The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0730 Monday, 11 March 2002
Date: Friday, 8 Mar 2002 17:46:27 -0000
Don Bloom and I have collaborated in an interesting empirical
experiment, in which Don Bloom's hypothesis has been established as true
(to a certain extent).
Initially, Don suggested that "the meaning of 'machiavellian' is
whatever your readers think of when you write it, even if that's
wrong". I replied, "Sounds fishy to me".
Don pretended that he understood the word "fishy" in its
common-or-garden sense of "Suspect, unconvincing", and defended his
suggestion by adding, "Writers write and readers understand, to put it
as simply as possible. If Reader A misunderstands what you write, that
may be your fault or it may be his. But if 95 per cent of your readers
misunderstand you, that is definitely your own fault". Whose fault was
it that "fishy" was misunderstood - if we suspend our pretence for a
moment - in this instance? Well, according to Don's statement, it was
mine, because I chose to use the word "fishy" in a context-specific,
obscure way that would only be readily recognisable to <5% of my
readers. Don, pretending to misunderstand, expertly played the role of
the reading community to illustrate the point.
But the conclusion to our experiment threw up an unexpected problem: if
there is "fault" to be located and quantified - and misunderstanding, we
might assume, is an undesirable outcome of attempts to communicate ideas
- then there must be a preferable meaning to what one writes. It is not
possible simply to locate this preferable meaning, however
democratically, in the response of a majority of one's readers, because
this meaning might disagree with the meaning intended by the writer - so
we get the undesirable breakdown in communication again. And yet the
preferable meaning cannot be located in the esoteric, unique notion of
the meaning ascribed to words by their writer, for the same reason. It
seems that we need a non-contingent meaning in which to locate our
But, faced with this requirement, Don offers his own devastating
critique of the hypothesis with which we began, and which our experiment
seemed to have confirmed as true: "(Or is their some meaning to 'fishy'
that I'm not picking up on?)" Who knows? Only Martin Steward. Or perhaps
context can help us. Maybe Mr. Steward used the verb "Sounds" to qualify
or define his use of the word "fishy"? And maybe his addition of "to me"
was already anticipating the course of the experiment, its spiral into
ever-decreasing circles of meaning, in which no word signifies beyond
what it signifies "to me". Or maybe the real question is: "Is there an
experiment in this class?" I think that it might be a figment of Mr.
Steward's imagination, like "the geat globe itself, Yea, all which it
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