Intention, Authority, and Meaning

Critical Inquiry 7 (2):297-309 (1980)
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[Herbert F.] Tucker has shown us in a very practical way that the concept of meaning is the problem of problems, not only in hermeneutics but in literary theory and, indeed, literary study generally. It may well be that in literary study there can be no talk of meaning that is not ambiguous, that does not require us to speak in figures or by means of metaphorical improvisations. It would not necessarily follow that our talk of meaning is merely provisional or without philosophical authority since we know now that considerable authority attaches to ordinary language, whence we obtain our use of the word "meaning" as well as the figurations that we use to talk our way around it. To be sure, the discipline of literary study is now rapidly filling with grave masters who take our figures to mean that meaning is literally unspeakable—only so many transferences and substitutions within a system of differences alarmingly vast . This is itself a terrific idea, or a terrific figure, although it is used mainly to expose the thoughtless way we talk about meaning as well as our offhand assumptions about the conditions that make understanding possible. Our problem in literary study is not that meaning is unspeakable—even if it were it would not be a problem—but that we rarely reflect on the subject of meaning in a disciplined way. In our time, meaning as a topic of study is the preserve of logicians. It is almost exclusively a theme of analytical philosophy, and even those not bound by this philosophy address themselves to the analytical tradition when they speak of meaning.1 It is time that we entered into this discourse on meaning; a paper as fine as Tucker's should serve as a summons.· 1. Among numerous cases, see John R. Searle, "Metaphor" and "Literal Meaning," Expression and Meaning , pp. 76-136, and "Intentionality and the Use of Language," in Meaning and Use, ed. Avishai Margalit , pp. 181-97.Gerald l. Bruns, professor of English at the University of Iowa, is the author of Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language and Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Interpretation in Literary History



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