Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What Do You Mean By That?

Maybe you have noticed the same rhetorical device that I experience on a somewhat regular basis: "What do you mean by that?" It is a clever device when critiquing written materials since you can pretend to have read something and you put the pressure on the person to find other words to somehow clarify something that already may be perfectly obvious. It is also useful in face to face exchanges in diverting the discussion away from your own arguments and creating new territory for exchange.

A corollary phrase is "I don't know what you mean by this." This is, of course, much more aggressive, since it implies an accusation that someone has not made things crystal clear. This is, in modern circles, a grievous error, except when you are writing poetry or philosophy.

The reality may be that as marvelous as language is, we may never fully know what is in the minds of others who are speaking and writing. This is part of the human dilemma. We never know ourselves fully, and whatever we disclose in a particular moment is enclosed and relevant to that moment. How it relates to past and future is a process of discovery, and is never fully revealed.

In fact, isn't that the miracle of language and words? Words in combination are a way of making meaning through extending ordinary meaning into extraordinary combinations that become new knowledge in the world. This is true of poetry and of creative writing where words are tools of extension that produce original ideas. In the act of uttering, we are in the dynamic disclosure of creating meaning from moment to moment...

...and yes, I am not sure what I mean by that...

1 comment:

rick said...

You're so right. This challenge is over-used and often a stalling and disorientation maneuver.