Issue #03. November 1995. Pp. 64-68.
Review of J. Gracia's A Theory of Textuality: The Logic and Epistemology
Copyright © by SORITES and William Irwin
A Theory of Textuality: The Logic and Epistemology. By Jorge J.E. Gracia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. xxviii + 309 pages.
A Theory of Textuality is an important and welcome addition to the literature on texts and their interpretation. The value of Gracia's work lies in its extended treatment of the question: What is a text? Much of the literature on hermeneutics and theory of interpretation asks this question only in passing, if at all. The result has been a vague and imprecise conception of textuality which has swelled outside its proper domain. It has become common in continental circles, for example, to conceive of texts as occasions for interpretation. This conception allows dreams, historical occurrences, and other such phenomena to be considered texts. The problem with this conception is that it does not have a clear way to draw the line between text and nontext, for nearly everything is an occasion for interpretation of some sort. To borrow an example of Gracia's, even a car crash could be seen as a text under this conception. Something is clearly amiss with this understanding of textuality, and that cannot be ignored. Gracia sees this clearly and is of the conviction that we must come to terms with the logic of texts, including the definitional elements of their intension and extension, before considering the epistemological questions they pose.
Part one of A Theory of Textuality examines the logic of texts, and it is here that Gracia deals most directly with the question: What is a text? Chapter one is devoted to the intension of texts, chapter two to the extension of texts, and chapter three to a taxonomy of texts. In chapter one Gracia defines a text as, «a group of entities used as signs, which are selected, arranged, and intended by an author in a certain context to convey a specific meaning to an audience.»(4) Gracia justifies this definition through his characteristically rigorous argumentation, considering various counterexamples and counterarguments. Indeed, one of the virtues of the book is that the author takes his reader through his thought process and argumentation in scrupulous detail.
To return to the issue at hand, I find much of merit in Gracia's definition of 'text'. The definition, in fact, explains why we often use what seem to be incompatible predicates as applied to texts. For example, we use both physical predicates (such as heavy) and nonphysical predicates (such as incoherent) in speaking of texts. The distinction between signs and texts which is explicit in Gracia's definition (and which he argues for in detail) explains the apparent contradiction. A physical predicate refers to entities that can constitute texts (among them written signs as well as paper), and nonphysical predicates refer to the meaning of a text. This is a relatively simple and easily acceptable explanation. In fact it is so simple and acceptable that it is easy to overlook its weight and value. Much of Gracia's writing is similarly deceptive. It is often only after some reflection that the reader realizes that he has been mechanically nodding a yes as Gracia has made an important point on a controversial issue.
Gracia's example also explains why, for example, a car crash is not a text, although it may be an occasion for interpretation. Firstly, a car crash is not ordinarily composed of signs as a text must be. Secondly, even if it were composed of signs, these signs would not have been selected and arranged by someone with the intention of conveying meaning. Of course it is possible that one could orchestrate a textual car crash in which various parts of it would be intended as meaningful signs to some esoteric audience, but this is ordinarily not the case. Gracia's definition, then, does not restrict texts to the written, but it does draw sensible boundaries.
Chapter two deals with the extension of texts. Here Gracia is concerned with distinguishing texts from four entities with which they are sometimes confused: language, artifacts, art objects, and works. Texts are frequently composed in languages, but they are not themselves language. Texts do not have the flexibility and independence of authors and audiences that language per se does. A detailed discussion of the nature of artifacts concludes with the claim that texts are artifacts but not all artifacts are texts. An intriguing discussion of the distinction between the artistic and the aesthetic concludes that texts can be art objects or aesthetic objects but they need not be either.
Perhaps the most provocative discussion in chapter two focuses on the distinction between texts and works. The words 'text' and 'work' have often been seen as synonymous, largely due to their ordinary language use and conceptual overlap. Still, philosophers have sensed that there is a difference between 'work' and 'text', and have made attempts at clarifying the difference. Gracia considers all the most popular and viable attempts, in particular the idea that a work is a type of text. Nehamas has made this view attractive by speaking of works as interpreted texts. This definition does not work, as Gracia points out, because it does not account for translation. There is only one work The Sun Also Rises, but there are as many different texts which embody the work as there are translations of it. Translations are different texts because they are composed of different signs, but we speak of the work as remaining the same even when the text changes in translation.
