Jessica Morrison

Position Paper


Indeterminate Meaning

‘’Is there a text in this class?" Yes; it is the Norton Anthology of Literature". . . "No, no. . . I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?"(305).

Using the simple dialogue above as evidence, Fish argues throughout "Is there a text in this class?" that meaning is indeterminate and contextually dependent. Unlike his opponent Meyer Abrams, who feels that norms in language allow for communication, Fish theorizes that situations, not words, are what allow individuals to access meaning., Fish also believes that communication is impossible without shared knowledge bases. This theory relates to many aspects of reader response criticism, particularly structuralism and phenomenology, by advocating the importance of readers’ past experiences and beliefs as ways to derive meaning from a text.

Fish begins his argument by correlating the dialogue above with his theory of contextual meaning. The main assumption behind Fish’s theory is that situations, not words, create meaning and that for communication to occur the speaker and listener must share the same system of assumptions and purposes. For Fish, the fact that the student and professor are in a University setting implies that they share a common set of knowledge that will allow them to understand one another. He contrasts his belief in situation, versus language, as the creator of meaning when he says, "Both interpretations were a function of precisely the public and constituting norms (of language and understanding) invoked by Abrams. It is just that these norms are not embedded in the language. . . but inhere in an institutional structure within which one hears utterances as already organized with reference to certain assumed purposes and goals"(306). For this reason, when the student’s language didn’t allow the professor to interpret the correct meaning initially, she had to create a different context based on a shared system of purposes and assumptions. The professor was only able to understand the student because he already possessed the same knowledge base that the student was using to form her question. Without this prior inner knowledge, he never would have been able to respond in the right way. Similarly to Fish’s belief that meaning is contextually based, reader response criticism also advocates that meaning cannot be achieved without considering situational factors. Bressler summarizes the aim of reader response criticism when he says,

Believing that a literary work’s interpretation is created when a reader and a text interact or transact, these critics assert that the proper study of textual analysis must consider both the reader and the text, not simply a text in isolation. For these critics, the reader + the text = meaning. . . Meaning, reader-response critics declare, is context dependent and intricately associated with the reading process (68).

If one considers the "text" as the words in Fish’s dialogue, it is clear that both reader-response critics and Fish feel that language alone is not a valid measure of accessing meaning and that the individual must use an inner system of experiences, assumptions, and beliefs.

Fish continues to build his argument against Abrams by next attacking his theory that a common, shared language can be achieved. As evidence, Fish uses the phrase "The air is crisp" to show that all readers don’t associate one phrase with one verbal meaning. Instead, he believes that different meanings will arise based on the situation the statements are presented in. For example, if an individual hears "the air is crisp" in a music class while listening to Mozart, the meaning will be entirely different then if the phrase is used in a discussion of a poem. Fish writes of this disparity, "That is, it is impossible even to think of a sentence independently of a context, and when we are asked to consider a sentence for which no context has been specified we will automatically hear it in the context in which it has most often been encountered"(310) The latter part of this quotation implies that if one used the words "crisp air" on a person from New England and on a resident of Hawaii, the meaning might be very different due to the familiar experiences both would use to determine the meaning.

After outlining his theory in the first half, Fish then proceeds to address the question of how one arrives at the correct meaning when presented with a context for which no prior system of knowledge has been established. As an example, Fish discusses the confused reaction of a colleague to the dialogue above. He says that although his colleague was confused at first, he was finally able to understand the student’s intention on account of the shared University, Literature and Fish context. If his colleague had no prior experience with Fish’s theory, he wouldn’t have been able to understand the student’s question because language can’t convey meaning unless it is presented within a shared context. For this reason, the student changing the wording in her request would not have allowed Fish’s colleague to understand. Instead, she would have had to backtrack until she found a shared base of knowledge with which to communicate. According to Fish, the professor would then use this awareness to create a new category of knowledge. This example once again highlights reader response criticism, namely Structuralism, which believes that, "A reader brings to the text a predetermined system of ascertaining meaning (a complex system of signs or codes like the sirens and the red light) and applies this sign system directly to the text. The text becomes important because it contains signs or signals to the reader that have established and acceptable interpretations"(70). Similarly to Fish’s theory, structuralism is also driven by contextual situations and believes that shared knowledge systems are necessary components of interpretation. Although Fish explains this "new category" concept using an example, it was not as clear as the points outlined above. It is unclear how the student could come from a different knowledge base to make her question known, if the colleague didn’t share the same system of purposes and assumptions to begin with.

Fish concludes his argument by discussing the differences between immediacy and hesitation; two factors that mark the main difference between Abrams theory and his own. While Abrams believes that there is a pause between the speaker’s words and the listener’s response as the meaning of the statement is being interpreted, Fish believes that knowledge isn’t construed, but rather simultaneously realized at the time of the speaker’s statement. Fish explains this concept when he says,

The answer, implicit in everything I have said, is that communication occurs within situations and that to be in a situation is already to be in possession of (or to be possessed by) a structure of assumptions, of practices understood to be relevant in relation to purposes and goals that are already in place: and it is within the assumption of these purposes and goals that utterance is immediately heard (318).

This quotation directly contrasts Abrams by stating that it is not the norms in language that allow for communication, but rather the placement of language within a set of norms. Once again, reader response criticism ties into this idea, particularly Phenomenology, which states that individuals must use their worldview and past experiences to create meaning from the text. Bressler summarizes the aims of phenomenology when he says,

When a text is concretized by the reader (the phenomenological concept whereby the text registers on the readers consciousness), the reader automatically views the text from his or her personal worldview. However, because texts do not tell the reader everything that needs to be known about a character, a situation, a relationship, and other such textual elements, readers must automatically fill in these gaps, using their knowledge base grounded in their worldview (73).

Thus, phenomenology relates to Fish’s theory by supporting the idea that experiences and beliefs are used to create meaning. This theory also relates to Fish by stating that the text consciously registers on the readers mind; a similar function of the immediacy principle described above.

Fish clearly reveals the validity of his theory by setting up his article as a step-by-step critique of Abrams. This setup is effective because Fish is able to acknowledge Abrams beliefs, and then go around them to suggest why his theory of contextual meaning is more sound. Another strength is Fish’s utilization of concrete examples to support his points. The one weakness apparent in the article is his failure to follow up on a statement he makes at the beginning saying he will discuss the indeterminacy of meaning and the instability of the text. The latter aim is only briefly identified, but is never analyzed or made concrete through the use of examples, even though it appears to be an important concept.










Works Cited

  1. Fish, Stanley. "Is there a text in this class" The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1980.
  2. Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism, An Introduction to Theory and Practices. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1994.