Mutual Misunderstanding: Scepticism and the Theorizing of Language and Interpretation

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Overview


Do others understand what we say or write? Do we understand them? Theorists of language and interpretation claim to be more concerned with questions about "what" we understand and "how" we understand, rather than with the logically prior question "whether" we understand each other. An affirmative answer to the latter question is apparently taken for granted. However, in Mutual Misunderstanding, Talbot J. Taylor shows that the sceptical doubts about communicational understanding do in fact have a profoundly important, if as yet unacknowledged, function in the construction of theories of language and interpretation.
Mutual Misundertanding thus presents a strikingly original analysis of the rhetorical patterns underlying Western linguistic thought, as exemplified in the works of John Locke, Jacques Derrida, Gottlob Frege, Jonathan Culler, Noam Chomsky, Ferdinand de Saussure, H. Paul Grice, Michael Dummet, Stanley Fish, Alfred Schutz, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Harold Garfinkel, and others.
This analysis reveals how, by the combined effect of appeals to "commonsense" and anxieties about implications of relativism, scepticism has a determining role in the discursive development of a number of the intellectual disciplines making up the "human sciences" today, including critical theory, literary hermeneutics, philosophy of language and logic, communication theory, discourse and conversation analysis, pragmatics, stylistics, and linguistics. Consequently, this provocative study will be of value to readers from a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds.
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Editorial Reviews

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"Mutual Misunderstanding juxtaposes and critiques eight central theories of language within an utterly new and enlightening framework—and manages to retain a highly lucid and readable format at the same time."—Michael Macovski, Fordham University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822312499
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 8/28/1992
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 266
  • Product dimensions: 5.87 (w) x 9.15 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Mutual Misunderstanding

Scepticism and the Theorizing of Language and Interpretation


By Talbot J. Taylor

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8300-0



CHAPTER 1

On addressing understanding


People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does. (Foucault, quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982:187)

It's only by thinking even more crazily than philosophers do that you can solve their problems. (Wittgenstein 1980:75)

Do others understand what we say or write? Do we understand them? These are questions not often addressed in language theory. Those professionals who work in language theory—literary theorists, linguists, philosophers of language, communication theorists, semioticians, theorists of rhetoric, discourse analysts, etc.—are more interested in the problem of specifying what it is to understand and how we understand than in asking whether we understand. Apparently, the fact that communicators ordinarily understand each other is a pre-theoretical given, the sine qua non of academic discourse on language, meaning, and interpretation. Consequently, asking whether we understand our fellow communicators is typically treated as the sort of non-serious question that only a radical sceptic would even consider raising.

After all, if we cannot in fact understand what others say or write and if they cannot understand us, it seems natural to conclude that each of us is little more than a psychological island: that is, we are isolated solip-sists who hear only the echo of our own voices, all the while believing and acting under the tragicomic illusion that we are hearing and being heard by others. With such a conclusion as the only apparent alternative, it is not surprising that language theory has consigned the discussion of sceptical doubts about communicational understanding to the realm of non-serious discourse.

It is not my intention to argue for or against the seriousness of communicational scepticism. Rather, I intend to challenge the implication of the view just discussed: that is, that communicational scepticism has little or no influence in the intellectual discourse that constitutes modern Western thought on language. I will attempt to bring to light the importance of communicational scepticism to the rhetorical structure of that discourse, an importance that is concealed by familiar assertions of the status of communicational understanding as a pre-theoretical given (or by the equally common practice of dismissing this status as not even worthy of mention).

This aim fits into a larger task to be undertaken here: investigating the rhetorical source of Western ideas on language, meaning, and interpretation. Why are particular sorts of concepts, problems, arguments, assumptions, methods, puzzles, and solutions characteristic of this episteme? Why do language theorists of various intellectual persuasions and disciplinary schools all play one of a quite closely related family of (meta)language-games?

Again, questions such as these do not attract the attention of language theorists. Moreover, if language theorists ever were to address such questions, they would probably offer the unhesitating response that language theory simply attempts to produce an accurate account of the facts of language, as that task is understood within the general framework of the Western scientific tradition. The roots of that tradition, they might say, form a topic for the philosophy or history of science, not for language theory itself. Still, such a response—although direct—begs the question. For, one might ask, why is the task of "producing an accurate account of the facts of language" understood as it is within the Western tradition? And, in particular, what role in intellectual discourse on language (that is, in what I will call "intellectual metadiscourse") is played by the purportedly unquestionable assumption that it is non-serious to doubt the effectiveness of language as a vehicle of communicational understanding?


Destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism

A popular introduction to the philosophy of language articulates what I take to be the defining issue of language theory in the modern era. The author places the following task at the very center of inquiry into language:

We need a philosophy of mutual understanding, protecting shared understanding in the face of divergent ways and experiences. (Blackburn 1984:8)


In writing this book it is not my intention to respond to such calls for a philosophy of mutual understanding; instead, I will investigate the motivation for asserting that a philosophy or theory of mutual understanding is something "we need." This will lead me to consider how intellectual discourse on language represents that which needs to be "protected," what it needs to be protected from, why we need to protect it, and how it is vulnerable, as well as the protective strategies that may be deployed and the methods of comparing the relative strengths of those strategies.

Moreover, by means of this investigation, I hope to afford some insight into the more general proposition that the discourse of modern humanist thought characteristically takes the form of a dialogue between the sceptic and his anti-sceptical adversaries. It is of particular interest that, within this discourse, the sceptic's adversaries are typically portrayed as split personalities. They combine the "commonsense" faith of the layman (who is attacked by the sceptic for believing in propositions of foundationless dogma) with the intellectual discipline of the theorist (who responds to the sceptic's attack by attempting to construct a sceptic-proof "protection" for those "commonsense" propositions). For, the theorist argues, to abandon those propositions would mean to lose our self-understanding and our understanding of the world in which we live.

One conception of the rhetorical importance of scepticism to modern thought is expressed in the writings of John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty, Mill recommends a free and open dialogue with the sceptic as a rhetorical buttress to the foundational distinction between truth and opinion:

In the present age—which has been described as "destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism"—in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. (Mill 1859:965)


Mill suggests that the confrontation between received opinion and scepticism is necessary to ensure that the propositions we continue to hold are those, and only those, that have been shown to be true. But according to the story to be told in this book, what emerges from such a free and open dialogue with the sceptic is both the same as and the opposite of what Mill had hoped. That is, by being made the subject of a dialogue between the sceptic and his theoretical adversaries, received opinion does indeed end up being "shown to be true"; on the other hand, given the rhetorical form of that dialogue, the eventual attainment of that conclusion can never really be in doubt.

Nevertheless, as Mill remarks, scepticism is typically represented as undermining "the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack." Within the theory of literature, for instance, there is a perceived need to defend traditional practices of literary interpretation against communicational scepticism. In this there is a constant refrain: if it is not possible (let alone practicable) to devise a theory by which we may determine whether a given interpretation of a literary text is true or false, then the routine practices of editors, critics, and professors of literature must ultimately be without foundation. And if this is the case, then there can be no grounds for rejecting any interpretation of any text, whether the interpretation is that of a rival critic or (heaven forbid) that of a completely untrained student. In other words, if a student understands Hamlet's graveside soliloquy to be an advertisement for soap powder, then apparently nothing can be said to legitimize the rejection of that interpretation!

The specter of communicational scepticism is also found within ethics, anthropological theory, jurisprudence, political theory, and the philosophy of science. If it cannot be shown that good, just, and a human right have universally accepted meanings, then we would seem to be led inexorably to the edge of the yawning chasm of moral and legal relativism. In which case, our "commonsense" opinion of racism, for example, as heinous might appear no more justifiable than the racist's own opinion that racism is a worthy form of self-expression. Within anthropological theory the cultural relativist claims that there is no justification to the "received opinion" that we cannot understand the culture, behavior, language, politics, reasoning, and beliefs of societies other than our own. And such a sceptical perspective naturally leads to further questions about the definition of "our own society." Are women and men members of the same culture? Children and adults? The believer and the atheist? The poor and the rich? The governed and the governing? If not, then who is? Whose actions can we justifiably claim to understand? And what sense is there, therefore, in speaking of "government by consent"? In the philosophy of science, sceptics again refute "received opinion," arguing that two scientific theories cannot ultimately be shown to contradict each other, for each theory's component propositions can properly be understood only within the framework of the theory itself. Consequently, the "commonsense" picture of the progress of scientific understanding must be replaced by one of random or socially motivated shifts between fundamentally incommensurable theoretical paradigms, advocated by theorists who do not even understand each other's arguments.

Let me repeat and emphasize: it is not my aim to argue for or against the seriousness of sceptical perspectives. Rather, my aim is to draw attention to the powerful influence of communicational scepticism in charting the rhetorical possibilities of modern intellectual discourse. In so doing, I will focus on the role scepticism plays in the dialogic rhetoric of intellectual metadiscourse; that is, in the construction of and conflict between theories of language, interpretation, and understanding. For it is in intellectual metadiscourse that we find most clearly displayed the sceptic's mesmerizing hold over the theorist.


Thinking even more crazily than philosophers

I must confess straightaway that the means I have chosen by which to address my topic are anything but direct. It may be that, in virtue of the discussion's excessively reflexive character—this is, after all, a discourse about discourse about discourse—a direct approach is simply impossible. Perhaps no methodology could escape being implicated in the discussion itself. I know that mine does not.