Gracia proposes that we understand a work as being the meaning of a group of signs which is independent of that group inasmuch as other groups can be used to convey it. It is not the case, however, that the meaning of just any group of signs is a work. Gracia is not far from Nehamas's claim that only interpreted texts are works. Gracia does not hold, however, that all interpreted texts are works, but is somewhat more vague. As he says, «what makes the meaning of a particular text a work is that it fits a certain view of what a work is as developed by a culture at a particular point in history.»(67)
This is indeed an appropriate account because we do not speak of the meanings of all interpreted texts as works, but only of a select number. This is the first time in the book that Gracia makes use of a cultural explanation. He does so with impunity here largely because his aims are descriptive. As we shall see, in section two of his book Gracia at times leans too heavily on cultural explanations of normative and epistemological issues.
Chapter three which deals with the taxonomy of texts is the least interesting section of part one, although it contains at least one provocative discussion. Gracia's taxonomy offers both a modal and a functional classification of texts. The modalities of texts include actual texts, intended texts, and ideal texts. The most intriguing and controversial claim of chapter three is that there is no such thing as an intended text. Gracia argues that this is so because a text is always a result of a process of production and does not precede such a process in any way.(72) Upon reflection it does seem true that before the composition of their texts authors have only more or less vague sets of ideas which they aim to realize and embody. They do not ordinarily have a text per se.
What Gracia can prove, however, is only the weaker claim that intended texts are quite uncommon especially when dealing with texts of any length and complexity. Although he addresses the most viable counterexamples, he does not do so successfully in all cases. We can, I submit, have intended texts particularly in the case of short and simple texts. For example, the nervous student who mentally rehearses the answer «Albany is the capital of New York.» only to say «Atlanta is the capital of New York.» surely had an intended text that was not realized in the spoken word.
It is true enough, as Gracia might object, that what the student had was an actual mental text. Still, that actual mental text also played the role of intended text for a spoken text that was imperfectly produced. There is no reason that a text cannot be actual in one medium, for example the mental, and intended for another medium, for example the spoken or written. Gracia suggests that we can explain slips of the tongue, such as in the example I have given, in terms of what we 'meant' and not what we 'intended'. Ordinarily we correct slips of the tongue by saying «That is not what I meant to say.» rather than «That is not what I intended to say.» This is very true, but the reason that it is true is that most slips of the tongue are not preceded by intended mental texts. Still some can be, as in the example I gave, and in those cases it would be proper to explain «That is not what I intended to say.» In the end, though, we owe a debt to Gracia for at least making us aware that intended texts are exceedingly scarce, especially for long and complex texts.
Part two of A Theory of Textuality deals with the epistemology of texts, specifically with questions of understanding, interpretation, and discernibility. Perhaps the greatest merit of chapter four is its clear and precise distinction between 'understanding' and 'meaning'. «Understanding is a kind of mental act whereby one grasps something which in the case of texts is their meaning.»(103) Meaning, on the other hand, is what is understood when one is said to understand a text.(108) Gracia has much of value to say about the nature of understanding itself, but his most important contribution here is this simple yet vital distinction between 'meaning' and 'understanding'. The two terms are frequently used as interchangeable in the literature, and clearly this practice is misguided.
The remainder of chapter four is devoted to a discussion of the limits of textual meaning and textual understanding. Noticeably absent from this section of the chapter is a discussion of textual significance. Gracia does deal with significance briefly in chapter one, saying that significance involves the relevance, importance, and consequences of a text.(18) Chapter four, however, is the place where a discussion of textual significance is most clearly needed. Ever since E.D. Hirsch first drew attention to the distinction between a text's meaning as opposed to its significance, this has become a distinction which demands attention. It is, then, disappointing and unfortunate to see it omitted here. Indeed, Gracia's discussion of the limits which authorial intention and understanding place on textual meaning suffers in the absence of a consideration of significance.
