Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Book Review: Paul Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory 1

I decided to take an interlude from more popular book reviews (having just finished Ehrman and hoping to move to N. T. Wright's Surprised by Scripture next). In this meantime, I want to blog on Paul Ricoeur's short Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning.

Ricoeur was a French philosopher who was a key twentieth century figure in the area of hermeneutics. He was unusual as a devout Protestant in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation. He taught at the University of Chicago from 1970-1985, and it was during this time that he delivered the lectures on interpretation at Texas Christian University in 1973.

While all of Ricoeur's work is significant, this small set of lectures is probably the best entry point to his philosophy of meaning. In no way does that make it easy. So I hope to walk through the four chapters these next four weeks, shedding light as best I can on what he is trying to say.
Chapter 1: Language as Discourse
1. Introductory Comments
The Structural Model
Ricoeur's task in these four essays is to "rescue discourse from its marginal and precarious exile" (2). He was speaking at a time when a movement called structuralism was in vogue, and structuralism gave primacy to language as a self-contained system or "code" rather than to language as an actual tool of communication.

In structuralism, Ricoeur suggests, "Language no longer appears as a mediation between minds and things" (6). It does not really get from the dictionary, so to speak, to the actual use of words.

In the background of structuralism is the French philosopher of language, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). He made a distinction between what he called langue and parole (Course in General Linguistics). Langue is the code, the system of meanings in their interrelationships between each other. Parole is a specific message that emerges from the code.

"Linguistics here becomes one province of the general theory of signs" (4). For de Saussure, signs more or less are a matter of the code of language. "The sign is defined by an opposition between two aspects... a signifier... and the signified" (6). The sign is the arbitrary symbol, such as letters or sounds. The signified for de Saussure, however, is not so much something in the real world but the "differential value in the lexical system."

That is to say, that to which a signifier points is a meaning that arises in the differentiation of meaning between one word and another. "As Saussure said, in a system of signs there are only differences, but no substantial existence" (5). [1]

The Sentence
Ricoeur ingeniously supersedes this entire trajectory of thought by contrasting the sign with the sentence. Following Plato's lead in the Cratylus, he affirms the idea that a word by itself is neither true nor false (1). By contrast, "the sentence is not a larger or more complex word, it is a new entity" (7). "A sentence is a whole irreducible to the sum of its parts."

These two levels of language--the sign and the sentence, allow Ricoeur to distinguish between semiotics, the study of signs so advanced by de Saussure and others like Emile Benveniste, and semantics, the meanings those signs have in relation to the outside world.

2. The Dialectic of Event and Meaning
Discourse as Event
In trying to rescue actual discourse from the abstract code of language, Ricoeur begins by locating discourse in an event of communication. He tries to shift the balance from the abstract system to the concrete use of language. "Only the message has a temporal existence" (9). "The system in fact does not exist. It only has a virtual existence. Only the message gives actuality to language, and the discourse grounds the very existence of language since only the discrete and each time unique acts of discourse actualize the code."

Discourse as Predication
There is an objective side of a speech event, a "propositional content," a "said as such" (9-10). "The sentence may be characterized by a single distinctive trait; it has a predicate" (10, following Benveniste). A subject stands alone but a predicate, involving a verb connects that isolated entity to "a quality, a class of things, a type of relation, or a type of action" (11).

The Dialectic of Event and Meaning
"It is the task of a concrete theory of discourse to take this dialectic as its guideline" (11), namely, the interplay between an event and its meaning captured in a sentence. A dialectic is a conversation or argument between two poles, which for Ricoeur here are the event and its meaning in a sentence. "The notion of speech as an event provides the key to the transition from a linguistics of the code to a linguistics of the message."

"If all discourse is actualized as an event, all discourse is understood as meaning" (12). The event is transient, but the meaning endures.

3. Utterer's Meaning and Utterance Meaning
The Self-Reference of Discourse
"To mean is both what the speaker means, i.e., what he intends to say, and what the sentence means, i.e., what the sentence means" (12). The former is the noetic element of meaning (the author's intention), the latter the noematic (how it ends up in a sentence).

On the one hand, "Languages do not speak, people do" (13). On the other hand, the mental intention of an author can only be found in the discourse itself. "The utterer's meaning has its mark in the utterance meaning." Ricoeur then unfolds a number of grammatical features of sentences that are "shifters," grammatical bearers of reference to the speaker. They include things like pronouns and tenses, "egocentric particulars" that point to a specific speaker at a specific time.

"The utterance meaning points back to the utterer's meaning thanks to the self-reference of discourse to itself as an event" (13).

Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts
The dialectic of event and proposition is further supported by two other factors. First, Ricoeur turns to speech-act theory, which indicates that what is said (locution) is said as an intended act (illocution) that is meant to have a certain effect (perlocution). A promise actually does something in saying certain words. It promises. A classic example is when a couple says "I do." When they say it, they are not merely informing but actually getting married by the words.

