Monday, January 19, 2009

Knowing What You Mean

This morning I want to propagate a rumour that Wayne Booth mentions in the preface to his Rhetoric of Irony (U of Chicago Press, 1974). Here's his version:

I have heard it said that the two standard tutorial questions at Oxford are "What does he mean?" and "How does he know?" I doubt the report—no university could be that good—but I take the questions as the best summary of how what I attempt here contrasts with much that is said about irony. (x)

I'm thinking about starting a PhD colloquium in this spirit. The idea would be to read seminal journal articles with these two questions in mind. Our university could be that good!

There is an important connection between the two questions. If you don't know how an author knows, how do you know what she means? In making that connection, I am aware of the influence of positivism: we know what a sentence means (only) if we know what would be the case the if it were true. In an equal and opposite way, Popper's falsificationism also expresses this spirit of criticism: we know what a sentence means (only) if we know what would be the case if it were false.

However you interpret them, I encourage you to write as though somewhere in the world, whether at Oxford or elsewhere, a tutor is asking a student, "What does this author mean?" and then following it up with, "How does s/he know?" Critical readers are always asking these questions, and good writing is written for critical readers. On Wednesday, I want to respond to the somewhat too familiar, and allegedly "postmodern", suggestion that these are not good questions to ask of a text—that there are no interesting answers to them and that they therefore can guide neither your reading nor your writing.

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