unequivocal thing. But there are certainly multiple possible mutually incompatible interpretations of the words in my post, taken in themselves. (Note: “multiple possible mutually incompatible interpretations of the text taken alone” doesn’t mean the same thing as either “any interpretation whatsoever is possible” or “any interpretation whatsoever is reasonable”). Underdetermination is not the same thing as no-determination.

  • Step2 says:

    My apologies to Zippy if this is too far off topic. Step2’s translation guide:Analyze text with public language conventions, synthesize private meanings and metaphors, optimize for coherence based on aesthetic style, and clarify based on current or historical context.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–That sounds a lot like post-modern literature theory.

  • zippy says:

    <>That sounds a lot like post-modern literature theory.<>That is no accident. A postmodern is just a frustrated positivist. See for example <>Beyond the Postmodern Mind<> by Huston Smith and the rather formidable <>After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy<> by Catherine Pickstock for two very different discussions touching on the same basic issue.Postmodernism has a lot in common with Intelligent Design, the way I see it: both provide a devastating critique of certain modes of thought, but neither gives much in return because they for the most part have accepted the metaphysical premeses of the very thing they are critiquing.

  • Mark says:

    People never talk this way when they are haggling with the waitress about the bill.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–Rather than a “frustrated” positivist, I’d say that a post-modern–in the scary sense that one is “condemned” to freedom–is a *liberated* positivist.

  • zippy says:

    Step2: the more I think about your comment, the more puzzled I am that you thought it was off-topic.Rob: that is an interesting way to look at it. On the one hand, the postmodern is still trapped in the metaphysic that holds the positivist captive. On the other, at least he seems to know that his own claims are ridiculous, and there is doubtless a significant degree of liberation in that.

  • Rob says:

    Zippy–It is arguable that most people do not want to be liberated. Most people want to live “by the book”–to be issued a manual, so to speak. They want to be told that next they should connect doochickey A to thingy B, using widget D. I.e., they want to be guided, even ruled, by the arbitrary; reality is completely transcendent, and, in any case, irrelevant to them. They are engaged full-time, to the extent that they can arrange it so, in close work. They attempt to replace with rules that which was lost in Eden when human consciousness became human self-consciousness, and instinct was replaced by the necessity of making choices. The Christian religion explodes this comfort zone. So does secular existentialism. Post-modern art attempts to spotlight this loss of security.

  • zippy says:

    <>Post-modern art attempts to spotlight this loss of security.<>Well, yes, or the loss of the illusion of security provided by modernity and its metaphysic, which was intended to replace [**] God, without actually fleeing back to God’s loving and freeing arms.[**] Or to make Him superfluous, or to make Him immaterial to as many aspects of life as possible rather than acknowledging His kingship over all aspects of everyone’s lives, to turn Him and His Church into a purely private preference for private individuals to make it easier for neighbors to get along, to sidestep the strictures of the natural law in one or more areas of life (e.g. public or private), to assert man’s dictatorial dominance rather than stewardship over Nature, etc. Obviously there is a lot going on in modernity, and anything at the level of a comment is necessarily broad brush.

  • Rob says:

    “…at least he seems to know that his own claims are ridiculous…”Hmm. I’d say that he knows that his own claims are absurd–not ridiculous–but absurd, which is not quite the same thing. (Only a boor would ridicule absurdity.)Or, perhaps more accurately, the post-modernist knows that making *any claims* is absurd. He knows that existence makes the claims and the individual exerts his authenticity by choosing amongst them. This is not incompatible with the teachings of the Gospel, or of St. Paul, as I see it. The truth is that everything that is chosen is, by definition, arbitrary. The universe of those things which one may choose amongst is a given. The man who refuses to choose sins against the Holy Spirit. The man who chooses indiscriminately sins against his potential Sonship. But the man who chooses lovingly chooses in accord with Natural Law and advances toward fulfilment of his human potential. AS for the making of claims, however…claims concerning what?

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