It is for this very reason that I will begin in this introductory chapter by presenting, but not arguing for, one possible picture of the rhetorical foundations of intellectual discourse about language. This "picture" is presented in the form of a possible interpretive framework for—or way of "viewing" or "making sense" of—language theory: namely, as a dispute between a communicational sceptic and his theoretical adversaries. The dialogic strategies employed in this dispute, as well as the topics on which the dispute focuses, are presented as stemming from a common rhetorical source. In subsequent chapters, this framework will be applied in constructing interpretations of various ways of theorizing about language.

The view presented in this picture does not, I freely admit, reproduce a conventional understanding of the theories discussed. Indeed, at times it clashes violently with the picture given by a theory's standardly accepted interpretation, which is precisely my intention. For the standard interpretations of language theories are products of the same discursive practice, or dialogic language-game, which produces the theories themselves. Moreover, as the accepted accounts of what language theories are, they establish the boundaries to and limit the possibilities for what can be acceptable theorizing about language. If we are ever to free ourselves from this recursive pattern of self-determined and -determining self-understanding, we need to find a way of accounting for (making sense of) language theories not from the perspective of an outsider—this I could hardly pretend to do—but from an insider's perspective other than the one which, in the rhetorical construction of the theories, has held us enthralled. If such a method of analyzing theoretical discourse is to be at all successful, it will require a willful act of rupture, of anthropological estrangement, and of conscious decision to approach the topic from a perspective other than that of convention and familiarity.

I hope not to underestimate the difficulties the readers of this book may face in acceding to my request that they voluntarily put aside what I have just called the "conventional way of interpreting language theories" so that these theories may be viewed through the interpretive optics that I am to propose. A natural, and perfectly justifiable, response would be for a reader to object that, in order to gain some rhetorical leverage in my metatheoretical discourse, I am asking leave to beg some of the most fundamental questions it raises. Such a reader may well already have put my book back on the shelf. Those who are still hesitating may—or may not—be persuaded to stay the course if I say, in reply, that I have no objection to their conceiving of my interpretive framework as an extended metaphor or allegorical narrative (or perhaps as something belonging to the recently invented mode of discourse called "faction"). Such a conception at least would place proper emphasis on the fact that I have no intention to motivate or defend the argumentative strength or objectivity of the interpretations produced. The goal in producing this picture is not one of representational truth but of rhetorical consequences.

In the final analysis, all that I can do in addressing my topic is to appeal to my readers:

"Try looking at things from this angle. If from this perspective you can make a different sense of what is being looked at—that is, if there emerges a pattern different from that with which you are familiar—then something will have been gained: at the very least the awareness that there is a possible alternative to the conventional means of making sense of the theorization of language and communication in modern Western thought."


Furthermore, the realization that there is at least one alternative to the conventional picture may itself lead to the even more liberating realization that still other pictures are possible. And this may help us to appreciate the plasticity of the experience of making sense of any discourse, including the intellectual discourse of theorizing about language. I see this as the only means of responding to what is perhaps the most intractable methodological dilemma facing the study of human behavior:

What makes a subject hard to understand—if it's something significant and important—is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect. (Wittgenstein 1980:17)


It is on these grounds that I request my readers, as part of the communicative pact regulating our continuation from this the opening of my narrative, temporarily to put aside their natural objections to all or part of its interpretive framework in order to see if this framework can help to effect a perceptual shift in how they make sense of the discourses that constitute modern language theory. If I am granted the opportunity to demonstrate the value of this exercise, then, once that demonstration is complete, the objections themselves may appear in a different light.

But some readers may still want me to say why I think such an interpretive exercise is even worth attempting. What is the good of coming to see that the practice of theorizing language and communication may itself be viewed from more than one interpretive perspective—made sense of according to more than one picture—especially when I do not even claim to provide access to the perspective or the picture from which the true interpretation will emerge? In other words, even if my bizarre methodology ("thinking even more crazily than philosophers do") achieves its aims, so what? My answer to such a question can here only be brief, dogmatic, and without supporting argument; and it is here that I will have to stand.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mutual Misunderstanding by Talbot J. Taylor. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface
To Remedy the Abuse of Words
1 On Addressing Understanding 3
2 On How We Ought to Understand 27
Communicational Codes
3 On Now We Naturally Understand 49
4 On What Understanding Must Be 71
5 On Knowing What We Understand 95
Communicational Reasoning
6 On Reaching an Understanding 117
7 On Understanding What to Do 139
Communicational Practice
8 On Believing We Understand 157
9 On Acting like We Understand 186
10 On Doing "Understanding" 201
Denouement
11 On Whether (We Believe) We Understand Each Other 233
References 259
Index 263
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