Dealings with a Fish

In “Normal Circumstances, Literal Meanings, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes without Saying, and Other Special Cases” Stanley Fish attacks the view, represented by quotations from John Searle, that sentences have definite meanings. Searle sets up a situation where student X says “Let’s go to the movies tonight” and student Y responds with “I have to study for an exam.” Searle argues that although Y’s response does not actually constitute a refusal, it is taken as such. Other sentences of that form, (“I have to eat popcorn tonight”) would not constitute a refusal, under normal circumstances.

Searle is taken to advocate a position, sometimes called “essentialism,” which supports sentences having literal, or essential meanings. The literal meaning of “I have to study for an exam” does not include a refusal, but the situation in which it is presented overrides that literal meaning. The other sentence could also be taken as a refusal, but it would take an abnormal circumstance; it is just more difficult to override. Such a situation might be that Y is a popcorn taster by profession. “I have to eat popcorn tonight” would then be taken as “I have to work tonight.”

Fish wishes to dislodge this notion of ‘normal’ circumstance. “Searle’s argument will hold only if the category ‘normal’ is transcendental.” He points out that a popcorn taster would call his circumstance ‘normal.’ “A normal context is just the special context you happen to be in.” But then again, might a popcorn taster not agree his situation is not at least a little usual?

In an attempt to define ‘normal’ I might offer the following: a normal circumstance is one in which we do not have to posit any extra facts about the circumstance in order for an outside observer to understand it. If X says “Let’s go to the movies tonight” and Y says “I have to study for an exam tonight,” we can easily understand what is meant by the two utterances. The popcorn taster scenario is abnormal precisely because we have to add that Y is a popcorn taster to the situation in the previous sentence in order for it to make sense to an outside observer. Is this sort of understanding not present even for a popcorn taster? If Y replies “I have to eat popcorn tonight,” and some other friend present who is not aware of Y’s profession, would Y not have to say “I’m sorry, my situation is a little unusual. I taste popcorn for a living”?

So, under this definition of ‘normal’ we can retain a belief in the literal meaning of sentences, but qualify the belief by adding that literal meanings can be overridden in unusual circumstances.

Oddly enough, the next article I read by Fish answered this counterargument. In “Is there a Text in This Class?” Fish argues that when we hear any sentence, our familiarity with the circumstance in which we hear it causes us to assume certain things about what we are about to hear. The context determines even how we hear the sentence. The context alone gives meaning to sentences. “It is impossible to even think of a sentence independently of a context, and when we are asked to consider a sentence for which no context is specified, we will automatically hear it in the context in which it has most often been encountered.”

If this is true, my definition for normal is vacuous. Even when we simply imagine a situation where X says “Let’s go to the movies tonight” and Y says “I have to study for an exam tonight,” we automatically posit extra facts about the situation. As it turns out, these extra facts are exactly what allows us to understand the conversation. Namely, we have to know what an exam is, and we have to know that studying for an exam usually takes all night.

Now, I haven’t let (the) Fish off the hook just yet. He claimed that the popcorn taster would regard his refusal as normal because it be hard as such “immediately and without any chain of inference.” That is not true. In either the first formulation or the formulation with a popcorn taster, the refusals are heard only as such because the hearer infers that the said activity precludes going to see a movie that night. To stick to the first example, X must know that a night of studying leaves no time for Y to attend a movie in order to hear “I have to study tonight” as a refusal. Otherwise it might just be heard as “We will have to hurry, I have to study after the movie.” From the knowledge that Y can either study or go to a movie (and not both), X infers that Y is saying “I cannot go.” There is still some way in which “I have to study tonight” is not literally a refusal to “Let’s go to the movies,” but is still taken as such.

The article “Is There a Text in This Class?” meant to establish interpretation as not a two step process, in which a subject understands some experience and then interprets it. Interpretation has, instead, already occurred when a subject understands her experience. That may be true, but it seems, given the above example, that experiences can be given supplementary interpretations. An experience can be interpreted any number of times, including the initial pre-interpretation that makes the experience possible.

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