Interpretation & Traditions: A Sample

The below are introductory remarks to a presentation given on Friday, 27 April 2018, for Center for Thomistic Studies Colloquium at the University of St. Thomas, Houston TX.  An audio recording will be posted in the near future.  I also intend revisions, at some point, for publication.Interpretation_Traditions


[For those of you who don’t know me, I was here at the Center from 2010 until 2016.  I wrote my dissertation under the late John Deely, with Drs. Hittinger and Oliva for advisors.  That dissertation, Ens Primum Cognitum in Thomas Aquinas and the Tradition, has since been published and there are a couple copies floating around here for your interest.  Since graduating and leaving the Center, I have written another book, titled The Intersection of Semiotics and Phenomenology: Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue.  It should be out either later this year or early in the next… I hope.]

My topic today develops some themes found or at least suggested in both books but focuses on one in particular: namely, why people are so quick to develop and obstinate in maintaining bad intellectual positions—not in terms of the historical causes which have contributed to the state of bad thinking prevalent today, but in terms of the cognitive capacities themselves; that is, what happens in the person as cognitive agent when falsehoods are adopted and subsequently protected.  Because falsity occurs only with composition and division, I think it fair to characterize this difficulty as one of interpretation.  To lay out what exactly the difficulty is, and how it occurs, I want to draw on the traditions of Thomism, phenomenology, and semiotics, and in three steps: first, by looking at the process of interpretation; second, by examining two different modes in which interpretation occurs; and third, by considering interpretation in light of the philosophical movement of resolution, which I think a unique glory of Thomistic thought.

Introduction: three traditions and three meanings

Before going on to the main topic, however, I think four brief comments for the sake of context will be helpful.

First: when I say “semiotics”, I mean two things at once.  On the one hand, I mean the tradition, following Charles Peirce, in studying the action of signs.[1]  This tradition is immature and faces many struggles, particularly against the parallel nominalist tradition of semiology.  The true semiotic tradition, as it exists today, shows promise but remains fragile and is threatened by a new pattern of scientism inimical to the thought of Peirce himself.

On the other hand, by “semiotics”, I mean the specific use for which Peirce himself reserved the term: namely, as a synonym with “logic” understood broadly,[2] and as the normative science of truth.[3]  In other words, semiotics for Peirce was that study by means of which, through understanding the nature and function of signs, we can discern the norms for truth: how it appears, what it governs, and so on.

Second: when I say “phenomenology”, I am using this in a very restricted sense; perhaps even idiosyncratically restricted.  That is, I mean phenomenology as a method and not as a science, which is to say: phenomenology as Heidegger conceived it, or, rather, as I interpret Heidegger to have conceived it.  This method consists in a recursive, three-step process—“destruction”, “construction”, and “reduction”,[4] which I’ll discuss a little today.

Third: when I say Thomism, what I mean should be no surprise to anyone here; but to be clear, what I believe most essential to the tradition is adherence to the metaphysical principles of Thomas Aquinas and which seeks resolution of all inquiry not only to a first principle of intelligible coherence, but also to the supreme principle of all existence, God.  While there are undoubtedly inconsistencies from individual to individual, I believe a general agreement upon these principles is the basic condition for someone being considered a Thomist.

Fourth and finally, I want to say a word or three about meaning: when we speak of “meaning”, typically we intend one or more of three possible senses: first, we intend the intelligibility of some being independent of what anyone might think about it; second, we intend the referential, that is, meaning as it comes to exist in the relationship between any two things, at least one of which is a cognitive agent, such that what a dove means to a human is not the same as what it means to a dog, and a crucifix has a different meaning for a Catholic than it does for a Buddhist; and third, we intend the importance or purpose of an object, as when we ask someone why an item is meaningful for someone.  Respectively, I call these the intelligible sense, the referential sense, and the teleological sense of meaning; and notably, they are all, somehow or another, interconnected.[5]

I think it is a common belief today, unconsciously imbibed by the many but celebrated by the “learned intelligentsia” of every stripe, that meaning in the sense of referentiality either excludes or subsumes meaning in the sense of intelligibility; that meaning is only ever “a local and situated phenomenon”[6] or that it is “a product of the operations that use meaning and not, for instance, a quality of the world attributable to a creation, a foundation, an origin.”[7]  This belief has wrought no small amount of damage on the ability of people to think.

