9.1 On meaning and understanding

Let me tell you a short story about a cat, a mat and a couple of people. We’ll start with Jack.

Jack says: The cat is sitting on the mat.

What Jack says is true. However, Jill’s reply is also true:

Jill says: No it isn’t.

How can Jack and Jill’s utterances both be true? Surely, one of them must be wrong? The simple answer is that Jack is speaking on the telephone, and he is referring to the black cat and the blue mat in his living room. Jill, in her home, is thinking of her white cat, who is sitting on her knee.

Now suppose Jill’s white cat is, coincidentally, sitting on Jill’s green mat. Jack doesn’t know this, when he says, truly

The cat is sitting on the mat.

Jill, who doesn’t even know Jack has a cat, agrees that Jack has spoken truly. However, there is something wrong with Jack and Jill’s agreement. They both agree the statement is true, but the statement has a different meaning for each of them, and in a very important sense, Jack and Jill, while superficially agreeing with each other, are not actually agreeing at all. The agreement is an illusion. They are, in fact, miscommunicating rather than communicating successfully. (The miscommunication would soon become obvious once either of them started adding more details, such as Jill saying, ‘Yes, but I wish it was easier to get all those white hairs out of the mat!’. Jack would be quite confused.)

What has all this got to do with developing our reading skills? When we read a text, we enter into a relationship with the author that is similar to that of Jack and Jill. When an author says

“Intelligence is an inherited ability”

he could be right and he could be wrong at the same time; alternatively, we could think he is right — correctly — but still not understand what he meant. Just as with the cats, it depends on what the author was referring to when he used words like “intelligence’ and ‘inherited ability’, and whether we understand the meaning of those words in the same way.

This is, of course, a general problem about language, meaning and communication. However, in many situations such as face-to-face conversations or textual exchanges, we may have access to the author to find out his or her real intent.

If we realise a miscommunication has occurred (‘What white hairs?’ says Jack), we can ask for clarification from the author. But often, also, we do not have access to the author or to the original intent.

Then we have to rely on other things: background knowledge, experts who know more about the author’s thoughts from other works, our linguistic intuition (in the case of dealing with a foreign language or a translation), and finally — perhaps most importantly — logical coherence. What interpretation of the text makes the best sense, given all that we know?

Some postmodernist thinkers believe that this last consideration is the only one worth attending to. They suggest that even the author’s own intent, which perhaps we can never truly know, cannot help us interpret the best meaning for us in a given situation.

I don’t wish to discuss this view here, though I will note that, in my opinion, it is probably not a coherent position if we try to fully cash it out. However, whatever the truth about that, the fact is that there is often more than one possible interpretation of a text. Some interpretations make more sense than others, some may be equally valid, and some may make no sense at all (they may lack logical coherence with other ideas in the text, may misunderstand vocabulary, may not cohere with other things known about the author or topic).

This is why we say there is sometimes more than one right answer, that some answers may be just wrong, and always that we need to discuss and share our interpretations.
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