Gracia's account of the relationship between a text's «cultural function» and its meaning is also deficient in its neglect of significance. Gracia insists, as many would, that the cultural function of a text plays an important role in the determination of its meaning. I would argue that there are important consequences of a text's cultural function, but these are consequences affecting significance rather than meaning. Certainly this is a point of much debate, and I do not have the space to address it fully here.
Whether we attribute the relevance of a text's cultural function to its meaning or significance, we must look critically at what the cultural function demands. This is a normative issue which is inextricably bound to the epistemological issue, but one which Gracia neglects. We cannot afford to accept the status quo of textual cultural functions uncritically, just as we cannot afford to accept the cultural dictates of mores and ethics uncritically. Without critical reflection on and ethical analysis of the cultural functions of textual genres we slide down the slippery slope into interpretive relativism. Under Gracia's scheme a culture which took all works of literature to be the word of God would be justified in doing so. Certainly though, such an interpretive practice would demand more justification than mere cultural fiat.
Chapter five «Interpretation» provides an insightful account of the function of interpretations, and makes a keen distinction between two primary types of interpretation, textual and nontextual. Textual interpretations are those whose main or only purpose is to produce understandings of the meanings of texts and of the implications of those meanings. Nontextual interpretations are those whose primary aim is other than to produce such understandings. Nontextual understandings may be, for example, Freudian, Marxist, or feminist. Such interpretations are more concerned with a certain significance of the text than its meaning (although Gracia does not put it in quite these terms).
The distinction between textual and nontextual interpretations is important because, as Gracia makes clear, they are very different things and often interpreters are not themselves clear as to what type of interpretation they are offering. Gracia also cogently argues that there is nothing wrong with textual interpretation, as long as it is recognized as such and is built on understanding not misunderstanding.
Chapter six «Discernibility» addresses three questions: 1) How do I know that something is a text? 2) How do I learn the meaning of a text? 3) How can I be certain that I know the meaning of a text? To be clear, the certainty with which we can ever know that something is a text or know its meaning is not apodicitic certainty. Still, Gracia offers well-considered and valuable answers to these questions. The common sense analysis, that ultimately the basis on which we learn the meaning of a text is expected behavior in context, has definite appeal. Gracia claims that behavior is actually the key to breaking the hermeneutic circle. As he says, «to break the circle we need only one case in which we can have certainty that a text has been understood on the basis of something that is not a text.» (206) We should acknowledge that many continental philosophers do not see the hermeneutic circle as being a problem but as actually having an ontologically positive status. Still Gracia's proposal seems to me to be the beginning of a promising solution to one of the problems that has haunted interpretive theory since its inception.
A comprehensive conclusion to the book follows chapter six. The conclusion brings together all the major elements of Gracia's theory in a few short pages, and will serve as a good reference for the reader who wishes to reacquaint himself with the theory. A thirty-six page bibliography provides the reader with a detailed source of classical and contemporary hermeneutical studies, and a thorough index facilitates searches within the book.
A Theory of Textuality is an excellent work of philosophy, and is essential reading for all those concerned with the study of texts and their interpretation. I believe both continental and analytic philosophers will find much of value in this book. Although the book is relatively free of struggles with specific historical and contemporary theorists, it reflects a broad reading and consideration of both analytic and continental philosophers. Gracia has continued in the spirit of rapprochement he called for in Philosophy and Its History (1992) by himself delving into much of the continental tradition. His consideration of the postmodernists, deconstructionists, and hermeneuticists is apparent, although these groups are unlikely to find his conclusions congenial. In conclusion, then, this reviewer highly recommends A Theory of Textuality, and wishes to draw the reader's attention to Gracia's forthcoming volume on the metaphysics of texts. This book will complete Gracia's study of textuality and address many of the important metaphysical and ontological issues which were outside the scope of the current volume.
State University of New York at Buffalo, Department of Philosophy
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