1. The Process of Interpretation

So, to begin thinking about the process of interpretation: generally considered, “to interpret” is understood as the attempt at explaining the meaning of something.  We can understand such attempts in a construal either very broad or very narrow.  It seems to me, therefore, that there is an analogical tendency in the common application of the term “interpretation”, such that it can be said more properly of some attempts to explain meaning than of others.  The determining factor is in what sense and to what depth the attempt engages “meaning” in the senses outlined above.  The more thoroughly these sense of “meaning” are explicated by the attempt, the more properly it can be called an interpretation.

The position I am advancing in this paper holds “meaning” to reside primarily but not exclusively in the sense of intelligibility, such that intelligibility grounds the referential and, together with the referential, attains completion in the teleological—which recursively enriches the intelligible.  Therefore, while there are interpretation-like actions carried out at the levels of sensation and perception, only an intellectual attempt can be called an interpretation in the fullest sense, for only at the level of intellect does intelligible meaning, and therefore the whole of meaning, come into view.


[1] See Deely 1982: Introducing Semiotic: Its History and Doctrine; 2004: Basics of Semiotics (4th ed), 15-73; Paul Cobley 2010: “Introduction” in The Routledge Companion to Semiotics, 3-12.

[2] 1903c: “An Outline Classification of the Sciences”, EP.2.260: “[Logic] has three branches: (1) Speculative Grammar, or the general theory of the nature and meanings of signs, whether they be icons, indices or symbols; (2) Critic [also called formal logic], which classifies arguments and determines the validity and degree of force of each kind; (3) Methodeutic [also called speculative rhetoric], which studies the methods that ought to be pursued in the investigation, in the exposition, and in the application of truth.  Each division depends on that which proceeds it.”  The notion of a “speculative grammar” is one which Peirce derives from Thomas of Erfurt, whose c.1300 Grammatica speculativa he (as did many—including Heidegger—until Martin Grabmann corrected the record in 1922) mistook as being the work of Scotus.  Cf. McGrath 2006: The Early Heidegger & Medieval Philosophy, 88-119.

[3] 1903a: “The Three Normative Sciences”, EP.2.199: “Logic classifies arguments, and in doing so recognizes different kinds of truth.”; 1903c: EP.2.260: “Normative Science has three widely separated divisions: (i) Esthetics; (ii) Ethics; (iii) Logic…. All thought being performed by signs, Logic may be regarded as the science of the general laws of signs.”  Cf. 1906: “The Basis of Pragmaticism in the Normative Sciences” EP.2.376-79.

[4] Heidegger 1927b: Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie, 29-32/21-23.

[5] There is a correspondence between the intelligible and referential senses and the German words Sinn and Bedeutung—not, however, as Frege famously used them, but rather reversed, the sense in which Heidegger used them.  Where Frege interpreted Bedeutung to imply that which is pointed at, Heidegger interpreted it to be the pointing itself.  This can be seen particularly in sections 15, 16, and 17 of 1927a: Sein und Zeit, where Bedeutung is correlated with Anzeichen and zeigen in paradigms of pointing out, referring, and indicating.  Sinn, contrariwise, is established as belonging to entities within the world insofar as they are grasped in themselves by Dasein, 151/192-93: “Wenn innerweltliches Seiendes mit dem Sein des Daseins entdeckt, das heißt zu Verständnis gekommen ist, sagen wir, es hat Sinn.  Verstandnen aber ist, streng genommen, nicth der Sinn, sondern das Seiende, bzw. Das Sein.   Sinn ist das, worin sich Verständlichkeit von etwas hält.  Was im verstehenden Erschließen artikulierbar ist, nennen wir Sinn.” – “When entities within-the-world are discovered along with the Being of Dasein—that is, when they have come to be understood—we say that they have meaning.  But that which is understood, taken strictly, is not the meaning but the entity, or alternatively, Being.  Meaning is that wherein the intelligibility of something maintains itself.  That which can be Articulated in a disclosure by which we understand, we call ‘meaning’.”

[6] Hoffmeyer 2010: “God and the world of signs” in Zygon 45.2, 386-87: “meaning is nothing more and nothing less than… the formation of a relation between a receptive system and a supposed object that results from the action of a sign that somehow itself is related to that same object… Meaning, according to this theory, remains a local and situated phenomenon.”

[7] Luhmann 1997: Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft [Theory of Society], 18: “Meaning exists only as meaning of the operations using it, and hence only at the moment in which it is determined by operations, neither beforehand nor afterward.  Meaning is accordingly a product of the operations that use meaning and not, for instance, a quality of the world attributable to a creation, a foundation, an origin.  There is accordingly no ideality divorced from factual experience and communication.”


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