Richards, _Philosphy of Rhetoric_

Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. (185 pages)

Richards’ focus is on the meaning of words, and points to context as a guiding principle to theorize meaning.

Lecture I: Introductory

In his first of several lectures, Richards begins be defining rhetoric: “a study of misunderstanding and its remedies” (3). In other words: rhetoric is the study of arriving at meaning, “a philosophic discipline aiming at a mastery of the fundamental laws of the use of language” (7). As he writes, ideas and words are inextricably linked: you cannot set aside words in order to consider notions in isolation of discourse. Ideas can only be known “by what it does. Apart from its dress or other signs it is not identifiable” (5). Likewise, in consideration of meaning, Richards writes that “meanings mind intensely—more indeed than any—other sorts of things….In themselves they are nothing—figments, abstractions, unreal things that we invent, if you like—but we invent them for a purpose” (10).

Meaning relies upon its interdependence among other meanings. Words, as they pass between contexts, shift in meaning. He challenges the Proper Meaning Superstition: “the common belief—encouraged officially by what lingers on in the school manuals as Rhetoric—that a word has a meaning of its won independent of an and controlling its use and the purpose for which it should be uttered” (11). He continues to explain that this superstition presumes the words exists in a “constancy of the contexts that give it its meaning”, or, in other words, that the meaning-contexts are stable (11).

Lecture II: The Aims of Discourse and Types of Context

Richards starts by outlining the Old Rhetoric, one that he thinks is no longer tenable. Old Rhetoric dealt in “pleadings and persuadings; it was the theory of the battle of words”: “Persuasion is only one among the aims of discourse”, but Richards focuses his attention on meaning. But he does concede that we, as people, are “peculiarly responsive to other things” (29). This responsiveness to other things is the basis for how he develops a theory of meaning through context: “Do we ever respond to a stimulus in a way which is not influenced by the other things that happened to us when more or less similar stimuli struck us in the past? Probably never” (29-30). Perceptions, for Richards, is a guiding term that refers to a person’s compulsion to categorize, sort, or label new stimuli based on the past and present occasion (30).

And from here, he offers a theory of context: “Most generally it is a name for a whole cluster of events that recur together—including the required conditions as well as whatever we may pick out as cause or effect” (34). We draw the meaning of words by looking at the whole context, and taking note upon the missing parts of the context that indicate the meaning of the word. However, the correlation between context and meaning is ambiguous and overdetermined; in other words, “all discourse…as overdetermined, as having multiplicity of meanings” (39).

Lecture III: The Interinanimation of Words

Richards clarifies that context operates beyond simply the other words or sentences that encase the word of focus: there are many different factors involved within the context including intonation or voice of the word. Im this way, meaning is inherently social (as indicated in his description of human’s responsiveness): “we learn how to use words from responding to them and noting how other people use them” (54). A word’s meaning is dynamic and “is always a co-operative member of an organism, the utterance, and therefore cannot properly—in ordinary, free, fluid, non-technical discourse—be thought to have a meaning of its own, a fixed correct usage, or even a small limited number of correct usages unless by ‘usage’ we mean the whole how of its successful co-operations with other words, the entire range of the varied powers which, with their aid, it can exert” (69).

So, for Richards, we derive meaning from words through the other words that encase the word as well as how other use it. However, Richards also discusses how some words have similar morphemes (slick, slim, slide, slip) and appear to have similar meanings, i.e. a stable essential meaning. However, he challenges this notion by explaining that this should be considered, like everything else, a different kind of context, not a core essential meaning.

Lecture IV: Some Criteria of Words

Here, Richards offers some useful concepts to guide our understanding of words and their meanings:

  • Ambiguity and Context: “Words must shift their meanings thus. Without these shifts such mutual understanding as we achieve would fail within the narrowed resultant scope” (73).
  • Overdetermination: “A great writer often gains his aim by making a single phrase pull with or against larger ranges of the language” (75).
  • Discourse Communities: “in using a language, you join a more or less select company—of correct users of the language. Deviation from their customs is incorrectness and is visited with a social penalty as such” (78).
  • Rhetoric: “One of the tasks of an improved Rhetoric is to question [the control of language and usage by communities], whether it concerns pronunciation or matters of meaning and interpretation” (78).

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