So there are semantic rules in the structure of a sentence that support the effect it has. "A specific 'grammar' corresponds to a certain intention for which the illocutionary act expresses the distinctive 'force'" (14).

The Interlocutionary Act
Discourse is addressed to someone. "Each illocutionary act is a kind of question" (15). "To assert something is to expect agreement, just as to give an order is to expect obedience." Even soliloquy is dialog "of the soul with itself."

"Communication... is the overcoming of the radical non-communicability of the lived experience as lived" (16). It is an attempt to overcome "the fundamental solitude of each human being" (15), meaning the fact that what is experienced by one person cannot be transferred whole as such and such experience to someone else" (15-16). [2]

"Dialog is an event that connects two events, that of speaking and that of hearing" (16). Then he asks what aspects of discourse are communicated in the event of dialog. A first answer is the propositional content of discourse. It opens discourse to the other. "Language is itself the process by which private experience is made public. Language is the exteriorization thanks to which an impression is transcended and becomes an ex-pression, or, in other words, the transformation of the psychic into the noetic... this elevation of a part of our life into the logos of discourse. There the solitude of life is for a moment, anyway, illuminated by the common light of discourse" (19).

Ricoeur in this section seems to assume that the listener wants to understand the speaker. He speaks of a "reciprocity of intentions" in communication, of the speaker to intend to be understood and the hearer to want to understand what the speaker is intending.

However, Ricoeur also recognizes the polysemic nature of words--their tendency to have more than one potential meaning (17). Context reduces the field of misunderstanding. An illocution (what is intended to be done in the speech act) is more easily confused than a proposition simply meant to state something. Non-linguistic features are often intertwined with the words themselves when various other illocutions (promises, commands, etc) are involved.

The intended effect of speech (the perlocution) is the least communicable aspect of the speech act (e.g., intention to frighten, seduce, convince, etc.).

4. Meaning as "Sense" and "Reference"
Thus far Ricoeur has been talking about the "inner" dialectic of the meaning of discourse. "To mean is what the speaker does. But it is also what the sentence does. The utterance meaning--in the sense of the propositional content--is the 'objective' side of this meaning. The utterer's meaning--in the threefold sense of the self-reference of the sentence, the illocutionary dimension of the speech act, and the intention of recognition by the hearer--is the 'subjective' side of the meaning" (19).

Ricoeur now moves further. "The subjective-objective dialectic does not exhaust the meaning of meaning." This is because the objective side of discourse is not only the "what" of discourse but the "about what." The "about what" of discourse is the "reference" of speech. The "what" is the "sense."

This is a distinction developed by Gottlob Frege. "Only the sentence level allows us to distinguish what is said and about what it is said" (20). "With the sentence... language is directed beyond itself." "Language has a reference only when it is used." In that sense, it moves beyond the mere code of structuralism into the external world. It becomes an event. "To refer is what the sentence does in a certain situation and according to a certain use."

"This notion of bringing experience to language is the ontological condition of reference... We presuppose that something must be in order that something may be identified" (21). "It is because there is first something to say, because we have an experience to bring to language, that... language is not only directed towards ideal meanings but also refers to what is." "If language were not fundamentally referential, would or could it be meaningful?"

"Semiotics appears as a mere abstraction of semantics." That is to say, we speak and have communication in the external world as events in the world, and the sign theory of de Saussure and others is only a virtual world we abstract from our experiences in the real world.

"Discourse refers back to its speaker at the same time that it refers to the world... Discourse in action and in use refers backwards and forwards, to a speaker and a world" (22).

5. Some Hermeneutical Implications
Ricoeur ends his first lecture, now the first chapter, with some hermeneutical implications. First, his analysis thus far calls into question the hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey, where the goal was "to understand an author better than he understood himself" (23). This was a "psychologizing" hermeneutic that gave priority to the author's intention and to the original audience."

For Ricoeur, this is a one-sided hermeneutic in that it does not give adequate attention to the text uttered. "A written text is a form of discourse" (23). There is a meaning in dialog with an event. There is a sense in dialog with a reference. The second essay will carry this discussion forward.
[1] As a side note, de Saussure's way of thinking about language would be ripe for Jacques Derrida, who served at one time as a research assistant for Ricoeur, to argue for deconstruction. Derrida, in a sense, draws one implication of de Saussure, namely, that language ceases to have any stable meaning because it never reaches the real world. It is more or less a virtual dog chasing its tail.

[2] Here he references Roman Jakobson's fundamental construction of communication as a threefold relationship between 1) speaker and 2) hearer by way of a 3) message, with three complementary features than enrich the model, namely, the code, contact, and context.

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