Theories of Meaning in Literary Writing

When I have time to do some proper research, I will expand this idea into something more academically defensible, and this will probably have bearing on at least one paper I’m obligated to write in the near future. The idea, basically is this: writers who specialize in literary genres (fiction and poetry in particular, but also the Frankenstein’s monster they call creative non-fiction), can benefit from having a clear and consistent theory of meaning.

By a theory of meaning, I mean a theory about how language–either spoken or written–acquires meaning. To borrow my favorite example, when I say or write the word “tree” what is the relationship between that symbol and the tall green entity growing outside my house? How is it that when I say that word, you know what I’m talking about and can picture something that exists in the world outside language (if there IS a world outside of language).

The Philosophy of Language gives us theories about this that vary from the fairly simplistic to examples that resemble the calculus of rocket science.

I had an inkling about this idea as an undergraduate, majoring in English and minoring in Philosophy. I was particularly interested in Philosophy of Language and the ways in which it intersected with Ontology and Epistemology. In my literature classes, people would say the words ontology and epistemology, but they were only referenced in the most vague ways as nods toward what was of interest to some writers we studied.

I was always bugging my philosophy professors for more information about how this stuff might be applied to literature. I read Richard Rorty and other philosophers who dabbled in literary studies. As a writer of literary fiction, I became aware of my words in new ways. In other words, when I write something, what exactly happens there–in my mind, in the reader’s mind. It’s pretty complicated when you think about it, but I started to think I could visualize it to an extent, even if I couldn’t quite articulate it.

So twenty years go by, and now I’m (finally) back in graduate school, and guess what keeps coming up in peculiar places? First, in a Technical Writing class, I’m assigned to read essays on rhetorical theory as applied to the teaching of business writing, and then I start seeing it again in a Practicum course designed to prep me for teaching college composition. The pedagogy of teaching formal writing values the ideas of philosophers I admired as an undergraduate. Go figure.

We are told, in fact, that when we go out in the world to teach writing, we need to have philosophical theory we adhere to, which backs up our pedagogical decisions.

When I write something, what happens? How is that interpreted? What does it mean, and how does it get that meaning? How does one even begin to write? This all seems pretty important to me.

People have asked me what the difference is between literature and fiction, if there is any. There is plenty of “fiction” out in the world (plenty of “poetry” as well) that I would not be willing to honor with the label “literary.” I think one key difference is that literary writers tend to have some kind of theory of meaning, even if many of them would be hesitant to put it in those terms.


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